A Couple Days in Vancouver

Vancouver view

view of Canada Place from Vancouver Lookout

VANCOUVER BC

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

Stanley Park lighthouse

lighthouse on the seawall at Stanley Park

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

kids at Stanley Park

girls in a tree at Stanley Park

THE GREYHOUND NIGHTMARE

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

Stanley Park in Vancouver BC

waterfall at Stanley Park

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

Harbour Centre

giant decorations at the entry to Harbour Centre

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

Stanley Park

seawall at Stanley Park

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

parkrun

3 generations at parkrun

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

Vancouver Lookout tower

taking in the view at Vancouver Lookout

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

Capilano Bridge

Capilano Bridge in the dark

CAPILANO SUSPENSION BRIDGE

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

Vancouver BC

city view from Vancouver Lookout

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

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021

 

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Coral Beach in Eilat, Israel

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

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

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

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

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

the corals at Coral Beach were pretty small

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

Coral World Observatory

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

shade houses at Coral Beach

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

Coral Beach

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

the reef runs parallel to the beach

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

diver swimming under the snorkelers

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

kite surfers

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

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

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

several different types of coral

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

sergeant major

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

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

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

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

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

beach entrance to the snorkel trail

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

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

walking past the ship on the way into town

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

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

camel ranch sign somewhere between the port and Coral Beach

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

you can see Aqaba, Jordan across the gulf

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

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

dock at Coral Beach

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

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021
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Decatur Head

map of Decatur Island and Decatur Head

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

Decatur Head

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

looking down over a couple cabins to the dock

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

pirate ship and merry-go-round

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

Piper on the dock at low tide

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

low-tide beach on Decatur Head

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

little trail going up Decatur Head

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

tree on Decatur Head

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

view of James Island

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

at high tide there’s no beach here

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

Piper on the dragon log

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

almost a view of the mainland from up on the head

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

view of Decatur Head from the other end of the tombolo

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

row of rowboats next to the dock

copyright My Cruise Stories 2021

More Blogs About Decatur Island:

Decatur Island 2015

The Micro Cruise

Decatur Island 2020

Hiking Around Decatur Island

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Venice

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

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

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

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

view of the grand canal from the train station

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

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

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

vaporetto in the grand canal

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

view from the bnb of the bridge next to it

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

inside the Venice apartment

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

bedroom in the Venice bnb

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

even the narrowest of alleys in Venice has a street name

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

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

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

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

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

neighborhood produce stand

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

fish market

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

yard with greenery

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

walkway with trees

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

lowest levels are abandoned in buildings that flood frequently

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

making use of a flooded building for boat storage

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

using google maps in Venice

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

bridge and canal

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

grand canal

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

raised walkways left out from previous flooding

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

Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark’s Square)

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

people in puddles wearing their instant boots

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

avoiding the flood on raised walkways by Doge’s Palace

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

Doge’s Palace on a dry day

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

waterfront by St. Mark’s Square

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

Rialto Bridge

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

shop window of a unique shop with wooden toys

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

one of the wider canals in Venice

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

gondolas docked near a bridge across from the park

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021
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Summer Palace in Beijing

Summer Palace, Beijing

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

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

Summer Palace, Beijing

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

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

Summer Palace, Beijing

waterfront walkway

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

Summer Palace, Beijing

Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha

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

Summer Palace, Beijing

Wenchang Tower

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

Summer Palace, Beijing

buildings at the Summer Palace

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

Summer Palace, Beijing

Hall of Benevolence and Longevity

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

boats at Beijing's Summer Palace

boat dock at the Summer Palace

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

Summer Palace in Beijing, China

Hall of Benevolence and Longevity

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

Summer Palace, Beijing

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

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

map of the Summer Palace in Beijing

map of the Summer Palace

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

Summer Palace, Beijing

archway from the lakefront into a pavilion with other buildings

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

Summer Palace, Beijing China

one of the buildings in the courtyard beyond the archway

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

jade carving

jade boat sculpture

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

jade shop in China

artwork at the jade shop

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

Great Wall of China

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

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

Beijing Summer Palace

Summer Palace – lake and waterfront pathway

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

Eilat, Israel Cruise Port

MSC Lirica in Eilat

EILAT, ISRAEL

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

MSC Lirica in Eilat

EILAT CRUISE PORT

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

port view from the ship in Eilat

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

location of Eilat

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

flags inside the customs building at the port in Eilat

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

we saw some cats in Eilat

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

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

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

fruit stand on the promenade

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

when the store entrance is an escalator

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

seaside seating on the promenade

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

view from the seaside promenade

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

view from the ship looking towards town

THINGS TO DO IN EILAT

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

promenade beach

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

seaside promenade beach

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

Hiking Around Decatur Island

starfish clinging to a big rock on the water’s edge at low tide

Decatur Island is one of the bigger small private islands in Washington State’s San Juan Islands. There is no ferry service, but people do not have to have their own boat to get there. The Island Transporter service brings large items and Island Express and Paraclete charter boats bring people and their supplies. Residents even have cars, though getting them on and off the island must be pricey enough that they never leave because judging by all the dead cars in the woods along the roadsides it looks like the place old cars go to die. All of the roads on the island that I’ve seen are gravel rather than paved, and don’t see a lot of traffic.

Decatur Island one-room schoolhouse

Some people who like isolation live on Decatur Island year round. It even has a school – one of the few one-room schools left in the country. Students can attend from K-8, and finish with High School on neighboring Lopez Island, whose district the Decatur School belongs to. The class is quite small, often only 2-4 students. There’s a country store building near the school, which used to be open seasonally. It was closed all summer last year and I don’t know when or if it will open again. It was the only store on the island. The store once had a little motel upstairs, which is now an Airbnb. Most of the island’s vacation homes and cabins are private, but sometimes there are listings at Airbnb for cabins that are actually on Decatur rather than a neighboring island. You have to look carefully though because googling for cabins on Decatur will also bring up places on Lopez and other islands.

wonky old cabin with new kayaks

I take my dog Piper out for a walk or run every morning. Our most recent visit to Decatur happened to be during the time when the whole western part of the country was shrouded in smoke from numerous wildfires so this trip we stuck to walks. Photos from that trip tend to look gray and dreary due to the smoke in the air, which also kept visibility pretty limited most of the time. One day we walked a long way up the beach on the main part of the island and came across a wonky old cabin sitting crooked on a bit of land about a foot above the beach.  It would have appeared to have been abandoned ages ago if it weren’t for the brightly colored new-looking kayaks out in front of it adding a spot of cheer.

the beach goes a long way at low tide – much farther than can be seen this smoky day

Tides were low in the mornings so we often walked down the beach. Mostly along the long stretch going from Decatur Head where our cabin was to the main part of the island and beyond, but sometimes it was low enough to walk most of the way around Decatur Head, most of which has just cliffs and no beach when the tide is in.

up on Decatur Head where there would be a view if we hadn’t been shrouded in smoke

There are also small trails up on Decatur Head. In normal times when the area isn’t blanketed in smoke the trails near the edge have excellent views. Decatur Head is the island end of a tombolo, which is defined as a sandy isthmus joining an island to the mainland.

view of Decatur Head from the road that ends there

Without that sandbar, which consists of a beach and a narrow gravel road, Decatur Head would be a separate tiny island. On the mainland end of the road the options are up a hill to the mainland of the island or down a long stretch of beach – at least at low tide. At high tide there isn’t much if any beach on a good portion of that stretch.

Heron and seagull on a sandbar

Considering the smoke we were shrouded in everything was pretty much gray. Sometimes we couldn’t even see the water from the beach, but sometimes we could see a bit of water between the beach and a sandbar, which was often populated by hunting herons or other birds. Seagulls and oystercatchers are common there, and though they are land birds rather than seabirds crows often joined the low tide hunt for seafood.

sea anemones in and out of a small tide pool

The beach is mostly rocky, but had some stretches of sand with or without rocks. It has quite a population of sea anemones with many of them in the sand rather than attached to rocks. They all close up when out of water, but the ones in a tide pool stay open.

little beach crab

Flip over a beach rock and you might find tiny crabs hiding underneath. There were also lots of snails, barnacles, and some limpets clinging to the many rocks. When the tide was out far enough to get to the seaward side of big rocks, purple and orange starfish could be seen clinging to the rocks.

somebody’s happy place

Most of the beach is below a high cliff with little access from above, though there are a few places where residents have made primitive trails, and one had a ladder to get from the beach to a climbable part of the hill. In some places the cliffs have had recent landslides with bare dirt edges and sometimes vegetation clinging on for dear life. In one spot a lone tree at the top stands triumphantly on the only bit of land that hasn’t yet fallen.

small piece of kelp in the sand – they grow much bigger than this one

Kelp is a giant seaweed that grows in the shallows. Usually it is found near land, but sometimes there are shallow enough places where the sea floor rises and you find it out in open water. Tiny roots hold this outsized plant in place, often clinging to tiny rocks. With a large bulbous float sporting lengthy fronds it’s easy to see how kelp often washes ashore.

shipping container house

Some mornings Piper and I walked up the hill to the mainland. The wildlife seen most often there is small island deer, which are black-tailed deer, but smaller than the same type of deer not in the San Juan Islands. If you walk around the island for very long one is bound to show up. On our last morning there we took a road we hadn’t been on before and found a house made from shipping containers.

map of Decatur Island

One day my grandson Justin and I took a long afternoon hike with Piper. We took a road we hadn’t been on before and walked all the way to the end of it. For most of the way the road looked pretty well maintained, probably due to the fact that it had powerlines to maintain as well as entrances to people’s property. It seemed like pretty much a sudden boundary between well maintained and not so much where there were no more powerlines alongside the road and any entrances to properties beyond that point looked as if they hadn’t been used in decades. As the road went down to the water it came to a corner where a trail led to a little bench with a view of the water and a sign beyond it labeled as a trail on what looked more like a deer trail than one people walked on much so it didn’t appear to get much use. The road went the other way along the water’s edge, though up too high to actually get to the water.

solar panels on Decatur Island

It ended at a place where powerlines went from the water up through the woods. Some old pilings in the water looked like there may have been some sort of place to dock when the powerlines were first built. There are undersea lines connecting islands like Decatur to a power source elsewhere, but Decatur also has a new array of solar panels to generate their own power near the school and the old store, which are not far from Decatur Head.

the beach is underwater

After satisfying our curiosity as to what we would find at the end of the road we went to the other side of the island near the airport where there’s a parklike area with mowed trails through vegetation grown up through what appears to have once been an orchard. The airport has a mowed grass runway and is for small planes only. Near the beach at the park type place a grassy meadow comes equipped with giant picnic tables. There was nobody else there. We had our lunch at one of the giant tables. Justin wanted to go to the beach there, but the tide was in and the beach was underwater so we went back to the cabins instead. Our total hike was just over 14 kilometers and we saw a deer, one person walking another dog, and one car went by so it’s a pretty good pretty good place for social distance vacationing.

Piper on a log at the beach on Decatur Island

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021
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BnB in Moclips

Moclips Airbnb

Wanting to get away during the pandemic, yet stay safe from Covid, we went with local travel in a private residence and booked a weekend in an Airbnb on the coast. Sea Mist house near Moclips, Washington is half of a duplex overlooking the Pacific Ocean. This house sits south of town perched on a bluff above the beach. The other half the house is called Coastal Breeze Cottage and is also available as a vacation rental. It’s mirror image, but with different décor. Both allow dogs. Décor on the other side is beachy, whereas in the Sea Mist house it has everything to do with the sea. Many nautical items adorned the walls and shelves, with whales and other sea creatures represented as well. Looking at all the knick knacks and other items scattered about the house, some up way too high to reach, I was very glad I was not the person responsible for cleaning that house in between guests.

master bedroom

The house sleeps 6 people in 3 bedrooms. The large master bedroom has ocean views and a sliding glass door out to the patio. It also has a private bathroom with double sinks and a jetted tub.

master bathroom

The second bedroom is much smaller, but it has room for a queen bed and a closet. It’s not on the ocean side of the house, but double glass doors give it the option of an ocean view through the living room, or close the curtains in those doors for privacy. It has an exterior window to the front of the house.

loft bedroom

The third bedroom resides in a loft which official descriptions of the home call a crow’s nest. It’s nearly fully enclosed other than the entryway at the top of a spiral staircase built by a local shipbuilder. This room contains a daybed with a trundle bed underneath. It also has the best views in the house, but you have to stand at the window to look out as it is too high to sit anywhere in the room and see the view. This room could have been improved by having a bay window with window seat instead, and with the addition of a half bath so anyone sleeping up there would not have to go downstairs if they needed the restroom during the night. My sister who slept up there also mentioned a mirror in the room would have been nice. In spite of that, it was still a nice bedroom with plenty of space and that great view.

view from the loft

The second bathroom has an accessible shower and a stacking washer/dryer. The front entry to the house is also accessible by means of a ramp. House rules require shoes off and there’s a very low wooden shelf near the front door to put them on. Outside on the porch there’s a shoe cleaning mat to rub the soles on before taking them off, which is a good idea to help keep the sand outside where it belongs.

living room

The living room is comfortably equipped with a reclining couch, rocking chair, and another chair. There’s a TV in the living room as well as another one in the master bedroom. Cell phone reception is not good in that area, but the house has free wifi and excellent sunset views – with window darkening see-through shades in case the sun is too bright to enjoy those spectacular sunsets.

Linda, Vicki, & John making pizza in the large, well-equipped kitchen

The fully equipped kitchen even has some cooking supplies like oil and spices in addition to all sorts of pots, pans, and dishes. The one thing we could not find was a toaster, although it did have a toaster oven. It’s a good size kitchen with lots more counter space than I have at home, and a door into the one-car garage. Oddly enough the light switch for the garage was on the side behind where the door opens rather than where it could be reached upon opening the door.

patio and back yard with ocean view

There’s a small yard for each unit, each of which includes a patio, picnic table, barbecue, and fire pit as well as a sweeping ocean view.

dining room

The home is listed as dog friendly, but their rules included no barking and staying off the furniture so we left our dog with friends for her own weekend getaway visiting their dog. She likes furniture and would never make it through several days without barking at some sort of intruder, real or imagined. She’s the sort that barks when someone on TV knocks on a door or rings the bell. She also would have barked at the two little dogs that occasionally came out into the backyard of the other unit with their owner.

second bedroom

This house is not situated directly on the beach. From the downstairs you would never know there were other houses below it as the beach appears to be just down a little hill. From the loft you can see the hill is much taller than it looked from the lower windows, and that there are houses between this one and the beach. Those houses are on the beach access road, the entry to which is several houses south so it’s just a short walk away. Some of the homes on the beach access road are available for vacation rentals.

seemingly endless beach

Beaches in this area are long and wide. The sand seems to stretch on forever both north and south, but if you walk far enough in either direction you will come to a river that you would need either a horse or some very tall boots to get across without getting wet. It’s quite a distance between rivers though so there is plenty of space for a nice walk – or run. There’s a lot of beach and not many people which makes social distancing extremely easy.

stairway to the loft

Overall we had a great weekend getaway. Even the weather cooperated with sunny days during our visit.

sign on the house

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Cruising the Suez Canal

SUEZ CANAL

sunrise in the Suez Canal

The Suez Canal is a 120 mile long sea level man made waterway running through Egypt between the mainland and the Sinai Peninsula. It connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. This canal enables ships to cut over 5000 miles off their journey by not having to sail around Africa.

desert on the shore of the canal

Interest in a waterway through the area extends back to ancient times. Archaeological evidence suggests a small canal was built in the time of the Pharaohs connecting the Nile to the Red Sea. The river would then take these early Egyptians to the Mediterranean.

construction alongside the canal

Napoleon Bonaparte was the first to consider constructing a canal on the Isthmus of Suez during his conquest of Egypt in 1798. His team of surveyors miscalculated the height of the Red Sea as 30 feet higher than the Mediterranean, so he gave up the idea as unfeasible due to the flooding that would cause in the Nile Delta. A survey done in the 1830’s by French explorer and engineer Linant de Bellefonds determined that contrary to popular belief, they were actually at the same height.

location of the Suez Canal

The Suez Canal is the shortest link between the east and the west. Construction began at Port Said in early 1859. 1.5 million people worked on the project, some of them slaves. Tens of thousands died of cholera and other causes while working in the region. Political unrest during construction and limitations of the technology of the time doubled the estimated cost of building the canal to 100 million. The canal opened in 1869 after 10 years of construction by the French and British. Egypt took control of the canal in 1956.

city on the shores of the canal

Sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi of France proposed a 90-foot statue of a women dressed in Egyptian peasants clothes holding a massive torch called Egypt Bringing Light to Asia as a lighthouse guiding ships into the canal, but could not convince Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Egyptian government to allow him to build it. Not giving up on the idea, in 1886 he instead unveiled a massive statue in New York called Liberty Enlightening the World – otherwise known as the Statue of Liberty.

buildings in the sand

The cost for a ship to transit the Suez Canal can be quite astronomical with cruise ships and other large vessels often paying upwards of $400,000 for passage. Initially the canal was wide enough only for one way traffic with just a couple wider spots for passing, but a new channel opened in 2015 allows for two way traffic throughout most of the canal so more ships can pass through each day.

tug following our ship

Cruising Through the Suez Canal

MSC Lirica dropped anchor at the Port Said end of the canal in the Mediterranean Sea awaiting what was scheduled to be an 11pm entry into the canal, though the ship didn’t actually start moving again until late into the night.

What is open when it’s closed and closed when it’s open? A bridge!

The sun rose over the ship as it passed through the narrow channel near that end of the canal. Ships travel through in a convoy, each accompanied by a tug and changing pilots 4 times during their transit. Passage through the canal is carefully controlled so that all ships in the narrow areas are heading the same direction. The wider areas run through a couple lakes as well as the recent additional canal dug through the middle stretch that allow ships to pass by one another in opposite directions. The narrow bits with one way travel are at the beginning and end. Some parts are quite narrow where land is not far from the ship on either side.

ferry waiting to cross

While there was some signs of human life on both sides, in general most of the activity was all on one side of the canal with the other mostly looking like a desolate desert of sand even where there were occasional buildings. On the side with the most activity there were often stretches of greenery, towns, and large cities. Railroad tracks and a road paralleled the canal for some distance. We saw a train, trucks, cars, and a donkey cart going by.

big bridge over the Suez Canal

There was one huge tall permanent bridge we passed under in the early morning fog. Other places had small ferries. We saw one bridge that could swing across from both sides of the canal and meet in the middle, and a number of floating dock type bridges that could be set in place for cars to cross.

trucks on the desert side waiting to cross

In one spot on the desert side many trucks were lined up near one of the floating sort of bridges, which was at the time docked parallel to the shore. Waiting I assume for the convoy of boats to pass by so they could cross before boat traffic came along in the other direction.

our tug and the container ship behind us

We had container ships ahead of and behind us, but they stay distant enough that you never see more than one or two in either direction so I have no idea how many ships were in the convoy or where our place was within it other than neither first nor last.

MSC container ship

In the new channel where ships pass by in the other direction we saw container ships from MSC (which stands for Mediterranean Shipping Company). It is the same company as MSC cruises. They were originally a cargo shipping company and later added cruise ships to their fleet.

one lone building in the sand on the desert side

The land was mostly flattish and often nothing but desert sands except for the green oasis areas by the cities, but sometimes there were rolling hills in the sand and near the Red Sea end there were distant mountains on both sides.

oasis of greenery on the other side

At 11-16 hours, it takes longer to pass through the Suez Canal than it does through the Panama Canal, as the distance is considerably longer. Unlike the Panama Canal, there are no locks as the water is all at sea level and there are no mountains to cross. Even with stops at 2-3 sets of locks, crossing through the Panama Canal takes 8-10 hours. (The original Panama Canal has 3 sets of locks, the new lane for larger ships has just 2.)

tower near the canal

We enjoyed our crossing through the Suez Canal. Weather that day was foggy in the morning and sunny later in the day.

tower near the canal

We saw some interesting architecture along the way. Buildings came in all shapes and sizes. There were some fancy mosques and several interesting towers.

sitting on the back deck watching the canal go by

Copyright My Cruise Stories 2021
Posted in Lirica, Middle East, MSC | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Weekend in Moclips

sunlight reflecting in the sky and from the windows in Moclips as the sun sets over the beach in the opposite direction of where the houses are

Following the current theme of social distance vacationing, which is the only sort that makes sense in the midst of a pandemic, we took a weekend getaway to the small oceanside community of Moclips, WA. The small unincorporated town has a tiny general store and a few hotels along with some houses and vacation homes. We rented a vacation house through Airbnb, down the road a bit outside of the town for us, my sister, and my husband’s sister and brother-in-law. The house turned out to be one side of a duplex, but they had separate entries and we had no contact with the people on the other side other than seeing them out in their backyard with a couple small dogs. We looked for a dog-friendly place intending to bring our dog, but they had too many rules Piper would not abide by so we sent her to her friend Brody’s place for the weekend. Brody is a golden retriever who lives in a beach house so she had her own beach vacation. She would have been about the only dog on a leash on the beach if she had come. Other people’s dogs seem able to stick with their owners unless they are off chasing a ball or stick, and come when called where Piper would be likely to take off after a flock of seagulls or to pounce on other dogs. She comes when called just fine when she’s undistracted and in an enclosed space, but never when it really matters.

Bella's trucks at the Forks Visitor's Center
Bella’s trucks, movie version and book version

It was over a 3-hour drive from our house, and even farther for the others who had to take a ferry and then drive an hour to get to our place before leaving for the ocean from there. It was shortly before Halloween at the time and my sister-in-law, Vicki, wanted to get a pumpkin to carve. We stopped at a store in Forks that seemed to have pretty much everything with sections for things ranging from hardware to groceries and all sorts of other things thrown in. Forks is the sort of small town nobody would have ever heard of if it weren’t for the Twilight books. Odds are the Twilight tours aren’t running during the pandemic, but items from it are still there as we passed by the place where Bella’s trucks are parked outside the Forks Visitor’s Center. They have both the book and movie versions there even though the movies were actually filmed elsewhere.

burl bowl made by Alaskan carver

Other than a couple lakes scenery along the way was mostly misty forest as it was raining at the time. It wasn’t too cloudy to see the deciduous trees in their autumn finery standing out among the evergreens. Eventually we reached the coast with occasional views of the water through the burl-covered trees. For some reason a lot of the trees along parts of the coast had numerous burls on them. Google says burls are caused by things like injury, disease, fungus, or insects. Things next to the sea are often subject to heavy windstorms, but some areas had way more burls on the trees than could likely be accounted for from limbs blowing off in storms. Likely something else is going on there as well. Burls are a bit unsightly on the trees, but we’ve met an Alaskan carver who makes bowls out of them.

Moclips Airbnb

 Eventually we passed through Moclips, which is mostly to say we saw the small general store on one side of the road. There’s also a beach access road near the store. The hotels and most of the houses and vacation homes in town are not beside the highway. We found our rental house down the road a bit. That house is on the highway, but there’s not a lot of traffic. It had a couple bedrooms and bathrooms, a kitchen, living room, and garage on the main floor with an upstairs loft bedroom. It also had an awesome ocean view. From the main floor the beach appeared to be just down a hill from the backyard. The even better loft view showed houses in between. While there was no direct beach access from the house, there was a beach access road just 4 houses down the street so not a bad walk.

Linda, Vicki, & John making pizza in the large, well-equipped kitchen

We hadn’t made any menu plans prior to the trip so we all brought stuff and between us all we probably could have fed everyone for at least a week, but as we just had a 3-night stay we had plenty of food left over. The house had a full kitchen with pretty much any gadget you might want if you could find it, other than a toaster. We never found one of those, though it did have a toaster oven. They also had an array of spices and basic things like cooking oil available for anyone who didn’t come prepared.

sunset on the beach

We had some great sunset views from the house, which had some see-through sun screens we could pull down over the windows when it got too bright to look out of them directly. The house had games everywhere stuffed into drawers and closets so anyone staying there in stormy weather would have something to do even if they didn’t bring any of their own. Other than raining on the day we arrived, we had excellent weather with sunny skies for the next 3 days. Not exactly warm, but sunny. My sister Linda and I took lots of walks on the beach, sometimes accompanied by the others.

rustic forest furniture

When my kids were growing up we used to take our horses camping at Ocean City to ride on the beach. Ocean City is a bit south of Moclips with Copalis and Pacific Beach in between. Those places I had heard of before, but not Seabrook, which did not exist at the time. One day we went out in search of gas for Vicki & Ron’s car, which we found was not available in Moclips. Pacific Beach had a gas station and since we were already out and about we went on down farther south to check things out, though Vicki and Ron didn’t follow. We came upon Seabrook just down the road a bit from Pacific Beach and drove through to investigate. By first impression we all felt the place seemed creepy.

Seabrook is a few miles down the road from Moclips

Not that there’s actually anything sinister there, it was just the sameness of everything. Besides all resembling each other, each grouping of houses appeared to have been built around the same time. It’s a planned community with limited house plans to choose from so maybe that’s the point. Linda’s first thought was the Stepford Wives, a story about a place that looked like the perfect community at a glance, but it turned out all the wives had been replaced by robots. My first impression was more of a fake Disney town. Some of the streets near the front had nowhere for anyone to park at the houses so they all parked along the road, which left barely room enough for one car to drive down the middle on a two-way road. Farther in places did have driveways and some even had garages. We all liked a small grouping of tiny homes the best. It’s quite expensive to buy a house there, but there are so many vacation rentals among them that the competition must be enough to keep the rental price relatively low. Personally I’d rather stay in the sort of beach house we rented, but apparently a lot of people go there as it was quite crowded in their little business district. I guess not everyone goes out to the coast for a social distance vacation. At least it looked like they all had masks on. We just drove through and didn’t stop anywhere. We told Vicki and Ron about it and they went back later and drove even further in and found things like stables. Apparently they did get out of their car as a small container of fancy macaroons appeared on the kitchen counter and you can’t get anything like that at the Moclips general store.

old railroad pilings crossing the Moclips River are all that remain of a once-busy beach resort

Most of the time we just walked to the beach, but one day we drove up to the Moclips access road and walked north from there until we came to a river too big to cross without horses or very tall boots, of which we had neither. Following the river inland a short distance we came to many pilings, a remnant of the railway that once brought people to town over 100 years ago when Moclips had a short spell as a major resort town until storms washed all their beach hotels away. Up a small stairway near the pilings we found some trails in the woods and a bit of a clearing with rustic forest furniture. One of the town’s hotels sat next to that patch of woods so it probably belonged to them.

Moclips River

Linda and I took more walks than the others and going both directions on various walks we discovered that if you go far enough in either direction you come to a river emptying out into the sea that is too deep to cross without getting wet unless you have tall boots or a horse. Back when I used to take my kids to the ocean with our horses every summer we stayed in a field with a barn behind a private little RV camp about a block off the beach in Ocean City. The lady who ran it was old then so it may not still be there now. Those rivers were no problem then since we just rode across. Not so much now. In summer even if the water was still cold the air around it would be somewhat warmer so we might have looked for the shallowest place and given it a go, but since we were there in October it was way too cold to cross barefoot or get our only shoes wet so we just went as far as the river and then turned around.

well-behaved dogs on the beach that stay with their owner and come when called

After lapping calmly at the shore for most of our time there, on the last night the waves rose in height and roared in like a squadron of jets thundering past. We could see quite a lot of ocean, but never saw a ship go by. Either we were not within view of any shipping lanes or nobody looked out at the right time. The beach was pretty flat so it may have been too shallow for boats for quite some distance from shore.

pumpkin at sunset

Overall we had a nice relaxing weekend with lots of good food and beach time. Vicki carved her pumpkin which sat out on the picnic table in the backyard where we could see it along with the sunset, and then just the pumpkin all lit up with a candle after it got dark.

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