Larry and Gail Taylor

20 POSTS

For tourists, I think that the Philippines is an often overlooked destination. This is probably because of the long flight (14 hours from the West Coast). The journey there is worth it, though. There is much to do and see, with low prices a big attraction. Foremost, always, Filipinos are warm and welcoming. We have been to this country three times and enjoyed such varied activities as exploring historic Manila, swimming with whale sharks in Donsol, hiking in the lake country of Negros Oriental and diving in the marine wonderland of Dumaguete. Most of all, though, we loved our time in the tropical paradise of the outlying Palawan Islands, specifically at El Nido Resorts. This March, during a two-week trip, we spent three days in Manila. Our base was the excellent Mandarin Oriental hotel, located among tall skyscrapers in the Makati financial district. While there we chose to go to famous Taal Volcano. It was good decision – an exhilarating adventure awaited us.

 

 

A Taal Story

It was raining when we reached Taal, one of the world’s special areas. Its uniqueness is hard to describe, but picture a Russian doll set with dolls inside dolls. Taal Volcano, likewise, makes up the largest Island within a lake which has a smaller lake within it with a tiny island. A question from an online site asks this: “Where in the world can you find an island on a lake on an island on a lake, on an island on an ocean?” In order to get there we traveled to Tagaytay city, where we took a boat across the first lake to the crater island. There was a light rain and rough waters, and our plastic ponchos were little help in keeping us dry. The weather was warm, so the half-hour sail wasn’t too bad, just a little choppy.
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Once there we were met by local guides with small Filipino horses. On tours, guests are given the option of taking an hour’s hike on the rugged lava trail or riding up to the rim. Our tour included the ride. It was led by a guide with rope in hand, and our little horse was sure-footed on the slippery terrain. The primitive saddles, however, added to the adventure as we rocked back and forth, striving to stay on.
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Taal’s History and Significance

Located on the island of Luzon in the Philippines about 44 miles south of Manila, the volcano has been relatively quiet since 1977. In 1991, however, it started showing signs of unrest, with strong seismic activity and ground-fracturing events. Because of its proximity to populated areas and its eruptive history, the volcano was designated a Decade Volcano, worthy of close study to prevent future natural disasters. Along the way, we saw first-hand evidence of sublimated fury – hot bubbling mud pots and spouting mud geysers.

Once at the top, we dismounted for the short walk to the spectacular view point from the ridge. Before us, we saw the crater, lake and small isle. This awe-inspiring sight has become a trademark view used for Philippine promotion. The area has also been declared a National Geological Monument and proposed for the UNESCO World Heritage List. We saw hikers below on the lake shore. There were no swimmers that day but many venture into the warm water. They are advised not to stay in too long because it contains sulfuric acid and other chemicals.

Both coming and going from Manila, the drive is beautiful. On the way there, we stopped off at the Tagaytay market. A busy central area of the town featured two large markets – one with a huge array of locally grown produce and the other filled with meats and fish. Along the way, we passed several stands selling varieties of rice in different sizes and colors. As well, there were those selling local “fast food.” A young girl, for example, was skewering marinated intestines for barbecue.
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Just downstairs from the produce market was the terminal for the local transportation – motorcycle-like tricycles which carry two or three and the large Jeepneys, which are larger than a jeep and smaller than a bus and can carry a dozen or so comfortably.
Returning on another route, we saw pleasant countryside with rice paddies which soon yielded to suburban housing where commuter families live.

 

 

El Nido, Philippine Tropical Paradise

El Nido, the secluded island resorts in the Philippines, has always been the perfect tropical paradise. Now with its upcoming expansion, it will get even better for its guests. Located in the country’s Palawan Islands, El Nido added a new location in 2010 and is set to open another, Pangalusian, this October. Minoloc (1981) and Lagen (1998) were the first two, then came Apulit in 2010. The most luxurious so far will be upcoming Pangalusian. All are located an approximate 75-minute flight on a small prop plane from Manila, followed by a short boat ride.

The Palawans, as a whole, consist of some 1,780 islands and islets, most with rocky coves and pristine white sandy beaches. When the flight descends, guests see a breathtaking panorama of scattered green dots of land in a turquoise and blue sea.
Accommodations rank with the world’s most highly rated resort hotels – an international menu features delicious selections; activities offered satisfy the most adventurous; and those seeking relaxation and pampering are catered to. Prices are less than would be expected in international destinations of this caliber. All have 50 air-conditioned rooms.
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Built right off the beach, Miniloc is shaded by palm trees and framed by a backdrop of sheer limestone cliffs. In front, the warm, crystal clear waters teem with tropical fish. Off the dock, guests can snorkel alongside four-foot jacks and hundreds of multi-colored tropical fish.
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On Lagen rooms are either over water or set in a lush forest, several yards from the beach and pier. The sprawling grounds cover more than 400,000 square feet and contain a diverse variety of birds and mammals. Amenities in Lagen include a swimming pool and spa suite.

A great place for birders and hikers, a trail in Lagen leads through the forest and down a hill to a private cove. Along the way on our hike, a family of long-tailed macaque monkeys greeted us from up in the trees. They seemed to taunt us, vigorously shaking leaves from limbs onto the path. At trail’s end, we saw that our snorkel equipment had been delivered by boat. After resting, we set out for the spectacular snorkel around a steep drop off back to the resort.

Apulit is built in Philippine traditional architecture mixed with contemporary design. All units are over water, making it easy for guests to watch the harmless black-tip sharks circling below. This site caters to a diverse market with over 20 large deluxe sea-view rooms for families. The new Pangulasian fronts a pristine 820-yard stretch of white sand beach with a marine sanctuary right at its doorstep, along with diverse array of animals and plant life thriving in its forest. Visitors can see both sunrises and sunsets here.

At all locations, during dinner, an activity coordinator visits guests to schedule activities for the next day. Among options are diving and snorkeling, sea kayaking, rock climbing, hiking and fishing. Lots to choose, but some may want to just relax on their patio or on the beach under an umbrella lounge. It’s a great place for kids, by the way. Families on kayaking expeditions are a common sight.

We are avid snorkelers, and most evenings selected which of many prime locations we would visit the next day. We were usually provided with our own snorkeling guide who stayed with us most of the time at each of the three resorts we recently stayed.

 

 

Snorkeling at El Nido

Usually we were taken on two snorkels in the morning at different locations. Afterwards, we went back to the resort for lunch or went to small islands with a barbecue station where we were served fresh-caught fish, as well as chicken or pork. Following the ample meal, we needed a nap before the usual afternoon snorkel. Ah, the island life!

We saw many vanities of colorful wrasse, several pennant fish, many garishly decorated trigger clowns, as well as varied species of butterfly fish. We were amazed by varied colors of “clown” anemone fish which had adapted to the shade of the anemone they lived in. There were a variety of colorful nudebranch to be seen. At some spots, beautiful corals and sea plants were the feature. At the end of the day, we were worn out and slept well.
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As well, at all locations, we enjoyed going in the water just off the beach. At Lagen, beneath some plate coral, we found a family of oriental sweet lips, which included the bizarrely decorated juvenile. At Apulit it was fun to swim under the water bungalows seeking out the friendly sharks.

One of the most interesting things at El Nido is to talk to fellow travelers from around the world. At sunset, at the bar with a group of Australians, we discussed the best parts of the South Pacific for diving. At dinner one night, we were invited to take part in a birthday party with a group of Koreans. There was a large contingent of Japanese staying. (From Asian cities, it is only a few hours flight.) There were also a significant number of European guests. Of the few American guests were two film technicians who had just wrapped shooting the new “Bourne” movie in Manila
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They were having a great time and ready to spread the word that Americans should take a new look at the Philippines with El Nido in mind. Like us, they declared that there is no better tropical vacation spot – and at a great price. Rates in Miniloc and Apulit include meals and activities. They start at about $220 per person, per night (double occupancy). In Lagen, rates start at $235, with an option to include meals and activities. Prices include the round trip flight from Manila.

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From Mumbai, India, to South Africa – this sounded like a terrific itinerary. My wife and I loved India, and South Africa was one the places topping our “to do” list. We decided to book this trip on Crystal Cruise line, one of the best, in our opinion. The 19-day voyage was part of an around-the-world cruise, with many people on for the full 120 days; others getting on for smaller segments, such as we were.

We arrived in Mumbai in March, the beginning of the hot season. As was expected, it was warm and muggy. This is a teeming town, chaotic with snarled traffic. During our three days, we had a knowledgeable tour guide and driver, however, who were able to circumvent the worst of it. With 12.5 million, it is one of the most populous cities in the world. Located on the west coast, the city has a deep natural harbor. Formerly called Bombay, the name was changed in 1995 to Mumbai after Mumbadevi, the patron goddess of the local fishermen.
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We got up early the first morning and took a city tour. Driving along, we could see the differing levels of lifestyles from block to block. We passed by slums, then through a section of garage-like store fronts with doors that slide up and down. Merchants sold everything from toilets to hardware to tires. Most proprietors live in apartments above. According to the guide, the average person purchases needs from these small convenience stores rather than going to super markets. In an adjacent block, where people of above average means live, most have domestic help. For Instance, our guide is able to hire a housekeeper and cook because labor is cheap. Her family is Hindu, consequently she is vegetarian as is much of the city’s population.
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Another block had luxury hotels. For example, there was the plush Taj Palace Hotel, where the 2008 terrorist attack took place. It was completely repaired. But now, barriers have been erected around the property, and crowds gathered to look at the site. Ironically, just a short distance away, we saw people sleeping on the streets – that’s the way India is. On our city tour some of the interesting sites were the colorful Jain Temple, with flowers strewn about among statues of gods and personifications of the planets painted on the ceiling. We then went on to the Gandhi Museum with photos and rare artifacts which gave much insight into the life of this spiritual leader. Also we passed by Dhobi Ghat outdoor laundry with its colorful rainbow array of washing hanging to dry. Clothes are washed by hundreds of laundry workers as has been the case for generations.

People we had met at our hotel had gone on the Slum Dog tour. We didn’t take it but were told about how groups are led through the Dharavi slum area where scenes from the Academy Award-winning “Slum Dog Millionaire” were filmed. Although the area is squalid, it is now also home to around 15,000 small businesses (ranging from recycling, pottery, and embroidery to bakeries, soap factories, and leather tanning). These enterprises generate some $700-million annually. It is crowded and chaotic, but its inhabitants are certainly industrious.

We stayed at the 5-star Taj Lands End Hotel, located on the sea, in an upscale area where many Bollywood film people have homes. The hotel is truly at land’s end – facing the large bay and modern bridge that now connects the main city and the “outskirts.” This Taj was built in 1999 and boasts 493 rooms and several outstanding restaurants.
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The last day in Mumbai we took a boat out to Elephanta Island, a small island an hour’s boat ride from the city center. One of the world’s most striking collections of caves and rock carvings exists here, dating from the 6th to 8th Century A.D. From the arrival dock, a narrow-gauge rail is available to take visitors to the base of the steps. (It was hot that day so we paid the small charge to ride.) From here, an uphill path leads to the site. Of course, there were stalls with trinkets all the way up. Also, monkeys were perched here and there along the sides which entertained us as we “huffed and puffed” to the top.

Although the government does little in restoration here, the art is in decent shape because of being sculpted in caves, largely protected from the elements. Once there, however, we were hardly prepared for the beauty and immensity of the sculptures of Indian deities. A critic has said that here is one of its most perfect expressions of Hindu art, particularly in the huge high reliefs in the main cave. These world famous images from mythology have been reproduced in many books.
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That afternoon, we boarded the Crystal Serenity and began to relax after our hectic stay in Mumbai. The Serenity is luxurious and spacious – 85 percent of the staterooms feature private verandahs. Delicious international food can be found in six restaurants throughout the ship. With a capacity of 1,080, the ship was about seventy percent full.

After a day of cruising, our first stop was in India’s state of Goa. At the port near the capital city, Panaji, we hired a cab for touring the area. Our driver was enthusiastic about giving us history and background.

This area was settled by the Portuguese who remained until 1961.We stopped at one of the city’s main attractions, the Basilica of Bom Jesus. Founded in 1605, it is considered one of India’s best examples of baroque architecture. Besides the vividly decorated interior, it is famed for containing the remains of St Francis Xavier, who died in 1552 in China and was eventually interred. One can see portions of his bones in a silver casket. The day we visited a lineup of pilgrims waited to pass by the coffin.

Another highlight was seeing the Mahlxmi Hindu temple, dedicated to the goddess of wealth. Inside is an impressive statue in black stone, replete with her four hands.

That night the ship was off, sailing southwest, further into the Indian Ocean. On the way to South Africa, we would stop off at the islands of Maldives, Mauritius and Reunion – all famous for water sports and scenic beauty.

Maldives is the world’s most endangered country, threatened by global warming. The rising ocean is steadily cutting away the shoreline, naturally of great concern for its citizens. To emphasize this fact, in 2009, the government held a cabinet meeting underwater. From the ship’s deck, we could, indeed, see that buildings in the capital city Male already seemed almost part of the sea.
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The diving and snorkeling here is among the world’s best, and we signed up for a delightful trip to a small islet off the coast. A shallow reef provided great fish viewing. In a “Kodak moment,” we saw a harmless black tip reef shark glide by amidst swarms of colorful fish. After this stop, we had four sea days before reaching Mauritius. This gave us plenty of time to catch up on our reading while relaxing and enjoying the ship’s amenities. During our daily laps around the deck, we always said hello to security guards on “pirate watch.” This part of the Indian Ocean is a vulnerable area.

If we wanted mental stimulation, there was a host of speakers giving talks mornings and afternoons. Among them were a couple of ex-ambassadors, a CIA member and two former FBI agents. Events in the Middle East were in the news and were a big topic, as was South Africa since apartheid. We particularly enjoyed hearing a Canadian book reviewer who vividly discussed several current best sellers.

At cocktail time and before retiring, we stopped by the Crystal Cove lounge where we heard John Mentis on piano. Mentis has been playing on ships for decades and has performed with musicians such as George Shearing. He seemingly knew every song from the past, both popular and jazz.
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The food was very good, particularly the Dover sole which we had a few times while dining in the main restaurant. In addition, we dined several times in both the Prego, the Italian restaurant, and Silk Road, featuring Asian fare. Prego’s beef carpaccio was the best; in silk Road, we were like kids in a candy store, savoring the fresh sushi and lobster dishes. There are shows nightly in the theater featuring staff productions, as well as performers brought onboard. We especially enjoyed a classical guitar player and comedian/ventriloquist.

It was soon back to port days. Mauritius and Reunion, although near each other, could not be more different. Both are part of the Mascarene Islands, formed during volcanic eruptions. Both are lush, containing mountainous peaks and waterfalls. Both have mixed race populations. However, Mauritius is a democracy, with over 50 percent of people from India. Reunion is part of France, with a large European population, afforded the benefits of a district in France.

We toured both islands by taxi and bus, always on the lookout for good snorkeling beaches. In Maruitius, it was low tide and the best spots were largely inaccessible. In Reunion, though, we ended up at St. Gilles, a wonderful beach. A reef with lots of marine life was only a short swim from the sand.
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After another day at sea, we were in Durban, South Africa. This is Zulu country, and so we signed up for a tour out to a nature park to see Zulus performing ceremonial dances. Along the way, the countryside was lovely. It was named The Thousand Hills. There were green growth and flowering trees everywhere. This city and surroundings are known for a semi-tropical climate and good beaches. Many guests took coastal excursions.
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Two days later we reached Port Elizabeth. The city is one of the major seaports in South Africa, often referred to as Africa’s Water Sport Capital. Some passengers went on trips to game parks – several for the day, others for three-days after which they would see us again in Cape Town. We had lined up a tent safari in Botswana after disembarking ship, so we opted for a local tour. Instead of going to a beach here, we signed up for the Township Experience tour. We were taken through the historically “coloured” areas, a shameful legacy of Apartheid years.

During Apartheid in the sixties, the government moved blacks from cities out to townships, which were squalid villages, the most notorious being Soweto. Since Nelson Mandela became president in the nineties, one of his missions was to move blacks to better government housing. We visited some of these areas – from the poorest to the new middle-class section.
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Taking excursions such as this can be very enlightening. It was particularly interesting talking to the township people met on foot. One stop was at a school for children 6 to 16. All were in uniforms, neat and clean. Especially gratifying was to talk to teachers working with youngsters from impoverished areas. While there, it was lunch time for the youngest. We were told that this is often the only hot meal children get during the day. Before we left, a glee club of high school students gave us a concert.

Next day, late afternoon, we arrived outside Cape Town, but 60-plus mph winds kept our ship cruising offshore for 18 hours. From the ship, the city virtually sparkled in the sun. With its hills and landmark Table Mountain in the background, it reminded us of San Francisco.
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Mid-morning next day we were able to get off. With our time in Cape Town cut back, we decided to take an open-bus tour. We saw the city sites with our climactic stop being Table Mountain. It was still too windy for us to go to the top in a cable car.

Along the coast, we passed by picture-postcard beaches and picturesque beach communities. At the end of the day, we vowed to return to Cape Town some day and have enough time travel to places outside the city, including the lovely wine country. It was near time, though, to disembark next morning and fly out to Botswana and our safari.

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That morning in Botswana played out as if it was a tightly-edited film sequence. Our group of five was in a Range Rover on a rough dirt road. Our guides, Dix and Simon, from Mapula Camp, were out on the road examining fresh lion footprints. They figured lions were close by and decided to look further.

We drove on. Suddenly we spotted two large male lions. The guides were familiar with these two and said they were brothers out hunting. They were living away from their pride, Dix said, because they were more than likely not ready to challenge the older dominant leader.

When we came close, they were starting to cross a pond, all the while ignoring us, some 10 yards away. We followed, our Rover going unfazed through the tall brush. All of a sudden, the brothers came upon a flock of Egyptian geese, and we saw one snatch a goose from the air with lion claws.

He calmly sat down, proceeding to eat it. The other looked on – the bird evidently was too small to share. After a half-hour, he finished his snack, and the two went on with us behind. Up ahead, beyond the lions, we spotted a herd of zebras. Around 30 yards from the herd, the two stopped behind a bush, intensely observing them.

Meanwhile, four giraffes approached from the right. Immediately, one lion began moving toward the herd from the back. The zebras seemed distracted by the giraffes. This gave the lion the moment needed to attack from behind.

In a split second, we saw a big zebra attempt furiously to shake the lion off his back. The brother rushed in, and the two subdued and killed their prey – but not without the zebra struggling valiantly. We observed transfixed – both excited and appalled by the carnage.
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Kalahari Desert Camp

My wife and I had arrived in Botswana five days earlier and were flown by a small airplane to our first destination, Kalahari Desert Camp. This was to be followed by stays at Delta Camp and Mapula.

Our Kalahari visit started auspiciously when, during our landing, a Cheetah loped down the runway in pursuit of an oryx – a good omen for things to come.
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The Kalahari is unlike most deserts. There are trees, scrub brush and tall grass. There is not much water to see, but water holes exist throughout.

There was no “roughing it” in our tent camp. It contained the comforts of home, as did all accommodations during our Botswana stay. At Kalahari the rooms featured an outdoor bath; bathing in the evening while looking at a galaxy of stars was a memorable experience.
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According to our guide, Shaka, because this park is not heavily visited, the wildlife is somewhat shy. It takes sleuthing to find animals, and he was a good detective. First day he found a leopard in a tree, apparently surveying the horizon for prey. We parked a few yards away. We observed him for nearly an hour, following his movement from branch to branch. Finally, he must have spotted something when he sprang to the ground running, disappearing in the brush.
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With this sighting, we had seen two of the three big cats in less than two days. (The lions were to come later in the week.) On our Kalahari drives, we encountered herds of wildebeests, impala, kudu, springbok, as we would in all the spots we visited. Africa is also a birders’ paradise. Everyday we saw an array of colorful birds and fowl – rollers, kingfishers, secretary birds, spoonbills, and the list goes on.
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Going back to camp that first evening we caught a sight of a rare aardwolf, which elated Shaka, who had never seen one. It was an intriguing animal, bigger than a fox with a heavy multi-colored coat.

During our second afternoon, Shaka took us to the remains of an ancient Bushmen camp. These native people, nomadic hunter-gatherers, have lived in the Kalahari for 20,000 years. In modern times most have been moved to cities and government settlements in central Kalahari. For centuries they moved about, staying in igloo-shaped huts made from local materials – the frame bent branches, the roof thatched with long grass. All that is left are weathered frames.
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Bushmen and the Kalahari itself became well-publicized in the internationally popular 1980 film “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” It dealt with a Bushman who found a Coke bottle in the middle of the desert and thought it must be an omen from the gods.

Our stay here was short, but quite comfortable. Our tent was large, with two beds and all the amenities one needs. At 5:30 a.m., Shaka would wake us so we’d have time for a light breakfast at 6 before heading out on our morning game drive. Returning at 11, we were served brunch, consisting of eggs, salads, freshly baked breads and an entree. At 4 p.m., we were served a light snack to keep us from getting hungry while on the evening drive. Dinner was waiting when we returned several hours later. This daily routine would be much the same at all three camps. The food was always hearty and quite good.

 

Okavango Delta Camp

Next day we were flown to Delta Camp in the Okavango Delta for our next two days. It is the world’s largest inland delta, formed where the Okavango River empties onto a swamp in an enclosed basin in the Northern Kalahari. Most of this water is lost to evaporation and transpiration instead of draining into a sea. We found this one of the most beautiful spots in the world – water everywhere, intensely green marshes with water lilies, flowers and reeds, small lakes and tree-filled islands.
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All this vegetation nurtures an abundance of wildlife. In front of the lodge, hippopatamuses grazed in the shallows among tall grass and came on shore to feed at night. We fell asleep listening to their guttural purrs as they munched. Throughout the day, elephants could be seen, usually looming in the distance but sometimes near camp.
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At the camp, we were taken on “game drives” in dug-out canoes (makoros). As our guide, TJ, poled us through the narrow waterways, he was always wary of getting too close to the hippos, particularly mothers with calves. Easily perturbed, they were ready to charge.
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Each day, we went to one of many small islands for a hike – but not before TJ instructed us about what to do if we encountered a lion; we never saw one here. We often saw impalas and kudus, but most delightful was time spent with a mother warthog and her three progeny. The family ignored us, and we observed that their domestic dynamics was much like “home.” One offspring was a young piglet; the other two were adolescents. When mother turned her back to graze, the older ones would begin picking on the younger. When mother became aware of this, she would turn and angrily chase the trouble-makers away.
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One afternoon, we were taken for a visit via makoro to a local village where a posse of dogs met us. I asked TJ if they were vulnerable to wild predators. He answered that, on the contrary, they protected the village people by barking at intruders. Here, houses were ingeniously made from termite hills, reportedly much stronger than cement. When pulverized and mixed with water, the material was used for the walls. About a third way up, beverage cans were inserted symmetrically in rows at the bottom. The open can end was turned inside for ventilation. It worked well, TJ said, and a wonderful way to recycle.

Delta Camp had one of the nicest lodges with a first class wine selection – on the house – and gourmet dinners. This camp was more luxurious, although still very basic. Our cabin had walls, but all window spaces were open, allowing the cool breeze and animal calls to flow through. Our “picture window” opened onto a large marsh where elephants enjoyed dining. On to Mapula for our final three days.

 

Mapula Camp – Moremi Game Reserve

We returned to the kill site the next morning. The lions were still taking turns eating. One would eat, get his fill, then go a few feet to a pond for a drink and a rest under a tree. The other would take over for his share.

In the surrounding trees, buzzards gathered, waiting for the rotting remains. Hyenas had come over night to steal some meat, Dix said, but he could see by their prints that they had been driven off. Packs of Hyenas are notorious for snatching parts of kills from lionesses but were scared of the much larger males and could be easily driven away. In this case they would have to wait for bones to pick.
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We had been in Africa before, in Kenya and Tanzania, and had seen most all the animals but had never seen a “kill.” In fact, Dix said that this was his first after four years of guiding. I guess our group was very fortunate.
The Moremi Game Reserve covers much of the eastern side of the Okavango Delta. It borders Chobe National Park and combines permanent water, with drier, heavily wooded areas, an excellent environment for all types of game The Range Rovers were great for traversing this terrain, equally viable plowing through three-feet deep water or crushing through heavy growth.
During our three days here, we saw families of elephants drifting by and herds of ostriches loping along. A great interlude was a show given us by a large assembly of about 100 baboons – youngsters leaping through branches (sometimes missing and crashing into tree trunks). Mothers showed off their babies; sisters groomed each other, and male potentates sat by sternly observing the proceedings.
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Everyday at Mapula we looked forward to Sundowners and the spectacular sunset. On afternoon game drives, the Rovers pulled up about 6:30 when the sun was low on the horizon. Dix and Simon would open a cooler and serve our drink of choice, along with munchies. We would stretch our legs and take in the endless sky, watching the setting sun painting the clouds with swathes of gorgeous color.

A good cocktail spot was beside a pond where two hippos were leisurely lolling in the water. Voicing his disapproval of our invading his privacy, the bull opened his jaw wide and bellowed (a great photo opportunity for those quick with the camera).The best place, though, was our last evening in Botswana. It was near the lion kill. The fiery sundown framed a large acacia tree, and we could see vultures silhouetted in the branches patiently awaiting their share – part of the circle of life in Africa.
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The name, Silversea, has always meant the best in cruising – small ships and impeccable service amidst luxurious surroundings. So, when we heard about the line’s newest ship, the Silver Spirit, we were anxious to sail on it. With a capacity for 540 passengers, it is considerably larger than Silversea’s five other vessels, which accommodate between 132 and 382 passengers. The new vessel, though, is still small by today’s measure of cruise ships which have increasing capacities, the largest holding over 3,000.

 

Launched in January 2010, the Spirit started an around-the-world cruise this year. We decided to join the voyage on its departure, Jan. 20, in Los Angeles for the 12-day segment to Papeete, Tahiti. In total, the full world cruise consists of 120 days. Other destinations include New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia and Hong Kong, with the last half including, among others, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Dubai, Egypt, Greece and Spain. Finally disembarking in Southampton, U.K, it offers a wonderful opportunity to see much of the world.

 

After boarding, we were at sea for the first six days before reaching the first stop in the Marquesa Islands. This sea time gave passengers a chance to relax and become acquainted with the new ship. Silver Spirit has one of the highest space-per-guest ratios among cruise ships, with a large staff waiting to serve. The interior design has a 1930s Art Deco touch, especially carried out in the art pieces as well as in the design of the circular central staircase. For meals, guests have a choice of six dining venues. There is a spacious spa, and the ship boasts the largest suites in the Silversea fleet, 95-percent featuring a private veranda.
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After putting out to sea, the ship headed southwest along the Mexican coast. Our at-sea routine included walking laps mid-morning around top side, above the pool. It was always pleasant to look out at the sea, occasionally seeing dolphins and flying fish.

 

On the first day out it was cold, and only the hardy were lounging poolside. The weather soon warmed, though. As the ship headed toward the equator, sun-bathers came out in droves. It was easy to relax inside, too, with many niches and corners especially designed for this ship. In fact, we talked to several people who had been on Silversea’s other ships, and they all said they liked the extra space this ship provided.
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Whether we went fore to the Observation Lounge or aft to the Panorama Lounge, the times we spent reading were particularly pleasant. Warm and cozy, we were susceptible to nodding off, lulled by the sea. Snacks were available if we got a pang of hunger even after our bigger-than-at-home breakfast. Another popular area was the central bar near the mid-ship registration and excursion desks. There were lots of comfy chairs, and appetizers were served at cocktail time. Very popular was also the pre-dinner hour music by pianist Amadeo.

 

For the active, there was much to do. Bridge was very popular. We met a Polish couple who had taken many cruises; for them playing bridge was the big draw. Instructors gave tips and low-key tournaments were played. Trivial Pursuit was also a popular pastime, and it was anything but low key. About 90 people took part, forming into teams. Contestants became very competitive with friendly arguments, disputing some answers.
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There were arts and crafts sessions, table tennis competition, shuffle board, bingo, language classes – you name it, it was probably an option. My wife went to dance classes during sea days and made a group of friends while learning the Cha Cha and Tango. Persona non grata was I who didn’t go with her.

 

Most enlightening were the enrichment lectures with world-class speakers. Talks often related to our cruise. Among topics, artist Paul Gauguin, major figure in the history of the Marquesas and Tahiti, was discussed by art teacher/author, Caroline Boyle-Turner. Sea life and coral reefs were explained by marine biologist George Losey. Another big attraction was just relaxing on our verandah, enjoying the bracing air and ocean vista.

 

A truth about cruising – it seems as if we were always eating. And there are many choices. For breakfast and lunch, a buffet in La Terraza or a sit-down meal in The Restaurant. For dinner there were six choices besides The Restaurant, where we ate most times. With no set seating/dining times on Silversea, we always asked to dine with others and were usually escorted to a table of eight.

 

Here, we met new people and had interesting conversations while exchanging cruising experiences. At every table, there was a wide variety of folks from around the world: a British actress/director told of her trials presenting avant garde plays in the English midlands; a French woman talked of life in Paris; an Austrian health club operator went into his skiing adventures, just to name a few.
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It was particularly interesting to talk to those on for the full four months. A couple from Southern California had not traveled much in their life. Now that they are retired they decided to see the world (or much of it). During their time on board, they would have all their needs taken care of – laundry, medical and a butler to wait on them.

 

At each of the venues waiters kept wine glasses full, and it was a temptation to drink too much. While there were several choices, what the servers poured was perfect for dining selections. Every evening in The Restaurant guests could choose from “La Collection du Monde,” choices by Relais & Chateaux Grand Chef Jacques Thorel. Haute cuisine offerings might include Artichoke Fondant with Sage Coating or Marbled Foie Gras with Leek Terrine as appetizers which would be followed by Steamed Turbot served on a Tower of Truffled Ratte Potatoes for the entrée. Simpler, yet deliciously prepared dishes might be a Grilled Rib Eye Steak or Prosciutto-wrapped Pork Medallions.

 

Other areas were La Terraza which featured regional Italian cuisine, specializing in pasta made daily. Here we thoroughly enjoyed perfectly prepared penne along with a delicate white fish. We didn’t get around to visiting two spots: Le Champagne, with its special epicurean six-course dinners and a “collectors’” wine selection, and Seishin Japanese restaurant, highlighting Asian fusion and Keisiki traditional dinners. There was an extra charge for these two spots.
We really enjoyed the Hot Rock on the upper pool deck. Here, heated stones were put before diners who grilled their choice of prime steaks, veal chops and seafood. All served with a baked potato, skewer of vegetables and salad. Our filet was perfectly cooked by us, one might say. Let me say, as well, that the beautifully presented desserts in all the venues were hard to turn down.
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Finally, there was the Stars Supper Club with dining in art deco surroundings bringing back New York café life in the thirties. A wide array of small plate selections were served, with entertainment provided by a jazz duo of singer and piano player. Dining hours started later here, and we never made it to eat. But almost every night we would stop by after our dinner to listen to the singer Juliet Dunn and pianist Peter Shea, both from Canada. She sang numbers made famous by greats, such as Billie Holiday and Dianne Reeves; he was influenced by Errol Garner and Oscar Peterson. They definitely appealed to us jazz lovers.

 

Each night there is either a before-or after-dinner show in the large room, The Theater. The ship had its own singing-dancing company of six energetic young people who donned extravagant costumes and put on tributes to Elton John and other entertainers. Other shows starred performers who came on board at various times. Our favorite was Kyle Esplin from England. He brought to mind early rock stars Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. He also honored composers from the past and appeared twice to cheering capacity crowds.

 

Day seven the ship reached Nuku Hiva, largest island in the Marquesas. These islands are very scenic but not very touristy. The reason is that almost no coral reefs shelter them. Hence there are virtually no white coral-sand beaches, not welcoming conditions for water activities such as swimming, snorkeling and diving. The islands are volcanic, and the port city here is in a sunken caldera. Biggest hotel on Nuka Hiva is only 22 units.
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We signed up for a tour which took us to the top of the island, offering spectacular views. Next we went to a valley with a wide river running through. Coconut plantations line the banks. This island was made famous by American author Herman Melville, author of “Moby Dick.” Earlier, in1846, he wrote “Typee,” based on his experiences in Nuka Hiva. It is said that he was held prisoner by a local tribe of cannibals. He was not eaten because they wanted him alive as a translator for ships that came into port. One night, he escaped and swam down the river to the ocean where he was rescued by an Australian whaling vessel.
Our stop next day was Atuona-Hiva Oa, the place where Gauguin settled and created 14 of his best paintings. Lectures had prepared us for a visit to his grave and nearby museum. Buried a few yards away is Jacques Brel, French-Belgian singer. He was internationally famous in the in mid-20th Century. Unfortunately, though, the sea was too rough for tenders to take us to shore. Regretfully, we missed this highlight. (Cruise veterans know that the unexpected is to be expected.)

 

After a day at sea, we arrived in French Polynesia for day-long stops in Rangiroa and Moorea, before arriving at our destination – Papeete, Tahiti. The contrasts between Rangiroa and Moorea are fascinating. Rangiroa is also known as The Endless Lagoon with its flat coral land mass, the rough ocean on one side the world’s second largest lagoon on the other.

 

Moorea, on the other hand, is the “high” island with its volcanic peak rising in the middle. It is said to be the inspiration for the idyllic Bali Hai in “South Pacific.” Needless to say, there was lots to do on both islands: visiting a pearl farm, exploring lush highlands and much more. But we settled for snorkeling, which could hardly have been better.
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On Day 13, we reluctantly departed leaving the world travelers behind. Our verdict on Silver Spirit: bigger, in this case, means even better. For information on Silversea cruises, call 800-334-6544 or www.silversea.com.3eb3f44e0

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We were certainly enjoying our cruise up the Danube on Uniworld’s River Countess. The food was wonderful; the sites visited were interesting and life aboard was relaxing. This fifth day on the river, though, we passengers were wondering why the Captain had suddenly called a special meeting. Soon we found out- our cruise was over tomorrow, midway through the itinerary.

Thinking back, we had noticed that the water level had been rising, and we could see how the banks were overflowing into the trees along the shore. During the meeting, we were told that the Serbian government had halted river traffic because of flooding from heavy rains north. Authorities said it was no longer safe to travel; all vessels would be stopped for an estimated three days.

Our captain, Jord Zwall, was frustrated, of course, and when asked to describe what exactly was happening, he said it was like a small tsunami on the river, as if a wall of water was coming toward us that would lift the river level. He said he didn’t want to keep us here stranded in Belgrade. Accordingly, passengers would disembark the next day, and the remainder of our trip would be by bus. We would spend nights in hotels.

We had begun this Uniworld 16-day Eastern European Explorer trip in Bucharest. After two nights there, the 70 passengers would board the River Countess for the remainder of our journey. Countries visited besides Romania, would be Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia and Austria.
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As it turned out, we did visit all the countries specified and saw most of the sites scheduled. Traveling by bus was not a circumstance we would have chosen, but as all seasoned travelers realize “stuff happens,” and plans have to be adjusted.

All countries on the tour, excepting Austria, had been formerly under Russian domination after World War II. With the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, all became independent. Old borders were re-structured; some areas re-named. One of the most interesting aspects of the trip was the stories guides told of the changes brought on by the new freedom in the countries and the comparisons they made about life before and after gaining freedom.

As explained to us, life for everyone is not necessarily better now. Under communism, lives were structured and basic needs were taken care of by the government – medical, housing – and, there was nearly full employment. Now, with capitalism, individuals are on their own, and some are having economic problems.

All eastern nations are now experiencing a rise in tourism. Consequently, we found most refreshingly not “touristy” – crowds were comparatively small and local people were welcoming and friendly. Each country spoke a different language but those dealing with tourists all had a good command of English.

 

Romania to Serbia

It was last June 7 when we arrived in Bucharest. The group of 70 booked for the cruise stayed in the Radisson Blu Hotel two nights before being driven the short distance to the port city of Giurgiu.

A highlight in Bucharest was a city tour which included a visit to the Parliament Palace. Built by the notoriusly despotic Communist Party leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, this colossal building is the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon.
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When construction started in 1984, Ceausescu intended it to be the government headquarters as well as his home. It was his fate to be killed before it was finished. Today, it houses Romania’s Parliament and serves as an international conference center, but many of the rooms are unoccupied .We toured the interior with its luxurious display of crystal chandeliers, mosaics, oak paneling, marble, gold leaf, stained-glass windows and floors covered in rich carpets.

Also memorable was the visit to Revolution Square in the heart of city. Anchoring the square is the former Communist Party Headquarters. This was where Ceausescu, during the Romanian revolution in 1989, looked out from the balcony and in disbelief saw multitudes of people who had turned against him. He fled and was captured a few hours later and killed.

Top-of-the-list of things to do outside Bucharest is a vist to Transylvania and Dracula’s Castle (Bran Castle, as officially known). On our day-long excursion, the lush countryside was ablaze with red poppies among a rainbow array of wild flowers. This was a positive benefit of the spring’s heavy rains.
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The bus drove on into the densly wooded Carpathian Mountains and dropped down into the verdant Bran Valley where the castle stands against the hills. If it weren’t for the souvenir sellers greeting us, the castle-scene would have looked like one imagines from the movies. Nineteenth Century novelist Bram Stoker based the Dracula character on the infamous Vlad the Impaler who built the castle in the 15th Century as a fortress in his resistance to the Turkish Ottoman Empire. He got his nickname because of the cruel punishments imposed on his enemies. Now a national monument, the castle was filled with tourists, but its many secret passageways and concealed rooms impart a spooky aura. For vampire fans, the top floor is filled with paraphernalia from Dracula lore.

During our two nights on the town, we found a very good restaurant, La Mamma, known for its authentic Romanian food. (Side note: Romanians speak a “Romance” language, having much in common with French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. We recognized many phrases such as “bona sera” which means “good evening” in Italian. In other countries, a Slavic language was spoken.)

We told our waiter we wanted something ethnic. On his advice, we ordered cabbage rolls (“sarmale”), accompanied by the traditional corn meal mush (“mamaliga”) with delicious fresh beets as a side dish. The meal cost around $30, with drinks, coffee and dessert. We liked our selection so much we ordered it both nights.
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After Bucharest, we boarded our ship, River Countess. Having read that this ship was voted the best river cruise ship afloat, we were very excited but ; never disappointed Not only were the accommodations well planned and elegant, but the entire ship was tastefully decorated from the spacious lounge in the front of the ship to the dining room at the back, whether set for a buffet at breakfast and lunch or for table service at dinner.

And, what service it was – from the maitre’d who greeted us at the door to the servers who poured carefully selected wines to accompany each course from executive chef Minko Stanev. Of the countless cruises we’ve taken, the dining experience on this ship was among the very best.
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Next morning, we sailed to the other side of the river to Rousse, Bulgaria, and immediately got on a bus for a day-long excursion to the Black Sea resort town, Varna. After eating lunch, we walked along the beach with some of us going into the 70-degree water. It felt very pleasant on a hot day. The beach could have been on the French Riviera — colorful umbrellas everywhere and droves of sunbathers, with many women topless. Our next two days of sight-seeing in Bulgaria proved to be among the most memorable of the trip. We started with a trip to Velko Turnova, the site of the medieval Tsarevits castle with its surrounding wall seemingly to continue into the valley below. The imposing castle was a fortress and royal palace from 1185 to 1393.

We went on to Zarbassi which attracts visitors world wide to its ancient orthodox churches, dating back to the 1500s. Particularly striking was Christ Nativity Church, its walls and ceiling be-decked with brilliant frescoes and icons. Not noticeably faded over the ages, they vividly portray the rewards of heaven and the perils of hell. A bit later we went to the church of St. George and heard a blissful concert by a church chorus.

Last day in Bulgaria was particularly memorable with visits to Baba Vidin Fortress and the Belogradchik Rocks. Located on the western slopes of the Balkan mountains, the rocks are a group of bizarrely shaped sandstone, limestone and conglomerate formations. They vary in color from red to gray to yellow; some 600 feet in height. Many have fantastic shapes and are associated with local legends and named for people or objects they are thought to resemble.
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The unique thing is the rocks are incorporated as part of the fortress which was built during the Roman Empire and captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1396. The walls are over six-feet thick and 39-feet high. .
Many of us took the path leading to the tallest section of the rock fortress. It was not easy – 200 steps in 102-degree heat. Sweating and panting, I wondered, half-way up, what I was doing here but persevered on.

During the last day aboard ship, we were enthralled as we sailed to Serbia through the Iron Gates, comprised of an 80-mile sequence of gorges cutting through the Carpathian Mountains. It is rated among the most dramatic natural displays of beauty in Europe. Prior to 1972, when the Iron Gate Dam was constructed, a trip along this stretch could be hazardous. Now two locks raised our boat to dam level, and we were on our way until high water stopped us later that day.

 

From Serbia to Vienna

Before disembarking, we spent two days on excursions in Serbia’s historic capital, Belgrade. First was to the Kalemegdan Fortress, located on top a cliff-like ridge, overlooking the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. Here we saw reminders of Serbia’s Roman and Medieval past. The spot also marks the founding in the 3rd century BC by the Celts who had defeated the previous Thracian conquerors. Most of the area is now a park.

In recent decades, Serbia was a part of Yugoslavia. When the Soviets left, the area was eventually divided into three countries, Serbia, Croatia and Kosovo. This division made few happy and, under the influence of ruthless Serbian leader Slobodan Miloševic, war broke out between the three. The bloody dispute was settled in the 1995 Dayton, Ohio, Peace Agreement. Subsequently Milosevik was arrested for war crimes and died in prison in 2000 while under trial.

Later that day we went to the National Museum and saw a treasure trove of pieces excavated at the fort – sculptures, weapons, helmets and other items from ancient Rome, Greece and .Thrace The most valuable and impressive pieces are golden masks from the 6th century B.C.
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Also very interesting was our stop at the memorial to Marshall Tito, leader of Yugoslavia. As president from 1943 to 1963, his government managed to keep the country the most independent in the Soviet Bloc. He is a well-loved hero, and his white marble grave sits in the center of an airy glass and stone pavilion. On exhibit is an interesting array of memorabilia from his era.

The following morning we boarded buses for a trip that would cross three borders – Serbia, Croatia and Hungary. The day was broken up by a delightful lunch in the home of a family in a village near Osijek, Croatia. (Actually several homes were chosen because of the size of the group.)

Speaking for our host family was a teenage daughter whose English was flawless. Her mother and younger sister could speak a little English, but she took the floor and had a delightful manner. She answered all our questions about Croatian life.

The meal was wonderful, especially the vegetable soup and fried chicken. Afterward, the daughter took us out back to see the family vegetable garden which led down to the Danube where kids regularly swam. We toured the old city part of Osijek before going on to Budapest, Hungary.

That evening we checked into our hotel on the Danube – right across from the Parliament Building. It was lit up at night. Just to right of it we had a view of the famous Chain Bridge, built in the early 19th Century to link the two parts of the city – Buda and Pest.
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The city is regarded as one of the most beautiful in Europe. Regretfully we had only one full day which made us cram in some of the most obvious sites – a tour of Buda Castle with its fairy tale turrets; a brief look at magnificent St. Mathias Church; and a walk around the vast Heroes Square, with its carvings along massive walls of significant happenings in Hungarian history. .

Making a fortuitous decision, we chose an afternoon trip to Szentendre, a picturesque village with typical Hungarian arts and crafts on display. Most of our fellow tourists shopped along the cobble-stone streets. We decided, however, to take in a museum devoted to Margit Kovacs, highly-praised ceramicist. Most of her work was from mid 20th Century.

Featured is a collection of clay statuettes, pots, plates, wall plaques and tiled murals. Her art is varied but characterized by sensual flowing lines. Altogether, it turned out to be an eye-opening experience. We were sorry to hear that her pieces displayed (or even copies) were not for sale. (But if so, they surely would have been way over our budget.) **(picture of Kovacs’ art)

Our final day consisted of driving across neighboring Slovakia.. In 1993, two new countries were born – Slovakia and the Czech Republic, following the break up of Czechoslovakia.
At noon, we took a half-day break walking around the pleasant capital, Bratislava. The old city proved to be very compact and accessible. The narrow streets, quaint buildings and spacious squares made it look picture-book perfect.
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As with many other places we had seen, a castle stands above the city; while Michael’s Gate Tower dominates the scene below. The tower served as a frontier post of the Roman Empire and now is the seat of government. The gate, marking the city entrance, was built in 1300, and in 1758 a striking baroque statue of St. Michael and the Dragon was placed on its top. **(picture IMG_0984 of Brataslavia)

Soon after starting our tour, we were surprised by seeing a bronze statue of American modern artist Andy Warhol. It turns out that his parents came from here. This was just the first of many whimsical life-size bronzes we would see.

Among these sculptures are a paparazzi peering round a corner ready to snap a photo and a French soldier, resembling Napoleon, leaning on a bench in the Main Square. Most popular, though, is a workman inconspicuously peeping out of a manhole. People were clustered around him to have their pictures taken.

We finished up this pleasant afternoon with a concert by a well known duo made up of the first violinist and piano-conductor of the national symphony orchestra.
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That evening we had dinner at famous Marchfelder Hof to have a lavish dinner of Austrian specialties. Two days more in wonderful Vienna and our “cruise” was over. And, by the way, the River Countess, after a very speedy sail, made it to Vienna where the next group was ready to embark on a cruise from Vienna to Amsterdam.

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El Nido – absolutely the world’s best tropical island getaway. Located in the Philippine’s Palawan Islands, it is actually two resorts, each located a short boat ride from the other. And, what’s more, it is a terrific bargain for American travelers. That’s my opinion, and I’ve visited island getaways worldwide.
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Among its many virtues – room accommodations rank with the world’s most highly rated resort hotels; an international menu features delicious selections; activities offered satisfy the most adventurous, as well as those seeking relaxation and pampering. All this is included at prices much less than would be expected in international destinations of the same caliber.

 

El Nido’s locations are on Miniloc and Lagen islands, a 75-minute flight from Manila plus a 45-minute boat ride from El Nido Village Airport. The Palawans, as a whole, consist of some 1,780 islands and islets, most with rocky coves and white sandy beaches. As we descended on our flight there, we saw a breathtaking panorama of scattered green dots of land in a turquoise and blue sea.

 

Both locations, less than an hour boat ride apart, are equally excellent. It’s a good idea to split your time, staying at both during a stay. Miniloc is the oldest. Constructed in 1981, it is built right off the beach, shaded by palms trees and framed by a backdrop of sheer limestone cliffs. In front, the warm, crystal clear waters teem with tropical fish.
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Both have 50 air-conditioned rooms. Miniloc’s feature thatched roofs, built with indigenous Filipino materials. Some are over water; others are on the sand. In the rear are garden and cliff cottages nestled high on the hillside. All face the bay.

 

In Lagen, many of the rooms are set in a lush forest, several yards from the beach and pier. The sprawling grounds cover more than 400,000 square feet and contain a diverse variety of birds and mammals. A great place for birders and hikers.

 

Built in 1998, Lagen offers more amenities, including a swimming pool and spa suite. Its dining room is enclosed, although there is plentiful seating on the outside veranda, which overlooks both the sea and the pool. Here, there are also a variety of accommodations – water cottages built on stilts, beachfront units with excellent sunset views and rooms on edges of the forest.

 

Most guests prefer to dine al fresco. When skies are clear at Miniloc, dinner is served on the beach in front of the bay. To serve breakfast and lunch, Minoloc’s large veranda dining area. hovers above the shoreline and offers a gorgeous view of the bay. In Lagen, most choose the pool-side dinner service. During dinner, an activity coordinator visits guests to schedule activities for the next day. Among options are diving and snorkeling (many islands and spots minutes away), sea kayaking (including boat drop-offs near secluded islands), rock climbing (20 bolted sites to choose from), hiking (monkeys or Palawan hornbills abound), fishing (to nearby spots, boats leaving mornings and afternoon) and boat excursions (visiting romantic coves with lunch stops). So many options – or just relax on the beach under an umbrella lounge. It’s a great place for kids, by the way. Families on kayaking expeditions are a common sight.

 

 

SNORKELING AT EL NIDO

We are avid snorkelers, and most evenings we selected which of many prime locations we would visit the next day. We were even provided with our own snorkeling guides who stayed with us at each resort – Chito Socito at Minoloc and Refael Dalabujan at Lagen. The two knew exactly where to go and pointed out many fish and corals we would have missed.

 

Usually we were taken on two snorkels in the morning at different locations. Afterwards, we went back to the resort for lunch or went to small islands with a barbecue station where we were served with fresh-caught fish, as well as chicken or pork. Following the ample meal, we needed a nap before the usual afternoon snorkel. Ah, the island life!

 

On our last afternoon, we took the trail at the back of Lagen that led through the forest to a private cove. It was steep, but there was a rope installed on the path to help us climb the slopes and steady us during descent. Along the way a family of long-tailed macaque monkeys greeted us from up in the trees. They seemed to taunt us, vigorously shaking leaves from limbs onto the path.
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The trail ended on the beach, and Rafael was there with our snorkel equipment which had been delivered by boat. After resting, we set out for the spectacular hour-long snorkel back to the resort. The route was along a wall, giving us views of gorgeous corals and sea life. We saw many vanities of colorful wrasse, several pennant fish as well as varied species of butterfly fish. We were amazed by varied colors of “clown” fish which had adapted to the shade of the anemone they lived in. Upon reaching the pier, we were worn out but exhilarated by our adventurous day.
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As well, at both locations, we enjoyed going in the water just off the beach. In Minoloc, late morning, we were met by a school of large jack fish, joining us as we swam under the boat landing, At Lagen, beneath some plate coral, we found a family of oriental sweet lips, which included the bizarrely decorated juvenile.
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One of the most interesting things at El Nido is to talk to fellow travelers from around the world. At sunset, at the bar with a group of Russians, we discussed the merits of vodka and beer. On a snorkel trip, with a Frenchman, we talked about President Sarkozy’s policies.

 

The Filipinos make up half those visiting the resort, followed in numbers by Koreans and Japanese. From Asian cities, it is only a few hours flight. (Flying to the resort on the small plane from Manila, there were 12 passengers – us and five Korean couples honeymooning,)

 

There was also a significant number of Australian and European guests. We only saw a few from the United States, however. The 14-hour flight from Los Angeles can be daunting. We think, though, that Americans should take a new look at the Philippines and El Nido. I repeat -there is no better tropical vacation spot. And consider the price.

 

 

SHORT VISIT TO MANILA

After El Nido, we decided to stay two days in Manila. On a previous Philippine visit, we decided not to visit this capitol which we perceived as congested and unappetizing. This time we opted for a short stay. As expected, the drive was traffic-clogged to our destination, the excellent Mandarin Oriental, located among tall skyscrapers in the Makati financial district. We could tell at once that this was a thriving cosmopolitan city.
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For dinner first night, the concierge recommended Grappa’s Italian restaurant. It was located in the Greenbelt, a tourist destination in itself, offering a mix of shops, restaurants and entertainment spots. She said it was only a 20-minute walk. A remark such as this should set off a warning note to veteran travelers who know to be wary of time estimates. ”Just a few minutes” can turn into a 45-minute nightmare. Needless to say this is what happened to us.

 

It was a hot night and, midway on the walk, we regretted not taking a taxi. We soldiered on and found the mall. (Another point – malls in America can be confusing but in a foreign country, more so.) Nearly all Filipinos speak English, so, after asking several bystanders and security people, we made it. After reviving ourselves with Pellegrino water, we had very good eggplant Parmesan and ravioli. Overall, it ended up a good experience.

 

The next morning we were having breakfast while checking guide books for where to go, when an British couple overheard us. They chimed in, saying that they highly recommended Carlos Celdran and his “If These Walls Could Talk” tour of Intramuros, the old city of Manila. We took their suggestion. Hotel people seconded our choice, booking us for 4 p.m.. (The fame of Celdran was emphasized when we returned home. We were in a group that included a woman with Philippine roots. She said that she had taken the tour.)

 

After breakfast, we decided to go to the Ayala Museum, which happened to be adjacent to the Greenbelt. We had no qualms now about walking there. We did, however, have to forego visiting the acclaimed National Museum, across town, because of time constraints. The Ayala, with its permanent collection of contemporary Filipino artists and a diorama on the country’s history and culture, is an excellent place to learn more about the country.

 

That afternoon at the gates of Fort Santiago, the colorful Celdran greeted us in top hat and shorts, carrying a speaker and a satchel of props. His theatrical style and witty, articulate presentation, made the 2-1/2 hour walk, both enjoyable and informative.
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About half in our group of 27 were Filipinos, eager to learn more history of their country. They joined in as Carlos put on the Philippine national anthem, while twirling the Philippine flag.

 

Following a quick lesson in the origins of the Filipino national language, Tagalog, we were led to the impressive statue of Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moorslayer, Spanish patron saint). Here, we were told about Spain’s occupation from the 17th through the 19th Century. Celdran believed, this resulted in the corrupt control of the country by evangelical Catholic priests. As he talked, he role-played various Spaniards and friars, skewering frailties with his sharp remarks. The Filipinos cheered when Celdran brought in national hero Jose Rizal whose memorial is in the adjacent Rizal Park. He was a writer whose anti- government novels helped bring citizens to revolt in the late 1800s.

 

At this point, horse-drawn carriages were brought to convey the group to the Cathedral of San Augustin. Along the way we saw the rest of the old Intramuros buildings, which many would come back to see on their own.
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San Augustin is one of the few buildings to survive intact after the World War II bombings. It was opened in 1606 and has an adjoining monastery, which now houses a museum, containing many valuable colonial religious paintings.

 

Beginning his final section, which detailed U.S. occupation, Celdran emerged in Uncle Sam regalia while the “Star Spangled Banner” played. Coming to World War II, he then donned a general’s hat, dark glasses and stuck a corncob pipe in his mouth, morphing into Douglas MacArthur, America `s leader of the Pacific campaign. Suffice it to say he was hilarious as he lampooned the general’s egocentric behavior.

 

San Augustin is also the site of a memorial for those killed in the Manila 1945 bombing by U.S.A. planes to counter Japanese atrocities taking place in the capitol. Celdran went into a serious mode, talking about the tragic consequences of the event.

 

The tour finished on a lighter note dealing with Philippine history following the war when it gained independence. This section centered on the controversial Ferdinand Marcos, president from 1965 through 1986. Of course, Celdran slyly mentioned Marcos’ wife, Imelda, and her extravagances which included a collection of 3,000 shoes. Ironically, he pointed out, it was her fund-raising prowess that is largely responsible for the restoration of Intramuros.

 

To conclude the tour, we all sat down and were treated to a “halo- halo,” the national drink. It is made from a rainbow mixture of sweet preserved bean, coconut, jackfruit, yam, plantain, cream, and milk. Crushed ice is added, and it is served in clear glass, a colorful multi-layered sight. Celdran said that the drink’s array of ingredients are symbolic of the Filipino people – a mixture of many different ethnic groups.

 

Reluctantly, we had to leave next day, emphasizing that our stay had been all too short. Once past congestion from the airport, Manila is certainly worth several days stay.

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Vietnam… this is the place to visit, many have told us. Being from the generation raised during the Vietnam War four decades ago, we hadn’t really thought of this as a tourist destination. But reports, regarding how interesting the country is and how friendly the people are, perked our interest. Thus, when we read about Crystal Cruise’s 11-day Exotic Asia Cruise in late April, we signed up-the itinerary included four days in Vietnam.

Statistics show that over the past 10 years Vietnam has seen an extraordinary growth in tourist numbers-almost 300 percent since 1998. Of course, with the current economic downturn, tourism is off. This may be a good time to sign up, with travel bargains in the offing.

On the cruise, we embarked from Hong Kong, and crossed the South China Sea. First port-call was Chan May, not far from Hue. A guided tour of the ancient capital was the first of several excursions we would take while on the cruise.

Our first stop was at The Royal Citadel, a walled imperial city from the 18th Century. On a hill, it impressively rises above the city. We were struck immediately by its resemblance to Beijing’s Forbidden City, on which it was modeled.
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The complex is like a series of boxes within boxes. Surrounded by a wide, zigzag moat, the first structure consists of the defensive wall fort with 12 gates. Within, there are two other monarchal areas, the Imperial Enclosure and the Forbidden Purple City, reserved for the private life of the royal family. We were particularly impressed by the beauty of this section with its red, purple and gold columns and lavish furnishings.

Following this visit, we boarded a “dragon boat,” colorfully painted, with the bow, a fearsome dragon head and the stern, a long dragon tail. Our group then settled in for a leisurely sail up the Perfume River, observing the river life on houseboats and sampans.
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After a half hour, the towering 17th century seven-story pagoda, Thien Mu, perched above the shore, came into view. Ironically, it was the site of violent protests in the early sixties against the U.S.-backed Diem regime. Today the temple is a serene place where monks deliver incantations.

Next, we went to a local hotel for lunch. Prominent on the buffet table were shrimp, prepared in various ways. Farm-raised shrimp and seafood are among Vietnam’s staples and one of its fastest growing exports.

After lunch, we entered the vast Dong Ba Market, one of the must-see sites for its size and variety of commodities. The intense colors and mix of smells is almost an assault on the senses. All manner of food-vegetables, meat, fish, seafood-as well as clothing, crafts and jewelry is on display. Everything appears fresh, but in the stifling 90-degree heat and high humidity, the sight of un-refrigerated pork next to writhing crabs didn’t seem appetizing.
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Back on the bus, there was one more stop-the magnificent tomb of Minh Mang, considered the most brilliant of the Nguyen Dynasty which reigned in the 19th – 20th centuries.

This turned out to be one of the highlights of that day’s tour. The tomb is located eight miles outside of Hue in a beautiful country setting. It overlooks the Perfume River, on one side, and a lake, on the other. Cool and tranquil. Statues of horses and elephants guard the entry to a series of temples and pagodas, leading up to a massive burial mound. The tomb’s lovely green and yellow tiles glisten in the sun.
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Because of road-repair work, our return journey on the two-lane highway that connects north and south was particularly tedious. During the war’s aftermath, the population has exploded, and the country’s infrastructure has yet to catch up. Our driver also had to be wary of the trucks which were often stopped by officers along the roadside. He said that the cops were “shaking down” the drivers. “The police are getting rich this way,” he said, cynically.

Our next day at sea took us farther south toward Ho Chinh Minh City, Saigon, as it was known before 1975.

A sea day gave us another chance to appreciate our ship, Crystal Symphony. Not only beautiful, she is well-planned with numerous comfortable lounges in which to relax or listen to live music or enrichment lectures.

Those waking up in time could avail themselves of breakfast in the Crystal Dining Room or in the Lido Cafe, a buffet on the pool deck. Either spot presented attractive and delicious offerings such as light, crisp waffles, fluffy omelets or assorted hot and cold cereals.

Executive Chef Markus Nufer and staff presented the finest cuisine we have ever had on board a ship. From the Bon Voyage Dinner through the Farewell Dinner, each evening’s selections were attractively presented, delicious and just the right size. One of our table mates enjoyed duck prepared numerous ways over the course of our journey, while the rest were enthusiastic about the various steak, lamb and seafood offerings. Another at the table was on a gluten-free diet and was pampered with special breads by Mukesh, our efficient and friendly server.

Two other dining rooms-Silk Road for Asian fare and Prego for Italian-offered outstanding options, the latter renowned for its signature cream soup of selected Italian mushrooms. Twice on our 11-day journey the crew prepared a luncheon buffet poolside-one an Asian buffet and the other an All American barbecue with meats, chili, apple pie among the tasty selections.
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The attention to details is what makes this ship so special. Whether it’s the decor in the dining rooms or the design and colors in the staterooms it is a gorgeous ship. Thick pile carpets in either blue, rose or lavender mark the cabin passageways. Once inside, cabins are light and airy and feature a large closet with sliding doors.

The cruise also had a golf theme. For golfers our stops in Chan May, HCM city and final destination, Bangkok, Thailand, provided opportunities to play. Crystal offers three golf-themed cruises a year in destinations throughout the world. As ours did, each has a PGA instructor on board to give special attention to players.

We had two days in Ho Chi Minh City which gave us many options for activities. A city tour was our first-day choice; the next we went on our own.
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Going to town, we noticed the bus was in a thicket of motor bikes. Only an occasional car or truck was spotted amid shoulder-to-shoulder cyclists. Of the near seven million people in HCM City, we learned, one-half own a motorbike. With virtually no public transportation, all day seemed like rush hour.

Nearly every family member-husband, wife, teenagers-have a motor bike, our guide said. He also pointed out that there are an alarming number of accidents; careless driving and hazardous roads are a major problem.
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Because Vietnam was a French colony-French Indo China from 1887 to 1947-there is a decided European influence on the city’s architecture. On the list of tour stops was the mammoth Central Post Office. This gothic building was designed in the early 20th Century by famous architect Gustave Eiffel. Its high ceiling brings to mind Parisian market halls; fans hum among ornamental pillars and sunlight streams from windows above.

Across from the post office, we visited Notre Dame Cathedral, built in 1880. With white twin spires atop the red-brick building and beautiful stained glass windows inside, this is a stately companion to the lively Buddhist temple close by.

The exquisite 19th Century Thien Hau Temple is the country’s most popular religious site. The Vietnamese are largely Buddhist and, along with monks and tourists, there were many worshippers. As we entered, incense wafted amidst twirling metal mobiles hanging from the ceiling–the total effect was dizzying. Along the temple wall, were delicately carved scenes from epic battles and daily life. We could have spent a half-day here, but it was soon time to move on.
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Next, we went to the impressive Reunification Hall. The seat of government for President Diem of South Vietnam at the beginning of the war, it became the site of the official handover of power to the Communists after the fall of Saigon in 1975. This is the location of the only large, park-like green area in the heart of the city. Young and old gather here to stroll or relax on benches.

While heading back to port, we noticed many small, narrow three-to four-story buildings. The guide said that numerous extended families, including his own, live in these type homes. Since government provides no social security, he said, the young have to support the old.

Typically, three generations live in one dwelling. In the guide’s family, his parents live on the first floor. He and siblings with their families live on the other floors. His sister-in-law does the cooking, and the household of 12 eat together every day. Since every family member from teenage on needs a bicycle, he said finding parking places for them could be a problem. In the city, we had seen as many as five on a bike, though.
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The last day we first visited the controversial War Remnants Museum. Divided into five sections, the museum deals with the cause and origins of the war, according to Vietnam officials, that is.

The “Requiem” part is the most moving with photos taken by journalists worldwide; the most contentious portion is the “Vestiges of War Crimes and Aftermath,” showing photos of war victims, injured from such as bombings and “Agent Orange” attacks. The photographs of the debilitated and dead are both haunting and sickening. As guide books point out, this exhibit is not politically balanced, with much undocumented.
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We later talked to Vietnam War veterans aboard ship who had visited the museum. Some were angry about the exhibits; others moved by them.

Regarding the Vietnam War, there were several ship excursions listed, most notably Memories of War. This included a stop at the Cu Chi Tunnels, an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located near the city. These are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country.

The tunnels were used by the Viet Cong as hiding spots during combat. They served as supply routes, hospitals, weapon caches and living quarters. The role of the tunnel systems in winning the war should not be underestimated, experts say. Among other things, the tunnels indicate the stubborn persistence of the North Vietnamese in prolonging the war, eventually persuading the weary Americans to get out.

For lunch, we wanted to go to eat pho at a place where the locals go. We had eaten pho a few times in Southern California’s Little Vietnam and loved this succulent noodle dish. We asked our guide about it the previous day. He recommended a couple places but stressed that we go to Pho 24. When we got there it was obvious that this was a cut above small eating places we had passed. With its decorator touches and clean cut furniture it looked more like a Corner Bakery in the U.S. It became obvious the guide thought we should go to a sleeker place.

We found later that this is one of a chain of several in Vietnam and Cambodia, geared for the better-off and tourists. As it was, the pho was great…the bill for two, plus drinks, only seven dollars.

Time to say goodbye to Vietnam. We sailed that night for Bangkok. For us, Vietnam and the cruise were everything we hoped for and more.

For information on Crystal Cruises, call (800) 711-4230 or www.crystalcruise.com.

Photos by Gail Taylor

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Anxiously, my wife and I sat on the edge of the boat, putting on fins, adjusting face masks, awaiting the guide’s nod to jump. We got it and launched ourselves, swimming behind him when-suddenly-we were eye-to-eye with a 40-foot leviathan, its mouth agape. We turned and tried frantically to keep up with the gentle monster. It was close enough to touch but soon slipped away. This was it-our first encounter while swimming with whale sharks in Donsol, Philippines.

My wife and I had arrived early morning to this small coastal fishing town, 400 miles from Manila, on the southwest coast of Luzon Island. Both snorkelers, big time, we had read about whale shark encounters. Now on our eight-day Philippines tour, we had the opportunity for the experience.

Right away, we found it was easy to travel in the Philippines. Most Filipinos speak English in addition to Tagalog, their national language, and English is the official language for signs and directions. We found everyone to be friendly and helpful. And, big thing, the country is very economical to travel in. (More on this later.)

Regarding whale sharks, local fishermen were aware of them in Donsol but most of the world was not before 1998. That year a team of foreign divers visiting the area publicized the fact for the first time After that, poachers and hunters swarmed into the area. The government was quick to react and declared this variety of fish a protected species. These are not mammals like other whales but fish, belonging to the shark group. However, it is not a predator, feeding mostly on plankton The largest fish in the world, it grows to over 40 feet and can weigh some 39 tons.
Eco-Tourism in Donsol is the big draw from February to June when the sharks migrate to feed on the annual plankton bloom. This small town of 30,000 becomes a busy place as tourists worldwide arrive. Local fisherman become guides and whale shark spotters.
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The morning of our encounters we boarded a small boat, typical in the country, with a narrow hull and an outrigger-stabilizer each side. The local boats have a capacity of six passengers and a crew of six, including our guide and a spotter who stands astride a bar some six feet above deck.
Amazingly, the crew can spot sharks from more than 50 yards away. As soon as one was seen, the helmsman began maneuvering precisely toward the dark mass below the surface. Meanwhile, the guide whispered for us to get ready. The boat slowly crept forward, and we were signaled to jump in.

The first time is breathtaking when you see the huge four-foot mouth, a small eye each side, coming toward you. Positioning yourself above it, you are close enough to touch the two dorsal fins on its back and two pectoral fins on its sides. Of course, while it’s tempting to touch, it’s verboten.

Characteristically, whale sharks have distinctive light-yellow stripes and dots on thick dark gray skin. A filter feeder, it sieves enormous amounts of plankton through its gills as it swims. Often, several remoras (sucker fish) are attached to its side, riding along.

Each of the nine sharks we encountered acted distinctly different. Some swam slow enough that we could keep pace for a short while: others cruised faster and went by us within seconds; one gave its tail several big swishes; another banked to the right beginning a plunge which gave us a thrill. Our favorite turned and looked us in the eye, as if to say, “What are you doing here?”

Encounter rules dictate that boats can stay out for three hours. One boat is allowed per fish with a limit of six people allowed to interact It was noon, and after so many encounters, we were tired, getting in and out, and ready for lunch. We had arranged to be taken to a secluded beach. Relaxing, eating our sandwiches, we watched two young crew members scramble up a palm tree nearby to pick fresh coconuts. They gave us a couple and the sweet milk and succulent flesh sure tasted good.
Following lunch, we took a short snorkel seeking out smaller fish this time. Returning to the dock, we lounged on the beach during the afternoon. Next on the schedule was an after-dinner night- time firefly-viewing river cruise.

We were taken to the Ogod River where we boarded a small boat. Soon it was pushing upriver in the pitch dark, along an eerily silent riverbank. The only illumination came from a crewman’s flashlight at the helm. Only the silhouette of mangroves on the bank could be made out.

Suddenly, it was as if hundreds of Christmas tree lights had been turned on in treetops on the left and then the right. The boat paused from time to time for us to take in this blazing show. After a fascinating two hours of this, it was time to head back to our hotel in Legaspi.

We had flown into Legaspi the previous day and stayed the night there because Donsol was fully booked. Before checking into Pepperland Hotel, we were given a short tour of the city. The area’s big attraction is Mahyon volcano. We went to a spot outside the city to view the perfectly-shaped crater. From there, we took in Cagsawa Ruins, the remains of a church and village that was buried in a devastating eruption in 1814.
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Next morning, the hour trip to Donsol gave us an opportunity to see the countryside, a picturesque panorama of daily life in small farming villages.

First off, the driver had to be on his toes. The narrow two-lane road was a jumble of traffic. Cars are expensive for Filipinos, making bicycles and motor bikes the preferred method of transport.
For public transportation, there are buses, but most locals take tricycles and jeepneys to get around. Tricycles or pedicabs are motor bikes with a side car on a third wheel. It can hold two passengers (although many were stuffed with more riders) and are also often used for delivery. Jeepneys, as the name implies, are colorfully painted elongated Jeeps with benches installed. They can hold about eight and have regular stops but can be hailed, as well.
Beside confronting this melange of traffic, the driver had to be wary of people, perilously close walking by. In addition, family houses are situated only a few feet back, which makes the roadside a center of daily life. People of all ages, as well as dogs, seem to spend much of their time roadside.
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Away from the villages, lovely rice paddies, all shades of green, dotted the landscape. For farmers, the flattest and best place for them to dry the rice was literally on the road itself. Ignoring traffic, they raked rice as cars whizzed by. Most drivers, respectfully, drove around, but occasionally one would heedlessly drive right through, leaving tread marks in the grain.

In Donsol, whale shark-watching is a bargain. In dollars it figures out to $70 for two and much less when more are on the boat. With four, it is only $35 each.

 

 

PARADISE AT EL NIDO

That the Philippines is a real travel bargain became even more apparent a few days later when we flew into the Palawan Islands for our stay at El Nido Resort. Off Palawan’s almost 1,200 miles of coastline are 1,780 islands and islets with rocky coves and white sandy beaches. It was a sight to see these green dots in the turquoise and blue sea as we flew in from Manila in a small two-engine plane.
El Nido, itself, is secluded on Minoloc among 45 small limestone neighbors. This world-class resort, comparable to five star locations everywhere, is in a picture book setting-a cove studded with palms with a backdrop of sheer limestone cliffs.
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It has 50 rooms with thatched roofs, built with indigenous Filipino materials, some over water, others facing the bay. Behind, there are garden cottages and cliff cottages nestled high in the hillside.
The wonderful thing here is the price includes all the activities. Each evening guests meet with a coordinator who plans the next day’s schedule with you. Some things to do are diving and snorkeling (many islands and spots minutes away), sea kayaking (including boat drop-offs in lovely spots), rock climbing (20 bolted sites to choose from), hiking and bird watching (monkeys or Palawan hornbills are among the species that might be seen), fishing (to nearby spots, boats leaving mornings and afternoon). So many options-or just relax on the beach under an umbrella. There is only a nominal $30 charge for dives.
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All meals are included too, and the food is delicious. One of the perks is lunch, awaiting at an island during your day’s outing. The price for all this is, almost unbelievably, $200 a day per person. We reckoned it would be at least three times higher in a comparable resort elsewhere in the world.
While outstanding snorkeling and diving spots were just an island away, some of the best was off the resort’s pier. With two stairways going right into the water, getting in and out was a snap. A local school of jacks greeted us as we entered. These large fish were just the beginning of an exciting two hours-first to the left of the pier and then to the right. Corals of all colors and sizes were plentiful as were the fish-so many clown fish (remember Nemo?), rabbit fish, butterfly fish and wrasse, among others. A highlight was floating for minutes above a four-foot grouper and nearly two-foot sweet-lips

After snorkeling, we headed to the outdoor restaurant where all meals were served. We enjoyed selecting assorted vegetables, meats and sauces and having the chef complete our stir-fry. A salad bar, shabu-shabu, sushi, pasta were all offered as were assorted meats and freshly caught fish.

Breakfast featured quite an assortment: cereals, eggs, waffles, pancakes, fruits, salads and Asian items were plentiful and delicious.

 

DAMAGUETE: DIVERS and NATURE LOVER’S DESTINATION

 

Back to midway in our trip. After Donsol, we flew to Damaguete in the island province Negros Oriental, internationally known as a prime location for divers. We were met and taken to the lovely resort of Pura Vida.. We were set to snorkel as well as venture into the area’s lush forested area and take in its isolated lakes.
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Pura Vida attracts mostly European divers. At the resort, several boats are available that go out to the many sites with Apo Island being the most famous.

Our accommodations were great: large, well decorated bedrooms and extra large completely tiled bathrooms. While they’re air conditioned, we found that opening each window gave us a wonderful sea breeze. At night, after our snorkel and before dinner, we enjoyed sitting on the veranda – watching the activity at the beach and at the waterfall behind the large swimming pool. Above the door to each room is not a number but a name. Our room was Bannerfish. There was File Fish and an entire aquarium of colorful names.

For dinner, we climbed the stairs to the second floor open air dining room where all meals were served. The menu consisted of local favorites as well as more familiar dishes: steaks, fish and pasta dishes. We enjoyed the fresh grilled fish for dinner. Our favorite side dish quickly became mango, plentiful everywhere, which we enjoyed plain for breakfast and with vanilla ice cream for dessert.
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Right off, first morning, we were taken to Apo Island. The Swiss divers onboard went one way-out to deep reefs; we headed to shore, toward lavish coral gardens and countless technicolored fish. It was a very good day. Among the sights was a four-foot black-and-white-banded sea snake which headed for my wife, frightening her away. A sidelight: Many divers are getting into micro diving which includes seeking out colorful nudibranches (sea slugs), which stay in deep water. According to our diver companions, this place was a good spot to look, showing us a photo of one they had seen that day.

Up early next morning, we left for our sojourn into the forest. A four-wheel drive vehicle took us up mountain slopes on a sometime paved road. After an hour and a 3,000-foot ascent, we came to Twin Lakes National Park, location of the spectacular Lake Balinsasayao and its smaller sister Lake Danao, both ancient volcano calderas. We set out on a serene boat ride on the larger lake. In sight was a solitary fisherman, and from a distance, we saw a Japanese night heron. We heard birds secluded in the jungle canopy. Wild orchids hung from the trees. Midway, we docked and hiked up a quarter mile trail to view the smaller lake. On the way we took photos of the beautiful butterflies that flitted around us. One flew away, landed on my wife’s hat, then returned to the railing where it continued to pose.
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On our return, we stopped for lunch at Jo’s By the Sea for positively the best barbecued chicken we’d ever eaten. Walking in, I noticed along the wall a row of sinks for washing up. This seemed strange until I became aware that our food was served without utensils. Everyone eats here with their fingers in the old Philippine fashion.

Without a pause, we dug in. The secret at Jo’s is the marinade. The meat wasn’t slathered in sauce, making it easy to eat. Accompaniments were a mango salad and rice. All a bargain-less than two dollars U.S. Before leaving we joined the line to wash up.

After shopping in town, we hurried our guide back to the resort in time for an afternoon snorkel. Pura Vida is located on the edge of Dauin Marine Sanctuary. Divers at the resort had casually said that snorkeling was good a mile up the beach. This proved to be an understatement.
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Clown Fish

A short jeepney ride away, we dove in and-lo and behold-a wonderland of bright corals and multitudes of sea life-banner fish, clown fish, fusiliers, puffer fish, and on. It was one of those great moments. Serendipitous. As expected, prices were very attractive at Pura Vida:double room from about $88 a night, including breakfast. Emphasizing again, the Philippines are the best for travel bargains.

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Palau–we had been here before and jumped at the chance to return. We booked on a cruise from Papua New Guinea which ended in Palau. This was a big attraction, and we decided to stay over for three days.

Not a lot of American travelers know about this unspoiled tourist destination, but just ask avid divers or snorkelers. If they haven’t already been there, they will tell you Palau is at the top of their list of “must go” spots.
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Considered a part of Micronesia, Palau is an archipelago of 586 islands in the South Pacific, a country with less than 20,000 citizens. About 90 percent live in Koror state, where tourists usually stay.

Off Koror, the main attraction here is the Rock Islands, approximately 300 islets, protected by a huge barrier reef. An underwater paradise. Fans of the TV show. “Survivor” will recognize this spot as it has been used twice as a location, most recently 2008.

Upon disembarking from our cruise, we arranged for a day tour in order to see spots we might have missed before. The itinerary included a visit to Palau’s largest island, Babeldaob, across a causeway from Koror. With a wide new road and little traffic, the Palau Visitors Authority hopes to increase tourism to this lush green part of the country.

First in Koror, we visited the unique aquarium where the exact environments for marine life have been recreated. This has become one of the country’s most popular land-based attractions for tourists and Palauans alike. We observed exhibits with green sea turtles, nurse sharks, white-tip sharks and groupers. In addition to coral reef inhabitants, the aquarium also exhibits animals and plants found in mangrove and sea grass ecosystems, foremost seahorses .

Next, on Babeldoab, we first took the Jungle River Boat Cruise on the Schimizu River. We set out down the calm water way to our destination, an ancient Palauan Village historical site. We cruised through the lush green rain forest foliage, spotting a variety of birds along the way. We were told there were crocodiles here, and suddenly we saw a big one. We knew the croc was expecting us when the boatman held a piece of meat on a pole, and the animal jumped some five feet out of the air to grab it.

After our river cruise, we sauntered along the pathway admiring the interesting collection of tropical plants before stopping for a typical Palauan Bento Box picnic in one of the two open air “summer houses.” The
Bento comes from the Japanese tradition and usually features a combination of teriyaki beef and chicken, white rice, pickled vegetables, a piece or two of vegetarian sushi, and a chocolate brownie for dessert. Often there’s a fried shrimp and/or fried fish.
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Next,, we went on to see the highly publicized, imposing capitol building, sitting by itself on a rise with nothing around it but rolling green hills. The architect wanted to make something unique to Palau; however, the Palauans wanted it to look like the U.S. capitol. So there it was, its large Corinthian columns with Palauan designs etched on its stone front. Odd, but unique and lovely.

Then we went on the Wonderpool Waterfall where we were scheduled for a 40 minute hike to a spectacular view. Unfortunately, the road was full of mud holes from a recent rain. After getting stuck and having to work our way out, the driver turned around, and a change in plans took us to nearby Tabecheding Waterfall, a lovely spot, easily accessed.

Late afternoon we were back in Koror and checked into the highly-rated Palau Pacific Resort. We took a dip off the wide, sand beach before viewing the beautiful sunset from our balcony.
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The following day proved to be the highlight of our stay–we snorkeled until we dropped on Sam’s Tours snorkeling trip through the Rock Islands. Sam’s picked us up early in the morning at the resort’s dock
and we headed out. These islands are a collection of rounded limestone, foliage-covered formations. Undercut by wave action, many seem to float on the water’s surface. Channels wend their way among them; tunnels lead to secluded lagoons; paths lead to land-locked lakes, fed subterraneanly by the sea.

In a short time, we were in the water overwhelmed by dazzling corals, an artist’s pallette of color–over 500 types of hard and soft varieties thrive here. All in all, we saw fish in almost staggering numbers,
large, medium and small, coming in an array of rainbow hues. With over 1,400 species of fish, Palau was recently named Number One Underwater Wonder of the World by CEDAM–a group of marine scientists and conservationists

Most of the snorkeling spots are given colorful descriptive names–Giant Clam Beach, Lolita’s Coral Gardens and Mandarin Fish Lake, one of the few places the exquisitely beautiful Mandarin is found, decorated in an oriental design of green, blues and oranges.
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A highlight was our stop at Shark Alley which is full of black tip sharks. We saw many four to six-footers, which, thankfully, don’t attack people. Pilot fish swam in front of them and remora fish swam attached underneath with their suction-cup backs–really a sight to see. Also, we saw some cute little damselfish. The sharks did stay away, but my wife was nipped on her ankle by a damsel.

Most snorkel excpeditions take in Jellyfish Lake as we did. Closed off from the ocean, the lake has formed its own environment where jellyfish have no enemies and no need to sting. Swimming among the graceful jellies was like gliding through a porous pinkish-gold curtain. From there we went to Giant Clam Beach where about a dozen up to three-foot clams in various colorful shades are lined up along the bottom of the sea.
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Archaeology is also part of most excursions. At one point we got off the boat and hiked up to a quarry site used where the people of nearby Yap quarried stone to make their unique money known as Rai. Used since ancient times for barter, these large donut-shaped, carved disks, usually of calcite, run up to 12 feet in diameter.

Once quarried, the disks had to be transported back to Yap via rafts towed behind wind-powered canoes. The scarcity of the disks, and the effort and peril required to obtain them, made them valuable to the Yapese. At the site we saw a five foot coin on display. The large hole in the center was used to insert a tree trunk to roll it down the hill. By the way, these discs are still used for Yapese transactions.
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There were numerous relics from WWII to see on the islands. During the war, the Japanese thought that Palau would be a prime target for an allied invasion. Consequently, the islands were heavily fortified. Our captain from Sam’s had been working this area for some 30 years, so he knew all the places. He showed us bunkers and gun emplacements on the shore, and we snorkeled over sunken landing crafts and Zero airplanes. This is the perfect place for WWII history buffs.

On our final day, tired from the previous day’s strenuous activities, we decided to stay at the resort, lie around and snorkel off the beach which we thought should be good. We were correct. Right away, we encountered a good-size octopus out and about and followed him for a half-hour, watching as he changed colors from coral red to rock grey. Among an array of fish, we also came on a six-foot sea snake making his way into a rock crevice.

We spent some time exploring this deluxe international resort.with an international cast of visitors, many from Taiwan and Japan which are only a few hours away. Besides underwater sports, wind surfing,, sailing and kayaking are available to guests. A large swimming pool overlooks the ocean. As well, there are two outdoor lighted tennis courts and a well-equipped fitness center. The resort also has its own PADI five-star dive center.

The resort’s two restaurants feature Pacific Rim cuisine, local fresh seafood, US prime beef and Micronesian food specialties. The casual Coconut Terrace restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Guests have a choice of menu service or helping themselves to the buffet. Evening buffets have a theme such as Palauan, Italian and seafood, while the breakfast buffet includes traditional Japanese, American and international selections.

Practically all Palauans speak English in addition to their own unique language. They went out of their way to be helpful. We took their advice and found excellent Japanese and Indian restaurants in town. The dollar goes far here with taxis and meals a bargain. Tourism is increasing rapidly, so look to Palau while it’s still laid back and peaceful.