The Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

Considering the distance from Tianjin port to Beijing, we booked a ship’s excursion to see the Great Wall. This all-day excursion started with a visit to the Summer Palace with a lunch stop at a jade factory between there and the Great Wall.

the Great Wall is not nearly as big as the mountains it stands on

Holland America‘s excursion information about the Great Wall said construction began as early as the 8th century BC, but it was the first Qin Emperor who extended this bastion against the northern barbarians. Construction reached its zenith under the Ming Dynasty. Today, the wall stretches some 3,600 miles. Your visit features a walk along a restored section of the wall’s battlements, which are wide enough to allow cavalry and chariots to pass. It went on to say after visiting the wall, re-board your motorcoach and transfer directly back to the ship in Tianjin — a drive of approximately three hours.

there are a lot of red pagodas at the Great Wall

GREAT WALL

About 7 hours into a 13 hour excursion, a good portion of which was driving time since the port is several hours away from Bejing, our tour bus finally pulled into a parking lot at the Great Wall of China. Since the wall covers thousands of miles this was just one of many places where people can visit restored sections of the great wall. While the impressive Ming Dynasty part tourists visit near Bejing built in medieval times is made of stone with a wide walkway and fortresses, the entire wall does not look that way.

red pagoda

Original early parts of the wall tended to be made of tamped earth, stones, and wood. Portions of the wall, some built over 2000 years ago, once encircled early cities, and over time walls were joined together as cities stopped warring with one another and sought to stop enemies from the north. The wall generally runs in an east-west line along China’s historical northern boarder. The sections tourist see have been restored, but other portions of the wall are neither as impressive nor as visible. Some are wild and crumbling with pathways wide enough for just one person, and other areas of former wall are so far gone they are hard to find. Not all areas of the wall are open to the public. Little remains of the oldest original walls, those having been built over and fortified by later inhabitants over the centuries or lost entirely with previously undiscovered sections sometimes coming to light.

people going up the wall down the road from where we stopped

Where our bus went, several large parking lots spanned areas on both sides of the highway with multiple entrances to the wall. We could see quite a lot of people climbing a steep stairway up the road a ways both on the same side and across the street near different parking lots than the one where we stopped. There was yet another lot directly across the road from where we parked.

giftshop near the parking lot at the Great Wall

Our group followed the guide through the turnstile and he got tickets for everyone. Once through he gave us an hour and a half and said people could choose to take a right turn to the pathway up the very steep stairway to the wall on that side of the road, take a left turn to the pathway that dropped down several steep stairways before coming to a section of wall crossing the highway and then going back up to walk along the wall on the other side, or just take photos from there and hang round the coffee shop and gift shop in the area near the parking lot.

The side where most people went

Most people went to the pathway leading to the wall and then split one way or the other. The sun was coming down behind the mountain on the right making very bad lighting for photos so we chose the left path. Even though it was sunny and about as clear a day as Bejing gets looking up toward that mountain the position of the sun pretty much just highlighted the haze in the air and silhouetted the mountain with the wall not really visible, where going to the left the sun was at our backs making for better pictures. In spite of that almost everyone took the right turn with just a few going left.

the Great Wall crosses over water and a highway

Finding the way down to cross the road involved entering a series of buildings each leading to part of the stairway. One of them had a bit of a maze to pass through before coming to its stairs. By the time we got to the part that actually crosses the road we were the only ones there, the rest who started out that way having given up and turned back to go the other way.

little buildings down in a hole surrounded by Great Wall

On the way back a couple other people from our tour had made it down far enough to see what must have been barracks down in a hole back when that area was one of the forts on the wall, but we never saw any of the others make it any farther. We walked past the barracks and found the bit of wall crossing over the highway. While that bit was level, the stairway beyond it was quite steep.

stairway on the wall

Stairs along the wall vary from just a few inches high to over a foot for just one stair. This variation doesn’t just occur from one stairway to the next, but also among stairs in the same stairway in some places.

it’s a long way up – or down

Some are wider than others as well. The railing on the steepest part of the stairway isn’t much more than a foot above the stairs if that, but the stairs are so steep it’s still reachable without bending over and sometimes useful in going both up and down.

It always looks like the next building is at the top of the wall, until you get there and see another one higher. Surely it’s the top, but no, arriving there reveals another one higher still.

Each section we climbed ended with a little building. Though there were just a few forts along the wall, there were many guard towers so it’s not far from one to the next of those. It always looked like the next one up would be the highest point for that section of wall, but then when we got there the next one would be higher still. After we had gone quite a ways from the fort area the pathway narrowed to just the width of one chariot, which couldn’t have been much wider than the horse that pulled it. We wanted to keep hiking until we finally found a place where everything was down from there and nothing else was higher, but never got there in the time we had to spend on the wall.

there are toilets on the Great Wall

Our guide said there were no bathrooms on top of the wall, but apparently he had not gone up that side of the wall or at least not hiked it very far because after about a kilometer or so we came upon a building with toilet painted on the side of it. It may seem odd that it was written in English as well as Chinese, but a lot of the road signs were as well so seeing something written in English wasn’t that uncommon. They were of course the Chinese sort of squat toilets. It does make sense to have bathrooms there for the people who hike long stretches of the wall – or who run there. John’s Chinese aunt who lives in Beijing ran a marathon on the wall and it would be pretty tough to have a race somewhere with no facilities. Of course the soldiers of ancient times would have needed somewhere to go as well, though I have no idea if a restroom in this location was an original feature or an addition done during restoration. If it was original to the location it certainly would have looked far different in the past.

pit toilet squat toilet

In spite of being pit toilets so they still smelled bad, the wall had the cleanest squat toilets I saw in China. They may have been too far out on the wall for the average western tourist who can’t hit the hole to get to them since the floors and standing area around the toilet in these was clean and dry. There’s rarely ever any toilet paper in Chinese public bathrooms and these were no exception. When traveling in China it’s nearly always BYOB – bring your own buttwipe.

John in one of the little buildings on the wall

We would have liked to go farther than we did, but when half the allowed time had passed we turned back. We always seem to go faster on the way back, probably due to less photo stops, but not wanting to risk missing the bus or being the annoying people who don’t return on time and keep everyone else waiting we turned around short of reaching a little red building just a couple buildings down the way that actually did look like the highest point for that bit of the wall. Although had we made it there we may have found the next one still higher like we had with all the others. As with the Summer Palace that we also went to on this excursion, we would have liked more time to spend at the wall – a lot more time.

viewpoint on the Great Wall

From some viewpoints along that section of wall we could see construction going on for the new section of track for an expansion of their bullet train system that our guide had mentioned on the bus on the way there, though we had no idea where those tracks go to or from.

we took photos for the Chinese guy in red behind me

We saw very few people on that section of wall, but did come across a Chinese guy all dressed in red who wanted to hand us his phone to take a picture of him. You don’t have to speak the same language to understand when someone wants a photo.

posing with a little Chinese girl

Later we came across a family about to go up the very steep section of stairs as we were coming down it. At first I thought they wanted the usual for us to take a photo of all of them, but it turned out what they actually wanted was to take a photo of me with their adorable little girl. Apparently having a photo of her with a blond white tourist was a big thing for them. She was very cute and luckily John got a photo of me with her on his camera as well.

cannon above the barracks

After going back across the part over the highway we found a stairway down to the barracks area and a detour in the pathway that went around the other side of the barracks area with some cannons on it, neither of which we had noticed on the way out. There wasn’t anyone down by the barracks on our way out, but some people were down there on our way back. We didn’t take the time to go down there, but since we ended up making it back with about 20 minutes to spare we could have. We wandered through the gift shop instead, which mainly sold cheap tourist junk for inflated prices.

wide pathway on the Great Wall

Even though the cruise ship tour didn’t allow for as much time as we’d have liked to spend at either the Summer Palace or the Great Wall it was still worthwhile to get to see both of those things – and even though it came with a higher pricetag than any excursion we’ve ever done before it would cost a whole lot more to take another trip to China if we hadn’t seen them on this trip.

narrow pathway on the Great Wall of China near Beijing

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021
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Aqaba, Jordan Cruise Port

MSC Lirica in Aqaba

AQABA, JORDAN

Aqaba is Jordan’s only seaport and the largest city in the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea. It is a free-trade zone with lower taxes than the rest of the country. People from elsewhere in Jordan don’t get the tax break by shopping in Aqaba. There is a checkpoint on the way out where people from other parts of the country have to make up the tax difference on their goods. New development is springing up in areas surrounding the older part of the city with the population there having doubled in the last decade, and foreign investment fueling some of the construction. The most popular cruise ship excursion from Aqaba is to Petra about 2 hours away. Going to Petra was the main reason we booked our cruise on the MSC Lirica. Petra had been on my bucket list for years and while a port stop on a cruise ship only allows time enough spent there to see a small fraction of it, we at least got a glimpse. I’d still like to go back and spend more time there someday.

town in Jordan near Petra

The area has been inhabited since 4000 BC, and is home to the Islamic Aqaba Fort. The city sits at Jordan’s southernmost point and is very important to Jordan’s economy through trade and tourism. Its desert climate is hot and dry. Currency is the Jordanian dinar. One US dollar is worth about 0.70 dinar. Credit cards may not be accepted, but US dollars often are. The language is Arabic, but many people understand English.

Aqaba

Aqaba was known as Ayla from pre-biblical times until the 14th century when it was renamed by the Mamluk Sultans of Egypt who ruled it at the time. Before that it was taken by the Romans in 106 AD who ruled the region until the Byzantine Empire took over in the 4th century. They were followed by crusaders in the 12th century and then Saladin of Egypt. Crusaders took over again followed by Muslims the following year. The Mamluk Sultans of Egypt built the Mamluk castle (aka Aqaba castle or fort). They were overthrown by the Ottomans who ruled for 4 centuries until 1917. At the end of WWI the British secured Aqaba for Jordan. It was a British protectorate from 1921 until 1946 when Jordan became independent. Their history with Great Britain is why many people there speak English as well as Arabic.

Aqaba

Jordan has many interesting sites for tourists to visit throughout the country, some of which are of religious significance. Two of their major sites are near Aqaba – Wadi Rum and Petra. A wadi is a valley, ravine, or channel that is dry except in the rainy season. Wadi Rum is the biggest one in Jordan. It is also known as the Valley of the Moon. Wadi Rum Protected Area is famous for its desert landscape with sand dunes, valleys, sandstone mountains, canyons, and arches. Lawrence of Arabia, The Martian, and other movies were filmed there.

treasury in Petra

Petra is an ancient Nabatean Arab city where building facades are carved into the sides of  rock cliffs. It is an extensive site with many buildings, the most famous of which is the treasury, used in the filming of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

gangway from the ship and tour busses at the port in Aqaba

AQABA CRUISE PORT

Aqaba sits directly across a narrow inlet from Eilat, Israel where we had spent the previous day. Our ship spent the night between the two ports slowly circling around the bay to fill the time between the scheduled departure from Eilat and arrival at Aqaba. From the top deck of the ship at that port you can see 4 countries. Jordan and Israel of course, and in the distance Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well. We could easily see the port in Eilat and the place where we had docked directly across the bay.

port view from the ship while docked in Aqaba

Ships in Aqaba dock at the main port about 3 miles south of the city center. This port has docking space for 23 vessels and anchorage for 8. Both cruise ships and commercial vessels use this port. Because it is a mixed use port walking through the port is not allowed, which is standard at any port with container ships. It’s a quick shuttle ride to the gate. Taxis are available there or it is a 15-20 minute walk to Aqaba Castle (Mamluk). Shuttles may also take passengers all the way into town (4k). Excursion busses pick people up at the port right in front of the ship and drop them off there upon return.

view from the ship in Aqaba

Getting off the ship in Aqaba was just as easy as any average cruise port, quite a difference from our previous day in Israel which had extra security procedures that made the disembarkation process for a port stop about as lengthy as it is for leaving the ship on the final day when the cruise is over.

view from tour bus in Jordan

THINGS TO DO IN AQABA

Beach resorts, windsurfing, diving, Yamanieh coral reef in the Aqaba Marine Park, take an excursion to Wadi Rum or Petra, Mamluk Castle (seen in the movie Lawrence of Arabia), museums, beaches, diving and snorkeling, mosques, Berenice Beach Club, Aqaba Marine Park, ruins of the ancient city of Ayla, bird observatory, glass bottom boat tour, and old town.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021
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Cabins at Decatur Head

Decatur Head cabin 1

Decatur Island is a private island in Washington State’s San Juan Islands. There isn’t much public land, but it does have a public boat ramp and the beaches are mostly state property. There isn’t much access for anyone who isn’t staying there though so crowds are non-existent on the island. Much of the land is forested, but there are homes and vacation houses with gravel roads providing access around the island. There’s not a lot in the way of rentals other than a couple bnb’s. The island has a couple tombolos, which is a bit of land that would be a separate island except for a connection through a sandbar or narrow strip of land.

cabin 8 kitchen

Decatur Head is one of those tombolos. The privately owned cabins there were built in the 1970’s and belong to the Decatur Head Beach Association, whose members use the cabins. There are 8 total with one for the caretakers to live in and 7 for the members vacation use. These cabins sleep from 4-10 people, but each of them have just one bathroom.

inside cabin 8

Although most people will never be able to stay there, it’s still fun to see the inside of some of these rustic cabins. Each one is different both inside and out. Local elements were integrated into the original decor and though some things have been updated over the decades since, things like driftwood furniture and sometimes stairways still remain.

top of the stairway in cabin 8

Cabin 8 is one of the larger ones that sleeps 10. It has 2 bedrooms and a loft with a bunch of mattresses on the floor.

loft bedroom cabin 8

The stairway winds up through a hole in an open sided ledge with a doorway into the bunkroom. The one bathroom in the cabin sits on the lower level between the two bedrooms.

A-frame cabin

All of the cabins have the bathroom on the main level. Not all of them have upper stories. They do all have fireplaces except for cabin 2, the one A-frame style cabin which has a wood stove.

view from the loft in cabin 8

The living room has 2 couches and lamps mounted on rustic wooden tables. The full kitchen has a picnic table for eating space, and another one without the benches for putting things on. Dishes and pans and other kitchen essentials are provided, but people have to bring all their own linens and paper products as well as food and bedding. Access to the island is by private boat or island charter service. There is no garbage service so all garbage leaves with the guests.

cabin 6

Cabin 6 is another two story cabin. It’s a bit smaller than cabin 8, but also holds 10 people. Access to the second level in this one is more of a ladder than a stairway.

inside cabin 6

The upstairs has a bedroom and a loft area with a couple beds and a futon. Downstairs has 2 bedrooms as well as the bathroom, kitchen, and living room areas.

loft view of cabin 6 living room

This cabin also has a picnic table style table for eating on. It also has a couple couches and rustic end tables.

outside cabin 8

Outdoor areas by some cabins have fire pits.

totem pole

Cabin 8 even has its own totem pole.

cabin 5 is just one story

Cabins 5 and 7 are just one story, which are similar in size and layout to the lower level of the larger cabins.

living room in cabin 8

Every cabin has its own unique character inside and out.

cabin 8 has a deck shaped like the bow of a boat

copyright My Cruise Stories 2021

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Seabrook

first impressions

Years ago while my kids were growing up, we used to take our horses to the ocean every summer. We stayed in Ocean City at a little RV park about a block from the ocean. Up a very small hill behind the campground they had an old barn and corral with an open field where people with horses could camp. There was a horse-friendly campground closer to the water, but the tiny corrals there had very unsafe looking fencing where a horse could easily injure itself as well as no shelter for them so we never stayed there. I have no idea if either place still exists.

these people must really like birds

From the beach access road in Ocean City we would ride up north. The first year we went there the river running alongside the beach ended before the beach access road in Copalis. Extending ever northward, the river worked its way through that road at some point while we were still going there, and to this day the beach access road is still closed as they never built a bridge over the river like the access points south of there have. Our favorite area to ride was north of there as at that time horses were allowed in the water in areas where cars could drive, but could not pass through the clam beds in areas where they were not. Cars were allowed north from Copalis, but could not get there without the access road so we could ride in the water without worrying about any cars on that stretch of beach. When we were recently at the beach north of there the signs at all the access points gave seasonal times for cars being allowed, but none of them had any permanent open or closed areas. I don’t know if the entire beach is like that now or if the places further south still have open and closed areas. It was summer when we used to go there and all the places we saw recently had no cars allowed throughout the summer, where back then in the Ocean Shores area the beach was full of cars.

Seabrook town center

Back then I knew there were towns north of Ocean City. I’d heard of Copalis, Pacific Beach, and Moclips. I had never heard of Seabrook though until we took a trip out to Moclips recently. Turns out that’s because back in the day Seabrook did not exist. It’s a totally planned community first established in 2004, past the time we were bringing horses out to the sea. Which explains why I’d never heard of it.

Seabrook Map

We took a drive through Seabrook on our recent trip to the area. Strangely enough the first impression of all 3 people in our car was that the place was creepy. While it’s not what you would find in a scary movie, it was more the sameness of everything. Rows of homes all looking pretty much the same, and like they were all built at the same time. It reminded my sister of the Stepford Wives, a story where a perfect seeming town has replaced all the wives with robots. It reminded me of a fake Disney town. It also could have passed for a movie set because of the seemingly un-realness of the place.

street in Seabrook

Some of the first streets we drove down had houses solidly lining both sides of the street with no driveways or garages. A solid line of parked cars filled both sides of the road leaving a narrow passageway barely wide enough for one car to squeeze through on a two-way street. Farther into the development places were more likely to have garages or driveways. We went past a small crowded business area near the entry and found a tiny house cabin section, a dog park, and a playground farther up. We didn’t go far enough to find the stables that John’s sister and husband found when they went there to explore after hearing of our brief visit there. We thought the tiny houses were the cutest homes there.

tiny houses in Seabrook

Nearly the whole town is on the opposite side of the highway from the beach and most places have no ocean view. It does lose the initial creepy feeling after driving around there for awhile, but would not be my choice of a location to stay for a beach weekend. Apparently a lot of people like it though as the place is crawling with vacation homes and rentals. Buying one costs a fortune, but vacation rentals can be found for a reasonable price, probably due to the amount of competition.

houses in Seabrook

Online research of Seabrook shows homes must adhere to strict guidelines, which explains the sameness from one home to another. This planned community incorporated parks and trails into their design as well as shopping and an indoor heated pool, sports courts, and fitness center. It’s designed for residents and visitors to be able to walk easily throughout the town. There is beach access through several pedestrian trails as well as by road.

Seabrook houses

While this town seems to be many people’s idea of the perfect vacation getaway, we were far happier at the out-of-town place with an awesome beach view where we stayed in nearby Moclips.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021

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A Couple Days in Vancouver

Vancouver view

view of Canada Place from Vancouver Lookout

VANCOUVER BC

Vancouver BC has a popular cruise ship port with ships sailing mainly to Alaska docking there throughout the season. The port, called Canada Place, is a tourist attraction in itself as well as a cruise port. It’s also next to Waterfront Station where people can catch the sky train or seabus. City busses also stop nearby as do free shuttles to Capilano Suspension Bridge, or seasonally to Grouse Mountain. Of course ships aren’t the only way into Vancouver. People also come by car, bus, train, or plane. I’ve taken several cruises that started, ended, or both in Vancouver. While Alaskan cruises are their mainstay, my cruise that started there ended in Shanghai and the one that ended there started in LA. The round trip one was a typical Alaska cruise though. With Canada closed to cruise ships this year the port area will likely be a far quieter place than usual – with nearby merchants getting a major hit to the pocketbook.

Stanley Park lighthouse

lighthouse on the seawall at Stanley Park

Vancouver is a great city to visit, whether as pre or post cruise stay or as a stand alone trip. There’s quite a variety of things to do there. I’ve taken the Amtrak there on one cruise and back on another, which is convenient since there’s a skytrain station across the street from where the Amtrak train comes in as well as a skytrain stop by the port. When my daughter was in town we took the Greyhound bus to Vancouver, which  I would not recommend even if the border was open and they were still running busses there.

kids at Stanley Park

girls in a tree at Stanley Park

THE GREYHOUND NIGHTMARE

When my daughter came to visit from Australia with her 2 kids two of her friends tagged along with 3 kids between them. Add us and that’s 10 people. Rather than take 2 cars we used public transportation for our road trip adventure, starting with a trip to Vancouver BC. While we would have preferred traveling by train, unfortunately it did not have any convenient departure times so my daughter booked us all on the Greyhound bus instead. About a month or so before the trip she got an email saying there was a change and to call them. No information about what changed or why. Since she was still in Australia at the time I called Greyhound for her. It turned out they had made the time for the return bus (which was already ridiculously early) even earlier, with a 2 hour layover at a bus station before the next leg. The service representative was not helpful and would not say whether or not there was an earlier bus for that next leg, just that if there was she could not change our tickets to it. If there was one she said we could ask at the counter to change, for a fee of nearly as much as the original ticket price per person – which really adds up when there’s 10 people. She said it was the counter person’s discretion whether or not to charge that fee, but the actual counter person said they can’t wave it. She also could do nothing to help Sheri’s friends as we were not listed on their ticket so they had to call after arriving in the USA. The person Sheri’s friends talked to about changing their tickets was just as rude and made it sound like she couldn’t help them at all, though she finally did end up sending an email with amended tickets.

Stanley Park in Vancouver BC

waterfall at Stanley Park

Once time for the trip came the counter person at Everett Station was very rarely at the counter at all. The one at the customer service desk just said she didn’t work for Greyhound and couldn’t help. Anyone needing help at the Greyhound counter had to send someone from the nearby coffee shop to the back room to find her. We did finally manage to check in and she said she would announce the bus when it arrived. She was not forthcoming with any information about the bus as time for it to come got near, just kept saying she would announce it when it arrived – something she never did. Time for the bus to arrive came and went with the only announcements of bus arrivals being for those headed to Seattle. No bus showed up on their bus tracker app and as more time passed when anyone could find her she would just give a later arrival time or say the bus was on the way and would be there soon. Finally she put up a closed sign and snuck out the back without a word to any of the passengers still waiting on that bus.

Harbour Centre

giant decorations at the entry to Harbour Centre

The girl at the Amtrack counter (who was very diligent about announcing Amtrack’s busses and trains) then said the Greyhound bus had come and gone. The next one came 3 hours later and if we didn’t get on that one we were going to switch to the train which left an hour after that. We met a college boy who had been standing out on the platform the whole time waiting for the same bus and he never saw it either. Though there is supposed to be a bus tracker on each bus so waiting passengers can follow its whereabouts on an app, apparently the driver has to turn the tracker on and that one did not. The second bus did have a tracker on, but at the time it was finally supposed to arrive a bus pulled in labeled Seattle – which from Everett Station is a southbound bus while we needed northbound. Upon asking the driver what happened to the bus to Vancouver BC he said this was it and he just hadn’t changed the sign yet. So apparently if our original bus didn’t skip that station entirely it must have come in marked as Seattle too so the guy on the platform didn’t get on, and if the counter girl bothered to announce it at all she announced it as Seattle so nobody waiting inside went out either. They did announce quite a number of busses for Seattle. Other than not changing his sign in a timely manner the driver was nice, but it’s no wonder that company may not be in business much longer when all of their customer service people are rude and unhelpful whether on the phone or in person, drivers only turn the tracker on if they feel like it, and they don’t even mark the destination on the bus properly or correctly announce where it is actually going from inside the station.

Stanley Park

seawall at Stanley Park

STANLEY PARK
Our hotel was about half a block from Stanley Park, which is a huge park on a peninsula at the edge of downtown Vancouver. Unfortunately there are no skytrain stops near there. It is within walking distance of Canada Place, though it is not close. From where we stayed we entered the park on a trail that led to the seawall trail near an area called second beach. The seawall is a paved walking trail with an adjacent separate biking and skating trail running along the water’s edge all around the outskirts of the park. There are lots of things within the interior of the park, but we walked quite a distance on the seawall passing under a bridge and past a lighthouse before coming to a little waterpark and a pathway into the interior of the park leading to the aquarium, train, and other things including a little restaurant called Stanley’s Bar & Grill. We sat down to order and the waitress said if anyone wanted to go on the train they should go there first because it would probably close down soon for wind. None of us had any plans to ride it before then, but she talked Sheri’s friends into it so they took off with their kids and went for a ride. The waitress said it would take about 15 minutes, but that was the train ride itself. Add on walking there and back and time for getting tickets and waiting to get on and all and it took quite a lot longer. They all had fun and were glad that they went though. Not far from the restaurant there’s a bus station where city busses come right into the park.

parkrun

3 generations at parkrun

RICHMOND PARKRUN
parkrun started in England and has spread to many countries around the world. These weekly 5K events provide free timed runs to participants and are ran by unpaid volunteers who work hard organizing the events. Anyone is welcome. You don’t have to be fast or even to run. Some people walk the course, some push prams (strollers) and a few bring dogs. There are courses in some places not suitable for prams or where dogs are not allowed, but Richmond is on a paved mostly flat trail and is not one of those. Sheri, Hannah, and I went to parkrun while everyone else slept in. We took the skytrain, which is part of Vancouver’s public transportation. Since there were no stops near our hotel by Stanley Park we took a cab to the nearest one before the run, but walked back to the hotel afterword. There’s a stop quite close to the course with a Tim Horton’s between the skytrain and the run. Many people from the run go there for breakfast afterword so we joined them. The course runs back and forth across a public trail along a waterway with an airport near the far side so you get a lot of views of the undersides of airplanes during the course of a run – though not nearly from as close as at Saint Martin’s Maho Beach. Richmond is a small parkrun that in normal times attracts more visitors than locals due to their proximity to the airport. People register online for their home parkrun, but can take their same barcode and run anywhere in the world where parkrun events take place. This was my granddaughter Hannah’s 50th parkrun so she got a shoutout during the pre-run briefing. People there were quite friendly and some of the faster runners stayed around after finishing to provide encouragement and congratulations to others as they ran by or finished their runs. Quite a few acknowledged Hannah for finishing her 50th. There are no parkruns near where I live so this was just my second having ran one prior in Australia. They get a lot of Australian visitors there, and Sheri and Hannah were not the only ones this run. There were also people from Europe, but I was the only one from the USA. It’s just starting to catch on there and not as popular as in some other countries. parkrun tourism is a thing among avid parkrunners, with some of them so dedicated they run a race in one part of the world and then hop a plane, cross the international date line, and run another on the same date somewhere like Richmond with a course near an airport. Our road trip took us to Leavenworth and then Seattle after Vancouver. Sheri, Hannah, and I stayed an extra night near Seattle after the others left and did another parkrun in Des Moines.

Vancouver Lookout tower

taking in the view at Vancouver Lookout

VANCOUVER LOOKOUT
Quite near Canada Place Vancouver’s lookout tower sits on top of the Harbour Centre building. It’s not just a tourist tower, but rather an office building with a tower perched on top. Entering at street level, we had to go down a floor to find the ticket counter to go up the tower. There are two dedicated elevators that just go up to the lookout, one for people with reservations at the restaurant on top, who can go up without buying a ticket, and the other for people with a ticket to the observation deck. The ticket counter is near the elevators and there is a giftshop next to them as well. The ride to the top takes 40 seconds in a glass elevator. As we stepped out of the elevator, a greeter posted there tried to hand the smallest kids little stools. Anxious to get to the window the kids walked by obliviously until they realized they couldn’t see out and went back for the stools. Visitors work their way around the circular viewing area stopping along the way for different views. Windows go all the way around the tower for a 360 degree view  of the area as you work your way around. Signs posted along the way give highlights about what you can see from that particular spot. It’s a good way to get oriented to the area and see what else you may want to go to nearby.

Capilano Bridge

Capilano Bridge in the dark

CAPILANO SUSPENSION BRIDGE

We found a free shuttle to Capilano Suspension Bridge, which has 4 stops around downtown Vancouver, including one at Canada Place. The bridge is on Grouse Mountain, but not as far up the mountain as the tramway, though you can catch a city bus between the two. We had plans to go to the bridge and then have dinner up on top the mountain because the price of a meal was about the same as the price of the gondola ticket, but if you have restaurant reservations you can ride up for free. We got to the bridge after dark, but it was all lit up with seasonal Christmas lights. The bridge was quite crowded. There were also trails around the surrounding area with a variety of light displays and a sleigh set up for photo ops. There is an entry fee to get into the bridge area. We caught the bus up to Grouse Mountain and got off to find that the skyride had just closed due to high winds. They said we could still get to the restaurant by bus, but since our whole point of booking the dinner reservation was to ride up the skyride we cancelled and got back on the bus before it left. Unfortunately that bus did not go all the way back to town so we had to get off by the bridge and take the free shuttle back. There were a lot of people waiting to get on so they were passing out tickets in order of arrival to denote whether you got the next bus or one later. We had next bus, but their every 15 minute schedule was off due to heavy traffic and it took it an hour to arrive. On the walk back from the shuttle stop closest to our hotel (which wasn’t all that close) we found a little family run Thai restaurant and stopped in for dinner. They didn’t have a table big enough for everyone so the kids got one table and the adults another.

Vancouver BC

city view from Vancouver Lookout

Vancouver is a great city to visit, with many other things to see or do than were mentioned in this blog.

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Coral Beach in Eilat, Israel

somewhere on the way back from the snorkel beach we got a view of the ship in the distance

Eilat Isreal sits at the edge of the Negev desert, directly across an inlet from Aqaba, Jordan. MSC Lirica docked in the port next to giant cranes used for unloading the container ships that usually dock there. The port’s parking area was full of brand new cars and busses awaiting delivery to their new homes. Whether that is from that lot or via container ship we had no clue.

the snorkel trail at Coral Beach is a narrow strip of water between ropes and floats

Getting off the ship in Israel is something like initial boarding with all the security processes required for entering the country once you get there, and that’s not even the beginning of it since immigrations officials screen everyone onboard before the ship even docks. Only small groups of people are allowed to disembark at one time so the line inside the ship waiting to get out the door can get quite long and slow-moving. Once you finally get off the ship there’s another line to get into the customs facility and once through the building people are not allowed to walk into or out of the port so the options are either the free shuttle or a taxi.

There were a few taxis outside the door, but we took the shuttle only to discover that instead of dropping people at the entrance to the port as we expected based on what I read online pre-cruise, this shuttle took people all the way into town – the opposite direction of most of the snorkel beaches, which was where we wanted to go.

the corals at Coral Beach were pretty small

We saw some taxis parked in a lot just the other side of a raised garden from the shuttle stop in town so we hopped in one of those and asked to go to a snorkel beach. The driver didn’t know a lot of English and took us to the farthest one, Coral Beach Nature Reserve, which was 6K away. On the way we passed the road with a sign to a camel ranch, but it did not say how far up that road it would be, at least not in any language that we understand.

Coral World Observatory

Coral Beach was farther south than the dolphin reef where people can swim with dolphins, but closer than the Underwater Observatory Marine Park, which has a shark tank and aquariums with fish found in the Red Sea. We could see a tower at the park in the distance from the beach where we were.

shade houses at Coral Beach

Coral Beach has a fee to get in. Once inside, it has a gift shop, which you walk through to get to everything else, restrooms with showers, a snack shack, and a long stretch of beach with lots of little shade houses containing stacks of plastic beach chairs for people to use. These are just the sort of chairs you sit in. There are some loungers you can lay on, but it costs extra to have someone unlock the cord chained around those so you can take one off the stack. Some of the little shade houses have picnic tables too.

Coral Beach

There’s a roped off swimming area, some fenced off restricted areas where people can’t go in the water, and a snorkel trail running between a rope and a series of floats that resemble pipes along the length of a coral reef. You enter the water on a stairway at the end of a long dock. There were two of these docks, but one was closed when we were there. The snorkel trail pretty much runs the length of their beach, passing beyond the docks in either direction.

the reef runs parallel to the beach

On most of it the main reef is beside rather than under you, with just small corals below, though there are spots where the reef juts out into the snorkel area, or there is a larger bit below. All sorts of fish swim about, mostly medium to large ones for reef fish.  The reef is not a large one and the corals were fairly small, but some of the fish were very bright and colorful. The prettiest ones were also the speediest so the swarms of sergeant majors were about all that came out clearly in my photos.

diver swimming under the snorkelers

I saw some divers swimming down below deeper in the water along the snorkel trail, some under their own power and some with powered with a device similar to what we used once when we took a power snorkeling excursion.

kite surfers

It was pretty windy the day we were there. The next resort over had quite a lot of kite surfers with a few wind surfers in the mix. The water was a choppy with a current, but since you can go in either direction from the dock people can swim into the current since that will be the most difficult direction. That way they know the way back will be easier so however far they go out they can make it back. We have our own snorkel gear, but they did have rentals available for both snorkel gear and life jackets for anyone who feels the need to wear one when snorkeling.

a dry snorkel has a plug inside of a vented end piece that seals the tube when submerged

I have a dry snorkel, which means water can’t get into it. That comes in quite handy in choppy water as none splashes into the tube like it can with the open tube sort of snorkel preventing any sudden unexpected mouthfuls of water. With the open tube type snorkel you have to blow water out of the tube any time you dive under or if it splashes in. The dry snorkel has a plug inside of the end piece that closes off the end of the tube to keep water out. The drawback is that it is very buoyant making it much more difficult to dive under the water.

several different types of coral

I started out swimming into the current from the dock and swam to the end of the snorkel trail in that direction, which was the boarder of the next door resort. Coming back with the current was of course easier, so I went on down to the next dock. At the time I thought that was as far as the snorkel trail went, and with that dock closed I turned back into the current swimming back to the dock where I had originally gotten into the water. Thinking I had seen all the snorkel area they had I got out of what would be referred to as “refreshing” water by any cruise ship snorkel tour guide. That is what they say when the water is cold.

sergeant major

When the water is cold it always takes everyone a bit longer to talk themselves into going toward the water at all, and then once they arrive at the water’s edge to actually get into it. Which I totally understand because I’m exactly the same. I know I went there to snorkel, and I want to do it, it’s just hard to get into that cold water. Once in though it wasn’t too bad. After that initial chill you get used to it pretty quick. There were some waves, but my  dry snorkel kept the water out.

the dock had a stairway into the sea and a ladder going deeper for divers

Getting out of the water was freezing though. As soon as any part of your body lifts out of the water the wind hits, which feels that much colder when you’re wet. The plus side of the wind was it worked something like a blow dryer albeit cold if you walked around in it for a bit. After drying off  as much as I could and sitting in the beach chair wrapped in the towel to warm up for awhile, I took a walk down to the end of the beach nearest us, then turned and went to the opposite end to try and get my swimsuit dry. The second direction took me first past the open dock to the snorkel trail, then the closed one. Beyond that the snorkel trail curved inward toward land and there was an entrance to it on the beach so the snorkel trail did not extend quite the full distance of the resort’s beach in that direction. This meant I had not actually swam the entire length of their snorkel trail, but by then I was closer to dry than wet and not inclined to go back into the cold water so I missed that portion.

view of the shelters from the far end of the beach (after snorkeling with water spots on the lens)

We didn’t stay at the beach as long as we would have without the wind. John had decided not to snorkel at all in the wind and waves, so he just stayed in a beach chair while I snorkeled. He’d had about enough sit on the beach and relax time by the time I was done snorkeling and beach walking and I’m not much of a sit on the beach and do nothing person even when it’s warm so we decided to head back figuring we’d have a bit of time to check out the town before going back to the ship.

beach entrance to the snorkel trail

There were no taxis in the lot so we headed back on foot. The bonus of having taken the shuttle rather than a taxi directly from the port was knowing the location in town where it dropped people off. It was about a 3k walk back to the port. There was one open beach we passed by that seemed to be a public beach where people could go without paying, but it didn’t have much for amenities and we did not see anyone snorkeling there, just one guy fishing and one lady getting out of the water after having a swim.

Another beach we passed later seemed to be where all the locals go with quite a large and full parking lot, but there may have been a charge to use that one.

walking past the ship on the way into town

Most of the shoreline was fenced off either as pay to enter resorts, a private hotel beach, or industrial areas. Unfortunately walking back to the ship doesn’t mean you can actually get to the ship. You can’t walk into the port so unless you manage to flag down a taxi somewhere on the way, walking back means walking all the way to the shuttle stop. We wanted to see the town anyway, and while it would have been nice to be able to stop by the ship and drop off our snorkel gear and change clothes, even if we could have gotten into the port doing so also would have meant going through the whole disembarkation security procedure again, though by then there wouldn’t likely have been a line.

Along the way we came across two nice young men who looked local, but turned out to be students from the USA studying in Jerusalem and visiting Eilat for the weekend. We walked along with them for awhile. One said his parents were originally from Yemen. He had grown up speaking Arabic as well as English, and learned Hebrew and Yiddish in school. We’ve met a lot of Europeans who speak multiple languages, but not many Americans who do and that was the first time I’d ever met an Arabic Jewish person.

camel ranch sign somewhere between the port and Coral Beach

It was another 3k past the ship into town. The shuttle stop was next to a place with a shopping mall and a beach, which is their seaside promenade. The beach was pretty crowded, as was an open air café with tables along the beach so it looked like a good amount of people from the ship decided just to hang out there. Most of the people were on shore, but there were a few swimming in the water, nobody snorkeling. There was another of the pay beaches on the outskirts of town that may have had snorkeling, but we didn’t go into it so I don’t know for sure.

you can see Aqaba, Jordan across the gulf

After hanging out in the seaside promenade area a bit we went in search of the shuttle, which appeared not to come around very often. We waited awhile where we had gotten out that morning, but noticed an ever-growing crowd of obvious cruise ship passengers directly across the street waiting for it to come by going the other way. City busses came and went on both sides, and a couple private tour busses passed by, but for quite some time there was no sign of a cruise ship shuttle. There were people with crew badges among those on the opposite side of the street so eventually we crossed and waited there.

Finally a shuttle came along, stopping where we had gotten off that morning to let people off. There were a few waiting on that side and it did let them on before heading about half a block or so to a nearby roundabout and coming back the other way where it stopped for the awaiting crowd. It ended up having enough seats for everyone so nobody had to wait for the next shuttle, which was a good thing since boarding was a free-for-all with nobody knowing or caring who had been waiting longest. Obviously the other side of the street where it let people off would have been the better waiting place since the few people who stayed over there got on first. Especially important to know if it had been so crowded that not everyone got on since the wait between shuttles was so long.

dock at Coral Beach

Eilat is a resort town near the tip of the Aqaba Gulf of the Red Sea, directly across the bay from Aqaba, Jordan. By land it’s also near the boarder of Israel and Jordan and not too far from Egypt. It’s a nice place to visit and we’re always happy to add another country to the places we’ve been.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021
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Decatur Head

map of Decatur Island and Decatur Head

Decatur Head sits on the east side of Decatur Island, connected to the main island by a gravel road and a stretch of beach, which makes it a tombolo. Its rocky hill rises about 200 feet above sea level. James Island, an entire island state park, sits nearby just across the water in Rosario Strait. Decatur is a private island in Washington State’s San Juan Islands, with the only public facility being a public boat ramp.

Decatur Head

Since the 1970’s Decatur Head has belonged to the Decatur Head Beach Association, a group of 40 families that owns the 8 cabins there. 7 are for their use and one for the caretakers to live in. When extra cabins are available, members can bring other family along to enjoy the island too, which is how we get to go there sometimes with my husband’s sister.

looking down over a couple cabins to the dock

Each cabin is different. They sleep from 4-10 people, but have only one bathroom per cabin regardless of how many people can stay there. When the cabins were originally built driftwood and other beach items were incorporated into their construction. While all the cabins still retain some of their original charm, it’s no longer allowed to pick up driftwood off the beach so they lose some of it over the years to repairs and updates. Each cabin has some unique furniture made at least partially out of driftwood and some have things like stairs made from it as well.

pirate ship and merry-go-round

The association’s property extends to the other side of the tombolo where they have tennis courts on the mainland. Alongside the connecting gravel road next to the beach there’s a small playground with a pirate ship and small merry-go-round. The beach goes on for quite a distance (at least at low tide) below the cliffs of the main island while the gravel road goes up a hill passing by the one-room-school, store building, and solar panel power generating station. The entire island is about 3×2 miles with gravel roads to hike around on.

Piper on the dock at low tide

Besides the cabins, Decatur Head has two docks, one in the main bay and one in a saltwater lagoon. There’s also mooring buoys available for people who come by their own boat. The shoreline next to the main dock is lined with a row of rowboats belonging to members of the cabin association. One extra building between some of the cabins has storage lockers for them, and outside that building stacks of crabpots sit waiting for use when their owners come for a stay. Some of them have kayaks residing in racks on the property as well.

low-tide beach on Decatur Head

At low tide you can walk nearly all the way around the head on the beach, but at high tide many areas may have no beach at all. Usually there’s a bit in front of the cabins, but the rest of the head has mostly rock cliffs. Occasionally extremely high winter tides flood the road between cabins making small boats the only way to get from one to another for a few hours.

little trail going up Decatur Head

Small trails lead uphill to the top of the head where there’s excellent views on clear days. The top of the head is forested, like much of the area on most of the San Juan Islands. There, like anywhere on the island it’s possible to come across one of the island’s small deer. The island also sports a herd of wild sheep, but I’ve never seen them.

tree on Decatur Head

One day during our visit John hiked up to the top of the head with me. We came across a tree he said looked like something out of Harry Potter. It was gnarly enough to be the whomping willow, except for the fact that it’s not a willow.

view of James Island

Most of the time we were there on our most recent visit we could hardly even see much of Decatur through air thick with wildfire smoke, but that day we could actually see across the channel to James Island.

at high tide there’s no beach here

Quite a variety of seabirds dot the shores, along with some crows. Other birds inhabit the island’s trees. The mostly rocky beaches are filled with tidal creatures like starfish, crabs, snails, barnacles, sea anemones, and limpets.

Piper on the dragon log

On the side of the head where the cabins are there’s nearly always a bit of beach, but much of the rest of the beach surrounding the head disappears completely at high tide. Around the far side there’s a small indent in the rock with a tiny permanent sandy beach, much of which is occupied by a log that with enough imagination could be a dragon.

almost a view of the mainland from up on the head

The sandy stretch of beach along the road between Decatur Head and the rest of the island collects a lot of driftwood in winter storms and people like to build beach forts out of it. From up on top the head you can clearly see the bit of land connecting it to the main part of the island on nice days. When we were there while the entire western part of the USA was shrouded in wildfire smoke we could barely even see the main part of the island most of the time. Sometimes the smoke from those distant fires was so thick we couldn’t even see the water from the beach.

view of Decatur Head from the other end of the tombolo

Like pretty much anywhere in the San Juan Islands, Decatur is a nice place to go for a relaxing break. Although people live on the island, I’ve hiked all around it and rarely come across anyone.

row of rowboats next to the dock

copyright My Cruise Stories 2021

More Blogs About Decatur Island:

Decatur Island 2015

The Micro Cruise

Decatur Island 2020

Hiking Around Decatur Island

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Venice

Venice Santa Lucia train station is one plain low modern building among tall old buildings

Our last train ride on our pre-cruise trip through Europe before boarding the MSC Lirica went from Innsbruck to Venice via a change of train in Verona Porta Nuova. Luckily it was a long train because it was quite crowded. There were people still hunting for somewhere to sit after it left the station so we were happy to have reserved seats.

public boats stop at the yellow and white vaporetto stations along the grand canal

The scenery was lovely passing through the Alps by train. Eventually snow gave way to the rolling hills and green fields of rural Italy. Nearly everyone on the train got off at our stop in Verona Porta Nuova. There we caught our final train of this journey, which unlike the one we had just left had plenty of open seats. Reminiscent of Australian trains, this one had a small electronic display at the front of the car that said the name of whatever the next station would be so there was fair warning before it was announced.

view of the grand canal from the train station

Our station at Venezia Santa Lucia turned out to be the end of the line. From that station you find docks with boats or watertaxis. To get to this station the trains cross a brick and stone causeway bridge across the lagoon. The Venice Railroad Bridge was completed in 1846. Cars cross the lagoon on a causeway called Ponte della Libertà (Liberty Bridge) built in 1933 next to the train bridge. Prior to that access was by boat only, which was the whole point of the earliest Venetians living there because they knew how to safely navigate deeper channels through the lagoon and their enemies did not. There are places to park near the train station, which is close to the cruise ship port. Once you go to the canal side of the station there are no more cars.

there’s lots of boat traffic in the grand canal and yellow and white vaporetto stations dot its banks

In Venice we booked an Airbnb rather than a hotel room. We wanted a place with a washer and dryer as there were no guest laundries on the ship we were about to board so we at least wanted to start the cruise with clean clothes. The Airbnb was an entire apartment, and gave us a little taste of living like a local since it was in a locals neighborhood rather than the touristy area where the hotels are.

vaporetto in the grand canal

Our Airbnb host had sent directions on how to get there from the train station which included riding one of the public boats called vaporettos. These boats are to Venice like busses are to most cities. We got off the boat at a station facing a church.

view from the bnb of the bridge next to it

The walk to the bnb included crossing 3 little bridges, passing by a museum which was only recognizable by a sign on the door of a building that otherwise blended in with the rest of the buildings, and walking through some “streets” that are really narrow alleyways to a door in one of those small alleys that was the entrance to the apartment building. Our apartment was on the first floor, which luckily was 15 steps up as a few days earlier in a storm and high tide our host said water had come up to the 4th step. The door to the building is at ground level so nobody could go in or out while the water was that high. There was no major flooding during the 3 days we stayed in Venice, but it flooded again soon after we left.

inside the Venice apartment

This apartment was a lot more liveable than the one where we stayed in Zurich. It had a separate bedroom, reasonable sized kitchen, and small area with a couch and TV. It also included a washer/dryer in the bathroom, that being one of the main reasons we booked that particular place as it would be the only chance we got to have everything clean before boarding the ship.

bedroom in the Venice bnb

This was the only place we stayed that had one whole bed instead of two pushed together, and regular sheets and blankets rather than the funny sleeping bag pod quilt and sheet combo things that all the hotels and even the Zurich apartment had.

even the narrowest of alleys in Venice has a street name

Venice is a very unique place. There are no land vehicles in the main part of Venice. Transportation is either over water or on your own two feet. Areas between the buildings run anywhere from alleyways so narrow you can touch the walls on both sides to wide open squares and everything in between.

you can’t touch both sides at once in all the walkways

You can walk down a narrow deserted alleyway, turn a corner and all the sudden find shops, restaurants, wider walkways, or an open square. The canals vary too from narrow strips of water between buildings to the busy grand canal.

one of the bigger bridges (because it crosses the grand canal)

You don’t get too far before coming to a bridge, many of them quite small with just a stairway up and a few feet of flat area to cross before coming to the stairway back down. Navigating through Venice would pose a major challenge to anyone with mobility issues.

neighborhood produce stand

We wandered around a bit our first night there and found a place to have dinner that turned out to be an Italian restaurant run by Chinese people. Since all of the other restaurants near there were also Italian – mostly pasta and pizza places – Chinese food would have stood out, but maybe nobody wants that in Venice. We didn’t come across a major grocery store, but did find little places that sold food so we got a few groceries to bring back to the apartment with us. There are a few small grocery stores and a lot of little stands and small stores that each sell one type of thing like produce or pasta.

fish market

There’s also a fish market that we wandered by a few times. You can smell it before you see it – even if it is closed and there are no fish there at the time.

yard with greenery

Venice is built on stone foundations over wooden poles driven into the ground on what were originally marshy islands in a lagoon so there is no natural ground and greenery in most areas is pretty scarce. A few places have a bit of a yard with some plants.

walkway with trees

Closer to the train station in the more touristy area there is a park and the walkways are often wider. We even saw one walkway there that had trees so it is not entirely devoid of plant life. Of course any plants in a flood zone would have difficulty surviving.

lowest levels are abandoned in buildings that flood frequently

Because Venice sits on ancient poles in water it has been slowly sinking over the centuries, and the rising oceans certainly don’t help matters there any, which is why flooding is a fairly common occurrence in high tides or storms.

making use of a flooded building for boat storage

The lowest level of some buildings flood frequently enough on high tide to have been permanently abandoned. When we took a gondola ride we even saw a boat stored on the bottom floor of one building – which did have water in it.

using google maps in Venice

Our first full day in Venice we intended to start out with a 3-hour free walking tour that would cover all the main attractions. We found our way to the starting point using google maps. Google maps or a similar mapping program is essential for finding your way around Venice.

bridge and canal

Without some sort of directions anyone unfamiliar with the city will feel like a rat in a maze in Venice’s series of often winding pathways between tall buildings with sudden and random changes from very narrow to pretty wide, interspersed with bridges, canals, and open squares.

grand canal

The lying phone weather app said it would not rain until after 1pm so we didn’t wear rain gear, but had umbrellas just in case. Nobody ever uses umbrellas at home regardless of how hard it rains, but I had one from a previous vacation in Florida bought in a downpour that I haven’t used since. It wasn’t raining when we first started out, but more people than not had umbrellas anyway. It started to get a bit drizzly, but until we got to the meeting location and had to stand around waiting after it started raining a bit harder I didn’t bother to open mine.

raised walkways left out from previous flooding

A small restaurant had a large umbrella over unoccupied outdoor seating so we decided to wait there and were joined by a couple girls from Romania, a French couple, and a couple from Australia. Time for the tour came and went and no guide showed up. After about 10 minutes the Romanian girls left. The rest of us waited another 10 minutes before giving up. One of the other ladies said someone from their hotel had booked a boat tour that they paid for and the guide never showed up so at least we weren’t out any money for this tour.

Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark’s Square)

We used the GPS to find Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark’s Square). The closer we got to the square the more little stands we saw selling raincoat style boots and umbrellas. In and near the square pretty much every little shop or stand had the boots. Quite a few people had bought them and were slogging around in puddles in the square.

people in puddles wearing their instant boots

Down near Doge’s Palace the water was deep enough on an incoming tide that platform walkways had been set up so people could cross over the water without getting wet. We saw a lot more of those portable raised walkways – some still set up and some not – in other areas that had recently flooded.

avoiding the flood on raised walkways by Doge’s Palace

Piazza San Marco had quite a lot of water in it that day, though it was not entirely flooded. If you picked the right pathway you could avoid the puddles in the main part of the square, and stay dry at the end by Doge’s palace using the raised walkways. Doge is not the name of a person, but rather a title used by ancient officials.

Doge’s Palace on a dry day

We came back to San Marco’s Piazza another day and things had dried up for the time being.

waterfront by St. Mark’s Square

This is the biggest public square in Venice. Other buildings around the square besides Doge’s Palace include Saint Mark’s Basilica and a clock tower. Some of the other old buildings currently house shops and restaurants. The waterfront adjacent to the square has lots of docks. There are a couple vaporetto stops there as well as gondolas and tour boats.

Rialto Bridge

From there we just wandered a bit and eventually came across a small grocery store so we got a few things and set the map app to find our way back to the bnb. The route it chose just happened to take us across the Rialto Bridge, so tic off another main site. Most of the bridges are just little walkways crossing small canals, but this one spans the grand canal. It’s big and even has shops on it.

shop window of a unique shop with wooden toys

If you’re going to have a shop in Venice, that’s the place to be. Besides the fact that the bridge attracts crowds of potential customers, those shops remained high and dry in the recent flood that so many of the ground level shops were busy cleaning up after. The current stone Rialto Bridge was started in 1588 and completed in 1591. It was preceded by two wooden bridges and the original pontoon bridge of the 12th century, which was the first dry crossing of the grand canal. There are 4 bridges over the grand canal now.

one of the wider canals in Venice

After stopping for lunch at the bnb we went back out and wandered aimlessly for the afternoon, during which time it did not rain proving the lying phone weather app wrong once again. There are canals, bridges, and old buildings wherever you go in Venice so anywhere has interesting things to see. We picked up a few groceries for dinner on the way back. Anyone planning to spend all day out and about in Venice might find it beneficial to carry some change because public toilets cost money.

gondolas docked near a bridge across from the park

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021
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Summer Palace in Beijing

Summer Palace, Beijing

a lake dominates a large area of the grounds at the Summer Palace

Excursion information from Holland America gives this history of the Summer Palace: Built during the Qing Dynasty and surrounded by grounds laid out by Emperor Qianlong as a place of retirement for his mother, this summer residence took on special interest for the notorious Empress Dowager Cixi, who fulfilled a wonderful, if expensive, dream by commissioning the palace in 1888. Using money intended for the building of a naval fleet, she constructed the Summer Palace. Originally a concubine of the third rank, Cixi placed herself on the Dragon Throne after the death of the emperor and ruled in an unscrupulous, egocentric way for 50 years, initially in the role of regent for her young child. By deploying young women and other earthly distractions she kept her son away from matters of government until his death at the age of 18. Bypassing the legal inheritance, she installed her young nephew as emperor and governed from ‘behind the throne’ until he reached majority. She then retired to the Summer Palace, but did not refrain from meddling in court politics.

Summer Palace, Beijing

one of the pagodas along the long corridor at the Summer Palace

While that sounds a bit contradictory giving two separate builds, according to Unesco, the original palace was built between 1750 and 1764 as the Garden of Clear Ripples. It was destroyed in the Second Opium War of the 1850’s, then reconstructed by Emperor Guangxu for use by Empress Dowager Cixi and renamed the Summer Palace. Although damaged during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, it was restored again and has been a public park since 1924.

Summer Palace, Beijing

waterfront walkway

On our cruise the Westerdam made an overnight port stop at Tianjin, China, which is the closest cruise ships get to Bejing. From there it’s about a 3½ hour bus ride to the Summer Palace. We took a ship’s excursion which also made a lunch stop at a jade carving factory and store with a restaurant above on the way to our final destination at the Great Wall of China. Although neither the summer palace nor the Great Wall felt like we had enough time there, the total excursion was quite a long one at 13 hours due to the lengthy drive.

Summer Palace, Beijing

Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha

About halfway to Bejing the bus made a quick stop at a convenience store with a very large restroom obviously built for tourist buses – apparently for Chinese tourists considering all of the toilets were of the squat variety. Upon sight of the recessed hole-in-the-ground toilets some of the women backed away claiming they could not use those. The only stop of the day to have normal western style toilets was the lunch stop so they either had to eventually give it a shot, drink nothing, or be good at holding it for a very long time. Judging by the smell and the wet floor around the toilets some people who gave it a shot were not all that successful with their aim. Perhaps they’ve never been out in the wilderness far from restroom facilities because it’s not all that different from squatting in the woods other than there’s a hole so you don’t have to worry about making sure your shoes are uphill from any runoff.

Summer Palace, Beijing

Wenchang Tower

Next the bus stopped on a road a short distance from an entrance to the Summer Palace. We walked the rest of the way from there. This spectacular collection of buildings and gardens surrounds a large man-made lake which covers a good percentage of the over 716 acre grounds. Information from there said the Summer Palace was built by Emperor Qianlong in 1750 to celebrate his mother’s birthday and originally called the Garden of Clear Ripples. It was later used as a summer retreat by emperors and empresses as its mountain location made it cooler than the imperial palace in Bejing. In 1860 it was burned down by French and Allied forces, and rebuilt by Dowager Empress Cixi in 1886. It was again seriously damaged by allied forces in 1900 and rebuilt in 1902. So pretty close to the same as the information from Unesco.

Summer Palace, Beijing

buildings at the Summer Palace

The Summer Palace was opened to the public in 1914 as a private property of the Qing imperial family and became a park in 1924. In 1992 it was appraised as the most perfectly preserved imperial garden with the richest man-made scenery and most concentrated architecture of its type in the world. It was listed as a World Heritage site in 1998 and became a very popular tourist destination.

Summer Palace, Beijing

Hall of Benevolence and Longevity

Tourists can walk through the grounds on pathways that run alongside the lake as well as strolling among the different buildings, though none that we saw were open for anyone to go inside other than archways that led from one pavilion to another. We only saw a very small fraction of the buildings and gardens though due to the time limitations of our excursion. A person could probably spend an entire day there and still not see it all.

boats at Beijing's Summer Palace

boat dock at the Summer Palace

Clusters of pedal boats sat on the lake awaiting tourists to rent them. Some were out and about cruising slowly around the lake. Our excursion did not allow time for boat rental, but anyone there on their own would be able to see much more of the grounds with a boat as the lake covers an extensive area and many buildings and bridges dot small islands and peninsulas throughout the waterway.

Summer Palace in Beijing, China

Hall of Benevolence and Longevity

Our tour entered as a group first passing by buildings called the Garden of Virtue and Harmony and Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, which the guide said is where the emperor would meet with people. After walking a short distance to the lake we stopped near the boat pavilion. There we were given about half an hour to stroll around the grounds or walk through a long covered hallway that our guide called a causeway, but the site map refers to as a long corridor. Whatever you call it, it was crowded so we chose the somewhat less congested seaside path, going as far as we could get in half the allowed time, then turning around to insure we had as much time to get back as it took to get there.

Summer Palace, Beijing

it’s more crowded inside the long corridor than on the adjacent outdoor pathway

Getting back took considerably less time because we were not bunched up behind slow people nor stopping to take as many photos. Since we got back to the meeting point with about 10 minutes to spare we took a bit of time to see some nearby buildings which someone said were the imperial residence, though buildings on the map all have names like Hall of Dispelling Clouds or Pavilion of Forgotten Desires and none are actually labeled as their residence.

map of the Summer Palace in Beijing

map of the Summer Palace

It would have been nice to have the whole day to spend there, but since our tour had more places to go as well as the long drive we did not have enough time for more than a brief glimpse of what the Summer Palace holds before climbing back on the bus to our next destination at our lunch stop. I would have preferred to stay there an extra half hour and cut the lunch stop time in half, but since lunch was in a jade store they were probably required to allow plenty of time for people to shop. Although we didn’t buy anything there, they did have a lot of very nice jade carvings and some exquisite jewelry so it was interesting to see. Sort of like wandering through a jade museum where everything’s for sale. The store was big enough and had a large enough variety of things to be a museum.

Summer Palace, Beijing

archway from the lakefront into a pavilion with other buildings

The restaurant above the jade store had numerous round tables for 10 set up in a large room, each marked for the people on a specific cruise ship tour bus. We went to the tour meeting place an hour early this time and were for once on the first bus of our tour rather than our usual place on the stragglers bus. The guide on this bus was quite entertaining and spoke perfect English. We’ve found that on tours with multiple busses the best guides tend to be on the first busses to fill. Our bus left port about half an hour before the scheduled departure time and was the first to arrive at the lunch stop, followed by people from other tours as well as the other busses on our tour who had left a bit later as people arrived to fill them. Besides western style toilets the restrooms at this stop even had toilet paper – a luxury in China where you often have to bring your own.

Summer Palace, Beijing China

one of the buildings in the courtyard beyond the archway

The lunch was typical for Chinese restaurants of that sort with numerous dishes of a variety of things set on a large rotating lazy susan for people to help themselves as they wished. It also contained a pot of tea, bottle of coke recognizable by the packaging colors and style rather than the writing since that was in Chinese, and a couple wine-bottle sized bottles of Chinese beer. One by one a variety of different dishes appeared, most with a serving spoon though the last 3 or so came without. While most people just used the spoon from a different dish, a couple who said they were from Switzerland both speared watermelon and pot stickers with the same forks they were eating with, sometimes touching other food on the plate with said dirty fork so anyone who didn’t get any before it got to them did without. No wonder the cruise ship buffet had no serve yourself food on this cruise, keeping everything behind a plastic barrier to be served up by the crew. This was before Covid when self-serve buffets were the norm on most cruise ships. There won’t likely be self serve buffets on any cruise ship any time soon.

jade carving

jade boat sculpture

After finishing lunch we spent a bit of time to wandering through the very large jade store to admire the jewelry and carvings. If we spent too long looking at any one piece someone was on us like vultures, trying to get us to buy it. We’d say no and go look at something else, but sometimes they’d follow with the piece if it was a small one like a necklace. If we walked anywhere close to something we’d previously looked at for a few minutes they’d be there in a flash trying to sell it to us again. So we tried not to look at any one thing for too long even though some of it was pretty fantastic.

jade shop in China

artwork at the jade shop

The entrance hallway into the building was lined with many large sculptures not guarded by sales people. Before we had a chance to see much in that area one overly enthusiastic old man trying to take a selfie knocked a bunch of pieces off the largest sculpture at the far end of the hall. Not wanting to get blamed or be standing next to it when security arrived, nobody else went near it. The careless old man apparently didn’t want to accept responsibility either. He managed to vanish into the crowd almost instantly. He was not from our bus, but everybody in the vicinity pretty much poured out of the building immediately following the crash. Our bus left rather quickly after that so I don’t know if the store ever caught him or found out who he was. Not having gone anywhere near it, I have no idea if the pieces that fell had been attached to the sculpture or were just loose pieces sitting on it or whether any of them were damaged. If anything did break it could be thousands of dollars in damage because that was a gigantic larger-than-a-person sculpture.

Great Wall of China

one of many sets of stairs on China’s Great Wall

From there we had another half hour on the bus to get to the Great Wall. My husband often talks about the section of wall he visited in the past where tourists can ride a toboggan down instead of taking the stairs, but we did not go to that spot so stairs were our only choice up or down the wall.

Beijing Summer Palace

Summer Palace – lake and waterfront pathway

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021
Posted in China, Holland America, Shore Excursions, Westerdam | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Eilat, Israel Cruise Port

MSC Lirica in Eilat

EILAT, ISRAEL

Eilat is the southernmost city in Israel. It has a busy seaport in the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea near Jordan. Eilat is a popular resort town for both domestic and international tourists. Its beaches are noted for their calm waters, like Dolphin Reef, named for the dolphins often spotted there. The waters aren’t always calm though. On the windy day we visited the beach had waves. Known for snorkeling and diving, Coral Beach Nature Reserve has a narrow buoy-marked snorkel and diving trail alongside a fish-filled reef. It’s not a huge reef and the coral is on the small side, but there’s stuff to see and some colorful fish. Nearby Coral World Underwater Observatory Marine Park has a glass-enclosed observation center submerged offshore. It is generally safe to travel to Eilat. The border to Jordan is nearby and the two countries are at peace with each other. Egypt is pretty close too. Eilat has a desert climate with warm dry weather most of the year. Currency is the shekel and the language is Hebrew. Annual rainfall is not much more than an inch.

MSC Lirica in Eilat

EILAT CRUISE PORT

Cruise ships dock in a container port next to giant cranes. Beyond the cranes our view from the ship included a parking lot full of identical brand-new cars, probably either recently unloaded from a ship or waiting to load onto one. A road went past the port. On the other side of it mostly barren sand colored hills rose up into the distance.

port view from the ship in Eilat

Security is extremely tight in Israel. Even though Eilat is a resort city there is a definite police presence. Like cruises into Australia, immigrations officials board the ship at a previous port and do a face to face check with every person on board on a sea day before the ship even arrives in port. Once we were at the port the excursions disembarked first, as most were headed for Jerusalem, 4 hours away. Once they left the line for the rest of the passengers waiting to go to port was quite long. The part of the line you can see from a window or deck on the ship appears unchanging. Not too many people are allowed between the ship and port building at once, but we did not know that before getting in line.

location of Eilat

We watched the line from our window for about half an hour before joining the queue. The part we could see never really got any longer or shorter in all that time. Once down to the gangway, even though the line was short enough by then that we could see the door, we found that to be where the wait was long – and not moving. The line we could see from our window was just the people who had been let out of the ship. We picked a good time to come down though since the line inside was fairly short at that point. While we waited it built up behind us as nobody was let out for awhile, probably waiting for the next shuttle bus to arrive and remove people from the port. They did not have enough busses to keep a constant flow.

flags inside the customs building at the port in Eilat

The line between the ship and port building was the shortest we had seen when we were finally let out. A man stood guarding the entrance with a very large gun. Security screening to get off the ship there was more like initial boarding day with passports required and all bags sent through screening while the owner of said bags walked through a scanner before they could join the next queue waiting for the port shuttle. Inside the building rows of small flags hung from wires strung across the room. Some said welcome, others were from a variety of different countries, though we did not see any representing the USA.

we saw some cats in Eilat

There were a few taxis outside the door. Either taking one of those or waiting for a port shuttle were the only options for leaving the port as walking through it is not allowed. We took the shuttle only to discover that instead of dropping people at the entrance to the port as things I read when researching online pre-cruise said, this shuttle took people all the way into town. Nice for anyone wanting to go to town, but we wanted to snorkel and the coral beaches were in the opposite direction.

flowers from a garden we walked past between the beach and the port

We took a taxi to a snorkel beach. The day was cold and windy, but I went snorkeling anyway. There were no taxis when we were ready to leave so we walked 3k back to the port. Since we were on foot we could not actually go into the port, which was halfway between the beach we had gone to and the town where the shuttle busses stopped so we walked another 3k into town. We wanted to go to town anyway, but would have preferred  stopping by the ship to drop off our snorkel gear and change clothes on the way.

fruit stand on the promenade

The shuttle stop was next to a shopping mall with some shops inside a big mall building that you had to go through security and have your belongings screened to get into, and many more little shops and restaurants along both sides of a wide walkway paralleling a sandy beach, which is their seaside promenade. People could go directly into the little shops and restaurants without passing through security, just not the mall. It seemed that quite a lot of people from the ship chose to hang out there all day as the beach and anywhere to sit near the shore were all crowded. Mostly on land though, not too many people braved the wind and cold water to take a swim.

when the store entrance is an escalator

We didn’t pay much attention to exactly what stores were there, but it looked like a variety with a little bit of everything. One of the shops had a little storefront on the same level where everything else was, but it was just an open area with video screens and an escalator down into the actual store below.

seaside seating on the promenade

Many of the shops and restaurants were indoors, but there were a few little stands including one selling Nutella crepes. There was lots of outside seating along the seashore and places to get food or drinks there.

view from the seaside promenade

The shuttle stop is on the main road that goes past the seaside promenade. At least ours was. It dropped people off on the side of the street closest to the mall. A crowd of people waited for the return shuttle at a bus stop across the street from the drop off point. When one finally came it picked a few people up at the drop off point first before turning around in a nearby roundabout and heading to the other side of the street where the majority waited. So the drop-off point was the smart place to get on. Those people would already be on the bus before it got to the crowded stop in case there wasn’t room enough for everyone waiting on the other side, which did happen.

view from the ship looking towards town

THINGS TO DO IN EILAT

Swim with the dolphins at Dolphin Reef, visit the Underwater Marine Observatory, dive or snorkel in the Red Sea, see the world’s first copper mine at Timna Park, go to the beach, hike in the mountains, see the desert, take a boat trip on the Red Sea, take a jeep safari, see the interactive fountains, go ice skating, hike in the red canyon, bird watching, camel tours, Coral Beach Nature Reserve, botanical garden. Kite surfing is a popular activity there too. For family fun visit Top 94 amusement park (climbing walls, go kart track, paintball, etc.)

promenade beach

Eilat’s promenade where the shuttle stops is about 3k north of the port. The dolphin reef attraction is about 1.5 k south (captive dolphins, requires pre-booking) and it’s another 3k to Coral World Observatory, which is past the Coral Beach Nature Reserve where we went. There is a sign somewhere along the way pointing up a road into the hills toward a ranch that offers camel rides. We saw the sign, but didn’t know how far the actual camel ranch was from the seaside road or how much it cost to ride them so we didn’t go up that road.

seaside promenade beach

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021
Posted in Lirica, Middle East, MSC, Port Cities, Ports of Call | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment