Cruising and Tours

Cruise Ship port of Call Tours

While we are just not “guided tour” enthusiasts, we have been on a fair number of them. To begin with, there are some land tours that make good sense to do. The first is where there is someplace you really want to see and even the bus trip is on a very tight schedule. The one thing you can be sure of is, if you are on a ship sponsored tour the ship isn’t going to sail without you. And yes, we have seen people left behind. We have taken a number of tours also because the costs were just too good to ignore. Sometimes that is because we have onboard credits that we just need to spend and others have been provided by our agency as a perk.

From our point of view the biggest problem we have with guided tours is that you become a prisoner of the tour. It is common for us to get stuck visiting some place that we are just not interested in. Why do we have to spend forty-five minutes at a chocolate factory or a nut packer? I’m sure the tour operator is being paid to deliver people to that business but we resent paying for visit. The other case is visiting a location where we could spend hours and are informed we have to be back on the bus in a half hour. Going it on our own eliminates those possibilities.

There is also the issue of cost. If you understand your options, often you will see that the ships tour will cost you significantly more money. A few examples:

Cozumel Chankanaab

Cozumel Chankanaab National Park – When you get down to it, this is a day at the beach. The park is equipped with bars, restaurant, along with beach and snorkel rental stuff. A taxi ride will cost between US$10 and US$20 each way (make sure you have plenty of singles as drivers don’t offer change) and park admission is about US$21. A recent tour booked through the cruise ship cost $69 per person. That’s $138 for what would have cost $62 on your own.

Mendenhall Glacier Alaska – This is a national park outside of Juneau Alaska. The park is serviced by a bus route from the historic downtown area with round-trip fare being $31. Add to that the admission to the park (NPS standard fees) $20 which totals $51 ($31 if you have a NPS Senior Park Pass). The basic cruise tours usually start around $75. They often will add in a salmon bake for $20 to $30 more. For more on Mendenhall CLICK HERE.

 

Rome from the Port of Civitavecchia – On or first cruise stop in Civitavecchia we booked the “Rome On Your Own” tour at $89 each which included a bus ride in to Vatican City and back to the ship. Six blocks from the Civitavecchia port is the train station and for as little as US$12 you can get a round-trip ticket to the St. Peters station. For two that’s a savings of $154 and the trip in and back can actually be quicker.

For more on visiting Rome from Civitavecchia CLICK HERE.

In order to head off on your own and save some cash you do have to be a bit adventurous. We are pretty independent and prefer to use local buses and trains with our biggest fear being missing the ships departure. Our protection is to always build in a good time allowance in our plan. We are also good at doing research on our destinations and have a good idea of what we want to see and how to do it before we leave on a trip.

On the other side of the discussion here are a few examples of ship tours that we thought were well worth the cost and why:

The Golden Triangle Iceland – This tour was a bit pricy but so were the local tour companies. The reason we selected this tour is because our ship docked in the afternoon and sailed shortly after noon the next day disqualifying local tours. We also considered renting a car but again were concerned about the times. The tour itself was great. We probably traveled over a hundred miles and saw thermal fields, waterfalls(!!) and Icelands rift valley where the earths crust is pulling apart. No shopping stops or misspent time. If you are going to Iceland don’t miss the Golden Triangle.

Ephesus

Ephesus Turkey – The ancient city of Ephesus, located near the Aegean Sea in modern day Turkey, was one of the great cities of the Greeks and later the Romans in Asia Minor and home to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Today, the ruins of Ephesus are a major attraction located some distance from the port. Again not inexpensive but a great experience (it did include a stop at a rug showroom). We might be adventurous but there was no way I was going to rent a car for half a day in Turkey and I still am not aware of any convenient public transportation.

A Wine & Tapas Tour in Palma – This one wasn’t that expensive and included nice stops at three different tapas bars and free time in a nice in-town shopping area. The drive back to the pier included brief stops at the castle overlook above town and a drive along the coast. A good answer to filling an afternoon in Mallorca.  For more information CLICK HERE.

 

This is part one of a three part series we’ve been working on. Check back or subscribe to see the whole series.

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Port of Kings Wharf Bermuda

Port of Call Bermuda

Bermuda is a British Overseas Territory or one of the United Kingdom Overseas Territories of which there are 14 that fall under the jurisdiction and sovereignty of the United Kingdom. They are the parts of the British Empire that have not been granted independence or have voted to remain British territories. Bermuda is located in the western Atlantic due east of Hilton Head South Carolina. Even though it is at a northern latitude it is a tropical island being washed by the warm currents of the Gulf Stream. The islands boast a lush landscape that includes a large number of cedars and palm trees. Famous for its beautiful beaches (one pink) it has long been a favorite destination for the wealthy from around the world that probably helps support a reasonably high standard of living for Bermuda.

Where You Dock

The northwest tip of the islands is home to British fortifications that date back to the 17th century and included the dockyards including Kings Wharf which is now home to the cruise piers. The British fortifications were greatly expanded during the American Civil War over fears of attack by the Americans and now house the Bermuda Historical Museum, a dolphin encounter, a glass blowing operation, a nice beach with snorkeling areas and a number of shops and restaurants. The dockyards are also the center of the areas water sport concessions and excursion boats.

 

Transportation

Taxis are readily available but the best way to get around is by public transportation. You can buy a one or two day pass that provides unlimited use of the ferries and buses starting at B$18. Bermuda is actually a set of islands very close together and arranged in the shape of a fish hook. The cruise port is located in the west near the tip of the hook. The town of St. George is near the hook’s eye to the northeast and the capital of Hamilton is near the inside bend of the hook. Most large beaches are on the coast across the island from Hamilton. The islands have about fifty miles of roads serviced by a very good bus system along with regular ferry service between those three major locations. There are also scooters and cars that can be rented but this is not recommended because of the narrow roads and the English left hand driving system.

Money

The local currency is the Bermuda Dollar and is kept on par with the US Dollar. American currency is readily accepted as well as most major credit cards.

 

Attractions

There is a lot to see and do right in the Kings Wharf area but don’t miss visiting Hamilton. There is a large fortification high above Hamilton with sweeping views of the city and beyond. Hamilton is also home to a number of historic buildings and some beautiful architecture. Good restaurants and great shopping are also a feature of Hamilton and a trip out to St. George is highly recommended. Almost everywhere you go in Bermuda boasts great scenery including pocket beaches, attractive seaside villages and historic landmarks.

Horseshoe Bay is perhaps the most famous beach in Bermuda. It has been rated the #8 beach in the world. A popular tourist spot, it lies on the main island’s south coast, in the parish of Southampton.

The Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo is a facility located in Flatts Village, Bermuda. It was established in 1926 by the Bermuda government.

Crystal Cave is a cavern located in Hamilton Parish, close to Castle Harbour. The caverns are approximately 1,500 feet long, and 186 feet deep. The lower 60 feet of the cave are below water level.

Gibbs Hill Lighthouse. Built in 1844 by the Royal Engineers, is the taller of two lighthouses on Bermuda, and one of the first lighthouses in the world to be made of cast-iron.

Bermuda Institute of Marine Science http://www.bios.edu/#!/who-we-are is a non-profit institute located in Hamilton and features a number of exhibits and programs.

Fort Hamilton Bermuda. Located in Hamilton City, Fort Hamilton is a picturesque site with lush gardens overlooking the harbor. It was built in the mid 1800s to protect the Hamilton Harbor and form a defense from American forces during their civil war.

Somerset Bridge. Advertised as the worlds smallest draw bridge (see our story about the bridge HERE). If you pay attention while taking the bus from Kings Wharf to Hamilton you will drive right across the bridge.

St. George. This is a picturesque town located at the far end of the islands from Kings Wharf serviced by bus or ferry.

Good Sites For Additional Information

Bermuda Tourist Board

 

 

The Keukenhof 2018

Amsterdam for the Spring Tulips

The Keukenhof is coming and you can save a Euro or two by buying your tickets directly from the vendor, Ticketbar. If you are going to be anywhere near Holland this Spring you should do yourself a favor and look into a visit to the worlds biggest tulip festival, the Keukenhof. The event this year runs from March 22, 2018 to May 13, 2018. Amsterdam is a beautiful city in the Spring, full of youthful energy and very walkable. Getting to the Keukenhof is easy as round-trip buses leave from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport all day long and there are excellent train connections to and from Schiphol and Amsterdam Centraal station.

 

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To travel around Amsterdam and beyond, buy the public transport chip card (OV-chipkaart) good for travel on trams, buses and metros. The most convenient option for visitors is the day card (valid for one to seven days and starting from €7.50). One-hour tickets can also be bought from the conductor or driver on the tram or bus. Day tickets can be bought on the tram or purchased in advance at ticket offices.

 

 

Cedar Key, A Piece of Old Florida

If you travel west on Florida State Road 24 from Gainesville to where the road ends, you find yourself in a bit of old Florida. Out in the middle of nowhere on Florida’s northwest coast is the little village of Cedar Key with its’ population of around 700.

A post office named “Cedar Key” was established here in 1845 and by 1860 Cedar Key became the western terminal for the Florida Railroad, connecting it to the east coast of Florida. The town grew as a result of the railroad but in the late nineteenth century when shipping terminals and a railroad line where built in Tampa, the town got passed by.

At the start of the twentieth century, fishing, sponging and oystering had become the major industries but, when the oyster beds played out, the town became primarily a draw for sport fishing. It probably looks much now the way it did sixty years ago but, behind the façade, there have been some changes. The town now has a thriving art community and attracts tourists to the galleries and shops and fishermen to the Gulf.

We made our first ever visit to Cedar Key in July of this year and, while the town has its’ appeal, summer is not the time to go as a good deal of the town is actually closed. When we went looking for a cup of coffee in the morning we simply could not find anything open. The town has a few coffee shops and a donut shop and they were all closed for vacation when we were there. There are only a few hotel/motels in town and none of them received much in the way of inviting reviews. The one we chose, The Beach Front Motel, was basic and nowhere near a swimming beach.

You arrive in the town as Florida 27 turns into D Street. It crosses 2nd Street which is the main thoroughfare and offers a number of nice shops. If you turn left on 2nd Street and in a block make a right on C Street you will find yourself heading toward the Gulf and Dock Street.

Back in town at the corner of D and 2nd is Tony’s Seafood Restaurant which is famous for award winning clam chowder. That was where we went for our first meal and we were not disappointed as the chowder was remarkable. You can also take some cans home with you or mail order later. If you are looking for white tablecloths and atmosphere in Cedar Key you’re probably going to be disappointed.

Along the waterfront on Dock Street there are a number of gift shops and five or six restaurants worth considering. We tried Steamers Clam Bar and Grill which offered a fairly extensive menu including lots of fresh seafood in both small plates and entrees. They also featured a nice selection of local craft beers and a full bar.

Cedar Key is not the sort of town you just discover since it is so far off the beaten track. There is very little in the way of a beach to draw people and nothing like a resort area vibe. Unless you are into fishing, it’s hard to think of a reason why you would spend more than a day here. There is one recommendation we would make, however. If you are spending time in north central Florida say near Gainesville, Cedar Key is an excellent choice for a day trip. It is less than an hour and a half drive. It has a character that reminded us of the Florida Keys thirty years ago – a laid back place with good seafood, fishing and salt air.  The town has a vibrant art colony and the galleries and craft/gift shops are worth perusing. Also, in winter when more things are open, we were assured that we would find more to make a trip off the beaten path worth the time.

The Geology of Hawaii

Hawaii

The Royal Hawaiian Waikiki Beach
Waimea Bay

When you visit Hawaii it doesn’t take very long to realize you have come to a place like no other on earth. Isolated from continental land by at least 2,400 miles of ocean. It is blessed with year round average temperatures in the eighties and abundant rainfall. Its history is both ancient as well as recent. First populated by the Polynesians over fifteen-hundred years ago it was not discovered by the European explorers until January, 1778, when the English explorer Captain Cook set foot ashore. The native Hawaiians speak a language unique to them and proof of this is everywhere from highway signs to greetings from the locals. Because of Hawaii’s isolation the flora and fauna are a blend of unique as well as introduced species from all around the world. Modern Hawaii has also the most ethnically diverse population found anywhere with seven races each representing over five percent of the population. This includes the Polynesians, Asians with Japanese being the largest segment, whites, Filipino, Blacks, Hispanics with twenty-one percent of the population being of mixed race decent. Even the geology and origins of this island chain are unique. Welcome to paradise…

The shore at Lanai Lookout, Oahu

Hawaii – a Geological Wonderland

Most of the earth’s islands are found at tectonic plate boundaries either from spreading centers (like Iceland) or from what are called subduction zones where one tectonic plate slides under another (like the Aleutian Islands). Hawaii is geologically unique because it is caused by a ‘hot spot.’

Illustration from the Jaggar Museum, Hawaii

 

There are a few ‘hot spots’ on earth and the one under Hawaii is right in the middle of the Pacific Plate, one of the earth’s largest crustal plates. A geologic ‘hot spot’ is an area under a crustal plate where volcanism occurs. It is easy to geologically explain volcanism at plate spreading centers and subduction zones but not as easy to explain a ‘hot spot’ where molten magma breaks through the crustal plate. (Some theories describe this as a particularly hot part of the molten magma).

Another hot spot under the American plate is Yellowstone National Park with its geysers and other thermal features. The Hawaii hot spot is under the seafloor producing undersea volcanoes. Some of these volcanoes build up to the surface of the ocean and become islands. Over millions of years the plate moves across the ‘hot spot’ and the original volcanoes become extinct and new volcanoes begin to form in the area of the ‘hot spot.’

Understanding all of this explains why in the Hawaiian islands, the more southeast you go, the more active the volcanoes are. This shows that the plate is moving northwestThe island farthest south is the big island of Hawaii with no fewer than five volcanoes with some active most of the time. The farther north you go, the islands are older and the more time erosion has washed away the land. Niʻihau is the largest and last lightly inhabited island before the ten islands and atolls in the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

He iconic profile of Diamond Head east of Waikīkī Beach on the island of Oahu is the crater of a long extinct volcano.

Hawaii – The Big Island

Volcanoes of the island of Hawaii, Illustration from USGS exhibit

Kīlauea

The three largest volcanoes on the big island are Kilauea, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. Volcano National Park encompasses Kilauea with a number of different volcanic features.

Picture caption: Halema’uma’u, a pit crater, inside Kilauea Caldera started erupting in 2008 creating an almost constant plume of steam and volcanic gases (sulphur dioxide).

Halema’uma’u crater

On a recent visit to the big island we went up to Kīlauea. The caldera was shrouded in rain and fog so we didn’t have an opportunity to see much but we did get to Halema’uma’u. We spent time at the USGS museum and also hiked thru the Thurston Lava Tube.

Thurston Lava Tube

Thurston Lava Tube is part of a trail in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Visitors enter through a ‘skylight’ (collapsed roof of a lava tube), walk a ways through the tube and exit via another ‘skylight.

Lava & sea at the edge of creation

Lava tubes develop as the lava flows and hardens on the outside. The inside continues to flow and may drain out of the ‘lava tube’ entirely. Some of these lava tubes are small but some are very large (as much as 20 feet in diameter). Many of the lava tubes have a flat bottom as the lava hardens when it slows down and look like subway tunnels. When the top of a lava tube breaks through it is called a ‘skylight.’

Midnight off the southeast coast of Hawaii

Due east of Kilauea, lava from Pu’u O’o volcano travels downhill for miles in lava tubes to reach the ocean where it spills out along the shoreline creating large clouds of steam and volcanic gas. Our cruise ship crossed around the southern coast at night and around midnight moved to within one mile of the lava flows as they poured into the ocean. Viewing the display at night from the sea is an awesome event. There are also trails that allow hikers to get down near the area where the lava spills into the sea but we’ve been told that the hike down and back can take most of the day.

In addition to the volcanoes on the island of Hawaii there is a new eruption just south of the island called Loihi. This volcano has been erupting from the sea floor and currently its peak is at a depth of 3,000 feet. At its present rate of growth it will probably break the surface of the Pacific after another 10,000 years.

Maui

Looking down from 10,000 feet up on Haleakala

 Haleakalā Volcano

The summit of Haleakala
Haleakala

Haleakala is home to the highest peak on Maui, at 10,023 feet. It also holds the world record for climbing to the highest elevation in the shortest distance- a mere 38 miles from sea level to the top! Because Maui is north of Hawaii the volcanic activity is dying down. It is believed that the last major eruption was in the seventeenth century with only a few smaller events in the twentieth century. The USGS lists the eruption risk now as normal. A Normal status is used to designate typical volcanic activity in a non-eruptive phase.

We visited the top of Haleakalā a couple of years ago and it is almost like traveling to another planet: bare peaks and slopes covered in a spectrum of colored rock, dirt and sand. Clouds hung near the slopes with vistas across the crater* that stretch on forever and views back across the island are breathtaking. The drive to the top of the volcano is an adventure in itself as the road snakes back and forth up the slope with temperatures dropping as you ascend and winds blowing as you reach the summit.

O‘ahu

The profile of Diamond Head on O‘ahu is the western rim of an extinct volcano and is perhaps one of the most recognized volcanic mountains on earth. In addition to Diamond Head there are a few additional extinct vulcanoes on the island including Hanauma Bay, Koko Head, Punchbowl Crater, Mount Tantalus and Aliapa’ak.

Diamond Head

Throughout the Hawaiian islands the high and jagged peaks catch the tropical trade-winds causing huge amounts of rainfall. This micro-climate results in a lush landscape crossed with rushing streams and dotted with beautiful waterfalls. The islands are noted for their vertical cliffs, isolated valleys, incredible beaches and acres of farm land. This tropical climate and rich soil yields plentiful cash crops that include pineapples, macadamia nuts, coffee and cacao nibs used for making chocolate. Welcome to paradise…

 

Shave Ice In Hawaii

Snow cones go way back. We have memories of walking the boardwalk in Ocean City, MD with a snow cone in hand. Even before that we used to mix up concoctions with freshly fallen snow. More recently our children, and now our grandchildren, also love this icy creation. In Hawaii it has become an institution called shave ice and the original was brought to Hawaii by Japanese migrants. Shave ice is literally that, ice shaved from a block of ice.

The undisputed king of Hawaiian shave ice has been around since 1951: Matsumoto Shave Ice located on the Oahu North Shore at 66-111 Kamehameha Highway, Haleiwa (808) 637-4827. They are so popular that on a good day the line goes out the door and around the courtyard. Matsumoto offers a couple dozen flavors and tradition dictates that you select three for your shave ice. As extras they offer mochi (Japanese rice cake), condensed milk, azuki beans (Japanese red beans cooked with sugar and water) and, of course, ice cream.

While shave ice is probably not worth the trip all the way from Honolulu (45 minutes each way), a visit to Haleiwa and the North Shore is worth it. The town has great shopping with art galleries, jewelry stores and numerous eating options including a wide variety of food trucks. The main road runs along beautiful beaches including Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach and the Banzai Pipeline so it’s easy to spend an entire day in the area. In addition, Waimea Falls Park offers a nature trail through lush botanical gardens leading to the great waterfall.

When we spent the day in Lahaina over on Maui we also treated ourselves to shave ice at Ululani’s Hawaiian Shave Ice. Their main location is in a courtyard on the north end of Front Street in an area full of shops and galleries. In addition, they have five other shops and stands on the island featuring their Maui inspired flavors which, in our opinion, are even better then Matsumoto.