Better than Finding 20 Bucks in a Cenote

I’m from a family of storytellers. Funny storytellers. I’m a storyteller, too, but not a very funny one. Or so they tell me. Years ago, my sons shared a technique to rescue my stories from a boring finish. At the end of a boring story, they told me to say, “…and then I found 20 bucks.”  It’s been useful at times.

While we were at the Latitude 20 Restaurant enjoying the results of our Mexican cooking class, we asked the women sitting with us about the cenotes in the area. A cenote (say-NO-tay) is a sinkhole created when porous limestone collapses into the underground water beneath it. Cenotes were sacred to the indigenous Mayan people who regarded them as the entrance to the underworld.  They were also the only source of fresh drinking water. There are over 7000 of these sinkholes on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico and we definitely wanted to see some.

We got a helpful tip from one woman who told us a number of cenotes have been developed into Disney type tourist attractions and we first needed to decide what kind of experience we were after. The adventure parks or private tours in the area cost $100-$150 per person depending on the package which may include a guide, transportation, equipment, and lunch.

After studying the list of nearby cenotes and their amenities, we chose one that allowed snorkeling and provided minimal facilities including restrooms and a restaurant but not the crowded, popular adventure park atmosphere. Rather than hire a guide, we opted to do it ourselves at a total cost of less than $25 each. Our first stop was the dive shop to rent our snorkel equipment. We rented the snorkel tube, mask, fins, and life vest for the day for $10. Gail also rented a shorty wetsuit for another $10 as the water in the cenotes comes from underground and can be chilly.

 

Dive shop in Puerto Aventuras

Dive shop in Puerto Aventuras

Talking to the staff at the dive shop, we learned that Dos Ojos, the cenote we planned to visit, was closed that day, Saturday, for a Mayan religious observance. He suggested another cenote, Chikin Ha. So, Chikin Ha it was. On the highway outside Puerto Aventuras we hopped on the local bus, called a colectiva, to ride the couple of miles to the entrance at Chikin Ha. The cost was 25 pesos or about $2.

When we got off the bus there was a sign, a ticket booth, and a guy selling tickets. He collected our fee which was about $10 and directed us to walk 15 minutes down the dirt road where he said they would collect our tickets and direct us to the cenotes. We walked, and walked, and walked, toting our equipment and finally arrived more than a half an hour later. If I hadn’t seen signs along the way, I may have questioned whether we’d find anything back there.

The road to Chikin Ha

The road to Chikin Ha

Chikin Ha

Chikin Ha Ecopark

When we finally arrived, we were somewhat surprised to be almost the only ones there. The ticket taker seemed listless and disinterested and really preferred to talk on her cell phone rather than give us directions. I admit I thought maybe we’d made a bad pick. The restrooms were fine, however, so we used them and we were ready to explore the three cenotes in this park.

Chikin Ha Ecopark

Chikin Ha Ecopark

 

Chikin Ha

Chikin Ha

As we walked the path to the first cenote, we encountered this fellow with a Harris hawk. I have no idea why he and the hawk were there.

Harris Hawk

Harris Hawk

Cenotes range from entirely open, like a lake, to entirely enclosed within a cave and many variations in between. The first at Chikin Ha was open. The water was so clear that the limestone rock and fish beneath the surface were easily visible.

Open Cenote at Chikin Ha

Open Cenote at Chikin Ha

 

Chikin Ha Cenotes

Chikin Ha Cenotes

We decided not to snorkel in this cenote and moved on to the second. The second cenote was in a cave and we struck up a conversation with the young couple we encountered swimming in it. Hannah and David were from Australia traveling around Mexico and heading next to Cuba. They had been to the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, and disliked it as too touristy but they loved the ruins at Tulum because it was the opposite. They had talked to someone familiar with many of the cenotes in the area, and picked Chikin Ha based on the recommendation that it was exceedingly beautiful and not so touristy. I felt reassured that maybe this was a good pick, after all!

Gail and Jim in cenote

Gail and Jim in cenote

The line that you see in the photo above was very useful for guiding us across the cenote allowing us to keep our masks in the water to see beneath us.

I'm going in!

I’m going in!

Swimming and snorkeling wasn’t allowed in the third cenote due to its fragile ecosystem. It was probably the most beautiful of the three and we could fully appreciate it without getting in the water. The turquoise color is so amazing and really more impressive than I could capture in photos. There were also many stalactites and stalagmites in this cenote.

Cenote at Chikin Ha

Cenote at Chikin Ha

We observed a candle ceremony at the back of the cave of the third cenote. We assumed this was a Mayan religious ceremony of some sort.

Mayan ceremony at Chikin Ha

Mayan ceremony at Chikin Ha

When I was about to enter the water of the second cenote, I went to remove my Fitbit (an activity monitor) from my wrist and discovered it was gone. I howled to Jim, “Oh no, I lost my Fitbit!” Hannah asked, “What color is it?” I responded, “Orange” and she said, “We found it on the road on our way in!”  So, while I didn’t find 20 bucks on this adventure, something even better happened.

 

Based on events of January, 2015

 

 

Categories: Mexico, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 9 Comments

Serendipity in Puerto Aventuras, Mexico

I call it serendipity. Walking around the marina one morning, Gail and I thought we’d look for a restaurant, Latitude 20, that had been twice recommended to us. When we found it, a Mexican cooking class was about to begin. For 100 pesos (less than $7), we would learn to make Agua de Horchata, Ceviche Stuffed Avocados, Mexican Shrimp Cocktail, and Pineapple Casserole, and then get to eat it! Needless to say, we stayed even though we knew Jim was back at the condo waiting for breakfast upon our return. Some offers you can’t pass up.

Prepped food for Latitude 20 cooking class

Prepped food for Latitude 20 cooking class

We had front row seats and watched as the place filled up around us. This was obviously a popular weekly event that we had discovered entirely by chance.

Cooking class with Danny and Carlos at Latitude 20

Cooking class with Danny and Carlos at Latitude 20

Danny and his assistant, Carlos, started with the dessert, a pineapple casserole that would bake while we made the other dishes.

Recipe for Pineapple Casserole

1 medium pineapple, ripe

2 apples

1/4 cup to 1 cup (depending on how much you like) raisins

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup orange juice

Peel and core the pineapple; slice into rounds reserving the juice. Do the same with the apples.

Distribute them evenly in a pot. Add the sugar, raisins, and juice.

Cook over low fire for about 30 minutes. (I interpret this to mean bake at 325-350. The apples need to soften up.)

Let cool and serve with whipped cream.

Simple but tasty!

Danny showed us how to slice the ends off the pineapple and core it before trimming the skin off and slicing the fruit. This worked well for him but it presumes the use of a really sharp knife and some skill wielding it. I’ll probably continue to use my old method. Incidentally, he cored and sliced the apples the same way.

 

Carlos with Pineapple Casserole before baking

Carlos with Pineapple Casserole

Next up was the ceviche stuffed avocado. If you’re not familiar with this dish, ceviche (pronounced say-VEE-chay) is raw fish marinated in citrus juice with various other ingredients but typically onion, tomato, cilantro, and peppers.  I’m always a little nervous about raw fish but Danny assured us the lime juice “cooks” the fish so it’s really no longer raw. Alright then.

Raw fish for ceviche

Raw fish for ceviche

Recipe for Ceviche Stuffed Avocados

2 avocados

150 grams of raw fish (150 g is roughly 5 oz)

1/4 white onion (I would probably use a red onion)

1 tomato

1/4 bunch cilantro

150 ml lime juice (150 ml is roughly 5 oz)

salt and pepper

Cut the fish into bite size pieces. Season with salt and pepper. Add the lime juice; put aside. It’s best to allow to marinate overnight.

Chop the onion, cilantro, and tomato. Add to the fish.

Cut the avocados in half; seed and peel.

Mix the fish with other ingredients and stuff the avocados. Serve cold.

Danny demonstrated how to chiffonade the cilantro so as not to bruise it. Chiffonade is a French word for a technique to roll the herb then chop it. I actually think another method is easier–click here and it’s also from France so it is still très chic! Just be sure to trim the cilantro from the stems first because they are too coarse to eat.

We also discussed the type of fish to use in this dish. Danny told us we were using wahoo on this occasion but any mild white fish will do.

Voilà!

Ceviche Stuffed Avocado

Ceviche Stuffed Avocado

The Mexican shrimp cocktail included an interesting ingredient, Maggi Juice. I asked Danny what it was and he explained that it’s like concentrated Worcestershire. I took a picture to see whether it’s available in the US. When I googled it, I found it online at Wal-Mart by the case of 24 bottles for $37.76.

Maggi Jugo

Maggi Jugo

Recipe for Mexican Shrimp Cocktail

1 cup ketchup

2 avocados chopped

1 medium red onion chopped

1/2 bunch cilantro chopped

1 lb. pacotilla shrimp (smaller cooked shrimp)

2 limes, quartered

4 dashes Tabasco sauce

1/2 orange

4 dashes Worcestershire sauce

3 dashes Maggi juice (substitute extra Worcestershire)

Mix the ketchup, avocados, juice of 1 lime and the 1/2 orange, Maggi, tabasco, Worcestershire sauce in a bowl.

Add the shrimp and mix well.

Serve in a bowl or tall glass and garnish with onion and cilantro with lime wedges and tortilla chips.

Mexican Shrimp Cocktail

Mexican Shrimp Cocktail

Last but not least, we made the agua de horchata. I’ve heard of this drink before but I had no idea it’s made from rice. It’s not the rice that makes it so tasty, however; it’s condensed milk. Anything that rich will certainly taste good.

Recipe for Agua de Horchata

3/4 cup rice (uncooked)

1 cinnamon stick

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

1 can condensed milk

water as necessary

Rinse the rice. Soak for 1 hour with enough water to cover it. Place in a blender and add enough water to cover by an inch. Add the vanilla and cinnamon and blend until finely ground. Drain the liquid through colander into a pitcher.

Return the ground rice to the blender. Add the condensed milk and about 2 cups water and blend again. Drain into the pitcher. Discard any remaining rice.

Add more water to the pitcher one cup at a time until it has the right amount of sweetness for you.

Add ice and serve cold.

Agua de Horchata

Agua de Horchata

I expected a heavy flavor like an egg nog but the aqua de horchata actually had an unexpectedly light, fresh taste.

Once all the dishes were prepared, the staff served us a portion of each. Everything was muy delicioso!

Ceviche Stuffed Avocados and Mexican Shrimp Cocktail

Ceviche Stuffed Avocados and Mexican Shrimp Cocktail

We returned for dinner that evening but more on that later.

ser•en•dip•i•ty (ˌsɛr ənˈdɪp ɪ ti)

n.
1. an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.
2. good fortune; luck.
[1754; Serendip + -ity; Horace Walpole so named a faculty possessed by the heroes of a fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip]
Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary, © 2010 K Dictionaries Ltd. Copyright 2005, 1997, 1991 by Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

 

Recipes provided by Latitude 20

Based on events of January, 2015

 

Categories: Mexico, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Do You Want to Know a Secret?

I recently visited a tropical paradise on the Riviera Maya in Mexico and honestly, I was tempted to keep it a secret. I know once I share it, you’ll want to go there, too; then it will be booked up and I’ll have to go somewhere else. But because I have a hard time keeping a secret and I’m so excited about this place, I just have to share it with you. Here’s a picture of our first view from the condo.

Our view

Our view from our balcony of the infinity pool overlooking Bahia de Fatima

It was already late in the afternoon when we arrived by private shuttle from the airport in Cancun so we decided to look around our accommodations and then explore the complex before dark.

Entrance to our Condo

Entrance to our Condo

Living/Dining combo looking out to the balcony

Living/Dining combo looking out to the balcony

Looking into the kitchen from the living area

Looking into the kitchen from the living area

Second bedroom off the living area

Second bedroom off the living area

Jim and I were traveling with our friend, Gail, and we agreed that she would have the master bedroom upstairs with its own balcony and another bath, while we would sleep on the main floor. I’m an early riser and I prefer to move around, make coffee, and work on my computer without worrying about disturbing others. Because of this arrangement, I neglected to get photos of her area but it was lovely with a king size bed and large closet along with the aforementioned bath and balcony. Jim and I rearranged our bedroom putting the two single beds together. Sliding doors separated the bedroom from the rest of the living area to provide privacy. (The entire condo is two floors up and, as far as I know, there is no elevator so this is not a good choice if you have mobility problems.)

The condo is supplied with everything one would need for a short or extended stay including wifi, a coffee maker, hairdryer, washer and dryer, a grill and even bottled water. There is a flat screen tv that we turned on just once late in our stay to see a weather report. (We’d heard about the epic storm that was hitting the east coast and Gail was scheduled to go through Baltimore.) Housekeeping came in twice to clean although we were there only one week.

Our first exploration of Puerto Aventuras revealed a gated community with restaurants and shops dotting the central marina. Our condo faced Bahia Fatima on the Caribbean Sea. This map shows the area with Puerto Aventuras resort area east of Highway 307 and the pueblo where the locals live is west of the highway.

On our first walk we saw Dolphin Discovery, where you can swim with the dolphins, then we wandered over to the nearby Omni Hotel. There we discovered their swim-up whirlpool bar that we returned to wearing our swim suits several times during our stay.

Dolphin Discovery

Dolphin Discovery with rainbow overhead

 

Omni Hotel

Omni Hotel swim up bar and whirlpool

 

Puerto Aventuras

Sunset at Puerto Aventuras

The next morning here’s what greeted me when I awoke early and had the living area to myself.

Morning coffee with a view

Morning coffee with a view

I didn’t tire of the view during our stay and I’m hoping our friend has already reserved the condo for two weeks next year. If I’ve kept your interest thus far, here’s the name of the place where we stayed. But shhhh. Let’s keep it our secret.

Chac Hal Al, Puerto Aventuras

Chac Hal Al, Puerto Aventuras

 

Based on events of January, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Mexico, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 10 Comments

Foodie Report for the Norwegian Star

You may recall an earlier post in which I claimed I’m not a foodie. In preparation for this post, I took a quiz to see just how un-foodie I was. You can take the same quiz here: http://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Food/2012/0727/Are-you-a-real-foodie-Take-our-quiz. Imagine my surprise when I scored 80%! A score of 70% or higher qualified me as a definite foodie. Who knew? Frankly, I rocked all the French cooking questions because although I may not consider myself a foodie, I am definitely a francophile. Now that I can legitimately claim the title of foodie, I am presumptuous enough to give you a foodie report for the Norwegian Star.

With a capacity of 2348 passengers, the Star serves a lot of meals which obviously requires a huge amount of food. At embarkation we observed some of the provisions that would be loaded onto the ship to feed us for 14 days at sea.

Provisions to be transported onboard

Provisions to be transported onboard

The Star features 14 dining options, composed of two complimentary main dining rooms, the Versailles and the Aqua; the Market Cafe, which is a buffet; several other bars and cafes that serve food; and 8 specialty restaurants that charge an extra fee.

For breakfast, we opted for a made-to-order omelet and fresh fruit each morning in the Market Cafe after a workout in the fitness center or a walk on the promenade. I usually had egg whites only with every veggie. Yum! I loved sitting outside to enjoy the balmy temperatures in the morning.

Breakfast by the pool on the Norwegian Star

Breakfast by the pool on the Norwegian Star

For lunch, we enjoyed whatever they prepared on the pool deck or went back to the Market Cafe for a big salad and some protein.I enjoyed watching the chefs prepare dishes in mass quantities before our eyes. Since I’m gluten-free, I didn’t eat the pasta…

Seafood Pasta on the Norwegian Star

Seafood Pasta on the Norwegian Star

The first two evenings we ventured to the Versailles Main Dining Room which seats 491 guests. Frankly, we weren’t overly impressed with our service and although the dining room itself is gorgeous, it was noisy and distracting. The third evening we decided to try the other main dining room, the Aqua, which seats 334 guests in a bit more casual venue. We were so impressed that we had dinner there every night thereafter.

Versailles Main Dining Room, Norwegian Star

Lori and Jim at the Versailles

The main dining rooms feature the same menu with items that remain the same each night and “Tonight’s Signature Specialties” that change every evening.  There was plenty of variety and we had no trouble choosing a pleasing entrée along with starters and sumptuous desserts. Each entrée is paired with sides that complement the main dish but you can order additional items if you prefer. I usually opted for seafood while Jim chose beef or pork. I especially liked the portion control of the dishes that encourages some self-restraint. The service, presentation, and taste were especially good considering how many people they feed each evening.

We enjoyed our servers at the Aqua so much the first evening that we requested seating in their area every evening afterwards. Jessie is from the Philippines and Indra is from Indonesia.  They worked hard, and they were friendly, professional, and knowledgeable.

Our server, Jessie, on the Norwegian Star

Our server, Jessie, on the Norwegian Star

Our server, Indra, Norwegian Star

Our server, Indra, Norwegian Star

I love taking photos of food so I’m happy to share some of our meals with you. I wish I’d thought to photograph the menu each night so I could identify each dish as well. The names of the dishes are as appealing as the food, in my opinion.

IMG_9025 IMG_9026 IMG_9027 IMG_9038 IMG_9039 IMG_9236 IMG_9476 IMG_9528

They say the average cruiser gains a pound a day. I say you can actually choose to live a healthier lifestyle on a cruise ship.  If you get some exercise each day and make sensible food choices among the plentiful offerings, you can come home without “extra baggage.”

 

 

Taken from events of November, 2014

 

 

 

Categories: cruise, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , | 3 Comments

If Everyone Liked It…

The first time we went on a cruise, my husband, Jim, says he had to be dragged kicking and screaming onto the ship and he had to be dragged kicking and screaming off the ship. He mistakenly thought he would hate it but now we’re experienced cruisers with 8 cruises under our belts including 2 Mediterranean cruises, 5 to the Caribbean, and most recently the transit through the Panama Canal on the Norwegian Star. Next on the docket is an Alaskan cruise scheduled for June, 2015.

Cruising offers several advantages. First, your transportation, accommodations, meals, and entertainment are all included in the package so there’s less to plan and arrange after selecting your cruise. There are plenty of cruise lines and itineraries to choose from so you’re likely to find the perfect cruise for you. In addition, you know what you’re getting for your money and the total cost upfront… unless you spend a lot onboard and don’t keep track. You can choose to do as much or as little as you like with lots of options for activities onboard and excursions in ports, or simply relaxing by the pool with a book in hand. A cruise allows you to sample various ports of call without longterm commitment. If you like a place, you can return in the future and if you don’t like it, you’re not stuck for the duration of your vacation. Finally, while traveling place to place, your belongings stay onboard in one place so you don’t have to pack up for the next stop.

There are several disadvantages as well. If you’re a misanthrope or just not a particularly sociable person, the proximity of 2400 other passengers and half again as many staff may be uncomfortable. If you suffer from motion sickness (I had it once) or any other illness, being on a ship confined to a tiny stateroom is definitely a nightmare. See my post entitled Quarantine on the Norwegian Star. Additionally, there isn’t much opportunity to spontaneously  change plans because you have no choice but to go where the cruise ship goes at the appointed time or they WILL leave you behind.  Finally, alcohol is very expensive onboard and although you can take your own wine, it carries high corking fees. Cruising isn’t for everyone but as a friend once said, “If everyone liked it, it would be too crowded for us.”

Each ship is different but all that I’ve seen have a Las Vegas vibe to them–a kind of gaudy, glitzy, glittery glamour. Personally, I prefer a more understated elegance but I’m sure the cruise lines have plenty of research to back up their style choices. The closest I’ve seen to my personal taste is the Hawaiian theme decor on the Norwegian Jade which, ironically, cruises the Mediterranean and not Hawaii.

Before we leave the ship at the end of our cruise through the Panama Canal, here is a last look at the Norwegian Star.

The Atrium on the Norwegian Star

The Atrium on the Norwegian Star

Mural in Stairwell

Mural in Stairwell

Deck chairs on the Promenade

Deck chairs on the Promenade

Promenade Deck

Promenade Deck

Red Lion Pub

Red Lion Pub

IMG_9380

Lori on deck for walking

IMG_8833

Pool area with water slide

IMG_9491

Lori and me in the hot tub

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Towel Art

An example of towel art that appeared every evening in our stateroom

Panama Canal Photo

Goodbye to Cruising the Norwegian Star

So tell me, have you cruised? What other advantages or disadvantages of cruising have you identified? Please share your thoughts.

Based on events from November, 2014

Categories: cruise, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

That’s Entertainment — Norwegian Star Style

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We usually take in the entertainment in the main theater every night while on a cruise ship. It’s not always great entertainment but it’s generally good enough entertainment and it doesn’t cost anything extra so why not? The night they had a hypnotist on the Norwegian Star, however, I said maybe we should skip it. I’ve been hypnotized several times so I just knew I’d end up on stage. Jim said, “Oh, come on, it’ll be fun” so I relented and off we went.

The hypnotist did his thing and sure enough, I was the first one selected and ended up center stage.

IMG_9075

Let me tell you about my experiences with hypnosis. I’ve laid down with my head on one chair, my feet on another with nothing in between, a person placed on top of me, and the hypnotist standing on top of both of us. That’s the most remarkable feat, but I’ve done plenty of silly things like acting as if the person next to me on stage smells really bad, etc. This time I was the last person on stage because the hypnotist told me I was stuck to the chair and although I needed a restroom badly, I couldn’t get up from the chair until either he or the cruise director shook my hand. So I squirmed and crossed my legs and asked the cruise director if I could leave but stayed stuck to my chair until he finally shook my hand at which time I left the stage.

According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, hypnosis is “a trance-like state in which you have heightened focus and concentration.”  That sounds benign, don’t you think? So, how does hypnosis feel, you ask? I feel totally in control; I believe I could leave the stage if I wanted; I feel relaxed and cooperative. I would never do anything I wouldn’t do ordinarily but I feel like it’s important to go along with the show so the hypnotist doesn’t look bad. In a later seminar, the hypnotist, TerranceB, confirmed that’s exactly how he feels when hypnotized. He said anyone can be hypnotized if they are willing and not fearful of it. While under hypnosis I am aware of what is happening and I remember everything afterward. I also feel refreshed after the experience and sleep incredibly well that night. I don’t know why I’m such a good subject but a therapist friend said I’m likely highly suggestible. Somehow, I’m not sure that sounds like a good thing.

Other entertainment in the Stardust Theater included a tribute act to Frankie Valley and the Four Seasons, an outstanding acrobatic aerial show, a lot of comedy acts including Second City, comedy with magic, a comedy juggler, (both of these last two were MUCH better than they sound), and several performances by the Norwegian Star Production Cast and Show Band. Photography isn’t allowed so I only have pictures of the theater and us.

Stardust Theater on the Norwegian Star

Stardust Theater on the Norwegian Star

Stardust Theater on the Norwegian Star, 2014

Stardust Theater on the Norwegian Star, 2014

There is also lots more entertainment, music, and dancing in lounges and bars throughout the ship until late into the night. I rarely make it past 10 p.m. so I missed most of that but I did make it a priority to dance a few nights.

Dancing in the Spinnaker Lounge

Dancing in the Spinnaker Lounge

We’re not big gamblers but the casino onboard any ship usually sees a lot of action. This ship actually struck me as having somewhat fewer gamblers than usual. I’ll play a few penny slots but I haven’t struck it rich yet.

Slots in the Casino

Slots in the Casino

There’s plenty of daytime entertainment all over the ship as well, including game shows, bingo, trivia, dance lessons, and more. The ice sculpting on the pool deck was fascinating to watch even though I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t remember the finished product.

Ice carving emonstration

Ice carving demonstration

My friend, Lori, and I went to a French wine tasting that was well worth the extra charge and the sommelier was very knowledgable and engaging. He was generous with his pours, too.

Wine tasting

Wine tasting

One of my favorite shows was the Norwegian Star Crew Show. Crew members from all over the ship displayed a variety of amazing talents. But the final act, Fountains, performed by the cruise director and his staff, was absolutely hilarious. Dressed in sheets to look like Greek performers, they spit streams of water all over each other and the stage as they imitated fountains in a very funny and creative show. Photographs were allowed and encouraged for this particular show.

Fountains

Fountains on the Norwegian Star

Truly, there are so many competing entertainment options while on a cruise ship that the challenge is to pick the ones that interest you most. Just be sure to check out what they have to offer. You’ll be glad you did.

 

Based on events of November, 2014

Categories: cruise, Uncategorized | Tags: , | 4 Comments

Fit for Travel in 2015

Happy_New_Year_2015

On New Year’s Eve, one of my Zumba instructors asked me when I was going to write a blog post about Zumba. My first thought was, “I do a travel blog, not an exercise blog” and my second thought was, “Why not?” I’ve attended Zumba classes while traveling in northern Wisconsin; St Louis, Missouri; Sarasota, Florida; on a cruise ship in the Caribbean; and even in Krakow, Poland where the instructor didn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Polish but we both spoke Zumba which was good enough. It’s obviously travel-related for me. So, Brenda, this one’s for you.

When I’m at home, I go to Brenda’s class on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings and to Nikki’s class on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. It’s a fun way to get fit by dancing. You can go at your own pace and once you know the basic steps, you can go anywhere and feel comfortable joining the class.

Zumba with Brenda

Zumba with Brenda

Zumba Love

Zumba Love with Brenda

I’ve found Zumba classes all over the world while traveling, and if you want to find one near you, check out Zumba.com. The one below was in O’Fallon, Missouri at the YMCA.

Zumba at O'fallon Family YMCA, O'Fallon, MO

Zumba at O’fallon Family YMCA, O’Fallon, MO

When not going to Zumba, I still try to stay active wherever I go. There are lots of opportunities to move your body that enhance the travel experience and don’t feel like “working out.” So here are just a few suggestions I’d like to share.

First of all, we walk–a lot–wherever we travel. If a point of interest is within walking distance, we walk rather than ride. I admit it’s probably more about my budget travel goals than getting exercise but it’s also a healthier option. And sometimes you can’t get there unless you hike, like we did in Krakow, Poland. Michael took us to see Kościuszko Mound which involved a long hike through a forest and then when we got there we still had to climb the mound. But the view was totally worth it.

Krakow, Poland

Hiking in Krakow, Poland

Kościuszko Mound, Krakow, Poland

The trail circles the mound with no railings until you reach the summit at Kościuszko Mound, Krakow, Poland

Kościuszko Mound, Krakow, Poland

View from the summit of Kościuszko Mound, Karakow, Poland, April, 2011

Closer to home, you may recall my post from July 15, 2014 about the hike my husband and I took around Devil’s Tower, Wyoming or the July 22, 2014 post about hiking part of the Spokane River Centennial Trail with my girlfriends. If you don’t remember, that’s a shameless plug to check them out.

Devil's Tower, WY

Devil’s Tower, WY

Spokane River Centennial Trail

My friends hiking the Spokane River Centennial Trail, 2014

Another option is to ride a bike. Bike rentals are often inexpensive and add an experiential dimension to any trip. We rented bikes on several occasions in Belgrade, Serbia and Lucca, Italy which got us farther than we could have gone by walking but still enabled us to enjoy our surroundings at a leisurely pace.

Belgrade, Serbia

Biking to Ada Ciganlija, Belgrade, Serbia, Sept. 2010

Biking the ramparts in Lucca, Italy, 2013

Biking the ramparts in Lucca, Italy, 2013

Even hitting the links or the pool is fun, especially when entertaining children. Of course, you can’t take your golf game too seriously with children, which I think is a good thing.

Golfing at Winghaven Country Club, O'Fallon, MO

Golfing in Missouri

Pool at Winghaven Country Club, O'Fallon, MO

Pool Time

If you’re more adventurous, try snorkeling. Most rentals will give you instructions but it’s pretty easy especially if you’re near the shore and can stand up if you start to feel uncertain. It’s such a great way to enjoy tropical marine life in the Caribbean. The coral and the colorful, iridescent tropical fish look amazing when viewed from underwater.

Snorkeling in the Caribbean

Snorkeling in the Caribbean

Snorkeling in the Caribbean

Snorkeling in the Caribbean

Still more water options include kayaking and paddle boarding, both of which are much easier than you may think.

Kayaking in Isla Mujeres

Kayaking at Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Paddle boarding in Florida

Paddle boarding in Florida

Cruise ships are notorious for weight gain among their passengers so to counteract this threat, I make an effort to do something active every day. We always explore the fitness center as soon as we board the ship so that we know what is available and where to go to find it. On every ship we’ve had weight machines, free weights, treadmills, and elliptical machines in the fitness center. They also offer classes that may include pilates, crossfit, Latin dancing, stretching, abdominal work outs and more. Some of the classes charge a fee, however.

Fitness Room on the Norwegian Star

Fitness Room on the Norwegian Star

We also like to play a little shuffleboard which probably doesn’t burn a lot of calories but at least we’re moving. Notice the walkers behind our friends on this deck, too.

Shuffle board

Shuffle board

Our last cruise on the Norwegian Star had a water slide and I even had a turn at that just for the fun of it.

Water slide on the Norwegian Star

Water slide on the Norwegian Star

There are really so many fun ways that support fitness while traveling that it’s not difficult to find something you’ll enjoy. If you really dislike any form of exercise, however, here’s a suggestion. I received a Fitbit Flex as a Christmas gift and it tracks every step you take, syncs with your computer, iPad or smart phone, and shows you the results. Health experts tell us we need to take 10,000 steps a day. With this on your wrist, you’ll see how many steps you’re taking all day long and find out whether you need to do a little more. I love it and you may, too.

Fitbit Flex

Fitbit Flex

Do you make any New Year’s resolutions? I usually try to think of a few ways to improve my health and fitness but not commit to anything that will likely result in failure. This year I’m resolving to take 10,000 steps each day. Fortunately, the Fitbit tells me that one hour of Zumba racks up over half of those steps each day and burns 300-500 calories.

Yes, that's me in the headband at a Zumba Pretty in Pink fundraiser against breast cancer

Yes, that’s me in the headband at a Zumba Pretty in Pink fundraiser against breast cancer

 

Brenda

Brenda between my friend and sweaty me (post workout)

“Ditch the Workout, Join the Party” as the Zumba slogan goes. I’ll look for you there!

Share how you stay fit while traveling and/or your fitness goals for 2015 in comments.

Categories: cruise, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Cartagena, Colombia

The last port of call on our 14 day Panama Canal cruise was Cartagena, Colombia. The U.S. State Department maintains a travel warning for Colombia, but tourist areas are considered safe. Tourists are warned not to venture into rural areas, however, where drug trafficking and kidnapping still occur on occasion.

This was our second visit to Cartagena. Our previous visit occurred in February, 2013 and we were charmed by the old colonial city with its Spanish architecture and colorful tropical flowers, especially the Bougainvillea.  We walked the 12 foot high ramparts surrounding the old town while drinking in breathtaking views of the Caribbean. Then on our cab ride back to the port, we spotted a fortress high on a hill and we knew immediately we’d missed a key sight. It was Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, and this time we were intent on touring it so we made it our first stop. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is remarkably intact and fascinating.

Approach to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas in Cartagena

Approach to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas in Cartagena

Built  in the 1600’s to ward off repeated attacks by pirates, including the likes of Sir Francis Drake searching for booty of gold and silver, it is the largest fortification constructed by the Spanish in the new world.

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena

The fascinating part is an extensive system of tunnels built under the fortress for storage, communication, and escape. The acoustic design resulted in amplification of sound so that intruders would be detected if they somehow gained access to the tunnels. A generous portion of the tunnels is open to the public and although they are low and narrow with a number of steps up and down, I explored every accessible bit. After the hot, steamy climb up to the fortress with little shade, it was a relief to get out of the sun.

Tunnels in Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Tunnels in Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

City View from Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

City View from Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

View from Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

View from Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

After spending sufficient time and energy in the steamy heat exploring the fortress, we ventured onward to the old town which is also part of the designated World Heritage Site.

The clock tower is a famous Cartagena landmark and the easiest starting place for a self guided tour and a good place to meet your pre-arranged transportation at the end of your visit. It was once the main and only gate into the walled city.

Clock tower, Cartagena, Colombia

Clock Tower, Cartagena, Colombia

Immediately inside the Clock Tower Gate is Coach Square, so-called because it is where the horse-drawn carriages line up to provide tours. Notice the balconies on the buildings. You’ll see them everywhere, designed to catch the sea breeze in a sultry climate along with the covered walkways to provide shade. Historically, this square was originally named Plaza del Esclavo, the scene of slave trading in the 17th century.

Coach Square, Cartagena

Coach Square, Cartagena

San Pedro Claver, the first person canonized in the New World, was a Jesuit priest who befriended and served the African slaves who were traded in Cartagena. In addition to the square and church named for him, there is a sculpture of him located here.

Iglesia de San Pedro Claver

Iglesia (Church) de San Pedro Claver in Claver Plaza

San Pedro Claver

Sculpture of San Pedro Claver

Other sculptures around this square are scrap metal depictions of modern everyday life in Cartagena. Created by Eduardo Carmona, this street folk art adds another charming dimension to the old city.

IMG_2931

Metal Sculpture in Claver Plaza

Metal Sculpture

Metal Sculpture in Claver Plaza

Nearby, we found a staircase to the ramparts so we ascended to take in the views from above.

Ramparts of Cartagena

View of the Caribbean from las murallas (walls) of Cartagena

View of the old city from las murallas

View of the old city from las murallas

It is admittedly more uncomfortably hot walking the ramparts with no shade for relief so this time we soon escaped back to the streets with shade. Nearby, the Plaza Bolivar, named for Simon Bolivar who liberated Colombia from Spanish rule in 1811 and became the first president, offers a welcome shady respite.

IMG_9438

Fruit vendors in colorful costumes

Bougainvillea adorning the balconies

Bougainvillea adorning the balconies

Cartagena was every bit as charming the second time around. If I happen to take another Caribbean cruise that includes this port, I’ll happily return. La ciudad es preciosa y tiene mucho gran historia. That’s Spanish for, “The city is very lovely and it has a lot of great history.”

Categories: cruise, History, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 7 Comments

Christmas Tidings

The holidays bring out my sentimental side. I watch all the holiday movies and cry over Hallmark cards. I love tradition and draw comfort from spending the holidays with family and friends, listening to (dare I say singing) carols, decorating my home and savoring all the decorations around me. While we stay at home for Christmas, we’ve certainly traveled before and after the holidays. Fortunately for us, many places keep their decorations up through Epiphany, January 6, so we’ve seen Christmas decorations in the U.S., the Caribbean, and Europe either before or after Christmas. Here are just a few of the fun photos and memories I found to share. So grab a cup of something warm and visit a few places near and far with me.

If you’re in Rome, Italy, during the Christmas season, you absolutely must see the life-size Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. They also erect a huge Christmas tree in the square, although this is a fairly recent addition. The Pope conducts midnight mass in St. Peter’s Basilica where crowds of people pack the square to watch on large screens. Then on Christmas day the Pope delivers his Christmas message from the balcony of the Papal Apartments. The Catholic Education Resource Center (Saunders, 2003), explains that the first celebration of Christmas occurred in Rome so it seems a fitting place to begin our tour.

Nativity in St Peter's Square at the Vatican

Nativity in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican

Christmas Tree at St. Peter's Square

Christmas Tree at St. Peter’s Square

Many European cities offer Christmas markets in their city squares. One of the most famous in Rome is the Christmas Market of Piazza Navona where you can buy handmade ornaments, toys, gifts, and foods. Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) even puts in an appearance to warn the children to be good.

Christmas Market in Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

Christmas Market in Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

Babbo Natale, Piazza Navona, Rome

Babbo Natale, Piazza Navona, Rome

While in Ostia Antica, visiting the ancient ruins of the seaport outside of Rome, we had dinner at a trattoria with festive decorations that caught my eye so I took this photo.

Christmas decorations in trattoria in Ostia Antica

Christmas decorations in trattoria in Ostia Antica

Brussels, Belgium, however, had the most eye-catching decorations I’ve seen. Possibly other places use these decorations but I haven’t seen them elsewhere.  They feature Santa Claus climbing up the side of the building. In this case, 10 Santas were climbing.

Climbing Santas in Brussels, Belgium

Climbing Santas in Brussels, Belgium

In Belgium, where Dutch and French traditions combine, St. Nicholas and Pere Noel both visit on December 6 bringing gifts for the Feast of St. Nicholas and then again on Christmas.  My grandparents were Czech immigrants and we also celebrated St. Nicholas Day when I was a child, getting fruit, nuts and candies in our stockings so I love this tradition. Brussels, like Rome, also features a Christmas Market, Christmas tree, and Nativity in the Grand Place.

Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium

Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium

Brussels, Belgium

Christmas Tree in the Grand Place, Brussels

Brussels, Belgium

Nativity Scene in the Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium

My husband, Jim, says you haven’t been to Europe if you haven’t been to Luxembourg so we stayed at the Hotel Italia in Luxembourg City as captured in this photo. We weren’t there while their Christmas Market was operating but I’ve seen photos online and it looks amazing. You can check it out here.

Hotel Italia, Luxembourg

Hotel Italia, Luxembourg

Luxembourg

Luxembourg City, Luxembourg

I’ve been fortunate to visit Paris several times while the decorations were up but alas, I have few photos of them. My most vivid memory, however, is of the decorations adorning the department stores in Paris. Similar to what you see in New York City, they delight the eye and fill hearts with Christmas spirit.  I have one photo below but I have no idea what store it is. (If you happen to know, post in comments.) Similar to other areas of Europe, we saw a large Christmas tree outside Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and I understand the largest Christmas Market in Paris is held along the Champs Elysees. Incidentally, both of these traditions, Christmas trees and markets, originated in Germany.

Department store in Paris

Department store in Paris

Paris Lights

Paris Lights

Paris Lights

Paris Lights

Christmas tree at Notre Dam, Paris

Christmas tree at Notre Dame, Paris

Lights in Paris

Lights in Paris

My husband and sons with Eiffel Tower and Christmas Lights in Paris

My husband and sons with Eiffel Tower and Christmas Lights in Paris

Tour Eiffel, Paris

Tour Eiffel, Paris, no Christmas decorations but I love this picture

Bayeux, France is one of the most charming towns I have seen. I have a great story about our accommodations in Bayeux that will have to wait for another time but I will just tell you that we went to Bayeux specifically to see the Bayeux tapestry. Unfortunately, it is closed during the month of January every year so we’ll be going back. Tip: Check the opening days and times for every “must see” sight whenever planning a trip. The photos show a restaurant where we ate and a view of the town with lights that were magical at night.

Bayeux, France

Bayeux, France

Bayeux, France

Bayeux, France

Back in the western hemisphere, we’ve traveled to the Caribbean and I love seeing Christmas decorations in the tropics. Unfortunately, the only photos I found happened to be on cruise ships.

Ready for Christmas

Ready for Christmas in the Caribbean

Onboard the Norwegian Epic

Onboard the Norwegian Epic

Keeping with the charm of Christmas in warm weather, the lights wrapped around palm trees always thrill me. Phoenix, Arizona does their lighting right.

Ahwatukee Hills area in Phoenix

Ahwatukee Hills area in Phoenix

Closer to home, our family tradition when our children were small was to visit my hometown Wausau, Wisconsin at Thanksgiving and cut a balsam tree at our favorite tree farm, Tannenbaum Acres, in Wittenburg, Wisconsin. The kids enjoyed going over the river and through the woods (literally) to find the perfect tree and the llamas and donkeys that live at the Korbisch’s Tannenbaum Acres got a fair share of their attention.

Picking the perfect tree

Picking the perfect tree with Emma, the perfect dog

Tannenbaum Acres, Wittenburg, WI

Tannenbaum Acres, Wittenburg, WI

Thank you for indulging me on my trip down memory lane. I hope you enjoyed seeing a few of the signs of Christmas gleaned from my travels. From home in Iowa where we’ll celebrate Christmas with family including our sons and new daughter-in-law, I’m wishing you many blessings at Christmastime and throughout the new year.

Scanned Image 143490000

 

References:
Saunders, Fr. William. (2003). The First Christmas.
Retrieved from http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/the-first-christmas.html

Categories: Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Panama Canal Back Story

I think most people, even those who don’t care about history, have some idea that the Panama Canal is an amazing feat of engineering. I hope they know that the Panama Canal is widely regarded as one of the wonders of the modern world.  Most probably don’t know, however, why these statements are true.   Here are just a few fascinating details about the Panama Canal.

Prior to the completion of the Panama Canal, goods were shipped from New York to California around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. It was a long, dangerous journey and a shortcut across Panama connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans would shave off 8,000 nautical miles saving both time and money. (Completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 offered another transport option but that’s a story for another day.)

Expeditions to find or create a waterway across the isthmus of Panama are recorded as early as the 16th century when Vasco Nunez de Balboa explored the area for Spain. It was the French, however, that initiated a project in 1881 under the leadership of engineer and developer, Ferdinand de Lesseps. He previously had completed the Suez Canal in Egypt in 1869, after 10 years of construction at a cost of $100 million so he mistakenly thought a canal across Panama would be similar in effort and equally lucrative to investors. The Suez Canal, however, is a 100 mile pathway at sea level which was impossible to re-create across the 50 mile isthmus of Panama due to entirely different conditions.

“Apart from wars, it represented the largest, most costly single effort ever before mounted anywhere on earth,” wrote David McCullough, in his award-winning book about the Panama Canal, The Path Between the Seas.  Between 1881 and 1888, French investors spent over $280 million before the project went bankrupt.  The United States purchased the rights to the project in 1902 and spent another $375 million from 1904 until the project was completed in 1914.

The French plan called for a canal built at sea level which required monumental excavation through tropical jungle and mountainous terrain.  Due to heavy rainfall feeding waterlogged ground and the wild and treacherous Chagres River, excavation efforts repeatedly resulted in massive mudslides. Too late in the project but finally accepting that a sea level canal was impossible, de Lesseps conceded the need to use a system of locks to reduce the amount of earth to be moved. Thirty million cubic yards of earth were excavated in the French project which was a fraction of the total amount that would be moved.

In addition, tropical diseases decimated the workforce. By the time the French project failed, the death toll stood at 20,000 from malaria, yellow fever, or accidents. This is likely a gross underestimate, however, because deaths that occurred outside the hospital weren’t counted.

President Theodore Roosevelt initiated the American canal project and he is often credited with its construction but work actually continued throughout the term of President William Howard Taft and the canal was completed during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. When Colombia didn’t agree to the terms offered by the United States, U.S. gun-boat diplomacy ensured the success of Panama’s bloodless revolution to establish their independence from Colombia. Better terms followed. The U.S. obtained a 10 mile wide strip of land across Panama for a canal for a one-time payment of $10 million and $250,000 annually.

The American plan eventually called for a system of locks to raise ships to the level of man-made Lake Gatun at 85 feet above sea level, which was created by damming the Chagres River.  After crossing the lake, ships would pass through another set of locks to return to sea level in the other ocean. Beginning in 1904, the American experience was similar to that of the French but the tide finally turned when John Stevens was appointed chief engineer in 1905.  With better planning, a repaired railroad, more effective equipment, and improved sanitation (to decrease the mosquito population), the project finally took off. Over 238 million cubic yards of earth were moved and more than 5,000 workers died in the American project. It opened in 1914 on schedule and under budget. In 1999, the United States transferred control of the Panama Canal to Panama.

Today, the canal operates as it did when it was built and it is completely self-sufficient.  Three dams produce electricity and the tremendous rainfall replenishes the 52 million gallons of water expended in each transit. There are two tracks through the locks allowing 2 ships to transit the locks at the same time.  Water fills the locks by use of gravity while locomotives, called mules, actually tow the ships through the locks. It takes 8-10 hours to transit the entire canal including locks at each end and Gatun Lake in between.  Currently, over 13,000 transits occur annually producing revenue of $1.8 billion. The cost per transit varies by tonnage and number of passengers but a cruise ship, for example, pays around $300,000 to transit the Panama Canal. Curiously, it seems like you should be going east when transiting the Panama Canal from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. In actuality, you are headed northwest as the map below shows.

Miraflores Locks

Miraflores Locks

Gates closing on the lock

Gates closing on the lock

Workers walking across the gate of the lock when it's closed

Workers walking across the gate of the lock when it’s closed

Container ship in the lock next to us with "mules" to the right of the ship  on the track

Container ship in the lock next to us with “mules” to the right of the ship on the track

Terracing on the Calebra Cut

Terracing on the Calebra Cut

Man-made Gatun Lake, Panama Canal

Man-made Gatun Lake created by dam on the Chagres River

The Panama Canal expansion project began in 2007 and is currently over 80% completed. Another set of locks is under construction that will double capacity and accommodate new and larger ships. In addition, dredging will improve the navigational channels.

View of Panama Canal Expansion Project

View of Panama Canal Expansion Project

Dredging to improve channel navigation

Dredging to improve channel navigation

Everyone I’ve talked to that has taken a cruise through the Panama Canal cites it as their best cruise ever.  With so many endorsements, we simply had to do it and we thought the centennial year would be the perfect time.  Our friends, Lori and Rick, also wanted to do this trip so off we went. The day before we arrived at the Panama Canal, the Norwegian Star showed the PBS NOVA documentary, A Man, A Plan, A Canal–Panama, narrated by David Mccullough. After learning so much about the history, we were all excited and up at dawn when we arrived at the Panama Canal. In all honesty, I’ve seen locks before so this was not totally new to me.  After the first lock, I’d seen enough and it was kind of like watching paint dry thereafter. (In fairness, I must say my husband vehemently disagrees with this statement.) The back story, however, is fascinating to me and I hope you think so, too.

Categories: History, Travel | Tags: , | 6 Comments

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