Paradise Point Skyride in Saint Thomas

Saint Thomas

Paradise Point Skyride

After having looked up the weather before our Carnival Magic cruise and seeing a prediction of rain for all four ports, we were quite happy to see sunshine in the forecast when time for the actual cruise came. Our second port was Charlotte Amalie on Saint Thomas, US Virgin Islands – a place we had visited once before. On that visit we took an island tour and then a quick trip to Paradise Point on the skyride before going back to the ship. At that time we saw a ferris wheel, a trail, and all sorts of animals at the top in addition to the shops and restaurant.

Saint Thomas skyride

lower tram station

Traveling with a group of 9 this time, we thought walking to the skyride and taking a trip to the top would make a fun day for all since there was quite a bit to do up there. The lower tram station is a short walk from the cruise ship dock. We bought tickets on the ship, which cost a bit less than buying them at the ride. On the way there we noticed the mountain top looking freshly dug up. Several taxi drivers stopped in hopes of getting us to take a ride to the top with them. They said driving a carload of people to the top costs about the same as one skyride ticket. They all said the cablecar down was still free.

going to Paradise Point

skyride over the new road

We’d already bought tickets and took the skyride up. Even if we hadn’t already had tickets the whole point was riding in the gondolas rather than getting to the top and there’s nothing special about riding in a car. The road to the top all the taxi drivers mentioned hadn’t been there on our previous visit. People had to walk up or use the skyride then.

skyride top station

top station with new road and bare hill

That wasn’t the only change. Everything that had been above the skyride on our last visit was gone. No viewpoint, trails, or animals. The place where the ferris wheel once sat off to the side and a bit below the upper tram station was just an empty concrete slab. It seems someone was more interested in bringing customers to the restaurant and shops than in providing any sort of entertainment for visitors – which translates to less reasons to bring a family up there.

authentic shipwreck merchandise

shipwreck salvage for sale

We looked around the shops a bit and thought the one selling stuff from shipwrecks was the most interesting. In one shop a teenage boy accidently knocked a rather expensive Christmas ornament off a shelf and broke it. His parents had to pay for it. Luckily none of the kids in our group broke anything.

restaurant at Paradise Point

restaurant view from the skyride

The open-sided restaurant had a patio area extending beyond the roofed part. We walked to the far end to see the view off the terrace. The views are still spectacular up there and there’s plenty to eat and drink. Other than that there wasn’t much to do so we would have looked elsewhere for a way to entertain youngsters if we had known all the other things were gone.

Paradise Point Skyride

skyride coming up to the top station

There seemed to be more shops down on the level below where the skyride stops this time, though I may have just missed them last time since we hurried back in a downpour after checking out the things that no longer exist and didn’t look around the shop and restaurant area much that time.

skyride view

inside the skyride

Saint Thomas has lots of shops and places to eat near the cruise terminal, but there isn’t much else to do there without taking some sort of transportation to get elsewhere – which is available at the port.

Paradise Point, Saint Thomas

view of skyride, cruise port, ships, and beyond from Paradise Point

Most of the ship’s excursions on Saint Thomas involve water sports or beaches, but there are a few other things like scenic drives, a zip line, or an ice bar.

2017’s Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused extensive damage to the tram, buildings, and road. It stayed closed for several months for repairs which included all new cables and is back up and running again.

More Blogs About Saint Thomas

Saint Thomas, US Virgin Islands

Paradise Point Skyride

Random Bus Tour on Saint Thomas

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Ketchikan Cruise Ship Port

Ketchikan, Alaska

Ketchikan, Alaska

Ketchikan photo taken from a cruise ship

Ketchikan lies on Revillagigedo Island at the southernmost entrance to Alaska’s scenic inside passage surrounded by the Tongass National Forest. This temperate rainforest lives up to its designation. Ketchikan averages around 140-160 inches of rainfall annually, with the heaviest precipitation in the fall and winter. Ketchikan is rich in fish and native artwork and culture. It has lots of totem poles with some around town and some in parks. The town’s name comes from the Tlingit native word for Ketchikan Creek, Kitschk-hin.

Ketchikan cruise ship docks

map of downtown Ketchikan showing all 4 cruise ship berths

Ketchikan has 4 cruise ship berths. 3 of them sit on the edge of the main touristy part of town and the fourth a short distance away with shuttles for those who don’t want to walk to town from there. There’s a visitor’s center right on the main cruise ship dock where anyone who didn’t pre-arrange shore excursions can find a variety of things to do. Streets near the docks are full of tourist oriented shops and it’s a short walk from the main docks to Ketchikan’s famous Creek Street.

Dolly's House on Creek Street

Dolly’s House on Creek Street in Ketchikan, Alaska

Creek Street has its own history. This creekside walkway with over-water buildings was once the town’s red light district. Most of the former houses of prostitution are tourist shops now, though one remains intact as it was decades ago in the form of the Dolly’s House Museum.  There’s a funicular to ride up to a hotel above Creek Street, or hike up on the Married Man’s Trail – the place where married men of the past snuck unseen to the  brothels.

map of Ketchikan

Ketchikan Walking Tour Map

Ketchikan has lots to do. You can go fishing, or take a ride on a boat once featured on the TV show Deadliest Catch. Flightseeing, ziplining, and even snorkeling are options. Inexpensive tours are available by trolley, horse carriage, or even amphibious Duck vehicles. Ketchikan also has museums, parks, and native cultural areas. Excursions can be booked in advance through your ship or through outside sources. There are also quite a variety of things available last minute at the visitor’s center or sometimes from people with signs on the dock. Or just take a walk and explore.

sea urchin

snorkel Alaska shore excursion

Cruise ship excursions offered in Ketchikan include off-roading in adventure carts or jeeps, flightseeing, raptor center, wildlife adventures, fishing, canoeing or zodiacs, zip line, Bering Sea crab boat, Trolley tour, duck tour, totem poles, bear viewing adventure, cultural experiences, snorkeling, zip line, rainforest hike, lumberjack show, crab feast, and a wildlife boat safari. Excursions offered vary from ship to ship, but usually include the major attractions.

Duck amphibious vehicle

Ketchikan Duck tour goes on land and in the water

More Blogs About Ketchikan

Duck Tour, Dolly’s House, Trolley Tour, Rainforest Hike, Walking Tour, Snorkel Alaska

Posted in Alaska, Holland America, Oosterdam, Port Cities, USA | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

San Antonio Texas

Texas map

map of Texas

You won’t find ocean cruise ships in landlocked San Antonio, Texas, but you can take a cruise there. We’ll get to that later in this post. San Antonio has interesting and historical things to see making it worth a side trip when in Texas for other reasons, or as an add-on to a cruise. It’s nearly 250 miles from Galveston (where you can find ocean going cruise ships) to San Antonio, or roughly a 4-hour drive. Closer to 3 hours from Houston, where people cruising out of Galveston are likely to fly to.

Alamo church

the iconic church at the Alamo

While most of the USA either broke free from England in the Revolutionary War or was settled afterword, Texas has it’s own unique history. It started out as a colony of Spain, then became part of Mexico at their independence. Texas broke away from Mexico and for nearly a decade operated as its own country – the Republic of Texas – before joining the USA. At the same time the battle resulting in the famous “Remember the Alamo” was happening in San Antonio (Feb 23-March 6 1836), a convention of Texans at Washington on the Brazos near Houston signed their Declaration of Independence (March 2-3 1836). American Legend Davy Crockett died in the defeat at the Alamo to Mexico’s President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. The greatly outnumbered Texans killed about 3 times more Mexicans than the total number of people inside the Alamo before the Mexican army breached the old mission-turned-fort’s walls and left everyone except a few women and children and one male slave dead. Even back in the 1800’s with no airplanes or modern technology walls were not an effective means of protection – and those heavily guarded walls were fortified with cannons.

Alamo gift shop

gift shop at the Alamo built in 1936 to commemorate 100 years

Sam Houston’s army defeated Santa Anna shortly after in the Battle of San Jacinto, a short (18-minute) battle fought on April 21 1836. The Treaty of Velasco signed May 14 1836 officially gave Texas their independence, but Mexico refused to accept the treaty due to Santa Anna being a captive at the time of signing. This led to border wars that continued after Texas became a state, culminating in the Mexican-American war in 1846-1848. The Republic of Texas included all of present-day Texas as well as parts of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, and Wyoming.

the Alamo

The Alamo in 1836

The Alamo was originally a Catholic mission intended for converting the native population. The mission was abandoned for 10 years, during which time parts of it crumbled to ruins before being converted to a fort while a town sprung up on the other side of the nearby river.

prickly pear in bloom

prickly pear cactus in bloom at the Alamo

The iconic church that symbolizes the Alamo was roofless at the time of the infamous battle. Only a small portion of the Alamo’s original complex remains, with just parts of the current structures as original construction. It’s free to go inside. There are displays inside the church (which has a roof now) and in the Long Barrack, which is the other partly original building. They have about a 20-minute historical video and a newer building built in 1936 houses a gift shop.

Alamo cat

a calico cat makes herself at home at the Alamo

Pathways wind between plantings throughout the grounds. Some of the gardens contain large oak trees or giant prickly pear cactus, which were in bloom during our visit. Brightly colored giant coy swim about a cement-lined creek. We also saw a calico cat sunning herself on the pathway near the fish. She had a collar and license on which meant she belonged to someone, but we were not sure if she lived at the Alamo on mouse patrol or had wandered in from a nearby apartment.

horse carriage

horse carriage ride in San Antonio

Near the Alamo we saw quite a number of white horse-drawn carriages all decorated up with lights making them suitable for wedding transportation sitting along the roadside waiting for passengers. Most had white horses between the shafts. We didn’t have a lot of time before the Alamo closed at 5:30 and the price for a carriage ride was more than we cared to spend so we passed on taking a ride.

manmade river leading to the River Walk

walkway into the Hyatt Hotel

Across the street from the Alamo a stairway leads to the lower level of the Hyatt Hotel. A fountain starting by the stairway flows into a manmade river which runs through the hotel, ending with a bit of glass separating it from the beginning of the real river and another San Antonio attraction – the River Walk. Just follow the hotel’s river inside and when you exit the door at the other end you’re there. Walking on the River Walk is free, but of course it costs money if you want to buy anything at the shops, eat at one of the many restaurants, take a river boat ride, or have a drink at a bar.

San Antonio River Walk

River Walk pathway leading under a road

San Antonio’s River Walk runs underneath the main streets through town. Most of it follows the natural path of the river, though it does have some manmade additions. The River Walk is clever usage of the above ground portion of a flood control system which incudes a series of dams and some underground pipes working to keep the water level constant. The loop through town is surrounded by hotels, shops and restaurants.

River Walk cruise

San Antonio is not by the ocean, but you can still take a cruise! River boats cruise the River Walk loop.

Open boats provide inexpensive short cruises around the loop with narration from the ship’s captain about the area and its history. People can choose to cruise by daylight or wait until after dark and cruise under the lights of the buildings. The boats are lit up at night with colors that vary from one boat to the next. Some boats even do dinner cruises where people can dine while they float along with an ever-changing river view.

river walk dam

flood gate dam in San Antonio’s River Walk

Leaving the loop the walk along the river extends in both directions for those who want a less-crowded walk. We walked out to one of the dams where the water drops to a much lower level. There’s quite a large underground boat docking area on the opposite side of the river, but the boats could go no farther downstream past the dam due to the large drop.


ducks in the river

The loop area of the River Walk has some ducks. Mostly they swim around in the river, but one did come up to the pathway and walk with us for a bit. We also saw some begging for food near some of the restaurants, but they did not look aggressive and none came near our table when we had dinner at the oldest Mexican restaurant on the River Walk. Many of them are black and white, a coloring I had not seen on ducks before though it was common there.

San Antonio River Walk

water feature on the River Walk

Pathways extend along both sides of the river throughout the populated area, with numerous bridges along the way and sometimes waterfalls or fountains. We took a riverboat ride after dark and though we did not see anyone fall in the water, the boat captain said if anyone did all they needed to do was stand up as it was rarely deeper than 4 feet. He said generally about one person a day falls in. With all the bars around you might think it is due to drinking, but he said it’s actually texting and walking that causes most of the dunkings.

river walk in San Antonio

bridge across the River Walk

We found a B&B a short distance away from the downtown area for just $25 a night so accommodations can be had there  for quite a reasonable price. Parking near the Alamo can get a bit pricey though at $10-$20 for the day depending on the length of stay.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2018
Posted in Day Trips, Randoms, USA | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Rock of Gibraltar


Gibraltar cruise port

Carnival Vista – photo taken from the Rock of Gibraltar

We got off the Carnival Vista in Gibraltar expecting to make our way to the Gibraltar cable car, ride it to the top, and then walk down where we would see the siege tunnels, monkeys, and cave on the way back down. Exiting the ship through the port area we found taxi vans offering tours to the rock, and (for a higher fee) beyond. The information desk said it was about a 20 minute walk into town and about 45 minutes walk to the bottom of the cableway. There were taxis willing to take people to town, but we couldn’t find one that would go all the way to the cable station so we set out on foot.

Rock of Gibraltar

most of Gibraltar is the rock

In town we found a bus station where you could get an all day pass for very little money. Being a British colony the official money in Gibralter is the British pound, but since Gibralter is just a little point of land attached to Spain they are just as happy to take euros. We were able to save some time by taking the bus to the cable car station rather than walking.

unusual runway

Runway with the road from Spain to Gibraltar passing through it

While the rock dominates any view of Gibralter as well as a large amount of its small land mass, its other notable feature comes in the form of a runway which runs the length of the boarder with Spain – and beyond as it juts out into the water with nothing else around it on one end. This runway is quite unusual in that the road from Spain to Gibralter runs through it and has to be shut down any time a plane takes off or lands.

cable car in Gibraltar

Gibraltar Cable Car

When we got to the lower cable station one cable car was on its way down. Before we even got inside to buy tickets all the people who had been waiting there came out saying it was closed due to the wind. Apparently the car coming down just had someone on it who worked there testing out the weather. He decided it was not safe to run so that was no longer an option for getting to the top. An empty taxi van went by so we hailed it, followed by way more people than it had room for, though one extra couple tagged along with our group of 5, which included 3 friends from the ship as well as us. More taxis came up behind ours so they must have got word that the cablecar wouldn’t run that day.

airplane on runway

runway view from the ship – with an airplane on it

The taxi van offered the same tour of the rock that we could have gotten at the port. It’s only an hour and a half tour. We wanted more time to see everything which is one reason we would have liked to take the cable car up and walk down. Since that was no longer an option we took the taxi. Some people do walk up, but it’s a long steep walk and for some in our group the walk down would have been a challenge and walking up out of the question. With the cable car closed for the day the taxi was our best bet.

old cannon

cannon near the entrance to the siege tunnels

Our taxi driver said that Gibraltar has more jobs than people to fill them so thousands come over from Spain each day to work. The per capita income average in Gibraltar is nearly twice that of Spain. Like Malta, in Gibraltar we saw none of the graffiti, litter, homeless people, beggars or stray animals found in most places of the world.

cave in Gibraltar

entering Saint Michael’s Cave

We made a brief stop partway up where you can see Africa (Morocco) just 14 miles away across a channel, but it was pretty hazy in cloud cover so not a great view that day.  Then we went inside St Michael’s Cave. It’s a huge natural limestone cavern with lots of impressive stalactites and a whole network of caves.

colored light on cave formations

stalactites in green light

There are lights in ever-changing colors shining on the rock formations so you don’t see the true natural beauty of the cave. Some colors turn out better in photos than others. With my camera the rock formations came out clearer in blues and greens than in pinks and purples. Perhaps if we had more time to explore we could have found a more natural looking area. There was a stairway going down deeper into the cave, but we didn’t have time to go there due to the taxi tour’s time limit. I may have been the only one in our group who would have liked to explore further anyway. My kids and I are into caves, my husband and the friends we were with that day not so much. If either of the kids had been there I’d have had someone to take the option to bail from the taxi at the top and walk down the rock with, but nobody else in our group that day wanted to.

colored light on stalactites

cave in artificial light colors

The cave was created by rainwater seeping through the limestone, gradually dissolving the rock over thousands of years. It also has a lot of human made additions. Besides the pathways and lights that change colors over the cave walls, it has an area with seats for concerts sometimes held there to take advantage of the natural acoustics of the cave.

St. Michael's Cave

concert hall in a cave

Sometimes monkeys hang around near the cave exit, but sensing an impending storm none were there that day. The building where you enter has a restaurant, gift shop, and free bathrooms. In Europe a lot of public bathrooms charge a fee to get in so it’s always nice to find a free one.

Barbary apes of Gibraltar

mama monkey and her baby

Our driver said the monkeys are descendants of Barbary apes brought over from Africa  decades ago. They keep the different family groups from foraging too far and fighting over territory by adding fruit to their diet and feeding each group in separate areas so they stay in their own space. As we approached a monkey feeding area the driver panicked over a passenger opening a granola bar and told her to put it away or we’d have monkeys in the van. They are a species of macaque from Morocco.

Gibraltar ape

Barbary ape at a feeding station on the Rock of Gibraltar

Feeding stations alongside the road on the way up to the siege tunnels attracted a large group of monkeys. Some were in the feeding area eating the fruit there, others sat on the roadside or climbed outcroppings of rock. Several babies ran and jumped from tree to tree in the bushes growing at the top of the rocks towering over the roadway.

monkey on a van

monkeys on taxis

A row of taxis stopped and let people out for monkey photos and to climb a stairway to a viewpoint. Some monkeys hopped on top of the barely moving vans. As each van worked its way to the front of the line the people got back in and it moved on. Passengers had to stay aware of where their van was in the line so they would return when it got to the front and not stuff up the line. Besides food, Gibraltar also provides veterinary care for its wild monkeys.

siege tunnel view

view through an opening in a siege tunnel

Near the siege tunnels tour busses stopped at a parking area down the hill a ways from the entrance and let people out to walk up. Taxis go right up to the building with the entry, but have to work their way through the oblivious bus crowd walking up the hill to get there. Outside the tunnels there’s a great view of the runway and Spain on the other side. If a plane lands or takes off while you are up there you can watch it from above. Kind of an odd feeling standing on solid ground looking down on a flying jet.

siege tunnel

inside the siege tunnel

It took 5 weeks to dig the siege tunnels 82 feet into the rock by hand and gunpowder for the Great Siege War from 1779-1783 when France and Spain tried to take over Gibraltar. By the end of the siege the tunnel extended 370 feet. They have windows along the outer wall of the rock which were initially made for ventilation, but soon adapted for firing cannons. These upper tunnels are open for the public to tour as the Great Siege tunnels. After the siege ended they kept on tunneling adding several chambers. During World War 2 it took just a week to add another 180 feet using mechanized tunneling equipment and explosives. Throughout the war they added many more miles of tunnels. Which is pretty amazing since the whole of Gibraltar is only about 2.6 square miles. More tunnels and storage areas were added during the cold war with tunneling finally ending at a total of about 34 miles in 1968. Gibraltar has about twice as many miles worth of tunnels through the rock as it has in total roads. Some mid-level tunnels are open for tours as WW2 tunnels, but the unmaintained lower tunnels are off limits to the public. Some crumbling tunnels have been permanently sealed off for being unsafe.

roaside on the rock of Gibraltar

monkey living on the edge

The original boundaries of Gibraltar have walls which once sat at the edge of the sea, but are now inland because of an area of landfill that extended the land into what used to be sea. Gibraltar’s walls once protected inhabitants from invading ships with 3 rows of cannons. Ships are now welcome as tourism is important to the economy of modern Gibralter.

Barbary Apes on the Rock of Gibraltar

top of the rock – with monkeys

Once we got back down the rock the taxi van let the couple who was not with us out in town because they had not come from the ship. Then it took the rest of us to the port so we didn’t have to walk back or take a bus. While the taxi tour did give us a chance to venture into the cave and siege tunnels and a brief visit with the monkeys, it would have been nicer if the cablecar had ran that day so we would have had more time to explore.

Posted in Carnival, Europe, Ports of Call, Vista | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

America’s Test Kitchen Cuban Recipies

Holland America Veendam

Holland America Veendam in Cozumel

America’s Test Kitchen on Holland America

Cruise ships have a variety of ways to keep passengers entertained on board. Each day brings a new list of different things to do on the schedule, which is posted in the newsletter stewards leave in passenger cabins the night before. Some ships also have an app now where people can get entertainment schedules, menus, and other shipboard information on their cell phones. Cooking demonstrations are a popular thing to include in the cruise ship entertainment schedule.

cooking demonstration

America’s Test Kitchen demonstration on Holland America Veendam

Holland America has partnered with America’s Test Kitchen. Each Holland America ship has cooking demonstrations from Test Kitchen staff living onboard. Some of the recipes they use are standard from one cruise to the next, but others are itinerary specific. I thought the salmon was per the itinerary when we took the Oosterdam to Alaska, but it showed up again on the Veendam in the Caribbean. It’s also listed on their website as one of the standard shows. The Veendam did have something different though with Cuban recipes the day after a port stop in Havana.

cruise ship cooking demonstration

picadillo and pineapple salad at the end of the demo

At the Test Kitchen cooking demonstrations on board the demonstrator makes the recipe they are talking about, but the audience doesn’t get to taste it. People can go up to the front and take photos afterword, but if you want to try it you have to cook it for yourself when you get home. They do hand out giant recipe cards so you don’t have to take notes to get the recipe. Not most of them anyway. There was no recipe card for the pineapple fruit salad.

Cuban recipes

recipes from Veendam’s Test Kitchen demonstration

At the Cuban cooking demonstration they had two different recipe cards, one for Cuban Style Picadillo which they cooked during the demonstration, and one for Fried Sweet Plantains and Mojitos. They made the mojitos, but the fried plantain demonstration was pre-recorded and shown movie style on the test kitchen’s large TV screens.

Cuban Recipes

All recipes say they serve 6.


Cuban-Style Picadillo

Cuban-Style Picadillo

Toss 1 pound 85% lean ground beef, 1 pound ground pork with 2 tablespoons water, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a bowl until thoroughly combined. Set aside for 20 minutes while working on other ingredients.

Remove stem and seeds from 1 green bell pepper and cut 1 onion in half. Cut pepper and onion into 2 inch pieces. Put onion and pepper into food processor and pulse until chopped into 1/4 inch pieces, about 12 pulses.

Heat 2 tablespoons vegetable oil in large Dutch oven over med-high heat until shimmering. Add bell pepper and onion, 1 tablespoon dried oregano, 1 tablespoon ground cumin, 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cook stirring frequently until vegetables begin to brown, about 6-8 minutes. Add 6 minced garlic cloves and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add one 14.5-ounce can whole tomatoes, drained and chopped course and 3/4 cup dry white wine. Cook, scraping up any browned bits until pot is almost dry, 3-5 minutes. Stir in 1/2 cup beef broth, 1/2 cup raisins (golden raisins are preferable, may substitute 2 tablespoons brown sugar for raisins) and 3 bay leaves. Bring to simmer.

Reduce heat to medium-low, add meat mixture to pot in 2-inch chunks and bring to gentle simmer. Cover and cook. Stir frequently with 2 forks to break meat into 1/4 to 1/2 inch pieces until meat is cooked through, about 10 minutes.

Discard bay leaves. Stir in 1/2 cup pimento stuffed green olives coarsely chopped and 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed. Increase heat to med-high and cook stirring occasionally until sauce is thickened, about 5 minutes. Stir in 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and more vinegar.

Serve over rice and black beans. Top with chopped parsley, toasted almonds, and hard cooked egg.

fried plantains

fried sweet plantains

Fried Sweet Plantains

3 cups vegetable oil, 5 very ripe black plantains peeled and sliced on a bias to 1/2 inch pieces, Kosher salt

Heat vegetable oil in medium saucepan over med-high heat to 350 degrees F. Carefully add 1/3 of the plantains and cook until dark brown on both sides, about 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Use wire skimmer or slotted spoon to transfer cooked plantains to wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet. Season with salt. Repeat with remaining plantains in 2 more batches. Serve immediately. Do not place plantains on paper towel because they will stick.

test kitchen mojitos

mojito making demonstration


Use wooden spoon to mash 1 cup fresh mint leaves and 3/4 cup superfine sugar in a pitcher until sugar dissolves. Stir in 3 cups carbonated water, 1 1/2 cups light rum, 1 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (8 limes) and a pinch of salt. Pour over ice and serve.

Posted in Caribbean, Cruise Food, Holland America, recipes, Shipboard Life, Veendam | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Crossing the Pacific

Royal Caribbean cruise ship

view of the Pacific Ocean from deck 4 of Explorer of the Seas

Having enjoyed our previous transpacific cruise from Chili to Sydney onboard P&O Arcadia, we decided to book another one. This time we took Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas from Seattle to Sydney. A number of ships that cruise from Seattle or Vancouver throughout the summer move to Australia for the northern hemisphere’s winter, which is summer down under. Repositioning cruises are often available crossing the Pacific in the fall or spring as these ships move to their new summer routes, the Explorer among them. Arcadia, on the other hand, was one leg of a world cruise of which the full route started and ended in South Hampton, England circling the globe twice in a 4-month span.

port view of Seattle

view of Seattle from Explorer of the Seas

Our route and ports were all different on this 22 night cruise from Seattle to Sydney. It had 7 port stops scheduled with 2 each in Hawaii, Fiji, and New Caledonia, plus one in Vanuatu. The last cruise had just 5 scheduled stops, which ended up as 4 when we missed Bora Bora due to stormy weather.

ocean view cabin

watching the ocean go by from the window of our deck 2 cabin

After a fairly smooth passage through the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the way from Seattle to the ocean, we had rough seas for most of the first couple full days of the voyage. With the weather outside windy and cold the outer decks mostly stayed closed. Barf bags set out at the elevators come in useful for some, but serve as a reminder that weather isn’t always conducive to smooth sailing for others. I felt a bit off one day, but reminded myself I’ve been in worse seas and never been seasick on a cruise ship before and got over it. I don’t know if queasiness is sometimes a mental thing for anyone else, but thinking about it affects me and is quite likely to make any sort of motion sickness worse. On a long voyage it’s likely to see a variety of weather. We have had ocean crossings with smooth sailings the whole way, but so far never one that had more than a few days of rough seas.

mini golf

I once made a hole in one on the next hole down beyond the one I was actually aiming for on this mini golf course where one hole pretty much flows into another

Cruise ships always have scheduled activities throughout the day, particularly on sea days, of which ocean crossings have lots of. There’s a variety of things to choose from. The usual offerings include trivia, lecturers, competitions, games, demonstrations, exercise classes, and sometimes special events or deck parties. Explorer also had lots of things people could do to entertain themselves. The ship has a rock climbing wall and a flow rider, both of which had regularly scheduled open times daily. The 24-hour mini golf course is available any time people want to use it, other than during a scheduled competition. They also had a sports court, gym, and several pools and hot tubs. With deck chairs in sheltered areas, sunny areas, quiet areas, and busy areas anyone can find somewhere to sit and relax, read, nap, or people watch. There’s also a jogging track, shuffleboard courts, arcade, and ping-pong tables. Though the mini golf course on this ship looks like an afterthought it’s still fun to play. It sometimes got crowded during the daytime, but in the evening there was rarely anyone else there. One day I went to play mini golf, but then people started a golf competition, so I went down to sit outside on deck 4 and a shuffleboard competition started up. Just not my day I guess.

inside a cruise ship

overlooking the promenade café end of the Royal Promenade

Inside the Explorer of the seas there’s an open area several decks high called the Royal Promenade that resembles a small city. It has shops, a pub, and a nice little café where everything except the specialty coffee and ice cream is free. People can hang out there or at the little tables along the walkway. There are also seats on overlooking decks where people can sit to read or people watch.

massage room in cruise ship spa

spa room set up ready for a massage

When we booked this cruise they had a starting price for massages lower than I’d ever seen on a cruise ship before. Of course when I went to book one that wasn’t the standard price (which was higher on sea days than on port days.) The really good price was only for the first day. We were originally assigned to late seating dinner, and on the wait list for early. By the time the cruise came we had gotten assigned to early dinner, which was during the time I had booked the massage so I missed dinner in the dining room and went to the buffet instead. It was actually pretty nice there. No crowd like there is at breakfast or lunch and the food was good.

Captain's table menu

menu from the Captain’s table

I didn’t meet our tablemates on the second day either. It was the first formal night of the cruise and we got an invitation that day for dinner at the captains table with the staff captain – 2nd in command of the ship, and on this ship he’s the guy who docks the boat. The captain’s table is a big round table on the main floor of the deck 3 dining room, visible from the other two levels. Dinner there is by invitation only.

captain;s table

eating at the Captain’s table

There were 4 other couples and the chief safety officer there too. Each seat had a name card. We were seated next to the staff captain, a very nice guy. His shift is 10 weeks on, 10 weeks off. The safety officer was on the other end of the table so we didn’t get a chance to talk to him. There was a special menu just for that table different to what was served to everyone else. It was the best meal we had on the entire cruise.

ocean sunrise

sunrise over the Pacific Ocean

At home I run 3 days a week in parks near to my home. On ships I usually run outside on the promenade deck, but on this one I actually used the gym because it opened at 6am rather than 8 like a lot of other ships we’ve been on. You pretty much have to be there right at 6 if not before because the treadmills fill up quick. Most of the people were just walking, but maybe they didn’t like the promenade deck or jogging track on this ship any better than I did since both go through or past smoking areas, which is not conducive to good health and the last thing anyone out for exercise wants.

cruise ship dining room

Sapphire Dining Room – Explorer’s main dining room

On the 3rd day I finally met 2 of our tablemates. The other 2 couples didn’t come to dinner in the dining room that night. One person was seasick and the other couple went to one of the ship’s premium restaurants called Chops Grille. Eventually I met them all. They were all nice people and we enjoyed talking to them. On short cruises we usually choose the any time dining, but on long cruises there’s less ports and more time to linger over dinner and meet new people so we tend to pick a set dining time there.

rock climbing wall

almost there – climbing the ship’s rock climbing wall

One day I tried the rock climbing wall, just because it’s there. It’s not super high, but harder than it looks. I climbed a much higher one at an REI store once without any trouble years ago, but besides being younger then it was long before I ever broke my elbow. I got about halfway up the wall before my previously broken elbow started protesting. I don’t quite have full range of motion in that arm and a bit of nerve damage that affects my fingers. By the time I made it three quarters of the way up the whole arm was shaking. I was closer to the top than the bottom by then though and climbed the rest of the way up out of sheer stubbornness. It took awhile for the arm to recover afterword so I didn’t climb the wall again during the rest of the cruise. The next day I watched other people attempt it. Most didn’t even get halfway, though there were a few that scrambled right up to the top.

Johnny Rockets

Johnny Rockets burger place up on an outside deck

We tried Johnny Rockets for lunch once, but weren’t impressed. It’s a burger joint that you have to pay a bit extra for, but the fries were exactly the same as what they serve free at the buffet and the other food no better than what you get there either. Milkshakes have an additional charge, yet ice cream sundaes are one of the included dessert options. The sundae was the best part of the meal.

cruise ship ice arena

ice show in the skating rink

Explorer has an ice arena. On the 5th day of our cruise they had an ice show. There’s not nearly enough room for everyone to watch at once so they had 4 performances over 2 days with show attendance times assigned according to muster stations. We had the last time, but it was worth the wait. It was the best show we saw on this ship. We met one of the skaters the first day of the cruise because he was the crew person in charge of our muster station at the muster drill, which is always a requirement to attend on the first day of any cruise so everybody knows where to go in the event of an emergency.

cruise ship theater

the main theater had lectures, dance classes, and sometimes movies as well as the nightly shows

Some of the evening shows were pretty good too. Just a few involved their production cast, which is set up for week-long cruises. Most shows this cruise came from guest performers. They had the usual things like musicians, comedy, and magicians, but they had some unique shows as well. One night’s show was a hypnotist. The next day I had lunch at a table in the dining room with other people randomly seated there by the order they came in. Luckily I did not say I didn’t like hypnotist shows when one of the guys at the table asked if people had enjoyed the show. I hadn’t gone to the show and didn’t know he was the hypnotist until others at the table recognized him. The pickpocket guy’s evening show was so popular he had a lecture on how not to get pickpocketed the next day. His show was pretty amazing. He could wander through the crowd and get things like watches and ties from people he talked to while the people were totally oblivious.

Speaking of oblivious people, I always wonder why on cruise ships everywhere on any walkway no matter how wide or narrow, if there is just one person they walk down the center, often drifting side to side to prevent anyone from passing. If there are 2 or more people they sprawl across the entire walkway and do everything they can not to let anyone past, all while moving at the pace of a crippled snail. Then again maybe it’s just human nature because people sometimes do that other places besides cruise ships, and that really slow car on the highway often speeds up as soon as there is a passing lane, only to slow down again once the road narrows back to one lane per direction.


lamingtons from the Royal Promenade café on Explorer of the Seas

I had all but forgotten about Lamingtons until I saw them one afternoon at the promenade café. It’s an Australian dessert that I first tried at an airport in Fiji, and had again later on a shore excursion to Hobbiton in New Zealand. These little squares of cake dipped in chocolate and coated in coconut were best dessert on the ship for the entire cruise. The first time the café had any the majority of passengers had no clue what they were so they were available all day. The café only had them sometimes and not every day. Each successive time they ran out earlier as more people discovered this super tasty treat.

flowrider on a cruise ship

John on the boogie board

Eventually the ship got far enough south for the weather to warm up enough to try the flow rider. They offered stand up surfing and boogie boarding. Preferring to stay alive and uninjured, I only tried the boogie boarding, which is quite fun. If you take too long before wiping out they try and get you to go up on your knees, which some people can do well, but newbies usually wipe out trying. Some people do all sorts of tricks, others need the attendant to keep them off the wall. Regardless of skill level most people enjoyed it enough to keep coming back on other days.

elevator floor

if you forget what day it is just go to an elevator

We tried dinner at Giovanni’s on night, which is one of their premium restaurants, serving upscale Italian food. Appetizers came in large enough portions to make a dinner just from them. The eggplant parmesan was excellent. John said the scallops were delicious as well. The entrée also had plenty of food. The shrimp tasted good, but was a bit hard to get out of the shell. We didn’t try it, but the steak got good reviews from other people. Tiramisu was the best dessert according to people who like coffee, which I don’t. Their chocolate cake was better than the dining room’s, but not as good as the lamingtons at the café.

cruise ship ice skating

the helmet is required and the skates are foot torture, but ice skating on a cruise ship is still fun

A couple days after our Hawaiian ports the ice arena finally started having some open skating sessions for the passengers. I hadn’t skated since I was a kid, but decided to give it a try. The pair of skates I got was bulky and uncomfortable and had a toe pick extending all the way down to the front of the blade. The last point actually pointed downward into the ice extending lower than the blade making it hard to skate without tripping on the toe pick, but I found out that I can still skate. I did trip once from not holding my toes up high enough to keep that obnoxious toepick out of the ice. Not all the skates have that so the next time when they tried to give me a pair like that I asked for different ones and had a much easier time skating with in a pair with no toepick at all. It was just as bulky and uncomfortable though. Maybe they got that style for cheap, or maybe they picked extremely uncomfortable skates on purpose so people wouldn’t stay out on the ice long to keep the arena from getting too crowded. At first I wondered why some people used up suitcase space to pack their own skates, but after skating in theirs it became obvious. I would have skated longer with better skates, but it was still fun. It’s not just me, other people mentioned the skates hurting their feet too.

solarium hot tub

one of two hot tubs in the solarium

Unfortunately selfishly leaving towels and other items on deck chairs to save them for hours on end with nobody there is prevalent on cruise ships and this one was no exception. Though all the ships have signs saying they will pick up things left unattended for too long nobody ever does. This often made it hard to find available deck chairs in prime places like the sheltered area of the solarium, although some passengers will move other people’s stuff when they want a chair since the crew won’t. That was our favorite spot since the solarium was non-smoking and had more comfortable deck chairs than anywhere else. Unfortunately the towels of the chair hogs spent more time in those chairs than any of the passengers. We did find a row of deck chairs we liked near the back of the non-smoking side of the promenade deck. It wasn’t as nice as the solarium, but nobody ever seemed to go there so we could always get a chair. It was a nice place in good weather since it had the shade of the deck above. It also had a shuffleboard court so one day we gave that a go. I won one game and John won the other. At first we didn’t think either of us would score at all, but we got the hang of it after a couple rounds. Not enough to say we are anywhere close to good at it, but we managed to score some points.

cruise ship galley

there are lots of sections in the galley for preparing different things

On one of the sea days we took a behind the scenes tour. Most of the big cruise ships offer them through the shore excursions department. They vary a bit from one line to another and even among different ships of the same line, but generally the galley, laundry, and bridge are among the things you get to see. This one allowed cameras which was nice since the last one we took on a different line did not.

cruising the Pacific

people on the bow watching the ocean go by

Ocean crossings have lots of sea days to relax and enjoy all the things the ship has to offer. People can spend their time doing one activity after another or just sit in a deck chair and do nothing. Whatever works for them. We made it to our port stops in Fiji and were on the way to Vanuatu when one of the passengers took ill. At first they were going to evacuate him by helicopter, but then decided it was too cloudy for that. Instead the ship sped up and bypassed Vanuatu, heading instead to New Caledonia where they could take him to shore for transport to a hospital. Vanuatu was the only port where we had an excursion booked through the ship. Just like our last pacific crossing where the missed port Bora Bora was the only one where we had a ship’s excursion booked. Maybe it is bad luck to book a snorkel excursion through the ship in advance on transpacific cruises.

cooking demo

sort of a cross between a game show and the cooking demo it was supposed to be

Generally food this cruise was a bit disappointing compared to Celebrity, which Royal Caribbean owns, although frequent Royal cruisers said it was not up to par for Royal’s usual quality on this voyage and one jokingly mentioned they were probably cleaning out the food storage areas before arriving in Australia. Some things besides the lamingtons were surprisingly good though, like the day we found fresh from the oven warm cookies at the lunchtime pool deck BBQ. They had pretty good chicken there too.

life pods

ocean view through life pods – which pop up into rafts that the crew use instead of life boats

We made both our ports in New Caledonia. You would think getting so many people off a ship this big would be a major hassle, especially at tender ports, but that’s not the case. They are so efficient that tender tickets are not needed and when docked the line moves very quickly – probably due in part to no photographers stuffing up the line because they are nowhere near the gangway. Australian customs people came on board in New Caledonia to run everyone through their customs system before arriving in port. Maybe that’s a thing with overseas cruises heading into Australia because they came on at the last port on our previous transpacific cruise too. It really speeds up the customs process with this many people arriving at once since it is all done before we get there. Appointment times were scheduled by muster station and the process went far more quickly than it would if we all lined up at random onshore.

flow rider competition

Australian guy in the flow rider competion

On the last day they had a best of the best flowrider competition with 6 pre-chosen people on the stand-up boards. Audience cheering determined the winner, which was the oldest guy. He was the only American in the competition and the worst of the bunch in performance so least deserving to win. The actual best was either the Russian girl or young Australian guy, but the crowd had a lot more Americans. The crew guys running the show tried about 3 different ways to get a more fair response, but finally gave up and let him win.

flow show

flow rider crew performing in the flow show – notice that he is standing on people

Following that the flowrider staff put on a flow show, which was one of the best shows of the whole cruise.

Sydney cruise port

view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from the ship in Circular Quay

The ship docked at Circular Quay. Cruise ships too big to fit under the Sydney Harbour Bridge dock at the overseas terminal there. Which is the better of Sydney’s cruise ports since White Bay is out in the middle of nowhere. Circular Quay is in the heart of Sydney’s tourist area with a view of both of its main icons from the ship – the opera house and the bridge. The historic Rocks area is an easy walk from the ship. Harbor Cruises, ferries, and water taxis are docked in the same harbor a couple hundred yards walk from the ship and  across the walkway from a train station so you can walk off the ship and get just about anywhere. You can also catch a hop-on-hop-off bus over the other side of Circular Quay near the free botanical garden. Circular Quay itself is a tourist destination with shops and restaurants.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2018


Posted in Explorer of the Seas, Pacific Ocean & Islands, Royal Caribbean, Shipboard Life | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fun on the Magic

Carnival Magic cruise ship

Carnival Magic

Cruises are always fun, but some are definitely more fun than others. The same goes for ships. Each ship has something to offer, some more than others. It’s not always the ship or even the itinerary that makes a cruise special though. We had an especially good time on Carnival Magic and really liked the ship, but part of the enjoyment came from traveling with a large family group. We shared one of the 5-person deluxe ocean view cabins with our daughter and Australian grandkids. Also cruising with us we had our American grandson, his mother and other grandmother, and my sister.

giant Jenga

Hannah playing giant Jenga – aka Carnival Tower

We tend to participate more in the fun and games the ship’s entertainment crew provides when traveling with other people. The Magic had a giant Jenga type game they called Carnival Tower that the kids really enjoyed – and they made a taller tower than the girl running it saw very often. We also played the bean bag toss a couple times with various kids. We found one of the nightly movies under the stars that all the kids wanted to see, and another that my sister and I watched with Justin, our older grandson. They also enjoyed the family-friendly comedy shows several nights.


kids after the scavenger hunt

I don’t think any of us did any of the trivia games this cruise, but with a group effort we managed to win a photo scavenger hunt. The kids aren’t so much into the nightly stage shows, but they did have fun at Hasbro the Game Show even though none of us got picked to participate this time.

cruise ship art

artwork from Carnival Magic

The Magic has a fun sort of décor. A lot of things have bright happy colors. One of the stairways had beachy pictures often with parrots in them which I liked. Another stairway had pictures of marbles on one level, which Daniel thought was the greatest thing ever as far as cruise ship art goes. Hallways to the passenger cabins had brightly colored pictures, of which my favorite was the toucan.

cruise ship kid's club entry

Camp Ocean lobby

The two younger grandkids enjoyed going to Camp Ocean, but the older one has never been into the cruise ship kid’s programs and never set foot in Circle C. He found other things to keep amused, water slides always being a favorite. I don’t think I’d take kids on a ship that didn’t have water slides unless it had something else age appropriate that was just as entertaining. We found time one day for a swim in one of the ship’s pools followed by sitting in the hot tub.

fun and games on the top deck

Sports Square

Hannah did have a big disappointment one day when we went to go on the ropes course though. Much as her mom tried to find out whether or not there was a height limit beforehand, she couldn’t find that information. Mostly Carnival’s website just says the ropes course is fun for all, but that’s a bit deceiving. Sheri never found the obscure bit in the FAQ (frequently asked questions) area of Carnival’s website where it actually does give a height limit to know beforehand that Hannah was a bit too small and wouldn’t be allowed so it definitely wasn’t any fun for her. She’s done ropes courses before at other places and quite enjoyed them so that was one of the things she had looked forward to most.

dinnertime entertainment

tableside magician

Even mealtimes can be fun on cruise ships. Carnival always has their singing waiters – who do one song and dance routine most dinners. The Magic also had a tableside magician. The kids loved him so much the first night that he came to our table with a different trick every night. We even gave him a tip – something he doesn’t see many of.

Green Eggs and Ham breakfast

the menu at the Dr. Seuss breakfast looked like a book – and green eggs and ham is on the menu

Once per cruise Carnival has the Dr. Seuss breakfast, where some of the food is as wild as the stories. Characters come for a visit and sometime during that day or one near to it there is a Dr. Seuss parade and storytime.

towel animals

the start of the towel animal collection – and one beanie boo

Towels are fun too when folded into animals. The kids collected our nightly animal all week and put them in the window – sometimes joined by one or more of their stuffed animals. One day during the cruise the ship had towel animal theater where towel animal puppets put on a show in the main theater. One morning the Lido deck was full of towel animals – the towel animal invasion that happens once each cruise on Carnival.

Hasbro the Game Show has life-sized versions of old familiar board games

Luckily there’s no age limit on the mini-golf since we all had fun playing that. A couple of the adults frequented the casino – a place I try to never even walk through due to the fact that smoking is allowed there and I’m allergic to tobacco smoke. None of us made it into the gym this cruise, but Tina and Evelyn enjoyed the thermal suite, the use of which came with their spa cabin.

cruise ship pool

Lido Pool on towel animal invasion morning

The ship also has ping-ping and foosball tables, an indoor shuffleboard game, and of course lots of bars. It has a few shops, and there’s a daily schedule of things available for people to do. With the large group we had we sometimes just found an empty table somewhere for some of us to sit around and play a game.

waterslides on a cruise ship

waterslides and splash park

We’re usually pretty good at entertaining ourselves. There’s always so much to do I can’t imagine getting bored on a cruise. Besides shows and movies, evening activities include music in places like the piano bar or nightclub and sometimes in other areas as well. Not to mention nature’s entertainment with sunrises, sunsets, and just watching the sea go by – sometimes with the appearance of things like flying fish or even whales or dolphins.

copyright My Cruise Stories 2018
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Birds, Bears, & Barnacles

Sitka cruise ship dock

Oosterdam at the cruise dock in Sitka

Previously when visiting Sitka our ship anchored offshore and tendered passengers to town. On our last visit we were surprised when the Holland America Oosterdam pulled into a dock over 5 miles from town. Though this dock at the Halibut Point Marina is called the old Sitka dock it’s actually fairly new, built around 2011, but not used regularly by cruise ships until a few years later. The name comes from its location near the old Sitka historic state park at Sitka’s first non-native settlement. The floating portion of the dock was once part of the Hood Canal Bridge which connects Washington State’s Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas.


seagulls feasting on salmon that spawned and died

Ships in Sitka still tender if more than one come to town at the same time. Busses shuttle passengers from the dock to a shuttle stop just a few blocks from the tender pier. The local-ran excursions that used to wait with signs at the tender pier moved to the shuttle station in town for docked ships. There’s not much near the cruise ship dock so if you don’t have an excursion booked you can take the free shuttle to town to explore on your own or book last minute excursions with the locals. Although Fortress of the Bear is also quite a ways out of town it is off in the opposite direction from the dock so not something you can walk to from there. The Old Sitka State Historical Park is the closest thing at a mile and a half away from the dock in the opposite direction of town.

tiny owls

tiny owls sat on little perches by the help desk at the raptor center

On a previous visit to Sitka with different people we visited Fortress of the Bear and the Raptor Center on our own, but cruising with Alaska newbies this time I was unable to convince them beforehand that we could get to these places by ourselves. They wanted to book an excursion so we went with one called Birds, Bears, and Barnacles. This one went to the Sitka Sound Science Center/Sheldon Jackson Fish Hatchery as well as Fortress of the Bear and the Raptor Center. They would have liked more time at the raptor center and if we had it to do over again this time they’d agree to getting around Sitka on our own.

map of sitka

sitka map

At about a mile from where the shuttles or tenders drop passengers, if you don’t mind a bit of a hike you can walk to the raptor center. It’s on the do-it-yourself walking tour map. You can get there by road or on trails through a park. The science center/fish hatchery is an even easier walk located right on Lincoln Street about a half mile from the main touristy part of town. Fortress of the Bear is too far to walk on a road with no shoulders for walking on, but the time we went there on our own we took their shuttle from the local offerings at the tender pier.

young eagle

presentation at the raptor center with young flightless eagle

The first stop on our excursion took us to the Alaska Raptor Center, for the bird part of the tour. When you go there with a cruise ship excursion they have a presentation with a live eagle. Most of their birds are rehabbed and released into the wild, but some have injuries that leave them incapable of surviving on their own. Some unreleasable birds have a personality that enables them to become ambassadors for their species, used for demonstrations like this one or for educational visits to places like schools.

salmon carcass

the creek at the raptor center and trail to it were littered with the carcasses of salmon who completed their life cycle at the spawning grounds

We also saw the flight room where formerly injured eagles learn to fly again so they can someday return to the wild. The main building at the raptor center also has restrooms and a gift shop. We had time to hike down a trail to a creek where the eyeless carcasses of spawned out salmon lined the shore and seagulls feasted on salmon carrion in the river . We would have liked to go farther, but shore excursions have limited time at each stop. The raptor center has lots of outdoor enclosures with a variety of different birds. There’s definitely more there to see than excursion time allows so going on your own is best if you don’t want to hurry through.

Fortress of the Bear

black bear at Fortress of the Bear

Next we went to the bear part of Birds, Bears, and Barnacles with a stop at Fortress of the Bear, which has changed since the last time I went there. The space where it used to have some turkeys and other animals now houses several orphan black bears. They don’t have as much space as the brown bears, but none would have survived in the wild without their mothers. Two are biological sisters and the third is an unrelated male. The black bear habitat was pretty bare when we were there. According to Fortress’ website they are working on building a sort of bear version of a jungle gym to replace trees the bears used to climb in that habitat until they destroyed them.

brown bear

brown bear at Fortress of the Bear

The main enclosures were the same. These large round structures that are now home to brown bears once served their original purpose as clarifier tanks in a sawmill. The bears have about 3/4 of an acre within the circular tank, which is filled with plants, water, and hiding places to resemble a natural environment as closely as possible. Alaska does not allow rehabbed bears to be released into the wild so all bears raised there either have to stay or be placed in zoos or animal sanctuaries. Orphan cubs aren’t likely to survive on their own so if a mother bear dies the cubs who aren’t rescued don’t have much of a chance. One of the missions of Fortress of the Bear is trying to get the rules changed so healthy bears can someday be released to the wild once they are grown and ready to fend for themselves. While separated at the time of our visit, a tunnel is in the works to connect the two tanks making one double sized habitat and letting all of the brown bears live together.

bear enclosure

the bear habitat includes hiding places like this cave

Fortress of the Bear is a bit over 5 miles from town on a road with no sidewalks and areas with no shoulder.  As mentioned previously, you can visit on your own without booking an excursion by taking their bus from the shuttle station where the cruise ship shuttle drops passengers off, or the tender pier if your ship anchors. City busses are another option. When we took a shuttle there on a previous visit it also stopped at the Raptor Center making it quite easy to visit both.

aquarium in Sitka

starfish at the science museum aquarium

The last stop on our tour took us to the science museum and fish hatchery. The barnacle portion of the tour, though I did not actually see any barnacles. The building used to be part of a school. It’s still used for educational purposes in partnership with a university. The main building has a variety of aquariums and a few displays along the walls. The center has several open touch tanks. A smaller building is used for a salmon spawning shed. Outside there are quite a lot of fish pens where they keep hatchlings until they are big enough to release. 95% of hatchery eggs make it to the point of fish big enough to release to the salt water, while just 5% of wild eggs do. Only 2% of all fish going into salt water make it back to spawn whether they were born wild or in a hatchery. 2% of 95% of the eggs is a lot more fish than 2% of 5% though. From 1000 eggs 19 hatchery fish will return to spawn, but just one wild one.


crab in one of the aquariums at the science museum

While taking a ship’s tour insures both transportation and fitting everything in within the time frame of the ship’s stay in town, this could all be done on your own by anyone who doesn’t mind walking a bit. Whether your ship tenders or docks you can catch a shuttle that goes to fortress of the bear and the raptor center. Both the raptor center and Fish hatchery are within walking distance of the tender pier or shuttle stop. Going on your own has the advantage of choosing for yourself how long to spend at each stop. Going with a ship’s tour means you have transportation provided, and that people at each stop will meet with your tour group and provide information you might not get looking around on your own. It also means you will get back to the ship on time and that it will not leave you behind if your tour returns late, whereas when exploring on your own it is your responsibility to return to the ship by the all-aboard time or it will leave without you. Of course if you choose to stay in town when your tour ends rather than going directly back to the ship then getting back to the ship on time becomes your responsibility just as if you had gone out on your own.

More Blogs About Sitka


Fortress of the Bear

Sitka Raptor Center

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2018


Posted in Alaska, Holland America, Oosterdam, Port Cities, Ports of Call, Shore Excursions, USA | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Marseilles, France

Marseilles, France

Vista in Marseilles

Marseilles, a port on the Mediterranean coast of France, has been a major commercial port and trading center since ancient Greek and Roman times. It’s second only to Paris for France’s largest city. It has a mild climate and is France’s sunniest major city. There are several museums and a variety of historic buildings in Marseilles.

somewhere in France

view from the ship passing through the channel to the port

Carnival Vista docked across the pier from a French cruise ship, which looked to be boarding that day from the people with luggage crossing the pavement toward it. For us it was just a port stop. We had no plans, but from our balcony we could see people walking out of the port on a green line painted along the edge of the road as well as plenty of taxis and a whole slew of busses. Some of the busses were shuttles to take people to town, others waited to take passengers on cruise ship shore excursions. Ship excursion options in Marseilles included bus tours to other villages, some with food, wine, museums, or antiquities like an aqueduct or ancient buildings. Other ship’s tours included the top 10 sites in Marseilles and a coastal drive. The taxi cost 20 euro one way for two, and the shuttle was 17 euro each round trip.

Marseilles, France

building in Marseilles

The walking path led to what looked like a bus station where people could catch the city bus. If they continued on from there eventually the path split off from the road the shuttle took and went the opposite way. The shuttle went down to the old town area and dropped people off near a marina. By the marina people could take the little tourist train up to a cathedral called Notre Dame on a hilltop towering above the city. Not the famous Notre Dame, but the main attraction for the area. They could also opt for the hop on hop off bus which went to an old fort and some other places besides the cathedral.

big wheel

giant ferris wheel near the marina

From the shuttle stop passengers could just wander around the marina area. A giant ferris wheel sat near the end of the marina by a bunch of boats that looked to be day trip harbor cruises. We might have taken a ride on the ferris wheel if it hadn’t cost more than we were willing to spend. We probably weren’t the only ones who felt that way because it wasn’t very crowded.

marina in Marseilles

marina with cathedral in the background

Across the street from the marina little restaurants lined the sidewalk with outdoor cafes spilling out their doors. Little shops tucked between the cafes tried to tempt tourists with wine, olive oil, lavender, and other specialties of the region. There were also pharmacies among the shops, nice for American tourists looking for a better price than they can find at home. Epi-pens for instance cost just $60 for two rather than the $600 charged in the USA.

tourist train

train on the way up the hill to the cathedral

The day we went to Marseilles was sunny but cold with a brisk wind blowing through. We wandered about town a bit and took the little tourist train up to the cathedral.

pickpockets are everywhere in Europe

pickpocket warning – at a church

It’s pretty sad when there’s a sign posted on a stairway to a church warning tourists to watch out for pickpockets. Apparently they have no respect for anything and have no qualms about breaking one of the 10 commandments at a house of god. I suppose people who care little enough about others to prey on them for a living are not likely to be religious or to care about anyone else’s religion either even if it is common courtesy to be respectful in any place of worship regardless of whether you personally believe in that (or any) religion or not.

hilltop cathedral

Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica

The current basilica was built in 1864 on the site of an earlier church from 1214. A fort predated the earlier church, and a portion of it remains. The cathedral sits on top of the area’s highest hill. The church’s lower level is carved into the limestone rock. The upper levels underwent restoration from 2001 to 2008. Work included restoration of mosaics and stonework damaged by candle smoke, pollution, and bullets.

Notre Dame de la Garde

alcove of candles in the basilica

Inside the cathedral had an alcove full of lighted candles near the entry. Artwork in the church includes statues and mosaics. Churches are often an area’s best examples of the architecture and artwork of the time period in which they were built.

Marseilles, France

across the street from the Marina in Marseilles

Across the street from the marina a walkway passed by the area’s assortment of restaurants and shops. Many of the restaurants had outdoor seating next to the walkway.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2018
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Havana “Walking” Tour

Havana, Cuba

Veendam in Havana from the fort across the channel

When cruising to Cuba it’s required to book an excursion through the ship for anyone who wants to get off the boat that didn’t book their cruise before June of 2017. That is if you are cruising from the USA, under which the ship and everyone on it has to follow USA rules regardless of where they are from. American restrictions don’t apply to people from other countries sailing to Cuba on ships belonging to other country’s cruise lines and not departing from the USA. Ships from non-American lines can even depart from Havana. Besides the cruise line people taking care of the mountain of required paperwork and obtaining the required Visa for passengers, Holland America Veendam’s excursions satisfied the USA’s people-to-people requirement for the visit. Anyone booking prior to June of 2017 and going out on their own had to take care of all those things for themselves.

Cuban fort

fort in Havana

We booked what was listed as a walking tour through old Havana. The ship docks in old Havana so walking there from the ship should not be an issue considering that’s where you are when you exit the port building. Speaking of the port building, Havana has 3 piers, one of which is in good condition where the ship docks and the other two unusable with their terminal buildings crumbling in decay. The Veendam docked at 2pm, having to wait for an MSC ship to first leave the one available pier. If your ship comes in early an 8-hour excursion is required, but with our late port arrival time the excursions from our ship only needed to last 4 hours to satisfy the USA’s rules and regulations. Despite warnings from the cruise director that we could be quite late in our arrival as we had to wait until the MSC ship cleared the channel before we went in and that it doesn’t always leave on time, we docked right on schedule.

walking park in the middle of a road in Havana

2 kilometer long walking park in the center strip of a busy road

Veendam was notoriously unorganized in getting their shore excursions going. Not just in Cuba, but at other port stops as well. While most ships would send someone from the crew along and keep each tour together from the start, this one just gave everyone a sticker with their tour number and sent them on their way when their excursion was called. For Cuba this means passing through customs, waiting in line at the money exchange, then going downstairs and finding your tour. They did not even seat people on the same tour together while they waited, leaving everyone to find their own seats at random. We were not near anyone else on tour number 7.

Havana neighborhood

Cubans on a street in Havana

Though they called each group one by one, some people move faster than others getting to the customs line, and some customs lines move faster than others so by the time people got to the money exchange line different tours had all mixed together. At the lower level in the bus area we finally found people waiting with numbered signs for the different tours. We found 1-6, and 8, but no 7. It was supposed to be a walking tour so we weren’t expecting a bus, just a guide to lead the tour. The person with the number 8 sign said 7 was on the next platform over. We went over there and saw 3 busses, but no guide for our tour. Then the driver stepped off the last bus in line from the exit, which was the closest bus to us. He stopped to write “this is 7” on the back of a piece of paper that had something else on the other side and hung it in the window. By then a couple other people from our tour had found their way to that platform.

fort at the harbor in Havana

lighthouse on the fort at the entrance to Havana harbor

We were wishing we had brought either Canadian money which it is easy to exchange for in local banks near our home, or euros which we had leftover from a previous trip. Either of those could have been used for tips meaning we could bypass the money exchange since we had no plans for shopping. We were told before leaving home that using American money in Cuba is a federal crime and that no shops in Cuba would take it anyway. Out on the tour we did see some other people leave American dollars for tips and I couldn’t find anything online verifying if that is indeed still a crime or not. Or perhaps tipping isn’t technically spending, which is what is or was a crime. A Canadian passenger said the shops in Havana would take Canadian money, but as we didn’t have any or try to spend any I can’t say as to whether or not that is true.

Revolutionary Square in Havana

building in Revolutionary Square

Wondering why we needed a bus, the four of us who had found it got on. A few more people trickled over from the other platform, and eventually the guide showed up with the majority of the group. By the time everyone got settled in the two busses ahead of ours had left. They waited a bit longer, but no more people came before they finally left. After a drive through town up a street with a wide walkway down the center that the guide called a walking park, which he said went for about 2K, we ended up at Revolutionary Square, which probably was farther from the port than most people would want to walk.

old American cars

1050’s American cars in Cuba

There was a parking lot next to it full of the brightly painted 1950’s American cars Havana is famous for. A rainbow of colors with little taxi signs in the window. On the outside they are all American, but under the hood is another story. Whatever they parts they can fit or modify to keep the cars running are in there. Before the guide would let anyone off the bus he stood at the front and yakked and yakked. Some of the cars started to drive away. People wanted out to take photos, but he droned on and on. All about the Cuban version of history and who their national heros are. About each building you could see from there, and what was inside that we’d never see since we were at some point just going to get out of the bus for a few minutes to take a few photos around the square.

old American cars in Havana

Havana taxi

More of the cars left. People started standing up and trying to get photos through the windows. Some different old cars pulled in, but not as many as there had been. Finally he let us out and people got some pictures of the cars and the buildings. We only had 5 or 10 minutes there and when we got back on the bus all the cars were gone so had he blabbed much longer nobody would have gotten any car photos.

Havana, Cuba

tour group walking to the little museum

Buildings throughout the old part of town are all ancient. Some are well kept up and at least from the outside look beautiful and appear to be in great condition while others look more like ruins. I wish I’d had my camera out when we passed by one where a whole corner section of the building had fallen down leaving a vacant lot littered with building debris, yet people still lived in the part of the building that remained on both sides of the fallen corner. Though it looked like a ruin, many of the balconies had laundry hanging out to dry.


Quisicuaba museum building

Next we went to a place called Quisicuaba, which was not on our schedule of places to go. Everyone has to do a people to people thing and it was listed on some of the other tours the ship offered, but we were supposed to go somewhere called Retazos Dance Company. The bus parked and after a short (for him) yak from the guide we got out, had another short yak and then walked about half a block to the Quisicuaba Museum.

Cuban house with open roof

open area of the roof in the Cuban house

The first door we entered went into what they said was a typical Cuban house, but they must have just meant the building structure because the inside of this one was quite fancy and had a very lot of things. Way more and nicer things than the average Cuban family could afford, or that would fit comfortably in that house if anyone were actually living there. All sorts of things from furniture to figurines to artwork, even pictures hanging on the wall where the whole picture frame bent around a corner. Once out of the main first two rooms a hallway ran down one side of the house that was open to the sky other than wire fencing. One of the people who worked there said that is typical of the row houses like that one that have no windows other than at the front and back of the house. All the rooms in between have buildings on both sides of them so there is nowhere to put a window. There were plants under the open space, but not enough to catch all the water that would come in if it rained so that hallway must get wet at times. The back of the house had a little kitchen and a dining room with all sorts of fancy dishes displayed on the wall. There were lots of things in there that would have made interesting photos, but taking pictures inside was not allowed.

rapping Cuban grannies

rapping grannies at the front of a crowd

Next we went a couple doors down and inside a similarly sized, but much plainer house. It had the same open hallway, and one side that was several rooms in the other one had been opened up into one room in this one. It was full of plastic chairs where everyone was directed to sit for a performance from 5 rapping grannies. After filing out past their tip bowl we went back to the bus. Even after dividing it up among the grannies and the rest of the museum workers, tips over a month probably add up to considerably more money for each of them than the average Cuban makes in that same month.

statue of Christ in Cuba

giant Christ statue in Havana

Next the bus took us through a tunnel under the harbor to see the giant Christ statue and a fort built in the 1500’s on the other side of the bay. The bus parked near the statue and we got to walk down and see it up close.

missile display in Cuba

missile display

Along the way to the fort we passed a roadside display of Russian and American military planes and missiles which prompted a brief stop for a history lesson from the Cuban point of view of the Cuban Missile Crisis. According to our tour guide the Soviets had snuck missiles into Cuba without Fidel Castro’s knowledge, and their national hero Castro stopped an invasion from the Americans and prevented a nuclear war by having Kruschev on one phone and Kennedy on the other and talking both of them out of blowing up the world. I suppose every country teaches their children the version of events they would like their people to believe. Once again we could only take photos through the bus windows because it was more important to our guide to give us his version of history than to let us get out and see anything.

We stopped in front of the fort and listened to another long yakking session before the guide let us out of the bus near a small booth where locals hand cranked sugarcane into juice on a small mill. Only one person wanted stay there long enough to wait and taste the juice so he stayed behind while everyone else walked up to the fort, anxious to finally get inside. We could see one small section of an outdoor area that had a couple shops, but had to wait there for the guide to return with the last person. After walking up through the outer fort area he stopped us in front of an archway into the main part of that section of the fort so he could talk some more. Why can’t we ever get a guide who can manage to walk and talk at the same time? Instead of standing there seeing nothing while he yakked on and on we could have gone inside where he could have told us about the different areas of the fort we could have seen if we’d gone in while we still had time to see them.

fort in Havana

Archway into the fort

Instead we had a good long look at the entry arch while wishing we could go in while he yakked endlessly. Mostly it all went in one ear and out the other. Basically bla bla bla, Fidel Castro is our hero, bla, bla, bla, Fidel saved us from this or that, bla, bla, bla, what a great guy Fidel was. You would think he was required to say all that except that he seemed to truly believe in what he said and seemed intent on convincing everyone else as well. I don’t suppose anyone who doesn’t support the government gets a job as a tour guide even on tours Americans are allowed to take, which can’t be government sponsored. He also said they have free health care for everyone and that schooling is required to the point that parents could go to jail if their children don’t attend. Even attending the University is free, but not required, though up through Community College is. Three years of military service is required for males, but voluntary for females.

vendors at Cuban fort

on the other side of the arch vendors sell their wares

He didn’t say much about their actual living conditions, but did say that material things aren’t important, just people. He also said getting a heart transplant is easy, but finding a bar of soap is hard. After at least 20 minutes of yakking we finally got 10 minutes to see the fort, most of which he spent in a room full of pictures of Cuba’s heros yakking some more to whoever stayed in the room while everyone else went outside to a nearby viewpoint to take photos of the sun setting over Havana and the ship across the channel.

Cuban tour guide

talkative guide

When he came out and had everyone follow him it looked for a minute like we might actually tour the fort then, but no. We just went to the nearest stairway and back to the entrance. So we saw a very small portion of one section of the fort. A semi-distant lighthouse marked the end of the fort nearest the sea and we got nowhere near that part of the fort. Back at the area that was within the fort, but beyond that archway into the main interior he led everyone to a gift shop to buy rum and cigars – something they could have got in giftshops right at the port after the tour was over.

catapult in Cuban fort

catapult display at the fort

He said 20 minutes there and I had no desire to go into a smelly cigar shop so I went back through the arch intending to walk up a ramp I’d seen when we were by some cannons before we went down the stairs. I got to the ramp, but since it had a barricade nearly all the way across I thought it might not be wise to go up there. There were Cuban military people all around the fort including at the top of that ramp and it wouldn’t be a good thing to go somewhere tourists didn’t belong all alone with the rest of the group nowhere nearby. So I went down to the plateau where we hadn’t gone before and found several rooms with different displays, all far more interesting than anything the guide showed us – which was basically nothing. Most just had small stuff in glass cases, but one room had a catapult and another was set up like a chapel.

chapel in Cuban fort

fort room that looked like a chapel

Even with my extra loop around the fort I didn’t get in a whole lot of walking during our tour, though probably double what anyone else did. The sun went down before we left the fort and headed into town to walk through 3 plazas in the dark. All were quite close to each other so the total distance we walked through town was not very far at all. So much for the 4-hour walking tour. They really should have called it a bus tour with a bit of walking. Or maybe a Cuban history lesson on a bus since that’s where most of the time went.

cathedral in Havana

church at Cathedral Square

Once in town the guide offered for anyone who didn’t want to walk around to take the bus back to the port. A couple people had been whining about needing to get back because they had another excursion, but one of them got off the bus to take the walk when the guide said it would take about half an hour.

Havana, Cuba

restaurant at Cathedral Square

We only walked a few blocks before stopping at the first plaza for another 15 minute yak session. The guy who needed to get back should have known better by the way things had gone so far that day. A few blocks to the next plaza with a stop along the way to talk about a castle had him well over the half hour without even reaching the second plaza – even though it was right next to the castle.

Cuban cat

cat in a garden at a Cuban plaza

The first plaza had a church in it and an open–air restaurant under a roofed area boarderd by Roman style columns. The second one had somewhat of a parklike area with fenced in plantings. One of the planting areas seemed to be a favorite hangout of neighborhood cats. Whether they were strays or people’s pets heading for the only greenery around I have no clue. While the guide yakked about the statue at the center of that square a black and white spotted dog ran through and scared all the cats up a tree. When we left there the dog followed along for awhile, marking his territory on nearly everything we passed.

Cuban plaza

Plaza across the street from the cruise ship terminal

The final square was just across the street from the cruise ship terminal. It had a pink building as well as the usual stone colored assortment. The street in between was quite busy, where we saw very little traffic walking from square to square. Although the total amount of walking we did was small we gave the guide a tip anyway. They depend on that money and we did get to see some stuff in Havana.

sunset in Havana

sunset over Havana

There was a crossing guard in a crosswalk between the square and the terminal, stopping traffic so people could cross. It did have the sort of striping that means pedestrians have the right of way in the states, but whether it doesn’t have that meaning in Cuba or the drivers just don’t care I can’t say. At least the crossing guard was there. Once the excursion concludes people have the option of wandering around on their own rather than going straight back to the ship if they want to for the rest of that day, but if they spend another day in Cuba whether at the same port or a different one they again have to fulfill the excursion requirement in order to get off the ship.

Back in the terminal the line at the money exchange was quite long. Cuba takes a 10% tax when you use American money to change for their money, but other currencies just get the 3% exchange fee. They change it back for just the 3% fee, no tax, but that still means losing money on both ends of the exchange. On the way out the line moved fairly quickly, but by evening it went quite slow. Though it had a lot of stations, all but one person had gone home for the night so just one guy had to take care of the whole line on his own.


Havana from the ship on the way into port

Some people skipped the long line by visiting the gift shops and souvenir booths along the sides of the long hallway and buying stuff just to use up their money and wait in the shorter gift shop lines. The rest waited in the barely moving exchange line. And waited. John checked out the shops while I held our place in the line, but didn’t find anything worth buying. After moving about 15 feet in 45 minutes and having more than 3 times that distance left to go it occurred to me that we could tip our cabin steward in Cuban money. He wouldn’t be disembarking when we got back to Florida and the ship goes to Cuba every week so he’d have a use for it. Might even save him from waiting in that line. Great solution, just wished I’d thought of it 45 minutes earlier. We saw him in the hallway on the way back to our cabin and he said he was planning on going out later that night so John just gave him the Cuban money as an extra tip right there and we left him a tip in American money at disembarkation.

More Blogs About Cuba

Cruising to Cuba

Havana Cruise Ship Port

Copyright My Cruise Stories
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