Caribbean Cruise

My husband and I decided to forgo a holiday gift exchange, and instead book a cruise as our gift to each other.  We travel often for work and adventure, but rarely do we completely let go with no calculated schedule.  At least not me since I research and plan our itineraries.  A seven-day Caribbean cruise in March aboard the Norwegian Dawn seemed perfect. Although our home state, Florida has many cruise departures, we chose Puerto Rico as our starting point.  Less time at sea and more time on the islands.

In San Juan, we rented a car and drove to the Serafina, a boutique beach hotel.  It’s located in Condado, the resort area of the city and perfect for staying close to the hotel at night with easy access to our car for day trips.  Since Hurricane Maria crime in the city had increased, but this area seemed safe with attractive restaurants.

“Let’s drive to the west coast,” my husband said the next morning. “It’s only an hour and forty minutes.”

I looked out our beach view and then down at the sunbathers by the pool.

“We have a two and a half days.  I’d like to spend one of those days in old town, but if you want to do a drive today, that’s fine.”  I secretly wanted to hang by the pool, something I rarely did.  “Why the west coast?”

“They have whales, and the waves and surf should be pretty big.”

“I’m game.” I said, knowing whale spotting wouldn’t happen so randomly.  “We can have lunch there.”

riconWell over three hours later of stop and go traffic we arrived in Ricon, a small but cute surfer hangout.  I was starving, irritated and ready to get out of the car. We stopped at a hilltop restaurant, luckily the food and drink amazing.

“Did you spot any whales?”  I asked after a while.  “Tomorrow, we stay closer to home.”

I got to know old town from my morning jogs.  We explored the fort and surrounding shops, had a leisurely pace and enjoyed the rest of our stay in Puerto Rico prior to boarding our ship.

biminibarOn the ship, we discovered the Bimini Bar on the top deck, aft overlooking the pool. Ironically, we were on the cruise to get away from some drama we have at our island house in Bimini.  It became our favorite bar where we could drink, smoke and meet new friends.  On our first day at sea, I sun bathed below it as I read, listened to live bands and swam in the pool.

At our first port of call, Barbados, we had no plans except possibly exploring the island by scooter. We walked through Bridgetown, an unattractive, busy port with our google map set on scooters for hire.  It led us to a questionable part of town, so we hailed a taxi.  After finding out the place closed our taxi driver, quite outspoken about deplorable conditions of Barbados economy, offered to drive us wherever we wanted to go.

“I’d like to see monkey’s,” I said.  “Or some history.”

“Well, I can’t guarantee monkeys since they’re wild.  But I recommend Gun Hill Signal Station for the views and history.”  He said with elegance.

It was worth the visit, so peaceful and full of information.  Next he suggested a good place for lunch only a 40 minute drive to the east coast, the wild coast.  The vegetarian choices were abundant, something I didn’t expect on the islands.  The scenery equally impressive.  Our driver pointed out a monkey crossing the road on our return drive, and he made it clear they were considered pests among the locals.  He was full of facts and opinions, and I liked his honesty.  Over lunch we learned he lived in Connecticut for a decade, but he’s truly Barbadian and loves his beloved island.

The following day, Antigua was a warm welcome.  An adorable port with plenty of shops, and friendly faces.  We found a scooter rental from a nice Canadian couple, turned local.  With map in hand, we set off sightseeing.  Up and down hills from St. Johns to historic Nelson’s Dockyard in English Harbour.  The marina was full of mega yachts and sailboats from around the world, admiring the view we sat for a beer.  Afterwards, we meandered through the rainforest along scenic Fig Tree road.  I felt free.  Our scooter hugged the coastline as I glimpsed at views of the turquoise sea, eventually finding our way back to the busy port.  It was a fine day indeed, and Antigua became my favorite port of call.

In St. Kitts I ran on shore, taking a break from the monotonous treadmill.  I’d been to the island previously, so I didn’t feel a need to see or do anything.  We took a taxi to a fort with a great view of the island, shopped at the port and chatted with others at the Bimini Bar.  Some never left the ship, while others ran to meet the last boarding call.  We fell in between the two extremes.

“So what are you doing tomorrow?” Someone asked.

“The airport beach.”  I said without hesitation.  “It’s a must see, they have YouTube video’s if you haven’t heard of it.”

“You’re the second one to say that,” she said.  “I guess I’ll get off the ship and check it out.”

I looked forward to our stop in St. Maarten with its famous airport at Maho Beach.  Jets arriving and departing so close, its wake sandblasting tourists below.  From the tiki bar we watched some tumble in the sand.  We spent hours observing, sipping and eating while checking arrival times for the larger jets. It was fun.  Prior to our afternoon stop we’d rented a car and drove a good portion of the island.  The damage from hurricane Maria was noticeable at the north tip, and traffic gridlocked leading up to Maho Bay.

stthomasOur last island St. Thomas, part of the US Virgin Islands, did not disappoint.  I sipped coffee while watching boats scoot about from our balcony.  Some sailboats seemed permanently anchored, and I felt in full vacation mode.  I wondered if the sailboats had to relocate from time to time to avoid fees.  After all they’re on prime property with a marvelous view.  We disembarked before noon and took a shuttle downtown, a short ten minute ride.  So many jewelry stores, but I didn’t need gems or diamonds.

“Free gift.” Several vendors called out as I passed.

I browsed a few, looking for a watch I’d seen with a certain brand and style in mind.  I didn’t find it.  We did stumble onto a quaint lunch spot.

“I’m craving a veggie burger.”  I told my husband prior to looking at the menu.

“Ha, you’re in luck.” He gloated.

Afterwards, we checked out a local art market and found our way back to the port.  We took a skyride to the top of a mountain for a good view.  A great way to overcome my fear of heights.  My hands sweated. The wind blew our hanging cage, but the view was priceless.cruiseship

Departure day was a full day of travel from the San Juan port to the airport with lots of waiting in between for our flight to Miami. We flew on a 737 Max, the same day and type of the one that crashed in Ethiopia.  My heart goes out to those on the plane and their family members.  It could have been anyone of those planes and I understand why they’re currently grounded.

Prague, Gotham City.

prague1Also known as the city of a hundred spirals, Prague’s architecture, history and energy has awed me since my first visit in 1991, and it certainly didn’t disappoint during my recent visit.

 

In December 1989 Czechoslovakia gained independence from the soviet union. Previously under communist rule since 1948, citizens feared persecution.  They were intimidated, interrogated, and imprisoned at the will of the secret police.  I toured Russia and many Eastern European cities after the dissolution of the USSR,  when a renewed independence seemed to prevail, albeit a slow and desolate one.  My most vivid memory was enjoying local musicians playing the Doors and other American classics along the iconic Charles Bridge. At a nearby cafe a friend and I sipped a cocktail while taking in the surrounding music, statues and spirals.  Not many tourists or tour buses existed then, in fact even though the vibe seemed good, the streets were fairly empty.  I bought a Bohemia T-shirt and cherished my limited visit, vowing to return in the future.p5

p1Our quaint hotel was located near the popular Wenceslas Square, lined with restaurants, shops, and hotels. We had a view of the Prague National Museum which unfortunately was closed for a few months of renovation.  We dined at a traditional Czech restaurant and booked a guided bus and walking tour for the following day.

My morning run through the city and along Charles Bridge ranks among the top ten.  The bridge was not crowded at that hour, but strangely Asian brides and grooms posed with professional photographers all around old town, the castle and the bridge.  I wondered what marketing they did in Asia for wedding photos in Prague.  My run became longer than I’d planned when I found myself lost while trying to find our hotel.  I have jogged cities around the world but this was a first, the trapezoid layout seemed a bit off of the normal grid.  Complicating the matter, I had forgotten the name of our hotel.  I had to call my husband and put it into my phone for GPS tracking.  I made it back for a quick shower before our 10:00 tour.

prague3Our excursion took us through town with a fifteen-minute van ride followed by a two-hour walking tour.  Awesome for me, not so much for my husband with an arthritic foot.  We started at the impressive Prague Castle, where many tour groups gathered.  Luckily we were a small group.  The castle complex is quite large, our guide covered the history and architecture while not venturing inside for a more in-depth view.  This was perfect for our first full day in Prague as a good general overview.  After the castle we landed at Charles Bridge, my favorite I cannot get enough of landmark.

 

It was so crowded we lost our tour guide until the other side where we randomly ran into our group again near the famous astronomical clock.  From my past visit, I clearly remembered the medieval clock located in old town square.  On the hour a mechanical parade the twelve apostles sets in motion other events such as a skeleton striking time, a rotating calendar and astronomical dial.  Considering when it was built, it was impressive to watch.  Myth has it that if the clock is neglected the city would suffer.  I hoped the myth was not true since the clock was not working and under renovation during our recent visit.

p8Our tour ended in old town square, a great place to end a tour with open air restaurants great for people watching which we did while dining.  Afterwards, we walked meandering streets full of quaint shops, churches and museums. We visited an interesting sex museum followed by a church visit to admire the architecture, alters and paintings.

The following day we opted for a hop on/off bus to just sit and listen while admiring the view, not getting off until we had the full loop, stopping just shy of our hop on point. My mom texted me the previous night to ask if I visited the infant of Prague.

“No, what’s that?”

“I remember saying prayers to the infant of Prague when I was little.”  She said.  “Your grandma used to tell us about it.”

p6I adored and loved my grandma dearly, so I decided I must visit, although I’m not religious myself.  I also wanted to get a photo for my mother who prayed to the infant.  It happened to be within walking distance to our hop off point.  The church holding the statue wasn’t overrun with tourists, in fact it seemed rather quiet and humble.  Inside, devout Christians prayed, and a small line lead to a passage in front of the statue for a prayer or picture.  Although its origins are unknown, the miniature statue has survived many wars and has become symbol for devotees worldwide.  Many who have prayed to infant Jesus claim miraculous healings and blessings as a result.  His clothes are changed seasonally according to liturgical tradition.

The neighborhood was off the beaten path and we decided to walk around and explore.  My husband, Brad, and I happened upon a pilot bar, and as pilots we had to check it out.  It was a bar designed like a 737, complete with a simulator.  My husband sat in the cockpit with his co-pilot/instructor, as a flight attendant brought me a drink to watch from the front row.  After a briefing, he took off and flew the virtual reality-based simulator.  Through the windows, I watched the control tower and ramps pass by, and then we were in the clouds.  His landing was great and then he did a night flight, and a few more flights in different environments.  The instructor, a captain of a 737, shared stories of flying into difficult countries and complex scenarios.  It was entertaining and educational.

Once outside I recognized where we were and it seemed easier to walk back to our hotel, instead of waiting for the bus.  Later that evening, an Indian restaurant near our hotel was excellent dinner choice.

We realized at the airport that we’d be flying back to New York on the 787 Dreamliner, the newest plane in the Polish Airlines fleet.  In first class we had plenty of room, were well fed, and each seat folded down into a twin bed.  A perfect end to our brief visit to Gotham City.p2

 

Croatia and its fortified cities along the Adriatic.

croatia12We landed in Dubrovnik around noon after an evening stop in Dublin to break up the long flight from Florida.  Dublin was fun as we pub hopped in the afternoon and evening with an early awaking for a three-hour flight to Croatia.  Upon landing I immediately felt the Mediterranean climate, and the dry scrub brush mountains reminded me of California. We rented a car and drove to a sea-side town for a lovely lunch at a gastropub. A small citrus arugula salad and a local beer was the perfect choice after hitting the pubs in Dublin the night prior.

first view of dbrovnikWinding roads along the Adriatic and through the mountains led us to a scenic view above old town Dubrovnik.  We parked on the side of the road as my heart raced seeing the fort from above.  We ran across the busy highway for a better glimpse, the first impression which would become minuscule compared to the following days of amazing panoramas from all angles of hiking, trams and exploring.

Another spectacular scene awaited us at the Hotel More overlooking the sea.  We strolled the promenade of sunbathers, restaurants and shops in the village below old town and then had a cocktail in the hotel’s cave bar.

We spent a full day exploring the fortified historic city, entering through the pile gate. We climbed the walls enclosing the fort spending a good hour above, looking into the ocean on one side and the buildings and people below on the other. Clothes hung out to dry as it was still a functioning city with permanent residents among the dominant tourist industry.  The ancient pathway was quite narrow and I could imagine during season, July and August, they’d have to limit the amount of visitors doing the wall walk.

We worked up an appetite for lunch below, settling in the town square at the bottom of a set of stairs.  As it turns out the stairs were famous from the hit series, Game of Thrones.  As many of the scenes from Kings Landing, the fictional city from the TV show, were filmed in Dubrovnik and the stairs were famous for the walk of shame scene.  “Shame, Shame, Shame,” the nuns repeated to Cersei as part of her atonement.  As we enjoyed our lunch I heard people shouting “shame”.  Afterwards, I couldn’t refuse to  walk the stairs myself, and I’m sure I deserved it from something I’d done in my youth.

IMG_2204croatia6

We popped into a few museums to gain a deeper understanding of Croatia’s history including a photo history of its most recent wars in the 1990’s.  Strolling down alleys and into churches, I admired the character of old town.  We watched tourists line up for gelato, as dogs and cats strolled by.  We decided to have a local beer prior to climbing the hundred stairs leading back to our car.

In the evenings we stayed close to the hotel, with plenty of good restaurants nearby. The waves, dim lights and ambiance reminded me of Positano, Italy only less busy.

The following day we decided on a different view of the city, one from the mountain above where within minutes the tram hauled people from the old town to the sky.  Initially we skipped the tram ride and drove to the top of the mountain, and it was the most terrifying drive of my life.  To start with it should have been a one way street, it was to narrow for two cars,  but a taxi coming down confirmed it was the only way up.  We attempted three times to ascend, only to be met head on by a car where we had to reverse down the mountain to let them through.  We let a van behind us pass so we had someone to follow, a bully to push through.  We drove on cliffs with no room for mistakes.  My hands sweated and I tried not to look over the edge of death, a real possibility with one miscalculated inch.

Once I saw the view up top I decided the heart palpitating ride was worth it.  We rented an ATV for an hour tour of the mountains where we sped though the dusty hills to arrive at a fort which played an important role holding off the Serbs during the 1990’s war, defending the city from occupation.  Goats, cows and a donkey roamed as we took photos of the bay from above. We then hiked down a rocky path for about an hour to arrive in old town for a late lunch.  My husbands feet were done and we took the tram back up to our car for the equally nail-biting ride back down to our hotel.croatia17

 

The following day we drove to Split.  We parked our car below Hotel More via a car lift which we had no problems until our departure day.  It was rush hour on the lift and about a half hour wait.  I was eager to get on the road, so I felt helpless during this time.  I practiced patience, a trait I’ve been trying to master the past few years.  The drive along the Adriatic simply breathtaking with the mountains on one side and quaint villages on the other.  We stopped at Ston, a small fortified town along our route famous for its shellfish farming.

Along our route we passed through the Bosnia Herzegovina border and enjoyed lunch by the sea.  Although a different county and one with a recent war-torn past, it seemed just as lovely as Croatia. While planning this trip I had considered going to Sarajevo for a night, but time didn’t really allow for it and I chose a few nights in Prague instead.  I  read many books about the war and had a fabulous lunch there, so maybe next trip.  I do love history including conflicts, religion and ever changing borders.  The former Yugoslavia is a classic and recent example of all elements.

IMG_2263Split was bigger than I imagined, but where we stayed among the red tiled roofs with a view of the harbor and within walking distance to the must see Diocletian’s Palace was ideal.  From our fifth floor balcony I watched pedestrian traffic below and ferry’s arriving an departing just beyond to the islands visible  in the distance.  I’d watch the lady hanging her laundry on the adjacent rooftop, and another resident cooking her dinner in an apartment below.  As in all of Croatia, olive trees and herbs in gardens and rooftops seemed abundant.

We toured the palace, the only Roman Emperor to ever retire did so in Split and he built a spectacular fortified residence with three entry gates, the silver, iron and gold surrounded by a moat.  He also had a lions den to use at will. It was expanded upon in medieval times and today houses museums, churches, shops, and restaurants.  We meandered through the narrow streets, ate traditional Croatian cuisine of goulash and spinach pie for this vegetarian.  Evening involved a random concert, dancing and just simply hanging out on the promenade.

After a morning visit to the mediocre archaeology museum, (as an archaeologist I’m picky) we headed to the ferry for our crossing to the island of Hvar, a playground for Europeans and celebrities.  I expected nothing and just wanted to relax by the sea.  Our hotel was again in a prime spot with a cool pool, lounge chairs on the Adriatic, and a promenade close to the town center.

We managed to find a fort and a winery to visit prior to relaxing by the salty sea. It was a pebble beach and quite cool, but a nice change from the Atlantic beaches of Florida and the Bahamas. Our trip to Croatia came to an end but continued to Prague for a few days which is a near future blog.

 

 

 

 

The homeless problem: From condemnation to compassion

homeless-cart2.jpgMy recent visit to southern California left me frustrated by the rampant homeless  problem seizing the golden state.  I lived in the heart of L.A for over a decade, and homelessness existed, but it didn’t seem permanent or ubiquitous.  Mostly confined to Venice Beach, downtown at Skid Row, and the freeway ramps with beggars holding honest or creative signs.  This time I noticed them everywhere, even in the out-of-the-way, senior living town of Sun City.  This desert town was once only occupied by the 55 and over crowd, retirees looking for cheap living in a safe community.  The youths were watched closely, and vagabonds non-existent.  This visit I watched backpackers and cart pushers wandering though town with all their belongings.  A few were passed out in bushes, homeless man 2others displayed burnt hard faces of the street life, and some lived in their car.  I felt disheartened, and disappointed that this seemed to be the new norm.

 

On the evening news, they showed permanent homeless camps along the L.A. river.  What in the hell is going on in this state, I thought.  Do people seriously want to live a homeless life?  Why can’t they get a job, or move to where they can live a better life?  The trash they leave behind is unbelievable!

I visited Santa Monica for a few memorable days to enjoy my old playground on the beach and in the mountains.  My morning runs took me though Venice Beach, where the homeless have always migrated. Again, it was out of control. Camps with tents, personal belongings, bikes and stoves.  They’d wake, use the public toilets and drink their lattes.  An ambulance was called for a dispute or injury between two of them.  Great, your tax dollars at work for those that don’t contribute.

Later that evening as I walked to dinner they hung out on main street, and I didn’t feel safe turning some dark corners.  Why let these people invade prime property?  Why do locals accept and support people who do nothing  to better society?

Back in Florida we also have a homeless problem as do many towns.  Sometimes they harass me, other times I smile at them.   I’m trying my best to hold compassion for everyone, including the destitute.  After all, I don’t know their story.  Many jobs have gone overseas, and the cost of living is increasing, especially in California.  I have since opened my mind and heart and compassion is my new word of the month.  With the holidays upon us, I hope to keep my eyes and heart open to those in trouble and need.homeless familycompassion jpeg

-Compassion-is-an-action-word-with-no-boundaries

Cuba after Castro’s death: Nine days of mourning.

A few days prior to a second visit to Cuba, I turned on the TV and Fidel Castro’s death headlined the news.

“Holy Shit,” I shouted to my husband.  “Our trip just got more interesting.”

His funeral would take place during the end of our brief five-day visit.  I figured it was an opportunity to see Cuba in a different light, in a positive way.  Until I learned of the mandatory nine-day grieving period.  No celebrating, no music, no alcohol.

Mixed news and comments came from the online news regarding how these rules applied to tourists.  Absolutely no alcohol, from a few sources.  Plenty of drinks available reported others.  How appropriate, typical conflicting news coming from Cuba.

I suggested we buy a bottle or two of alcohol from the duty-free shop at the airport, just in case.  After all, the four of us traveling together to Cuba enjoy our evening cocktails.  A complementary food buffet awaited at our gate.cuba1

“This is nice, do they offer this on every flight?” A friend asked?

“This is the inaugural flight for Jet Blue from Fort Lauderdale to Havana.”

We also enjoyed a special bag full of goodies, including a special t-shirt marking the occasion.

Waiting for our luggage and rental car in Havana took three times as long as the flight itself.  But we easily found our way to our base for the next few nights, the famous Hotel Nacional’.  At the hotel there was no music, but conversation and drinks flowed. It hummed with energy. We ran into Jesse Jackson in the lobby.  I smiled and he naturally extended his hand, I shook it and turned around for a photo opportunity with our friends.cubajessejackson

We took to the town for dinner, a short walk to a recommended restaurant.

“What do you mean no wine?”  I expected it, but we still asked.  The food was excellent but the place was eerily quiet, not even music played overhead. This seemed true everywhere we went, including the rooftop bar at a neighboring hotel.

cuba5Starting my day with a run along the Malecon always brings a smile to my face and sets a positive attitude for the rest of the afternoon. We waited for the red hop on/off bus a little too long, and ended up taking a tok tok style wagon powered by a man on a bike.   He decided to give us a tour along the way, the ghetto tour as we later referenced it.  Everyday living up close in personal along streets and alleys.  Everyone stared and we wondered what kind of sign was plastered on the cart as they all gazed from us down towards the tires.  Although interesting, when we finally arrived at the artisan market I was ready to disembark.

 

havana3We shopped, found the historic old quarters and stumbled upon the only lunch spot in town serving beer.  It was crowded but we scored a table and people watched while waiting for food. I even bought a copy of Granma, the official communist newspaper covering the life and death of Castro.  I got it for its historical value.

We did take the red bus around town and back to the Hotel Nacional.  Along the way we passed revolution square where they disassembled the stands and speakers left over from the previous days of speeches, honoring and remembering Fidel prior to their southern march to his final resting place in Santiago De Cuba.  I wanted to witness the large masses of people in the square, but as my husband pointed out the traffic would have been a nightmare.

The following morning I ran into the vice president of China in the lobby. His security forces swept though the hallway just as I passed in the opposite direction.  I noticed one of the security guard’s eyes widen, so I stepped back as he passed straight through to his limo awaiting outside.  Li Yuanchao and his men wore small pins of Mao and the Chinese flag.  He was short and walked with determination.  I smiled at the thought of almost completely blocking his path by accident.

We left Havana for the next portion of our stay in Varadero, a beach side resort described as having beautiful water and beaches.  For lunch we stopped at a crowded roadside grill along the way. It was one of the best meals we had in Cuba and as a bonus they served cold beer.  Our all-inclusive resort seemed charming at first until we realized we had to walk a half mile to our room.  Not a big deal, if it’s a once a day stroll. But all the action, restaurants and bars revolved around the lobby.  Overall, I wasn’t impressed by Varadaro. The beaches were marginal, food bland, rooms unattractive and activities lacking.  We made the best of it and explored some nearby caves and went shopping in town.  We even ventured into another dilapidated town to see “the real Cuba” with many horse-drawn carriages one last time.

Our last evening we finally heard music, the mandatory ban was lifted the following day. Cuba without music is like sunbathing on a beautiful beach without the sun or sand.  It is a large part of their culture and when music and dance is taken away, the people seem disheartened.

Were they sorrowful because of Fidel’s death?  I’m sure some were since he was the only leader they knew.  He is portrayed as a hero in all Cuban media.  But the ban came about because people were openly celebrating in the streets.  Imagine all the income lost from tourists due to the ban.  Perhaps they should have had nine mornings of mourning.

 

Beauty and the Beast

mt yonahThe North Georgia mountains have a lot to offer during the summer, so my husband and I decided to spend a month at our cabin in Helen, Georgia.  This quaint Bavarian themed town is nestled near the Chattahoochee River and National Forest in the northeast corner of the state.  It is also close to the start of the Appalachian Trail (AT), so we decided to hike to the peak of Tray Mountain, described as an easy AT day hike with magnificent views.

It seemed like a harrowing feat driving the winding, bumpy dirt road up the side of the mountain. Steep cliffs dropping off on my side made my heart race and hands sweat. After an hour of this I was ready to hit the trail, but I was surprised we were the only ones in the parking area.  It’s supposed to be a popular day hike.

I recognized the white lines on the trees indicating the AT. It was all uphill and I welcomed the challenge, although my husband wasn’t as eager.  We discussed what we’d do if we encountered bears or wild boar, since they roam the area.  In less than an easy-paced hour we reached the top. I took pictures of the amazing view, and suddenly my husband jumped back and shouted “Holy Shit.”

timber rattler2A fat six-foot snake sun bathed on a rock, its tongue flicking next to his leg.  He moved closer to me.  “I almost stepped on it.”

My eyes widened, “I must have walked right pass it while taking pictures.”

“What is it?”  He asked.  “Do you think it’s poisonous?”

“That’s the biggest snake I’ve ever seen.  It looks dangerous.”

We were in a jam.  It blocked our path back down to our car, we had cliffs on both sides and in the opposite direction the AT trail continued for another 6 miles to a gap, but we didn’t know if a town existed at that junction.  Besides, I knew we weren’t prepared for a longer trek and we didn’t see another single hiker on the trail.

“Does your book mention anything about snakes?” He asked.

I took the trail guide out of my pack and paged through.  “No, but it has phone numbers to the park service.  They’d know about snakes in the area.” I hoped.

We finally reached someone at the forest service and described the snake.  We couldn’t see it’s tail, but it looked like a rattle snake to me. I’ve never seen one that large during my hiking days in California, and I didn’t hear a rattle.  Its size resembled a python.

She told us to treat it as poisonous.  “Don’t point any sticks at it and don’t cross it’s path.  Gather small pebbles and rocks and throw them towards the snake.  Stomp your feet because they don’t like the vibration. You want it to retreat.  But don’t get aggressive.”

I walked in the opposite direction down the other side of the mountain and found some small rocks.  A few pebbles hit its head and the snake didn’t budge.  We discussed our options, should we try to find a way down and around the cliffs, climbing through scrub brush?  timber rattler

“It’s too dangerous, you risk falling off the cliff.” Hubby said, before walking off to gather some more rocks.  The moment he disappeared from the snakes view, it started to slowly turn away.

“It’s retreating.”  I whispered loudly.

We watched it slither off, lastly revealing a large rattle.  I shuttered and carefully walked down the rocks and then more hurriedly down the trail.  Believing we were safe, I stopped and breathed.

“That could have turned into a deadly situation.” I said, still freaked out by the encounter.

When we got home, I started researching Georgia snakes.  It was a Timber Rattlesnake described as a heavy bodied pit viper.  It is one of the most dangerous snakes on the east coast due to its long fangs, high venom and impressive size.  The females often bask in the sun before giving birth and they prefer not to strike, but will if threatened.  In fact, a man in this area recently died from its venomous bite.

At the end of the day I had a cocktail, embraced life and relaxed on our back patio.  I heard a large bang and my husband ran out.  “Bear out front.”

bearsThe bear had knocked over our garbage can and proudly walked down our empty street.  It too was large and beautiful.  We often found our bear-proofed trash can sideways, but this was the first time I’d seen one in the area. I smiled and welcomed a bear over a snake any day.

The next day we watched mama bear and her cubs lunching on our trash.  With four locks, I was shocked they opened it. Although I don’t think its a good idea for bears to eat human food, I certainly wasn’t going to stop her. She knew we were watching from the porch, along with a stray cat that adopted us.

After my wild life encounters the friendly cat scared the crap out of me the next morning with his warm greeting.  I really didn’t want strange creatures jumping at me before my morning coffee.  Maybe I was just a little sensitive.

 

 

Viva Cuba Libre

We left Havana in our rental car for a two night stay in Ceinfuegos, a three-hour drive southeast to a coastal town.  As we left the city we passed the port, and realized we somehow missed one of the most touristy areas, complete with a cruise ship. Somewhat shocked, I glanced past a few buildings and recognized the Plaza de Armas where we lunched just a few days prior.  It’s one of the downfalls of exploring on our own armed with only a map and a guide book.  I had wanted to ride the hop on/off bus, but decided against it without the security of credit card access for Americans. For me it’s a valid reason to return to Havana by the end of the year.

As we searched for the Autopista entry ramp, we got lost in a shady part of town.  I watched locals pick through trash and gaze at us, the crazy tourists driving in circles. With the help of our iPad GPS map we finally found it, although in a roundabout way and no noticeable signs. Hitchhikers stood on the side of the highway, hands extended with pesos or bananas in exchange for a ride.

horse cart freewayWe passed horse-drawn carriages carrying wood and supplies, trucks packed with agricultural labor workers, skinny cows, goats, and revolution signs displaying Fidel’s picture and occasionally Fidel and Chavez in unity.  I felt like the revolution was still occurring, although it’s been 57 years. We dodged a few potholes and stopped at a roadside grill for a bite to eat.  My husband enjoyed a grilled ham and cheese sandwich for a few pesos while I opted for my pre-packed American protein bar.  The bathroom was the typical toilet no seat, sit on the rim or squat and bring your own tissue.  I was prepared.

ceinfregosOur open-aired Jagua hotel was a welcomed gem on the outskirts of the city.  We spent a relaxing evening strolling the neighborhood and our hotel.  They offered a buffet dinner, and although average it was perfect for our mood.  As always I was craving veggies and nibbles of bread and cheese. Oh, and the sinful cake and ice cream.

We enjoyed live Rumba at the outdoor bar.  The cuba bandband didn’t  really interact with the audience, so I went on stage and danced with the aging singer. He seemed thrilled and I tipped him at the end of the night.  The following evening he reached out to the crowd choosing a lady or two to join him for a dance. Perhaps I taught him a thing or two about American tourists, allowing him to profit more.

I explored the town a bit more during my morning run.  It seemed quaint but nothing noteworthy, except I was still in Cuba and loving every moment.  We’d spend the day in Trinidad, a short one hour drive through hills and along the coast to a well-preserved colonial town.  The two-lane highway seemed like a rollercoaster at first, winding up and down hills and around corners.  As I was reading my Lonely Planet guide and not paying attention, my husband screamed “Land Crabs.”

crabsI glanced up and thousands of crabs were crossing the road, getting crushed in the process.  There was no stopping the massacre.  Traffic in front of us mulled through them, and we couldn’t stop.  I felt every crunch and cringed.  For this vegetarian it was a nightmare.  It smelled of death.

My husband was equally mortified and he said, “They’re raising their claws in defense.”  He tried to swerve, but it didn’t matter.

trinidad4We parked in town and walked along cobble stone streets.  Cute artist shops lined the road alongside open-aired homes.  Many had TV’s and basic furniture, but they seemed small.  We found our way to Plaza Mayor, the cultural trinidad3center.  It was filled with music, greenery, arts and crafts markets, and plenty of privately owned restaurants.

pirate

I spotted an interesting pirate statue and asked my partner to take a photo of me standing next to it.  He moved.

“Holy crap, you had me fooled.”

He stood for a photo and kissed my hand.

trinidad2We wandered around town browsing artistic souvenirs and strolled through an archaeological museum.  Lunch on a balcony above live music was superb. We weren’t in a hurry, and Trinidad had a good vibe.  It wasn’t as crowded as I expected, or as it should be for such an interesting town.

Back in Cienfuegos we met a friendly Cuban lady who exchanged some Cuban pesos for an American dollar.  I wanted to take home local currency since the government was in the process of unifying the two currencies and switching everyone to convertible pesos.  I also gave her lotions and shampoo I no longer needed since we were leaving the following morning.  We had to plan our trip carefully to make it back to the Havana airport for a noon departure.

The first three hours of driving was uneventful.  Then our directions took us through a small but busy town with unmarked roads, a sketchy GPS, and a rental car about to break down.  We could see the runway, finally finding our way to terminal 2.  We parked, gave an employee our keys, and hurried to check-in.  Our flight was leaving in less than an hour and the line was long.  I waited among the crowd as my husband returned to CubaCar to collect our deposit.

The boarding process aboard Havana Air was chaotic and lacked any reasonable procedure.  It’s the norm, I learned from a Cuban-American who worked at the US embassy.  We departed a half hour late, with no pesos left except for my Cuban souvenirs.  The adventure was well worth it and we were back in Miami forty-five minutes later, with a renewed sense of the Cuba Vibre.

 

 

Viva Havana

We booked Havana Air for our first visit to Cuba, flying from Miami to Havana for a brief 45  minute flight.  At the time of booking, I didn’t realize it was part of the new Eastern Airlines until check-in. A group purchased the once famed but defunct airline’s intellectual property including their trademarks.  The flight was full and check in slow since most of the flight consisted of Cubans carrying 8-10 bags of goods they couldn’t buy in Havana.  Fashionable clothes, shoes and food, all having to be weighed for the flight.  My husband and I carried only our carry-on, weighing less than 20 lbs.

In Havana, it took us an hour and a half to clear customs, wait for our prearranged rental car and change money.  We arrived with Canadian currency for a better exchange rate since it’s a 10% penalty for American dollars.  We also had to leave the rental company an extra $250 deposit we weren’t expecting.

Our Hotel Habana Libre, sat in the heart of Havana near the Malecon.  It’s a high-rise full of character and history. Once the Havana Hilton, nine months after it opened Castro’s revolutionaries took it over and Fidel ruled the country from a suite on the 24th floor.  The leader’s pictures and propaganda are documented in the lobby, near the bar where we sat for our first mojito.  This refreshing rum drink became my drink of choice for the rest of our trip.

car classicMy immediate impression of Havana, it’s unlike anywhere I’ve been.  A city stuck in time with antique cars, beautiful but dilapidated buildings, and bustling with locals and tourists. The air smelled of diesel and gas outside and cigars and dust inside the hotel. Horns and music blared on the streets. People gathered near a TV/media building to access the internet on their smart phones and tablets.  It had a good and positive vibe.

 

We had dinner just two blocks away at a local joint recommended by Anthony Bourdain called Los Amigos. It was a small place but it had good cuban food and a nice ambience.

embassyThe following morning I ran along the Malecon, a historic stone sea wall.  The United States Embassy majestically greeted me as I began my trot.  Men fished off the wall, lovers walked holding hands, and fellow joggers and bikers passed by.  I grinned and danced around dents in the pavement.  Most smiled back, while a few mimicked my movements. A stone fort-like fort restaurantbuilding turned restaurant signaled the end of the Malecon, and my turnaround point.

We spent the afternoon walking the narrow streets of Habana Vieja.  We explored shops, bars, plazas, churches, and street art.  We had an average lunch at a restaurant in Plaza De Armas. The location was great for people watching, but the food pretty bland. Stray dogs and cats gathered around the tables for scraps.  The cats didn’t mind pieces of my soggy pizza, but the dogs were a bit more picky. I didn’t blame them, since I was also unimpressed.  Hopefully they were just well fed.

20160416_142700_resizedWe checked out two random wooden boats slightly bigger than a canoe.  A local in overhauls was busy working on one of them.  With the help of a translator, my husband had a fishing conversation with him. They discussed types of fish he caught, methods used, and while laughing they exchanged fishing stories.

floridaambos hotel signstreet 1

We walked down Calle Mercaderes and Obispo, stopping to admire the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway lived and wrote between 1932-1939 in room 511. We also visited a few places where he drank, including the famed Floridita. While having mojitos at Cafe Paris, we watched dancers on stilts perform a traditional dance.

fortfort1fort2

We drove through a tunnel arriving on the other side of the harbor at Castillo del Morro, and learned about the British invasion of Havana.  The view of the city from there was amazing.  We parked out front and meandered through the exhibits, all written in Spanish, but we figured out the gist of it.

dancersWe unknowingly chose a state-run restaurant for dinner. Although the menu looked promising the food was horrible.  I laughed myself into tears over how someone could mess up pasta with olive oil.  Well they certainly did.  A late night dance performance at our hotel saved the evening.

buildingMy morning run along the Malecon in the other direction towards central Havana provided stunning views and I had a perpetual grin for five blissful miles.  A wave crashed over the seawall and left me drenched, so I crossed the street and ran alongside a quiet stretch of buildings until I noticed large chunks of rubble on the sidewalk.  I imagined one of them falling off the building onto my head, but I took the risk.

marinaWe drove a half-hour outside of town to the Hemingway Marina.  The drive was along a beautiful neighborhood and the Marina itself was pleasant but quiet without much to do. A restaurant back along the Malecon had decent local cuisine and live music. By now we started to me musicrealize if we ran out of pesos we’d be screwed since our American credit cards didn’t work in Cuba.  For me, becoming stranded and cashless became a big fear and we budgeted accordingly.

hamelA drive through Chinatown proved there really weren’t any Asians left in Cuba as they fled at the first mention of Communism.  An a cute artistic area with Afro-Cuban roots called Callejon de Hamel was full of murals, rumba, Santeria, cafe’s, and culture-seeking tourists.

We visited the historic Hotel National for a hotel national
mojito or two and awaited the firing of the canons at 5:00 each day, except Sunday.  Well our visit was on Sunday, but we did learn about the missile crisis and the history of who stayed there including Lucky Luciano, Frank Sinatra, Vladimir Putin, and Winston Churchill.

The following day, we left Havana for a three-hour drive to Cienfuego’s for a few nights. Next week I’ll blog about our experience there.

Alaska Cruise- The Inside Passage

alaska rail I’d heard a cruise is the best way to see the beauty and glory of Alaska, a true adventure in this rugged and often frozen land. From Talkeetna, just outside Denali, we took the Alaska railroad directly to our ship waiting near Anchorage. Our history filled ride included fun facts, games, cocktails, lunch and a spontaneous cigarette break with the train conductor on the side of the tracks. We were waiting for the ship’s customs crew to board, so my husband and I disembarked with him for a quick smoke.  The ride looked pretty, but not breathtaking like I expected.

The first two days at sea we enjoyed a scenic cruise across the Gulf of Alaska to Yakutat Bay and the famed Hubbard Glacier. From a distance the massive Glacier emitted vivid shades of turquoise, but I didn’t feel up close and personal with my first glacier experience.  After admiring the outside beauty we explored our ship, the Star Princess.  The outside decks were windy, cold and drizzly while the inside bars were toasty, lively and jovial.  We found our preferred drinking spot with music and a view.  Spiked apple cider became my Alaska cruise ship drink.

glacierThe following day we cruised Glacier Bay National Park with its scenic natural beauty.  Unlike the previous day, Lamplugh Glacier took my breath away.  Awe inspiring off our stern I could see its height, depth and complexity.  We watched glacier calving several times where chunks of ice plunged into the sea, hearing it splash minutes after.  The glacier’s height towered above our fourteen-floored ship.  The captain performed a slow 360 degree turn as I admired it from the bow, the starboard side and our port side balcony.

The next morning our captain announced. “Attention ladies and gentlemen.  I regret to tell you we are unable to port in Skagway.  Winds are exceeding 50 miles an hour and we made three attempts.  We are now heading to Juneau for a late afternoon arrival.”

Ugh.  I was eager to disembark the ship and explore Skagway.  I even planned an early run in the quaint town.  I later learned from another passenger who was awake at 5:00 am, that the ship was leaning to one side. Later in the afternoon I met a crew member who was aboard the Costa Concordia when it sank.

“At the captain’s last attempt, the boat was listing.” He said, taking a long draw from his cigarette. “I was on the Concordia when it ran aground.”

“Oh, better safe than sorry.”  I said.

“It’s the first time in two years we’ve missed port.  Very unusual.”  His eyes appeared full of grief and regret.

Late afternoon I watched an eagle soar off the stern as we pulled into Juneau.  Our unexpected arrival left us without a dock, so we anchored using tenders to shuffle passengers to port.

Tourist shops littered main street, so my husband and I explored side streets to get away from Princess owned shops. I try to find beauty in everything but the capital had little to offer. We stumbled upon a historic bar resembling a brothel.  It had character so we had a few beers prior to returning to our ship.

whaleThe next day they canceled our anticipated helicopter sled dog expedition , leaving us to scramble for an excursion.   We quickly booked a whale sightseeing tour. We watched  humpbacks play and breach in the Pacific Ocean, majestically waving a fin or flipping a tail.  They were simply amazing, making our stop in Juneau worthwhile. whale 2

katchicanKetchikan was the cutest town we visited, but then again we only had two ports in Alaska.  The town had a nice layout, totem poles decorated the town and it had plenty of excursions.  It seemed like the seaplane capital of the world, so we choose a floatplane, bear sightseeing air adventure. A true bush pilot, our captain flew just above the tree tops, dipped into valleys and avoided fishing nets while landing on a lake where we quietly waited for a bear sighting.  Standing alongside the pilot on one of the floats, I watched an eagle perched in a tree.  We waited as dead salmon floated by, the other four passengers still sitting in the plane.  A mother and cub black bear came to the water’s edge and then quickly disappeared.alaska-seaplane-tours

“We’re stuck on the rocks.” The pilot said attempting to take off.  “We need to wait for the tide to come in.”

“What?  That could take a while.”  My husband said.  “Let’s get out and push, it will also lighten the load.”

The two of them pushed us away from shore and within no time we were airborne, soaring above trees with steep turns and an open window allowing cold air to fill the cockpit.

That evening my husband’s forehead radiated extreme heat, so I called the ship’s doctor.  His temperature read 102 degrees and they tested him for flu.

“You have type A influenza, and we need to quarantine you for 24 hours.  That means you can’t leave you’re room and nobody can enter your room.”

At that moment he was so ill he didn’t seem to care.  But he asked, “How many people are quarantined?

“Over a hundred.”

They gave both of us medicine.  Since I was exposed, but not sick I had to take medicine although I was free to come and go.  I’d be his slave for the next 24 hours.

“It was the cold air that did me in.” He said, referring to the open cockpit window.

His quarantine lasted until the night before disembarkation in Vancouver. By that time he was feeling better and had cabin fever while I made friends with the bartenders.  I checked his progress regularly, bringing him drinks and room service.  It’s no fun being sick on a cruise, unable to leave your room.  Equally as frustrated, I quickly became bored without a partner.

Vancouver was simply amazing and my favorite city along our cruise. We stayed three extra days, a welcomed and lovely part of our adventure.  We rode bikes, visited farmer’s markets, strolled the park and enjoyed our rooftop view of the city.

Would I recommend visiting Alaska?

Absolutely.  It has so much natural beauty and plenty to see, but I think it’s a matter a travel style.  I’m a land lover and I don’t like days at sea without a port on someone else’s agenda.  If you like the cruising lifestyle then it’s a great way to experience Alaska.  I’d prefer to travel this great state by RV or small airplane adventure with plenty of time.

Leaving Vancouver we were singled out for extra inspection in U.S. customs and immigration.  After an hour of waiting and watching the clock in a separate room they called us for questioning.  I realized our plane had left.

“Why do you have so many stamps to the Bahamas?”

“We own a place in Bimini, and as pilots it’s a quick 20 minute flight.”

It was a long two-day flight home due to our flight rescheduling. Once home, I had a comfortable and peaceful night, but knew the hassles of travel would not stop me from planning our next adventure.

North Georgia Mountains: Always an adventure

mt yonah“We know you want to blow up that deer in your garden.  But it’s not deer hunting season.” Announced a southern accented radio commercial.  I burst out laughing with images of Bambi exploding to pieces.  We had just landed in North Georgia Mountains and the commercial and car rental experience reflected our country location.  We’d reserved an Enterprise car rental, but it was not delivered.  Instead the lovely airport manager decided to rent his car to us for $300 for the week.  It would do with 160,000 miles, dirty floors, and a CD combo cassette player.

Spring was in full bloom.  Mountain-laurel blossoming pink flowers, lush green trees, bear tracks, geese meandering, and a red-tailed fox wandering around our house.  The fox looked like my dog, and for a moment I wondered if she was outside.  It was the same size with a cute button nose just sniffing grass in our yard.  It probably smelled our pet, since the sniff ratio is much higher in animals than humans. A trait I admired.  I was often in awe over my dog’s ability to smell something miles away, including unfamiliar wildlife and her favorite food, bacon.  While hiking she’d regularly become fixated on a patch of grass.  “It can’t smell that good,” I’d tease her.

On Saturday night we visited our favorite biker bar hangout, Mondays.  Walking in alone, I felt like an alien, all eyes on me while my husband parked.  Seats cleared, whispers flowed, girls gossiped.  Yes, I was an out-of-towner, but really. I confidently waved down the bartender.  “A white wine spritzer and Bud Lite please.”

She wore a number, not name on her badge. Number 197, and I called her such. “Hey number 197 can I get…” throughout the night.  She carded me, laughed with me and we hugged at the end of the night. I got a job offer starting at 4 p.m. the following day.  “You can make a ton of money here,” she said as I departed, declining her offer.

I recognized some of the same people from my last visit six months prior.  The tattooed girl who started a brawl last time, a bearded guy on her arm with his tongue down her throat.  Two girls flitting eyes toward me while whispering.

The following day, I noticed one of the eyeing gossipmongers working at a tourist shop.  “Hey you were at Monday’s.” I said. Followed by a smile and a cheerful, “Happy Mother’s day.”

“Yes I was there with my daughter.”  The one with the ponytail.”  She was cordial, her rosy face and shy smile reflecting embarrassment.  “Happy Mother’s day to you honey.  God bless.”

I got to hike and enjoy the town during our one week stay, but it was also a working vacation. Editing my novel, cleaning up our rental home for the season, and we bought a 1977 Cessna 150 to put in a flight school for profit. I would fly it back solo since hubby was flying the faster six-seater.  Yikes.  I had to learn the plane.  Nothing happens fast in the Northern Georgia mountains, especially commuting.  I only had about 45 minutes to familiarize myself with the two-seater. I felt overwhelmed and anxious about the long journey in an unfamiliar plane, named the Rita Rae from a past owner.

To my relief, a pilot friend offered his help getting the Cessna back to south Florida.
“You can’t fly that distance in a 150 alone. It takes all day, and you’ve never flown a 150.”

Whew.  I agreed.  I didn’t have the time to properly get to know the plane for a solo cross-country flight
Although I was up at the crack of dawn, we departed at 10:00 due to airport distance and pre-flight preparations.

704cx

  • Ipad with flight-aware for navigation and first destination loaded. Check.
  • Full tanks at 24 gallons. Check.
  • Test fuel for water contamination and drain a half cup of water in tank. Check
  •  Oil at six quarts.Check.
  •  Exterior normal and tires inflated. Check.
  • Radios frequencies and backup VOR frequencies written down. Check
  • Backup batteries, water and anything else I could throw in my purse. Check.
  • A healthy amount of adrenaline pumping through my heart. Check.

I rotated at 45 knots, staying in ground effect building to a 60 knot climb speed. Rita Rae seemed sturdy and powerful despite her size and simplicity.  My heart calmed as I settled at cruise altitude of 3,500, getting comfortable in the left seat with one hand on the yoke correcting for heading and altitude as needed.  Two and a half hours later we were in Alma, GA where my husband was waiting with our Piper Lance and a packed lunch.  The sandwiches he ordered was incorrect.  Not a problem for the guys, but I’m a vegetarian.

“It’s going to be a long day,” I sighed.  I was fine with peanut butter filled crackers.

After take-off for our next leg we realized we lost communication.  We could hear Air Traffic Control and other pilots, but they couldn’t hear us.  My co-pilot really came in handy at this moment.  I focused on flying the plane not allowing too much distraction, while he assessed the situation,  switching around all kinds of wires and frequencies.

“We need to find the nearest airport,” He said.

I put the lost comm code 7600 into the transponder “Let’s try to make Jacksonville.” I said while looking at our location on the GPS.  “JAX is only 80 miles.  There’s nothing out here, just small airports with no service.”

“I think I saw a handheld mic back here.” He fussed around behind his seat finally pulling out a small oblong mic, appearing ancient and tobacco stained.  He plugged it in and called Atlanta Center.”

“Loud and clear 704CX.”  It was music to my ears. Although we both remained calm during the 40 minutes since takeoff, not communicating with ATC for traffic advisories and flight following around active military restricted areas was a bit of a risk.

We had a brief fuel and bathroom stop along the space coast around 6:30. We were both tired and mentally drained, but we pushed on to our destination, Fort Lauderdale.  The sun set as bright lights shined from below. My eyes adjusted to the light change in the cockpit.  I had an emergency back up light on my lap for our final landing in Rita Rae.  It was 9:30 I was starving, exhausted, and desperately in need of a glass of wine.