My wife Fern and I successfully navigated around Amsterdam and environs to celebrate our first wedding anniversary with a trip to the Netherlands, a country roughly the size of Maryland, but with about the same number of bikes as people (about 17 million).

We were fortunate to be in Amsterdam at the peak of the tulip festival. We spent ½ day at the Keukenhof tulip and flower gardens and bulb fields, which are only open two months per year (late March to late May), at the peak of the blooming season.  The world’s largest tulip fields feature the Netherlands most famous flowers in a dazzling kaleidoscope of colors.  We meandered for several hours along well-manicured paths and by ponds, struck by the vivid colors and hues with about 600 kinds of tulips in almost every color imaginable!  As we climbed up the Groningen windmill on the grounds, we saw fields of literally millions of tulips and other flowers in stunning colors stretching out over 80 acres of land.

Central Amsterdam is not huge, but the sites are spread out enough that public transportation is essential. The above ground tram system was easy for us to learn as we traveled from our hotel in the south towards Central Station in the north or east toward the Jewish cultural quarter.  Tram transport and entrance to many museums and attractions were included in our I AM AMSTERDAM passes, which we would highly recommend.  These passes can be purchased for one to four days.

Highlights and high points- (1) the museums: With the museums close together in the museum quarter, it was easy for us to museum hop for one full day.  Housed in a beautiful and recently renovated neo-Gothic neo-Renaissance building, the Rijksmuseum’s vast collection is on part with the world’s great art museums.  The English language tour was amazingly informative.  Our guide explained why Rembrandt’s The Night Watch stood out amongst his paintings in the Gallery of Honour (e.g., techniques of depth and lighting) and how the museum itself was built to showcase this large work.  With the world’s largest collection of Vincent’s works, the crowded Van Gogh Museum – through an audio tour and great signage – does a superb job to highlight his troubled life, his development as an artist through various art periods, as well as his relationships with artist contemporaries.  Although we aren’t great fans of contemporary art, we toured the smaller Stedelijk Museum and the Amsterdam Diamond Museum.   Just outside the museum quarter, we took the obligatory photos by the bigly huge I AM AMSTERDAM sign.

(2) The free walking tour: We love to go on free walking tours to learn information from the locals and the Amsterdam free walking tour did not disappoint us.  Starting in crowded Dam Square, our native guide was a wealth of information as we strolled together through the infamous Red Light District by other sites in the city center.  We learned how in Amsterdam the world’s oldest profession is essentially a “collection” of independent contractors providing sexual services for a fee, renting out their spaces of employment and providing a large percentage of fees to the city in taxes.  The most imposing site on Dam Square, the 17th century Royal Palace (formerly the City Hall) was well worth a separate visit to gaze at the Golden Age of Amsterdam with its lavish furniture and furnishings from Louis Napeleon, period paintings, white marbled floors and sculpted walls.

(3) The Jewish cultural quarter: We spent one full day focused on the many sites of our Jewish heritage, of which several are sad relics from World War 2.  Clearly the Anne Frank house is a must see, as the English language signage and audio tour fully explain the complete story of the Frank’s family secret hiding space and the tragic plight of Amsterdam Jews during World War 2 (with about 100,000 killed).  Three other museums tell the story of the prosecution of the Jews in the Netherlands between 1940 and 1945 – the National Holocaust Memorial, the National Holocaust Museum and the Dutch Resistance Museum.   We learned one particularly inspiring story of how Dutch citizens smuggled hundreds of children into hiding from a day nursery when trams blocked the view of Nazi soldiers assembling Jewish families at the Hollandse Schouwburg Theater across the street, from where they would be deported to concentration camps.  We also spent time touring the massive and majestic 17th century Portuguese Synagogue which still holds services and once was the home of the world’s largest Sephardic Jewish community.  Finally, we visited the Jewish Historical Museum which presented us with a broad picture the religious traditions of Jews in Amsterdam over many centuries, set within a complex of former 17th century synagogues.  Ironically our guide (Sem) for the fabulous free walking tour of Amsterdam was Jewish.

(4) The John and Yoko Lennon Honeymoon suite: By staying at the Hilton, we were able to view the suite where the Lennons staged their infamous week long bed in for world peace in 1969.  The suite still maintains extensive Lennon memorabilia, including one of John’s guitars, a beautiful white bed spread featuring a symbol of John and Yoko, John’s autograph on a wall and sayings on the window above the bed from their protest (hair peace, bed peace) and numerous pictures from their stay.  We were told that room 702 is available for bookings, although for many more Euros than the standard rooms!

(5) The iconic canals: Canals are a primary reason that Amsterdam is so picturesque and why it is often called the Venice of the north.  Our canal cruise provided us with a good orientation to the city as we traveled below street level along the concentric canal belts and by the two rivers (the Amstel and the Ij).   We really enjoyed looking out of our hotel room daily, watching boats of various types and sizes glide by on the Amstel canal.  We were very impressed by the historic 17th century Van Loon canal house, now open as a museum.  Most surprising to us was the size of the house alongside the Keiizersgracht canal (the Emperor’s canal) which contained a magnificent garden and a coach house.  The beauty of the historic canals led to their placement on the UNESCO world heritage list in 2010.

Some of the attractions did not live up to our expectations. The Heineken experience was juvenile and nowhere near as informative as our tour of the Coors Brewery in Colorado.  Our ½ day trip to Delft and the Hague was very disappointing as the bus did not stop in the Hague at all, we simply did a drive by of the sites – and the whirlwind tour of the pottery factory in Delft seemed geared around getting us quickly into the gift shop to make a purchase of the blue and white ceramics.

My latest visit to Las Vegas was an eye opener to the ongoing evolution of Sin City. Harrah’s Hotel & Casino, located at the center of the world famous Strip, recently spent over $30 million renovating their Valley Tower rooms and suites. Harrah’s Casino has it all: 80+ tables including craps, blackjack, roulette, and baccarat. There’s a keno lounge and a new state-of-the-art race and sports book, plus over 1,200 slots and video poker machines.  There are five daily, low buy-in tournaments in the Poker Room. There is also a nice mix of cash games.  Locals make up about 50% of the players; always the sign of a well-run poker room.

Entertainment choices abound at Harrah’s: bars, musical venues, and stage shows. There is a small spa with a salon and fitness center. A workout followed by a whirlpool and spa treatment is a perfect way to unwind.  I frequented the Zagat-rated Fulton Street Food Hall every morning for a breakfast that included freshly baked pastries. There are interesting food stations serving lunch and dinner.

Toby Keith’s, I Love This Bar & Grill, is a must for fans of country music and down-home food lovers. Live music begins at 9 PM with no cover charge.

Right outside Harrah’s door is the #1 attraction in Las Vegas, the LINQ Promenade. It was also voted the best family destination in town. It’s as if a stage set were ripped from Disneyland and plopped in the middle of The Strip. Restaurants, bars, and specialty shops line the street of this entertainment district. The centerpiece is the High Roller, the world’s largest observation wheel at 550 feet tall. Ride it at sunset for spectacular views of the Strip, all of Las Vegas, the Spring Mountains in the distance, and to experience the 2,000+ flashing, colored LED light show. The project cost $550 million to build.   (www.TheLinq.com).

Plan a couple of meals at the LINQ Promenade. Stop by Gordon Ramsay’s version of take-out fish and chips. I tried the shrimp…they were plump and perfectly fried, enhanced by a choice of dipping sauces, (www.GordonRamsayRestaurants.com). Virgil’s BBQ serves up first-rate sandwiches, plates, and burgers influenced by the regional flavors of Carolina, Texas, and Memphis.  There are 14 beers on draft to go with starters like homemade potato chips and fried pickles. (www.VirgilsBBQ.com).

Harrah’s is part of Caesar’s Entertainment’s casino brands. Go to the benefits program and sign up for discounts, specials, and upgrades (www.TotalRewards.com). You earn credits whenever you play, eat, or shop at any of their properties worldwide. Harrah’s Las Vegas’ resort fee includes: premium Wi-Fi access for, local calls, and daily fitness center access. Logon to www.Harrahs.com for reservations and information.

Thanks to the various websites for information, photos, etc.

 

Settling In: California Highway 1 is your “discovery route” to adventure.  This historic road features scenic beaches, state parks, wildlife habitats, wine regions and quaint towns throughout San Luis Obispo County.  Our destination was the hamlet of Cambria and the Cambria Pines Lodge. 

The full-service 152 room resort was built in 1927 and features 25 acres of themed gardens, meandering paths, a heated pool, plus a nature trail leading to the charming village of Cambria. A breakfast buffet is included in the price and parking and Wi-Fi are free. The rustic Fireside Lounge features a full bar, extensive wine list, appetizers, late night snacks and evening entertainment.  At the resort, the Sojourn Healing Arts Spa (www.SojournSpa.com) offers a full menu of massages, facial and body treatments. Their retail nursery is nearby and the short walk is worth it.  The Lodge’s motto, “Your Place to Dream,” is spot on. For more, go to www.CambriaPinesLodge.com.

What to Do: Walk the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve forest loop or bluff trails. Download the map at www.CambriaRanchWalks.com. Wander Cambria’s East and West Villages and prowl the art galleries, garden shops, antique stores and boutiques. Drop into the Cambria Historical Society (www.CambriaHistoricalsociety.com). It spotlights 150 years of growth. While there, pick up the self-guided walking tour.

Take time to visit the Veterans Memorial in the center of town, dedicated on Memorial Day in 2011. The flag monument and encircling engraved bricks honor the service and sacrifice of veterans, with emphasis on home town military.

Where to eat: Lots of excellent farm-to-table restaurants in Cambria. Here’s my quick guide…bon appetite! Robin’s Restaurant, www.RobinsRestaurant.com, is located in a restored adobe home in the East Village. It features charming gardens and a cozy setting. Menu picks: lamb skewers appetizer and cioppino for an entrée.

Linn’s Restaurant and Gift Shop on Main Street, www.LinnsFruitBin.com, is famous for its olallieberry pie, jams and baked goods. You can’t miss with their chicken pot pie or sandwiches on house-made bread for your meal. The full page dessert menu awaits your final decision. Wash your meal down with olallieberry lemonade.

The intimate Black Cat Bistro, www.BlackCatBistro.com, has won the Wine Spectators Award of Excellence nine years in a row. Begin with the seared romaine salad, move on to the sea scallops with corn pudding and finish up with salted chocolate caramel pot de crème.

I’ve just scratched the surface of the California Highway 1 Discovery Route. There are 101 miles of adventure including 10 towns, beaches galore, water sports, hiking, museums, farms, vineyards, Hearst Castle, golf, bike paths and a dizzying array of annual events. For more information, logon to www.Highway1DiscoveryRoute.com.

Thanks to various websites for information, photos, etc.

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Large resort hotels. Check. Three to four cruise ships a day. Check. Beach bars galore. Check. Extensive nightlife. Check. Chain restaurants. Check. High end jewelry and clothing stores. Check. Casino Gambling. Check. Those are just a few of the things you won’t find on the Caribbean island of Nevis. And all the more reason to go there.

So yes, it’s a better description of St. Kitts, Nevis’ much more commercialized sister island, a 45-minute ferry boat ride away. And although Nevis may be synonymous with tranquility, that does not mean it’s boring. Far from it.

Case in point, we started our visit with a Pub Crawl from Nisbet Plantation, an inn founded on a former sugar mill plantation. But these are not the usual beach bars most tourists frequent. Instead they’re the local rum shops, small shacks along the road that seldom have a sign on them and rarely attract any drive-by traffic. My husband and I regularly seek them out when in the Caribbean because we relish the sense of island flavor and the excuse to talk to laid-back locals, but we’ve never seen them part of an organized activity.

Being with a large crowd detracts from that intimacy a bit but it nonetheless is a wonderful opportunity to feel comfortable going off the beaten path. Each of the five bars has its own ambience — or in most cases, lack of one — which only adds to its appeal. As one imbiber exulted: “This is great because we’re visiting places we would never go to on our own.” Not sure how the local residents felt about the influx of tourists but everyone was welcoming and eager to engage in conversation.

The Pub Crawl was a perfect segue to the Funky Monkey Tour, a three-hour ATV tour with Waz who kept us all enthralled throughout the wild ride. First stop — Lover’s Beach, where Waz said, “They don’t promote nude bathing but…” The fact that there were no people on it at all precluded any prurient interest on my part. Lack of people was to become a theme.

Next stop, more historical, less lascivious. The Thomas Cottle Church, built in 1822 and operated as the first integrated church on the island. Plantation owner Cottle believed that he and his slaves should worship together, not a common practice in those times. Okay, the inspirational part of the tour.

We traveled over a lot of roads that no self-respecting normal car would ever consider driving over. When I asked the name of the road, Waz responded, “The ‘I’m Lost’ Road.” At one point, after an exceptionally rocky part, he forewarned us that the next stretch was going to get really bumpy. We were like, “HUH?” I’m not just talking back roads here but trails glutted with rocks and roots and gulleys so as to be seemingly untraversible — or so I thought until they weren’t. But the views at the end of the stomach-churning drive were worth it.  And the monkeys scurrying in the bushes provided additional distraction when needed.

Hard to categorize the total appeal of Funky Monkey. Part nature tour, part exciting adventure, part history lesson – all intermingled in rapid succession. Oh and did I mention the rum punch out of the cooler in back?

Onto another stop at Nisbet where remnants of the 18th Century plantation windmill greet you upon arrival. Waz related the custom that if you get married on the property — and there are very few more beautiful settings — they plant a coconut tree with your names on it. And, of course, you’re welcome to come back anytime to watch it grow. How’s that for a marketing ploy?

We visited a local wild herd of sheep, which not surprisingly were missing the usual wool covering. Little warm in the islands for that. Which makes them almost indistinguishable from goats except, we learned, goats have tails that go up; sheep down. In my hometown of Washington, DC, there’s a restaurant called Tail-Up Goat. Now I understand it.

When I queried Waz as to how far our lodging was, he replied, “Nowhere on Nevis is far.” And upon actually seeing another car on the road in front of him, he lamented, “Traffic? In Nevis?”

And indeed, rush hour is more likely to be a herd of goats or a family of donkeys than another car. Making up for the lack of cars are an abundance of donkeys, monkeys, goats, sheep and chickens. Another reminder of Nevis’s laid-back charm.

Waz took us to a hidden area of woods that he claimed was his private sanctuary; no trails, no paths, no clearing. And once again, no people. Since we had seen not a soul on any beach or other destination, I was beginning to wonder where the 11000 Nevisians were. This is not an island where you feel over-run by tourists! Or people, for that matter. Rum, on the other hand, was still flowing freely. Also monkeys. There are 30,000 of THEM.

Exciting adventure #3 on this island that allegedly has nothing on it? A nature hike with Baba who provided lots of information about the flora and fauna as we walked. Unfortunately, I hate flora and fauna. I was in it for the exercise so my eyes glazed over pretty quickly. We walked about two feet and smelled four plants. There are plants to cure every ailment: hangover, mosquito bites, toothaches, constipation. I was beginning to feel a little ill myself…

But looking up from the medicinal plants are bushes and trees and leaves of white, orange, yellow and red flowers among towering trees all vying for attention with the medicine cabinet below, We were walking through the Golden Rock Estate, a sugar mill plantation from 1801-1815, the remnants of which are integrated into the buildings and grounds. An old in-ground windmill, we were told, is the highlight of the honeymoon suite — having the earth move takes on a whole new meaning…

So much greenery as to encapsulate every variation of the color in the largest box of Crayola crayons — and every shape and size of multiple leaves extracted from the world’s largest protractor. It’s like being in your own personal botanical garden. The entire setting is the very definition of romantic! As we climbed higher and higher, however, I found myself longing for more medicinal plant information — urinary tract infection anyone?

So yes, most people coming to Nevis envision living by the following five rules: 1. Pack several books. 2. Take a deep breath, exhale, relax.  3. Order a rum drink.  4. Try to forget what’s happening in the rest of the world.  5.  Repeat.  But be open to my own Rule #6. Be prepared to have a hell of a lot of fun! For more information, visit nevisisland.com, nisbetplantation.com/blog/pattersons-pub-crawl and funkymonkeytours.com.

We don’t enjoy big cities but we had to see the capital of all New Zealand, Wellington, a big, thriving and pretty city with ocean bay all around it.  We are always drawn to capitol buildings and docks and both were in the City Center, and Sunday was a perfect time to go with no traffic.  This was the last day of Christmas holidays and parking is always free after 6 pm. Days are long so there is plenty of daylight till about 9:30 p.m.  We enjoyed strolling over the beautiful capitol grounds with the Capitol, Parliament, and the Cathedral. Gigantic trees spread their branches widely, some with old, gnarled arms in full bloom with gorgeous, fluffy red flowers. Seeing many families having fun on these beautiful grounds, we reminisced of when we were here with our two year old daughter many years ago.

2. Wellington NZ Executive Wing of Parliament The Beehive 372K

We walked along the Battery Docks for a good while, but it grew cold and windy. This city is on a long peninsula at the bottom of the North Island of New Zealand between the very large Cook Strait and Wellington Harbour, where ships and ferries are constantly bringing people and goods to New Zealand. It was discovered by the British in 1770 when Captain James Cook was attempting to circumnavigate the world on the Pacific Ocean. He stayed here 100 days and climbed one of the mountains, which form the backdrop of Wellington at the water’s edge. He named this body of water Cook Strait and claimed it for  Great Britain.  Three years later he returned and sent a group of sailors from his ship in search of grass on one of the small islands to combat scurvy. The 10 men were killed and cannibalized by Maori Tribesmen!

3 three-hour ferry ride 416K

But New Zealanders of every type are very friendly now. The Maori live all over the country now and have pride of their heritage, which everyone respects. New Zealand tourism adopted from the Maori language the motto Kia Ora, or Welcome, which we heard everywhere. Almost all the names of streets and many businesses have Maori names and children have been relearning this native heritage and language in all schools since the 70’s, although for several decades prior to that it was forbidden.

4. Tatima Maori warriors 212K

We found food in all the restaurants and cafes to be very expensive by comparison to other countries we have visited and to the USA, so we frequently stopped at the New World Super Market and bought breakfast and fruit, which saves almost exactly half of the price of the very same items in restaurants. TV dinners and prepared foods are available and motels rooms are little studio apartments with small refrigerator, microwave, sink, and often a two-burner stove. All the utensils and dishes are supplied also. Packets of instant coffee, sugar, instant hot chocolate, and tea bags are standard supplies and the quick boiling pot for water is amazing. Each time we checked-in the manager would give us a small bottle of milk for coffee or tea. All accommodations we reserved through Bookings.com have private shower, toilet, sink, hair dryer, soap, etc. and very comfortable beds, TV DVD & free WiFi. This is a very modern country and one of the youngest in the world. Everyone is so friendly and helpful. But beware those from the USA will find that driving is not an easy adjustment because it is on the “wrong” side of the street with steering wheel and gear shifts also “other-handed,” and crossing a street by foot is downright dangerous because we forget and look the wrong way! Roadways are two-lane with no shoulders, very winding and slow going, although they are in good condition throughout North and South Islands.

5 Interislander Ferry on Cook Strait NZ 388K

The crossing Cook Strait on one of the huge ferries from Wellington Harbor on North Island or Picton on South Island is really fun for us Central Texans who have no bodies of ocean for hundreds of miles. We watched in amazement as a 28-car train was unloaded from the belly of the ferry, where there is a railway track. A dozen 18-wheel trucks were also unloaded from the same ferry’s upper deck! When you are not accustomed to this it is really a thrilling sight. The pleasant and comfortable three-hour crossing for us with our rental car was fun.  Although December and January are summer in the Southern Hemisphere and whales and dolphins come here to breed, we were not lucky this time to see them. The meals on board are really good and not too expensive.

6. cars on ferry NZ 400K

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Cookhttp://www.wellingtonnz.com/http://www.newzealand.com/us/campaign/book-your-new-zealand-holiday-now/?cid=p:sem:us:FY17:Branded_New%20Zealand_Exact:Google:Branded_New%20Zealand_Exact&kwid=new%20zealand&gclid=Cj0KEQiAwrbEBRDqxqzMsrTGmogBEiQAeSE6ZY9lc-fZcVJpp6cRCFYQhWC5lBsAXt4iXOr-KBxoGV4aAvA58P8HAQhttps://www.google.com/search?q=maori+people&rlz=1C1EODB_enUS573US581&oq=Maori&aqs=chrome.2.69i57j69i61j69i59l3j69i61.7257j0j4&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cook_Strait

 

Immense waves crashed against black volcanic rock on the wild stretch of beach seen from Highway One. I was on my way to Piedras Blancas three miles north of the infamous Hearst Castle. Each year thousands of elephant seals haul on shore to birth their young. Friends of the Elephant Seals have built a boardwalk that allows easy viewing of the blubbery matrons and their helpless offspring. An ear piercing pandemonium had set in the day I arrived in late January. A King tide was thundering onto the shore, taking out the beach and stressing the females. Their babies cannot yet swim. It takes them six weeks to gather enough strength and bulk to enter the sea and fend for themselves. At that point their mothers, having lost thousands of pounds in the process of bringing them into the world, return to the ocean depths to feed. They will return in the summer to molt and rest up for the next round.

#2 Piedras Biancas Light Station

To see this spectacle, pull into the parking lot on the side of Hwy 1, but if you want to see these behemoths playing in tide pools, go to the parking lot about a 100 yards north of the main event and take a stroll on the bluffs. This pleasant meander through grasslands is part of the California Coastal Trail. In the distance is the Piedras Blancas Light Station, first illuminated in 1875. Life was difficult on this isolated point jutting into rough seas that brought many a ship to ruin. Electricity did not come to the families who home-schooled their children until 1939. Docent-led tours take you on an easy stroll of the grounds that are choked with wildflowers in spring.

#3 Docent Sharing Whale Trail board

The light house has been selected as a designated viewing spot on the newly initiated Whale Trail. Six sites along the Central Coast from Avila to Big Sur have been added to the list that begins in British Columbia and will extend all the way to Baja in Mexico. The practice of identifying the best places to spot spouts on the coast is an effort on the part of several non-profits to bring awareness to the public of the migrations of these creatures that can be witnessed from land. The hope is that it will generate sensitivity to the needs of the creatures to survive in our modern world with congested shipping lanes and pollutants in our oceans. The placards on the Whale Trail tell viewers what marine life they can expect to see at that point and information on how to identify the various marine mammals.

#4 San Simeon Pier

The pier in San Simeon Bay is on the Whale Trail as well as being the home of the Coastal Discovery Center. Docents take kids to the end of the pier, drop a line in the water to take a sample, and then place what they collect under a microscope to let the kids see the squiggling life forms in one drop of water. This is an effort to encourage stewardship of our precious oceans and the creatures who live in them. Locals want to show off their gorgeous region, and they love to share the trails and their knowledge of flora and fauna at no charge, but they are encouraging stewardship travel. You can pick up a Stewardship Traveler Clean-Up Kit and appreciation tote bags at Avila Beach, Cayucos, and Cambria visitor centers.

#5 San Sebastions General Store

The Sebastion General Store (built 1852) that once provided goods to whalers and fisherman working in the San Simeon Bay is now a wine tasting room and a great place to fuel up. The flavorful beef in the giant hamburgers served here comes from the Hearst Ranch. In 2007 the Hearst family sold this stretch of wild coast to the State of California preserving its rich history and rugged beauty for all of us to enjoy.

#6 Windswept Bluffs

My favorite stop on the Whale Trail is the pier at Cayucos. Not just because of the fun walk to tide pools across windswept bluffs to the north and viewing migrating whales and playful sea otters, but because it is home to Schooners Restaurant. An Oysters Rockefeller starter, followed by saucy seafood pasta, paired with a crisp chardonnay and a front row seat for the sunset is the perfect end to a day exploring highlights on the Highway 1 Discovery Route

Highway 1 Discovery Route http://highway1discoveryroute.com/. Whale Trail http://thewhaletrail.org/.

 

Having said our goodbyes to those opulent and bewitching hills of Monserrat in Spain, we were finally on our way to Lourdes in France. The majority of us had never ridden a cable car so it was quite a surprise to us that we had no choice but to take the ride, as it was the only way to get to our coach which was parked at the bottom of those very steep hills. Since all that excitement was over, we were all so ready to relax, let down our hair and just enjoy a peaceful drive, with absolutely no idea of the harbinger around the corner. We had no inclination that we had just left what was, on reflection, more like a mole hill as we headed to the mountains of resplendence.

The Pyrenees Mountains (21)

At first we saw only one snow capped mountain from afar so we were all very eager to snap as many photos of it as possible. As our coach started ascending the first hill, it never dawned on any of us that this was just the beginning of a totally awesome experience and we were about to have a panoramic view of definitely, the most beautiful sights we had ever seen in our entire lives, the incredible Pyrenees Mountains.

The Pyrenees Mountains (9)

I later learnt that these mountains form the natural border between Spain and France and completely engulfs the nation of Andorra. This unforgettable drive was very exciting, not only because of the unbelievable sights but also because of the ebullience of joyful and fearful reactions from the ladies accompanying us. There were shrieks of fear and gasps of “Oooohs and Ahhhhs” at the fetching sceneries that surrounded us. Because the bus was now very high on the mountains and the roads were pretty narrow, turning the corners gave the impression that we were about to go over the precipices.

The Pyrenees Mountains (27)

It felt like we were on that roller coaster ride which most of us would never have dared to try. I am sure, like me, all the other guys wanted to join in the ladies’ verbal outbursts, but we just could not let them to know that we too were scared and completely speechless! (OK, we all wanted to scream like a chorus of little girls and it took the strength of Samson to keep our mouths shut!). We were all going crazy, some jumping from seats to seats to get many shots of those lovely snow capped mountains and all the other exquisite sceneries which were on both sides of our coach.

The Pyrenees Mountains (12)

I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that this was my favorite part of our entire trip, which started in Portugal and ended in Italy. At one point I actually wondered if it was all a dream and I would awake to find this was just an illusion. It was such an epiphany to think I never knew there was such a comely place on earth but this was very real and I just wanted this cynosure to last forever. Whatever came after did not matter to me because this was worth all the money we spent for our Pilgrimage.

The Pyrenees Mountains (43)

We stopped for lunch and some leisure time at a small outdoor restaurant with the lagniappe of a halcyon lagoon in its backyard. The ambiance around was so wonderful I could not help but wonder what it would be like to live there and wake each morning with such fetching visions to behold. For me, it will be like taking a daily glimpse into a piece of Heaven. Oh well, we could but dream but I firmly believe that nothing, nothing is impossible!

 

In New Zealand North Island State Highway 27 from the north to Rotorua is a beautiful road of wineries and dense conifer forests mixed with jungles of tall jungle fern trees.  We stopped just inside Rotorua to see Rainbow Springs Nature Park, a magical tropical forest with flora and fauna preserved and identified. It is a GREAT Family place for an educational preview of New Zealand’s natural environs, unlike anywhere else on earth. We expected to quickly look through this learning center, but it was so much fun and the exhibits were so attractive and informative we stayed half a day, FASCINATED and in WONDER.

2 the springs 450K

At first we had our photo taken with the adorable native Kiwi bird, (which was magically processed into the photo by the photographer) since the endangered Kiwi birds are nocturnal and very shy. Our trail led us to a series of glass terraria, each beautifully set as a natural environment for each of the herpeto-fauna that live within. Geckos and skinks are the only species of these natives of New Zealand and these species are found nowhere else on earth. There are also four very rare types of frogs native to New Zealand. These primitive natives have changed very little over the last 70 million years.  Fascinating signs, which even young children can understand and enjoy, explained the habits, foods, and life cycles of these unusual beings.

3 living dinosaur 450K

We even saw several tuatara, actual living creatures whose line dates from the dinosaur era, which is the only species of lizard native to New Zealand. Tuatara are green lizards, about the size of my fore arm, which can change colors for camouflage. They take years to reach maturity and there are only about 100,000 living ones today, the oldest living species on earth. We could see the actual third eye in the middle of its high forehead on one tuatara, who looked very sleepy.

In the Aviary there are large areas enclosed with tall fences and planted with small trees and other natural species of the understory. Each of these areas had several kinds of birds native to this country, some of which migrate to New Zealand seasonally. In the South Pacific, the spring/summers coincide with fall/winter in the Northern hemisphere, so many species of birds come here to escape the cold.

We saw beautiful parrots with bright red and yellow and green feathers which enable them to hide within jungle flowers and green leaves. Adults and children enjoy a wonderful Trained Bird Show where trainers have native birds and African gray parrots do tricks on command, rewarded by seeds each time. This is a MUST SEE show for families, and you may want to volunteer to help with an act.

Next we walked into a totally dark room, which is the daytime viewing area for kiwi birds, since they only are active at night. It took a while for our eyes to adjust, but finally we could make out the creatures, which are about the size of a chicken and also flightless.  They are in big glassed-in areas with a natural setting of trees, soil, and under-brush. We could see them moving around… long legs and long slightly curved beak, reaching into soil for bugs. One kept going around a tree in circles as long as we watched, which means it is upset about something. If you are lucky enough to walk in the forest at night and listen carefully you may hear or see these very shy little natives. They only live in New Zealand.  Don’t be fooled by their look-alike wannabe, the weka bird, which is active in the daytime along some roads.

4 child at pond

The total area of our Rainbow Springs trail was like a jungle walk through all the different varieties of plants native to New Zealand, and many of these are unique to this country. Signs taught much about the plants of this South Pacific paradise and the uses for them.  We found answers to many questions we have had as we hiked in wonder through the beautiful forest trails of North and South Islands.  As native Texans and with years of hiking also on other continents we are always wary and on the lookout for dangerous animals… bears, wolves, poisonous frogs and snakes, etc.  The New Zealand forests are a dense mixture of jungle-like plants and tall evergreens along with many broad leaf trees, making us hyper-alert to possible dangers.  But we learned at Rainbow Springs that we can walk

anywhere without fears: there are NO snakes in all of New Zealand, and the only native mammals are bats, which are nocturnal. All the other mammals were brought here by settlers. Some of these foreign species have become dangerous to indigenous species of plants and the birds. Possums and ferrets, rabbits and other rodents eat bird eggs and plants and these varmints have no predators here. It is a perfect example of why no one should transport any living thing to an environment where it is not native. New Zealand is constantly fighting the problem of these foreign species of both plants and animals harming the natural environment of these beautiful islands.

5 chamelion 450K

Don’t miss the gift shop, where you will find many New Zealand souvenirs of all types and prices. Kids enjoy browsing and you can purchase your photo with a kiwi, and buy a Maori Tiki, the symbol of creation. Our last stop at Rainbow Springs was a fun boat ride through time, where we learned New Zealand is the newest land on earth. We traveled through the Jurassic Era and saw a computerized Alliosaurus dinosaur. Then we floated through the simulated arrival of Maori people about 1,000 years ago. Next we came to the arrival of British settlers 200 years ago. Then our boat was pulled up a steep water track and we had a fun splashy ride down to our landing.  You might get a wet spray in the first or second seats. It was just very happy family fun. We really enjoyed Rainbow Springs, and it is definitely not just for kids. We highly Rainbow Springs as a perfect place to start your New Zealand adventure, as it will inform you so much about what you will see while there.

6 RAINBOW SPRINGS splash 450K

NOTE: Since we returned from New Zealand scientists have discovered it is actually not two islands but part of the newly named Zealandia, earth’s eighth continent!

http://www.rotoruanz.com/

http://www.rainbowsprings.co.nz/?gclid=Cj0KEQiAwrbEBRDqxqzMsrTGmogBEiQAeSE6ZYRptOMYQwng0aU05mfYgeUfQKz6JaTR_1JKVRWTAEEaAmC08P8HAQ

http://www.newzealand.com/us/

http://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/reptiles-and-frogs/

http://www.doc.govt.nz/nztcs

http://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/kiwi/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weka

http://nzbirdsonline.org.nz/species/weka

http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/16/travel/zealandia-new-continent-discovered/

There is nothing easier than cruising roundtrip from your hometown; no TSA lines or airline delays and, once onboard, you immediately begin your vacation. That’s what it was like sailing from San Diego on Holland America Line (HAL for short). The Mexican Riviera was our destination for a seven day cruise on the MS Westerdam. Now, 10 HAL ships make 37 visits, positioning it as San Diego’s #1 cruise line.

Aboard Ship: Although days at sea can be leisurely, there is plenty to do. There are two pools, Jacuzzis, digital workshops, duty-free shopping, the Greenhouse Spa & Salon, dance classes and Club HAL for kids, plus an ocean view state-of-the art fitness center.  A newsletter is delivered to your cabin each evening outlining the next day’s activities.  You can always choose a spot on the deck, in quiet nooks or at the well-stocked library to read and relax. The Westerdam boasts a daily buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner on deck. The main dining room is also open for all three meals.  There are several snack, coffee and dessert outlets.  Live music venues, bars and the Main Stage Show Lounge are scattered throughout the ship.

Top Picks Onboard: In addition to the restaurants mentioned previously, the Pinnacle Grill, “An Evening at Le Cirque” and the family-style Italian bistro, Caneletto are worth a try.   Note: there is a dining surcharge at each. Don’t miss Martini Madness or the classical music duo. The All-Star Band at BB King’s Blues Club literally rocked the boat.

Guadalupe

Ports of Call: The ship offers a wide range of tours. Here are a few suggestions if you prefer to explore on your own.

Cabo San Lucas: This is the only port that requires a tender. Wander around town to sightsee and shop. At the marina, there are bars, restaurants, clothing and curio kiosks plus a large mall. Take a water taxi to Los Arcos for an up-close view of the rock formations at the tip of Baja.

Mazatlan: Follow the painted blue line from the dock to the Old City. Along the way, English speaking volunteers explain the city’s history and answer questions. After a 15 minute stroll, there is the Symphony Hall, Central Plaza, the Central Market with over 250 vendors and Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.

HAL1

Puerto Vallarta: Take a taxi into town and stroll the Malecon. Enjoy outdoor art and shops. Stop for a margarita and grilled shrimp on a skewer (a specialty of the area). There is an upscale mall directly across the street from the cruise terminal.

Travel Tips: Don’t take taxis parked at the ship.  Go outside the terminal area; they are less expensive, but negotiate with the driver. Stop by an OXXO store (in all ports) if you need bottled water, soda or other convenience items. The US dollar is accepted everywhere. Take small bills for purchases or you will end up with pesos for change.  One peso is worth about a nickel. Wear good walking shoes. Don’t forget to pack your passport.

Los Arcos - Cabo San Lucas

Passenger Friendly Policies: Efficient process for embarkation and disembarkation; the option of open seating allows passengers to dine at their leisure; one bottle of wine can be brought aboard without charge; tips are automatically added to drinks; a daily hotel service charge covers gratuities, eliminating decisions at the end of the trip.

About the Ship: The Westerdam is approximately three football fields in length (935 feet). There are 958 cabins, including 162 suites and 477 with balconies.  The roundtrip cruise covers 2,162 nautical miles.  The five diesel generators and single gas turbine produce 84,000 HP.  Daily, 550 pounds of potatoes, 280 pounds of butter and 2,200 eggs are consumed.  On formal night, Chef Owen serves up 500 pounds of beef tenderloin and 700 pounds of lobster.

A cruise on HAL is a perfect vacation for couples, kids and families; choices for everyone. For information on their worldwide itineraries, logon to www.HollandAmerica.com or call 1–877–932–4259.

OXXO

Thanks to various websites for information, photos, etc.