Tuesday, December 19, 2017

A Great Adventure Down Under

Ray and Traci decided to make their first ever visit to Australia and take a two-week cruise around New Zealand starting at the end of November 2017. Having done extensive reading about their upcoming journey, they were quite excited about experiencing the land of kangaroos and koalas (not to mention the deadly snakes!). Ray managed to use frequent flyer miles to get tickets to Sydney, which wasn’t easy; the couple needed to fly from Seattle thru South Korea on Asiana airlines making it a 24-hour ordeal. Fortunately, Asiana treated them well and the flights were uneventful bringing Ray and Traci to Sydney with all of their luggage intact. After an Uber ride to their downtown hotel, the exhausted tourists were ready to begin their holiday.    

While it lightly rained in the morning, the weather gradually became clear with temperatures reaching the high 70s. The high humidity made it seem much warmer. The travelers decided to take a trip to Sydney’s famous Bondi beach, located in the eastern portion of the city. Sydney’s public transportation system is quite efficient, Ray and Traci bought Opal Transit Cards from a local convenience store and took a 40-minute ride on the bus from Martin Place downtown to Bondi Beach. The gorgeous sandy beach is framed by rockery on the sides and clear greenish blue Pacific Ocean to the west. November in Sydney is early summer, so many beachgoers swam, surfed and played in the picturesque spot. 

Bondi attracted a deluge of shops, food services, and high-rise homes to the area. A famous paved coastal walk connects Bondi with other beaches to the north. Ray and Traci started down the path reaching the Iceberg club, a large semi-private pool which also houses a life guard school, then continued along the path enjoying the beautiful views.

Ray and Traci utilized a different bus line from the coastal path that dropped them at the Bondi Junction transit center where they took the Sydney subway back to Martin Place. Now hungry, they found a large crowded food court which served many office workers in downtown – Traci picked up a tuna salad wrap while Ray got a chicken teriyaki box lunch. The travelers went back to their nearby hotel and enjoyed the food. Wanting to get adjusted to Australia time which is 19 hours ahead of Seattle (or 5 hours behind– but the next day), they passed on rest to continue exploring. Ray and Traci walked to the nearby Opera House, located on a peninsula next to the ferry and cruise port terminal. Sydney’s Opera House is an amazing architectural accomplishment, receiving UNESCO recognition as a world cultural site despite its very young age (construction finished in 1972).

Coupled with the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House is synonymous with Sydney and even inspired its own Lego set which parallels how it was built, in prefabricated blocks. The project ended up taking 15 years at a cost of $102 million (which is nearly $600 million in 2017 dollars!) but now serves as an architectural icon for the ages and a cultural mecca hosting large numbers of concerts, plays, operas, ballets and other events on the many stages and halls located under the spherical roofs. Ray and Traci took a 1 hour group tour of this amazing facility. For dinner, the couple walked to the nearby Westfield mall housing the international ramen chain Ippudo and had some very tasty noodles before retiring for the evening. Navigating downtown Sydney was not difficult, especially with the Google Maps app available. Ray and Traci’s cell service provider AT&T offered a $10 per day deal making their unlimited wireless plan available in 100 countries around the world. Travelers are only charged for days they actually use their cell plan.

With his circadian clock stuck on Seattle time, Ray woke up very early the next morning and went for a run around the waterfront at 5:30 AM. Fortunately, in the Sydney summer the sun was already on its way up so he easily navigated unfamiliar territory. First, Ray passed the cruise port with their next home, the NCL Jewel cruise ship, in the process of docking. Next, he ventured onto the celebrated Sydney Harbour Bridge which serves as the annual backdrop to the world’s first New Year’s fireworks show. Near the start of the bridge, a gathering of climbers prepared to ascend and cross over the bridge on the support cables high above the roadway in a very popular activity.

After running over and back on the ~ 0.75 mile bridge, Ray ran along the elevated highway which borders the waterfront (much like Seattle’s soon to be demolished Highway 99 Viaduct) and enjoying a spectacular view of the harbor, he reached the Opera House again and returned back to the hotel. Ray wanted to get pictures with two of Sydney’s most iconic creatures – a kangaroo and a koala, and fortunately both are available at the downtown WildLIFE complex. After a 15 minute walk from their hotel, Ray and Traci make a quick tour through this mini zoo which hosts many of Australia’s indigenous species – mammals, reptiles, and birds. In the kangaroo area, visitors can walk into their home and meet the very docile creatures.

Further into the exhibit near the café area, koalas hang out in trees and visitors (for $20) get to have photos taken with them. While smaller than a zoo, it did have a wide assortment of native Australia animals. After WildLIFE, Ray and Traci went next door to the SeaLIFE complex which hosted many marine species which call Australia home. Like WildLIFE, SeaLIFE has a rich variety of animals – they advocate for underappreciated species like the Dugong (Sea Cow).

Running close to check out time at their hotel, Ray and Traci returned to their room and brought their baggage to the drop off area at the very nearby cruise port. Before getting themselves on the ship, they wandered around the waterfront a bit more for photos, and then entered the nearby free Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). After their experiences at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, nothing can really surprise either traveler about what art is to some people. Sydney’s MOCA has done nothing to change that. Ray and Traci enjoyed their short stay in Sydney. The city is beautiful, in a spectacular coastal setting with very distinctive architecture. The people are friendly and appear quite multicultural.

Ray and Traci then boarded the NCL Jewel (their third sailing on this particular ship), in a boarding process that was remarkable for its smoothness and lack of delays. Upon embarkation, Ray and Traci ran into two other crew members that sailed with them in the past on other NCL ships in other parts of the world. After unpacking and taking care of a few arrangements for the upcoming voyage, Ray and Traci enjoyed a spectacular sail away scene at sunset to their first stop – Melbourne.

After an uneventful sea day, the NCL Jewel arrived in a cool (65 degrees) and rainy Melbourne, southwest of Sydney. Rainy may be an understatement as drenching rain caused the diversion of international flights at their airport. Ray and Traci started their morning by exiting the ship and purchasing all day transit passes for $15 Australian sold by helpful officials right at the terminal. Since downtown was about 3.5 miles away, most of the passengers who weren’t on organized tours bought them. From the cruise terminal, a special cruise ship transit bus 109 took NCL guests nonstop to the Arts Center Melbourne, adjacent to downtown. A regular 109 train also takes patrons from the cruise port to downtown but it takes longer and ends at a different station. From the Arts Center, Ray and Traci walked south adjacent to the Queen Victoria Gardens to the Shrine of Remembrance, a memorial to those that fought in many past wars. The memorial with its eternal flame, underground crypt, elevated balcony giving views of the city, and main floor displays honors veterans in a very appropriate fashion.

Due to the unfavorable weather, Ray and Traci skipped exploration of the Royal Botanic Gardens next to the Shrine and walked back to the arts center for a quick exploration of the National Gallery of Victoria. This museum contained a variety of art spanning much of human history starting with the Egyptians and Chinese and including some contemporary artists as well. Walking further north, Ray and Traci boarded a streetcar that took them the short distance to Queen Victoria Market, a combination farmers market / flea market / food court that reminded the travelers of a miniature version of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. The two plus square block covered complex had everything from eggplant to soccer jerseys to fine chocolates for sale by eager vendors who wanted to make you a deal. Traci bought a gingerbread cookie which unfortunately wasn’t very good. After returning to the Arts Center, Ray and Traci took the short bus ride back to the ship, leaving rainy Melbourne behind. Before retiring for the evening, NCL put on a very entertaining show by Burn the Floor, the famous Broadway dance troupe seen on NCL’s New York based ship, the Breakaway, and now making its way to the Jewel. A variety of dance numbers supported by the talent show band and production singers wowed the audience.

The storms afflicting Melbourne made the Jewel’s egress bumpy with gale force winds and high waves, which continued during the journey to New Zealand. On the first sea day, neither Ray nor Traci ate breakfast or lunch and both had a light dinner due to the turbulence. Over the counter meclizine (motion sickness pills) helped a great deal but neither had much of an appetite. The Jewel had a musical trio of three tenors from Australia, La Forza, who were quite good during the evening’s headliner show. The seas were more calm on the next day, Ray and Traci were able to use the Jewel’s running track and had normal meals. NCL earned some bonus points by showing NFL games all day including the Seahawks victory over Philadelphia on the in-room televisions. Ray and Traci finished the evening with a nice celebratory dinner at La Cucina, the on-board Italian restaurant.

The NCL Jewel arrived at New Zealand early Tuesday morning. The weather was terrible! The itinerary called for cruising three Fiords (New Zealand spelling – Norwegians spell it Fjord). In any case, a Fiord is a salt water sound created by glaciers. New Zealand calls the Fiords “sounds” but the entire complex “Fiordland.” The first Fiord was called Milford Sound, and it had some beautiful waterfalls but the fog and rain obscured picture taking.

The NCL Jewel next cruised Doubtful sound where the rain and fog broke, leaving a beautiful summer day for the tourists. The gorgeous weather continued as the Fiordland visit concluded at Dusky Sound.

During the evening Ray enjoyed a delicious rib eye steak and Traci enjoyed split pea soup and sea bass at the Jewel’s steakhouse, Cagneys. A dessert of macadamian nut ice cream sandwiched between two sugar cookies completed a great meal. In the theatre, the Jewel’s signature production show – Band on the Run entertained guests with a 1970s era musical highlighting music from groups such as Styx, Village People, Donna Summer, and Queen. Many in the multicultural audience clearly have never heard much of the music before, but most seemed to enjoy the show.

Wednesday started out cloudy but dry, the ship docked in Port Chalmers, 7 miles away from the first New Zealand stop – Dunedin. Ray booked an excursion from a company called Back to Nature for visiting the town as well as several nature sites. Ollie, the guide, met the 14 visitors inside the cruise terminal and proceeded to drive the group into Dunedin. The town has about 135,000 people with 35,000 of them being college students at the University of Otago. After leaving the port, Ollie drove by an impressive covered stadium used for rugby and many other events. The stadium holds 45,000 and boasts the world’s only indoor natural grass field – made possible by special sunlight transmitting roofing materials. From the stadium, the tour continued into Dunedin with Baldwin Street, supposedly one of the steepest streets in the world. Next stop was the University of Otago where Ollie is a student. The Dunedin train station with its manicured grounds and distinctive architecture impressed the tourists.

After the train station, the tour continued at Larnach Castle, one of Dunedin’s most popular attractions. Built by a prominent banker and politician in the 1870s, the site now hosts a restored residence and gardens incorporating an Alice in Wonderland theme.

After lunch at the Larnach Castle Café, Ollie started the wildlife portion of the excursion stopping at a beach to observe sea lions. The next stop was at a Penguin Reserve trying to prevent the extinction of the yellowed eyed penguin. With only 600 or so of this species (which are the world's largest penguins) left in the world, biologists have labored to reverse their dwindling number. Two yellow eyed penguins recovering from injuries were on view at the penguin hospital but, to the group’s disappointment, none were spotted in their natural habitat on the beach.  However, some smaller blue penguins were found in their homes near the beach. 

At the end of the day, the tour group went to observe an Albatross colony where the very large birds (average wingspan of 10 feet) mixed in the sky with the much smaller and more numerous sea gulls. Ollie, a marine biology graduate student, gave excellent insight into the challenges faced by the New Zealand marine species. It was also interesting to hear how many of the predatory Australian species such as crocodiles and poisonous snakes do not exist in New Zealand. An uneventful drive back to the ship concluded the excursion and the stay in Dunedin.

The NCL Jewel sailed into Akaroa, a small town of several hundred people that was originally settled by the French. Streets in Akaroa are labeled “rue” for their French heritage. The town had no area to handle large ships so the Jewel had to anchor in the middle of the harbor and use its lifeboats to tender passengers into Akaroa. The process was frustrating and it took five hours to get everybody off the Jewel who wanted to leave. Unlike others who had plans to visit Christchurch (about 1.5 hours away), Ray and Traci had no excursion plans and leisurely took the twenty minute tender to shore and wandered over to Akaroa’s lighthouse. Two guides were giving a presentation on the history of the lighthouse originally built during the kerosene lamp era which was very interesting. Ray certainly had a new respect for difficult job faced by lighthouse keepers back in the 1800s!

The downtown area of Akaroa was a few hundred yards long so Ray and Traci explored downtown and returned back to the Jewel in time for lunch. They enjoyed a relaxing afternoon before attending a great performance “Luminescence” by Hajime and Maud. Ray and Traci saw the show on a previous sailing – it features incredible aerobatic and adagio performances along the lines of Cirque du Solei. Of course, doing the show on a moving ship was especially remarkable.  Ray considers it the best show on the seas. The two performers who also were featured in a later production show, Cirque Bijou, received tremendous accolades from the audience.

Friday was a beautiful day to visit Wellington, the Jewel’s first stop in the northern of the two main islands that make up New Zealand. The city is the capitol of New Zealand. A free shuttle bus brought passengers from the ship to the heart of downtown where many yellow jacketed  volunteers greeted and guided clueless tourists to their destination. Ray and Traci started their exploration by taking a cable car up a steep hill from downtown to the botanical gardens. A variety of natural and artificial plant life intermingles in this large urban garden.

Immediately after leaving the gardens, visitors encounter a complex of government buildings housing parliament and other ministries. A round building, nicknamed the beehive, houses those busy souls running New Zealand.

Ray and Traci explored downtown and reached the waterfront where the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, resides. The beautiful waterfront building displays both natural exhibits as well as provides historical background to the settling of New Zealand. A very impressive exhibit about New Zealand’s participation and losses in World War I was being temporarily featured. A large amount of the museum follows the Maori people who were the original inhabitants of New Zealand, following their migration over the ocean in far less luxurious accommodations than the NCL Jewel.

Based on the roasting pig in the cage, it appears they also had much fewer meal choices on board!

On the way back to the shuttle bus, Ray and Traci explored Cuba Street, a pedestrian mall with an eclectic collection of shops and eateries frequented by many young residents. Impressed by the beauty and vitality of Wellington, the travelers returned to the ship. Ray attended the evening show featuring Tim Ellis, the Australian David Copperfield. He was quite entertaining with several magic tricks featuring randomly selected audience members.

Saturday brought beautiful weather as the ship docked in Napier.  Ray and Traci booked an excursion to Cape Kidnappers, a sanctuary for gannet birds as well as one of the top 20 golf courses in the world. The scenery was spectacular! Cape Kidnappers was given the name by Captain Cook who had to fight a Maori tribe over a crew member that the natives thought was taken from their people. After leaving the ship, a four wheel drive van drove the eighteen member excursion party to the gannet breeding ground. The coastal scenery was nothing short of spectacular.

On Cape Kidnappers, farming animals including sheep and cattle were seen as well as portions of the golf course and luxury lodge. After navigating some narrow and steep gravel roads, Ray and Traci’s driver Rob successfully brought the party to the nesting ground of thousands of gannet birds. Gannets are quite interesting – as the young birds leave the nest, they fly to Australia which is at least an eight day flight to live for a few years. At maturity (3-5 years) they migrate back to their birthplace to mate and nest. The male and female birds share time incubating their egg. For food, the gannets fly over the sea and often dive down into submerged schools of fish which could be 30 feet deep. Thousands of birds now call Cape Kidnappers home.

After leaving Cape Kidnappers, Ray and Traci explored downtown Napier. The town was rebuilt in the 1930s using art deco style (similar to Miami Beach) after an earthquake destroyed many of the buildings. About 135,000 people live in the area around Hawke’s Bay which includes Napier and its sister city Hastings. A paved bicycle / pedestrian path along the ocean connects the two cities.

Beautiful coastal parks, the New Zealand Aquarium, miniature golf course and a large skateboard park occupy the waterfront. A childrens bicycle area complete with working stoplights and street signs helps parents teach their young the rules of traffic. New Zealand towns clearly invest in many facilities to keep children active and safe.

Traci commented how it was hard to take a bad picture with all of the beautiful scenery around. Their day in Napier came to an end and the travelers returned to the Jewel for rest and refreshment. Ray watched Australian vocalist Michael Montgomery perform in the main theater – he was impressed by his vocal talent but not a big fan of his music genre.

With their time in New Zealand rapidly drawing to a close, the Jewel sailed into Tauranga for a somewhat cloudy day. Tauranga is a coastal city a couple of hours from Auckland that is a frequent vacation spot for New Zealanders. Beautiful beaches and great surfing provide quite an attraction and have contributed to rapid escalation in property prices. Ray and Traci booked an ambitious excursion with the cruise line which toured the region around a large volcanic lake, Rotorua. After a ninety minute drive, the tour group arrived at a nature park called Rainbow Springs. Featuring wildlife and plants native to New Zealand, visitors could see fish ponds, reptiles and even kiwi birds. Kiwis are nocturnal birds so they reside in a building kept dark during daylight hours so guests can see the birds in action. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed. Another interesting creature is the Tuatara, a lizard like creature that traces its origins back to the time of the dinosaurs.

From Rainbow Springs, the bus brought everyone to Lake Rotorua where they boarded a paddleboat called the Lakeland Queen and enjoyed lunch with entertainment provided by Maori natives teaching songs and dances from their culture. The final stop for this excursion was Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, a volcanically active area with heated springs and geysers similar to Yellowstone Park in the USA. Beautiful but scalding hot pools dot the area, providing a great natural spectacle.

Scalding hot was not an exaggeration based on the warning signs!

Unfortunately, geyser activity has been irregular recently so Ray and Traci did not get to see New Zealand’s version of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful. They did enjoy the rich natural colors and the amazing natural heat produced. The smell of sulfur permeated the area and the travelers advise future visitors to wear grubby clothes. After a very long day of exploration, Ray and Traci were quite exhausted and had a restful evening on the ship.

Monday brought the final stop on the New Zealand tour for the NCL Jewel. The cruise ship sailed into Auckland, a city of 1.4 million people (in a country of 4.4 million). The skyline and beautiful harbor immediately impressed the visitors. Walking around downtown, one would be hard pressed to see much difference from a modern North American coastal city such as Vancouver, Seattle, or San Francisco. Auckland even has its own Space Needle, the Skytower. Ray and Traci left the port and explored downtown, encountering many American institutions such as Starbucks, Citibank, Subway, and McDonalds. Ethnic foods of every imaginable variety were encountered especially many Japanese restaurants. Traci had a Thai lunch while Ray enjoyed some sushi. Next, Ray and Traci went to the Skytower, a sixty story observation platform with some thrill rides and hotel/casino at its base. From the observation deck one could get a feel for the sprawling size of Auckland.

After more exploration and some souvenir purchases, Ray and Traci boarded the ship and sadly left New Zealand. Both travelers agreed that of all of the countries they have visited during their great adventure travels, New Zealand would be the place they would go to live if they had to leave the USA. The natural beauty, amazing beaches, weather similar to Seattle, and a large metropolitan area offering the culture and amenities of a modern world class city were all great attractions. After dinner, Ray watched the Jewel’s version of Cirque du Solei, a physical stunt/acrobatic show called Cirque Bijou including Hajime and Maud. Again, the audience was entertained by a great production.

During the final two sea days before returning to Sydney, Ray and Traci have some comments about the NCL Jewel. This was their third sailing on the NCL Jewel and have always found the crew very friendly and cheerful, which is often difficult given the hours they work. With 2,313 passengers to serve from many different cultures, the staff was quite challenged. Ray’s completely unscientific assessment was about 1/3 of the passengers were from the USA, 1/3 from Australia and the remaining third a combination of China and other European countries. The ship itself is showing its age – it is headed for drydock in 2018 for further renovations. Little things like carpet stains, cracked bathroom floor tiles, and finicky opening and closing of drawers could use some updating. The NCL crew spent much time during the cruise sprucing up the ship with a little painting here and some varnishing there – wet paint signs were ubiquitous. The public areas were clean and colorful, surprisingly the latest NCL internet service seems much faster than the one Ray and Traci used in the past years on NCL ships. The ship sails between Australia and New Zealand on the Tasman Sea, which is notorious for being choppy.

The quality of the food, especially the desserts (a repeated criticism told over and over) has noticeably improved. Certainly the buffet pizza was improved. Ray enjoyed the tossed to order salads at lunch. Traci thought many of the Asian dishes weren’t spicy enough. Past cheesecake desserts were a disaster but now were better. Traci still thought the apple pie desserts needed work. Ray had dinner at the Teppanyaki restaurant and found the experience to be quite fun and comparable to a good land based restaurant (minus the flaming volcano trick, undoubtedly due to safety concerns.) His favorite dinner on NCL ships is the Cagney’s steakhouse rib-eye and that continued with this cruise.

Entertainment remained a high priority for NCL and Ray was surprised at how many unique acts the Jewel featured over the two week cruise. As with most cruise line, a headline show was performed at 7:15 pm and 9:15 pm nightly. Ray and Traci skipped the two comedians, mentalists and hypnotist. The acrobatic/cirque shows and musical production shows were very good, and the two Burn the Floor were an excellent addition. Ray enjoys live music and was a big fan of the cover band 24 Karat featuring a married Canadian couple Sheri and Dan who had an amazing catalogue of music. Many other musical options entertained guests including Taylor, a piano bar act from Colorado.

The Jewel had the usual assortment of activities found on cruise ships including contests of all types (trivia, sports, karaoke, etc). Educational sessions on cooking and astronomy were held. Ray and Traci both appreciate the running track on the 13th deck of the Jewel.

The ship arrived at Sydney and Ray and Traci had to say goodbye to the NCL Jewel and the great staff that made their journey to New Zealand so pleasant. They walked up the hill back to their hotel but had to wait 90 minutes for their room to be ready since it was still quite early in the morning. This time, Sydney weather was much warmer – 96 degrees, limiting their enthusiasm for much tourism. Their first stop was the Sydney Tower, a circular observation platform 60 stories above a large shopping center. The expansive views showed the great size of the city with its beautiful geography.

Next, Ray and Traci headed toward Sydney’s Botanic Garden. In contrast to other gardens featuring pretty flowers, Sydney’s has a wide variety of labeled plants and a collection of buildings highlighting specific species and topics. One greenhouse has a wide variety of ferns.  A building called the Calyx building houses temporary exhibitions with a current one focusing on bees and pollination currently installed.

Battling dehydration and the hot weather, Ray and Traci headed back to the hotel for drinks and a brief rest. For dinner, they ate at a nearby Japanese restaurant Akaneya. Asian food is quite wide spread in Sydney – food courts, restaurants, and specialty grocery stores. It was also common in New Zealand, especially the bigger towns and cities.

After a night of rest and a final run across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Ray and Traci flew home this time thru Los Angeles making the journey significantly shorter. Both left with great memories of Australia and New Zealand and look forward to future visits in that part of the world. 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

A Summer Trip to Whistler BC

Ray and his extended family decided to take a vacation north of the border and packed 12 people (7 adults and five kids) in three vehicles for a July adventure in Whistler, B.C. While Ray and his brother JJ have skied in Whistler during the winter years ago, the resort has evolved into an amazing year round destination. The family decided to rent a large house, which was located from the property management company Whistler Platinum. They selected a house located in the Kadenwood neighborhood, a new property near the Whistler Creekside Village which actually has its own Gondola that travels between Kadenwood and Whistler Creekside. After a fairly uneventful Sunday afternoon drive from Seattle to Whistler, a property manager greeted the vacationers at their Kadenwood home. The home was spacious, modern, and gorgeous – 6 bedrooms 7 baths, dual kitchens, hot tub, gas grill, fire pit, and enormous glass windows affording views of the surrounding forests. Curiously, the house glass lacked air conditioning, a sink drain garbage disposal, window coverings (very few had drapes), and a Keurig compatible coffee maker. During the July visit, the temperature did get into the low 90s making the glass house warm during the day, but mountain breezes brought refreshing coolness during the evening. Hungry from their 4 hour journey, Ray drove to the main Whistler village and picked up KFC for the family. KFC in Whistler only has one type of chicken which appeared to be a hybrid between extra crispy and original recipe, but proved to be a popular choice for everyone.

On Monday, everyone got back into the cars and went to the main village to board the gondolas up the mountain. Many of the lifts operate in the summer for hikers, sightseers and even cyclists. Whistler hosts a large mountain bike competition yearly called Crank, attracting all sorts of mountain bikers doing amazing stunts on their way down. Lifts operate from the main village up both Blackcomb and Whistler Mountains, and the “Peak 2 Peak” gondola offers great views as riders travel between the tops of the mountains. The more adventurous members of the family took a short bus ride from the Blackcomb Peak 2 Peak gondola station to the 7th Heaven chairlift which brings riders to the 7500 foot mountaintop. At that altitude, lots of snow remained and lots of people were enjoying July skiing. The views were quite spectacular!

On Tuesday, Ray and Traci decided to start the day with a morning run around the neighborhood. While descending on the road from Kadenwood, a large black bear crossed the road in front of them. Ray and Traci watched the bear walk into the woods, completely ignoring them. The runners decided to return home, drive to Whistler Creekside and then run along the paved trails which surround the resort, figuring bears would be less likely to forage around the village. Later in the day, Ray, his brother in law Dave, and several of the kids went to the village to do an “Escape Room.” Escape rooms have popped up in many places – a group is locked in a room and using clues, logic, and luck figure out how to get out. The group did a Pirate Ship themed escape room and the 6 of them started out handcuffed and locked in the brig. Fortunately, the prisoners managed to escape with some hints from a kind pirate on a radio. Escape rooms are great activities for groups to bond although can be frustrating especially for first timers. For dinner, Ray took advantage of the gas grill and barbecued steaks. Even more appreciated by the younger travelers, the fire pit became a S’mores oven for delicious desserts.

The next day, Ray, JJ and Dave brought all of the kids for a zipling experience with Ziptrek Ecotours.  The forests of Whistler proved to be an amazing place for riding ziplines. The group selected the Eagle tour which included 5 ziplines located among the trees of Whistler Mountain – the tour begins by riding the Whistler gondola up and then walking to the course located in the valley between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. Ray was very impressed by the hard work and the attention to every safety detail by their guides. The views from the ziplines were incredible, and the equipment allowed riders to do tricks like riding upside down. It would be hard to imagine a better setting for ziplining than Whistler. The guides were very informative, talking about the bears (they called them mountain cows as most ignore humans – but stay away from the very territorial grizzly bears!). Family dinner was at a Japanese restaurant called Sachi Sushi, located in the Whistler Village and offering some delicious traditional dishes and sushi.

On Thursday, JJ wanted to take his kids (swim team members) to the Meadow Park Sports Center for a swimming workout in their large indoor pool. Ray decided to tag along and enjoy the pool as well, although his workout was considerably less difficult than theirs. The sports center includes the pool as well as a skating ring which also hosts hockey games. Afterwards, the guys and the kids went back to the village to join tour company Wedge Rafting for a “white water” rafting experience. Due to the size and age of some of the kids, the Cheakamus Splash family friendly experience was chosen which was more of a lazy river floating experience than white water rafting. Still, on a 94 degree day it was quite pleasant to float down the river. Rafter were given wet suits and encouraged to get into the chilly river (glacial melt). On the way home from rafting, Ray picked up several pizzas from a shop across the courtyard from a place recommended by the zipline guides. After a restful night in the mountain resort, the 12 family members enjoyed a pleasant drive home.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

A Brief Visit to Los Angeles

Ray and Traci pondered an adventure to Yellowstone National Park, but the cold weather in October made Los Angeles are more inviting destination. Both have previously lived in the Southland but it has been many years since either had visited LA.

An uneventful flight from Seattle on Sunday afternoon brought Ray and Traci to LAX, where they rented a car from Hertz and drove 35 minutes to their hotel, the Hilton at Universal Studios. Once checked in, the Seattle Seahawk fans spent their first few hours in LA watching the Sunday night broadcast of the Seahawks vs Cardinals game, which ended up in a 6-6 tie. Emotionally drained from the frustrating battle, they decided to stay close to the hotel and had a late dinner at Wolfgang Puck at the Universal CityWalk where Ray feasted on seafood linguine and Traci enjoyed a kale and spinach salad with grilled chicken. After a brief exploration of the CityWalk, they returned to the Hilton for the night.

On Monday, Ray and Traci started with a continental breakfast that was included in their room package and then headed to Universal Studios. The weather was perfect during their short stay in LA – sunny with temperatures in the 70s. According to web based crowd calendars, the week before Halloween was a “ghost town” at Universal Studios. While plenty of tourists were found at the park, it was clear by wait times that the place was pretty empty – the longest line was 25 minutes making “front of the line passes” and VIP packages unnecessary. Ray thought it was remarkable that 90% of the visitors to the park that day were adults, many in large tour groups from Asia. Ray previously purchased annual passes to Universal Studios on the Costco.com web site – the price for the annual passes was about the same as a regular single day admission at the gate, and holders could return to the park on any non-peak day. This turned out to be a good investment, as Ray did return to the park on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. Once in the park, Ray and Traci went down the main escalators to the lower park where they enjoyed the Transformers 3D ride, the Revenge of the Mummy indoor coaster, and the Jurassic Park water ride.  They did not encounter any waits during their time in the lower area, and returned to the upper section somewhat soaked from the Jurassic Park ride. Over the next few hours, they saw three featured shows – Animal Actors Show, Waterworld, and the Special Effects show. The visit to the AMC Walking Dead attraction was unique with actors playing zombies appearing as visitors walked through familiar scenes from the series. Ray and Traci did have to wait about 25 minutes to get on the 45 minute long Backlot studio tour and then finished the day in Harry Potter Land with the 3D virtual ride, Forbidden Journey, and the family friendly outdoor rollercoaster Flight of the Hippogriff.
The shows and studio tour were quite interesting but people expecting thrilling roller coasters will be disappointed. Ray and Traci only rode 2 of the “virtual” coasters – Transformers and Harry Potter, leaving the Simpsons and Despicable Me experiences for another time. The virtual rides, which make up more than half the attractions, made Ray and Traci more motion sick than the real ones. While their day at Universal was enjoyable, Ray and Traci did wonder how they
would feel if they had to wait in the typical long lines on busier days – perhaps making front of the line passes a good investment. Ray and Traci walked the 1/3 mile from the park to their hotel and searched Yelp for a good place to eat. They ended up finding a Japanese restaurant two miles from their hotel called Daichan. A short drive later, Ray and Traci enjoyed a variety of tasty Japanese food in the small and cozy restaurant. The food was inexpensive but well prepared and the menu was quite extensive. 

On Tuesday, Ray and Traci went to one of LA’s great cultural experiences – the Getty Museum. A 45 minute drive from Studio City during mid-day traffic, Ray and Traci parked in the garage and took the tram up the hill to the beautiful campus. The architecture and views of the Getty were amazing! The museum is organized into 4 main buildings each with 2 floors of exhibits and the flow from gallery to gallery was very good.
The art included portraits, sketches, photos and sculptures. The collection was not as comprehensive as the Louvre in Paris or The Met in New York, but was still impressive. A beautiful garden/fountain area sat below the main campus.
Ray and Traci returned to the Hilton before driving to Brentwood later in the evening where they met Traci’s brother Kevin. The trio ate at a steakhouse called Baltaire. Ray enjoyed a bone-in rib eye steak, Traci had Chilean sea bass, and Kevin had pork chops. Dinner was quite good, and the diners finished off their meals with pumpkin cheesecake and an order of beignets complete with three dipping sauces. After the hearty meal, Ray and Traci returned to the Hilton for their final night.

Before checking out on Wednesday, Ray went back to Universal Studios using his annual pass and checked out the Simpsons virtual coaster after getting his picture taken with Homer Simpson.
Ray enjoyed the videos and decorations in the waiting area more than the actual virtual coaster which made him sick. Afterwards, Ray stopped at the Shrek 4-D movie theater before rejoining Traci at the Hilton to check out. After leaving the Hilton, the travelers drove to the Griffith Observatory. It was surprising how many people were there on a weekday afternoon. The Observatory was created to bring the stars (ones in outer space) to the public – the area includes a planetarium, a theatre, two floors of exhibits about all things outer space, and of course, telescopes for viewing at night.
Unfortunately, Ray and Traci visited in the middle of the day so weren’t able to use the telescopes but they still were very impressed by the educational experience.

Ray and Traci left the observatory, returned their rental car at BurbankAirport, and had a one hour delayed flight back to rainy Seattle.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Navigating New England

After many West Coast voyages mainly to Alaska, Ray and Traci decided to take a cruise on the Eastern Coast of the US and Canada on the NCL Gem, one of Norwegian’s Jewel Class ships. After sailings on the NCL Jewel, NCL Jade and NCL Pearl, Ray and Traci were excited to experience the NCL Gem.

Before embarking on any vacation, it is important to set expectations at a reasonable level. While places like Halifax and Portland (Maine) have a rich history and a seasonal beauty, the attractions couldn’t be expected to match some of Ray and Traci’s other cruise highlights such as touring ancient Rome, shopping at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, visiting the Summer Palace at St. Petersburg, or walking on the Great Wall of China.

The travelers left Seattle and flew to Newark before arriving at the Midtown Hilton in New York City. NYC was a toasty 90 degrees. On their pre-cruise day, Ray and Traci visited the Cloisters Museum followed by a return visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Cloisters boasts an impressive collection of medieval art and artifacts housed in a Gothic style building on the Hudson River operated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ray and Traci decided to have lunch at the Urbanspace Vanderbilt, a food hall located near Grand Central Station where Ray and Traci had lobster macaroni and cheese. Due to the very hot temperatures, Ray and Traci decided to take shelter in the air conditioned Metropolitan Museum of Art - the Met is a very large and well known art collection covering all ages and cultures. Like visiting Paris’ Louvre, a single visit to the Met only provides a glimpse into the rich history inside.

On Saturday, the voyage began at the NYC Cruise Terminal. After an uneventful embarkation process, Ray and Traci enjoyed lunch and unpacked in their stateroom on the 14th deck.

While the Gem offered a very similar experience to sailings on the Jade, Pearl and Jewel, a few observations were made. The ship is well maintained and the crew among the friendliest the travelers have encountered. Dining, as with most ships, is hit or miss – highlights included Ray’s Rib Eye steak and Traci’s Sea Bass dinner at the Cagney’s steakhouse and a turkey dinner in the main dining room. The buffet had a rich variety of foods for all meals including custom stations for omelets, pasta, and crepes. Both hand scooped and soft serve ice cream was available along with some tasty desserts (something NCL has improved in over the years).

NCL offered a variety of high quality headliner shows including two musicals put on by their own production cast, as well as the Chicago comedy troop Second City. The ship’s production cast performed a show “Get Down Tonite” with a variety of 70s music and TV themes which brought passengers back to the past. Ray also found their guest hypnotist quite intriguing as the well traveled hypnosis queen almost managed to start a fistfight between two hypnotized audience members arguing over an imaginary sand castle. The final show featured the “Ineffable Two” Stefanie and Maksym put on a very appealing adagio act highlighting their artistic dance as well as their pure athletic ability on stage and in the air. Other ship entertainment (especially music) did seem to target an older audience which may have been intentional given the profile of passengers on these New England cruises occurring during the school year (i.e. many septua- and octo-generians). The cruise had about 2,300 passengers, with full double occupancy being about 2,400 although none of the complimentary dining venues were especially busy including the buffet. Certainly the gym and running track were underused during this sailing as most passengers seemed to have spent their time eating in the buffet rather than exercising.

Sailaway from New York was spectacular given the sunny weather and the great views of the new Freedom Tower at Ground Zero and the Statue of Liberty.

After a sea day, the first stop was at Halifax, Nova Scotia. Ray and Traci opted to forgo an organized tour (many of which visited a lighthouse over an hour away from the ship) and wandered around town. They first visited the Halifax Public Library which the travelers thought was the nicest public library they ever visited. After using some free wi-fi on a balcony that overlooked the city, Ray and Traci walked to the Halifax Public Garden which was a beautiful park free to the public with some amazing and beautiful displays.

Fall colors mixed with colorful flora to highlight nature. From the gardens, Ray and Traci walked up to the Citadel which was a Canadian fort first built in the American Revolutionary War days, and now a tourist attraction similar to England’s Tower of London.

While the Citadel has had many military purposes over the years including housing World War I prisoners, it was never attacked but serves as a fine museum for the Canadian military.

From Halifax, the NCL Gem sailed to Saint John in New Brunswick. Famous highlights included the natural Reversing Rapids created with the flow reversal of the St. John River caused by the tides of the Bay of Fundy along with the fishing village of St. Martins. Ray and Traci decided to forgo an organized tour given the length of the bus ride to the fishing village, and just wander around Saint John. They encountered a sculpture festival along the waterfront where artists from around the world have been working for weeks to create granite art pieces.

Ray and Traci also visited the Old City Market with its collection of shops owned by local residents.

The next stop was Portland, Maine. After an onboard immigration check, Ray and Traci boarded a bus which toured the authentic New England town. The tour stopped at the historic Portland Head Light, the oldest commissioned lighthouse in the US and one of America’s most photographed.

After being dropped back at the Port, the travelers wandered along the waterfront and enjoyed a potato based donut at the Holy Donut. Before getting back on the NCL Gem, Ray and Traci enjoyed a cup of Maine Lobster Stew.

Newport, Rhode Island (full name State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation) was the NCL Gem’s final stop – it actually did not dock and all passengers had to get on the lifeboats which were used to tender (or shuttle) people to shore. Ray and Traci took an early excursion to the Cliff Walk which is the coastline inhabited by giant mansions built during America’s “Guided Age.” Many of these homes with opulence rivaling the palaces found in Europe, fell into disrepair as heirs to great fortunes balked at funding these ultimate money pits.

One such mansion was the Breakers, a summer home built by the Vanderbilt family and now turned over to a charitable organization set up to preserve their historical value. Tours are now conducted at several famous homes including the Breakers – which was part of Ray and Traci’s excursion.

Disembarkation in NYC was smooth - Ray started the day with a steak and eggs farewell breakfast and then both cruisers left the ship, picked up their luggage, and took a taxi to a nearby Hertz Car Rental.

Their next stop was Ground Zero where the 9/11 museum remembers the 2001 tragedy. Over the years, the sacred ground was developed with North America’s tallest skyscraper, twin fountains resting in the footprint of the twin towers and most recently, the 9/11 Museum. This memorial for the incredible terrorist attack artfully expresses the horror and violence of the criminal act, celebrates the American heroes, and remembers the many lives lost.

Certainly one of the finest museums Ray and Traci have ever visited. Ray and Traci appreciated the excellent guided tour provided by their docent who brought inspirational stories and perspective to one of America’s darkest days.

After the visit to New York's sacred grounds, Ray and Traci drove to Newark, New Jersey and returned to Seattle after their New England Adventure.