Saturday, October 26, 2013

Sea Days

I think I've had a love affair with the ocean for as long as I can remember, and my earliest memory is that of a baby-going-on-toddler sitting in my high chair in the kitchen of our Key West home, sunlight streaming through the open window, with a small dachshund named Snorkel taking a bite out of one of my toes!  He was a bad-ass little dog, from what I hear.

Anyway, maybe I channeled Ernest Hemingway when he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, or perhaps it was the mysterious comings and goings of my father who counted 22 years in the service of the United Staes Navy, I don't know.  All I do know, is that I've loved everything water since the get-go. I loved taking baths, I loved swimming, and I joined the Mariners within the Girl Scouts.  Climbing a mountain has no interest for me, but sailing upon the open sea brings out the joy in me.

I am drawn to the ocean like a moth to light.  It awakens a deep, visceral energy in me. God speaks to me when I am on the sea. While some may see the celestial result of galaxies, planets and gravity, I see God's imagination take form.  Water is everything. The Big Bang is my God's answer to the question "what is beauty?".

We've had but three sea days on this cruise.  Not nearly enough for a two week journey.  But the ports I've visited have been lovely, and I do not regret a single one.  Still, I ache a little, for more sea days.  There's no Internet at sea, no cell phones ringing. No email to check, no traffic jams, no alarms to wake you at ungodly hours. Only sky and water, as far as the eye can see.

My perfect, last sea day has gone like this:

6:40 AM -- unknown cabin steward FLINGS open the ice room door directly across from my cabin and proceeds to shovel ice into his cart. One eye of mine opens, slowly, like a lizard....I see soon-to-be blue sky outside and decide to finally forgive that damn steward for his daily transgressions against my sleepy stupor.

7:00 AM -- yawn, stretch, get out of bed, stumble into a hot shower. Languish amid soapy bubbles and a steady stream of blissful hot water.

7:30 AM -- dressed for a day at sea, in palazzo pants and purple tank, I make my way to the Lido for a morning breakfast of scrambled eggs, fruit plate, that absurdly delicious triangle of hash browns, and a blissfully divine cup of hot, strong, coffee, perfectly creamed and sugared.

8:00 AM -- A stroll around the promenade deck, feeling the now warmer temperatures of the Atlantic, as we sail ever nearer towards Florida.

9:00 AM -- attend Culinary Arts demonstration of how they make their incredibly tasting Thai Coconut Soup.  I abscond with the recipe (well, not really....they were handing out the recipe on little cards) and enjoy how the executive chef prepares the dish.  At the end, we get to taste, and I swoon with delight at the flavor of this soup).  I ask the chef how to convert this to a vegetarian version and he takes the time to give me pointers and directions. Thank you Chef!

10:00 AM -- Back to cabin to relax, and update my blog.

11:00 AM -- Enjoy special Mariner's Champagne Luncheon. Sit with new friends from Cruise Critic website. 

12:00 to 2:00 -- relax on my verandah enjoying this beautiful, 80 degree day with light breezes and a calm ocean.  Blue skies and white puffy clouds accompany us along the way, along with a sudden appearance of a school of dolphins, keeping time with the ship's cadence.

2:00 PM -- special around the world wine tasting, accompanied with a variety of cheese and other delectable appetizers.  

3:00 PM -- return mostly read books to the library. Take a walk around the ship.  Make a reservation for the Asian restaurant Tamarind, for an early dinner.

4:00 PM -- return to cabin. Sit on verandah. Enjoy breeze, blue skies, gentle swell of waves, as the shop slices through the calm waters of the Atlantic, towards her final destination. 

5:00 PM -- an early last supper.  Asian food of the Tamarind. Seafood wonton soup.  Saki.  Shrimp tempura.  Red panang curry with jasmine rice. Tamarind's version of the chocolate volcano. It's a culinary orgasm.

7:00 PM -- another walk around the deck, enjoying the last gasp of sun and approaching nightfall.  

8:00 PM -- last entertainment show - Celtic fiddler and goofy puppeteer co,Edina encore. Not perfect, but sweet and entertaining.

9:00 PM -- back in cabin. Time to pack. Suitcase outside door. Finish the night with a stroll through the decks, one last time. 

10:00 PM -- sit on balcony, recall everywhere I've been, take it all in, commit to memory.

11:00 -- goodnight,

I shall close this chapter of my travels.


Newport, Rhode Island

Our last port of call (for me at least, as I was disembarking one day early, at Port Canaveral, Florida) was Newport.  

This island region was home to the Narragansett Indians for well over 10,000 years until settlers from the shores across the Atlantic settled here in 1639.  There is a large percentage of Irish Catholics - close to 30% - that settled here in the early 1800s to escape both religious persecution from The English, and due to the great potato famine. Many of these new immigrants worked as domestics in the mansions of the rich. The country's oldest synagogue also calls Newport its home.

The Narragansett called this beautiful area the Island of Peace, and they were responsible for clearing much of this land for farming.  Once settlers arrived, a bustling maritime center developed, with the rum trade being a major contributor to the local economy.

In the mid 1850s, a man by the name of Alfred Smith bought a large parcel of land along and near the harbor, for $20,000.  He and his business partner, Joseph Bailey, began selling off lots to America's wealthiest families, and the Gilded Age began.  This is not to say that huge mansions were not already built  - the Hunter House was built in 1748, during the area's Golden Age.  Chateau-sur-Mer, built in 1852,  is a blended product of both the Golden Age mansions and the more - dare I say - grandiose and opulent mansions like the Breakers mansion of the Gilded Age which was built in 1893 as a summer cottage for the railroad magnate family, the Vanderbilts.

I chose to take a tour to visit two of the area's incredible properties, the Breakers and Marble House, both Vanderbilt properties.

All I can say about these two places - Yowser!  The Breakers summer "cottage" has 70 rooms and four stories in 138,300 square feet. The dining room alone is 2,400 square feet in size. There is a morning room, billiards room, library, great hall, and music room just to name a few.  Architectural and design influences hail from Italian Renaissance, combined with Georgian and Gothic Revival elements.  This home's interiors include walls upon walls made from marble, gilded woods, alabaster and even platinum leaf wall panels.  The Great Hall is two and a half stories high, and the grand staircase off the Hall is something more than "grand".  This place is just insanely beautiful.

They would not allow photography inside this mansion nor the Marble House, so I have nothing to show for my visit other than a sore jaw since it was gaped open for close to 2 hours.  Every time I walked into a new room, my jaw dropped, and all I could utter were the words, "oh my God" and "wow." If you've  ever visited Windsor Castle, the Louvre or Versailles, you can get a feel for what these mansions in Newport look like inside.

The Marble house was equally as awesome, and it's owner, Alva Vanderbilt, even had a beautiful Chinese tea house built on the grounds.  Alva called it "whimsical." As a side note to all of my women friends, Alva Vanderbilt was a tireless crusader for women's rights and campaigned hard for the right for women to vote. You rock, Alva!

If you ever have the opportunity to visit Newport, it would be well worth your time to visit these mansions of the uber rich of the time. To quote a sentence from the brochure, "only in Newport can you walk through centuries of American life in an afternoon; Hunter House was here when the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought; Chateau-sur-Mer saw the age of global commerce by American clipper ships like Flying Cloud; and The Breakers opened as the Vanderbilts' latest achievement in the era in which railroads revolutionized the nation much the way jetliners and the Internet would a century later."


What do you do in a place like Boston when you've "been there, done that"?

Why, you go to Fenway Park, that's what you do!

I had originally planned to spend the day in port, either at the terminal, if it had free wifi, or hunkered down at a Starbucks, and work for the day.  But right before I left for my cruise, my manager said "it's not that busy, why lug your laptop and files with you, go and enjoy your time away and just check in via email when you can." So that's what I did.  Which left me with an entire day in Boston with nothing planned.  I reviewed the list of shore excursions and suddenly, one caught my eye ---- Fenway Park tour. Hoooooooohhhhhh.  YES! A chance to visit an American icon? See the Green Monster up close? YES!   Boy, was I excited.  

It just so happened that the Red Sox were going to play in the World Series, so when our tour bus holding 30 equally excited passengers arrived at the park, there was mayhem all about.  Big semi trucks parked all over, media outlets running cables, cameras being set up in strategic locations within the park to capture the perfect pitch, a base hit, a double play. You could feel the buzz all around.

Fenway has been the home of the Red Sox since 1912.  The very beginning, however, was in 1901 about a mile away, at an open field called the Huntington Avenue Baseball Grounds and the original name of the team was the Boston Americans, because it was part of a new American league. In 1903, the team played a national league team called the Pittsburgh Pirates, in a new World Series.  Guess who won! Boston, of course.

In 1908 the team got new uniforms designed and there was a pair of red stockings on the shirt, so the team changed its name to the Red Stockings.  But the name was too long to put on uniforms, so it was shortened to the Red Socks.  But then it didn't look balanced - three letters on one side and five on the other side, so for the sake of symmetry and to the horror of Elementary school teachers across Boston, it became the Red Sox. 

Long before corporate sponsors named ball parks and other arenas, Fenway Park was named simply for the city district in which the ball park was built, Fenway district. The stadium opened in April of 1912 and the first team the Red Sox played was a team called the New York Highlanders.  Boston beat them 7-6 in eleven innings.  A year later the Highlanders changed their name to the Yankees, but Boston can truthfully and proudly say that they've beat the Yankees here since day one! 

 A special tie-in here ---- it was exciting news that the team won their very first game at their new park against their arch rivals, but sadly, the story was moved to page two of the newspaper, because the front page was filled with another major news story -- that of the sinking, five days earlier, of the Titanic.

The ball park fell into disarray and the team had some bad years in the 1920s and early 1930s until a new owner from South Carolina came in and poured several million dollars into Fenway -- he added new grandstand seats - wooden, and today they remain the oldest seats in all of baseball, as well as the most uncomfortable! The owner also put a roof over the seats, and added the bleacher section in the outfield.  He also built the wall in left field, which is affectionately known today as the Green Monster, in 1934.  Thirty seven feet, two inches high, 231 feet across. The added seats, including about 2,500 standing room only spots, increased the capacity at Fenway to just over 39,900.  

In Boston, there are only 25 letters in the alphabet. There is no letter "R",  unless the word ends in an "A".  The country 90 miles off the coast of Florida? Cuber.  You want a cold drink? Order a soder. But the left field wall at Fenway?  It's the Green Monstuh.

Fenway enjoyed a sold out status streak of 793 games, beginning with May of 2003 until the second game of this 2013 season.

Most famous seat in Fenway is a red seat out in the bleachers. All the other bleacher seats are "Fenway Green".  This special red seat marks the spot where Ted Williams hit the longest home run in the park, June 9th, 1946, in a game against the Detroit Tigers. Anyone can sit in this seat for the price of just $28..........the same price as any other bleacher seat. 

There's more stories to be told about this American classic, but this is a travel blog, not a history book, so I'll end this here. Hands down, though, this was the best ship sponsored shore excursion I've ever taken.  In addition to our tour of Fenway, our bus and guide took us through some of the historical sections of Boston -- we passed by Trinity Church,  the Boston Common, Back Bay, the tv-famous Cheers bar, old graveyards, and a number of other notable sites.  

It was a great day!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Bar Harbor, Maine

Today we arrived in Bar Harbor, our first U.S. port since we set sail from Quebec over a week ago.  We had to clear immigration before we could get off the ship, and tendering was required. Tendering means we have to drop anchor in the harbor or bay because the port or docking area is not deep enough or large enough for most cruise ships. The ship, once firmly anchored, lowers some of its lifeboats and these are used to transport passengers from the ship to the dock or pier. 

I wandered around town for a little while, did a little shopping, and then went down to the dock to get onto a lobster boat for a two hour tour.  We learned all about how Maine lobsterman are able to fish, how, where and when they set their traps, their unique buoy markers, as well as a lesson in lobster anatomy, life cycle, molting and mating. We pulled up one of the traps and we were lucky to have 4 lobsters (good) and several crab (bad) in the cage. Crabs are problematic because they like to eat the bait, as well as some of the soft wood of the cage doors which then can allow any trapped lobsters the opportunity to escape before the fisherman has a chance to pull up the cage.

I never knew that lobsters molt.  When they are babies, they molt 3 or 4 times a year, in order to grow.  In their second year they molt only 2 or 3 times and by year 3 or 4, they usually then only molt once per year. 

The female has thousands of eggs in her stomach.  During mating season, the male will deposit his semen, and then go away.  The female will then, at some point in the future, move that stored semen to her eggs.  She also produces this sticky stuff and she uses that to move her fertilized eggs from inside her body to the outside of her body, along her abdomen area.  There they develop over the next 9 to 12 months.  Then she releases them into the wild, fully formed but tiny.  Mortality is upwards of 95%!

Lobster trivia - fishermen put rubber bands around the lobster's claws not just to protect us from being clamped down upon or cut, but because, in captivity (like in the water tanks in restaurants or markets) if not banded, they will attack each other and eat their catch! They're cannibals!

Tomorrow......Boston.  I've been there several times before, so my special tour will be a behind the scenes visit to an American icon, Fenway Park.  It should be extra exciting tomorrow, as Game One of this year's World Series (Boston Red Sox versus St.Louis Cardinals) begins Wednesday!

Saint John, New Brunswick

Today was our last port stop in Canada.  Saint John was the first incorporated city in Canada, settled in 1785 by fleeing Loyalists from the USA.  Even Benedict Arnold made it his home for a few years.  

The city sits on the Bay of Fundy and has the highest tides in the world, at over 55 feet.  There is a tidal phenomenon of sorts here called the reversing tides - the ocean actually begins to flow upriver at low tide, and then slowly reverses itself as it moves towards high tide.  When we visited it today, low tide was at about 7 AM, when we got there about 10:00 or so, the tide was flowing rapidly up river. When we returned later in the day around 3:30' the waters were calmer and had begun to flow back down river.  It was kind of weird to see!

In 1877, a blacksmith was doing his work in the middle of a windy day.  Across the way was the city barn where many of the horses were kept, giving the blacksmith easy access for shoeing the horses, etc. but someone had left the barn door open.  Because of the wind, a spark from the blacksmith's shop traveled across the street, into the open barn and literally hit the hay, which caused the hay to catch on fire creating an incendiary fireball.  Within three hours, the entire downtown had burned completely to the ground.  Most buildings were built from wood, so they were no match for the fire.  Thankfully, because it was in the middle of the day instead of at night, only 17 people were killed. It could have been so much worse.  

The city was rebuilt pretty quickly after the fire, and life resumed as before.  Today, the city's population stands at about 70,000; including those in the outskirts, the area has about 140,000 residents total.  

Speaking of population, someone on board told me that the population of all of Canada is about the same as that of just California. That was pretty eye opening! I mean, think about the land mass in Canada versus that of California. Even taking into account the sparsely populated Yukon and Northwest territories, the population is really spread out.

There's a small public park in the middle of old downtown, called King's Square. It was built in 1785 as a war memorial.  In 1930, a 17year-old boy by the name of Young was walking down at the docks at the port and saw a 6 year-old boy fall into the icy cold water.  By icy cold, we're talking about 40 degrees, the year round temp, by the way.  Young jumped in, managed to drag the young boy to the dock, saving him, but that cold water got the best of him, and Young then drowned. The townspeople, at the insistence of the 6 year-old's family, proudly erected a statue in King's Square to honor Young.  Every year, the little boy's family came and brought flowers to the statue to remember Young's heroism.  As that little boy grew up, married, and had children of his own, he continued to visit the statue, letting his children learn that if it were not for Young, none of them would be there.  

In the middle of the city sits the largest public park in all of Canada, Rockwood Park. There is a golf course, two lakes, horse stables, miles and miles of trails, a children's playground whose entire ground is made of cork, to help protect the children from serious injury when they might fall down during play.  In the summer, you can swim in the lakes and ice skate on them during the winter.  There are also lots of monuments scattered about, and a drive through section where each province has a small plot where it's unique flag is flying.  My favorite monument in the park follows a similar theme as the flags.  As you know, the maple leaf is the country's flag emblem.  This monument is that of a maple leaf, and it is made from the provincial rock from each of the provinces in the country. It's really a very striking and beautiful monument.

Our tour included a nice drive out to the countryside and to an old fishing village called St. Martins.  It sits right on the Bay of Fundy and is a photographer's dream, with two covered bridges and a lighthouse, and it is possible to capture all three in one photograph, which I did.  Speaking of pictures, I have been posting some to my Facebook page, but I will post photos here once I get back home and have unlimited access to Internet, so I can upload them.  Free wireless and extra free time during a cruise do not go hand in hand!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Halifax, part two

We headed out to Mahone Bay and Lunenburg after leaving the Swiss Air memorial site.
Mahone Bay is a very lovely little town sitting at the end of the bay.  There is a famous wooden ship/schooner there called the Bluenose II,  which won many races in the region.

 Lunenburg is an historic town located on the Fairhaven Peninsula at the western side of Mahone Bay.  It was established in 1753 and is a terrific example of a planned British colonial settlement.  In 1995 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

The planned town layout had geometrically regular streets, 7 blocks of north-south streets, intersected at right angles by 9 east-west streets, which then created blocks with 14 lots each.  Only one section was not divided into lots, and this served as a public parade ground. Each settler was given a town lot and also a "garden" lot outside the town limits.  

The setting and layout of Lunenburg has changed only minimally since 1753, giving the town a very high authenticity. The city was and remains today, a successful center for ship building and fish processing. 

Given the distance from Halifax, as well as some of our other stops on this tour, we did not have time to stop and walk around.  Our guide did drive us through most of the grid streets of the town, and we got a good feel for its layout and cohesive architecture. We also had a great opportunity to take some pictures of the town from across the narrow part of Mahone Bay.  

We headed back to Halifax and our last stop before getting back onboard the ship was the Fairhaven Cemetary, the site of the Titanic graves of 150 mostly unclaimed bodies plucked from the icy waters by two ships dispatched from Halifax, the morning after the sinking of the "unsinkable" Titanic.

For me, this was the highlight of the day.  Like many, I've always been fascinated by the story of the Titanic, and it's also one reason I'm so in love with cruising as a means of travel. 

Our guide showed us how the rows of numbered and named grave stones are laid out in the form of a ship's bow on its side, and that there is a grave stone with the name J. Dawson (word has it James Cameron said the name he chose for one of his main characters in the movie is simply a coincidence, but our guide doesn't believe that for a second).  We also learned that most of the bodies recovered in the waters were first and second class passengers, as most 3rd class passengers were locked or stuck below decks during the sinking of the ship.  The few bodies that were found floating and identified as 3rd class passengers were, initially, thrown back into the water, until the rescue ship's captain put a stop to that.  

Even in rescue operations, class distinctions and protocols were followed.  First class passenger bodies were placed into wooden coffins, second class were placed into body bags, and until they stopped it, the third class passengers were plucked from the water, heavy sacks of sand were tied around their ankles, and then they were thrown back into the ocean and the bodies sunk.

Over 200 bodies were recovered. The recovery workers used a new technology, an improved type of photography, to photograph the bodies.  Pictures were shown to families trying to find their loved ones, and 50 bodies were claimed in this manner, and removed for burial elsewhere, by their families.  

Many of the graves remain unmarked with a only the number identifying in what order they were retrieved from that icy cold ocean,  on a bright, sunshine-filled day, April 16, 1912.  May they all rest in peace.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Halifax, Nova Scotia

In 1749, a young British sea captain by the name of Cornwallis, landed upon the shores of the French occupied and settled area we now call Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia means New Scotland. Cornwallis absolutely detested this cold and forbidding area, and his management skills being poor, pissed off his command, and many returned to Britain with complaints about him.  He succeeded in driving the French out, and also started one of the first germ warfares known to exist in the world.  He came across a settlement where smallpox had run rampant, and he ordered his men to gather smallpox infested blankets, seal them, and then he transported them to the local Indian tribes and the smallpox spread like wildfire, killing off huge populations of native Indian tribes in the area, as the Indians had no immune protection.  Gee, what a fun guy.

He returned to England and today, a statue stands in the downtown area of this city, showing this super nice guy facing towards Britain.  There is some talk of removing his statue altogether, he is so vilified at the moment.

Halifax is a large city, there are about 400,000 residents, making up nearly half of all of the Nova Scotia province.  In the city proper, the economy depends on ship building, tourism and universities.  In the rural areas, the economy relies on an eclectic mix of agriculture (apples, wild blueberries, Christmas trees, and maple syrup), fishing (mostly lobster) and tourism.  

On our tour today, we visited the beautiful and picturesque Peggy's Cove.  A working lighthouse is there, along with a sweet little fishing village.  The cove is made up of glacial rock, and the ruggedness of the cove makes for some outstanding photography. 

Just around the bend stands a somber memorial to the Swiss Air flight that crashed in the ocean nearby in 1998, where all souls perished.  Our tour guide offered up the standard reason for why the plane crashed, fire in cockpit, bad decisions on the part of the pilot to attempt to correct the problem, but he also hinted at diamond conspiracies, and flammable items in the overhead compartment in coach class.  The diamonds were never recovered, even though over 90% of the plane and it's contents, including $100,000 in U.S. cash was......


Sydney, Nova Scotia

Sydney, Nova Scotia

Sydney was first settled in the early 1600's, with the first coal mine in all of North America opening in 1620.  In the early 1700's, an Italian by the Anglicized name of John Cabot, forged a trail in the Cape Breton area of Nova Scotia, outside of Sydney.

Sydney really began to develop shortly after the American Revolution due to the emergence and development of its steel industry.  A few decades ago, the coal and steel industries fell on hard and mismanaged times, and eventually shut down.  Life was not easy for the inhabitants for awhile, but a burgeoning tourism industry,mwith an influx of summer travelers to take in and hike the Cabot Trail, helped transform Sydney into a once again productive and viable area.  

Sydney, as with most of the Nova Scotia province, has a long heritage of Scottish and Irish immigrants. Here on Cape Breton, Gaelic is still spoken regularly and many road signs are in both English and Gaelic.  

Today, besides a booming tour industry, lobster and crab fishing is a big business during the summer season, and logging takes over during the winter months. It is very common for families to fish in the summer and log in the winter. Most logging is spruce, and individuals sell to the paper mill.  For fishing,the only way to get a license for lobster is to purchase one from another fisherman who is no longer going to fish, or to inherit it from a family member, as the government no longer offers new licenses.  A lobster license, if purchased, will run you about $100,000.  A snow crab license will run you $1,000,000.  That's not a mistype.

Coming up over the next few days, we've got Halifax, St. John, New Brunswick, Bar Harbor, Boston and Newport.  Then, and only then do we get two wonderful sea days in a row.  I live for my sea days.  They're the best days!

We had a possible chance to see the northern lights a few nights ago, but alas they did not materialize.  But there was a beautiful full (or nearly full) moon last night and its shimmering silvery glow woke me up early this morning, hanging just outside my balcony.  It wasn't a bad way to wake up. I'll take that any day.

Prince Edward Island

Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island

At the south shore of Canada's smallest province, Prince Edward Island,mor PEI for short, lies it's birthplace, Charlottetown.  It's a very quaint city of almost 35,000 residents.

PEI is famous for having Canada's longest running musical, Anne of Green Gables. I believe they said it's been running continuously since the mid 1960's.  PEI is also the setting of Lucy Maud Montgomery's famous stories Anne of Green Gables, a beloved classic by many, myself included.

You can drive the island, from tip to top, in about 6 hours.  At its longest,MIT is 140 miles, at it's narrowest, just 4 miles wide., at it's widest, just 40 miles.  The biggest industry is agriculture. They produce potatoes, and provide 30% of all of Canada's supply. Go spuds!

Even though I am a Green Gables fan, I chose not to visit the "homestead" because it is just a big tourist trap now, and I didn't want to huff and puff around a fictional farmstead with 1,500 other people.  Instead, I chose to further my engineering knowledge, and picked a tour that went out to the Confederation Bridge, an 8-mile marvel, and also the longest bridge over ice-covered waters, in the world.  Even though the weather was cold, rainy and overcast/foggy, we still enjoyed the tour.  The bridge was built in the 1970's and cost $1 billion. It took six years to build.  It costs $44.50 per car to cross. The bridge links the island with the mainland.  Before the bridge, there was only a ferry, or ice boats available to cross. Today, ice boats are no longer used, and the ferry still runs, at $60 per trip.

The south shore of the island is lovely, dotted with tons of potato farms and lighthouses.  Lots of property is for sale here,  and the going price per acre is about 4,000 dollars. The average home price runs in the mid $100,000's.  There is a lot of waterfront acreage for sale, so an awesome view is there for the taking.

So, some mindless trivia - the island bird is the blue jay, even though the island is filled with ginormous black crows (love them!).  Roman Catholics make up over 55% of the population, gas cost $1.27-ish per liter (about $5.00 per gallon), and Charlottetown boasts one of Canada's finest veterinary colleges.

Baie Comeau

Baie Comeau

Pronounced "Bay Como", the town of Baie Comeau is a new stop for some cruise lines.  It is a small town located on the shores of the St. Lawrence River and has a thriving economy, thanks to its local industries of aluminum, timber and paper production.  

The area also boasts five dams,  four of which are hollow gravity.  What, pray tell, is the difference between a hollow gravity dam and your run-of-the-mill dam?  Well, my friends, it is that the hollow gravity dams are built with some hollow cores. From an engineering perspective, if the area conditions (river, rock and soil type, flow, etc) are right, you can build a dam 80% more efficient with 20% less cement.  Or something like that.  I have to admit, on my tour of the Manic 2 dam (named Manic 2 because manic is short for the mighty Manicouagan River and the second dam built on it)  I was busy looking at this insanely gorgeous hunk a lunka of a security guard that accompanied us through the inner workings of the dam, and wasn't always listening to our tour guide. And when he spoke In French to our guide, ooh la la, there might have been some discreet swooning on my part!

Because this area was covered by 4 kilometer deep glaciers way back when, most of the rock around here is glacier rock, and another reason a hollow type dam can be built. 

Baie Comeau boasts a 3 block long downtown, 20,000 residents, a Wal Mart and a McDonalds. One of the province's governors was also born here, and the town is very proud of that. Our bus guide even drove us by the house where this man was born as well as the house just down the street where he grew up.  I cannot begin to tell you how fascinating that was, but truth be told, I would have preferred to have seen where the security guard lived.....

A lot of the passengers on the ship were less than impressed with little Baie Como, and the rumor is that the HAL ships won't be back next year. I felt a bit sad, because if there is one standout from my visit (besides you know who), it is that the residents of this town are fiercely proud of their city and happy to show it to you. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Quebec City and Saguenay

The Eurodam is the largest cruise ship I have been on so far, with 2100 passengers.  I have decided that I prefer the smaller ships, at least those with 1800 or less.  Why? One word.  Lines.  Lines to get into the dining room for breakfast and dinner.  Does not matter what time it is.  Lines.  I am most annoyed.

Also, for being a scant five years old, the Eurodam shows signs of wear and tear, at least in my cabin.  Perhaps there were just past passengers in my cabin who rode her rough, but there are some stains and nicks and tears here and there. It doesn't bother me, because they are minor, I just noticed it, that's all. The cabin is nicely appointed, everything is clean, the balcony divine, albeit cold (well, it's Canada in October, after all), so nothing to complain about there.

I settled in the first night on board after arriving about ten PM, and had a good night's sleep until the ice machine room door across the hall was flung open by a cabin steward at 6:15 the next morning. Hmmmm. Should I complain? Nahhhh.  Maybe it was just a one time deal. (sadly, it was not)

My plan for the day was to walk across the pier into old Quebec City and visit the area, wander around.  It's a lovely old city with some architectural delights, and a bunch of historical points.  Here in the province of Quebec, French is the main language, although if you smile and are polite, the shopkeepers and other townsfolk will speak English to you.  It always helps to say a few words in French, out of respect....bonjour, merci, au revoir.  That's about the extent of my French, but it is enough to be treated nicely.  Natives always appreciate it when you at least try to say something in their language.

I visited the famous Chateau Frontenac, an imposing hotel sitting atop the old city, above the remnants of this old fortress's walls.  I think it's a UNESCO site now, this hotel.  It's pretty, for sure.

I wandered around the cobblestone streets for a couple of hours, and walked up and down steep hills, so I figured I got my cardio in for the day.  I returned to the terminal area at the ship and was able to Skype with Sam and Ori for a little bit, before they called all aboard.

Yesterday, we arrived in Saguenay, in "haha" Bay.  I don't know if haha is spelled this way or not, but this is my phonetic approach.  It means "dead end" in old French, according to our tour guide.  I joined a tour that took us out to the fjord, which is the big attraction here.  However, the day was foggy and drizzly, so guess what?  No view of the fjord.

Saguenay is an old settlement town of about 150,000 people.  Their main industries are aluminum processing and logging/paper mills.  Running a close third is dairy agriculture, specifically cheese.  Ninety percent of their cheese is exported to Britain, and they make a "royal" cheese that the Queen herself is most fond of.  Who knew.

I learned that to make one ton of aluminum, you need three tons of boxite.  I don't know what boxite is, but you need a shit load of it for aluminum. Made me think about Walter White.  I could have used his chemistry knowledge yesterday.... Anyway, Saguenay is the world's largest producer of aluminum, another tidbit I did not know.  But interestingly,myoud think that if you were the world's largest producer, and if you need a lot of boxite to make the aluminum,mthat you'd have ready local access to boxite, right?  Nope a doodle.  They IMPORT their boxite from Brazil, South Africa and Jamaica!  Don't you think it would make more sense to produce aluminum in those countries? Sigh.

So that's my story of Saguenay.  Tomorrow we visit Baie Comeau.  I am going to visit the Manic 2 gravity dam. It's supposed to be pretty spectacular.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Flight Legs

When you live in Sacramento, even with a nice international airport, you still can't fly direct to many places.  Hawaiian offers one daily non-stop to (you guessed it) Honolulu, and United will take you to Chicago, Denver, and Washington D.C. So you can connect to other parts unknown.

This is totally off topic, but we were talking about skirt steak at lunch yesterday, and it stuck in my head the rest of the day. And last night. So I just googled it, and I am happy to report, for those of you who may give a whit ( or is it "wit"?) that skirt steak is actually the diaphragm  of a cow.  It's a bit tough and fibrous and you would need to beat the hell out of it to get some tenderizing to happen.  The cut is most often used in fajitas. So there you go.  Whew, I can sleep tonight, mystery solved.

I treated myself to the usual pre-vacay mani/pedi after work yesterday, and then went home and got to spend some good one on one time with my little button, aka my granddaughter, Ori.

And, I packed. It took me a little longer than usual, because there were many interruptions of rubber ducky transport between my closet and my shower, by Ori, but I was finished about 7:30, and I am happy to report that I have loads of extra room in my suitcase, and the weight came in at 42 pounds. 

Sam bravely got up at 5:15 and transported me to the airport for my 7:20 departure, and my first leg - Sac to Washington Dulles left on time and arrived early.  We had a very hard and bumpy landing, but  other than that everything went well.

I'm on a 3 hour layover before catching my final flight to Quebec City, so I am enjoying a nice glass of Chardonnay and a shrimp basket in one of the terminal restaurants.

And blogging about skirt steak.....

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Canada and New England October 2013

Countdown begins for my upcoming third cruise of the year. Quebec City to Ft. Lauderdale

I leave next Saturday, the 12th, and cruise ends on Sunday the 27th, although I will disembark on the 26th at Port Canaveral, to drive to Treasure Island to spend a few days with my cousin and aunt before flying home on the 30th. It's a shorter drive from Port Canaveral by a few hours, than Ft. Lauderdale, so I secured an early disembarkation from HAL.

I am visiting several areas in northeastern Canada, where we hope to enjoy the fall foliage, then we head south, stopping in Bar Harbor, Maine, Boston and Newport, Rhode Island before enjoying 2 lovely sea days on the way to Florida.

Hurricanes!!!  Please stay away!!!  Thank you.  Namaste.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Since I've returned home from my cruise, I realize that I neglected to include one of my posts I wrote offline during my trip.  So, out of order, but here it is:

Da Nang and Hoi An

The city of Da Nang has been around since at least the 1600's, but most people today recognize its name from the Vietnam War, as it is where the U.S. troops first landed in 1965.  Nearby, China Beach became the place where troops enjoyed sand and surf as much needed recreation.  The city fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975.  Today, Da Nang is the fourth largest city in Vietnam, with approximately 1,000,000 people in residence.

Hoi An is a small historic town about 22 miles from Da Nang, and is recognized as such by UNESCO.  It's narrow and winding streets are an historian's delight, filled with beautifully preserved architecture evident in its temples, houses and meeting or assembly halls, as well as pagodas, water wells, bridges markets and a wharf.  The village is a wonderful example of symbolic oriental cities in the Middle Ages.

We were picked up by our tour guide and small bus and drove through Da Nang on our way to Hoi An.  Along the way, we passed by the old American base that was used extensively during the war.  It is now used as a naval base by the Vietnamese military, but you can still see a number of the old American barracks along the outskirts of the base.

We also passed by ( and later visited the shop) the Marble Mountains. They are each named for elements - water, metal, wood, fire and earth. The earth is the highest peak.
They make some fantastic pieces taken from the marble of the mountainous area.  

We spent a leisurely day wandering the narrow streets of Hoi An, and hopped onto a small river boat for a 20 minute trip down the river until we reached a small village devoted to ceramic making. An elderly woman and her granddaughter demonstrated the art of the wheel, with the younger one spinning the wheel around with her foot, and the elder forming the clay in the center of the wheel into a small bowl.  She then started a second piece, which was a lid that fit perfectly on the bowl she had just finished.  

We had a nice lunch at a quiet restaurant down a small street and then spent another half hour shopping and walking through the central market before hopping on our bus and heading back to the ship.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Halong Bay

Our last port of call was Halong Bay, A UNESCO world heritage site.  It is located in Northern Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin.  Halong Bay has nearly 2,000 islands, most of which are uninhabited. The total land area is over 500 square kilometers, so you can imagine how big this area is.

Halong Bay means the bay of the descending dragon. Local legends tell how a dragon was sent by the Emperor of Jade to fight the onslaught of attackers.  In the process, the dragon spat jewels that landed in the sea. The dragon then landed in the sea, with just it's humps sticking up out of the water, which are the islands we now see. 

Our group had planned a private tour on our own little ship (called a ship, supposedly, because it had its own tender boat).  We left the dock at a little past nine a.m. and did not return until well past six p.m.  It was a long but lovely day on Paradise Cruises.  

The islands and the bay are gorgeous, but even more so on sunny days, when the green and translucent waters contrast sharply with bright blue skies.  Sadly, our weather was quite cool, and very overcast.  While it may have been a damp day, it did not dampen our spirits.

We visited a cave while on our cruise.  The Sung Sot Cave. We tendered in the cute little boat to a small dock, then had to climb about 200 steep steps up the mountain to the mouth of the cave.  Once inside, we were awestruck at the sheer enormity of the cave.  HUGE.  To walk from the entrance to the other side to exit was one kilometer.  This one was probably three or four stories high as well, filled with loads of stalactites, craters, and thousands of years worth of water eroded floors and walls.  Simply gorgeous.

After the cave, we sailed a little bit longer and then anchored for lunch. First class all,the way, it was a bountiful buffet of meats, seafood, noodles, rice, vegetables, salads, soups and even jelly fish! Yum.

After lunch we visited another small island, called Ti Top Mountain, and climbed 400 steps up to the viewing area at the top.  Beautiful vistas were the reward for that really tough trek up, then another 400 steps down. 


Our last stop while still on our cruise was a visit to a small pearl factory on a floating mini-village.  These people grow and harvest oysters, for the pearls, of course. And so this begins the story of the travesty of the plighted Halong Bay oyster.

Oysters grow for 18 months, then they pull them out of the water and inject them with a little baby nub of something, an irritation. I would give you the proper name, but this little man older than God's father spoke to us in such poor English that we had essentially no idea what he was saying.  I am sure that this was part of their plot and conspiracy to cover up what they are really doing.  Once they inject this little nub into the poor, unsuspecting young oyster, the close the shell up again and plop goes the little oyster (cue the jack-in-the-box music here) back into the bay, in a new roped off section.

There, for the next 18 months, those little oysters, having suffered through OIVF (oyster in vitro fertilization) live huddled together until time has passed and they are once again dragged to the surface, opened up bare, for all the world to see, and prodded for pearls.  

Sadly, 70% have no pearls. Only 13% have full pearls. Guess what happens to the 70%? They are flung into the bay to die. (insert major sob here). As for the other 13%, no one knows what happens to them.  Perhaps they are saved for further experimentation.

Frankly, I believe that this is ecological irresponsibility and therefore I wish to call worldwide attention to the plight of the Halong bay oyster. I am going to form the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to the Halong Bay Oysters. Please send your donations to help these poor oysters who have no voice (nor any pearls) of their own!

And so ends another tour, and another cruise, my friends. We sailed proudly into Hong Kong harbor early this morning, after spending a lovely evening on the ship, and a nice dinner with my cruise critic friends.

Safe travels to everyone and till next time, bye bye!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Cruise Life

I normally have lots of observations and interesting experiences on board cruise ships. 

This cruise, however, has been rather sedate.  Yawn.

Nothing exciting like a few years ago when there was the "Dutchman And the Drapes" encounter. Nothing as sweet as the "Greek Man on Street Bench" incident.  Or the bemusing "Hairy Man at the Turkish Bath" story.

However, there have been some interesting and curious people that I have met on board. 
There are some great people that I have met as part of the cruise critic group, and we've had a number of days together on tour in which to get to know one another more than just in passing.

The oldest members in our group are a pair of women friends from southern California.  They are 82 and 79 years old and are a hoot and a half.  They remind me of the energizer bunnies, because nothing stops or slows these women down! They hop in and out of rickety boats and have an opinion about everything they see and do.  I adored them!

One member of our group is a published author, with several books to her credit, each of which is about a very different subject from the next. For example, one is about auras, and another one is about archeology of the oceans. 

We are a diverse group - we come from Canada, Macau, Greece, U.S., Australia, U.K., Scotland.  We are single, married, aunts, nieces, sons and daughters.  Retired, in school, working. First time cruisers, long time cruisers. 

I've had "anytime dining" option this cruise and it has had its benefits and its drawbacks. Benefits are that you get to meet more people because you generally sit with different people every meal.  The downside to this is that you generally have to reintroduce yourself to people anew each night, you have to try to remember people's names, and as the days go by that list of names grows longer.  You have to repeat where you're from, what you do, how  long you've cruised, why are you cruising alone, do you have children,  blah blah blah.
Ack, it just wears you OUT!

On sea days, there are always at least three things to do in any given hour.  And those are just what's listed on our daily program. That doesn't count eating, reading, swimming, working out, walking, people watching, drinking, gambling, shopping, and sleeping.  Haha!

I downloaded four books onto my iPad, filled with a lofty idea that I would be able to read all of them with all this TIME I was going to have.  Well. I am only into my first book, and while I have nearly finished it, it is still a pitiful showing. There's just been too many other distractions. 

Yesterday was our fourth sea day and I attended three talks - one was a Q and A with the Captain.  People asked him all sorts of questions and I found it fascinating. I might add that Holland America has its first ever female Staff Captain aboard our ship.  The Staff Captain is second in command, although not second most important. That dubious honor goes to the ship's chef.  The Captain told us the ship would sail without him, but never without the chef!  Hahahahahahahahha. 

The second talk I attended was a slide show given by our ship's travel guide. He shared with us his favorite places in the world, and his pictures were beautiful, especially those taken in Iceland. That location just got bumped up a couple of notches on my "must go" list.

The third talk I attended was a presentation, via slides, of the hotel manager reviewing what goes on in dry dock and how our ship was redecorated in just 14 days.  Absolutely amazing what was accomplished in just two short weeks.  Now, if only our mother ship could be so efficient.........(for those of you who don't know what I mean by that, well,  never mind...)

Next came happy hour. Two for one drinks in the Crow's Nest, the bar and lounge area on the top deck. Can't pass that up on a lazy sea day.  Daily trivia game also is during happy hour, and although I did not join a team, I did have a boisterous team of Australians sitting next to my lounge chair, so as each question was asked, I muttered the answer. I was supposed to be reading my book, but i couldn't help butting in.  One of the team members argued with me occasionally and at the end, he was right once and I was right twice.  Either way, his team lost, because the winning team got a perfect score, but it was great fun!

We had a man at dinner the other night who got something stuck in his throat and began to choke. Fortunately, someone was able to perform the Heimlich and the offending morsel was expelled from his throat. The funny thing about the whole incident (since it ended well we can laugh at it now) was that the man was yelling help me, help me, I'm choking, and don't we all know that when you are actually choking, you cannot speak.......first a small woman tried to wrap her arms around the large man to try the Heimlich, and that didn't work. Then another woman, who is a nurse, ran over and whacked him on the back, and that did not work. Then, out of nowhere came a large Dutch woman, a ship's officer, and she grabbed that man from behind and gave him one big thrust and out popped the food. I am just glad I was not at that table. I was there, but on the other side of the dining room, and barely heard the commotion, but for the next two nights, someone at my table had been nearby, including the back-thumping nurse and all were fascinated listening to the re-telling of the "choking incident."

I haven't done the daily quizzes this time because there is some guy who is more rabid than I and grabs the quiz at the strike of 8:00 each morning, rushes away to his little corner of the library, and scribbles his answers in about two minutes, then strides over to the desk librarian like he's king of the world or something, and ceremonially drops his quiz into the box.  Hrrrmph.  I tried to beat him once, but the quizzes are exceptionally difficult and I ended up missing more answers than he, so I gave up trying.  Add to that, when the librarian saw my name on my quiz, she recoiled in horror and promptly informed me that my name was on the list of "Banned Persons For Purposes of Quiz Contests". When I asked her why, she narrowed her eyes, and  hissed at me "you've maxed out at winning - now get out of my library!" I guess my reign as Queen of the Quizzes has ended.


I've also taken a few tech courses with our techspert on board. He is a retired engineer-type guy from Intel and teaches a series of classes on how to use your digital camera, using the new Windows 8 operating system, editing photos, setting up files and folders, etc. Some of the courses are very basic, which I skipped, but others have been quite helpful.  I have learned all about Windows 8, how to use Skydrive, which is the Windows version of the Apple iCloud, and how to edit my photos using Photo Gallery, another Windows application.  I learned how to take a series of photos in preparation for combining them into one panoramic picture once downloaded into Photo Gallery.  Really neat!

Nha Trang

While every port stop has been a great one, I found that Nha Trang was a most pleasant surprise. Hugging the central coast section of Vietnam, I expected it to be a beach town with little else to offer. 

While it is a very popular seaside retreat for Vietnamese and world tourists alike, it is also home to a lot of colonial style architecture, Champa Kingdom relics from the 8th century, and the Truong Son mountains which line the miles of stunning shoreline.  There are also numerous small agricultural villages just a few minutes outside of town. 

Nha Trang's economy relies largely on tourism. In the suburban areas around the city, the shipbuilding industry has developed and contributed significantly to the city's economy. Fishery and services are also important to the city.  Nha Trang in particular is among the largest contributors to Vietnam's annual budget revenues. Lobster farming on the sea is an important industry for the people living in suburb areas of the city.

We docked at about ten AM, which is a bit later than usual for a port, but we didn't leave until eleven PM.  I had a tour scheduled with my group and we met on the dock at 10:15. Into the minivan we hopped, and off we went to explore this port area. My initial observations were that this city is lovely!  Clean streets, pristine white sand beaches, a bustling yet orderly flow of taxis, trucks and motor scooters, all choreographing perfectly on the city's streets. 

Our first stop was at an embroidery factory and store in town. We saw young women hard at work doing beautiful needlepoint, and their completed works were framed and displayed throughout the shop. As is common with most tour companies and guides worldwide, this was more than just an opportunity to see local craftsman, it was an obligatory stop, hoping you would buy things. I don't mind it, because tourism, especially in its infancy here in Vietnam, is a very important and critical industry, as I noted earlier. 

We then continued through the center of the town, eventually making our way out to the countryside, through some small villages, passing by fields of rice patties, finally arriving at the Cai River,  where we hopped on (yes, I mean that quite literally) a small little boat with one of those cute, but smelly, put-put engines. We passed underneath an old wooden bridge, and spent the next half hour meandering down the river, banana and mango trees to our right, old fishing boats tied to tree limbs dipping down to the river's edge, small homes and huts, occasional water buffalo and cows.  It was totally relaxing. After a bit, we tied up alongside a tiny dock at the water's edge, and climbed out and walked about 100 feet to a beautiful old village house. 

Chickens were running around cock-a-doodle-dooing in the yard, a small puppy was tied up alongside a fence by a shed, barking at us, and our guide stopped us to talk about the family that lived there. Now, they are a bona fide family, but they were clearly set up for small groups of tourists, because their main source of income is weaving, and they had a nice supply of woven goods set on shelves in their weaving room. We were allowed to tour parts of their home - we saw their kitchen, which is a combo of indoor/outdoor, and quite large, actually.  We also saw their worship room at the front of the house, the separate sleeping quarters for men and women, and the toileting areas (just off the kitchen, next to their parked motor scooters). 

Many of the village homes are multi-story affairs. The ground floor is for entry, worship altars and bikes and scooters. The next story up houses the kitchen and meeting rooms as well as the men's sleeping quarters. The top floors are reserved for the women and children.  We were told that after the children were asleep, the men would "visit" with their wives, to talk and "be romantic" and then retreat to their sleeping beds in their own rooms.  I found that the Vietnamese talk about "being romantic" quite a lot, and they all giggle when explaining how the villagers live in this regard.  You would think that, with all this romance going on, there would be more than a gaggle of children, but that is not the case. The government has decreed that there can be no more than two children per married couple. You are fined very severely if you have more than two.  

Our minivan had arrived and so, after a nice snack of local fruits and some green tea served by the residents, we headed out and continued our journey through the countryside. 

We stopped to see a new, standing Buddha that was just completed about three months ago. We were the only ones there, and we took that opportunity to have our guide take a group photo.  The Buddha was quite impressive, so tall, like, I don't know for sure, but maybe 60 or 70 feet high.  

About that time, as we drove away, down the hill from where the Buddha was, our minivan made a sudden cuh-lunking sound and lurched precariously forward. Uh oh.  The driver muttered something to the guide in Vietnamese, and before the guide could turn around to tell us what was wrong, a couple of the men in our group all nodded knowingly what was wrong. Words like "shift differential" and "axle" were  bantied about, and serious shaking of heads followed.  Shit. 

Our day was only half over! We were out in the Vietnam equivalent of the boonies! What was to become of us? Would we be forced to slog through rice paddies to find our way back to the ship? Was it a big conspiracy to drag us into forced labor? Would we have to learn how to make conical hats or weave mats to earn our way home?


Not hardly.  The driver just slowed down and drove carefully, everyone settled down again with only a little worry. After all, our ship didn't sail until late into the evening, and we knew if the van stopped altogether that there was plenty of time to get a new one driven out to us. 

We stopped off at a few more places - a grass mat weaving place, where some of us got to operate the loom, a rice paper plant where we watched the full process of turning rice into first a powder, then heat and water steps into rice sheets, drying, and then finally shredding the dried sheets into rice noodles.  I will never eat these again without thinking of what I saw and how much goes into making them!

We sat for a few minutes and watched some women making those famous conical hats, and then we sat by the river and had a leisurely lunch, while our driver crawled underneath our minivan and worked on whatever repairs were necessary.  Afterwards, we stopped off at a very special pagoda - attached to it is an orphanage, housing 120 children. The orphanage is self-sufficient with donations and subsidies provided by the government. There are several teachers that provide schooling, teach English, and several nuns who look after the children. Foreigners are not allowed to adopt orphans at this time. 

It was now late afternoon, so we left the countryside, and made our way back to the main town.  The driver had successfully corrected whatever problem there had been with our minivan, so our journey back was both smooth and quick. 

Goodbye Nha Trang.  You were lovely!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

Vietnam Historical Overview

Vietnam has quite a turbulent history. Humans have inhabited northern Vietnam about 500,000 years ago, but it took until about 7000 BC for the practice of basic agriculture to take hold, and during the Dong Son era during the third century, huge advances were made in rice production and the Red River Delta emerged 
In the second century BC, the Chinese captured this area and held it in dominance for a 1,000 years. It wasn't until 938 AD that the Chinese were kicked out. In 1010, the City of the Roaring Dragon (aka Hanoi) was founded by the emperor Ly Thai To and becMe the country's new capital.

In the 1500's, Portuguese traders landed at Danang, and sparked the start of the European interest in Vietnam.  In the mid 1800's, the French took a keen military and strategic interest in the country and essentially embarked on 70 years of colonial control, until 1945. However, during this time, there were many small uprisings by anti-colonial enthusiasts, with the rise of Communism on the horizon, fueled in large part by a man named Ho Chi Minh. When France fell to Nazi Germany during WW2, the Japanese took control of the country for a time. Uncle Ho, as the people of Vietnam affectionately refer to him, led North Vietnam from 1954 until his death in 1969. He never lived to see the North's victory over the South.

That's a quick and dirty history of Vietnam. Lots of details left out. 


Our port of call today was Saigon.  The city is about 90 kilometers from the port where we docked so once again we were in for a 2 hour ride, one way. The itinerary included a visit to an old (circa 1909) pagoda called the Jade Emperor Pagoda, a visit to the War Museum, Independence Palace ( also referred to as the Reunification Palace), Red Cathedral, Post Office, lunch at a noodle restaurant, and a little shopping at an outdoor market. 

There are about 90 million people in the whole of Vietnam, and 9 million of them are in Saigon. 70% are farmers, either rice or rubber farmers, and these two products are the country's largest exports. For people who do not go to college, they either work in factories or farm. Their average monthly salary is about $200 per month. Almost none of them will ever be able to buy a house or apartment. For those that do go to college, they can expect much better jobs, and they make 2 to 3 times the monthly income of those that don't go to college, on average. 

The Jade Emperor Pagoda reflects the Buddhism and Taoist beliefs in four spiritual animals - the dragon, which represents power, the unicorn which represents wisdom, the Phoenix, for peace, and the turtle, for long life. inside the pagoda, the Jade Emperor presides over the main sanctuary. There is also a famous room off the sanctuary which contains the Hall of the Ten Hells, depicting what happens after you die if you have done bad things. They illustrate the ten torments awaiting evil people. Note to self - don't be bad or evil. 

Saigon is 70% Buddhist, 20% Catholic, and 10% the ubiquitous "other".  You know, it's those famous and oft-referred to "they" that are probably the "other" group, don't you think? I think. Oopsie, I digress.  

Our next stop was the War Museum. Virtually the entire museum was filled with photos and commentary about the Vietnam war with the United States, from the North Vietnamese point of view. While I don't wish to tread down that slippery slope of political opinion, let me just say that I found it extraordinarily interesting to view a very graphic photograph and read the caption beneath explaining what was taking place in that photo. The way I looked at it, there could actually be several different interpretations of the same photo, yet every caption underneath every photo in that museum was 100% anti-American.  I left there feeling pretty disturbed. 

The first Communist tanks that rolled through Saigon on April 30, 1975 arrived at the Reunification Palace, a government building built originally as the Norodom Palace for the French governor general in 1868. When the French left it became home to the wildly unpopular South Vietnamese president NGo Dinh Diem.  His own air force bombed the place in 1962, and although a new building was built, he did not get to see it completed, as he was assassinated by his own troops in 1963.  The place was renamed Independence Palace and is a fantastic example of 1960's architecture.  I felt like I should be catching a glimpse of Don Draper from Mad Men around every corner.  The place is totally groovy, man!  I took a bunch of photos, which I shall post up to my public Facebook album for your viewing pleasure.

The Red Cathedral, also known as the Notre Dame Cathedral, was built under the French influence in 1877. Out front is a statue of Mary holding an orb. Across the street is the Central Post Office, a beautiful building designed by Gustave Eiffel (ring any bells?) and built in the late 1800's. There are a number of historic maps of South Vietnam painted on the walls as well as a beautiful mosaic of Ho Chi Minh, inside. The building had a great aura about it and I really liked it. 

Winding up our tour of Saigon, we stopped in at a local noodle house across the street from the large street market and had a great lunch of seafood noodle soup, vegetable spring rolls and beer. Lip-smacking delish!

A little wandering through the market being hounded by hundreds of vendors to come into their stalls to buy their wares, and I joined my group for the two hour ride back to the Dam ship.  I just love sailing on Holland America because we can always say "dam".  Hot Dam!
Tee hee hee. 

Tomorrow we visit Nga Tran.