Saturday, April 07, 2018

Cherry Blossoms in Bloom

Ray and Traci, accompanied by Ray’s mother, decided to trade the gray gloomy skies of Seattle frequently encountered in March for identical weather 5,000 miles away in Tokyo, Japan. Since all have made multiple visits to the land of the rising sun, they planned a combination of day trips away from and exploration of some lesser known areas of Tokyo. Their Friday morning journey started with a short flight from Seattle to Vancouver BC, followed by a pleasant Japan Airlines flight to Tokyo. After the 10 hour flight arrived 30 minutes early, the travelers managed to catch an airport bus to their hotel without delay. Due to Saturday evening traffic, the bus ride took 2 hours and dropped the tired passengers off at the Grand Prince Takanawa in the Shinagawa area.

Ray had booked the Grand Prince hotel based on its location very close to the Shinagawa train station which is one of the two giant terminals giving direct access to Japan’s high speed trains, the Shinkansen. He and Traci also stayed at the nearby Shinagawa Prince hotel during their 2008 visit to Tokyo and enjoyed the location. The Grand Prince is the oldest of the four Prince hotels clustered together in Shinagawa, and has recently been renovated. The travelers found their rooms on the club floor quite spacious and modern, plus access to the club lounge was a great bonus with its combination of buffet breakfast and all day snacks and drinks.

On their first day (Sunday), the trio met up with a former classmate of Traci’s and his wife at Sarabeth’s, a restaurant in the Atre building adjacent to the Shinagawa train station. The brunch menu was mainly American, and all of the diners enjoyed their dishes – french toast, pancakes, spinach omelet, macaroni and cheese, and salad. From Shinagawa, the travelers went to Harajuku, a neighborhood known for young people and their fashions. Retail stores both big and small line the area – a retail alley on Takeshita Street attracted crowds looking for everything imaginable. After leaving Harajuku, Japan’s exclusive shopping district Ginza was next. Ray and Traci marveled at the size and elegance of department stores like Mitsukoshi. Not all retail catered to the ultra-rich though as a visit to Uniqlo’s 12 story flagship store revealed much more reasonable pricing. may be killing retail stores in the US, but the industry appears to be thriving in Japan. It is truly amazing how small stores often selling very similar items remain in business. Service has always been a top priority in many Japanese industries, and the cost of personal service may be headed in a collision course with cheaper pricing in web based stores. Still battling jet lag, the travelers returned to the Grand Prince. For dinner, Ray and Traci visited an alley of ramen shops near the Shinagawa train station. Ramen shops, like many casual restaurants are a marvel of efficiency serving lots of patrons in very small spaces. Diners begin by ordering and paying at an electronic kiosk then sitting down with meals rapidly delivered. One nice amenity at most restaurants (even the low end ramen shops) are bins that sit under chairs for handbags (and presumably coats). Ray and Traci retired for the evening after enjoying their ramen.

Monday started with Ray running from the Prince hotel along the Sumida River. He noted that Tokyo seems to be a relatively late starting society as streets were devoid of much traffic. Few joggers were encountered although in parks, more than one father was attempting to teach his child the fundamentals of baseball in the early morning hours. Running in the streets of Tokyo is somewhat challenging as the streets are not set up in a grid pattern, and the huge train stations serve as obstructions. Fortunately, Google Maps serves Tokyo well and proved invaluable during the trip. Many of the large US cell phone carriers now offer “unlimited daily plans” for travel abroad with a flat $10 daily fee for talk/text/data and Ray thought it was worth every penny!

After a fulfilling breakfast at the hotel, the trio decided to take a river boat down the Sumida river from Hinode pier to Asakusa. The boats serve as a somewhat scenic tour for visitors although the limitation of narration to the Japanese language limited the ability to appreciate the terrestrial highlights. Given the crowds usually encountered on the main trains in Tokyo, the 40 minute cruise on a mostly empty boat was a refreshing change. Besides the endless buildings lining the river, a collection of tents (presumably belonging to homeless residents) showed Seattle is not the only city having a housing crisis.

The cruise boat dropped passengers off at Asakusa which is near the Tokyo Skytree – a tower standing 2,080 feet, making it the second tallest structure in the world as of 2018. Asakusa is also the home to Tokyo’s oldest temple, Senso-ji.
The beautiful Buddhist temple is one of Tokyo’s busiest sites and has been surrounded by an encampment of shops and food booths making tourists feel right at home. In the Temple, Ray’s mother and Traci purchased a random stick which signified that they were to receive the “Best Fortune” prognosticating the fulfillment of wishes, recovery from illness, and several other things. Some people apparently receive bad sticks as a nearby rack offers a place for people who don’t like their fortunes to hang them and presumably be released from a bleak future. Inside the temple, golden furnishings and beautiful flowers contrast with the traditional wooden framing.

From Senso-ji, the trio went to Kappabashi street which is the world’s mecca for kitchen enthusiasts. While American cooks (professional and otherwise) have few options for their kitchenware, Japanese have a neighborhood full of shops selling any conceivable tool for cooking and operating a restaurant. One of the most quirky items is plastic food which eateries all over the world use to model their dishes to prospective diners. At least half a dozen different stores sell plastic food models of every conceivable dish – one actually sells kits for customized models and teaches classes on how to create them!
Another popular store category are ones carrying knives. Carbon steel kitchen knives of typical sizes cost several hundred dollars each – in storefront workshops, skilled technicians sharpen these costly tools using water and sharpening stones fascinating observers. Sadly, the relentless focus on quality and durability can be lost in America’s internet retail revolution. Before returning back to the hotel, the travelers stopped at Ameya-yokocho market near the Ueno train station. A permanent multistreet market, shops small and large hawk fashion, food, and just about anything else imaginable. Traci thought it reminded her of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. After arriving back at the Grand Prince, Ray decided to go to the nearby Aqua Park to see the small sea life park. This urban aquarium located at the Prince Hotel, consists of rides (a merry go round and rocking pirate ship) for young kids, penguin pen, aquariums of various sea animals and a large stadium aquarium for a dolphin show. A room of large tubes holding different jellyfish provided a unique living lava lamp show.
The highlight of the visit was the Dolphin show performed periodically throughout the day. In the covered dome stadium, music & lighting effects highlighted the acrobatic abilities of the dolphins with their trainers and provided a very entertaining 12 minute show.
While Ray wondered if the large stadium pool was big enough for the 8 or so dolphins to happily live in, having an urban aquarium allowed many children living in one of the world’s most densely populated cities to appreciate the animals in the sea. Ray rejoined Traci and his mother and they mostly snacked on food in the Prince lounge for dinner.

Tuesday brought rain and colder weather. The group decided to venture to Yokohama, a nearby city 20 minutes away from Tokyo on a train. After arriving, the first stop was at Landmark Tower, the second tallest building in Japan. Located near the harbor, the waterfront office tower/hotel/shoppingcomplex offered some incredible views from its 69th floor observation deck despite the cloudy weather. Unfortunately, Mount Fuji was obscured by the clouds. Across the street, a small amusement park stood open although very few patrons were present (due to the rainy cold weather and the fact that it was a school day.) Incredibly, a few hearty souls rode a river water slide despite the cold water soaking at the end. Ray’s group settled for a ride in a giant Ferris Wheel. The next stop was the Cup Noodle museum. Momofuku Ando founded the ubiquitous food company Nissin, by preparing ramen noodles for dry storage using hot oil – a trick which opened the way for his products Top Ramen and Cup Noodles.

The museum celebrated both the product as well as the journey of its founder. Inside, there was a replica of Ando’s home workshop where the process was invented as well as an informative video and various activities. In one room, visitors created a Cup Noodle by decorating a Cup Noodle container, choosing a soup flavor and dried toppings, and having it vacuum packed for a customized Cup Noodle to enjoy at home.
The final Yokohama stop was at Chinatown – one of the largest in Asia outside of China. Several square blocks were filled with merchants hawking various retail products, clothing, and foods.
The group shared pork humbows. After returning to Shinagawa station take out food was purchased at the train station for dinner back at the hotel.

Wednesday brought even colder and wetter climate to Tokyo – temperatures fell in the mid 30s later in the day resulting in mixed rain and snow precipitation! The travelers decided to spend much of the day at Miraikan, Japan’s National Museum of Emerging Science – a showcase of technology especially focusing on research endeavors into particle physics, space exploration, robotics and medicine. A surprisingly long ticket line already formed at Miraikan, taking 30 minutes to navigate before getting admission tickets – which were never checked or scanned on entry. Japan seems to operate more on the honor system than other places. On this day Japan had a national holiday, Vernal Equinox Day, which brought many more families than usual to the museum. One of the most popular attractions at Miraikan was the Honda robot Asimo who entertained the crowd with dancing and even singing. 
Honda also displayed its answer to the Segway, the UniCub – a self-balancing two wheel scooter. Ray actually got to try one out in the lobby and found it quite functional.
Near the exit, the Miraikan has an area where Nobel Prize Winners who visit the museum are asked to create a question for the future – a particularly prominent American accepted the challenge:
The ride to and from Miraikan was on the Yurikamome train line. Besides its location serving the Tokyo Bay Waterfront, the train is also notable for being autonomously driven – no transit personnel are on board. Ray and Traci actually sat in the seating area usually occupied by the driver. The travelers finished the day by exploring the self proclaimed Tokyo Station City – with the extensive development around the station including retail and eating establishments, the seemingly endless variety of foods and products was quite amazing. Another very impressive department store, Daimaru, towers over the station. Over 3,000 trains travel to Tokyo Station daily making it the busiest in Japan. The seemingly endless corridors of shops certainly must wear out residents – Traci spotted one child who just decided to take a nap in the middle of the floor. A unique feature of Japan is the lack of parental supervision – while walking around various neighborhoods, shopping areas and even train stations, children could be seen making their way unescorted by adults. Certainly, you don’t see many 8 year olds walking alone thru downtown Seattle! Japan, blessed with extremely low crime statistics, promotes independence at an early age. The contrast with the US does raise the issue of how much more dangerous America really is for children or is it an attitude perpetuated by serial killer movies, and the constant storylines from TV shows such as Law and Order SVU. Tired and cold from the weather, the evening ended with the travelers hoping for better conditions tomorrow. Ray was hungry for pizza so he stopped at Pizzaman in the Atre building connected to the Shinagawa train station. His sausage and broccoli pizza proved there is no such thing as bad pizza….

Thursday brought the end of the rain and better temperatures, allowing outside tourism again. After breakfast, the visitors took the train to the Tokyo Station again, and walked to the Imperial Palace – home of Japan’s Emperor Akihito. Unfortunately, only limited tours of the grounds are available so photographs have a very limited view of the palace. 
The Imperial Palace site has a very popular running path of about 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) although few were seen in the middle of a workday. After returning to Tokyo station, the group headed to Akihabara. Formerly known as electric town, famous for technology stores, it is now the center of anime, a Japanese style of media characterized by colorful graphics, vibrant characters and fantastical themes. A popular series, Girls und Panzer, follows a group of high school girls practicing tank warfare as sport. From Akihabara, trains took everyone to Oshiage, the home of the second tallest structure in the world, the Tokyo Sky Tree.
At 2,080 feet, it is the world’s tallest freestanding tower with glass walled observation platforms at 1,150 and 1,500 feet with impressive views of Tokyo giving a new definition to urban sprawl. Unfortunately, distant clouds prevented viewing Mount Fuji. Before returning to the hotel, the travelers picked up food near their Shinagawa train station. All of the train stations have extensive retail outlets, many having giant department stores. Shinagawa had many places to find food from large food courts like Ecute to convenience stores to restaurants. Adjacent buildings like Wing and Atre housed many additional choices. Later in the evening, Ray decided to venture out for dessert – he ended up having an Oreo McFlurry at the McDonalds across the street from the station. He also stopped at Hollywood, a large pachinko palace next to Shinagawa station. Walking in, one first notices an explosion of lights and sounds of metal balls clanging. Ray’s family actually had a Pachinko machine long ago – it was Japanese pinball with smaller balls and on a vertical playing field. One aimed the balls being fired and tried to hit targets. It seems current Pachinko parlors are mainly a gambling establishment – they are given exceptions to the prohibition on casinos in Japan, and the play focuses on a video screen rather than the balls. Players hold down an electric trigger that repeatedly fires the balls without aiming but they only care about the video screen which often looks like the reels of a Las Vegas slot machine.

Friday’s plans called for a day trip to Kyoto, about 280 miles away from Tokyo. As with past trips to Japan, JR Passes (Japan Rail) were purchased from on-line agents prior to the trip, then vouchers were mailed to the travelers in Seattle and exchanged in Japan for the actual pass. The price of a 7 day pass was less than  the trip to Kyoto, and it allows free access to JR trains including the high speed Shinkansen. Not all of the trains taken during the visit were JR trains, so sometimes Suica cards, the Japanese version of Seattle’s Orca transportation cards were required. Fortunately Google maps was quite useful at identifying the best trains and connections. The trio left on the 8:40 AM Shinkansen to Kyoto – travelers should note the Shinkansen are always on time, so don’t be late! Ray’s iPhone app showed a rather impressive speed (in miles per hour!) during the trip.
After arriving at Kyoto station, the travelers boarded a local JR train for a short ride to Fushimi Inari Shrine, an important Shinto house of worship. According to the internet guide Trip Advisor, it is the most popular tourist site in Japan.
The beautiful orange temple is known for the mountain trails behind the shrine which are lined by thousands of torii gates donated by individuals and companies. The movie Memoirs of Geisha highlighted this shrine.
While at the temple, Ray asked for a Shinto blessing by writing on a wooden stick his wish for the Mariners to win an American League Pennant and then depositing it in the shrine. Previous requests at major house of worships around the world (including the Vatican, Jerusalem and Istanbul) have been unsuccessful, so he limited his budget to 200 yen ($1.91) and purchased the small blessing stick.

From Fushimi Inari, Arashiyama Monkey Park was the next stop. Over 170 Japanese macaque monkeys live in the wild life preserve. After a 20 minute hike up to the top of the mountain, visitors are treated to some amazing views of Kyoto and large numbers of monkeys. The creatures are very docile and for the most part, behave as if the humans were not there. Visitors are allowed to purchase peanuts, apples and bananas to feed the monkeys – they readily pick the food right out of human hands. Bamboo forests surround the mountain top so the monkeys have ample natural habitat to enjoy.
From the Monkey Park, the travelers took a taxi to Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. This UNESCO World Heritage Site dates back to 1397 although has been rebuilt in 1955 with gold leaf trim giving a distinctive appearance to the beautiful temple.
To conclude their day in Kyoto, the trio took a taxi to the Gion district famous for geishas (female hostesses clad in colorful kimonos). After doing some exploring of the many shops, the group returned to the Kyoto Shinkansen station and was back at the Prince hotel 12 hours after leaving it. Fortunately, the weather was perfect for the Kyoto excursion and the tired travelers enjoyed their day of exploration.

Their visit rapidly drawing to a close, Saturday brought out great weather and blooming of sakura, Japanese Cherry Blossoms. Sakura play an important role in Japanese culture, and many festivals mark the blossoming which for Tokyo, usually takes place in late March. The beautiful flowers bring out huge crowds and make parks highly congested.

Ray, his mother, and Traci met Ray’s cousin Scott and his family for lunch in Shinjuku at a highly regarded Tempura restaurant, Tsunahachi Tsunohazuan. Deep fried battered seafood and vegetables are well known in America, but Japanese chefs have turned it into an art form. After lunch, Ray dragged his mother and Traci to a show called the Robot Restaurant. Popularized by CNN travel personality Anthony Bourdain, Ray had wanted to visit the attraction for years. Entering the theater, the three travelers realized there were very few Asians in the audience. Ray thought the show was more of an indoor parade along the lines of Disney’s Electrical Parade rather than a theatrical production. The theater with perhaps 300 seats was cramped and the costumed dancers and motorized robot floats took up every bit of the stage which sat between two stands of seating.
Ray thought about 1/3 of the audience thoroughly enjoyed the craziness and pageantry of the show (probably the ones that drank the most), 1/3 were overcome with sensory overload but thought it offered a window into the zany Japanese culture and 1/3 thought it was loud and obnoxious. Ray is sure 100% of the audience would agree there is no show anywhere in the world like it! For dinner, Ray’s mother and Traci picked up food from the train station while Ray was dying for some American fast food and went to McDonald’s for a Teriyaki Burger and fries.

Sunday brought a conclusion to their Japan experience. Brilliant sunshine highlighted the blooming Sakura and the temperatures hovered in the 50s. Ray found an excellent running path following what appeared to be a single lane alley called Ryu Tokaido to a covered outdoor mall area Tachiaigawa. In the alley, many unlocked bicycles were parked along the road – although it didn’t look like any were expensive road bikes.

Before heading to the airport, Ray and Traci took the train to the Ebisu station and joined thousands of sakura viewers along the Meguro river.

Many of the major parks in Japan were packed with people enjoying the annual cherry blossom blooming which unfortunately lasts a short period of time. The Meguro river was lined with beautiful sakura trees as well as many pop up refreshment vendors serving the large crowds. Fortunately, the weather cooperated allowing Ray and Traci a final sunny day in Japan. With the conclusion of their trip, Ray and Traci returned to the hotel and joined Ray’s mother on the airport bus ride followed by a long but peaceful flight back to Seattle.

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.