A Travellerspoint blog

Puerto Rico and back to Philly

the good the bad and the ugly!

-17 °C
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On Sunday morning we got up and got our final packing done and had breakfast and were waiting to get off the boat by 8.00. By 9.00 we were outside the information centre in San Juan being told it was closed till 10am and there were not busses anywhere and we had missed the ferry anywhere too. We tried calling the campground at St John and couldn’t get the phone to work then the payphone wouldn’t work either. Eventually the really helpful lady in the ferry ticket office called for us and found they had space so we shared a taxi to the airport with a couple of Germans who were also backpacking after getting off the ship. We were in line trying to buy tickets to St Thomas when Steve got chatting with a nice Puerto Rican guy who assured us Puerto Rico was a much different place outside San Juan and we should rent a car and see the island. He said we’d find lovely wee guesthouses right on the beach with really friendly people and it would only cost about $20 a night. He also said we could just pitch a tent by the beach anywhere we liked and we’d find lots of gorgeous beaches. He made it sound so good and so much cheaper than going to St John that we changed our plan and went and rented a car. We headed for Fajardo to see how easy it was to get across to Vieques and couldn’t find any information at all when we got there. We did find a natural reserve that did tours of 4 of Puerto Rico’s ecosystems so did that. It was an excellent tour and we saw the sandy beach, rocky beach and their different ecosystems then the lighthouse for great views over the whole area and some aquarium tanks, then finally the mangrove swamp. I loved the mangroves best and we learned about the different species of mangrove and which different areas they inhabit and how they extract salt from the water. Some sweat it out through their leaves and the leaves are covered in salt, others had glands that extract it and still others have filters in their roots so the salt never even gets in. it was really fascinating and we also saw several different birds. The swamp is around a big lagoon that is bioluminescent at night too and they do tours by kayak, so we may do that since it seems very difficult to get over to Vieques. We also saw lots of pretty big iguana and it was nesting season so they were all hanging out around their nests and sea grapes which are just like regular grapes but grow on these huge bushes beside the sea and don’t make good wine. After our tour we set off looking for somewhere to stay for the night and that’s where it all started to go wrong. There was a gorgeous campground right by the beach with a guard on the gate so when we eventually found it; we thought we were really sorted. Unfortunately it’s a national park campground and they are closed on Monday and Tuesday and you have to stay 2 nights – that meant we couldn’t stay Sunday night because we weren’t staying a second night! The logic of this one really baffled us but we had to go find somewhere else. Some time later after asking at lots of places we eventually had to settle for a place that seemed perfectly pleasant but cost us $95 – far from the $20 we were expecting. It was also pretty noisy and we didn’t sleep real well. We did get a good breakfast in the morning of oatmeal (they make it very runny with milk and lots of sugar and honey – a very different beast to Scottish oatmeal!) and potato omelette (Spanish tortilla). Then we got on the road to get out of this touristy area and find what we had been promised. The day didn’t get any better and we ended up driving for hours and not even being able to get to a beach because they were all either looked after by the park service (closed on Monday and Tuesday) or inaccessible because you had to get to them through a resort. So although all beaches are public it actually isn’t that simple in reality. We basically ended up driving all day and seeing very little that was pleasant (we did see a dead man in a car just after an accident and we ran over an iguana so both of those were probably bad omens) and only one pleasant stop for lunch at a tiny little and very windy bit of nice beach watching a pelican diving for his lunch too. We started looking for somewhere to stay in the southwest corner of the island about 1.30 and ended up half way up the west coast at 7.30 in tears in a small surf pub waiting for some guy to show us to a studio he had empty because a couple of surfies (who usually rent for 4 – 6 months) had just moved out. It was only (!!!) $40, which was half the price of anything else we’d seen. It was revolting but we stayed anyway. We wore shoes at all times, left lights on so we’d know how many cockroaches and mice were on the floor and left as much as possible in the car. There was no hot water and we decided to sleep in our sleeping bags instead of their sheets. In the morning the shower was a small dribble of cold water and we left as quickly as possible. By this time we were very much regretting the decision to stay in Puerto Rico and thinking that instead of driving aimlessly round being thwarted at every turn by the parks service we should have been doing our morning yoga on a gorgeous sand beach before going hiking in the forest to another gorgeous beach or kayaking round the bay to watch the turtles nesting in the evening. Puerto Rico was definitely a bad decision.
So Tuesday could hardly get any worse. We stocked up on groceries and then stopped at a pretty beach for a stroll then continued our trek around Puerto Rico looking for a reason to be here. We headed inland and went to an old Taino Indian ceremonial site, which was really interesting. There were 10 ball courts (kindof like the Maya ones and the rules were the same but they didn’t do sacrifices here) and the game was thought to be more of ritual value than sporting. I guess that’s a bit like football today! All the courts had perimeters of standing stones and the ones surrounding the main court were bigger and also had petroglyph carvings of the deities they worshipped. The whole landscape in the area was stunning, with really high rounded peaks and deep sinkholes – rather like an egg carton but much steeper and deeper. It was all surrounded by rainforest and the roads were challenging even without the torrential rains that kept hitting us. The roads were always dry within 10 minutes because it was so hot. We drove along a nice lake and then up into the forest again in search of an observatory, which is the biggest functioning one in the world and is now only used to listen for alien contact! We never found it. We did end up in several peoples gardens in the back of beyond so eventually gave up and headed for a campground which in true Puerto Rican style was very difficult to find, not signposted, and you had to have a permit for which had to be collected in a town 40miles away. However, also in true Puerto Rican style the people we did find were really friendly and went out of their way to help us and said we could just stay anyway. We went to have a look before we went exploring further and it was a tiny place literally in the middle of the rainforest and there was no-one else there. The horror stories on the telly of white tourists getting hijacked in remote locations got the better of me and we decided that given our luck so far in Puerto Rico we probably shouldn’t take unnecessary chances. So we set off on that long trek looking for a place to stay again. This time it only took 3hours of hell and the result was similar – in tears by a pub and being shown to some place known by some guy drinking at the bar. This time however we actually did ok from it and ended up in a wee cabana under palm trees by a pool in a safe and quiet location. The cabana was old and tired but spotlessly clean and we would happily have eaten off the floor! The property it was on was fabulous with a big house then a pool with 2 cabanas and a big covered patio area with party lights. We had our dinner on the patio of the cabana then had a peaceful evening – although not quiet with all the birds and singing insects. That’s also not the same sort of noise as the construction the first night or the next-door telly and arguing last night.
The next morning we had a nice quiet start and a nice breakfast sat on the deck of our wee cabana. After breakfast we had a walk on the beach then managed to phone the campground and check that we could stay. The drive back over to Fajardo was uneventful and we got to the camp and got set up by 3.00. It was a very pleasant camp with nice facilities and you could walk down to the beach through a gate. Just as we were about to do that the security came and told us we weren’t allowed to camp there. So we had to move down the road to the public beach and had to pay to park the car there. The facilities weren’t as nice but it was slightly closer to the beach and it didn’t take us long to get set up again. We didn’t get fully organised on the assumption we would be told to move again but it seemed we were ok. We were horrified when a group of 20 highschool kids turned up and set up camp next to us but they seemed to be all right and had good adult supervision. Certainly they were very quiet when they came back form their dinner and went to bed because we never heard them at all. We had a relaxing afternoon just doing absolutely nothing other than lying on the beach, walking along the beach and swimming. Dinner was taco shells with refried beans, sitting on the beach, watching the sunset and we went to bed fairly quickly after dinner because the bugs came out and didn’t seem to be sufficiently deterred by our bug spray. It was pretty hot in the night and we were very glad we had got new sleep sacs because it was far too hot for sleeping bags.
We started Thursday morning in a much better frame of mind and actually had a really pleasant day. After yoga on the beach, jogging along the beach, a swim and breakfast we settled down to do very little for the day. We had thought we might go up to El Yunque – the rainforest but decided we were relaxing well and we’d seen supposedly the best rainforest in the Caribbean in Dominica, so gave it a miss. We walked along the length of the whole beach in the reserve we’d visited on Sunday and there was no-one else on the whole beach and lovely white sand, coconut palms, and clear blue green sea. We just lay on the beach and relaxed every time we got tired or went in for a swim and it took us over 3 hours to walk what must have been 3 miles. We had some nice wildlife experiences – sea cucumbers, lots of wee fish, a puffed puffer fish (dead though), white herons, frigate birds, and lots of iguana. While we were lying on the beach a big old iguana came down just near us and must have been a bit short-sighted because he never noticed us and strolled down to the water and in for a swim. There may have been a couple of females nearby too because he certainly looked a bit like he was showing off, doing lots of head nodding and showing his wattle. We had tacos for lunch again then relaxed and swam a little more, had an early dinner and went out to go on a bioluminescence bay tour. We had arranged it in the morning as we passed a lot of kayaks on the beach and the guy was to pick us up at 6.30 so we were ready waiting. At 6.55 we gave up and decided it was just Puerto Rico continuing to be rotten to us and were deciding whether to walk along and see if we could see anything in the Laguna from the beach. Then a guy turned up and told us to get in his truck, which we did, feeling very nervous about being picked up by total strangers and keeping one hand on the door. He was a really nice guy and did take us along to our tour, which was just running a bit late. We eventually got set up in open double kayaks and got going. We paddled up a mangrove channel, which was pitch black in parts but was really great and slightly spooky at times. It was quite narrow in parts and we passed several other groups of kayakers going the other way so there were a few collisions. Once we got into the Laguna we could really see the glow and it was fantastic. The glow is caused by caused by wee organisms called dinoflagellae, which are something between, and plant and an animal – they use photosynthesis to store energy and then when they move at night they rotate at high speed and give off this amazing light. You can pick up a handful of water and see the individual dinoflagellae like tiny stars in your hand which was really really cool. It was amazing to drop a handful of stars over your leg in the kayak. Once we were out in the Laguna and Jose had found a good spot we jumped in the water and then we all glowed. The faster you moved the more you glowed and if you just moved really slow you could see individual stars again all over your arms. The moon came up while we were out which was gorgeous too and we have some photos that are incredibly unlikely to come out but we had to try. Once we were back in the kayaks we could see fish moving in the water and they glow too – especially if you frighten them and they have to swim away fast – so we spent a while chasing fish too. The paddle back along the channel was fairly hard work because it was against the current but was still great. It was nice just to be paddling again but we didn’t like being in a double as much as single kayaks. I think they assume the girls will need help against the current so always use doubles – I guess I’m a control freak and like to be in control of where I’m going myself rather than just being supplementary power. We got back to our tent about 9.30 and it was a little cooler than the previous night so a bit more comfortable. It also rained a bit in the night so we had a wet tent to pack up in the morning.
Friday morning started in the same way as Thursday – yoga, jogging and swimming before breakfast on the beach. Then we got packed up and there had been enough sun to dry out the tent and some other wet stuff. The traffic had been pretty bad the last couple of times through San Juan and we had to have the rental car back by 1200 so we left plenty of time. We didn’t get lost as we’d expected to and the traffic was light so by 1130 we had returned the car and were at the airport. We just had time to kill till our flight at 330 but are getting quite good at filling in time at airports. The flight was uneventful un baggage claim really quick after we waited ages then discovered a small A4 hand written paper saying that US Air baggage claim was in the next terminal over! George collected us and we went home and had a lovely quiet evening with Sally and George. It was a relief not to be in Puerto Rico but looking back probably half our time there was ok and half unpleasant. The bioluminescence certainly made up for quite a bit and the tour of the mangroves the first day was good and the Indian ceremonial site and all the landscape around there, and finally a lovely relaxing day on the beach. I still wouldn’t go back there and will be writing to the ‘lonely planet’ with a few crucial things they missed.
Saturday was a chill out day and we got chores done like washing and George and I spent some time sorting out and updating my computer. We took Maggie out for and walk and really just had a much needed quiet day.
On Sunday we had a quiet start and then went Philadelphia to the museum of anthropology and archaeology. It was a really good museum and we only looked at a few areas but learned lots. They had a great exhibit of National Geographic portraits over the years with some really stunning pictures. We looked at the pacific peoples exhibit and learned a few things about how and where they had come from and the migration pattern, which was something, I had not seen before. Then we spent the rest of the afternoon looking at the Maya, Native American and Native Alaskan exhibit s, which told us lots about the history and culture and beliefs of the people and was very interesting and well presented. We came home in the evening and had wine and cheese before lasagne for dinner and we all drank a little more than planned and consequently had a slow start the next morning although no-one was actually hung over.
Monday afternoon, after breakfast, we headed into Philadelphia again and went to the Ben Franklin Exhibit at the National Constitution Centre. It was excellent and the whole centre was really well done with lots of interactive things and we learned tons about American history. Ben Franklin himself was a really remarkable man – as well was being an amazing diplomat and advocate for the new American union in Britain and France, he was also a very intelligent man and an inventor and entrepreneur and a printer and writer. He must be one of the most talented historical figures I have come across. We also met up with John and Carol for the museum and went to dinner with them afterwards at the City Tavern, which is an accurate period pub from the time of the revolution and was a real pub at the time too. A lot of the prominent figures in American history have eaten or stayed there and the waiters all dress in costume and the food is authentic – and very very good. I had a mallard duck sausage then a turkey pot pie from a recipe of George Washington’s wife and her chocolate mousse cake too. Steve had a pepperpot soup, which was fantastic, and a veal sausage with sauerkraut. There are quite a lot of German influenced foods around here because of the Amish population in what is called Pennsylvania Dutch country. They also had some great beers from recipes of Ben Franklin, and George Washington’s.
Tuesday was another nice quiet day. George and I both had dentist appointments in the afternoon and we all just relaxed for the day. The dentist I saw was really nice but basically said we couldn’t be sure why I had toothache but it was either because of a big chink off my tooth or the decay under the filling. One would get better and the other would get worse so we decided to just wait and see and I have antibiotics and painkillers if it gets worse and will get it sorted out back in NZ. The dentist also gave me a really big discount because I was paying up front so it didn’t cost us much either. We had a nice quiet evening and Sally made chicken and biscuits for dinner. American biscuits are more like british scones and they go under the chicken casserole kind of like dumplings. It is very good.
On Wednesday we had another fairly gentle start tot he day and got shores done for the morning. I abandoned yoga due to too much help form the animals. We all set off from the house late morning and drove south into Amish country. We came at it from the south side so we’d see a different part to what we saw last time. We stopped for lunch in an Amish restaurant and had an all you can eat soup and salad including a really nice broccoli salad. Then we went Amish hunting- a very culturally insensitive thing to do but apparently, according to a university expert it’s actually ok to take photos but not to be intrusive. We took photos from inside the car although we did put Steve in the back with the tailgate window open so he could shoot out the back. We saw (and got pictures of) some really nice cultural things. It was ploughing season so there were lots of men out in the fields with their teams of horses – usually six horses or mules all side by side. The landscape was really pretty and the sun came out from time to time on the farmhouses with large silos, birdhouses and black robes hanging out to dry. All the different colours of the plough lines across the land made it a beautiful stripy design with several different greens and lots of shades of brown and red-brown earth. We saw the children walking home from school with their wee hats and lunch bags. They all walk which means the schools have to be close by so there are lots of one room schools and I guess the kids only meet their near neighbours at school. They don’t have regular bicycles but hinges that have bicycle wheels but a scooter instead of a seat so they are standing and move by foot power instead of pedal power. We spent most of the afternoon driving around looking and taking pictures then went home. Sally had to go out for choir practice and we’d eaten lunch pretty late so we had dinner when she got home at 9:00.
On Thursday morning we got going a little earlier because we had more chores to do before we went out. We got our laundry done & packed up a big & very heavy bag of stuff we don’t need & then it got FedEx’d to Duncan in L.A. Then we borrowed some warm clothes & all went out to the Philadelphia aquarium. It was very very cool. We had lunch first then went in to visit the hippos – Jenny & Button who George adores because he has done a lot of photography for the aquarium & photographed Button’s birthday party a couple of weeks ago. The hippos have a great habitat – as does everything else in the aquarium – and there’s lots to keep then amused. They were just resting in the water though so we carried on around the shark tunnel, which was also pretty cool. When we went back the hippos were busy playing & we watched them & took pictures for ages. They were chasing logs, swimming round the pond (which also has underwater viewing) & jumping up & down by the underwater viewing window. We looked around the rest of the aquarium, which also had some pretty cool stuff including leafy sea dragons, which are kind of sea horses, but they look like they have leaves all over them. They were really beautiful. There was also a big octopus, a pretty jellyfish tank (seems impossible), a porcupine & a very friendly duck that just stood and posed, & a touch-a-shark pond. The seals were also cool & had an underwater viewing area & a seal pup that liked to chase our hands on the glass. Sally had bought a hand puppet seal so we got the pup to chase the hand puppet & he was really fascinated by it and very very cute. We went home and did our final chores, packed & had a nice final dinner & evening with Sally & George.

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Caribbean Cruising

sunny -17 °C
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Next morning was an early start and we had to be at the airport by 7.30 for our flight to San Juan in Puerto Rico. It was a pleasant flight with wee individual movie screens and you could choose the movie you wanted so I watched ‘Walk the line’ the Johnny Cash movie. We arrived at 215 and it took till 300 to collect our luggage, by which time we were getting a bit worried but it arrived just fine. We got a taxi across to the port and the driver was a really nice Spanish speaking man who told us lots about the city in Spanish! Amazingly we understood a little of it and he was quite interesting. The city itself doesn’t really look that interesting so we will probably try to go elsewhere on the island when we come back from the cruise. We were on board the Carnival Destiny by 400 having done all the long queues for boarding and security checks. The boat is not quite as nice as the Conquest was but still very elaborate and our room is nice. We are on the 7th floor so its 3 floors down to the main restaurant for dinner, 2 floors up to the buffet restaurants and pools and 3 floors up to the running track and gym. We spent the evening just relaxing and organising our room and unpacking. We had just carried our backpacks onto the boat because no one told us to do anything else with them so we didn’t have to wait until late in the evening to get our stuff, which was lovely. Dinner was early seating but we met some nice people and the dinner was good. We both started with smoked Alaskan salmon then I had the fish of the day, which I have no idea what it was but it was very nice. Steve had a New York steak. Desserts were not so good and my chocolate decadence was decadent but not such a nice flavour. After dinner there was the life boat drill where we all put our lifejackets on and go out to the muster stations. Then we went out on deck to watch the boat leave San Juan at 10.30. It looks pretty lit up at night as you’re leaving by sea and the views of the old fort are really nice. The US coastguard escorted us out with a man with a mounted machine gun on the front of the boat. Then it was bed time because it had been a pretty long day.
Monday morning we slept in a bit and just woke as the boat was coming into dock in St Thomas. We went up and did our yoga on the deck in the fresh warm air with a view of an island with palm trees – there are definitely worse ways to start the day. After a good healthy breakfast of lots of fresh tropical fruit, yogurt and a pastry it was about time to head ashore for our excursion to St John. We had a few minutes to look around the shops first and then boarded a ferry for a 45minute ride around the south side of St Thomas to Cruz Bay on St John. On the way we passed the mangrove swamps and a few pretty cays. Cays are island that are created by silt build-up on rocks and vegetation attaching to it rather than by volcanic activity. St John is a much more lush island with more palm trees and whiter sand beaches at was a great day trip. We got into an open bus for a tour round the island which was a bit hairy at times because the roads are quite narrow and very windy and step I parts. We stopped for a few nice viewpoints then at trunk bay to drop folk off to snorkel for a couple of hours. We continued on the bus, which then stopped at Cinnamon bay, which was gorgeous and also has a campground, and we would love to come back to and camp for a week. We just had a few minutes to paddle our toes in the water, which was lovely and warm, before moving on to Annadale where there is an old ruined sugar mill. There is a very nice windmill there and the ruins were quite interesting. One of the guides pointed out some of the fruit trees to us including a key lime tree, which he said as well as key lime pie you can make a great tea from the leaves. So I picked a few leaves to try it out later. We saw a fruit plantation along the way as well with bananas, guava, mangoes and breadfruit all ripening and also saw quite a lot of pelicans flying round. They are very elegant birds in the sky and we even saw one dive, which looked pretty effective and deadly to anything underneath it! Then we went back to Trunk bay and had 40 minutes there so had a quick snorkel about. Trunk Bay is supposed to be the second most beautiful beach in the world (after somewhere in Australia. We thought we have seen nicer beaches particularly the beach at Tulum in Mexico, and Cinnamon bay we also thought was about as nice. However that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a gorgeous beach with lovely white sand and clear blue sea. There was an underwater guided trail for snorkelling, which was quite neat. We saw a few pretty fish and some nice coral but a lot of it had been damaged by the hurricane last year. Then it was back on the bus then ferry and back to our boat. We got some lunch – rather late!! – then strolled around the ship again till it was time to leave. The ship sailed at 5.00 and we went up onto the promenade deck and sat in the café watching the scenery as we left and listening to live piano music so it was extremely pleasant. We were on the ocean side looking at the Caribbean and had a view of St Croix and a lovely sailing ship going by. The sunset looked like flopping because the weather had turned a bit and there was a big black rain cloud in the west but it cleared just in time and turned out quite pretty. We went tot he welcome aboard show, which was quite good and certainly funny. They did a few awful things to a few passengers but in a very fun way and there was a comedian and the cruise director is also a really funny guy – unfortunately Australian – but very entertaining. Our dinner was at our proper table this time and we were pretty unimpressed. We had been put at a table for 4 instead of 8 and our dinner partners never appeared so we ate by ourselves (not that our own company is not lovely but we were looking forward to meeting people) and the service was pretty lousy. Four tables in our wee area complained about the service, lie getting their food all at different times and wrong things. The service we got was not bad – it just wasn’t good and our head waiter seemed pretty uninterested in us. The starter however was fabulous – we both had New York duckling with a berry mousse and red onion. The mains were poor and we didn’t bother with dessert but decided to go up to the buffet instead for dessert. Unfortunately because the service was so slow it was too late so we went without and were both still feeling a bit hungry. We had a stroll around the deck then went down to our room. We were still awake at 11.30 so went up for the late night buffet but it was only burgers, hotdogs and fries so we went to bed still hungry.
Tuesday morning we did yoga on deck again but it was a bit trickier because we were still at sea and there is a bit of a breeze. The ship arrived in Dominica at 9.00 after we’d had two breakfasts and showered and got ready for our day out. Our excursion for the day was a hike to Sari-Sari falls and when we got on the bus at 1030 we were a bit worried about some of the folk on it as they were in their sixties and didn’t seem just the fittest. It quickly became apparent that they hadn’t read the description which said it was a high level of exertion and very steep climbs so we were worried about them but also relieved that I wasn’t going to be the least fit person there. We had a 50minute drive from the dock at Roseau over to the Atlantic coast. We stopped in the hills for a toilet stop and local market where we bought fresh coconut for the milk and the flesh and also some sugar cane. I haven’t eaten sugar cane since I was a wee kid and it was lovely. It was a big bag so we shared it around the bus and everyone was fascinated that sugar came from that and how sweet it was! I guess these are people that think milk comes from a carton. The hike to the falls was certainly exhilarating and a really good rainforest hike. The actual difficulty of the hike was no problem to us and it was only about 45minutes but the heat certainly made it hard work. There was a scramble up the river bed at the end to get to the actual falls and then a swim under them. At the base of the falls it was like being in the really bad storm – the wind was pretty strong and the ‘rain’ lashing in your face – only it was warm and refreshing and very very pleasant. The falls were very beautiful and well worth the hike. Only one other person made it for the swim and the rest stopped a wee way short with just a view of the falls. It had taken us somewhat longer then 45 minutes because the older folk really struggled however they were all really good natured about it and genuinely had fun. They just kept on trooping on despite slipping, tripping, sliding and even falling head first in the river so although they had us up a bit we were never annoyed about it and they were great fun. We were supposed to stop at a black sand beach on the way back where there are turtles nesting but had run out of time so just had a very brief photo stop there and no sign of turtle nests. We got back to the boat about an hour later than we were supposed to and went back to our room for a shower and dry clothes then had a very brief stroll around the market in Roseau, which was pretty uninteresting. The ship sailed as the sun set and we watched it from the top deck then went down and got all dressed up for formal night. There was a captain’s welcome party with free cocktails and nibbles in a variety of lounges so we went to the one that had some jazz on. We were the first in there and the last to leave and quite enjoyed it and got plenty of nibbles and drinks – lime daiquiris, whisky sours, manhattans and wine
The alarm woke us on Wednesday morning because we got into port at 8.00 and wanted the whole day available. We did our yoga, had our 2 breakfasts and showered and packed (the regular morning routine) then joined the queue to get off the boat. We went into the tourist info centre in the port and found a trip on a catamaran snorkelling at some shipwrecks and with turtles that saved us $50 on what we would have paid for the same thing from the boat. We had time to go back for the underwater camera then got picked up from the pier and taken to the catamaran. It was a fantastic trip with just a small group of people who were all really friendly and another couple were from the cruise boat. There were free drinks all day and the only thing they were reluctant to give freely was non-alcoholic drinks so they were not impressed with me! It was all in good fun and the guy was eventually satisfied We went first to a bay just near the boat to snorkel on two different wrecks – there are five wrecks in that bay and the two we snorkelled were fairly close to the surface so very easy to see down too and Steve managed to get down to the level of them even with only a snorkel. I still panic when I put my face in the water and have trouble breathing through my mouth so just stay on the surface but I could still see lots. The water wasn’t amazingly clear and there weren’t millions of different fish but there were lots of fish and they were really close to us and some very pretty coloured ones. It was really cool to see them around a wreck too and to be able to do that without having to scuba was really great because I thought I would never see anything like that (since I won’t scuba). Then we got back on the catamaran for a sail along the west coast of Barbados to Payne’s Bay where there are turtles and we hopped in the water for a wild turtle encounter, which was simply awesome. I didn’t think we’d get as close as we did but they were swimming right up to us and all around us and there were lots of them from 17 years old (about a foot long) to 40 years (about 4 feet long). We must have seen 15 –20 turtles and up to 7 all around us at one time. We could stroke their backs, which was very cool, and I had a very close turtle encounter when one swam straight towards me and was only about 8 inches from my face. We were both on the surface of the water and he ducked at the last minute and went straight under the length of me scraping along my belly as he went! After the turtles we were dropped off at the beach and driven back to the ship. We had lunch with Terri and Lyle who were the other couple from the ship. They have just about persuaded us to go and live in Manitoba, Canada for a while as she works for the health authority and says there is no shortage of jobs for me there. It sounds great for a while and they have winters where we would be sure to get snowed in! After lunch we just chilled out on the boat for the afternoon. We sat in the Jacuzzi for a while and lay in the sun on deck then say in the lobby listening to the live classical music and watching the sunset. We had a look at the restaurant menu and decided to have our dinner upstairs at the buffet but we still never made it till after 8pm. We actually had a much pleasanter evening just eating our dinner, just the two of us. We started with a Caesar salad then had pizza and fries and chocolate cake for dessert and all of it was great. The issue of chocolate cakes puzzles me because the chocolate cakes in the buffet seem to be much better than the chocolate cakes in the restaurant and it seems to me it should be the other way round. I guess the chocolate cakes in the buffet are just good honest cakes without trying to be anything fancy and the restaurant ones are trying to be fancy and not quite pulling it off. After dinner we just headed down for a fairly early night because tomorrow was to be a long day at sea.
We had a long lie in the morning and then did our regular morning routine less one breakfast because we also went to the gym after yoga so it 10am before we went for breakfast. Sea days on the boat are hectic and we always seem to struggle to find time to relax. We went to a talk about Aruba at 11am then there was an ice carving demonstration at 1pm. In between we lay on deck for a while and worked on our tans (or burns, more to the point) then had lunch and lay on the deck for a bit longer. It was pretty tricky finding a deck chair because with everyone on the boat there were a lot of people on deck and many just kept their stuff on loungers while they went off to lunch for an hour or more, which is a bit rude. The sun here is not really burning as much as in NZ so with sun block on we are ok out and about. I have never grasped the concept of lying on a deck chair doing nothing and get bored and restless very quickly. Steve assures me that this is a form of relaxation and that doing nothing is actually ok and the people that do it not necessarily simple minded. I just can’t keep my mind still but apparently this is an issue unique to me. One of the really nice things about doing the excursions organised by the boat is that you meet people that you will see again and it was lovely to be able to keep bumping into people we know for a wee chat. There have been some very nice people on some of the trips and its great to see them again. We had a wee soak in the Jacuzzi then went downstairs and changed for our ‘previous cruisers party’. Again it was a fairly good deal because they gave us free cocktails and nibbles for an hour. We and another couple we sat with made sure we left with a full drink. We drank blue margaritas, which were very tasty and left with a glass of wine each. We had a wee rest before dinner which was another formal night so we went to the restaurant again and got all dressed up. It is fun to see everyone all dressed up and there are some really beautiful people on the boat as well as some pretty ordinary people with great fashion sense and also some just very ordinary people so we never feel out of place. It was also the midnight grand buffet so we had to stay awake till then. To keep awake we went to the restaurant for dinner and the food was pretty good again. We both had a wee seafood starter then Steve had tiger prawns and I had more long island duckling. The service was also much better and some of the staff had taken smiling lessons during the day so it was a much better experience. Our waiter even asked us something about cricket in NZ so must have recalled something about us, which was a bit of a surprise from how much attention he’d paid us up till that point. They served baked Alaska as an extra dessert as well as the chocolate cake we had which was pretty decent. After dinner we went to the show, which was good and very elaborate costumes and sets but unfortunately was the same show we’d seen on the last cruise. Then it was time we could go and take photos of the midnight buffet and the food was spectacular again. This time we had decided we wanted to try tasting some of it too so had to wait till 1230 then join a huge queue. We got a plate of savoury and a plate of sweet and shared them back in our cabin (they call them staterooms to make you think they’re bigger). Although beautifully presented most of the food wasn’t actually that great to eat so we only had a wee taste of quite a few things. By the time we got to sleep there was not long till waking up in Aruba.
Aruba was a long day stop so we didn’t have to rush right off and had a slightly leisurely start but skipped the yoga and second breakfast to speed the process up a bit. Off the boat we were just looking for a taxi when a tour company accosted us selling cheap tours of the island so hopped on the bus and then waited. A very loud group of women got annoyed with waiting so we joined them in leaving the bus. The tour operators very quickly got a small bus then for the 14 of us and we had a hilarious day with these crazy women. We went to the Casibari rock formations, which were pretty stunning, and we were able to climb up onto the rocks where there was a pretty good view over Aruba. Aruba is very flat and the highest point is apparently about the same height as the top of the ship so not really worth the 362 steps required to get there. It is basically a desert island and has no rivers so all their water is either treated seawater or collected rainwater. They have no agriculture although seem to grow plenty of cacti and there are wild goats. Next stop was Zoutman fort - an old castle on the north coast, which was wild and rugged. There were lots of wee piles of stones, which were originally put there by fishermen when they found a good fishing spot but some tour guides who didn’t know that told the tourists they were for good luck so now there are thousands of them put up by tourists for good luck. The natural bridge is also along that coast and was quite spectacular until it collapsed last September at 6am as a cruise ship of 3000 people docked on their way to see it! Bit of a shock to everyone – especially the park ranger who heard a loud noise and went out to see Aruba’s number one tourist attraction collapsing before his eyes. Next we drove by the California lighthouse and then got dropped off at one of Aruba’s best beaches – Palm Beach. We were unimpressed by the beach and after a short dip where we got covered in seaweed and sand we left the ladies behind to argue over paying $8 for a burger on the beach or going to McDonalds. We walked along the beaches, past eagle beach, punto brabo beach and druif beach. The closer we got back to town the nicer the beaches got but I think they had had a storm the night before because almost all the watersports had been cancelled and the beaches were pretty rough. We ended up walking all the way back to the boat which was about 5 miles mostly along really nice beaches. We had a couple of nice swims on t he way to cool down and had lunch back on the boat at 500 and soaked our sore muscles in the Jacuzzi then just chilled out on the boat for the rest of the evening then had dinner up at the buffet again and got an early night.
Saturday was our last day on the boat and a day at sea. There wasn’t a lot on so we spent most of the day just relaxing. We did go to a couple of seminar things in the gym and spent quite a while in the Jacuzzi. We had breakfast in the restaurant and weren’t any more impressed with the service so had the rest of our meals upstairs in the buffet. The dinner was really excellent and definitely a good choice. Then we had to get all our stuff packed up to have our bags outside the door before we went to bed.
On Sunday morning we got up and got our final packing done and had breakfast and were waiting to get off the boat by 8.00. By 9.00 we were outside the information centre in San Juan being told it was closed till 10am and there were not busses anywhere and we had missed the ferry anywhere too.

Posted by lyndalb 17:46 Tagged cruises Comments (0)

On the road again

from Inverness to Philadelphia

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Steve finished work on Wednesday 22 February and I finished on the Thursday. I had a nice day for my last day and actually felt I was being quite constructive for some of it, which was an improvement on the last week. We had a party at lunchtime and lots of folk came along which was lovely. Paul made a lovely wee speech and made me cry. I left in the middle of the afternoon after saying goodbye to everyone, which was really sad. We spent the rest of the day tidying up and finishing up the packing.
The landlord came round on Friday morning and we did the checking out thing which was no hassle at all and then they dropped us down at the bus station for the Megabus to Glasgow. Pamela met us from the bus and we sped off around Glasgow on a crisis mission to collect their other car from the garage before it closed. Once we got back to theirs we had a nice relaxing evening with lasagne for dinner (Pamela does a mean lasagne) and got a fairly early night before our fairly early start.
We left the house at 5.30am to get to the airport for our flight to Dublin, which all went very smoothly. I had got the timings a bit wrong though and thought we had an hour in Dublin but it was 2 1/2 – at least it was that way and not the other so we got a really good airport meal for our breakfast. It turned out we also had a stop in Shannon and had to get off the plane to got through US customs which seemed a bit odd – they welcomed us to America with still 6 hours flying to do! We arrived in Boston an hour ahead of schedule because there was a tail wind. We were grateful for the tail wind because it not only meant we got in early but it was also responsible for the cold weather Boston was having and that meant it was all snowy when we got there. It was snowing as the plane landed and kept snowing just a wee bit most of the evening. We got a taxi to the hotel – the Boston Park Plaza –, which is extremely posh and has a huge chandelier in the gorgeous foyer. The doorman with one of those posh luggage trolleys met us at the door. We stood in line thinking there must be a mistake and we couldn’t possibly have got a hotel this posh on our budget but they did have our names down and the bellboy took us and or luggage up to our room on the ninth floor. It was a nice room but not stunning but had a decent view over Boston and a great shower. It had just enough room for me to do my yoga in the morning, which was a bit of a luxury in a hotel room. We headed out to explore some of Boston and mostly just strolled around the park, which is lovely. There were lots of dogs playing in the snow and the ice skating rink still open and it just kept lightly snowing. We also found the shopping street and got something to eat and the information centre then strolled to t he Cheers bar for the obligatory photos. We popped inside briefly and decide to go back another time because I was pretty tired. We walked back across the park and all the lights were just coming on and it was really pretty in the snow. We had a very chilled evening and a very early night.
We woke on Sunday to lovely sunshine so had to get out and explore again. We started off walking the freedom trail, which is a brief tour of American history. We started off with no understanding of it at all and just walking it as a way to see some of Boston and just something we’re supposed to do in Boston. It turned out to be rather more interesting than that and we now have a very basic understanding of the part Boston played in American history and some of the history of the revolution. The trail itself is a red line painted on the ground or in the cobbles so it was particularly interesting in parts where there was still a couple of inches of snow on the ground and we had to scrape snow a couple of times to find where the trail went. Actually that made it all just a bit more of an adventure. We met a lovely man who gave a couple of great tips – like that threes a water taxi from near the end of the trail back to town so we didn’t have to walk all the way back. So at the end we got the water shuttle back again and it was beautiful day to see Boston from the water. Also life just feels at more familiar when we’re on boats to go places. We walked along the harbour front for a while to get to the Boston tea party boat but it wasn’t there so we just headed to the bus station and booked our tickets for tomorrow, then back to the hotel for a rest. After warming up we headed out again to find some lunch and had a look in the window of a Skipjacks seafood restaurant in Copley Square, that came highly recommended. As we were looking in a friendly man started chatting with us and he’s one of the band members that play jazz there every Sunday afternoon and had been for 16 years. So we went in for lunch and to listen to jazz for an hour. The food was great and we got our bowl of Boston clam chowder and then shared a fisherman’s platter – and it was a good thing we did share because it was huge. The jazz (Bill & Bo Winiker group) was also great and it was a very relaxing and pleasant experience. We were really stunned by how friendly the Bostonians were – lots of people smiled at us and chatted and even the man in the bus station went out of his way to help us and gave us more information rather than less. A waitress in the restaurant spent a few minutes looking at a map with another tourist to show him the best way to get somewhere. After lunch we carried on walking and saw Copley square and some of the downtown area. They seem to be quite big on bronze statues of interesting things – there was the hare and the tortoise in one place, some musical frogs, and make way for ducklings in the gardens. Make way for ducklings is one of the first books I ever got read at primary school and I remembered it well but have never seen it again and had no idea it came from Boston – so of course we had to buy a copy of the book.
We walked across to the Charles River and along the riverbank for a while and then back in to the Cheers bar for a drink and a bowl of famous Boston baked beans – its called beantown because of the baked beans. They are done with molasses and hotdog or salt pork and are great – certainly leave the English tinned baked beans (which we never eat) for dead. After that we were exhausted and headed back to the hotel to stay in the warm and watch some Olympics. We wanted to see the closing ceremony at 8.30pm but by the time it came on we had both fallen asleep so many times that it really wasn’t even worth leaving the telly on so we just went to sleep. We don’t normally get jetlagged but are certainly both struggling and feeling very tired – I think it might have something to do with how hectic the 2 months before leaving were and also the cold. The temperature is mostly around minus 1 to minus 8 and the wind chill brings it down even further. We don’t really have the clothes for that kind of temperatures because it’s only for a couple of days but it certainly does make things hard going. The fact that we walked about 8 miles in the snow may contribute too.
Monday morning we decided to go and have a bit more of a look at downtown and the shopping area so set out about 8.30 in search of breakfast. The wind had come up a bit and was dropping the temperature to about minus 20 with ice blowing around so we fairly quickly abandoned the outdoors and went into the prudential plaza for breakfast (muffin and bowl of Nantucket seafood chowder) and a stroll about before heading quickly back to the warmth of the hotel. We checked out and walked the mile down to the bus station and got the bus to Albany. The journey was not as pretty as I thought it might be – most of the snow had melted and everything just looked fairly grey. I kept a look out for moose – Fred pointed out that we weren’t likely to see moose just standing beside the interstate but it kept me occupied anyway. Fred met us in Albany and we headed home for a lovely relaxing evening and a nice dinner and just catching up which was really lovely. There is a bit more snow at Fred’s than everywhere else but still not enough to try out cross-country skiing (although we did see a woman in Boston skiing on less snow but we were walking faster than she was going and it looked really hard work).
Tuesday morning was another lovely sunny morning but rather cold and I just chickened out and stayed indoors all day. Actually it was really nice not to have anything to do and to just be able to relax and look at cookbooks and garden books and potter about. It’s the first time in quite a while I’ve been able to do that. We did a bit of dusting and hovering and Steve went out for a stroll around the farm with the dogs. Poor Sam (dog) had a seizure during the morning and was not very well for a wee while so we were a bit worried especially since Fred was out and we didn’t know if Sam normally has seizures. He was ok again a while later though and Fred spoke to the vet and he starts some medication tomorrow. We spent the afternoon puttering about and making dinner because Ron and Carol were coming round. We had a lovely relaxing afternoon and evening with Ron and Carol and a very nice dinner. Fred cooked steaks for the main and I made Marilynn’s Key lime pie for dessert which turned out well. A compulsory few glasses of wine was had as well of course and it was great to catch up with them.
Wednesday was another lovely day and still quite cold. Fred was at work again for the morning and we had a slow start and then did very little for the day. We watched a movie, went for a little outing in the jeep to get used to driving it, which felt a bit weird and we both struggled with where exactly the other side of it was. Then we took the dogs for a walk up the back of the farm and around the pond, which was frozen solid. Odie went out on it and did a little ice dancing which was quite funny to watch but she hurt her leg in the process so was a bit sorry for herself. We just chilled out for the rest of the day and made dinner with Fred then went out for some shopping after dinner. I had been reading cookbooks and had found a cookie pizza, which we decided to make for the party on Friday, and Brent wanted a chocolate cake for his birthday cake so we needed ingredients.
Thursday wasn’t as nice a day but we went out for the day in the jeep as Fred was at work all day. One of the interesting things about Boston and New York is that the weather seems to be really quite stable – if its sunny in the morning it stays that way all day and likewise if its cloudy. I guess that comes from the US being a rather large weather system but it was quite a surprise after the Scottish weather. We went for a wee jaunt over to Vermont for a drive about. There was a lot more snow over there and it was really pretty with all the cute wee towns with their elegant wooden houses with colonial decks and tall spired wooden churches, and cute wee gazebo band-stands in the town squares. It all looks even cuter in the snow and with fir wreaths and red ribbons decorating the houses still. We also stopped at the Vermont Country Store, which must be the best shop in the whole world – they have everything that you never knew you needed until you saw it there. The cookware section of course is the best, but they also have great food and lots of things to taste for free so we also had our lunch of crackers with various dips and spreads. We managed not to buy anything other than a couple of postcards, a travel tin opener and a pumpkin cheesecake mix. I was also very tempted by a lovely moose cookie cutter, and sleigh bells and maple taps but they’ll have to wait till sometime when we have more space. We drove up towards Vergennes and were going to call in on some friends there but couldn’t get hold of them so just did a huge loop around in the Green Mountains national forest, which is really pretty. We wondered for a bit what the signs saying frost heave meant but soon worked it out because the roads were really badly misshapen and bumpy. Fred told us later that its just uneven freezing of the ground under the road making it buckle and in the summer it just settles back down to a normal road. We passed several ski fields and were very jealous but had decided since we have nothing with us even in the way of clothes skiing would be very expensive and we should save our money for things that we may not get to do again in the Caribbean and Belize. We were on the lookout for moose all the time but never saw any but we did see a few snowmobiles, a couple of covered bridges, and lots of folk out ice-fishing. The wee huts on the ice are really cute and it looks just like ‘grumpy old men’. It seems like a bit of an obsessive occupation because Fred said you could see them sometimes making holes in the ice to fish through when all around the ice has melted and there’s plenty of perfectly good water to fish in! We got back just after six and Fred had just got in from work too so we went out for dinner to the ‘Man of Kent’ pub along the road. Its an English pub and is pretty good too. I had a really nice local cider – woodchuck – and Steve tried a couple of local beers – Trojan pale ale and oatmeal stout, which were good too. The food was very nice and it was a very pleasant dinner. As we were leaving a man collapsed just beside us and was being held up by his mates on a bar stool. Lots of people were just standing looking so I thought I’d better try to do something and was just checking for his pulse when he came round again so we left them all to and came home and just chilled out on the sofa reading till bedtime. I actually read a fiction book for the first time in ages and it was very good – Plainsong – and I would recommend it.
Friday morning I had baking to do for the party and made Brent’s chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and chocolate icing and the cookie dough for the pizza. Fred fixed up heating for the garage because there would be 17 of us so too many to sit in the house and eat. We also made up the cheesecake mix from Vermont country store and an Orkney fudge cheesecake but did them as half and half so we had half of each to take to Sally and George. They have this great stuff in the US called coolwhip, which is a fat free whipped cream substitute, and despite that fact that it goes against all my moral principles because there’s not a single natural ingredient in it. However it does make cheesecakes extremely easy and a lot less fat (I won’t say better for you!). We went out early afternoon to meet up with a friend of Fred’s who is from NZ and was keen to chat with other folk from NZ. There was also a bit of shopping to be done and then home to finish up the cleaning of the garage and setting up for dinner and the baking of the pizza cookie before everyone arrived. The house was chaos for the evening with 9 kids running around having a great time. It was however remarkably well behaved with all good natured noise. The dinner was really fun and the pizza cookie was cool – I think I’ll make that again! It was really lovely to see Brent & Ericka and Mark and Kim again and have a chance for a bit of a chat. By the time the kids were all gone the three of us were pretty tired and just sat back on the couch with a wee dram before bed.
Saturday morning was a road trip down to Philadelphia to Sally and George. Fred supports our quest to check off as many states as possible (and likes to have a competition with George about who can take us to the most new states) so we made a short detour through Connecticut. Connecticut was really pretty and had a bit of snow and cute villages. We got down to Sally’s mid afternoon and spent the rest of the day just getting organised for an early start in the morning to Puerto Rico. We had a nice dinner and some good gossip and visiting time too and George got home pretty late in the evening.

Posted by lyndalb 16:39 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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