The Bahamas are a little piece of heaven…and a private island in the Bahamas, even more so. No mass transportation, no crowds, nobody hard selling of trinkets or souvenirs make it yet another level of pleasant! The beach sand was was very fine. It felt as if you were walking on flour. The water had colors that could compete with the most beautiful places we have seen around the world, such as the Great Barrier Reef and Tahiti.
As you can see in the first photo, we were on the tiny island with another Holland America ship, and yet there were lots of open beach chairs, hammocks, and places to sit for the Island Barbecue, all free with our cruise tickets. We claimed a two-person hammock on a quiet part of the beach and slowly rocked, listened to the ocean surf, and talked. It was quite blissful, as it was in the low 70s, and there was a soft breeze that cooled us down and, of course, also circulated cool air from underneath!
There is a tiny chapel on Half Moon Cay, which you can see in the second photo. There were two pews, an altar, a lectern…and a table with four chairs!! Funny…maybe it was for coffee or a snack after the service?? There was a basketball court and a volleyball court, and for those willing, the ship had set up matches in each sport for the two ships to compete. The little cabanas and larger “houses” are for rent for the day, but we can’t imagine why you would pay for them for a day when the beach and everything else is free. The “misting stations” were all putting out a fine mist as we passed them, perfect for some refreshment. The pirate ship is a bar, Captain Morgan on the Rocks. No, bar drinks were not free on the island! And the last two photos are signs we saw around the island, which we found interesting.
There are more photos on this location, as we were here about 18 months ago. Check out Day 196 of our travel, August 15, 2018.
Willemstad is lovely, laid-back, Dutch, colorful, and lively. It is pretty much a typical Caribbean island, except that it is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, rather than French or Mexican or independent. Anyway, we took the photos below during a 1-2 hour stroll around the city. The buildings are colorful, with lots of Dutch architecture. Street art thrives, in both paintings and sculptures. You can see that two of the buildings used to be large shuttered colonial-style mansions, with a balcony along the second floor.
The yellow and white building that looks like it might be a church is in fact the local Prosecutor’s Office. After that, we saw shops in what looked to be a former fort. We asked a security guard if the building used to be a fort, and he corrected us: “It is still a fort!” There was a whole row of restaurants along the waterfront, as you can see through the arch and in the photos following. But we didn’t see any cannons or any indications that it was “still a fort.”
Near the end are two photos of “Our Swinging Old Lady,” as the locals call the Queen Emma Bridge. It is a pontoon bridge, and when a boat needs to pass, an alarm is sounded, the entry gates lock, and the bridge swings open so the boat can pass by. The first photo of the bridge shows the two parts of the bridge coming together after opening, while the second shows the walkway cleared for passage. The last photo was a sign we saw on a small building. In both Dutch and Spanish, it warns: Electricity! Danger of Death!
One of the wonders of the modern world, from 1914 comes the Panama Canal. Its construction befuddled the French, who abandoned it in 1904, having lost tens of thousands of workers to the heat, malaria, and yellow fever in the jungle. The Americans took over then, solved the mosquito problem, built new housing for the construction workers, and finished the job in 10 years. Construction of locks was necessary to get over the uneven terrain, and cutting through the Continental Divide to form a passageway, in itself, took five years. It is an amazing experience, as you enter the first lock and slowly rise from sea level. The lane is 110 feet wide, and our ship is 106 feet wide! That isn’t the maximum possible width for a ship passing through these locks, though. We were told that the widest ship transiting the locks, which was a US warship, was just 11 inches narrower than the locks.
Our ship was attached to three locomotives on either side for part of the journey. The locomotives are called “mules” because mules were used in the past for other canals, but never the Panama Canal. Ships normally travel through the canal under their own power and the mules just keep ships centered in the canal rather than pull them through, unless a ship loses power. If it does, all attention is directed toward getting the ship through the canal as quickly as possible. In fact, in the wider areas of the passage, tug boats travel alongside a transiting ship just in case it needs any assistance in the passage. Any delay in the locks means a loss of revenue, so they get right on it.
Being a cruise ship, knowing almost two years in advance the day and time we would be passing through, Holland American was able to make a reservation to pass through. The price tag? A cool $35,000! Freighters and other ships don’t always know precisely when they need to enter, so they stay in the ocean “waiting room” until the ships with reservations go through; only then is it their turn! The Panama Canal employs about 10,000 people and brings in $2 billion annually.
There aren’t many “pretty” photos here (other than the last one, before the video), but when you realize what was accomplished in this feat of engineering, the photos are just amazing. The canal cut off a whole month of travel for goods going from San Francisco to New York, saving shipping companies millions of dollars per year. It opened up a whole new trade route. In the first photo, we are approaching the enormous Bridge of the Americas, shown up close in Photo 2. It cost the US $20 million in 1962. In the third photo, we approach our lane, the one on the right, as the red and white cargo container before us entered into the left lane. We watched that ship’s progress, gradually rising as the lock flooded, to track what our own fate would be minutes later. You can see in Photo 5 how close we are to the sides; just two feet leeway on either side, remember!
So now we are traversing the Miraflores Locks, and in Photo 8, on the right, is the Visitor’s Center, watching our ship’s progress through the lock. That was us, about 10 years ago, when we were traveling in Panama and watched a ship from the visitor’s center. Now, it was our turn. All of the visitors waved wildly, as did we, a tradition that shouldn’t be broken. After that is our passage out of the lock, and the video at the end of this blog shows these smaller gates opening to allow us our exit. The hill you see is Gold Hill, named by the French when they started a rumor. To garner support for their efforts in the first crack at building the canal, they claimed that there was enough gold in this hill to pay back all of their investors, with some left over! Not a word of this was true, and not one ounce of gold was ever excavated from this hill. Then there is the Panama Canal Railway passing by. Some ships dock in Gatun Lake for the day and allow their passengers to go ashore to explore the Panama Canal region via railroad. Following that is Gatun Lake itself, the large interior lake that feeds water to the canal. You can see a small pilot boat alongside our cruise ship. When they were adjacent, our ship put down a rope ladder for a pilot, technicians, and a lecturer to board our ship. At the end of the day, they exited via the same method.
The final photo is a delicious benefit of the morning entrance into the Panama Canal…a Panama Bun, being served by waiters all over the ship. They have a mandarin orange and cream center, and were heavenly. As we already mentioned, the final video is a little glimpse of one of the many gates and locks controlling the ins and outs of the canal. We entered the Miraflores Locks from the Pacific Ocean around 7:30 am and departed into the Caribbean around 5:00 pm, so it was an entire day’s process, but so fascinating to see the technology.
By the way, you might think that this journey was from west to east, but actually the canal runs northwest. When we exited the final locks, we were quite a bit north and 25 miles west of where we entered.
These photos comprise just a little snapshot of the beach at Puntarenas…”Sand Point.” Our ship docked in a cargo port, Puerto Calderas, so the city provides free shuttle buses to the Tourist Walkway in Puntarenas, about a 20-minute bus ride. Along the way, the area looks about like most Caribbean islands, with small stores and beach vendors of all sorts. Once we started walking in Puntarenas, we must have passed at least 100 small kiosks the size of hot dog carts, most offering “Churchills.” But what is it? It sounded too sugary for us, but apparently every kiosk makes a Churchill in their own way. It is a concoction of shaved ice; cream or ice cream; fresh fruit such as strawberries, apples, grapes, and pineapple; and some add cola syrup. A man in the 1940s started to order it in various venues back in the 1940s, and locals thought he resembled Winston Churchill. Thus, an iconic local dessert was both created and named! You can see in the photo of one stand, If you don’t like it, you don’t pay. We also saw lots of stands offering vigoron, a local Nicaraguan and Costa Rican dish consisting of cabbage salad, hot chiles, boiled yucca, and fried pork rinds wrapped in a banana leaf.
It was very hot at the beach, about 95 degrees F, windy, and crowded. We wanted to try some robust Costa Rican coffee, but at the venue where we tried it, the coffee pretty much tasted like water. We liked the name of one small restaurant…Bum Bum Kiosk. We thought it funny that bathrooms were “for rent”….perhaps by the month?? We tried to get into our usual, ubiquitous tourist attraction….the local church, but even though it is Sunday, it was locked. So we only have a photo of the exterior. We end with artwork we saw along the way…a beautiful, proud bird, a quartet of statues outside the church, and a very well-endowed Costa Rican senorita. Enjoy!
Our visit to Antigua was to an ancient city in Guatemala, not an island in the Caribbean! Founded on the Feast of St. James (Santiago) in 1524, its full original name was Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemalan (City of St. James of the Knights of Guatemala). The road to Antigua from the port was through a valley surrounded on both sides by volcanoes, of which Guatemala has at least 37, three of which are active. Two of them vented as we drove by! But it was only a release of gas, not a full-blown eruption.
It is a fabulous city! The many ruins are noteworthy, as you can see the richness of the buildings from times past…decorated with baroque scrollwork, statues, domes, arches, and for lack of a better term…ancient bling! The city had about 60 churches, cathedrals, convents, and monasteries. Being the capital city of the Kingdom of Guatemala, the municipal buildings and residences were likewise very ornate. So, we have a capital city with gorgeous buildings and lots of wealth…what happened?? Well, remember the 37 volcanoes? They erupted occasionally over the centuries. When they did, they caused earthquakes. Earthquakes cause big, old stone buildings to collapse, which they did. Big time. Eventually the capital city was moved and the buildings in Antigua that weren’t already damaged lost their usefulness. But now it is once again a revived city with many, many shops and restaurants. The country’s major exports are coffee and sugar cane, so a lot of other items need to be imported. Food prices were on the higher end, even though the average salary in Guatemala is $100 per week.
On to the photos. Scrolling through will give you a good idea of the city’s past and current conditions. There were lots of people carrying items for sale on their heads or draped over their arms and shoulders. Beautiful woven scarves in vivid colors were $1. One young man kept trying to get us to buy his carved flutes and drums, and finally yelled, “My prices are so low, these things are almost FREE!” However, there wasn’t pressure to buy…once we shook our heads and said no, gracias, we were left alone. The first photo shows one of the colorful vendors, while the second is a shot from the bus of a volcanic gas eruption. There are white clouds around the top, but the gray plume that is highest in the air is from the volcano. After the volcano are four photos of the ancient cathedral destroyed by earthquakes in both 1717 and 1751 and rebuilt each time, only to be destroyed again in 1773, and this time it was abandoned. We liked the surviving carved angels, way up in one of the arches…the one shown appears to be holding a thurible (incense holder). There were about a dozen domes surviving, although very deteriorated.
Following those are photos of things we just liked around the city…after the “Restaurant Open” sign is a cemetery, but it looks a little like a housing development! Most of the streets were in a grid pattern, and the streets looked largely empty. That is because most entrances opened onto pretty courtyards that housed either a restaurant or a small array of little shops. Flowers were bursting everywhere. Many of the facade ruins that you see were churches or religious residences. In one photo you can see the yellow Santa Catalina Arch, the most iconic image of the city.
The woman making handmade corn tortillas drew us into that particular restaurant, and they were delicious…soft, chewy, and fresh. The photo before that one is the courtyard where we had lunch…chile rellenos encased inside two tortillas (the local version of a sandwich) and nachos with fresh local cheese and delightful guacamole and salsa. The fountain and two photos following it are found on the main city plaza, where everyone was gathered and lots of shopping and dining took place. It really was bustling.
After the photo of the cute owls are two photos of La Merced Church (Mercy), built by a religious order of the same name. We love the yellow and white ultra Baroque exterior contrasted with the white, almost stark interior. The architect learned from the previous earthquakes and erected the building at a lower height with wider columns and arches so it could better withstand an earthquake. It has done pretty well over two-and-a-half centuries, hasn’t it?
Overall, we would love to return to Antigua sometime in the future for more exploring. So many places and restaurants attracted us, and we wanted to try all kinds of cuisine. The streets here are all cobblestone, and the people very warm. The temperature is also warm…it rarely climbs higher than 80 degrees F and doesn’t dip much below 60. The colors are vibrant here, and everything was very clean and looking good. We decided we will have to do a Central American tour…soon!
A peaceful fishing village. Huatulco looks like it has been totally untouched by the drug cartels or any modernization. There are gorgeous beaches as you depart the ship, and small boats will happily take you to some of the other nearby deserted beaches that are not accessible by foot.
Huatulco is at the junction where the Sierra Madre del Sur Mountains meet the Pacific Ocean. There is a thriving coffee industry here and all kinds of water sports and boat excursions. Lots of beer on offer. Mike went scuba diving today, so I explored the village and took some photos.
The beach and ocean view photos come first…a spectacular, and warm, day as we venture farther and farther south. Notice the houses built on the hill in the second photo, with a great view of the bay below. Next up are three views of the local Catholic church, the Chapel of Santa Cruz. We show the entrance photo, the one as you exit into the square, and a peek at the gorgeous, open-air interior. The glass windows behind the main altar display a glimpse of our ship, the ms Rotterdam, and the window to the right shows the bay. Wouldn’t it be great to have that view when your mind wanders in church? Only in rare instances, of course! After that are some shots around the tiny village…the Crazy Habanero Restaurant, the umbrella canopy, and other views. There was a lovely small park with a cafe, and everybody was sitting on the benches provided…but only those in the shade! The local hotel is painted a dark gold color with red trim, as the farther south you travel, the more vibrant and outrageous (in a good way!) the pretty color schemes. The only other hotel right in the village is a Holiday Inn.
There weren’t really any funny signs, but we end with a cart of fresh pineapples filled with pineapple juice and served with a straw, ready for drinking!
Puerto Vallarta is just beautiful! We both can “hear” in our heads, announcers on game shows of the past saying, “You have just won an all-expenses paid trip to….Puerto Vallarta!!” The city is very reminiscent of Mexican resort cities of 40+ years ago, as it is situated on the Pacific, has wide boulevards with huge hotel resorts facing the beach, and the landscaping is palm trees, palm trees, and more palm trees. We sometimes arrive in a port only to find that it disappoints, as it is not at all what we had expected. But Puerto Vallarta was a big surprise. It was filled with many shops and services, tons of restaurants (mostly Mexican), the aforementioned palm trees, gorgeous ocean views, and lots of street sculptures and street art. We didn’t know that it was a “thing,” but Mexican cuisine has attained the UNESCO status of being named an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. How cool is that?!? Our favorite foods are a cultural heritage.
The photos were taken as we walked the city, as usual. After the first two that introduced us to PV (as it is called), there is the local Catholic Church…the Parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico. It is the only church in the world that we have seen that is capped by a crown. The current one is a fairly recent replacement for the original, lost in a hurricane at the turn of this century. The inside was also a surprise, as with the white walls and chandeliers, it looks very colonial to us, somewhat like those that we saw in the South Pacific. We love the third of the church photos, a depiction of Our Lady of Guadalupe in metal as you walk back out into the plaza and crowds.
The main attraction in the city, always mentioned first in guides, is the Malecon, the 12-block-long boardwalk that winds along the ocean and is filled with shops, restaurants, artwork, and PEOPLE! It was very busy, very alive, and very hot…about 81 degrees F. We liked the photo of the restaurants that were located along the shady stream, and the four arches after that are called Los Arcos. They form a backdrop for an amphitheater and frame the ocean behind. As you can see, they are draped in white twinkle lights, but we departed at 4:00 pm, so it was too early to see it lit up.
The sculptures along the Malecon were just delightful, as you can see for yourself. There were also lots of feminine depictions. After the sand sculpture, you can see a cluster of fantastical metal chairs. They were huge, and they were hot to sit on! As you can see, the back sides of the chairs show spines and buttocks! There is even a bench that has ears as its backrest!
We end whenever we can with our most amusing photo of the day. A restaurant/bar called Senor Frog’s is in most Mexican ports, and its party atmosphere is legendary. But we liked their sign on the side of their building…Saving the World from Boredom.
Palm Springs needs no introduction. Everyone knows about this desert oasis made famous by movie stars and celebrities, as well as its many golf courses. Just 100 miles from Los Angeles, it is retirees’ heaven, and there are more strip malls and more chain restaurants than we have seen in a long time! You can find almost anything your heart desires in the Greater Palm Springs area. There is certainly a feeling of lots happening here. Once you leave the area heading east to Phoenix, you drive through 250 miles of sand and desert and cacti, with just a few small towns and a few gas stations. So this is the mecca before the nothingness!
We walked the famous Palm Springs shopping street, Palm Canyon Drive. All the photos are from there with the exception of the final one. We liked the name of the store in the third photo, Oooh La La! and laughed when we looked at the two stores that are immediately adjacent…see Photos 4 and 5! There are lots of art galleries and metal celebrities sitting on benches, as you can see in the photo featuring Lucille Ball. The fab ice cream concoction is a Dole Whip, pineapple soft-serve ice cream garnished with a cookie wafer and an umbrella! Marilyn Monroe is everywhere, both in statue form and in restaurants’ advertising. The final photo was taken from the top of the mountain above Palm Desert…coming down, the road is a series of sharp switchbacks with the valley resting below.
Today marks another year of home-free travel around the world with just a backpack each! According to a notification from Google Maps, we traveled a total of 77,084 miles, three times around the earth. That includes sea miles and air miles, but it often feels like that is our poor tired feet mileage! Many miles of Uber and taxi rides are not included in that figure, so we actually traveled more than that distance.
We only took four cruises this year for transportation, as it wasn’t the season for cruises when we were in the places we were….the off season. We took many more flights than our first year’s total of zero – 12, to be exact. But we did start out heading west in November 2018, and finished a complete circumnavigation of the world in early December 2019, returning to LA, from where we started.
Our Hilton rewards program continues to be the gift that keeps on giving. We have kept track of our free nights on points and anniversary rewards, and this past year we stayed 62 nights for free, worth a total of $15,657. We generally try to use reward nights for five-day stays, as you pay for four nights with points and get the fifth night included for free. It is a wonderful deal for us.
Over this past year, we have traveled to Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Cambodia, and the United Arab Emirates, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Spain, Portugal, France, Andorra, the Canary Islands, and the Bahamas...26 regions/countries in all. So, here are the three questions we answered last year and hope to write (separately) about every year.
FAVORITE PLACE VISITED THIS PAST YEAR
Jan: Bali has got to be my choice. It is the first thing that comes to mind when we are asked that question, and it is somewhere we want to return. The peoples’ graciousness, kindness, caring, and sweetness are the number one reason to return, but the cultural heritage is also so interesting! Hindu temples abound, but intermixed with Hinduism are Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity. Being surrounded by the Indian Ocean, there are great ocean views everywhere, as well. Second choice? Anywhere in Europe!
Mike: My favorite place visited this year is probably Barcelona. It seems like there is always something new to see no matter how much time you spend there. It surprises me that the Catalonian separatist movement is still very visible, with flags, signs, and banners draped everywhere, but there is no change in the national situation.
My favorite place this year that I hadn’t been to before is Bali. It is very inexpensive and the people are friendly. The thing that surprises me about all of Indonesia is the high-pressure sales tactics at ports, airports, etc. It is a jarring introduction to the country, but once you get past that, the people are great.
BIGGEST SURPRISE THIS PAST YEAR
Jan: We feel so free to go wherever we wish and travel anywhere at all, for as long as we wish. Yet in Asia, time and time again, we met young people who said it would be inconceivable for them to leave their families and homeland for extended periods of time. They are very bound to their country and relatives, and could never just have a nomadic life like ours, although many said they would like to. Their parents and grandparents would frown on it. And the second, not a surprise exactly, but it settles in as you travel the world…how much religion is a part of everyone’s life, and of every countries’ history. Churches, mosques, synagogues, monasteries, temples, shrines, etc., have existed for hundreds of years, and many times are the only feature listed as a tourist attraction. They are all stunning, and as most charge an admission fee, they also bring revenue to their location.
Mike: My biggest surprise of the last year is how many places Game of Thrones was filmed. Neither Jan nor I have ever seen a second of it, so someday if we do, it will be like reliving many of our travels. It is interesting to see the differences between what the location looks like and what fans see on screen, such as an ocean that isn’t there.
A more significant thing that continues to surprise me is how hard it is to get a good hotel room that is not part of a major chain, which includes the things important to us. We are most often disappointed with independent hotels.
BEST THING WE LEARNED THIS PAST YEAR
Jan: Something I had never ever thought about when traveling prior to doing so full time was – rebooking the hotels that I had booked. I was diligent over the past 12 months about frequently checking our reservations (all refundable, never nonrefundable) to see whether the price had fluctuated at all. If the new price is less than $10, I don’t bother with rebooking, even though it is a few clicks away, but for anything over that, I rebook. I kept track of our savings over the past year to see exactly how much we had saved by rebooking. Get ready, it’s a big number: $4,775! That is money that is now in our pockets, not handed over to a bunch of hotels! (This year, since January 1, we have already saved $502!) It now seems crazy not to rebook!
Mike: I don’t want to sound like a shill for American Express, but since our favorite rewards program (mothers, don’t let your children use credit cards that don’t give rewards) is on AMEX, it is significant to us. AMEX has become more widely accepted in Asia and the South Pacific, but not as much in Europe yet. More than any other credit card, it gives us very significant rewards.
One thing I am glad to know, so I can avoid it, is the Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) scam that banks are running on their ATMs. It is just a way of taking more of your money. For more info on it, refer to our Tips for Travelers section.
PHOTOS OF THE YEAR
When we are talking with people, we often pull out our iPads to show them photos of what we are talking about. The two places we “show and tell” most often are the Bali Hilton, set on a cliff 15 stories above the Indian Ocean, and Mike’s dive with sharks in the Kuala Lumpur aquarium, for total shock value. The sharks are docile, but they look like Great Whites, so it is fun to see a jaw drop and have someone exclaim, “That is photoshopped, right? Right?!?!!!!” So for those reasons, we have to make these two photos, our photos of the year.
Spectacular day! Spectacular San Diego! Did you know that San Diego was named for a Spanish saint, St. Didacus? He was more commonly called San Diego de Alcalá, but we had always assumed the name was the equivalent of James. Didacus?!? Surprise!
The city was ruled under five different flags over 80 years, beginning in 1769, when it was part of the Spanish Empire, then the First Mexican Empire, the United Mexican States, the California Empire, and finally, beginning in 1848 (California Statehood), the United States. It is about 120 miles south of Los Angeles and just 15 miles or so north of Mexico.
We walked along San Diego Bay, past the tall ships, the Maritime Museum, cruise port, and the aircraft carrier, the USS Midway. These are shown in the first five photos. At the Maritime Museum is docked the submarine, the USS Dolphin, the world’s deepest diving sub. Following those are photos of some of the downtown as we walked, buildings, a wild white sculpture, a bird of paradise flower (which were everywhere), a flower-covered walkway, and one of the wild swooping street lights.
Then we took a trip to San Diego’s Little Italy District. First up: posters of Italian-American celebrities who have won Oscars or Golden Globes. They were fun to read along the way! There is actually a Little Italy archway over the Main Street, and we delighted in all the sights and…smells! Pizza everywhere, as well as Italian food markets and restaurants. It is carb heaven. But we were headed there with a very specific destination in mind….Monello Italian Restaurant. We had talked to a couple in Barcelona about cheese wheel pasta, where freshly cooked pasta is placed in a hollowed cheese wheel. As it is tossed in the cheese wheel, cheese from the inside is scraped into the hot pasta. So we looked for restaurants in California where this is offered, and found Monello in San Diego. Today’s offering was lamb ragu orecchiette pasta, and it was out of this world….so tasty and delicious. You can see the sweet chef who tossed it tableside, all smiles, happy to be photographed. Instead of bread, the restaurant serves complimentary lupini beans, which were interesting, as they were sort of addictive, chewy, and every bite reminded us of some different food. So interesting. Who knew we would find a fabulous Italian neighborhood….in San Diego?