Singapore

Most people, when they talk about Singapore, speak in superlatives but, the simple truth is, mere words just aren’t enough. We flew to Singapore on United 1 from San Francisco a seventeen plus hour flight

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Gardens by the Bay

and had booked a room at the Grand Mercure Singapore Roxy in the heart of the historic Katong District.

The hotel is halfway between the airport and the Marina Bay District and offered a free airport shuttle. The facility is

China Town

modern, the rooms are comfortable and the staff is friendly and helpful. A great buffet breakfast is offered and, depending on the category of stay, may be included in the rate. The location is near shopping malls (Parkway Parade Shopping Center is across the street) and restaurants and just a few blocks from East Coast Park.

After walking to the park, you are amazed by the view out to sea. It looks as if half the ships in the world are either anchored just off shore or are cruising by. Looking at a map you will notice that the South China Sea is blocked to the east by the Southeast Asia peninsula. The first opportunity that eastbound shipping has sailing from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam and all the other nations of the area is past Singapore and thru the Straights of Malacca (also sp. Melaka). That’s a lot of cargo bound for Europe, Africa, the Middle East and India all moving right past Singapore. That may also help explain why this city-state has become so rich and important.

The stories about the strict laws and their enforcement are mostly true. It seems that even chewing gum in Singapore is against the law because the government thinks it messes up the streets. When you arrive in country, your immigration form explains that selling drugs is punishable by death. While civil libertarians may be shocked, the obvious result is one of the most modern, safe and clean cities we have ever visited.

English is an official language taught in all schools along with Malay, Mandarin and Tamil but almost all signage is in English making it easy to get around and find things. The city boasts a world class rapid transit system, the MRT that is easy to access, purchase tickets for and understand. The system offers an all-day ticket but we found it cheaper to purchase roundtrip fares to specific destinations. The cleanliness is also striking. No graffiti anywhere and you could probably eat off the floors.

Singapore boasts dozens of world famous restaurants and clubs, a Universal Studios theme park, one of the world’s great zoos, a water park, aquarium and two botanical gardens, the newest and most spectacular being Gardens by the Bay. Almost everything can be reached via the MRT or an inexpensive taxi ride. The city also boasts a Chinatown and a Little India which offer inexpensive shopping and eating options.

Singapore is home to a number of Hindu Temples  because of the Indian labor brought in by the British when they established a trading post in the early nineteenth century. The oldest, Sri Mariamman Temple dates back to 1827. The Sri Senpaga Vinayagar Temple is located on Ceylon Road, a few blocks from the Grand Mercure Roxy. It was built by the Sri Lankan Tamils for the Hindu God Ganesha.

While not a destination for bargain hunters because of the high cost of living, the city is home to a number of malls and department stores along with high-end specialty shops. Singapore shows off with a modern skyline and one of the newer additions is the triple towers of the Marina Bay Sands. This complex features a hotel, a casino and 170 plus premium brand stores capped by a connecting roof garden floating at the top. It is home to a number of restaurants operated by the likes of Wolfgang Puck, David Myers and Gordon Ramsay.

The popular symbol of Singapore is the Merlion, a lion with the body of a fish. While there are supposedly a number of local legends about the history of the Merlion the truth is it was created for the tourist board in the sixties as a marketing tool. The official symbol of Singapore is a red graphic of a lion’s head.

Photos top to bottom: Singapore skyline at night, Gardens By The Bay, Chinatown, ships at anchor, MRT map and train, Botanical Gardens, Figure at Hindu Temple, Skyline featuring Marina Bay Towers


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Visiting Alaska’s Denali

A cruise-land tour to Denali National Park on the Wilderness Express from Seward, Resurrection Bay, with stops in Alyeska and Anchorage.

Above photo: First look at “The Great One”.

We visited Denali as part of a cruise-land package. Many travelers enjoy this combination of cruise and land tour as it is a comfortable way to visit this part of Alaska. We took the cruise from Vancouver and then traveled over land. If we were to do it again, however, we would do the opposite. It would be much better to spend a number of days touring and then have a wonderful seven nights to relax and be pampered on the ship.

We disembarked our cruise in Seward where we visited the Alaska SeaLife Center and then enjoyed a Resurrection Bay Wildlife Cruise. Seeing the variety of fish, birds and animals was amazing. In the early evening we boarded the Wilderness Express which took us to Girdwood where we spent the night at the Hotel Aleyska. It is our understanding that some cruise lines offer train service all the way to Denali. The trains are made up of glass domed observation cars with a dining room on the lower level. The cars themselves are actually owned by the cruise ship lines.

On the second morning of our adventure we took the Alyeska Tramway to see the views from 2,300 feet above the valley. We had time for some hiking and took lots of pictures. In the early afternoon we boarded our bus and spent the next night at the Marriott in the city of Anchorage. While in Anchorage we spent time at the downtown market and had a light meal at a wine bar, Crush Wine Bistro. The following day we spent most of the time on the bus getting to Denali with a stop for lunch in Talkeetna. We also got our first good views of Mt. Denali.

We arrived late in the afternoon at the Denali Visitor Center where we took the Discover Denali Tour, a 1.5 mile walk familiarizing us with the park and all it has to offer. We spent the night at the McKinley Village Lodge (now Denali Park Village). The next morning we embarked on the tundra wilderness tour, approximately 8 hours on a bus dedicated to enjoying the scenery and wildlife and learning the park’s history. There were lots of photo stops and a “bag lunch” was included.

If you are planning on going to Denali on your own it is important to understand three things. First, the park is vast and has very little in the way of rest areas or visitor centers. Second, the park generally does not allow private cars far beyond the entrance and visitor’s center. Lastly, you need reservations to take the park operated bus tour and they book up weeks, maybe months in advance. Visiting Denali is not a casual process and considering the vast distances crossed in Alaska, you need to make your arrangements months in advance.

The highlight of this whole trip was the day touring the park. The scenery is inspiring but so is the very desolate and wild character of Denali (map). The focus of the tour is the wildlife but that too needs some explaining. Area wise, Denali is our largest national park. It encompasses about 9,492 square miles (larger than the state of New Hampshire) and most of it is without roads or even trails. The animal populations are much smaller than most would expect with only 70 Grizzly bears per 1,000 square miles. Other census numbers per 1,000 square miles show 131 Black bears, wolves less than 8, and the estimate for the total Denali Caribou Herd was about 2,230 animals. Dall Sheep totals for the park are less than 1,900. Based on these numbers it’s easy to understand that looking for wildlife is the major focus of the tour. We were lucky and saw two grizzly bears, a small herd of Caribou and two different groups of Dall sheep. We also saw many “suicide squirrels” so named because locals think they prefer to die in front of buses rather then face the prospect of a grizzly bear encounter.

The landscapes are vast and rugged and North America’s tallest mountain, Denali (previously Mt. McKinley) stands above everything. The only problem is that it is shrouded in clouds most of the year, but, even if you miss the “Great One,” the Alaska Range is awesome.

After another night near Denali our bus headed for Fairbanks and our flight home. In Fairbanks you can see and walk under The Alaska Pipeline, visit an interesting history center and see gold mining operations. We love cruising Alaska but this land tour was a truly unforgettable trip.

Photos top to bottom: Featured – Mt. Denali Range, Sea lions Resurrection Bay, Wilderness Express interior, Wilderness Express rounding turn, Approaching the Alaskan Range, Park Service tour bus, Park landscape, Grizzly bear, Caribou, Dall sheep, Park landscape.

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Our Caribbean

Discover the Caribbean

For over twenty-five years the heart of our business was servicing customers in the Caribbean. It would be easier to list the places we haven’t been than were we have. As a result we like to think we know the neighborhood pretty well.

Back in the beginning, Eastern Airlines was the primary carrier from the U.S. to most islands and they sold an island hopper ticket that allowed us to travel around the islands for a discount price. We would usually go out for a couple of weeks at a time spending a day at each island and staying at local or discount accommodations. Fast forward a decade or more and Eastern is gone (mostly replaced by American) and, because we now have to book each flight in and out with between islands mostly being LIAT and seaplanes, the trips take in fewer stops at much higher prices. Fortunately our business is more successful but travel has gotten more complicated because we are hauling children with us.

The restaurants, hotels and resorts are more upscale and we tended to spend more time in each location, partly because of the airfare, but also because we are spending time with more customers. We also took a number of busman’s holidays because we liked skin diving and beach combing but also because we could include business and offset some of the costs.

There are some places that we haven’t been back to in a while but we can still talk about the character of the islands. There is one place we can’t go back to because a volcano buried it (Montserrat). There are a number of places we return to often and can offer current tips and suggestions. Keep an eye out as we add articles about our little corner of the world including:

Barbados      St. Croix      Antigua      Curacao      Sint Maarten

St. Kitts       St. Lucia       Caymans      Jamaica       St. Thomas

Dominica      Grenada      St. Barts     Bahamas      and more

We have also taken more than a dozen Caribbean cruises and we will offer some comments on these as well. Cruising the Caribbean I offers an overview of cruising the Caribbean. Cruising the Caribbean II talks about the short 3 and 4 day cruises out of South Florida and their destinations. Cruising the Caribbean III looks at the seven day and longer cruises.

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Cruising the South China Sea

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A First Visit to Southeast Asia

We spent all of February cruising with Celebrity’s Constellation in the South China Sea on back-to-back itineraries. We visited twelve ports with only one repeat (Ho Chi Min City). If you are going to fly twelve thousand miles you probably should make the most of the trip. We flew into Singapore and with the return for the second cruise and the extra day in port at the end we had five days to explore the city and all we could say was wow! The ship also spent two days in the port for Bangkok and we spent that night in a Bangkok hotel and booked a private tour (more about that at another time ;-).

Beyond the usual reasons for cruising there was an additional advantage on this trip. If you are not into a diet of noodles with dried fish flakes or hot curries, the ship gives you the opportunity to return to a Western style menu. The ship also takes care of visas and immigration ahead of each port.

Besides our time in Singapore our trip included four stops in Vietnam, Hong Kong, two stops in the Philippines which included Manila, two stops in Borneo, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, Brunei and two stops in Thailand. We had an opportunity to see a lot as well as try a number of cuisines. Many of the destinations were studies in extreme contrasts but it was also obvious that things are greatly improving economically. It is also interesting to switch from Muslim to Buddhist to Western cultures as we went from one port to the next. On board there were a number of excellent in-depth lectures on the history and culture of the various countries which provided a good perspective on the ways the region developed.

Over the last number of years we have found cruising gives us an opportunity to sample a number of places and than we decide where we want to come back to for extended stays. Southeast Asia is no exception to this and we certainly have a few we will add to our return list.


Phone Service: We were traveling on this trip with an iPhone 5 on Verizon service ($80 for 250 international minutes)and with a Blu 5.5 phone with a prepaid international plan from One Sim Card service. Vietnam and Brunei were not part of the Verizon international service so we switched use to OneSimCard. Phone calls with Verizon worked well everywhere else but there were problems getting text messages out on a few days. The only reliable data that we found on the Verizon service was in Singapore (didn’t attempt in Hong Kong) most other places indicated “Data Service Failed”. The One Sim Card service worked as expected except in Vietnam. There we connected with the recommended service provider (Viettel) but instead of text messages costing the expected 25¢ they were charged at a couple of dollars. One Sim Card did send a text message warning of high costs on this service recommending we switch networks, even though Viettel was their recommended provider.


In the near future look for posts covering each of these countries with pointers on must do things, food, transportation and hotels.

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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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Photos from top to bottom. Temple on Grand Palace Grounds. The current Grand Palace. The Temple of Dawn across the Chao Phraya River. Altar and Buddha in the Western Viharn. Golden statue of warrior on the grounds of the Grand Palace. Maeklong Railway market. Damnoen Saduak water market. Typical backyard shrines. Rest area on Thai highway.

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