Packing for the Trip

Packing

Traveling light can become a lifestyle once you give packing some thought. It actually makes the trip much easier on you when you no longer are hauling around oversized and heavy luggage.

Pick your wardrobe carefully. Check the weather where you are going to help determine what clothes to pack. Also try to determine any special events that may require dressing up or dressing down. With this information you will be able to determine what you will need but also what isn’t necessary.

Eliminate items that need special care. Don’t take clothes that wrinkle easily or need ironing. (You can pack a small spray bottle and use water to spritz out most wrinkles.) Avoid items, like silk, that are easily damaged in a laundry.

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Packing cubes

Stage clothes you’ve selected in one place so you can make an evaluation. Ask yourself questions like what combinations do I have and how many items work with each other. It’s important to be able to mix and match. Many environments also lend themselves to layering your outfits.

Select clothes designed to travel. Give priority to clothes that can be rinsed out and dried quickly. There are growing choices in miracle fabrics that are designed to keep you cool and dry fast. These items are generally lighter in weight so they take up less space when packing.

Pick shoes with a purpose. We travel with very lightweight tennis shoes (actually running shoes), a pair of sandals and we usually wear our everyday shoes. Pick a comfortable pair that will fit into your wardrobe choices. When packing, fill fold-top sandwich bags with socks and small items and put them in your shoes. This keeps things organized and also keeps the shoes from creasing.

Select the right suitcases. It is awkward to find yourself on a crowded train with an oversized suitcase that you can’t lift or will not fit in the overhead. In places like Italy, people will offer to lift the suitcases and place them in the overhead racks for you but then they will demand a substantial tip. On commuter trains, you cannot place suitcases on the seats without being lectured or, at best, glared at the entire journey.

We have gotten into the habit of traveling mostly with two carry-on size suitcases and a couple of backpacks. We have started using packing cubes to organize the suitcase contents and reduce items shifting around. We also usually carry a light- weight foldable backpack for holding things acquired along the way.

The following is a collection of links for light weight, easy dry clothing that can save you time and space while traveling:

32 Degrees – We’ve become very fond of this line of clothing. Available in thermal and sweat wicking shirts and other apparel. We both wear their T’s and thermals.

Exofficio – They offer a wide assortment of fast dry under garments for men and women along with interesting travel ideas.

Balanced Tech @ Amazon – another good collection of fast dry clothing.

Under Armour – This company was the first in the market with sweat wicking clothing and was originally marketed to the military and police.

UNIQLO – this is a Japanese clothing company that is expanding quickly worldwide. We believe they offer a premium line at reasonable price. We have bought and traveled with their moisture wicking polo shirts and while heavier than Columbia they still seem to rinse and dry quickly.

Columbia – has built its brand around cool travel clothing. I have had issues with their polo shirts developing pulls in the fabric and am beginning to rethink this shirt.

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St. Croix U.S.V.I.

St Croix: A Different Caribbean

At 84 square miles, St. Croix is the largest island in the Virgin Island group and significantly more rural than the others. The island features a rain forest in its western interior, an arid climate in the east and two historic towns.

The island was a possession of Denmark until the early nineteenth century and boasts a deepwater port at the west-end town of Fredireksted. The port was defended by Fort Fredirek as far back as the mid eighteenth century. A second deepwater industrial port was developed on the south coast in the nineteenth century. The island, along with St. Thomas and St. John was bought by the United States in the early nineteenth century. That means you don’t need a passport to visit and you can bring back five liters of liquor duty free.

Christiansted is the other town on the island and, to us, represents the quintessential tropical waterfront. Christiansted is located on the north central coast. The waterfront is fringed with a boardwalk and small boat docks, protected by a natural reef and a close-in small island. The harbor features sailboats at anchor, crystal clear water and a number of small hotels and restaurants along the boardwalk. Running up from the waterfront is a colonial era town where the stone and brick buildings include colonnades protecting the sidewalks. Most of these buildings feature galleries, shops and restaurants along with a couple of small hotels. Just to the east on the waterfront is the old Fort Christiansvaern operated by the U.S. Park Service. The small island in the harbor is Protestant Cay and features the Hotel on the Cay which is serviced by hotel launches.

For almost thirty years, Christiansted was often our base of operations and we have stayed at King’s Alley, Holger Danske, Caravelle, The Hotel on the Cay, The Danish Manor (now the Company House Hotel) and a number of places which are no longer open, like the Anchor Inn. On a number of trips we didn’t rent a car and spent almost all our time around town or at the beach at The Hotel on the Cay. (You can take the hotel launch over for a fee if you aren’t a guest).

Most of the beachfront resorts are clustered in three or four locations on the island and you really need a rental car to get around. Driving is on the left side of the road which can be awkward because most of the vehicles also have the steering column on the left. Taxis are available but they are expensive. There is also limited bus service and “taxi buses” which have dedicated routes and a flat fare.

The most popular area on the island is the eastern north shore with the centerpiece being the Buccaneer Resort and Golf Course. The Buccaneer has been an institution on the island forever and deserves its’ high marks. A little further along the coast are the Tamarind Beach and Chenay Bay resorts. We stayed at Chenay Bay a couple of times long ago when the cabins were pretty primitive but still everyone enjoyed the stay and the beach is great. Based on current photos and reviews a lot has changed at Chenay Bay.

Crossing the island to the east end of the south shore there are a couple of resorts centered on Divi Carina Bay Resort. We haven’t visited since Hurricane Hugo destroyed the Divi hotels in 1989 but, before that, we did a fair amount of snorkeling along that shore. The reef is close along that area and the coral is impressive.

Another area, which we used to love for its beaches and good snorkeling, is Davis Bay. Located along the western north coast it has always been pretty isolated and primitive but the beaches are some of the best on the island. Some thirty years ago the Rock Resort people built an exclusive resort above Davis Bay called the Carambola Resort but a combination of things, including Hugo, caused the venture to fail. Today it is alive as the Renaissance St. Croix Carambola Resort and, based on location alone, it is worth considering.

On our first visit to St. Croix we rented an apartment at Mill Harbor and it is still there and renting units along with its neighbors Colony Cove and Sugar Beach. While a little out of the way, the beach is nice and the amenities are good.

Back in the day when an associate and I had some time to kill we would drive into the rain forest for a beer and stop at a thatch-roofed shack of a bar with a pig pen attached. In those days you were expected to buy the pig a beer by simply tossing a can into the pen. The pig would pick up the can, raise its head, crush the can and drink. If you got there too late (or early depending on perspective), the pig was passed out drunk. I never knew the places name but apparently it is Montpellier Domino Club and I would bet that that pig is long gone. It has been replaced by a couple of pigs and now seems to be a “must do” tourist destination.

If you are a skin or scuba diver, or just a novice swimmer, one real “must do” on St. Croix is to visit the underwater National Park at Buck Island where the whole island, not just the reef, is the park. Located 1.5 miles off the northeast coast, there are a number of boat tours from Christiansted out to the area and the reef is spectacular. There is also an underwater trail on the eastern tip. If you can convince yourself to take this trip and put on a face mask you will never forget it.

At this juncture we don’t think we can offer much in the way of restaurant recommendations because that scene is likely to change a lot over even short periods of time. Back in the day Friday night was a locals event at Cheeseburgers in Paradise and, that may still be the case, but late night mud pie and Jamaican coffee at the Chart House are long gone. Anyone with recent experiences, we would love to hear from you. We are planning a short visit for this coming January.

While there aren’t a lot of cruise ships visiting some do spend a day tied up to the Fredireksted pier and, if this is how you come to St. Croix, we would recommend that you rent a car and spend your day driving around the island. The scenery is breathtaking with the rugged coast along North Shore Road and Cane Bay Road worth the trip. Along Centerline Road visit the Estate Whim Museum, the only surviving plantation great house in the Virgin Islands. Go into Christiansted for lunch and a walk around and return to Fredireksted via the rain forest on Mahogany Road.

 

Cruising and The Jones Act

Why can’t you book some back to back cruises?

Ever tried to book back-to-back cruises and the cruise company says you can’t book it because it invokes the Jones Act? The Jones Act is a 97-year-old regulatory relic instituted during the Wilson administration to protect our maritime industry. The short description says that you cannot transport cargo or passengers between two American ports unless you use ships built in American shipyards, flagged as an American ship and crewed by U.S. citizens. The problem for the cruise industry is America doesn’t build cruise ships any more, it is expensive to flag ships in the U.S. and even more difficult to staff ships with U.S. citizens.

While it is a nuisance for the cruise industry it is a disaster for American business and our economy. As of 2016 there are less than one hundred tankers in the world that meet the Jones Act requirements. Because of this it is cheaper to ship U.S. oil to Europe from Texas than to refineries in New Jersey. What that means is our oil companies import more expensive oil while at the same time we export our oil. While complicated the Jones Act is one of the things standing in the way of our energy independence.

One of the more insane things that happened as a result of the Jones Act occurred during the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Norway dispatched three specialized oil clean-up ships to help with the disaster but the U.S. government wouldn’t allow them to help because of the act.

There have been a number of locations where the cruise industry has wanted to serve the American traveler by embarking in one port and disembarking in another. Hawaii is one of those locations, with inter-island cruises as well as cruises originating on the West Coast. New England cruises and Alaska are two other cruise destinations that would benefit by not having a Jones Act. In the case of Alaska there are a number of popular week-long itineraries that go one way, but because of the Jones Act they are served out of Vancouver instead of the U.S. port of Seattle. We recently wanted to take the last Alaska cruise of the year from Seattle and stay on for a cruise from Vancouver to Hawaii but because we would embark in Seattle and disembark in Honolulu the Jones Act prevented it.

If you are a cruiser maybe it’s time you suggest to your congressman that the Jones Act has outlived its usefulness. Even if cruising isn’t your thing you should still consider contacting your congressman. The Jones Act costs you money at the gas pump by adding one or two billion dollars to fuel transportation costs each year and also prevents economical use of LNG in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Guam. Puerto Rico is the most negatively impacted by a number of elements in the act. There are still a number lobbies that fight to keep the Jones Act from being repealed and that includes labor unions, like the long shoremen and law firms that work injuries at sea cases. It has been suggested a number of times that the act could be eliminated for our island territories at least and new laws could be passed designed to cover American labor impacted by the health issues involved. Unfortunately special interests still take priority in Congress over the interests of an uninformed public.

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Bangkok Thailand

The current(?) Palace

Visiting Bangkok can be an exciting experience. The culture is rich and peaceful, the food is plentiful and diverse and there are many things to see and do. If you arrive on a cruise ship, you dock at Laem Chabang which is a minimum hour-and-a-half drive from the city. If your ship is only there for the day, it is difficult to get into the city and back and still manage to see a lot. If you are lucky, your ship docks one morning and departs the next evening providing you time for an adventure.

The trip into Bangkok is interesting because you see a lot and realize how modern the area is. There are many factories and businesses along the way and rest stops which stretch great distances providing a large number of restaurants and coffee shops for the traveler.

Chao Phraya River

Once into the city, there are numerous temples and markets to visit along with museums and other historical properties. Thailand’s main religion is Buddhism so getting to a temple or two is a must. Keep in mind that there are specific dress codes (i.e. no bare shoulders or short pants) and you probably will be required to remove your shoes. Some temples do not allow photos. The word for temple in Thai is Wat.

The Emerald Buddha (actually made of jade) is probably the most famous and it is on the grounds of the Grand Palace (established in 1782) so you can visit both at the same time. The grounds are huge and include a number of temples and palaces, magnificent statuary, works of art and jeweled walls. There are small admittance fees but you can claim a beautiful brochure once you have paid. The Grand Palace closes from time to time for events/ceremonies so this could affect your visit.

Within a short walk of the Grand Palace is Wat Pho which is home to the Reclining Buddha (covered in gold and 46 meters in length), several other Buddhas and a variety of stone figures. Another famous temple in the area (not walking distance) is Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) on the Chao Phraya River. It can be enjoyed on its’ own or as part of a river/canal tour.

Maeklong Railway Market

While in Bangkok we were urged to try a number of “street” foods, which are everywhere. Mostly what we sampled were fresh fruits with one highlight being a cup of strawberries dusted with salt, sugar and chili powder. Freshly opened coconuts for coconut water were available everywhere. Other foods included grilled chicken, fried bananas and pineapple. After checking into our hotel we went into the shopping district and stopped in a sports bar for a beer. We ordered chicken wings and were served the tiniest wings we’d ever seen, about an inch long.

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market

50 miles from Bangkok is the Maeklong Railway Market, the most unique market in Asia. It features vendors (mostly food) on both sides of the railroad track. They display their products along the tracks and, when the train is coming, they quickly pull everything back until the train passes right through the market. Afterwards, all goods go back by the tracks. This process happens seven times a day but it is best to visit early in the morning when the temperatures and smells are both lower. Food is the main item sold here.

There are many floating markets in Thailand but one of the more interesting ones is Damnoen Saduak, about 60 miles from the city. Products are displayed in boats and around the canals and you can purchase food items that have been cooked on the boats. You can hire a long boat and the operator will row you around the canals to shop and observe. Bartering is a must and payment in local currency (baht) is expected.

Some excursions can be arranged with your ship and hotels in Bangkok also offer access to tour companies. A better alternative, if you are there overnight, is to hire a private travel company like Travel Hub as they have good itineraries and will pick you up at the ship, provide touring, drop you at a hotel and pick you up the following morning for more touring and the journey back to the ship. There are fixed itineraries with a little flexibility and each group includes a guide and driver; the smaller the group, the more personal the tour. Pricing depends on the number of people in the group.

Rest area on Thai highway.

A couple of important notes about visiting Thailand: The people love and respect their king and do not tolerate disrespect. Most Thai homes include photographs or art depicting the king and his family. One story recounts an incident where someone dropped Thai currency and stepped on it to keep it from blowing away. The act was considered an insult to the king because his picture is on all currency. Another note regards the Buddha. Thailand is a Buddhist country and disrespect towards the Buddha is not permitted under Thai law. There are billboards and posters all over the country pointing this out.

If you are planning a trip to Southeast Asia you need to put Thailand at the top of your list.

 

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Getting Around in Sydney

Sydney Opera House at Dusk

If you are planning a trip Down Under with some time in Sydney, you need to build your plans around their great public transportation. Like most large cities, buses are plentiful but Sydney also boasts a rapid transit rail system called “Light Rail” that connects most major parts of the metropolitan area. The cars are modern, clean and comfortable.

We stayed near China Town and there was a surface street stop just a block from our hotel. From there we could get to Darling Harbour, Bondi Junction and Circular Quay all in about a half hour. In addition, the massive Sydney harbor is crisscrossed with dozens of ferries which all seem to converge on Circular Quay next to the famous Sydney Opera House. Even if you don’t have a destination, taking a ferry is a great way to see the sights around the harbor. Ferries from the Quay take you out to Watson’s Bay (be sure and have fish ‘n chips at Doyle’s on the Beach), Manley Beach (a popular ocean front beach town noted for good surfing) and across to Luna Park, a classic amusement park.

Watson’s Bay
Bondi Beach
Sydney Harbour Bridge

If all this wasn’t enough, there is also a fare system based on a transit card called the Opal Card. You buy the card with your choice of an amount loaded (you can also reload) and than tap on and tap off on all of the above systems as well as the regional rail lines. But here’s the best part. As you use the card there is a maximum daily fare of A$15 (A$7.50 for children) with Sundays capped at A$2.50. We took a train to the Blue Mountains (over an hour and a half from Sydney), spent the day and returned, then went to Darling Harbour for dinner and back to the hotel all for A$2.50 each. There is also a weekly cap of A$60 with the card as well and, after eight paid journeys with Opal, you can travel for the rest of the week for half-price fare.  Always be sure to tap on as staff wanders through the cars from time to time checking.

Blue Mountains

Sydney is a very walkable city. The focus of the downtown area (CBD) is the Circular Quay and The Rocks. Facing the water at the Quay, the Opera House is to your right with a number of restaurants and shops nearby and the ferries straight ahead . Off to the left is The Rocks, the location of the original English settlement at the harbor with a number of shops, restaurants, galleries and museums. Some of the museums offer free or reduced entry admissions so be sure to check this out if you plan to visit.

A short walk From The Rocks is the approach to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which is worth the climb up to its walkway for the view. If you are really adventurous and aren’t afraid of heights you can book a climbing tour up the support cables to the top. A dozen blocks west and south is the Kings Street Wharf and Darling Harbour area with a great waterside walk lined with restaurants and tourist attractions including a wildlife center extension of the Sydney zoo and the aquarium.

Photos top to bottom: Opal card, Watson’s Bay, Bondi Beach, Sydney Harbour Bridge, Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains.

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Keukenhof In The Spring

Spring in Holland means flowers and the world’s largest garden and showplace is the Keukenhof Gardens  with over 7 million spring flowering bulbs on display. There are also acres of commercial fields around the gardens growing tulips almost as far as you can see.

The gardens are located in Lisse only a short distance southwest of Amsterdam. The festival runs from mid March thru mid May and is serviced by buses from Amsterdam airport with entry included in the fare. If you are staying in Amsterdam you can take a bus or tram to the central station and catch a train directly to the airport. Once there it isn’t hard to figure out – just look for the crowds and the red buses. You can check with tour agencies or your hotel but that will probably cost you an extra $5 or $10 and you will end up traveling the same route (bus, train, bus and return).

The Keukenhof is a trade fair whereover one hundred growers display their flowers. The name actually means “kitchen garden” and the place is fondly referred to as the Garden of Europe. The annual event features restaurants and coffee shops along with gift shops and, if you enjoy gardens, do not miss this. We’ve spoken to a number of people that didn’t go because of the crowds and they had regrets. The best thing is to anticipate a lot of people, go early in the day and be patient.

At the Keukenhof and the flower markets in Amsterdam, many people question if they can buy tulip bulbs and bring them back through U.S. Customs. The answer is yes and no. Some vendors sell bulbs with U.S. and Canada certificates that allow them through. These are a small selection and many of the same items are readily available back in North America and probably at a better prices. A majority of the bulbs will not have the certificate and are not allowed to be brought in.

If you are cruising across the Atlantic on a spring repositioning cruise headed for northern Europe, there is a good chance you will end up in Amsterdam around tulip festival time. Besides the Keukenhof, Amsterdam also has a city wide tulip festival around the same time that features dozens of gardens and grounds to visit, so keep that in mind as well.

More on Amsterdam at another time…


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Cruising The Caribbean (Part II)

One of the most popular destinations in the cruising world is the Caribbean, including the Bahamas. Taking a three, four or five day cruise out of Florida is a great way to sample cruising at a very inexpensive price (some 3 and 4 day cruises are as inexpensive as $200 to $300* per person). Royal Caribbean and Carnival have a number of these itineraries sailing out of Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Port Canaveral year round. In addition to these two cruise lines there are a number of other lines in the market with many of them sailing only seasonally.

The Bahamas cruises are the most economical and usually include a stop in Nassau or Freeport and a day at one of the “private islands”. If you are booking one of these cruises and can swim, one of the best excursions you can take is a snorkeling trip. Everyone should experience this at least once in their life because there is nothing to compare to gliding over a coral reef watching marine life swimming all around you.

If your stop is Nassau we would recommend going over to Paradise Island and visiting the Atlantis resort. There is a daily admission fee but it includes sea life exhibits, beaches, a water park, casino, restaurants and bars. (Most cruise ships offer tours.)  In addition you can walk thru Nassau town and shop for souvenirs, duty free watches, jewelry, clothes and liquor (see customs rules below). The private islands offer a day of beaches, barbecue, water sports and more.

There are also west-bound short cruises which usually include Cozumel, Grand Cayman and often Key West. Our favorite stop is Key West with its’ shops and restaurants and our favorite attraction, a small aquarium, is only a short walk from the pier. Unfortunately, cruise ships must sail well before sunset so you will miss the sunset celebration at Mallory Square which is the best show in town. (The large ships would block the view of the setting sun.)

Stopping in Cozumel offers some duty free bargains including silver, onyx and tequila (see customs rules below) and good pricing on vanilla. The cruise ships will offer tours including beach trips and snorkeling but our recommendation is to take a taxi to Chankanaab Beach Park and pay the admission. You’ll save a lot of money and can go and return when you want. There is a bar, food, snorkeling rental and beach chairs and the water is great. Reefs are a bit of a swim out though.

There are two cruise ship areas in Cozumel. One is downtown and only a short walk to shops and Senior Frogs. The other is a bit north (actually two piers) with shopping areas dedicated to cruise passengers. There is also a smaller version of Senior Frogs which actually has a good snorkeling area right next to it. If your group includes teenagers beware. one of the local pastimes is pouring tequila into young Americans, so keep a watch on how much alcohol is consumed.

Grand Cayman is the other usual stop on these itineraries and offers probably the best duty free shopping on the cruise. You tender rather then dock but the tenders drop you off right in the center of Georgetown. Grand Cayman is dotted with great beaches (one seven miles long), terrific snorkeling and diving and many American chain restaurants. Our recommendation for a great day is a tour to “stingray city”.  Pick an excursion that visits the stingrays and also a coral reef for snorkeling.  It is advisable to book the tour through your ship as the day runs long  and you can get dangerously close to missing the ship’s departure time .

A cautionary note here regards the Cayman dollar. It is permanently fixed to the US dollar with the exchange rate being one Cayman dollar equaling US$1.25 so everything is 20% more expensive than it appears. Always be sure to ask if the quoted price is in Cayman or US dollars.


Duty Free Shopping

There is a lot of confusion about bringing back duty free liquor and how much and from where. The following is from the web site of U.S. Customs:

Please note, only one liter of alcohol purchased in a cruise ship’s duty-free shop is eligible for a duty-free exemption, although if at least one bottle purchased on board is the product of an eligible Caribbean Basin country**, then you will be allowed two liters duty free. If you buy five liters of alcohol in – say – the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), and one of them is the product of the USVI, then you would have reached your duty-free limit. Any additional purchases made on board in a duty-free shop would be subject to CBP duty and IRS tax.

If you buy four bottles in the USVI, one of which is a product of the USVI, then you could purchase one additional bottle from the onboard duty-free, and it would be eligible for duty-free entry.

Additional bottles will be subject to a flat duty rate of 1.5% and subject to Internal Revenue Service taxes.

** Most Caribbean Basin countries are considered beneficiary countries for purposes of this exemption. (Anguilla, Caymen Islands, Guadeloupe, Martininque and Turks and Caicos are not eligible)

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