An Important Notice

This website was severely hacked a short while ago, pretty well making it necessary to delete the entire website and rebuild it from scratch. This will be a slow and laborious process but keep checking back as new material is added.

I am rebuilding it using the dates of original publication. So far I have restored two items:

Check the menu at the top for more additions as they happen.

Rome’s Colosseum

The Colosseum is the largest amphitheatre ever built and a must-see highlight of any visit to Rome. We spent a day there before taking a Mediterranean cruise in 2011. After the cruise we spent another day in the city.

That first day had us take a hop on/hop off bus around the city and one of our hop off points was the Colosseum. We grabbed a light lunch and then walked around the perimeter.

This photo is a merge of two others. It captures the immense size of the Colosseum.

It is an ancient building and in remarkably good repair considering it is almost 2000 years old. Construction started under Emperor Vespasian in 72 AD. He died in 79 AD and did not see the building completed the following year under his heir Titus. Financed by the spoils of the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, it was built with the slave labour of 100,000 Jews captured and spirited off to Rome.

Made of concrete and sand, it was large enough to accommodate 50-80,000 spectators, averaging around 65,000. Like modern stadiums, it was a venue for mass entertainment which included battling gladiators, wild animal hunts, re-enactments of famous battles, mock sea battles, dramas based on Classical mythology and public executions. Yes, Christians were fed to lions here. In fact, the Pope marks every Good Friday by a Way of the Cross procession that starts at the Colosseum to honour Christian martyrs.

The Arch of Constantine, built in 315 AD, stands near the Colosseum.

Interestingly enough, twenty years after its construction, the poet Juvenal published his Satire X which includes the following lines:

“Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”

Juvenal is lamenting the practice of gaining political office by bribing the voters with free wheat and mass spectacles. It marked the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire. Walking around the perimeter we were impressed by the vastness of the Colosseum and its great beauty. The two millennia since its creation have left it weathered and eroded. It underwent extensive renovations from 1993 to 2000 at a cost of 40 billion Italian lire (US$19.3 million).

This end on view of the outer wall of the Colosseum captures its great height. The outer wall is shored up by supports built during renovations.

There were originally two walls, an outer wall and an inner wall. The inner wall remains largely intact but only a small portion of the outer wall remains. It is shored up at both ends by sloped concrete supports. But even with all the renovation, you can see cracks in the facade at various places, not to mention large stones at the base which have fallen from the structure.

Some of the stone work on the facade looks precarious but didn’t seem to phase the tourists walking below.

We saw some men in gladiator garb posing with tourists on our walk as well as a wedding party. It is a popular locale for wedding photos.

The Colosseum is a popular locale for wedding photos. Did you spot them in the picture of the Arch of Constantine above?

After our cruise we visited the Colosseum once again, this time paying to go inside. Well worth the money. The inside is as spectacular as the outside and well worth the visit.

As we entered we passed a recently recovered partial statue. There is continuous archeological work going on around Rome. This partial statue was probably of a horse and rider, but we were amused by it because all that remains is, how shall we put it, a horse’s ass.

The back end of a horse is all that remains of this recently discovered statue.

Inside you get a terrific view of the hypogeum, a series of underground passages and rooms, and a partially reconstructed stage at one end. The staging, made of wood, covered the entire subterranean level during the Colosseum’s heyday. Many spectacles were staged that involved lifts and hoists moving animals, actors and stage props from below to the arena floor.

The interior of the Colosseum showing the hypogeum and a partial reconstruction of the arena floor.

The hypogeum was a later addition to the Colosseum and in its early years, at least two mock sea battles or naumachiae were staged there. This involved filling the basin with water and bringing in ships. One was staged by Titus when the Colosseum opened in 80 AD and another by Domitian in 85 AD.

It must have been quite the spectacle. Some experts figure that water supplied by aqueducts and a series of pipes and channels could fill the basin to a depth of five feet in just 35 to 76 minutes. These battles were considerably bloodier than the gladiatorial battles often staged in the arena. They involved many more people, 3000 in the event staged by Titus. Condemned prisoners were used and they fought to the death.

Shortly after the last naumachia,  the hypogeum was built which precluded staging more of these spectacles.

Some detail of the hypogeum, the underground passages and rooms used to handle actors and props before they made their way to the stage.

Up to 80,000 people filled the stadium in its prime but  little seating remains. There are many sloped angular buttresses which held the seating at one time, but now stand alone. There is a little bit of seating extant above the renovated stage area. I’m not sure if this is original or recreated for tourists.

Flying buttresses supported the original seating area.
Some seating above the stage. Not sure if this is original or a recreation.

One of the things we noticed in the Colosseum was the large number of feral cats. We noticed them outside on our earlier visit and now again inside. Not sure what it is with ancient ruins and wild felines, but we first encountered them in the walled city of Cadiz in Spain and we later came across more of them at the ruins in Ephesus.

Feral cats keep the tourists company on a visit to the Colosseum.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Colosseum and can only imagine how it must have been in its heyday, the scene of great and bloody spectacles. The fact that these extravaganzas were staged with real people fighting to the death or even put to death in contests with ferocious beasts gives one chills. But even today gore fests remain popular in movies and television shows, though these are non-lethal make-believe. In less civilized parts of the world, live beheadings and stonings of the condemned remain popular with the masses.

I’ve included an additional photo gallery as well as links to a couple of articles on naumachiae.

Captain Kent’s Last Cruise (and Our First)

Up until 2005 we had long thought a cruise would be a terrific vacation but we were under the impression that cruising was for rich people and we were hardly rich. And so we didn’t really consider it seriously.

Our friends Chris and Sheila had been on a couple of cruises and they excitedly told us about one coming up, a repositioning cruise from San Diego to Vancouver. You only had to pay one way fares to get to San Diego instead of round-trip. And repositioning cruises are bargain priced. So we said yes, we would join them on this adventure.

Our friends Chris and Sheila invited us to join them for what would be our very first cruise.
Our friends Chris and Sheila invited us to join them for what would be our very first cruise.

A repositioning cruise, in case you don’t know, is a cruise that does exactly as it it says. It is a one-time cruise that moves a ship from one route to another. The ship we would be taking, the Radiance of the Seas, had just finished up its winter gig plying the waters from Los Angeles to Puerto Vallarta. Now it was heading to Vancouver to start the summer season sailing the Alaska run.

Not only was this our first cruise, it was also one of the most memorable of the six we have taken so far. It is the only cruise for which we actually remember the name of one of the people serving our table. And it is the only cruise for which we remember the name of the captain.

Leaving San Diego
Leaving San Diego

We flew to San Diego and boarded the ship. Sailing out of the port, we passed a large aircraft carrier. Everything about cruising was new to us – the daily evening entertainment in the large theatre, the fabulous food, all included in the price, the entertainment at the various bars and clubs aboard the ship, the sheer size of the ship itself.

We pass an airraft carrier as we leave San Diego. The Coronado Bridge is in the background.
We pass an aircraft carrier as we leave San Diego. The Coronado Bridge is in the background.

Each ship has its own complement of singers, dancers and musicians to entertain. And the ship brings in special guest entertainers for most of the shows. Each ship’s entertainment is managed and hosted by a Cruise Director. Ours was a lively fellow named Gordon.

Royal Caribbean singers and dancers entertain during one of the nightly shows.
Royal Caribbean singers and dancers entertain during one of the nightly shows.

We had opted for fixed dinner seating with the same fellow passengers each night and so we got to know  few people from around the world – mostly American actually. But the crew on a cruise ship is made up of a cosmopolitan blend of people from all over the world. Our Assistant Waiter was a gal from Chile. Her name was Lily. That’s right – Lily from Chile! And she was an absolute delight. Super friendly, superior service, just an all around beautiful person. While the service is always excellent, Lily is the only person we remember by name. She just resonated with us in a special way.

Janis with Lily from Chile.
Janis with Lily from Chile.

One of the regular features on a Royal Caribbean cruise is an art auction. We attended and actually bought a couple of small pieces including a limited edition print of Charlie Brown and Snoopy signed by Charles Schulz.

Attending the art auction.
Attending the art auction.

Our first port-of-call was San Francisco and, as is typical of all cruises, we had the option of taking a packaged tour or of just leaving the ship and exploring on our own. Since the ship docked near Fisherman’s Wharf, we decided we would just wander around on our own. I went over our visit in some detail in a previous post.

Janis and I hop aboard a cable car in San Francisco
Janis and I hop aboard a cable car in San Francisco

At one of the bars one evening, we were entertained by the captain himself. Seems our captain, Kent Ringborn, a veteran mariner, came from a family of sailors, following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. He joined the Swedish Merchant Marine Academy at fifteen. He received his mariners license at twenty-two. And after a stint with the Swedish Navy, he served on cargo vessels for a few years, becoming a captain before the age of thirty.

During his long career, he even captained an ice breaker for the Swedish National Maritime Administration. And in 1991 he started a career with the cruise ship industry, joining Royal Caribbean in 1995. He oversaw the building of the Radiance of the Seas and became her captain when she was launched in April 2001.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Captain Kent Ringborn oversaw the construction of the Radiance of the Seas.

Although not formally trained in music, Captain Kent loved to sing and sometimes joined the Royal Caribbean singers and dancers performing a solo. He became known as the singing captain and over the years guests had asked for a souvenir of his performances. So he eventually recorded a CD with eighteen songs that included such classics as Sailing, Some Enchanted Evening, Edelweiss, Old Man River and Hallelujah. He changed the lyrics slightly on Welcome to My World to Welcome to Our World – the world of cruising.

We learned that this was Captain Kent’s last cruise as captain. He was retiring at the end of this voyage.

Captain Kent in the limelight.
Captain Kent in the limelight.

We continued on our cruise with a stop at Astoria, Oregon. The port there cannot accommodate cruise ships, so we anchored in the bay and reached shore by tender. There is not a lot to do in Astoria but we had seen the Astoria Column, its most striking landmark, on a previous road trip through Astoria and none of the other excursions interested us so we just wandered around the town for the day. Many nice little shops and restaurants. A pleasant town to visit.

Astoria is a sleepy little ton at the mouth of the Columbia River. We had to reach shore by tender.
Astoria is a sleepy little ton at the mouth of the Columbia River. We had to reach shore by tender.

Then on our way again to our next port-of-call, Victoria, B.C.. Our wives had secretly booked high tea at the Empress Hotel, a Victoria landmark and we had a great time.

High Tea at the Empress in Victoria
High Tea at the Empress in Victoria

Then on to Vancouver and home. As we went to our cabins for the last time, we found that Captain Kent had left a parting gift for every passenger, a copy of his CD as a souvenir. Below are the highlights of our trip put to the captain’s rendition of Welcome to Our World.  It was our first cruise and a most memorable one. And it had us hooked on cruising which is, dollar for dollar, one of the best vacations you can enjoy.

Check out my previous post, The Joy of Cruising, for a bit more on the cruising experience as well as a complete rundown on all the cruises we have taken to date.

Photo Gallery: Wild Florida

Follow us on Facebook!

Here are some additional pictures of our Wild Florida visit.

Our guide Will revs up the engines!
Our guide Will revs up the engines!
A flock of birds takes flight as we approach.
A flock of birds takes flight as we approach.
Large cypress tree up Dead Man's Creek
Large cypress tree up Dead Man’s Creek
DCIM100SPORT
A haunting wilderness – the swamps of the upper Everglades – Dead Man’s Creek at Cypress Lake
DCIM100SPORT
A giant cypress tree
Zipping along the open lake
Zipping along the open lake
Yours truly posing for a pic in the captain's chair. Would have been a blast to actually drive one of these airboats!
Yours truly posing for a pic in the captain’s chair. Would have been a blast to actually drive one of these airboats!
Large turtles are also residents of the lake.
Large turtles are also residents of the lake.
One honking big alligator!
One honking big alligator!
And another!
And another!
The zoo had a number of different species on display including these colorful parrots.
The zoo had a number of different species on display including these colourful parrots.
This African porcupine was out for a walk on the dock with a zoo keeper earlier.
This African porcupine was out for a walk on the dock with a zoo keeper earlier.
There were several long-tailed lemurs.
There were several long-tailed lemurs.
Say hello to this owl.
Say hello to this owl.
One last look at our Wild Flrida adventure - plowing through the reeds on our airboat.
One last look at our Wild Florida adventure – plowing through the reeds on our airboat.

Follow us on Facebook!

Airboats and Gators

Alligators! When you think of Florida wilderness, you think alligators. Florida is famous for its Everglades, a vast tract of wetland at the southern tip of the state. It is an area heavily populated with alligators. But the whole state is dotted with lakes and swamps and you can find alligators in all 67 counties. There are, in fact, 1.3 million gators in the entire state. After our Caribbean cruise, my wife, her sister and I spent a week in Orlando. On the last day of our visit we decided to visit Wild Florida, an airboat and gator park on Cypress Lake, about 45 miles from the city. When going there, you have to exit the Florida Turnpike (a toll highway) at St. Cloud exit #244) and take Highway 192 to the Old Canoe Creek Road. We missed the exit and figured we would just exit later but available exits were Sunpass only and do not accept cash or credit cards. (Passes available to regular commuters.) We had to double back. Wild Florida has handy detailed instructions for getting there. (Note – the map below shows exiting at Exit 240. That is wrong. Exit at 244 if you do not have a Sunpass and head east to and turn right on Vermont Avenue which later becomes Old Canoe Creek Road.) Canoe Creek Road passes under the turnpike and you hang a right at Lake Cypress Road. Wild Florida advertises itself as being “in the middle of nowhere” and it truly is. It sits on the shore of Cypress Lake, a good size lake surrounded on three sides by nature preserves and on the fourth by farmland. Wild Florida includes a zoo and nature walk as well as offering airboat rides. And if you’ve never been on one, it is a must-do experience. We booked an hour long excursion. The airboat dock is offshore aways and accessed by a long boardwalk.
The airboat dock is accessed by a long boardwalk over a field of reeds and rushes.
The airboat dock is accessed by a long boardwalk over a field of reeds and rushes.
Our guide Will steered his airboat to a berth and we got on. Lifejackets and ear protection was handed out. The airboats are fairly loud. Will gave us a spiel about the lake and its 800 alligators, the many cypress trees and the flora and fauna that abound there. He also explained that the airboat was invented and developed in Canada in 1905 by a team led by Alexander Graham Bell – yep – the telephone guy!
3 - skipper Will and our airboat
Will steers our airboat to the dock to load passengers.
After his chat, Will revved up the engine and we tore along the shoreline at a good clip. The airboat is a flat-bottomed boat propelled by a large air prop at the rear behind the pilot. It skims over reeds and vegetation and is perfect for the Everglades. Our first foray took us along the shore where we could see many cypress trees, their branches seemingly dripping grey moss. But it was January and this would green up later in the year. Waterfowl took flight on our approach making a pretty picture. We stopped again as Will gave us some more interesting tidbits. Then the engine roared to life again and we sped across an area dense with reeds and rushes. All of a sudden Will pointed and shouted “Alligator”, pulling the airboat around and towards a clump of vegetation. The alligators like to bask atop a bunch of reeds to catch the sun. We spotted a big old gator soaking up some rays. I stood up and moved to the edge of the boat to get a good picture. Just after I snapped my shot, the gator got wind of me and hustled into the water. It moved so suddenly and so quickly it scared the heck out of me.
One big ole gator!
One big ole gator!
We took off once more and spotted more gators and some large turtles as well. And then we came across a rather gross dead animal floating in the water. A wild boar, Will said. Probably shot by a framer. They are considered pests. Will told us that the alligators would strip the carcass as it decomposes.
Eeeoooh! The carcass of a wild boar floating in the reeds. The alligators will strip the carcass as it decomposes.
Eeeoooh! The carcass of a wild boar floating in the reeds. The alligators will strip the carcass as it decomposes.
We cruised along some more and Will took us up Dead Man’s Creek – a small inlet dense with vegetation along its shores. We stopped inside this peaceful setting, taking in the quiet and the beauty of the scenery. Cypress trees were everywhere and Will explained that the many woody shafts poking out of the water around the trees were called cypress knees. Since the entire root system of the cypress is below water, the roots can’t get air. The knees are like so many snorkels bringing life-enhancing air to the roots.
A cypress grove up Dead Man's Creek. Notice the cypress knees, natural snorkels that bring air to the tree roots.
A cypress grove up Dead Man’s Creek. Notice the cypress knees, natural snorkels that bring air to the tree roots.
After a spell, Will revved up the engine once again and we took off slowly at first through the winding waterway, and then full blast through waters and marshes along a fence line. At one point he pointed the craft directly into a vast tract of reeds and we plowed over them  and stopped in the middle. Clearly a boat with the typical below-water propeller would get seriously tangled here. But the airboat – no sweat! We then headed out of the reeds and into open water charging at full speed across the kilometre or so of lake.  No gators here. They only hang out along the shoreline or in the marshes. During our ride I got a great photo of my wife and her sister, wind blowing their hair out behind them. With the ear protection headset, it reminded me of a famous Maxell battery ad from the 1980s called Blown Away Guy.
Blown Away Gals!
Blown Away Gals!
Back at the dock we walked around Hawk Swamp, an area of cypress swamp with boardwalks letting you observe the swamp up close. A large sign warned not to touch the snakes!
Beware of snakes!
Beware of snakes!
After the swamp walk, we headed for the wildlife preserve where they had a variety of animals on display – a small zoo really. It had tropical birds, raccoons, lemurs, pythons and a giant tortoise among other things. But the big attraction, of course, were the gators. Lots of them. There were elevated walkways above the water and you could get baggies of tasty treats to throw to them.
Lots of gators!
Lots of gators!
In most zoos, the animals are fairly quiet and subdued. Not here. The pythons were on the move. The parrots were squawkers. And the alligators, when food was offered, were eager and energetic swimmers. So if you’re ever in Orlando and looking for something more fun than Universal Studios or Disney World, check out Wild Florida. It was one of the highlights of our visit. Click on Photo Gallery for additional pics or scroll on down if you are on the main page. Follow us on Facebook!
Posted on
This article was previously published at Travelicious as Wild Florida. There may be slight variations in this article including an improved  map and travel guide as well as an additional photo gallery. Alligators! When you think of Florida wilderness, you think alligators. Florida is famous for its Everglades, a vast tract of wetland at the southern tip of the state. It is an area heavily populated with alligators. But the whole state is dotted with lakes and swamps and you can find alligators in all 67 counties. There are, in fact, 1.3 million gators in the entire state.
This article was previously published at Travelicious as Wild Florida. There may be slight variations in this article including an improved  map and travel guide as well as an additional photo gallery. Alligators! When you think of Florida wilderness, you think alligators. Florida is famous for its Everglades, a vast tract of wetland at the southern tip of the state. It is an area heavily populated with alligators. But the whole state is dotted with lakes and swamps and you can find alligators in all 67 counties. There are, in fact, 1.3 million gators in the entire state. After our Caribbean cruise, my wife, her sister and I spent a week in Orlando. On the last day of our visit we decided to visit Wild Florida, an airboat and gator park on Cypress Lake, about 45 miles from the city. When going there, you have to exit the Florida Turnpike (a toll highway) at St. Cloud exit #244) and take Highway 192 to the Old Canoe Creek Road. We missed the exit and figured we would just exit later but available exits were Sunpass only and do not accept cash or credit cards. (Passes available to regular commuters.) We had to double back. Wild Florida has handy detailed instructions for getting there. (Note – the map below shows exiting at Exit 240. That is wrong. Exit at 244 if you do not have a Sunpass and head east to and turn right on Vermont Avenue which later becomes Old Canoe Creek Road.) Canoe Creek Road passes under the turnpike and you hang a right at Lake Cypress Road. Wild Florida advertises itself as being “in the middle of nowhere” and it truly is. It sits on the shore of Cypress Lake, a good size lake surrounded on three sides by nature preserves and on the fourth by farmland. Wild Florida includes a zoo and nature walk as well as offering airboat rides. And if you’ve never been on one, it is a must-do experience. We booked an hour long excursion. The airboat dock is offshore aways and accessed by a long boardwalk.
The airboat dock is accessed by a long boardwalk over a field of reeds and rushes.
The airboat dock is accessed by a long boardwalk over a field of reeds and rushes.
Our guide Will steered his airboat to a berth and we got on. Lifejackets and ear protection was handed out. The airboats are fairly loud. Will gave us a spiel about the lake and its 800 alligators, the many cypress trees and the flora and fauna that abound there. He also explained that the airboat was invented and developed in Canada in 1905 by a team led by Alexander Graham Bell – yep – the telephone guy!
3 - skipper Will and our airboat
Will steers our airboat to the dock to load passengers.
After his chat, Will revved up the engine and we tore along the shoreline at a good clip. The airboat is a flat-bottomed boat propelled by a large air prop at the rear behind the pilot. It skims over reeds and vegetation and is perfect for the Everglades. Our first foray took us along the shore where we could see many cypress trees, their branches seemingly dripping grey moss. But it was January and this would green up later in the year. Waterfowl took flight on our approach making a pretty picture. We stopped again as Will gave us some more interesting tidbits. Then the engine roared to life again and we sped across an area dense with reeds and rushes. All of a sudden Will pointed and shouted “Alligator”, pulling the airboat around and towards a clump of vegetation. The alligators like to bask atop a bunch of reeds to catch the sun. We spotted a big old gator soaking up some rays. I stood up and moved to the edge of the boat to get a good picture. Just after I snapped my shot, the gator got wind of me and hustled into the water. It moved so suddenly and so quickly it scared the heck out of me.
One big ole gator!
One big ole gator!
We took off once more and spotted more gators and some large turtles as well. And then we came across a rather gross dead animal floating in the water. A wild boar, Will said. Probably shot by a framer. They are considered pests. Will told us that the alligators would strip the carcass as it decomposes.
Eeeoooh! The carcass of a wild boar floating in the reeds. The alligators will strip the carcass as it decomposes.
Eeeoooh! The carcass of a wild boar floating in the reeds. The alligators will strip the carcass as it decomposes.
We cruised along some more and Will took us up Dead Man’s Creek – a small inlet dense with vegetation along its shores. We stopped inside this peaceful setting, taking in the quiet and the beauty of the scenery. Cypress trees were everywhere and Will explained that the many woody shafts poking out of the water around the trees were called cypress knees. Since the entire root system of the cypress is below water, the roots can’t get air. The knees are like so many snorkels bringing life-enhancing air to the roots.
A cypress grove up Dead Man's Creek. Notice the cypress knees, natural snorkels that bring air to the tree roots.
A cypress grove up Dead Man’s Creek. Notice the cypress knees, natural snorkels that bring air to the tree roots.
After a spell, Will revved up the engine once again and we took off slowly at first through the winding waterway, and then full blast through waters and marshes along a fence line. At one point he pointed the craft directly into a vast tract of reeds and we plowed over them  and stopped in the middle. Clearly a boat with the typical below-water propeller would get seriously tangled here. But the airboat – no sweat! We then headed out of the reeds and into open water charging at full speed across the kilometre or so of lake.  No gators here. They only hang out along the shoreline or in the marshes. During our ride I got a great photo of my wife and her sister, wind blowing their hair out behind them. With the ear protection headset, it reminded me of a famous Maxell battery ad from the 1980s called Blown Away Guy.
Blown Away Gals!
Blown Away Gals!
Back at the dock we walked around Hawk Swamp, an area of cypress swamp with boardwalks letting you observe the swamp up close. A large sign warned not to touch the snakes!
Beware of snakes!
Beware of snakes!
After the swamp walk, we headed for the wildlife preserve where they had a variety of animals on display – a small zoo really. It had tropical birds, raccoons, lemurs, pythons and a giant tortoise among other things. But the big attraction, of course, were the gators. Lots of them. There were elevated walkways above the water and you could get baggies of tasty treats to throw to them.
Lots of gators!
Lots of gators!
In most zoos, the animals are fairly quiet and subdued. Not here. The pythons were on the move. The parrots were squawkers. And the alligators, when food was offered, were eager and energetic swimmers. So if you’re ever in Orlando and looking for something more fun than Universal Studios or Disney World, check out Wild Florida. It was one of the highlights of our visit. Click on Photo Gallery for additional pics or scroll on down if you are on the main page. Follow us on Facebook!
Posted on
This article was previously published at Travelicious as Wild Florida. There may be slight variations in this article including an improved  map and travel guide as well as an additional photo gallery.

Photo Gallery: Wild Florida

Follow us on Facebook!

Here are some additional pictures of our Wild Florida visit.

Our guide Will revs up the engines!
Our guide Will revs up the engines!
A flock of birds takes flight as we approach.
A flock of birds takes flight as we approach.
Large cypress tree up Dead Man's Creek
Large cypress tree up Dead Man’s Creek
DCIM100SPORT
A haunting wilderness – the swamps of the upper Everglades – Dead Man’s Creek at Cypress Lake
DCIM100SPORT
A giant cypress tree
Zipping along the open lake
Zipping along the open lake
Yours truly posing for a pic in the captain's chair. Would have been a blast to actually drive one of these airboats!
Yours truly posing for a pic in the captain’s chair. Would have been a blast to actually drive one of these airboats!
Large turtles are also residents of the lake.
Large turtles are also residents of the lake.
One honking big alligator!
One honking big alligator!
And another!
And another!
The zoo had a number of different species on display including these colorful parrots.
The zoo had a number of different species on display including these colourful parrots.
This African porcupine was out for a walk on the dock with a zoo keeper earlier.
This African porcupine was out for a walk on the dock with a zoo keeper earlier.
There were several long-tailed lemurs.
There were several long-tailed lemurs.
Say hello to this owl.
Say hello to this owl.
One last look at our Wild Flrida adventure - plowing through the reeds on our airboat.
One last look at our Wild Florida adventure – plowing through the reeds on our airboat.

Kennedy Space Center: The Space Shuttle Atlantis

Follow us on Facebook!

This is the second of two parts on the Kennedy Space Center. Part 1 looked at the bus tour which takes you to the Apollo-Saturn V Center. Today we continue with a tour of the Visitor Complex.

The handy map of the Visitor Complex at the Kennedy Space Center notes some twenty attractions and lists some as must-see. These include an IMAX Theatre with several shows available, an Astronaut Encounters theatre where you can actually meet a real astronaut, an early space exploration museum, the impressive rocket plaza which feature eight different rockets on display, all but one standing on end as they would have been during launch, and the piece de resistance – the fabulous Space Shuttle Atlantis display.

KSC Map - r
The map that comes with the visitor’s guide.

The Kennedy Space Center is still an active rocket launch site and on occasion you may be able to witness the actual launch of a rocket. Such happens to be the case tomorrow, May 26, 2016. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch at 5:40 PM EDT tomorrow. Regular visitors may be able to access viewing locations as part of their pass on a first come, first served basis. There is also premium seating at Launch Pad 39’s Observation Gantry.

The blurb on the KSC website says that “LC-39 Observation Gantry offers a premium, up-close view of the rocket on the launch pad and during lift off. You can feel the force of the launch and hear the roar of the engines from the launch pads at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. This area features lawn and bleacher seating and live launch commentary. The package includes launch transportation, a light snack and souvenir t-shirt. Launch Viewing/Transportation Tickets to LC-39 Observation Gantry are available for $49 in addition to daily admission.” But at the time of writing, all tickets have been sold out.

The Rocket Plaza
The Rocket Plaza

While we enjoyed the various displays we took in, the big one, the one that is a must-must-see is the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Outside the building that houses the actual Space Shuttle Atlantis are the two large solid rocket boosters and external fuel tank that propelled the shuttles into space. Walking by them reminds you of the lines of that poem about a colossus bestriding the world. They are like two large legs.

DCIM100SPORT
The giant rockets and fuel tank used for the Space Shuttle launches.
DCIM100SPORT
Inside looking out at the two solid rocket boosters in front of the building.

Inside you attend a short film before going through the doors to see the shuttle itself. The Space Shuttle Atlantis flew 33 missions and was the last space shuttle launched before the Space Shuttle program was discontinued in 2011. It has been supplanted by the International Space Station program, the Orion project (which will see men land on Mars in the 2020s) and private agencies such as SpaceX which was founded by Elon Musk.

DCIM100SPORT
The Space Shuttle Atlantis, an awesome sight!

Needless to say, the Space Shuttle Atlantis is enormous. There is a large viewing platform to experience the shuttle from different vantage points. From directly in front, you see the open cargo bay as well as its two Canadarms, the two robotic arms that Canada’s space agency supplied and which are used to manipulate materials in space. One of the arms is extended.

DCIM100SPORT
The cargo bay with its two Canadarms.

Behind the viewing platform are various displays including a mock-up of the pilot’s seat which you can sit in.

My wife the astronaut! Janis takes the pilot seat in this cockpit mock-up.
My wife the astronaut! Janis takes the pilot seat in this cockpit mock-up.

Navigating down the stairs you find a variety of models and displays about the space shuttle and its history. And you get a good look at the underbelly of the beast with all its nicks and scorch marks from its many fiery re-entries.

The belly of the beast. Note the many nicks and scorch marks.
The belly of the beast. Note the many nicks and scorch marks.

It is on this lower level that you also get to experience another must-do experience. The Shuttle Launch Experience is a thrill ride designed by Bob Rogers and BRC Imagination Arts who have designed attractions for Disney, Universal Studios and many more clients. This one has to rank as one of the best. It simulates what it is like to be an astronaut blasting off into space.

Before going in, you have your picture taken. Then you enter the ride itself where you are seated and strapped in. A large screen in front of you shows the exterior of the space shuttle launch pad. You have the sensation of being tilted back in your seats so you are facing up as you would be in a real space shuttle. The count down begins. The tension mounts as launch approaches. Then – blast off!

The screen shows huge flares of flame bursting from the booster rockets. And I have no idea how they create this effect, but damn if you don’t actually feel G forces pulling you back into the seat. You feel the rumble and the shaking, the intense vibrations. And after the boosters and external tank have fallen away, you feel like you are floating in space. This ride has to be experienced to be believed. Simply amazing.

After leaving the ride, you find out that that picture they took of you earlier is now available – with a twist. Yep!  It’s you in full astronaut gear.

Janis and I in full astronaut gear. 

After the Space Shuttle Experience we wandered over to the gift shop which is extensive and worth a visit. Heading out we passed a wall with a mural of the International Space Station and flags of all the participating countries.

The International Space Station mural and flags of participant countries.
The International Space Station mural and flags of participant countries.

The sun was starting to set as we left. A very enjoyable day. And we still did not see everything. We will return some day! I have a few unused photos left but not enough for a separate page, so I’ll just close off with a few extra pics.

Sunset over the Rocket Plaza
Sunset over the Rocket Plaza
The front end of the Atlantis Space Shuttle
The front end of the Atlantis Space Shuttle
The back end of Atlantis Space Shuttle
The back end of Atlantis Space Shuttle
DCIM100SPORT
The open cargo bay of the Space Shuttle with the extended Canadarm
The rockets of Atlantis
The rockets of Atlantis
DCIM100SPORT
Sunset over Rocket Plaza

Follow us on Facebook!

Southeast Asia Cruise – January 2016

Follow us on Facebook!

On January 22, 2016, my wife and I went on our sixth cruise – a cruise promoted as a taste of Southeast Asia. We had never been in Southeast Asia before, except for a brief stopover at the Kuala Lumpur airport on our way to Perth, Australia. But it has always been a popular destination for Canadians with many visiting Thailand, Viet Nam, Singapore and Malaysia among others. So it was another part of the world that needed exploring.

I’ve already posted about all our ports of call as well as about our stay in Singapore. So this post is about the cruise itself. Cruises are a destination in themselves, even if you never get off the ship. In 2009 we took a fourteen day trans-Atlantic cruise and were at sea for seven straight days, as long as this entire cruise. There is always something to do and to keep you entertained.

The Mariner of the Seas at Anchor in Patong bay.
The Mariner of the Seas at Anchor in Patong bay.

This cruise was with Royal Caribbean aboard the Mariner of the Seas, a huge ship, one of five Voyager class ships. We have cruised on its sister ship, the Navigator of the Seas twice before. But each has its own distinctive style with unique art work for each.

Sculpted fruit and ice are traditional on first days to welcome guests aboard.
Sculpted fruit and ice are traditional on first days to welcome guests aboard.

We had pre-boarded online so everything went smoothly when we arrived to board. Right away we went for a meal and everything was decked out to welcome people, and to hail the upcoming Chinese New Year.

The gymnasium on the Mariner of the Seas.
The gymnasium on the Mariner of the Seas.

The time between boarding and setting sail is a great time to explore the ship and find out where everything is. It’s also a great time to check out the many facilities which are all open for inspection. We checked out the health and beauty salons where you can get your hair done or have a massage or work out in the extensive gym. We entered a draw to win a spa treatment. At the draw my wife won a $100 coupon towards a treatment and she used it later to get a stone massage.

You can get a stone massage on the ship.
You can get a stone massage on the ship.

We also confirmed our dinner reservations and at 5:30 went for dinner where we met our dining companions for the trip, a couple from Melbourne and their 13 year old son. We also met our wait staff.

Our dinner companions, Ned, Annie and Josh, were always fun to talk to and we spent an evening together at the karaoke bar as well.

IMG_3748r
Our dinner companions and our wait staff. Left to right: Myself, Janis, Assistant Waiter Albert, Josh, Waiter Rodriguez, Ned, Head waiter Jamal, Annie

As with all cruises, there is entertainment every night in the theatre. The MC is usually the Cruise Director for the trip. Ours was a fellow from mainland China who went by the name of Fang. He started by introducing some interesting facts and figures about the makeup of guests and crew. There were guests from 53 different countries and crew from 43.

IMG_3136r
Looking down at some of the swimming pools and hot tubs on the ship.

He started by saying, “There is one guest from each of the following countries…” and listed them by name – around twenty or so. Then he went on to list the countries which had two guests aboard. And then three and so on. The top five were Singapore and the United States with about 200 guests from each, Great Britain with around 500, China with about 500 and Australia with over a thousand people. Total was around 3300.

The number of guests and crew from mainland China is a good indication of how much China has changed since the rigid days of Maoism. Nobody could leave the country then. It was a veritable prison. And those caught flirting with capitalism could be shot. But here were 500 guests from China enjoying the good life.

Many cruise ships have large theatres and provide nightly shows.
Many cruise ships have large theatres and provide nightly shows.

The entertainment on this trip was below par compared to the other Royal Caribbean cruises we have been on. One of the downsides was the the usual complement of staff singers and dancers boarded the same time as us and so did not make an appearance until the last day after they had done extensive rehearsing. But the nightly talent was lack lustre as well. We enjoyed some of it, but it lacked flare.

There were light flares going out from the top of the stage that made it look like the crown worn by the Statue of Liberty.
There were light flares going out from the top of the stage that made it look like the crown worn by the Statue of Liberty.

The first night featured an Australian male trio called La Forza. They were pretty good – sort of like the Three Tenors but they did more pop than classical music. The second night featured violinist Venus Tsai who was a finalist in China’s Got Talent. We weren’t particularly interested but popped in at the back of the audience for a few minutes part way through to check her out. She was very talented, but the audio mix was terrible. She was drowned out by the ship’s orchestra. But people who went enjoyed her very much.

The third night had Australian comedy magician Duck Cameron. I’m a huge fan of magic and looked forward to the show, but we were both disappointed. The magic was ordinary, nothing we hadn’t seen before. And the comedy was lame. The fourth night featured Australian singer Tamara Guo. She had a good voice but her presentation was horrible. She said she was suffering from a sore throat and was constantly apologizing for it. And she spent more than half of the act telling her life story instead of singing. People were walking out of the show in droves.

I didn’t save the calendars for days 5 and 6, but I believe there was no show on the fifth because we were in Phuket for two days so people could seek entertainment ashore if they wanted. Day six was an Australian comedian who was so-so. And day seven featured a production extravaganza with the ship’s singers and dancer called Center Stage. The Royal Caribbean cruises always have a very talented cast of singers and dancers and this show was no exception. An enjoyable evening.

These clowns were among the entertainers in the ice show - Ice Under the Big Top.
These clowns were among the entertainers in the ice show – Ice Under the Big Top.

But I must put in a word for the very best show on the ship. The Mariner of the Seas, like her sister ships, has an ice rink. Guests could skate during designated hours, but there was also an ice show. There were several showings and we went on the afternoon of the last day. And it was fabulous. The show, called Big Top on Ice, had a circus theme. Brilliantly coloured costumes and fabulous skating.

Some excellent skating in the ice show.
Some excellent skating in the ice show.

It so happened that Australia Day happened during the cruise and with such a large contingent of Aussies aboard, the ship celebrated as well.

Fruit carved for Australia Day!
Fruit and decorations for Australia Day!

On the last day we also took advantage of an opportunity to tour the ship’s galley for a nominal charge. This tour included a complementary Royal Caribbean Recipe Book and a champagne lunch. The book alone was worth the money.  And the behind-the-scenes look at the galley was very interesting. They churn out a lot of meals with three decks of fine dining restaurant as well as an almost constantly open serve yourself buffet style restaurant, the Windjammer.

One of the chefs preparing chickens for dinner.
One of the chefs preparing chickens for dinner.

Of course, there were a lot of amenities we did not take advantage of – basketball courts, miniature golf, rock climbing and so on. But we did use the swimming pools a lot.

Miniature golf was one of many amenities on the Mariner of the Seas.
Miniature golf was one of many amenities on the Mariner of the Seas.

One of the great pleasure of each Royal Caribbean cruise is the singing waiters and chefs. Once and sometimes twice on a cruise, the wait staff will march around the room waving white towels as they congregate on the staircase. Then the head of the dining department gives a little speech praising their work and they then sing for their guests. We had our wait staff entertain us twice this cruise and it was great fun.

I’ve written about our ports of call already but here are links to my blog posts on each in case you missed them. Note that some have links at the end of the articles to additional photo galleries.

All in all, this was a interesting and exciting cruise. Not the best cruise we have been on, but memorable all the same.

Follow us on Facebook!

The Joy of Cruising

“They called her the Ship of Dreams. And she was. She really was.” You may remember those words spoken by old Rose in the movie Titanic. The Titanic was spectacular as the movie shows, with gilded dining rooms, gorgeous wooden staircases, luxury suites and more.

Replica of the staircase of the Titanic at the Titanic Exhibit at the Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre until March 20, 2016.
Replica of the staircase of the Titanic at the Titanic Exhibit at the Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre until March 20, 2016.

Of course, not all passengers travelled in such style. They also had a steerage section with bunk beds and much poorer amenities. And much of the more luxurious parts of the ship were off limits to steerage passengers.

Third class passenger facilities on the Titanic as shown at the Titanic Exhibit in Perth.Third class passenger facilities on the Titanic as shown at the Titanic Exhibit in Perth.

But the Titanic was doomed! She hit an iceberg and did not have enough lifeboats to save everyone. Nor did the crew have training in how to get people to the lifeboats they did have and many of them went out only partially filled. The sinking of the Titanic was one of the most tragic maritime disasters ever.

Today things are significantly better. Not only are many modern cruise ships much larger (the 60 largest cruise ships in the world are all larger than the Titanic), they are as luxurious, probably even more so. And while the price of suites varies, the poorest suites are still very comfortable and everyone has access to the fine dining rooms, the swimming pools and all the other facilities of the ship.

Modern cruise ships truly are Ships of Dreams. They really are.

Unfortunately, my wife and I got into cruising a bit late in life. We took our first cruise in 2005 when our friends Chris and Sheila invited us to join them on a repositioning cruise from San Diego to Vancouver. I was 57 then. The cruise was on board Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas. It was a terrific experience and got us hooked on cruising.

IMG_3376rThe Mariner of the Seas at anchor in Batong Bay, Thailand.

In all we’ve taken the following six cruises:

  1. May 2005 – Radiance of the Seas – six night repositioning cruise from San Diego to Vancouver with stops in San Francisco, Astoria, Oregon and Victoria, B.C.
  2. March 2006 – Vision of the Seas – seven night Mexican Riviera from Los Angeles to Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta and back to L.A.
  3. April 2009 – Navigator of the Seas – 14 night repositioning cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Barcelona, Spain with stops at the Canary Islands, Lisbon, Portugal, and Cadiz, and Malaga in Spain. We stayed an extra three days in Barcelona.
  4. Sept. 2011 – Navigator of the Seas – 7 night Eastern Mediterranean starting and ending at Civitivecchia, Italy with stops in Sicily, Athens, Kusadasi (Ephesus) in Turkey, and Crete.  This trip started with a week in Paris before flying to Rome. We spent an extra day in Rome after the cruise before flying back to Paris and then back to Vancouver.
  5. January 2015 – Ruby Princess – 7 night Eastern Caribbean cruise beginning and ending in Fort Lauderdale with stops at Eleuthra (an island that is part of the Bahamas), St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Maarten, and back to Nassau in the Bahamas.
  6. January 2016 – Mariner of the Seas – 7 night Spice of Southeast Asia cruise beginning and ending at Singapore with stops in Port Klang (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), Penang and Langkawi, both in Malaysia and two nights in Phuket, Thailand.

I’ll write about the different ports of call for each of these cruises over time in this blog. But today, just an overview of cruising in general.

When you consider that the cruise includes accommodations as well as all meals, it is certainly one of the most economical ways to travel. Many cruises can be had for just over $100 a person per day.

Repositioning cruises are usually a bargain. What’s that, you ask? Cruise companies have some of their ships do seasonal runs. For example, there is a regular Alaska run from Vancouver to Alaska during the summer months. But in the fall, the Alaska run ships are moved down to Los Angeles or elsewhere. And vice versa. Our first cruise was an end of season run from San Diego to Vancouver. The ship had finished up a Mexican Riviera season and was heading north for the Alaska run

Our third cruise was a repositioning cruise as well – from a Caribbean season to a Mediterranean season. Fort Lauderdale to Barcelona. I don’t recall the price but I believe it was under $100 a person per night.

Boarding usually takes several hours so if you board early, you get the run of the ship for a few hour before leaving port. You can dine at one of the many dining rooms, or hang out at one of the pools soaking up the sun and sipping a Margarita.

Three story dining aboard the Mariner of the Seas. You can enjoy a meal minutes after boarding.Three story dining aboard the Mariner of the Seas. You can enjoy a meal minutes after boarding.

Before the ship leaves port, however, all passengers are assembled for a muster drill. The Titanic notoriously was short on lifeboats and many people died in that tragedy. Nowadays muster drills are mandatory. All passengers are shown where their lifeboats are and how to use the life vests that are in every cabin. After the muster drill, it’s time to leave port.

IMG_2928rAssembled for the muster drill on our latest cruise. Our lifeboat was D9 above us.

All the ships we’ve been on make a big deal of leaving port with a poolside party, a live band, and special drinks at a discounted price. (While meals are included on a cruise, alcohol and some drinks are not). We always enjoy leaving port. It’s always a party atmosphere.

Band plays as we leave Fort Lauderdale aboard the Ruby Princess - January 2015.Band plays as we leave Fort Lauderdale aboard the Ruby Princess – January 2015.

On most cruises, you have the same dining companions every evening for dinner, and one or two evenings are considered formal. You get dressed up in your best bib and tucker. You’re not obligated to have the same dining companions for the entire cruise, but we have always done so. You get to know your dinner companions and can develop new and lasting friendships.

Janis and I on formal night aboard the Navigator of the Seas - April 2009Janis and I on formal night aboard the Navigator of the Seas – April 2009

Meals aboard every cruise we have been on have been superb. First class food and first class service. You have three people attending to you – your waiter, your assistant waiter and your head waiter. Like all staff aboard modern cruise ships, they come from all over the world. We have forgotten most of their names over time, but we always remember our assistant waiter from our first cruise. She was a delightful person with a delightful name – Lily. Made memorable because she was from South America and always introduced herself as Lily from Chile!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARay, one of our dinner companions on our first cruise, was from New York City. And that smiling gal beside him is Lily from Chile. Still our favourite wait person of any cruise.

Most modern cruise ships have many amenities to keep passengers entertained. Every ship has a swimming pool, usually several. Hot tubs too. Many have large theatres for live shows. And some of the fancier ships have such things as skating rinks, ziplines, waterslides, flow-riders (so you can learn to surf), rock climbing walls, video arcades for teenagers, basketball courts, miniature golf and so on. You’ll also find spas, hair salons, gyms and fitness centres.

Each cruise also has a Cruise Director who is the manager of entertainment on the cruise and acts as Master of Ceremonies for most shows and events. On our last cruise, our cruise director was a fellow named Fang from Mainland China. Back in Mao’s day he would probably have been shot for such decadent behaviour.  China’s come a long way, baby! There were, in fact, over 500 passengers from China on that cruise.

Each ship has its own orchestra and singers and dancers. On our tran-Atlantic cruise, we were seven days at sea without seeing land and the dancers offered hip hop dance lessons for free. My wife and I and our friends all took part and performed in the last evening’s show!

On three of our cruises, the ships had huge promenades with shops, pubs, and coffee shops. They were on either side of a large boulevard down the middle of the ship, as wide as a street. An overhead walkway provided the centre stage for occasional street parties.

Our stateroom overlooked the promenade on the Mariner of the Seas. Its the last one before the DJ booth, second level up.Our stateroom overlooked the promenade on the Mariner of the Seas. Its the last one before the DJ booth, second level up.

Most modern cruise ships stop along the way and there are organized excursions at each port of call. You can take an excursion or just leave the ship and wander around on your own. The excursions cost extra but sometimes are well worth it. Prices vary.

On our cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Barcelona, we took an excursion in the Canary Islands to Mount Teide, a dormant volcano and the setting for the movie One Million BC with Raquel Welch. I wrote about that in a previous blog post. But we decided to wander on our own in Lisbon, Cadiz and Malaga and enjoyed those visits immensely, discovering things on our own we would probably have missed on an excursion. I’ll write about those in upcoming posts.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the pleasures of creating your own excursion is the unexpected finds, like the feral cats of Cadiz. Now that’s a story! (Watch for future posts!)

On our last trip we took excursions at each port of call, but regretted one of them – it was remarkably dull. But it was mercifully short and we had some time to wander on our own. Other excursions were money well spent, particularly one we took in Phuket, Thailand. We also enjoyed our excursion to Kuala Lumpur which I’ve also written about earlier.

All in all, we have really enjoyed cruising. It’s a relatively economical way to see a lot of the world in a short space of time. Most of our cruises have been for a week. Our longest was for two weeks. But there are many cruises that last over a month.

We will cruise again. So far we have only been on two cruise lines – Royal Caribbean and Princess Cruises, but we would like to try other lines. In port we have seen the Norwegian Cruise Line ships and they look terrific. The Disney Cruise Lines also look good, but probably have lots of kids aboard and are not as geared to adults. My parents, because they were Dutch, always cruised with Holland-America Lines, partially because many of the crew spoke Dutch.

More on cruising and specific cruises in later posts.