Salalah, Oman Cruise Port

MSC Lirica in Salalah, Oman


Salalah is in southern Oman, the capital of Oman’s Dhofar region. It is greener than most of the Arabian peninsula due to the summer rains called khareef or summer monsoons and is known for banana plantations, Arabian Sea beaches and waters teeming with sea life. The Khareef monsoon season runs from the end of July through the beginning of September. Its transformation of the desert terrain into a lush green landscape with seasonal waterfalls brings about the annual tourism festival from July 15 – August 31. It is Oman’s second largest city as well as the largest in its province of Dhofar. Some vegetables as well as fruits like coconuts and bananas can grow in this region so the city has lots of gardens.

a line of trucks passed slowly under a large crane, which placed a container from a ship on each truck

Although it is a desert climate, summers are cooler here than in the northern and inland regions of Oman and more temperate than most Arabian countries. Arabic is the official language, and English the most-spoken of foreign languages. Tourism and shipping are important to the area’s economy. Currency is the Omani rial. 1 rial is worth $2.60 USD.

flowering tree

The climate is subtropical with palm trees and coconut, banana, and papaya plantations. The main tourist season is during the rainy summer when people flee the heat in other Arab nations to visit Salalah’s cooler and greener area. Friday is their holy day with the work week running from Sunday through Thursday. A lot of places are closed on Friday. The wadis of the area fill with water and are a green oasis with year-round springs, unlike wadis in other areas that are like a dry wash or arroyo except when it rains.

MSC Lirica approaches the dock in Salalah, Oman, assisted by a tug


Cruise ships dock at the container port outside the city. It’s an industrial area in the desert. Shuttles take you to the port exit as walking through the port is prohibited in container ports. Taxis are available there for the 15 minute ride into town, but can be expensive as they are not metered so the cost is negotiated. Some will take US dollars. It is too far to walk so getting to the city on your own requires a taxi.

a row of containers marked the boundry of where passengers were allowed to walk in the port

Most websites recommend taking a ship’s excursion at this port so we booked a 4×4 tour. Some other people we met on the ship found local van tours that went to the same places. Excursions picked people up right at the port, and the local van tours were there as well. I don’t know how the price compared at this port. We did run into ports on this cruise where the local tours actually cost more than the ship’s tours, but at most ports they were less, which is generally the case.

view of the ruins of the palace of the Queen of Sheba from across a bay


The Frankincense Land Museum, part of the Al Balid Archaeological Site, recounts the city’s maritime history and role in the spice trade. Scuba diving and bird watching are popular. There are historical ruins in neighboring areas including ruins rumored to be the palace of the Queen of Sheba, and the final resting place of the biblical prophet Job. The sultan’s palace can be admired from afar, and there is a glitzy new mosque. Groves of fragrant frankincense trees are a popular attraction, but they are a ways out of town. Arabic architecture and tree-lined streets make Salalah a prettier city than many in desert lands.

Oman coast

Oman has beaches too – one of the most popular is Al Mughsayl Beach with a long stretch of sand and lovely scenery. An associated attraction is Marneef Cave, where you can see water spouting from rock formations if the tides are wild enough. If you want an area where you can wear western swimsuits, try the Corniche, which also has plenty of places to eat nearby. Some beaches along the coastline are largely empty due to clothing restrictions and a dangerous undertow. Al Hafah Souq is a popular market 3k from the city with many traditional products including frankincense, clothing, and jewelry.

when it’s prayer time, it’s prayer time, even if you are a guide in the middle of a tour

Oman is a conservative and traditional country. Tourists need to keep that in mind and dress accordingly – with women keeping knees and shoulders covered as well as everything in between. Bathing suits are worn only on beaches and even there should be covered in a t-shirt or at least be a 1-piece with shorts over it. Boxer style suits for men as well, no speedos. Not that anyone ever wants to see someone in a speedo.

camel at Wadi Darbat

There are lots of camels wandering about freely in Oman. Huge herds may all belong to the same family.

frankincense trees (Bosweillia) in Oman (internet photo)

Frankincense trees grow in area’s high rock strewn mountains. Historically frankincense was an important commodity and export for the area, though it is now mainly used locally for medicinal purposes and perfume. Frankincense is also used to make incense and essential oils. It is rumored to heal or treat asthma, cancer and arthritis as well as improving oral health and gut function. The most common reference to frankincense for many people in the modern world is as one of the gifts from the wise men to baby Jesus. Frankincense is made from the resin of the Boswellia tree. It has a woody, spicy smell and can be inhaled, absorbed through the skin, steeped into a tea or taken as a supplement.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021
Posted in Lirica, Middle East, MSC, Port Cities, Ports of Call | 1 Comment

Curses, Cancelled Again!

Symphony of the Seas (internet photo)

Just after booking a hotel near the airport for an early morning flight to Florida for a Caribbean cruise, when I went to forward the info to my sister who is traveling with me I found a very scary email indeed. Newly delivered to my inbox. Cruise Cancellation Notice, the subject line said. Oh no, not again! That means 3 of the last 4 cruises I’ve had booked got cancelled. Upon reading the notice, I discovered it was not for this fall’s weeklong Caribbean cruise on Royal Caribbean Symphony of the Seas with my sisters, but rather for the monthlong Asia cruise on Holland America Noordam my husband and I had booked for later in the winter. So far the Caribbean cruise is still on. Fingers crossed it stays that way.

Noordam (internet photo)

Upon reading the notice, it was not quite as bad as it initially seemed. The cruise wasn’t cancelled entirely – just postponed for a year. We’re still booked for now. Next year’s cruise has the same itinerary, but not the same ship. It’s on the Westerdam (heavy sigh). Not that there’s anything wrong with the Westerdam, it’s a nice ship and all, but no matter where we go on Holland America we can’t ever seem to get on any ship other than the Oosterdam, Westerdam, and Veendam. Even if the Noordam is a sister ship of the Oosterdam and Westerdam, I was really looking forward to sailing on a different one of their ships for a change.

old and new centerpieces to the Westerdam's atrium

Westerdam’s old and new atrium centerpeices

It’s not that we keep going to the same places all the time. We’ve gone all over on Holland America. We just always end up on the same ships. John and I took the Oosterdam to Mexico long before I started blogging, and then I sailed on it again many years later to Alaska with other relatives, at which time the odd cow print décor that had been there on the first voyage was gone – and not missed one bit. The Veendam took me on a New England cruise with some aunts and an uncle, and later to Cuba with John. As for the Westerdam, that’s the ship we’ve spent the most time on of any having been to the Caribbean, Alaska, across the Pacific, and around Japan and China on it. (I must say I liked its older décor much better than the modernized version. It did not have any cow print like the Oosterdam’s early décor, but did have a lovely crystal ship in the atrium that was replaced by an ugly squiggle. Their new minimalist modern furniture in some public places was not very comfortable either.)

cruise ship in Alaska

Westedam in Sitka

We’re giving another Caribbean cruise try this winter – a shorter cruise leaving out of an American port seems more likely to actually sail. We even found one with a stop in Bonaire, one of the few Caribbean ports we have not yet been to.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021
Posted in Holland America, Randoms, Uncategorized | Tagged | 7 Comments

Friday Harbor

our boat at the fuel dock in Friday Harbor

Arrival at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island in Washington State’s San Juan Islands usually comes by state ferry. San Juan Island is one of 4 islands on the ferry route from Anacortes, the others being Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw. Private boats frequent the marina at Friday Harbor as well as San Juan Island’s other marina in Roche Harbor. Seasonal passenger ferries from several mainland cities also make stops in Friday Harbor. Small planes land at the airport within walking distance of town, and people may also arrive by seaplane. Million dollar homes dot the shoreline on the way to the dock, but after arriving the quaint buildings along the main street of the town are far older and smaller.

there’s a little tiny park area at the top of the stairs to the fuel dock

Friday Harbor has a population of over 2000 people, is the county seat of San Juan County, and the only incorporated city in all of the San Juan Islands. The climate is temperate, with less than 30 inches of annual rainfall. November is generally the wettest month and July the driest. The town covers about 2 square miles and sits just above the port with the main shopping area close to the marina and ferry dock.

road to the ferry dock

Early settlers made a living mainly through fishing, farming, or lime production. The current population depends more on tourism, real estate and construction. Island residents also include retirees, artists, and people who work online as well as government jobs, and those who work in schools, shops, restaurants, and the various places available for people to stay when they come to visit the island.

old buildings in Friday Harbor

Friday Harbor never lost its early pioneer buildings to a fire or other disaster as many other west coast seaports did so it still has some buildings dating back all the way to the 1880’s. Sometimes people think they see ghosts in some of the old buildings, and guided ghost walk tours are occasionally available.

entrance to the dock going out to the fuel dock in the marina

Places to stay on the island include hotels, BnB’s or vacation rentals, resorts, and camping. Friday Harbor has a whale museum, historical museum, and several art museums. From the harbor people can go kayaking or take whale watching or sailing tours.

shops in Friday Harbor

Shops include plenty of touristy fare as well as ordinary things a grocery store and a pharmacy. A variety of restaurants interspersed between the shops keep visitors to the town well fed. There’s even a chocolate & wine shop that offers after dinner tastings by reservation.

shops along the main street

Beyond Friday Harbor there’s more to do on the rest of the island. It has state and county parks, hiking trails, lighthouses, and historical sites. Places to visit include a lavender farm and alpaca farm. The island also has wineries and breweries.

Piper on a log at the beach

About 5 years ago I got my current dog, Piper at an animal shelter in Friday Harbor. (That is not a muzzle on her nose, it is the noseband of a gentle leader, which works something like a horse halter.) She’d been returned enough times that they called about a week after we got her wondering when we’d be bringing her back, but we still have her. 

approaching the fuel dock in the Friday Harbor marina

We most recently visited Friday Harbor as a brief fuel stop during a trip by private boat to nearby Decatur Island. The marina in Friday Harbor is full service with a fuel dock. Since we were there during the pandemic masks were required both at the dock and in town. While the boat was getting fueled I took a quick trip into town to the grocery store for chapstick, but didn’t have time to do much looking around. Piper stayed on the boat, but a lot of other people walking around town had dogs. The people all wore masks. Had circumstances been different we might have stayed to look around a bit or maybe have lunch, but at that time we wanted to go somewhere less populated and went to Odlin County Park on Lopez Island for a picnic instead. We also came to Friday Harbor once on an UnCruise – which was a small-ship cruise to places the big ships don’t go.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021

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Camano Island Getaway

Cabin on Camano Island

When looking for a quiet place to escape to for a couple days that was not too far away, and didn’t require public transportation or contact with other people, an Airbnb on Camano Island fit the bill. I found a little 2 bedroom cabin on a bluff with water views and beach access – the perfect place for the short trip I had given my mother as a Christmas gift. She agreed. We booked it months in advance. Not knowing whether or not vaccines would be available before we went, we wanted a more isolated place rather than somewhere in a city where there would be a lot of people. As it turned out we did both have vaccinations by  the time our trip rolled around, but were still happy for a quiet place.

view from the cabin on Camano Island

Weather too is something you can’t predict when booking far in advance so hoping it would be nice, but figuring to bring rain gear if it wasn’t we waited for our time to go. Weather the week before was sunny and beautiful, but the long-term forecast kept waffling between rain or clouds for the time of our trip. Of course the weather doesn’t care what the predictions are and the sun came out much more often then the forecasters said it would. We had a bit of rain during the drive there, the drive home, and during one of the nights, but none in the daytime while we were there. The predicted heavy clouds that would have obscured our gorgeous water view from the cabin never materialized either.

kitchen in the Camano Island cabin

The cabin was not hard to find. It seemed to be right on the same road where we exited the freeway. The road changed names several times along the way, but we never had to turn off of it. My GPS was a bit confused though as it seemed to think we had a ways yet to go and did not announce arrival at our destination when we rounded a bend and saw an arrow-shaped sign with the cabin’s address pointing down a gravel driveway that likely would have otherwise gone unnoticed. The cabin itself was not visible from that angle until after turning into the driveway due to a fence and some trees. The two bedrooms were nearly identical so no worries about who got the nicer room – which would have gone to my mother had there been a nicer room since this trip was a gift to her. The cabin also had a great room with small kitchen at one end and living room area at the other, each with a couple different seating options.

beach access near the cabin

After settling our stuff in and checking out the firepit and hammock near the bluff we looked through the guidebook for directions on how to get to the beach. It said you could walk or drive, but not how far we had to go so we figured we’d walk for a bit and see if we came to the street with the beach access fairly soon or if we’d need to go back for the car. The access road was just a short distance up the street. The journey down to the beach was steep enough that we both felt happier to be on foot rather than driving down it. Unfortunately most of that beach disappears underwater at high tide and we had not timed it well. There was a tide table book in the cabin. Apparently that was why. There was a small stretch of beach not yet flooded so we went as far as we could. Just in that short time the water had come closer to the large rocks that provided a way to get from the beach to the road level. After semi-snickering at the long red rope bolted above the steepest of the rocks on the way down we actually made use of it on the way up. While we could have crossed that rock without it, it was so much easier just to use it since it was conveniently sitting there.

the little bit of beach not yet covered by high tide

The cabin had no TV or wifi, but it did have large windows all across the side facing the water. Besides the view of Saratoga Passage, Whidbey Island, and the Olympic Mountains, there always seemed to be birds in the yard and sometimes a squirrel to keep us entertained. What can I say, we’re easily amused.

backyard fire pit at the Camano Island cabin

Staying just two nights only leaves one full day to do anything and our plan was to go for a hike at a state park. The island has two of them, right next to each other. Camano Island State Park, and Cama Beach Historical State Park, which was previously a fishing lodge. Cama Beach has cabins left over from its lodge days, but they are quite close together and most of them don’t have private bathrooms so we hadn’t wanted to stay there.

living room area in the Camano Island Cabin

We didn’t really have any preference for one park over the other as we didn’t know much about either of them other than both had beaches and trails. Discover Passes are required for parking in any state park in Washington State, but both parks have vending machines where you can buy a day pass after you arrive. Neither of us live near a state park or have much occasion to visit one so we didn’t have an annual pass. The parks near my house are county parks and those near my mother’s house are city parks.

beach at Cama Beach State Park

We ended up going to Cama Beach because the entrance was a bit closer, which seemed a good enough reason to decide when you have no other reason. We found the Discover pass dispenser without any trouble. We were prepared with both cash and cards not knowing which it would take. It said no cash so we used a card. There was a little building there that would normally have information and possibly park maps, but it was closed so after getting our pass we went on farther into the park looking for a parking area. We passed through a shuttle stop and my mom made a comment about there being a restroom there, but later when we actually wanted one we couldn’t remember where we had seen it. They have signs around the park labeling the trails, and one even pointed out where to go to get to the shuttle stop, but none of the many signs we saw ever said anything about where to find a restroom.

Center for Wooden Boats at Cama Beach

The lot we found to park in was one level up from a café, but that was closed too. We had a picnic lunch in a backpack so we didn’t need it anyway. A trail from the parking lot led to one that went either up to the woods or down to the beach. We went to the beach first. Our timing was better on this one as the tide was way out, though even at high tide there would probably be a bit of beach with the possible exception of an extremely high tide. We went as far as the park boundary in one direction, then the other. Near the cabins a large building was marked as a center for wooden boats. Back in the lodge days it would have been a boathouse for the fishing boats. Remnants of a section of barnacle encrusted track from a former launch sat deteriorating on the beach, no longer connected to the boathouse or even to itself the entire way down. A container ship sat anchored near the shore of Whidbey Island across the channel, perhaps waiting for its turn to unload, most likely in Everett since that’s the nearest port.

Cama Beach

We went back up the trail toward the woods. A trail leading off of it was marked as going to the other state park, but we decided to take the one marked Cranberry Lake instead. Along the way we passed a number of what you would expect to be educational signs next to the trail. Most places with that sort of signs give out information regarding the plants or animals of the area. These signs tended to say things like imagine what the trail would look like if you were a bird flying above it. We only found a few that had any useful information. One had a photo of one of the broad-leafed yellow flowering plants that Cranberry Lake was full of and identified it as a pond lily. Which was fitting I guess since the lake looked more like a giant pond than what people usually think of as a lake. Another said the narrow path at the end of the trail that went a ways out into the lake was the top of a former beaver dam. The third had a picture of a rabbit and said they were a non-native species that had been introduced to the area in the 1930’s as game animals. The rest just had blurbs as useless as the one about imagining you’re a bird.

pond lilly at Cranberry Lake

It’s not a loop trail so after getting to the lake there’s nowhere else to go but back the way you came, other than a few little trails leading out for different views of the lake. We went down one of them, but there was already someone at the end of it and since the bushes were touching her on both sides there wasn’t room for anyone else so we just went back to the main trail. When we got back to the area of the park where the trails start near the parking lot we tried a trail marked waterfront, but rather than being a view trail running above the waterfront it turned out to be another access point to the beach. It had a nice bench alongside it in one spot though so we sat there and had our lunch before wandering back down to the beach. It took us to the cabin area so we walked through there and happened across their restroom, which was pretty big for a park or campground bathroom. Figuring we might as well use it since it was there and who knew when or where we’d find another we went in. It had two sides branching off from the door, one going to a row of showers and the other to the toilets and sinks. On the way out we found a sign hanging on the inside of the door saying people must wear masks while they are in the restroom. Had that been on the outside of the door where we would have seen it on the way in we would have complied, but since we didn’t see it until we were leaving and nobody else was in there we didn’t.

Cranberry Lake

We had a pleasant day of hiking. On a longer stay there would be time to explore all the trails for both parks, but we just had the one day since we left the next morning.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021
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Vancouver by Train

Royal Princess at Canada Place – you can see Waterfront Station next to the ship and Vancouver Lookout on top of a tall building behind Waterfront Station

If you happen to live near the coast in Washington or Oregon, it’s pretty handy to take a train to the port when sailing out of Vancouver BC, especially if your ship leaves from Canada Place. The Amtrak Cascades runs from Eugene, Oregon to Vancouver with a number of stops along the way. I’ve taken it both to Vancouver for boarding and from Vancouver after disembarking, though not on the same cruise since one started there and the other ended there and neither were round trips. This was during normal times. Currently there are neither trains to Vancouver nor ships sailing from there due to Covid, but the stoppage is not permanent and both will be an option again in the future.

lower level of the train car with assigned seats

The train’s website offered a variety of prices for different seating options, but that either didn’t apply to that route or didn’t apply to the Edmonds station, one or the other. Only one option was available and everyone embarking or disembarking at Edmonds rode in the same car. The station is small and the platform far shorter than the length of a train so just the one car opened its doors there. In Edmonds passengers are asked to come an hour before their train departs. They did check in bags there, but then you just sit and wait. Any other Amtrak station I’ve been to if you come that early there isn’t even anyone around who works for Amtrak and they take your bags when you board the train. Which is just Vancouver, Wenatchee, and Leavenworth, so I can’t say how it goes at the rest of their stations even in normal times, and of course things are different now.

Amtrak train at Pacific Central Station in Vancouver BC

It’s a lot cheaper to take the train to Vancouver than it is to take a plane, and far cheaper than paying for parking at the port if you drive there. It’s actually cheaper than most busses too, as well as faster and more fun than riding a bus. The time options are more limited than for busses, but the morning train will get you there and the evening train will get you back, or either way there’s always the option of spending a night in Vancouver before or after the cruise. Just make sure to pick the right Vancouver when buying your ticket because this train stops in Vancouver Washington as well as Vancouver British Columbia. Cruise ships on the other hand do not go to Vancouver Washington.

upper level of the train car has first-come-first-serve optional seating

When traveling to Vancouver to board the Holland America Westerdam for a cruise to Shanghai, the train was pretty fast up until it got near the Canadian border. The stops at USA stations were pretty brief. Everyone had assigned seats in the lower level of the train car, but the upper level observation cars were open for anyone to go sit where they please – other than when customs came through and everyone had to be in their assigned seat. There was also a dining car with a limited selection of food available, and restrooms. My last train trip was before Covid so besides where this train goes, what it offers may also be more limited now.

the dining car is more just buy your food and go back to your seat than sit and eat there

Parts of the route are along the edge of Puget Sound, quite scenic and places you don’t see when traveling by car. The train moves a lot slower once it gets into Canada. When we took it there everyone in our train car was boarding a ship either that day or the next. One of the next day people said they had taken that train often and went a day early because it sometimes ran late. It got to the station right on time the day we rode it, but didn’t let anyone off for about an hour after we got there. We still had plenty of time to get to the ship though.

the town of White Rock near the Canadian border has a giant white rock on the beach

Taxis are available right at the train station, but there were a lot more passengers waiting than there were taxis so we walked across the street and took the skytrain, which would be my preference anyway. It’s quick and convenient and a lot cheaper than a taxi. The Main Street/Science World skytrain station is right there next to the Pacific Central station where the Amtrak comes in.

Canada Place

From there it’s just 4 stops down the line to Waterfront Station, which is next door to Canada Place where the cruise ships dock. If you take the right exit from Waterfront Station you probably have less than a 100 yard walk to the entrance to the parking garage, which is where you go to board ships at Canada Place. Just cross over where the cars enter and take the sidewalk ramp down on the far side.

inside Pacific Central Station there’s a big open waiting area with little shops and eateries

Assuming they go back to the previous schedule once train and cruise ship travel resumes in Vancouver, when disembarking there the morning train is too early for same-day travel. You could not get off the ship in time to catch it, so you have some time to kill before catching the evening train. There’s no luggage storage at the train station, but for cruise ship passengers there is luggage storage available at Canada Place. That’s a much more convenient location anyway since you are already there and it’s in the heart of the action where most of the touristy things are. There’s an information booth that also books tours. Free shuttles to places like Grouse Mountain or Capilano Suspension Bridge stop there. Waterfront Station has seabusses as well as skytrains so you can also go off exploring that way. Taking the waterfront seawalk or a city bus to Stanley Park is also an option. Gastown is nearby, as is the Vancouver Lookout, and for shoppers, Robson Street. So it’s not hard to find something to do between leaving the ship and boarding the train.

little park next to the sky train station across the street from Pacific Central Station

We spent a day in Vancouver after disembarking the Royal Princess on a cruise from LA. Once you’re ready to leave pick up your luggage at Canada Place if you stored it there and take the skytrain from Waterfront Station 4 stops to Main Street/Science World. From the skytrain station it’s literally a walk in the park to get to Pacific Central since the skytrain station is next to a little park that Pacific Central is across the street from.

Besides Amtrak, busses and Canadian trains stop at Pacific Central Station

They didn’t start boarding procedures until fairly close to time to board the train and there wasn’t anywhere to check in bags ahead of boarding the Amtrak at Pacific Central Station. You do need to fill out one of the customs forms on found on a table near the center of the station before getting in the boarding line though. If you don’t have the form they send you away to fill it out and you have to start over at the back of the line. At least that’s how it worked for the people ahead of us in line who had no forms when we were there. Seats were assigned on a first come first serve basis, and people did start lining up awhile before boarding actually started. We didn’t bother to get into the line until it actually started moving and had no problem getting 3 seats together. We didn’t spend a lot of time in our assigned seats, preferring the upstairs observation car instead, and had no problem finding seats. We had our pick of any of them since we were the first people up there.

sunset from the train

Depending on the time of year the journey back could be scenic or in darkness. In May when we rode the train back from Canada it started out light, but got dark along the way. We had some pretty good sunset views over the water in between.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021


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Europe by Rail

train station in Buchs, Switzerland

When traveling Europe by rail you can get a rail pass good for several days to a week, but they are quite expensive. Unless you are going very far or riding the train quite a lot it’s not worth the money. For us it was just a fraction of the cost of what a week’s pass would have been to pay for each leg of our journey separately. To get the best rate we chose our train times carefully because travel time and price varies from one train to the next and prices increase as the train fills. The very same route might be $10 at one time of day, $100 at another, and anywhere in between for the rest of the options. The time it takes the train to get from the starting point to the ending point varies as well. The most expensive tickets do not always have the fastest travel times. Where available we stuck with the super saver times, which were significantly cheaper than the rest, but good only for that one particular train and not at any other time whereas some of the more expensive tickets have more flexibility. Since we had our route planned in advance we booked all of our trains online ahead of time so we could get the best price for each leg of the journey choosing the lowest priced departure time closest to when we actually wanted to leave each place. We also insured that the trains we wanted would not be full before we got our tickets as could happen when waiting to get to the station to buy them.

platforms at the Zurich train station are indoors

We flew into Zurich and spent one night there so our train trip started with a journey from Zurich to Lucerne. The train that pulled into our platform in Zurich was just a tiny little short one. Since this was the first of the trains we took on our pre-cruise adventure through Europe we didn’t really know what to expect, but people having to walk up to the train and open the doors themselves to get in wasn’t it. That’s what everyone else did though, so we followed suit. No train officials were anywhere in the vicinity to take tickets or answer questions or check to see if people got on the right train they paid for or anything, passengers were totally on their own. Being on your own was typical for the rest of the journey, but having to open a closed door to get on the train was not.

large train stations like the one in Zurich have storage lockers

Our tickets said we could sit anywhere that wasn’t reserved or first class. Nothing appeared to be either so we just found some seats and sat there. The train chugged along at a pretty good pace, stopping briefly at a couple stations before slowing down not near anything except a longer train ahead of it on the tracks. Our little train caught up to the bigger one, bumped into the end of it and latched itself on so suddenly we were in the tail end of a very long train.

scenery on the train ride from Zurich to Lucerne

The ride to Lucerne from Zurich took 50 minutes with a number of brief stops at stations along the way, but no need for us to get out or change trains since it was a direct route. Lucerne was the terminal station, the end of the line where everybody got out. At least for our little section of the train anyway. Walking past the longer section after we got out we could see all kinds of people in there on both levels as that one had upstairs and downstairs rather than just being one level like our part was. Either they got on really quick or more likely they were already there and that part of the train continued on after ditching our little section in Lucerne.

train station in Lucerne

After the uneventful train ride from Zurich, we arrived in Lucerne with a 2-night booking at Roesli Guest House, which the booking info said was near the train station. We had no directions on how to get there and Google maps in its sometimes frustrating fashion changed the direction of the walk this way arrow depending on which way we went, always pointing us to go somewhere else – but as soon as we headed that way it changed again. Not knowing the area at all we gave up and took a taxi. We tried uber first, but there were no cars active in the area at the time and taxis at the train station were plentiful.

platform at Lucerne train station

The taxi went a round-about way, perhaps due to one way streets, or to their GPS, or maybe just to have a longer drive so they could charge more. Whatever the reason it seemed much too far to walk. The lady we checked in with said it was a 10-minute walk downstream along the river to the train station. The next day we found that 10 minutes was a long estimate as the walk was fairly short. It was mainly along a walking path by the river – no road, which may explain the taxi’s longer journey.

Thalwil on the readerboard in Zurich

Getting From Lucerne, Switzerland to Vaduz, Liechtenstein was not a whole lot of fun for us. We had train tickets from Lucerne that involved changing trains at Thalwil and Sargans. Where we live people don’t travel by train because there aren’t any. If we travel far enough we can find Amtrak, which is mainly for long hauls, not daily transport, and a few commuter trains which are fairly new. So our main train travel experience is in the Sydney area of Australia. There the displays for which platform trains are on and the one on the platform for what train comes next scrolls through every town the train will stop in. When we got to the station in Lucerne we expected our first stop of Thalwil to show up on the readerboard. It was listed for an earlier train which we had actually arrived at the station in time for, but we had the super saver tickets that were good for one specific train only. We got there early enough that trains for our departure time of 8:35 weren’t displayed yet, but when one came up for that time and then the next several were later and none mentioned Thalwil we got worried and went to find the train help people who said which platform to go to.

platform guide in Lucerne tells which train comes in where

That train was already on the display, with several cities mentioned, none of which were ours. Apparently besides the last stop they just randomly post a few others so if you don’t know the route and don’t see your city you are pretty much hosed. They gave us a little printout showing the platform numbers for each of our trains that day. Our train came 9 minutes late to Lucerne and arrived 13 minutes late in Thalwil. We’d had just 9 minutes between trains so the connecting train left before we got there. Thalwil is a fairly small station, but not unmanned so we went to the office and they changed our train time to the next train and said platform 4. Good to know that super saver tickets can be changed to a later time if it’s not your fault you missed your train. A train for our route only came by once per hour so we had to wait nearly an hour for the next one.

Thalwil platforms

Both platform 3 and 4 displayed similar looking cities and even some of the same ones, but neither mentioned Sargans, the stop we were looking for. The train time on platform 4 said 10:21, which was the correct time for our train up until a train pulled into the station when it suddenly changed to 10:24. Thinking that just meant the train was late we got on, but I had noticed the display about which cars were first or second class had also changed so we were a bit worried. Another guy got on, said something in German to another passenger and then left. We decided we’d better ask and the convenient girl standing there pointed over to platform 3 and said that was our train. We got out and as we stepped on the platform it pulled away.

to make the elevator (lift) go at the German speaking Thalwil station you have to push the fahrt button

Back to the office we went. Getting there involved taking a lift from the platforms to a walkway over the tracks, and another down to ground level to go to the office. They confirmed that the two trains had switched platforms at the last minute and allowed us to change our tickets to the next train. They said besides the arrival time to also watch for a little code that was on the printout they had given us that identified the train. That information was not on our original ticket. Meanwhile during the next hour sitting there we saw another pair of trains switch platforms at the last minute. When ours came this time the display never changed and the train had the right code on it so we got on with confidence and made it to Sargans. Chock that one up to a learning experience.

walkway over the tracks at Thalwil

Platform 6 at Sargans which our printout said was where we needed to go at first seemed non-existant, but we finally found it on the opposite side of a building from the rest of the platforms other than 7. It had all the right info for the train into Buchs. When I researched how to get to Liechtenstein online prior to our trip everyone said to go to Buchs to catch the bus there as no trains actually stop in Liechtenstein. We had 15 minutes between those trains and both were right on time.

Buchs train station

When we got to Buchs there were many busses at the station, none of which said they went to Vaduz, but one did go to Schaan, which was a place some of the people said you needed to go to catch one to Liechtenstein when I did my pre-trip online research so we asked the driver of that bus where to find the one to Vaduz and he said his was it. Which involved changing busses in Schaan. The last stop listed where that bus went was the train station in Sargans so even though everything I read had said to go to Buchs, we could have gotten off in Sargans and caught a bus to Vaduz directly from there without the transfer. Nobody ever mentioned there was more than one stop in Vaduz either. The only one on the scrolling menu on the bus that actually said Vaduz was Vaduz Post, but as the driver announced different stops several before that suddenly were prefaced with Vaduz before whatever the list said. Being totally clueless we got off at Vaduz Post and google mapped it. We should have gotten off a couple stops earlier at one called Stadtle, which was closer to our hotel, but at least the walk wasn’t too far since it stopped every couple blocks or so. There was no uber there, but we decided to save ourselves some hassle and just take a taxi directly to the station the next morning and not risk missing our next train from being late to the station through a bus mishap.

it’s not helpful when there’s no information on the readerboard

We had just one train to get from Buchs, Switzerland to Innsbruck, Austria, quite a relief after having to change trains twice to get there. Taking a cab to the station eliminated the 2 busses it took to get from Buchs to Vaduz. The hotel set up the cab. We said we wanted to get to the train station by 9:30 for a 10am train so we’d have plenty of time to find the right platform and find out how to know where on the train your seats are as this was our first time with reserved seats. They set the taxi up for 9am, and it came 5 minutes early so we were there shortly after 9 giving us way more spare time than we needed, but better early than late.

where to find your seat on the train

There were numbers on our tickets that I thought might relate to carriage and seat numbers, even though the ticket was all in German so I didn’t know what it actually said. I had no idea where to go from there. We stopped by the ticket office on the way out to the platforms to ask. The guy there said the readerboard out at the platform would display information telling you where to find that train car. He also said the train would come on platform 3. The readerboard on the way to the platforms that says which train comes where confirmed that the 10am train was on platform 3, and it even mentioned Innsbruck in the list of stops it displayed.

readerboards are a lot more useful when they display information

Out on the platform however the readerboard was blank. We thought maybe they just hadn’t turned it on yet because it was so early, but when it was still blank a half hour later I went back to the office to ask about that. He said it should be on and fiddled with some keys on his computer, then said our car would be in sector C. When I got back to the platform the readerboard was on, so apparently it wasn’t broken, they just hadn’t bothered to turn it on. It then alternated between flashing the usual train info and flashing a diagram that showed the order of all the cars on the train and which sector they would be in when it stopped on the platform. Ours would be the 4th car in line, behind 2 first class cars and a dining car. When the train pulled in that made it quite easy to find the right carriage.

train compartment with 6 seats

Inside instead of rows of seats like all our prior trains this one had a bunch of compartments separating them into groups of 6, and a hallway along one side of all the compartments with doors to get into them. We found the one with our seat numbers and went in. There was a lady sleeping in one of the seats next to the aisle and the rest were empty. We got our luggage up in the racks and sat down in the window seats, which corresponded to our numbers. This was the only train on our entire journey that had a rack over the seats big enough for a full-sized suitcase, though all but one of the others had racks that fit a carry-on sized bag.

luggage rack big enough for a full-sized bag

At another stop farther down the way an older lady came into the compartment. She hung her coat up over one middle seat, sat in the other, and refused to let anyone help her put her luggage in the rack. A young couple came along who needed the last 2 seats. They couldn’t both get into the door with her luggage there, but it took quite some time for them to convince her just to move the coat and the train was well underway before she finally let anyone put her luggage up in the rack so they could come in and sit down. They were speaking in German, but even though we didn’t know any of the words it was pretty obvious what the conversation was about.

As the train filled up, someone got on without a reserved seat and must not have been able to find one as she stood in the hallway outside our compartment looking very unhappy through the next couple stops until she finally saw someone in another compartment leave so she could find a place to sit. Somebody did eventually come around to check tickets on this train. Only the second one of our trip where anyone checked, the first being the 9-minute ride between Sargans and Buchs.

The train passed through some lovely scenery and a lot of tunnels going through the Alps. Also through a series of towns covered in snow, though the ground was clear before we got to Innsbruck. All of the little towns in the alps seemed to have a church with a tall pointed red steeple. Churches in other places had tall steeples, but not red ones.

train station in Innsbruck, Austria

5 out of 6 people in our carriage got out at Innsbruck. The older lady was missing at that time having vacated the carriage either to go to the restroom or dining car. Her stuff was still there though so the young guy got her luggage down and left it in the carriage before we all left. Perhaps she had told them she couldn’t get it down and that was why she didn’t want it up there in the first place.

By this time we were getting the hang of these European trains. We had just 2 more to go getting from Innsbruck to Venice, but while all our other tickets looked alike those two looked quite different from all the ones we’d had so far as well as from each other.

carriage display in Innsbruck

Our last train trip in Europe went from Innsbruck, Austria to Venice, Italy via a change of train in Verona Porta Nuova. At Innsbruck the readerboard at the platform didn’t display the order of train cars and where they would come into the platform the way the Swiss station had. They were however displayed separately on a different readerboard. When we first got there just a few people sat in a little cubicle that was just a bit warmer than the outside. It was awhile yet for the train so we waited in there too. Soon a very confused Italian girl came in with lots of questions about her ticket and the train, but she spoke no English so a couple other people talked to her until she calmed down and sat quietly to wait for the train. As time got closer the platform filled with people. Luckily it was a long train. We were quite glad to have reserved seats. There were people still hunting for somewhere to sit after it left the station, but eventually they all left our carriage so they might have found seats somewhere else.

lots of empty seats on the train from Verona to Venice

The other two seats in our group of 4 were occupied by very nice young men, one an American in the army stationed in Italy and the other an Austrian college student studying in Italy. Both had been on a train that got stopped the previous day due to the tracks being blocked in an avalanche. They waited hours at a little station on the boarder of Austria and Italy and then returned to Innsbruck for the night. Which explains the huge crowd on our train. When our train reached that station it sat for quite a lot longer than usual for such a small station, but being on the boarder the Austrian said they were probably checking some people’s passports. Eventually the train moved and everyone could breathe a sigh of relief that we were going onward and not back. Both the young guys were a day late, one missing classes and the other had to fill out a pile of paperwork and take a day of leave so as not to be in trouble for his late return to the army. After awhile the snow thinned and got more sparse until it disappeared entirely. Mountains gave way to rolling hills with grapevines and green fields, the quintessential picture of rural Italy. Nearly everyone on the train got off at our stop in Verona Porta Nuova. Our seat companions continued on in different trains to ours.

Verona Porta Nuova station

At that station there were just small readerboards in the hallway that ran underground between the platforms that said which trains were to come into which platform. Ours was on platform 4. The platform had readerboards, but the ones that normally display the information on the next incoming train never lit up until it actually arrived, and the others just had ads. None of them had the seat car arrangement. The platform also did not give the section letters as the Swiss and Austrian ones had so there was nothing to relate where particular cars would actually stop. They made an announcement that just said which cars would either be in the front, middle, or back of the train. Not that helpful when you have no idea where exactly on that very long platform the train would stop. We stayed near the middle of the platform since our car was to be in the middle, but it turned out to be a short train and went to the far end of the platform before stopping so we were well behind the entire train and nowhere near our car. It didn’t stay at the station long and we barely got to our car and in the door before the door closed and it left. That train had a lot of open seats so the reservation there would not have been necessary. It’s the only one of all the ones we had reserved seats on where we could have pretty much sat anywhere without being in someone else’s seat though.

vaporetto boat stops by the train station in Venice

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. Ours at Venezia Santa Lucia turned out to be the end of the line. There was another Venice station prior called Venezia Mestre, but no water to be seen there. The train crossed a bridge to get to our station on the edge of the Grand Canal. It was not only the end of the line for that train, but also the end of the tracks. From that station you find docks with boats or watertaxis instead of busses and land taxis. There are some busses nearby as the train station is in the one spot in Venice proper where vehicles can go. The busses there will only take people out of Venice though. They have to take boats or use their own two feet to go any farther into it. The public boats called vaporetto have ticket booths by the train station and stops along the canal. That was how we got to the Airbnb where we stayed. Vaporetti function as the busses of Venice.

Italian train

When taking a trip around Europe by trains it’s best to pack light. All of the ones we rode had luggage racks that would fit a backpack. Most had luggage racks that would fit a carry-on size bag as well. Just a couple of them had a rack that would fit a big suitcase, one of which was by the door and not above the seats. Also take into consideration that there are some places where lugging the bag up or down stairs may be required. Most have lifts, but at the very least you will have to carry it up into the train, and then maneuver it through narrow, often crowded aisleways to your seat. Only one out of all the trains we took had luggage racks by the door where people could leave their bags before walking down the aisle to their seat, and that one did not have overhead racks big enough even for a carry-on. It’s a bit scary to leave baggage by the door where you can’t see it from your seat and anyone could grab it on their way out, but nobody bothered it. We never put important things like passports and electronics in our luggage, but would have missed our clothes if anybody took them.

Blogs From All Our Stops in Europe

Flying to Zurich                                                    Innsbruck Nordkette
Zurich                                                                     Innsbruck Alpenzoo
Lucerene                                                                Venice
Lucerene/Mt Pilatus boat & train                    Venice Gondola Ride
Lucerne/Mt Pilatus Gondola                             Venice 3 island tour
Liechtenstein                                                        Venice Cruise Port

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021
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Things to do on MSC Lirica

MSC Lirica in Crete

Like all cruise ship vacations, when sailing on the MSC Lirica passengers are free to do as much or as little as they want to. Ships offer a variety of options for things people can participate in, but if all someone wants to do is sit in a deck chair all day, that’s their choice. Staying in their cabin all day is a choice people could make too if they wanted, but very few people spend that much time in their room.

pork dinner on the Lirica

Food is of course a major part of any cruise, and they do all have food in abundance. Or at least they did before Covid. Hard to say what it will be like now. I do have a couple cruises booked so if they don’t get cancelled like the last 2 then I will find out. The Lirica had typical buffet and dining room options. They also had something different each sea day out by the pool stage for a brief time. A few of the bars had pastries, coffee, tea, and juice at breakfast, but strangely enough not the coffee bar, which even more strangely did not open until afternoon. Their only actual specialty restaurant was sushi, which I did not try. Other than that they just had a smoothie bar and gelato stand and of course a number of bars. This was before Covid, so things might be different now – especially the buffet as it is highly unlikely people will find self-serve buffets on any ship at this time.

splash park

The main open top deck was not called Lido like on most of the ships we’ve been on. On this ship it was called Vivaldi. I did learn on this trip where the name Lido comes from though. It’s an island in Venice known for its beaches. Anyway, the Vivaldi deck (AKA deck 11) had two pools, two hot tubs, a stage where there was sometimes music and sometimes activities, and the buffet. It also had a splash park which only had the water going sometimes, and a couple ping-pong tables and foosball tables that could only be used when the entertainment staff was available by the stage to check out paddles and balls.

treadmills at the gym

Deck 11 also had the spa and gym at the front of the ship. The gym was small with just 4 treadmills and a variety of other equipment. The spa had a beauty parlor, massages and other treatments, and a thermal area.

massage table at the spa

Spa prices were better than on a lot of ships. I had a massage, booked pre-cruise, which is 30% off of booking onboard and gives you 30% off on any additional massages should you want to book any more onboard. They did not have a date or time available pre-cruise. That had to be set up after boarding, and within the first week on my 3-week cruise. The masseuse was good at her job and offered a choice of light, medium, or heavy pressure. She was also barefoot.

women’s steam room

The thermal suite was a bargain price on this ship compared to other lines we’ve been on, but there was a reason for that. It lacked all the things that make a thermal suite worth going to – no thermal pool or heated ceramic chairs. Had we not booked it pre-cruise, we wouldn’t have bothered. All it had in the way of thermal features were saunas and steam rooms. It had two of each, one for women and one for men. Apparently Europeans like to use them naked in spite of the sign by the door saying appropriate swimwear must be worn. At least the women’s had a sign. I hardly ever saw anyone else in there, but on the few occasions anyone else was there most of them suited up. One day there was a lady wearing nothing but a towel. John said there were often other men when he went in and none of them ever wore any clothes. Once he even saw a naked women in the men’s area. The best thing about this ship’s thermal suite wasn’t even thermal. There was a relaxation area room with an excellent view and a bunch of the wicker bed things that was a nice quiet place for reading or watching the scenery go by. None of the other ships where we’ve booked the thermal suite had areas other than locker/changing rooms segregated by sexes, but then again they were American ships (and one British) where none of the people used the facilities naked.

pool and hot tubs on deck 11, deck 12 walkway and shade below it

Deck 12 was mainly a walkway above the outskirts of deck 11. It provided shade for the chairs below it on deck 11, which were the most popular ones there. Other than the walkway around the ship deck 11 did have the disco lounge/sushi bar at the back and some seating at the front overlooking the outdoor stage.

mini golf

Deck 13 was just at the ends with an exclusive area for suites and those who paid extra to go there at the front and mini golf at the back. The mini golf course was a bit worse for wear, but one of the few things the ship had available for self entertainment, though you did have to check the club and ball out from entertainment staff on deck 11 and could only use it during the hours they were there.

watching container ships unload from the back deck during a port stop in Salalah, Oman

Decks 7-10 were mainly just passenger cabins, though they did all have public balconies at the back with deck chairs, and balconies at the front with a good view and nothing else. The balconies at the back were our favorite outdoor hangout. Besides being much smaller, quieter, and less crowded than deck 11, it was also much easier to find an available deck chair. The ones on deck 11 were usually occupied by towels if not people. On the back decks there was always a stack of chairs so people could get one there if all the ones already set out were occupied – which again would mainly be by towels rather than people. Typical of most cruise ships, there are signs saying not to save chairs and the crew will pick up unattended towels, but they never do.

slot machines at the casino

Decks 5 and 6 had most of the public areas. There was an array of shops, a small casino, and a variety of bars. Three of the bars had music in the evenings. Two had dance floors, one with music geared toward the younger crowd and the other music more appealing to older folks. The other was a piano bar for those who just wanted to listen to music. When they just played the music it was nice, but sometimes songs were accompanied by one or two of their opera singers with earsplittingly loud voices. Their voices were so loud that the only time we went to a show that included the opera singers we left the theater during the first song because it hurt my ears so badly and they didn’t tone it down much for the considerably smaller piano bar.

piano bar – with violin

Typical of most cruises, the ship had nightly shows in the theater. Not so typical it said on their website that you had to book seats in advance for each show. It had screens outside the theater from which to do so, but on our cruise it was all open seating and pre-booking theater seats was not necessary or even available. People just went in and found a seat before the show started like on other ships.


There’s also a library and internet room, and for kids an arcade. Kids also have age-group appropriate kid’s clubs up on deck 11 for the little ones or deck 12 for older kids.

Lirica in the Suez Canal

While this ship did not offer a lot in the way of do-it-yourself entertainment, it did have things scheduled throughout the day, especially on sea days. There were a lot of dance and exercise classes, tai chi, trivia, and other games. Some days there were port talks about things to see in upcoming ports. Overall this is more the sort of ship chosen for price and itinerary rather than for the ship itself. And it did have a great itinerary for a good price. Our main reason for taking the Lirica cruise was the port stop in Jordan, from which we could go to Petra, but we enjoyed all the other ports and our time onboard as well.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021


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San Juan Island

map of San Juan Island

Most people arrive on San Juan Island by ferry into Friday Harbor, but there is so much more to the island than this charming town. At 621 square miles it is the second largest island in the San Juan Island chain. Only Orcas Island has more territory. San Juan Island is the most populous with a large portion of its over 6000 residents living in or near Friday Harbor, which is the county seat of San Juan County. Before the arrival of European settlers, native Americans inhabited the island and used it seasonally for salmon fishing. Tourism and government jobs have taken over from the more traditional jobs of early island residents who depended on fishing and farming. Computer jobs that allow people to work from home and live anywhere have contributed to a recent increase in the island’s population. As one of the 4 islands on the San Juan’s ferry route, San Juan Island is one of the easiest to visit. Places to stay include a resort, vacation rentals, and a campground. Friday Harbor has a large marina with transient moorage for those arriving by private boat. The island also has an airport for small planes within walking distance of Friday Harbor.

ferry dock in Friday Harbor

San Juan Island’s biggest claim to historical fame is the 1859 Pig War, in which the only casualty was a British citizen’s pig shot by an American farmer as it raided his potato patch. At the time the boundary between Canada and the USA was in dispute as to which side of the San Juan Islands the line was drawn – through Haro Strait giving the islands to the USA or through Rosario Straight putting them in Canada. Tensions escalated as each man went to their own government to settle the dispute bringing troops from both countries to the island. Both countries had bases on the island, now historic parks. Negotiations eased the tension, but it took another 12 years in which both countries maintained a presence on the island before the boundary dispute was finally settled by a German arbitrator in favor of the Americans as Haro Strait was the larger and more navigable of the two.

Roche Harbor

There’s much to see on San Juan Island beyond Friday Harbor. There’s another marina with transient moorage at Roche Harbor, which has views of Haro Strait and Canada, and a restaurant right on a dock. Roche Harbor Resort sits above the marina with its historical 1886 Hotel de Haro as well as many other accommodations. The resort also has remnants of ancient lime kilns, several eateries and some artist’s booths.

the historic Hotel de Haro at Roche Harbor Resort

The resort was once the site of lime works and has other historical landmarks besides the hotel and lime kilns. There’s an old chapel, a pioneer cemetery and an old family mausoleum. There’s also a small village and some hiking trails. Kayak or whale watching tours are available at the marina. A sculpture park and the island’s only heated outdoor pool also reside in Roche Harbor. We stayed at Hotel de Haro once years ago when it had a much older look than in current internet photos. Back then the charming interior and furnishings looked old enough to be original to the place. That may not be the case any longer since there have been renovations between then and now. Even after remodeling most of the rooms still do not have private ensuite baths because back when it was built shared bathrooms were common in hotels. Despite having to walk down the hall for a bathroom it was a fun place to stay and the expansive grounds had lots of different things to explore.

English Camp

Besides English and American camps, which make up the San Juan Island Historical Park, the island also has another state park called Lime Kiln Point State Park and a county park with a campground. Cattle Point Natural Resources Conservation Area also has trails, a lighthouse, and beach access. The county park has day use areas as well as campsites. It also has beach access, a boat launch, flush toilets, and picnic facilities.

prairie at American Camp

American Camp on the southern end of the island still has native grass prairies, once common, but now a rarity in the region. It also has a visitor’s center with exhibits, a book store, and a summertime ranger program. English Camp has historical buildings and gardens from the time of the British occupation and also has summertime ranger programs.

lighthouse at Lime Kiln Point State Park

Lime Kiln Point State Park is a 36-acre day use park, most popular for watching whales and other wildlife. The park has trails, restrooms, and a seasonal interpretive center. Light house tours and a gift shop are available in the summer.

Cattle Point lighthouse

Things to do on the island include hiking trails, nature and wildlife tours, whale watching, museums, a lavender farm, alpaca farm, and shellfish farm. Bicycling is popular there. People who walk onto the ferry or otherwise arrive on the island without a car can still get around. San Juan Transit provides public bus service to major points of interest around the island as well as charters and guided tours.

things to do on San Juan Island

Small ship cruise lines such as Uncruise Adventures make port stops in Friday Harbor.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021

all photos in this post are from the internet

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Qingdao Cruise Port

Westerdam in Qingdao

Qingdao, China

Qingdao, China (pronounced Chingdow) is famous for beer and German architecture in the city center due to a German occupation from 1898-1914. This port city in the Shandong province has beaches and skyscrapers, a beer museum, and a beer festival. Besides operating a major seaport, Qingdao has a naval base, industrial center, and the world’s longest sea bridge.

Qingdao TV tower

Qingdao has a temperate four-season climate with windy dry winters and warm humid summers. Public transport includes busses, trolleys, trains, ferry service to Japan, and an international airport. Qingdao’s main tourist attractions include beaches and Mt. Laoshan. Other attractions include a former German prison complete with torture equipment, parks, shops, street vendors, a night market, and of course authentic Chinese food. It’s a popular vacation spot for people living in China.

the long walk to the exit in the cruise terminal building

Qingdao Cruise Terminal

The pier is about 2 miles north of town, but free shuttles are often provided by the port. The shuttles for our ship, the Holland America Westerdam, dropped people at the Arts & Crafts store on Zhongshan Road. The terminal’s design requires a long walk from the ship to the exit/entrance of the terminal building. The long hallway contains a few moving sidewalks like those found in some airports.

tiny fire hydrant by the cruise terminal in Qingdao

The terminal has a duty-free shop, and during our visit it had a couple tables set up near the exit offering free beer samples and some merchandise. Restrooms at the terminal are of the squat toilet variety. Outside the port building the sidewalk leading toward town is dotted with a row of miniature fire hydrants.

miniature truck in Qingdao

There are some shops, restaurants, and a mall within walking distance of the port. We saw a variety of miniature trucks and other little vehicles along the way.

start of the workday for restaurant workers in a Chinese mall

At the mall we saw a group of employees from a restaurant out having their daily morning pre-work meeting.

Chinese version of American food

Just like you can find Americanized versions of Chinese food in the USA, you can also find Chinese versions of American food in China. One shop had some pretty crazy pizza options labeled as American style food in a freezer.

the big green thing is a durian

Other odd food found in Asian countries like China includes Durian, a giant and very smelly fruit.

Olympic rings at the Olympic sailing center

Exploring Qingdao

There’s more to be found farther away from the port. The Qingdao International Sailing Center  was built for the 2008 Summer Olympics on the site of the former Beihai Shipyard. It hosted sailing events for the Olympic and Paralympic games. Qingdao’s May Fourth monument sits at the opposite end of the bay looking like a statue of the Olympic torch, but it is actually much older. It is part of May Fourth Square which commemorates protests to the 1919 Treaty of Versailles which China did not sign as it gave control of German interests in Qingdao to Japan rather than returning sovereign authority to China. They later signed a separate treaty in 1921.

flags at the Olympic sailing center

While in Qingdao we visited the seaside walkway area of May 4th Square near the monument. From there we could see parts of the former Olympic sailing center across the bay. The seaside area where we went has a large beach, which in spite of the cold and windy (but sunny) day had people beachcombing for shells and playing on the beach. The far end of the pier has a row of flags, giant rings, and other mementos of the Olympics. The land view on the side of the beach we went to was dominated by the large red May 4th sculpture that so closely resembles the Olympic flame.

funny sign by the beach

Lots of signs in China are in English as well as Chinese, but the translation isn’t always quite there.

when signs in China are in English

Even the boat we took a harbor tour on had a funny sign.

we were the only people not from China on the boat tour

A row of little booths leads to a small boat dock where people can take harbor tours. We took the shortest tour, which was quite inexpensive and provided great views of the shoreline. The area is developing quickly. There were 3 highrise buildings under construction during our visit. From the boat we could see a small green tree-covered area nearly void of buildings, a rarity in the city. A pathway ran through this parklike area, and we could see people on the path.

view from the boat of new buildings under construction towering over other nearby buildings

From the boat we also saw a skate park near the pier. While walking down the pier we saw several people with skateboards and a group on roller blades passing through the pier on their way from the skate park. We saw lots of great city views from the boat tour as well as closer views of the Olympic Sailing Center.

ticket booth for boat rides and row of shops on the pier

The little booths mainly had jewelry for sale, but many also had smelly dried sea things that the people there eat and some had different merchandise like small wire sculptures.

view from the boat ride in Qingdao

Parking can be quite hard to find if you travel the area by car. Even the tour busses parked quite a distance away.

a viewpoint from the walkway above the beach resembles the prow of a ship

We had lunch in an authentic Chinese restaurant mainly frequented by locals. Chicken is not a good choice in that sort of restaurant as they chop it up randomly and the pieces contain little bits of bones. Locals use a social media/messaging, and payment app called WeChat for everything from making reservations to ordering their food and paying for it among many other uses.

TV tower, tall buildings, and beach houses in Qingdao, China

Tours offered from our ship in Quingdao included a best of tour with a visit to the city’s oldest pier, a temple, scenic drive, lunch and the beer museum, and a panoramic tour with a visit to the governor’s mansion, the TV tower which has a rotating restaurant and observation deck, and the protestant church. Other tours went to Mount Laoshan and a temple, one to the German area, protestant church, and beer museum, and one to old and new areas of the city.

beach and red May 4 monument in Qingdao, China

We had a private tour around Qingdao provided by a business associate who came from several hours away to meet with us there. He gave us a great tour and a lot of information about the area, but we were glad that we kept with our usual plan of considering all aboard time to be an hour earlier than it actually is. We made it back to the port a bit later than that hour early time we had told him was when we needed to be there. A train crossing the road slowed things down even more. Then we took a road to the port that turned out to go directly to the ship. We could have gotten out of the car and walked up to the ship and touched it. What we could not do from there was get on board as there was no access to the terminal. Driving back around to the correct access road we came across the same train and had to wait for it to go by again at a different crossing, which does not help when you haven’t got much time. When we finally got there we had that long walk back through the terminal. We made it to the ship on time, without much to spare. That’s not the first time aiming for an hour before the actual all aboard time has saved us from missing our ship.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021
Posted in China, Holland America, Port Cities, Ports of Call, Westerdam | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Killing Time in Vancouver

Royal Princess at Canada Place in Vancouver BC

My sisters and I disembarked the Royal Princess in Vancouver in the morning, with hours to kill before our evening train. During normal times Amtrak runs two trains daily on the Amtrack Cascades route from Eugene, Oregon to Vancouver BC, which is a really handy way to get to the cruise port in Vancouver for anyone along that route. I’ve used the morning train going to Canada for embarkation, but the morning train from Canada leaves too early for cruise ship passengers to return to the USA unless they choose to spend a night in Vancouver before leaving – which is a good option as there are plenty of hotels and lots to see or do there. Not that there are currently any cruise ship passengers in Vancouver since Canada’s ports are closed to cruise ships because of the pandemic.

Canadians of all sorts hang around near Canada Place – including this Canadian goose

Since we were leaving town the same day we took the evening train, which meant we had plenty of time to disembark and make it to the train on time with a whole lot of time to spare. We didn’t have more luggage than what we could handle on our own so we chose the self disembarkation where you carry off your own luggage rather than turning it in the night before and having to wait until it is ready to pick up in the port to leave the ship. If you have self disembarkation you can leave as soon as they announce that you can, but we don’t always leave immediately. At some point they want people out of their rooms, which is usually when we go, generally somewhere around 8:30am.

Canada Place with the Pan Pacific Hotel on top

Since we did not want to spend the day dragging our suitcases around, the first thing we did once we left the ship was to look for the luggage storage for cruise ship passengers advertised on Canada Place’s website, only to find it was not open yet. We were sent to the Pan Pacific hotel in the Canada Place building, who was providing luggage storage service for cruise passengers at that time. It cost $5 per bag, which the bellhop said was a better price than the $9 per bag Canada Place planned to charge once they got their service up and running. The hotel had limited space for bag storage, but we were the first ones to drop bags off that day so we had no problem leaving ours.

inside Pacific Central Station there’s a big open waiting area with little shops and eateries

I had figured on picking up the bags in time to get to Central Pacific train station about an hour before our departure, but the bellhop recommended much earlier. There was nobody at the station ready to check in passengers or luggage or anything until somewhere within an hour of the train’s departure so afterword we wondered if the bellhop may have thought we meant to take a skytrain to the airport rather than meaning that we were actually leaving the country by train since he was adamant that we needed to arrive far earlier than we really did. The train station does have benches to sit on, and at that time of the day the doors are open and there are some shops, places to eat, and restrooms inside. When we caught a bus early one morning from Pacific Central the station was deserted and the doors locked until nearly time for the bus to depart. In the past there was luggage storage at Pacific Central, but the lockers have been removed and there is no luggage storage available there now.

information booth at Canada Place

Due to Barbara’s leg injury we scrapped our original plan for the day, which was to walk to Stanley Park along the sea walk and spend the day there. We bypassed the information booth where people can get tickets to all sorts of things and saw the free shuttle to Capilano Suspension Bridge and also one that looked like it went to Science World as well as one that appeared to go directly to Grouse Mountain rather than taking the shuttle to Capilano and a bus to Grouse Mountain from there as we had done the previous winter. A hop on hop off bus also stopped at Canada Place so there’s all sorts of options for people who have time to kill in Vancouver. Science World is a good option for train passengers as it is close to the train station and has luggage storage.

Waterfront Station

Waterfront Station is right next door to Canada Place so we went there and got the day pass tickets that allow rides on the city bus, skytrain, and seabus all day long. We had thought to take the bus to Stanley Park, but the sea bus left from Waterfront Station and since we were already there and hadn’t ridden it before we gave that a go instead.

seabus to Lonsdale Quay

The seabus rather resembles a self moving barge that people ride inside of. It went across the water to Lonsdale Quay which had shops, restaurants and a kid’s splash park along the waterfront.

giant crane in Shipbuilder’s Square at Lonsdale Quay

We hadn’t gone far before we saw an old-fashioned 4-masted sailboat docked at a nearby pier. Thinking it might be the Cuauhtemoc, a training ship from the Mexican Navy which I had run across previously in Seattle with Linda and in Hawaii with John, we went over to investigate. This one turned out to be the BAP Union from Peru, which is newer and larger than the Cuauhtemoc. One of the sailors said there are quite a few countries with similar sailing ships used both for training and sailing around the world as ambassadors for their countries.

BAP Union from Peru

The first sign we saw said tours had started a half hour previously, but as we stood for awhile in an unmoving line we saw a gangway getting moved around, but nobody getting on or off. Linda spotted another sign saying tours wouldn’t start for another half hour so we decided not to wait. The line started moving before we got off the dock, but having lost our place to a now much longer line we didn’t go back. It would have been difficult for Barbara to get around the steep ladders and stairways on a ship of that sort with her bad knee anyway.

view of Vancouver from the seabus

The seabus had two boats running back and forth so one was always at or headed to either end. When we wandered back there we didn’t have to wait long. The boat we came on had a nice window we could see out of while seated, giving us a great view of Vancouver through the back window on the way there. The one we returned on had the window placed higher so passengers would need to stand to see out.

seawalk near the port

We wandered around Canada Place a bit and then took the seawalk down as far as the seaplane base before sitting and watching the activity on the waterfront for awhile. Since the bellhop at the hotel had said we needed to return so early we didn’t have time for anything else so we picked up our luggage and took the skytrain from Waterfront Station to Main Street/Science World Station, which is across the street from Pacific Central Station where the Amtrack trains stop in Canada. You can catch Canadian trains there too as well as busses.

seaplane base a short distance down the seawalk from Canada Place

After heeding his advice it turned out we got to the train station an hour earlier than we needed to, but better early than late. We wandered around a bit and looked into the train station’s shops and eateries before settling onto a bench to read while we waited. Another person waiting nearby pointed out the table of customs forms in the center of the station, which everyone needed to have filled out before boarding the Amtrak train to the USA. Thanks to him we were prepared. We saw someone else get all the way through the line only to be turned back because they didn’t have the form. They had to go fill it out and start over again at the end of the line. People taking Canadian trains departing to other areas in Canada would not need them of course. Greyhound busses also use the same station, but when we took the bus from that station before the crack of dawn when nothing at the station was open they gave us the forms on the bus rather than having them filled out in advance. They’ve also given us the forms on the train when we’ve taken it to Canada.

view of Stanley Park from the ship on the way into port

With the border to Canada set to open soon people from the USA will once again be able to kill time in Vancouver – if they have had their COVID vaccination that is, as the border is only opening to vaccinated tourists.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021
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