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
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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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the Treasury at Petra

Many people who have never heard of Petra have actually seen a glimpse of this wondrous archeological site. The façade of the temple known as the treasury was featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Yes that building carved in stone is a real place. And that real place is called Petra and it is in Jordan.

some structures like this one are seen before you even get to the siq

Petra has many buildings carved into the stone cliffs, not just the one. It’s an ancient city dating back to long before the birth of Christ. Though it’s not known exactly when Petra was built, evidence of human settlement in the area dates back 10,000 years. Petra was once a major trading hub inhabited by its builders, the Nabateans. It was a stop on the silk road where desert-weary travelers could do some trading while getting rested and refreshed in the manmade oasis of Petra before continuing on their desert journey.

Roman carvings high on a hillside

Some of the structures in Petra were built by the Romans, who invaded in 106 AD and ruled Petra until an earthquake in 363 AD destroyed many of its structures including the all-important water management system. Byzantines eventually took control of the region, but by the 8th century Petra was largely abandoned. Sea routes replaced it for trading and the city declined and was forgotten by all but a few nomads until it was rediscovered in 1812.

the siq is a long trail through rock cliffs

Petra’s main entrance follows a 1.2k narrow winding opening between cliffs through a gorge called Al Siq. Petra is a Unesco world heritage site and the most visited place in Jordan. Besides the rock-carved architecture, Petra’s water conduit system was also an ancient marvel. The Nabateans used a system of dams, cisterns, and aqua ducts to store and transport water from occasional flash floods to supplement the perennial stream allowing the desert city to flourish in an artificial oasis. In addition to the buildings carved into the rock face of the sandstone cliffs they also had some free-standing buildings made of rock.

goats in Petra

The name Petra comes from the Greek word Petros, meaning rocks, an appropriate name for a city carved into the sides of rock cliffs. It is also known as Al-Batra in Arabic. Petra became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1985 and one of the 7 wonders of the world in 2005, a fitting designation for it truly is a wonder. The Siq entrance is a narrow passage worn through sandstone from years of wind and rain. The Treasury is the first thing you see after passing through the Siq, and is one of the most impressive buildings in all of Petra.

donkey in front of what looked like poor people’s apartments

A chance to see Petra was the main reason we booked our cruise on the MSC Lirica, which had a port stop in Aqaba so we booked the excursion shortly after booking the cruise. For sights that are a distance away from the ship, booking through them insures that if you return late the ship will wait for you as it has to wait for its own excursions to return before it leaves. Getting there on your own carries no such guarantee and the ship will leave without you if you don’t make it back on time.

lots of people rode donkeys in Petra

On most ships if you get to the meeting area early you get on the first bus for that excursion, whereas if you get there at the time it says you end up on the straggler’s bus. We went down about 45 minutes early and were told not to come until the time on the card, but they let us in at 10 minutes early only to find that several busses for that excursion were already full so we did not end up on the first bus, or even the second. From past experience we’ve found that the earlier you are in the bus line up the more likely you are to get a good guide, and the farther down you are the likelihood of a bad guide increases. Besides the fact that the busses that are filled first leave first so they sometimes have more time to spend at the excursion destination. Not always though. Sometimes they just return sooner.

ancient and modern – solar panels and rock carvings

Our guide gave us a lot of good information about Aqaba, Jordan, and Petra on the 2+ hour bus ride there and back, but said he was taking the group through the Siq and to the treasury and from there people could either go back or explore on their own down as far as the theater before heading back. The excursion description had said it was to go to several different locations within Petra. He said besides the packed lunch we were to pick up that afternoon on our way out that our excursion also included the option to ride a horse down from the entry gate to the Siq without paying extra other than a tip. Taking a horse carriage into Petra on the other hand would cost extra as that was not included in the price of our tour.

rock stairway

On the bus our guide explained several times what to do and where to go when we got off, but even so just as we got through the entry a panicked women said her friend had gotten lost and not made it inside. Rather than spend our already limited time standing at the entry waiting for people who can’t follow directions we left the group and went ahead on our own, which the guide had said was fine for people to do if they would rather explore on their own than take a guided tour. He had thoroughly explained when and where to pick up the lunches before going back to the bus, which he had also explained where to find and when everyone needed to return by.

riding a horse from the entry gate down to the siq

We had intended to go with the flow of whatever the rest of the group did as to whether to walk down or ride a horse, but since we bailed on the tour before even getting to the horses we went ahead and rode them, though when 3 of the horse guys were fighting over which of their horses I should ride I was going to not ride any until John told them I was with him. Then all but the first guy who was not even one of the 3 left.

hillside with older carvings at the bottom and Roman ones on top

The horse guy thought I was changing my mind because I was afraid to ride the horse so I told him I used to have horses, but had not rode one recently. It was not the horses that bothered me, but rather all the people fighting over whose horse to ride. I ended up with a scruffy little horse and John got a bit bigger and much nicer looking one. Some of the horses there had the classic Arabian horse look and others not so much. Whether they were just poor examples of the breed or something else entirely I couldn’t say.

in the siq

After we got to the bottom of the hill the horse guys said we could run them back up it and then come back down, but we only went a little way for just a short canter and then back down because we were there to see Petra, not to go horseback riding and didn’t want to take the time to come all the way back down again.

excursion group in the siq

As we walked through the siq we passed by quite a few excursion groups who had arrived there before ours. They stopped to listen to a spiel about this formation or that carving in the rock frequently along the way. Probably interesting information that most people would remember as long as it took to get to the next thing and not much longer than that.

horse carriage in the siq

We took a lot of photos on the long walk in. Often along the way you have to move aside as a horse carriage comes thundering through. For an extra cost people can take a carriage ride through the Siq, which also includes a return trip. I felt sorry for the horses pulling the carriages as they were going way too fast for hard ground as well as too fast for horses going downhill on the way in. The ones we saw on the way out were quite sweaty from working so hard all day in the desert heat.

John on a camel at Petra

John wanted a photo on a camel in front of the Treasury, and there was one right there when we arrived so he did that first thing. They do offer camel rides, but he just wanted the photo. The camel didn’t seem to think that was enough though as it tried to get up again when it was only halfway down to let him off. If we’d had a lot of time to spend there a camel ride would have been fun, but we wanted to spend what little time we had seeing as much of Petra as we could. There were lots of animals in Petra. Besides the horses and camels there were also donkeys – some loose, some tied, and some giving rides. We also saw cats, dogs, and goats wandering freely.

Most of the openings into walls and stairways carved into the cliffside are off limits, but there are a few stairways you can climb and doorways you can peek into. Looking in doesn’t give any idea of how big the space inside once was though because they are currently full of sand accumulated over the centuries.

vendors line the walkway in Petra

Besides animals, Petra is full of vendors selling all sorts of trinkets. In spite of the commercialization, the site is still awesome. It’s not actual stores, just makeshift stands and local people trying to make a living.

corner building in Petra

Petra is a huge site with many sections, far more than could be seen in the few hours available on a cruise ship port stop. We went down to the end of the first section. We could see that there were more buildings not too far down the road, but didn’t really have time to go much farther and still get back to the bus on time. We had already gone well beyond the theater, but since we bailed on the group early on we had a lot more time to explore.

ruins of the Roman theater at Petra

Some of the additions built during Roman times were in the area at or near the end of the first section of buildings. The theater was at the closer end of that area to the Siq. At the far end of that section there was a place with Roman architecture high up on the cliff that people could go into. We went about halfway up the hillside to that one. I’d have liked to go all the way up and inside it, but John was worried about the time so we didn’t. We ended up making it back up to the Treasury area with time to spare. We could see smoke from a little fire and some people high on a ledge on the cliff opposite the treasury.

mountain goat trail up the rock

We decided to to climb the rock and see what all the people up there were doing. The trail there is part climbing over rocks and part what looks like an extremely narrow mountain goat trail. Some of the rock areas were almost like steps. It looked more like natural formations than an actual carved stairway in that location, though there were places in Petra with carved stairways. One of the ledges had a cat on it.

view from the start of the trail up the cliff across from the treasury

There were a lot of people coming down the narrow goat trail bit so we had to wait until they all passed by as only one person at a time could go either up or down there. Partway up there’s a fairly large ledge and lookout area with a nice view of the treasury and surrounding area, but for the best view you have to go all the way up to the highest ledge.

guy on the ledge making tea

That’s where the smoke was, a little old guy making Bedoin tea. He had a sign saying it cost $1 to come up to that ledge. The view was well worth the dollar, and he’d give anyone who wanted it a little cup of tea. Sweeter than the tea I normally drink, but delicious. He had rugs spread around the ledge and some cushions to sit on. The view from up there was amazing. There was a triangular split in the ledge where you could look down and see a camel in the exact same spot where we saw the one when we first came in. Everything about Petra is amazing, but going up to that spot was the highlight of the day.

looking through the crack in the ledge to camels down below

You do have to watch out for that large split in the rock though. John nearly fell through it backing up while looking at his phone screen trying to get the perfect picture. Luckily he stopped when I warned him when it looked like he hadn’t noticed the hole – and he hadn’t.

there was a cat on a ledge partway up the cliff

We made it back to the gate and up to the Cave Bar restaurant in time to pick up our lunches and eat there rather than taking them on the bus. Finding a seat wasn’t easy though because they were all full of other people on that excursion from any number of busses who had gotten there before we did. Everyone made it back to the bus on time, and only a couple of them hadn’t eaten before getting on the bus. One pair of people said they had gotten back way early and gone to the wrong place and ended up on a city bus into the nearest town, which has changed its name to Petra, but they made it back in time and eventually found the right bus (which was exactly where the guide said it would be.)

vendor at Petra

There are hotels right at Petra, but as we passed through the town that changed its name to Petra the guide did mention it having no unemployment and lots of hotels so likely people who google Petra and think they are getting a hotel right near the site end up in that town, which could easily be the reason they changed its name in the first place.

carving in the siq

On the way there and back the bus made pit stops at two different places that had stores as well as restrooms. Some of the trinkets in the stores were the same sort of things people had in Petra, but they also had a lot more. The most interesting thing I saw were little bottles of sand, which doesn’t sound like much except that the sand was different colors that made a picture as well as saying something like Jordan or Petra, or in the store on the way back that was near Wadi Rum some also said Wadi Rum.

living on the edge

The only bad thing about our trip to Petra was that we didn’t have enough time to explore the whole site, something that could never be done in just a few hours or even just a day. I’d love to go back again someday and stay long enough to explore the whole site.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021
Posted in Lirica, Middle East, MSC, Ports of Call, Shore Excursions | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Parks of the San Juan Islands

red dots are parks and green dots are docks in this San Juan Islands and surrounding area map

Marine and state parks dot Washington State’s San Juan Islands. Some small islands are entirely state parks. Other state parks are a small portion of a larger island. Some are historic parks. Parks on the bigger islands are generally accessible by car, and may be accessible by boat as well. Some have campgrounds, some are day use only. Marine parks on smaller islands are accessible only by boat. Some have docks and/or mooring buoys. Others with access only for human powered boats are popular with kayakers.

Besides the entire island chain called San Juan Islands, there is also one island within the San Juan’s whose name is San Juan Island. State parks on San Juan Island include San Juan Island Historical Park, which has two locations – English Camp and American Camp from a long-ago boarder dispute when both Canada and the USA claimed ownership of the San Juan Islands. Lime Kiln Point State Park is another historic park on San Juan Island, once the site of lime mining and the lime kiln for which it is named. Now a popular whale-watching spot. San Juan County park is also located on San Juan Island and has camping facilities with running water and flush toilets as well as day use areas and a boat launch.

old lime kiln in Lime Kiln Point State Park (internet photo)

The other ferry-accessible Islands besides San Juan Island are Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw, all of which have parks as well. Lopez Island has two state parks – Spencer Spit and Iceberg Point. 200 acre Spencer Spit has views of Decatur and Blakley Islands and a sand spit within a salty lagoon. The park also has moorage, hiking trails, and a summertime Junior Ranger program for kids. Campsites and kayak rentals are among the amenities along with picnic shelters and potable water. Odlin County Park on Lopez Island also has campsites, mooring buoys, and a dock.

Piper on the trail at Odlin County Park

Iceberg Point is day-use trails with no facilities. Parking is available at nearby Agate Beach, a day-use county park. Shaw Island doesn’t have much in the way of public facilities besides the ferry dock and a small grocery store, but there is camping available at Shaw County Park. Orcas Island has Moran, Olga, and Obstruction Pass state parks.

on top of Mount Constitution
picnic with a view from the top of Mount Constitution on a cloudy day

At over 5000 acres, Moran State Park has more area than some entire islands. This park contains Mt. Constitution, the highest point in all of the San Juan Islands. A watchtower on the top of the mountain offers spectacular views on clear days. The park also has miles of trails and 3 campgrounds. Obstruction Pass State Park has primitive campsites and marine access. There’s also some day-use county parks on Orcas Island.

San Juan Islands
boats moored at Sucia Island

Small full island state marine parks include Blind, Clark, Doe, James, Jones, Matia, Patos, Posey, Stuart, Sucia and Turn. These islands are accessible by private or chartered boat only. All have campsites and mooring buoys. Some have docks – most of which are removed during winter to avoid storm damage. (No docks at Blind, Clark, Patos, Posey or Turn Islands.)

Most of these small island parks are just a short hop away from larger islands. Some like Patos, Sucia, and Matia are closer to each other than to any larger islands. Clark sits halfway between Orcas and Lummi Islands, not all that near to either.

boat dock at Odlin County Park

The islands are also full of county parks, some of which are marine accessible like Odlin County Park on Lopez Island which besides the dock, mooring buoys, and campground, also has beach campsites for those arriving by kayak or other human powered craft.

Day use is also possible in some marine sanctuaries such as the Kimball Preserve on Decatur Island, which is accessible by kayak.

Island Marine Parks

Marine parks are accessible by boat. Powered boats are welcome at some islands, only human powered craft at others. Most do not have fresh water available. Garbage is pack in pack out as these remote parks do not have garbage service. Some of the campsites on most of these islands are reserved for people who arrive by human powered craft as they are part of the Cascadia Marine Trail which has a series of campsites throughout the San Juan’s and Puget Sound for those traveling in people-powered boats – mainly kayaks.

Blind Island (internet photo)

Blind Island is a 3-acre state park island near Shaw Island. Because it is has only two campsites they are available only to those arriving by human powered craft. Blind Island’s campsites sit at the top of the island in the midst of a former apple orchard still surviving among grasses and brush. The island’s two wells have gone dry or stagnant so there is no fresh water available. The island has moorage available. Visitors are to pack out anything they pack in on this island as well as the other marine park islands.

Clark Island is a 55 acre state park island between Orcas and Lummi islands with sand or gravel beaches and campsites. It also has moorage and picnic areas.

beach on James Island
beach near the hiking trail on James Island

Much of James Island‘s 581 acres is designated as a natural forest area closed to public access, but this state park island still has plenty of room for hiking trails as well as a dock, mooring buoys, campsites, a picnic area, and primitive toilets – a composting toilet in the west cove and pit toilet for the east cove. There are 2 white sand beaches on the island, which sits across a small channel from Decatur Island.

Jones Island Marine State Park near Orcas Island has lots of wildlife within its 188 acres. Fresh water is available during summer months. This island state park has campsites, mooring buoys, trails, restrooms, picnic area, and a seasonal dock.

Rolfe Cove on Matia Island (internet photo)

Matia Island sits at the northern end of the San Juans. This forested state park does not allow dogs anywhere on the island. It has campsites, restrooms, trails, a dock, and mooring buoys. Campfires are not allowed on this island. Most of the 145 acre island is a wildlife reserve, not open to the public. No fresh water available on this island.

Patos Island is the northernmost of the San Juan Islands, sitting just a couple miles from the Canadian border. This 207 acre marine state park has a lighthouse, ruins of a former coast guard station, a campground, trail, and mooring buoys. Lighthouse tours may be available during the summer depending on weather and tides. There is no fresh water on this island.

Saddlebag Island (internet photo)

Saddlebag Island is at the eastern edge of the San Juan’s in Padilla Bay, just 4 miles from Anacortes. Sightings of marine wildlife and birds are common from this 26 acre island marine state park. The island has no fresh water. Motorized water sports like waterskiing and personal watercraft are allowed near this island. Wildflowers are profuse during the spring.

Stuart Island sits on the northwestern end of the San Juan’s near the Canadian border. This park is over 400 acres and includes moorage buoys and a dock as well as campsites and hiking trails. Park visitors can hike to a lighthouse, which is outside the park boundry. Potable water is available at this marine state park from May through September.

sea view
view from the bluff trail on Sucia Island

Sucia Island sits at the north end of the San Juan’s between Patos and Matia Islands. This horseshoe shaped island has a seasonal dock and mooring buoys as well as campsites, day use picnic areas, and primitive toilets. Dinosaur fossils have been found on the island, but it is illegal for visitors to remove them should they happen to find more. This 814 acre marine park has 10 miles of hiking trails and potable water available during summer months.

Turn Island Marine State Park sits just off of San Juan Island. This 35 acre island is part of the San Juan’s National Wildlife Refuge. It has 3 mooring bouys. Visitors are to stay on trails and not disturb the wildlife. Campfires are not allowed. Fresh water is not available.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021

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Gluten Free Molasses Cookies

molasses cookies

These gluten free molasses cookies taste just like the old fashioned molasses cookies I remember my mother making when I was a child even though most of the ingredients in this recipe of my own invention aren’t the same – and this one’s a whole lot easier to make.


12 oz jar almond butter (1 cup)

1/2 cup molasses

1/2 cup brown sugar

2 Tablespoons cooking oil of choice (I used avacado/sunflower)

1 egg

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 cup millet flour

1/2 cup tapioca flour

1/4 cup almond flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon cloves

2 teaspoons ginger

2 teaspoons cinammon

1/2 teaspoon allspice


Stir all ingredients together in a mixing bowl until thoroughly blended. Roll each cookie into a ball and dip in sugar of choice (I use raw cane sugar or coconut sugar). Place sugar side up on cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, making sure cookie balls are well spaced. Bake at 350 degrees F for 13-15 minutes.

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021

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3 Island Tour in Venice

Burano Island

We spent three days in Venice prior to boarding the MSC Lirica. We had enough time to wander around and see things, and to take a gondola ride. On our last full day in Venice we booked a 3 island tour through a local company called Alilaguna, which runs both public transport boats that use the vaporetto stops and booked tours that go to specific places with one group of people for the entire tour. Vaporetti are the Venice version of city busses, with stops along the grand canal and in some other places. The name means little steamer, coming from earlier steam powered versions of the public boats.

inside the Alilaguna tour boat

There’s more to Venice than just the main group of small islands connected by many bridges and Venice Mestre on the mainland which is connected to Venice proper by the bridge of Liberty. Within the lagoon where the main part of Venice sits there are numerous other more distant islands not connected by bridges to the main area of Venice. A long thin island called Lido where people go in the summer for its beaches may be the inspiration for the name Lido deck on many cruise ships, which is always the one with the pools. Many ships are built in Italy after all. While the lagoon looks like a wide open waterway, it is dotted with shallow areas where boats could easily run aground so the channels deep enough for safe travel are marked with rows of pilings like roads running through the sea. Knowing where the safe navigation areas were long before they were marked was what made Venice a safe haven for its early inhabitants as they could pass through, but even if would-be invaders had boats they could not.

waterfront by St. Mark’s Square

Besides many stops along the grand canal, the vaporetto public boats go out to some of the other islands. You can also get there by private boats or on a tour. Our 3 island tour with Alilaguna cost just 20 euros and lasted several hours with time to spend on each of the islands as well as traveling between them. The tour started from a far end of Piazza San Marco. There are boat docks all along the edge of the square for all sorts of different boats. Both Alilaguna and the vaporetti have docks in two different places at San Marco so we had to find the right one. It pays to get there early so you have time to find exactly where you need to be. The directions from the website where we booked the tour sent us to the wrong Alilaguna dock, but luckily one of their employees on a boat that came in there spoke English and was able to tell us where we needed to be.

raised walkways by Doge’s Palace in St Mark’s Square

The first time we went to Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark’s Square) it still had a lot of water remaining from a recent flood, enough that portable raised walkways were needed in parts of the square. The day we went for our boat tour the square was dry.

boarding the Alilaguna boat

Once we found the right dock we had a short wait to board. There weren’t many people waiting when we first got there, but the crowd grew quickly so we got on the boat along with a bunch of other people. The boats don’t look all that big, but they hold a lot of people. The one we went on had quite a few empty seats left after a everyone boarded even though looking at the boat and crowd from the outside it seemed like there were more people there than could fit inside. Our first stop was Murano, an island famous for its glass. Apparently the glass blowers were all moved out there centuries ago to keep their skills secret so nobody else could rival their glass art, which is quite skillful.

Murano Island glass blower

We went directly into a factory for a glass blowing demonstration. The artist had a long pole with a heated ball of glass on the end that he pulled and cut until it turned into a glass horse, but he never actually blew into the pole. It only took him a few minutes to turn a ball of molten glass into a little horse.

walkway on Murano Island

The glass factory had a shop that had all sorts of different glass figurines as well as jewelry. We had a bit of time to wander down the row of shops near to the factory, which also sold items made of glass. You would think prices would be cheapest at or near the factory, but we found a little shop on the rialto bridge that had some of the same things at about a third of the price.

canal on Murano Island

Most places in Venice you have to pay to use a public toilet, but the glass factory had restrooms available for free. It was the only stop on this tour that did, the other two islands just having the pay-to-go WC (water closets).

leaning tower on Burano Island

The next island on our stop was Burano, famous for fishermen, colorful houses, and hand-made lace. This island was smaller and less populated than Murano, but the town was very cute with a canal lined with little fishing boats running alongside all the brightly colored buildings through the center of town, and little wooden bridges crossing over it. There was also a church with a leaning tower. Not nearly so big, tall, or angled as the famous tower in Pisa, but leaning nonetheless.

Burano Island

Since we were not spending time watching a demonstration on Burano we had more time to wander about and look at things. It was hard to get a picture that captured the lean of the church tower though.

lacey things in a shop on Burano Island

A lot Burano’s shops had intricately made lace items ranging from small decorations to clothing or tablecloths, and anything in between that could possibly be made out of lace. There were also restaurants and cafes, and places selling Murano glass.

It’s a bit of a walk from the dock to anything on Torcello Island

The islands got smaller as we went. Our last stop on Torcello was the smallest and most sparsely populated of all. It had been an important religious area up until about the 14th century or so. That island’s claim to fame is the oldest church in Venice, built in the 7th century. It had a group of several ancient churches at the end of the walkway from the dock. It was probably somewhere around a kilometer from where the boat docked to anything, but it was quite a scenic walk along a canal.

there’s a few little shops and eateries along the walkway

Torcello is the farthest inhabited island from the main part of Venice, though it is barely inhabited with only about 10 permanent residents. Centuries ago there were thousands.

old church

Walking in on a brick walkway from the dock on Torcello we passed by more greenery than we’d seen since coming to Venice, though the boat guide pointed out a different island in passing as being the one where most of their produce came from. Torcello had a few small shops and restaurants, and even a couple small hotels. It was a bit of a walk alongside (of course) a canal from the boat stop to the churches.

older church

One of them was built in a different architectural style than what you usually see in Europe with the main part of the building round like a cake with ever smaller layers as it goes upward. That one was still functioning as a church, but people were allowed inside so long as there was not a service taking place.

mosaic throne and other oddities

Another of the churches has been turned into a museum. There was a charge to go inside. A stone wall between two churches was covered with giant plaques. Stone monuments on and around it looked as if they could have come from a cemetery. Some were covered in mosaic patterns of shiny little tiles or stones, including a bright red one shaped like a throne. An old cemetery next to the church had many statue style monuments on the graves.

inside one of the old churches

Unlike the Swiss and Austrians who all spoke English quite well (especially the Swiss), not all the Italians do and the ones that can are often heavily accented. Even so, interestingly enough the boat tour was conducted in English, French, and Spanish – and NOT in Italian.

Murano Island canal

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021
Posted in Day Trips, Europe, Lirica, MSC, Port Cities | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

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

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

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

there are a lot of red pagodas at the Great Wall


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

red pagoda

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

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

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

giftshop near the parking lot at the Great Wall

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

The side where most people went

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

the Great Wall crosses over water and a highway

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

little buildings down in a hole surrounded by Great Wall

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

stairway on the wall

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

it’s a long way up – or down

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

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

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

there are toilets on the Great Wall

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

pit toilet squat toilet

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

John in one of the little buildings on the wall

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

viewpoint on the Great Wall

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

we took photos for the Chinese guy in red behind me

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

posing with a little Chinese girl

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

cannon above the barracks

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

wide pathway on the Great Wall

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

narrow pathway on the Great Wall of China near Beijing

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021
Posted in China, Holland America, Shore Excursions, Westerdam | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Aqaba, Jordan Cruise Port

MSC Lirica in Aqaba


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

town in Jordan near Petra

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


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


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

treasury in Petra

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

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


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

port view from the ship while docked in Aqaba

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

view from the ship in Aqaba

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

view from tour bus in Jordan


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

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