Our Panama Canal Cruise

One of the things on our bucket list was to take a cruise through the Panama Canal.  On Nov. 15 we did just that. It was a sixteen day cruise that left from Fort Lauderdale, traversed the Panama Canal, and ended up in Los Angeles. There were six ports-of-call along the way.

Our ship was Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas. She was specifically built to do the Panama Canal circuit and barely fits in the locks of the canal. This was our second time on the Vision as we had taken the same ship on a Mexican Riviera cruise in 2006.

We left Fort Lauderdale a bit late.  Every cruise starts with a bon voyage party on the pool deck but it was raining when we left so the party was moved to the Centrum, the big open entertainment space that vaults from the fourth to the eleventh floor.

Looking down at a dance party at the Centrum from the eighth floor.

Today’s post will give an overview of the cruise with separate posts about each port of call to follow. This was our seventh cruise and our longest to date. After two nights and a full day of sailing, we arrived at our first planned port-of-call, Georgetown on the Grand Cayman Island. This was a tendering port, which means the ship does not actually dock. It lies at anchor nearby and passengers are ferried back and forth to the mainland on small craft called tenders.

Unfortunately, the seas were a bit rough and for safety reasons, the tenders could not run. The captain made an announcement and we sailed on by.

Our only glimpse of the Caymans as we sailed on by. We missed swimming with the turtles.

The islands were named Las Tortugas by Christopher Columbus because of the abundance of turtles there. These creatures were hunted to near-extinction and the islands renamed the Caymans after the caiman, a smallish member of the alligator family. Turtles have made a significant comeback and our planned excursion was to a conservation centre, home to 11,000 green sea turtles . Part of the adventure included an opportunity to swim with yearling sea turtles. We were sorry to have missed it.

In any event, we sailed on for another day and half and arrived at the next port-of-call, Cartagena, Colombia on November 19. There we visited an historic Spanish fortress and other venues around the city. I’ll cover those in a later post but leave you with this picture of the fort.

The Castillo San Felipe de Barajas dates from 1536.

With six ports-of-call and a full day traversing the Panama Canal, that meant ten full days at sea. What does one do on a sea day? Well, all modern cruise ships are outfitted with a wide variety of facilities including a full-size theater. Each travels with a contingent of in-house singers and dancers as well as a small orchestra. These are invariably first class.

One of the singers and  four of the Vision of the Seas dancers perform with the orchestra.

Every evening there is a theater show, even while in port as the ship usually leaves before showtime and sails overnight. And there is a full entertainment staff that organizes various events around the ship during the day. There are several bands to entertain and perform at dance parties. One of the bands on our trip was called The Celebration Band and they performed regularly on the pool deck as well as in the Centrum.

The theater shows usually feature first-rate entertainment and there were magicians, comedians, and singers on hand. The Vision of the Seas singers and dancers put on a couple of Broadway style extravaganzas. Our favorite entertainers included the magician Bill Cook, the comedians Wilde & James, Landry, and the Queen of Southern Sass, Etta May. The comedians usually performed a late night adult show as well.

Magician Bill Cook is a master showman.
Comedienne Etta may is smart and sassy.

Of the singers brought on to perform shows, our favorite was Australian sax player and singer Hayden Smith and his wife Alexa Jayne. They did two shows at the theater and then performed at a dance party in the Centrum. A terrific show.

Besides the entertainment, the Cruise Director’s staff organized a wide variety of events like trivia quizzes, contests, and educational things like learning origami or how to play better bridge.

From Cartagena we sailed overnight to the Panama Canal. Wow! What an adventure. The Panama Canal is one of the greatest engineering feats in history and traveling through this historic landmark was a thrill. I’ll be doing a separate blog post on the crossing as there is so much history and background to relate. For now, I’ll leave you with two pictures of the crossing.

Our cruise ship is waiting for the last gates of the Gatun Locks to open so we can proceed. Meanwhile a freighter is ready to enter the locks going the other direction.

Many miles inland is the Culebra Cut, a deep trench dug into the earth as part of the canal.

Another activity which has been a feature of every cruise we’ve taken is an art auction. Park West Galleries conducts such auctions on most major cruise lines. And on this occasion, we bought a painting, the third time we have bought art on a cruise ship.

An art auction at sea. This pic is from our first cruise in 2005. I didn’t take photos of the auction on this voyage.

The painting we bought is called Euterpe-Jupiter, part of a series featuring Greek Muses. It is digitally produced on aluminum through dye sublimation and is hand signed and numbered by the artist. The print edition is 130. The picture arrived by Fedex yesterday fully framed. 

Euterpe-Jupiter, a limited edition by Peter Nixon, is digitally produced on aluminum through dye sublimation. It is hand signed and numbered by the artist. It is part of a series of pictures of the Greek Muses.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fine dining that you get on a cruise ship. All Royal Caribbean ships have large formal dining rooms as well as a large cafeteria style restaurant called the Windjammer. Cruising is like going to an all-inclusive resort as all meals and food is included in the price of the cruise. Alcohol and soft drinks, however, cost extra. There are also several upscale restaurants which you have to pay for. You can opt for a scheduled time for dining or pick open dining. We opted for eight o’clock meals. Our waiter, assistant waiter and head waiter were top notch.

Our waiter Francisco from Mexico, head waiter Hans from Germany, and assistant waiter Andrii from Ukraine. Hans was a raconteur and always had a story, a puzzle or a joke to tell.

One of the fun things on Royal Caribbean cruises is that a couple of times the entire wait staff or kitchen staff will march around the dining room and congregate on the staircase to sing or dance for us. The head chef gave a short speech in which he talked about the spirit of good will and friendship that characterizes a cruise ship. People from 67 countries were on staff on our ship, a veritable united nations.

Before closing, I’ll just give you a quick rundown of our other ports-of-call. I’ll be doing a separate post on each. I’ll include one pic from each below.

Every stop has a variety of excursions to choose from. You can also get off the ship and make your own arrangements, which sometimes is the better option. We took a tour at each stop.

The first was stop was Cartagena, already mentioned. The second was Panama where we took an excursion called Monkey Watch where you get to see monkeys in the wild.

A Capuchin monkey seen during our Monkey Watch tour.

Our third stop was Costa Rica where we took another boat ride to see crocodiles and lots of tropical birds on the Tarcoles River. 

A snowy egret on the Tarcoles River in Costa Rica.

Our fourth top was Puerto Quetzal in Guatemala. We opted to take a tour of the ancient city of Antigua. Founded in 1543, it served as the first capital of Guatemala.  Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions forced the capital to be relocated in 1776. Antigua has been rebuilt over time and is now a popular tourist attraction with its historic architecture and seventeenth century feel. 

The Iglesia de La Merced in Antigua, Guatemala

Our fifth stop was not originally on the itinerary. But because the Cayman stop had to be scrapped, our Captain worked behind the scenes to add Huatulco, Mexico to the trip. We took advantage of the opportunity to visit a private beach up the coast where we lounged in the sun and swam in the bay.

Secluded beach near Huatulco, Mexico

Our final port-of-call was Puerto Vallarta. This was our third visit to this lovely place but I’ve never gotten around to posting a blog about it. I’ll borrow from all our visits when I do. On this occasion we took a sailing yacht along the coast to Los Arcos, a couple of mammoth rocky outcrops frequented by hundreds of pelicans. 

Sailing past one of the Los Arcos – the arches, a couple of rocky outcrops where pelicans nest.

As the end of our cruise approached, there was a big farewell show at the theater and in the Centrum a grand ceremony called the International Parade of Nations. Representatives of all the 67 nations employed on the ship gathered waving their flags. Some gave a short performance. It was a colorful and exciting affair and a fitting close to a fabulous cruise. The fellowship and good will that abounds on these cruises is inspirational. Maybe the true road to world peace is to have all the world’s leaders take a cruise together to see how people can live in fellowship and harmony.

Follow the link below for an additional photo gallery.

Photo Gallery: Panama Canal Cruise

Here are some additional photos and videos of our cruise. The photo above is of the ship in port at Huatulco, Mexico. I’ll be adding separate posts for the canal transit and the ports-of-call later.

The pool deck


The Celebration Band playing on the pool deck


Our state room. We went for an inside cabin to save money. Balconies are nice, but we were out and about much more than we were in our room.


One of several large ship models aboard the Vision of the Seas. Art work abounds on cruise ships. A nautical theme is popular.


Another model ship


Public art on one of the stairwells. Each landing on each staircase had some sort of art, ranging from modern to items like these which had a classical Greek air to them.
Janis and I at dinner on one of the formal nights.


The theater was called the Masquerade Theater and had a medieval theme on its drop curtain.


The brass section of the Vision of the Seas Orchestra. Most of the nine piece band were Ukrainian, including leader Sascha on the trombone, but there was also an Israeli, a Pole and, as I recall, a Bulgarian. They were amazing. A very tight band and very versatile.


There were a couple of shows featuring the Vision of the Seas Singers and Dancers


The four singers – the one second from left is Sarah from Vancouver, Canada. The dancers and the orchestra are seen in the background.


One of the last shows had all the executive members of the crew join in as well as some of the kitchen crew.


The kitchen staff also did a couple of parades around the dining room. The head chef gave an inspiring speech.

The wait staff also had a couple of parades around the dining room and danced for us.


The Centrum was always a hive of activity. Here are Mr. and Mrs. Smith – Hayden and Alexa Jane, putting on a great show.

If you’ve ever played Where’s Waldo, here’s a variation – find my wife Janis!


Early in the voyage, Cruise Director Steve Davis conducted lessons for anyone who wanted to participate in learning the Thriller dance moves. Near the end of the trip, the forty of them, made up like zombies, performed for the crowd.

And we close off this overview of the Panama Canal cruise with this photo of the International Parade of nations celebration. 812 crew members from 67 countries worked o n the Vision of the Seas.

Remembering Notre Dame

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Janis and I had the pleasure of spending a week in Paris in 2011 to mark our thirtieth anniversary and we loved it. One of the truly fabulous cities in the world. I’ve written about a number of our experiences there but never got around to writing about Notre Dame. We visited that grand piece of history on our fourth day.

Construction on the cathedral started in 1160 and was completed one hundred years later.  Although many of its religious icons were destroyed by the anti-clerical French Revolution, the interest sparked by Hugo’s great novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, led to a major restoration project in 1844. It has undergone various renovations ever since and was undergoing one when it caught fire on April 15th, 2019.

Notre Dame Cathedral – Sept. 20, 2011

The front facade shows its two bell towers, perhaps its most iconic feature which featured significantly in Victor Hugo’s novel.  But before ascending the towers, we took a look inside with its vaulted ceilings and magnificent stained glass windows. Regrettably, I had a piece of crap camera back in the day which doesn’t really do it justice.

Interior showing some of the stained glass and the vaulted ceiling. Much of this magnificent interior was destroyed in the fire of April 15, 2019.

The stained glass features were made possible through the use of flying buttresses.  These graceful arches on the outside of the building support the outward pressure of the walls, permitting the walls to be thinner and higher because of the reduction in mass.

The rear of Notre Dame.

But the pièce de resistance for us was the bell towers. There was a bit of a line-up as they can only be accessed by a long narrow staircase.  But it was worth the wait. Only one tower, the South one, was open to the public at the time. A narrow walkway surrounds the tower.

The walkway around the bell tower has some high metal fences added for safety. It was over one of these walls that Quasimodo threw the maniacal priest Claude Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The towers are sixty-nine meters high (226 feet) and were the tallest structures in Paris until the construction of the Eiffel Tower.  The view is panoramic. The photo below shows the Pantheon to the South.

The Pantheon as seen from the South bell tower of Notre Dame. The Sorbonne University is just in front of it and the Luxembourg Gardens are to the right.

One of the interesting features of Notre Dame are its gargoyles, chimeras and Strixes.  Gargoyles are the many rain spouts sticking out from the walls at intervals. Chimeras are statues of mythical creatures with the body of a lion and the head of a goat. And Strixes are flesh-eating creatures resembling an owl or bat.

One of Notre Dame’s chimera.

We entered the bell tower and checked out the massive bells.  The largest bell, known as the bourdon, survived the French Revolution intact. Many of the other bells were melted down by the revolutionaries. All the bells have names.

The Bordon Emmanuel weighing in at 13 tons, is the largest bell at Notre Dame. It is tuned to F Sharp.

Looking up towards the skylight at the top, you can see that much of the superstructure is made of wood. Wooden construction makes it vulnerable to fire like the one that destroyed the Eastern part of the cathedral.

Looking up towards the skylight, you can see a lot of wooden planking in the superstructure making it vulnerable to fire.

After visiting the bells we took a stroll around the outer walkway which gives you some excellent vantage pints for seeing the rest of the cathedral. The picture below is a composite of two mismatched photos which I fixed up a bit with Photoshop, but the bottom left and upper right were created by autofill and are a bit distorted.  But it captures mot of the back end of the church which was destroyed in the fire.

Composite picture shows the four roof lines and the spire or flèche which were destroyed in the fire of April 15, 2019.

Below is a view of some of the flying buttresses as seen from the tower.

Flying buttresses seen from the south tower.

Walking around the parapet we enjoyed spectacular views of the entire city. We also could see the North Bell Tower. Each tower also has a small turret off to the side and is covered by a skylight.

Skylight and turrret on the North Tower.

The plaza below the front facade of the church is a popular spot for Parisians to have lunch or just sit and enjoy the sunshine. The photo below shows a riverboat going by as well as many visitors to the plaza.

Looking down on the plaza from the bell towers.

We leave our tour with a view of the spire or flèche which collapsed in the fire.  After the picture you’ll find a link to an additional photo gallery.

The spire, destroyed in the blaze.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Notre Dame and are much saddened by the fire that destroyed so much of it. It was an important piece of history and a fabulous work of art.  We are grateful that we had an opportunity to visit it eight years ago.  Below is a link to a photo gallery.

Photo Gallery: Notre Dame Cathedral

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Here are some additional photos of Notre Dame.

The imposing front facade of Notre Dame with its twin bell towers.
One wall of Notre Dame. Note the gargoyle drain spouts.
A strix on the west facade.
The massive stained glass window at the rear of the cathedral.
From the back of the church you can see the flying buttresses supporting the walls of the church.
The turret on the North Tower.
Looking north-east past the spire.
Looking down at the hospital across the street from Notre Dame.
Newlyweds posing for pictures in the plaza below the towers. Lots of pigeons in the square.
Paris with the Eiffel Tower in the distance as seen from Notre Dame’s South Tower.
The rear of the chuch.

And that’s it. Hope you enjoyed the tour.

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Suburban Vancouver: An Overview

Follow us on Facebook! This is a follow-up to my previous post, Vancouver: An Overview. In it I gave a rundown of a variety of attractions in the city of Vancouver proper. Today I continue with a list of things visitors to Vancouver may find interesting in the suburbs. And I am using the term loosely to refer to the panoply of towns and cities stretching from Harrison Hot Springs in the east to Squamish in the west. This is hardly an exhaustive listing simply because there are too many to cover them all and I don’t even know of them all. This is based mainly on my personal experience or what I have heard from others.

Harrison Hot Springs
Harrison Hot Springs is about an hour and a half east of downtown Vancouver nestled beside beautiful Harrison Lake. It is a popular site for boating and just walking along the waterfront. You can take a boat excursion of the lake or rent your own boat if you like. As the name suggests, there is a local hot springs nearby and the town has a public swimming pool which has hot water pumped in from the hot springs. There are a variety of hotel, gift shops and restaurants as well.
Harrison Mills
Harrison Mills is a tiny farming community about twenty minutes from Harrison Hot Springs but with some interesting attractions for the visitor to Vancouver. These include Rowena’s on the River, the old homestead of a wealthy lumber baron that was turned into an inn by his children. The inn hosted a Great Gatsby Party a few years ago which I wrote about here. This year they are hosting a Harvest Moon Longtable Dinner on September 16th. Dining under the stars.
Rowena's Inn on the River
Rowena’s Inn on the River
The inn is also adjacent to the Sandpiper Golf Course. And in mid-November it hosts the annual Bald Eagle Festival as majestic birds visit the river estuary to feast on spawning salmon. Not surprisingly then, another attraction near Harrison Mills is the Weaver Creek Salmon Spawning Channel. The channel is open to visitors during salmon spawning season from October 6 to Nov. 1. Peak activity is from October 15-20. And another attraction nearby is the Hemlock Valley Ski Resort.
Mission is a small town on the north shore of the Fraser River about an hour from Vancouver. It has two attractions I know of worth a visit. The most famous is Westminster Abbey, a benedictine monastery. Built in 1954, the site includes an abbey, a church and a seminary. It sits high on a hill and is notable for its distinctive steeple which can be seen for miles around. The second attraction of note in Mission is Cascade Falls, a remote wilderness park that I wrote about in a previous post. IMG_1432r
Abbotsford is the town where I live so I have a particular affection for ir and familiarity with its attractions. It is known as the City in the Country and has a lot of rolling farmland including many berry farms – blueberries and raspberries are big. And it has some wineries as well. The town abounds with walking trails – the Trans-Canada Trail runs for about twenty kilometres along the shore of the Fraser River. The Discovery Trail crosses the city and includes three lakes known as Fishtrap Creek. Mill Lake is also a favorite hiking location. And for the more energetic there is the Abbotsford Grind, a hike up Sumas Mountain. In the Spring, you’ll want to catch the Abbotsford Tulip Festival which I wrote about when it debuted in 2016.
Mount Baker forms a great backdrop to the tulip fields.
Mount Baker forms a great backdrop to the tulip fields.
And every August the city is host to the annual world-renowned Abbotsford International Airshow.
Fort Langley
Fort Langley is a nice little village steeped in history. The main attraction is the old fort, a wooden stockade with many artifacts and employees in period costume demonstrating some of the trades and crafts of a bygone era. The town itself is known for its many antique shops and boutiques as well as some nice restaurants.
White Rock
White Rock is a town adjacent to the border with the United States. The famous Peace Arch is here. White Rock also has a fine beach with a long pier where you’ll often see fishermen and crabbers. The boulevard running beside the beach front area is lined with small shops and restaurants. It is a popular dining locale with its seascape views and ocean breezes.
On the pier at White Rock
On the pier at White Rock
Richmond is a community immediately to the south of Vancouver and home to the Vancouver International Airport. Its most notable attraction is the Steveston Fisherman’s Wharf. Steveston is an old community and used to be home to a major salmon canning operation. The former cannery is now a fishing industry museum. Walking along the Steveston dock you’ll find many restaurants and small shops. And you’ll find fishmongers selling their wares from the boats tethered there.
Fresh fish are sold from the fishboats docked at Steveston
Fresh fish are sold from the fishboats docked at Steveston
Walk into the village and you’ll find a bakery, a garden shop, an ice cream parlour and other interesting shops. A short drive away is Garry Point Park. This park sits at the mouth of the Fraser River and is noted for its windiness and the many kite flyers that like to hang out there.
Directly across the river from Steveston is the Reifel Refuge, officially the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary. This is a great park to walk around in and observe a wide variety of waterfowl. Almost 300 species of bird have been seen here. Of particular interest are the annual flocks of snow geese, magnificent white birds that stop here on their migration from Wrangel Island in Russia. These birds usually start arriving in early October.
New Westminster
The main attraction in New Westminster is the Westminster Quay. Its large boardwalk overlooks the Fraser River. The site is home to a large farmer’s market as well as a number of excellent restaurants. You can also visit an historic paddle-wheeler. Always a fun outing.
Burnaby is the city directly east of Vancouver and is known for the large Metrotown Shopping Mall and the iconic Telus building as well as a number of fine parks. But for visitors, your best bet is a museum. The Burnaby Village Museum is a recreated period village that displays life in colonial times. Craft shops and restaurants are part of the mix. You’ll also find a restored 1912 carousel. The people working in the village are all dressed in period costumes. The village is a delight for young and old alike.
North Vancouver
North Vancouver is home to numerous attractions. Set in the mountains on the north shore of the Burrard Inlet, it can be reached by the Lions Gate Bridge at one end and by the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge at the other end.
  • Lynn Canyon Park – this beautiful park features a number of trails through a natural setting of tall evergreens, hilly landscapes, and a raging creek. To get to the main park area you cross Lynn Creek on a rickety suspension bridge that soars high above the creek bed. Lynn Creek emerges from a narrow canyon to the north into a wide pool where locals often like to swim and to dive off the cliffs. Meandering down an increasingly rocky bed, the stream picks up speed as it cascades over several waterfalls. Unfortunately, a number of people have tempted fate and drowned here. Trails take you to a lower bridge where you can cross back to the parking lot and concession stands. Lynn Creek is a must see in my book. And it’s free!
  • Capilano Canyon Suspension Bridge – this bridge over the Capilano River is a major tourist attraction. Besides the suspension bridge over the river, there is a walkway that overhangs the river. And there is a treetop adventure – elevated walkways between the trees. This is a private facility and an admission fee is charged.
  • Grouse Mountain – in the winter Grouse is known as a mecca for local skiers. But even in the summer, there are activities aplenty, from hiking to live shows – a timber show and a birds of prey show. You can take the chairlift to the top and see the wind turbine at the peak. There is also ziplining and a number of restaurants. And did I mention the grizzly bears? I wrote about Grouse in the summer in a previous blog post.
    They land below at a park near Cleveland Dam.
    Hang gliders soar from the peak of Grouse Mountain in the summer.
  • Cleveland Dam – this dam holds back the Capilano Reservoir which supplies much of Vancouver’s water.
  • Lonsdale Quay – a large public market with many fresh farm produce shops, meat and fish markets and more. Similar to Granville Island Public Market and Westminster Quay. Lonsdale Quay is also a terminus for the Seabus, a passenger ferry running between North Vancouver and downtown Vancouver.
West Vancouver
West Vancouver is home to a couple of nice nature parks, most notably Lighthouse Park and Whytecliff Park. It is also home to the Cypress Bowl ski area.
Squamish is a small town located about an hour’s drive from downtown Vancouver. It is nestled at the end of Howe Sound. The Sea to Sky Highway that takes you there passes the Britannia Beach Mining Museum, a former copper mine. Close to Squamish is a triple attraction, three places worth checking out and all within walking distance of each other. First is the thousand foot high Shannon Falls. This is a graceful airy cataract with wisps of spray catching the wind on the way down. You can easily walk right up to the base of the falls.
Beautiful Shannon Falls
Beautiful Shannon Falls
A short walk away is the Sea to Sky Gondola which takes you to the lower summit of Mount Habrich. There you’ll find trails and several viewing platforms giving sweeping panoramic views of Howe Sound.
Howe Sound seen from the top of the Sea to Sky Gondola
Howe Sound seen from the top of the Sea to Sky Gondola
One of the platforms gives a view from above the Stawamus Chief, the third part of this triple attraction. The Chief is a popular hiking and mountaineering destination. There is an easily accessible trail to the top of the Chief. But it is a strenuous hike and a challenge if you’re not in good shape.
Links of Interest

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Vancouver: An Overview

Follow us on Facebook! I have been asked to be a tour guide for some visitors from Australia in September. That will be a new experience for me and I thought, what better way to prepare for this than by putting together a post here on things to see and do in Vancouver. There are a lot of them. Vancouver is a cosmopolitan city, Canada’s western port and a hub for visitors and trade. The city itself has many attractions, but the greater Vancouver region has many more so I will cover the highlights of a trip to Vancouver. Vancouver covers a vast area, but the hub is the downtown. So we’ll begin there. If you’re staying at a downtown hotel, there are many things to see and do within walking distance. My wife and I have a timeshare downtown and occasionally enjoy a staycation downtown. Invariably we leave the car at the hotel and go on foot. After the map is a list of some downtown attractions as we take a walking tour starting in Gastown.

Gastown – this is an older part of Vancouver that consists of refurbished old buildings that have been turned into shops and restaurants, mostly geared to the tourist trade. The streets are cobbled and with the period streetlights and the famous Gastown steam clock, it has a certain charm.
The Gastown Steam Clock
The Gastown Steam Clock
Chinatown – Vancouver’s Chinatown is the largest in Canada and covers a large residential and business area. For tourists, the business district with its colorful signs and markets is the place to visit. Food markets abound with the occasional herbal medicine shop and other businesses thrown into the mix. And of course, there are several Chinese restaurants. The food markets are distinguished by food on display in stalls in front of the shops much like a farmer’s market. The must-see place to visit though is the beautiful Sun Yat-Sen Gardens, a classical Chinese garden with ponds and flowering trees and shrubs, as well as some building and sculptures. Fish and turtles inhabit the ponds. Wikipedia notes that the “classical Chinese gardens employ philosophical principles of Feng shui and Taoism, striving to achieve harmony and a balance of opposites”. Part of the garden is free to the public and part of it requires a modest admission fee.
At the Sun-Yat Sen Gardens in Chinatown
At the Sun-Yat Sen Gardens in Chinatown
Trade and Convention Centres – On the Coal Harbour waterfront are two trade and convention centres. The older one was built for the Expo 86 World’s Fair and is marked by a distinctive design – massive tent canopies shaped like sails. It is known by its Expo 86 name – Canada Place. This centre also serves as a cruise ship terminal and it is not uncommon to see a cruise ship or two in port in the summer.
A Norwegian cruise ship docked at Canada Place
A Norwegian cruise ship docked at Canada Place
The centre is adjacent to the Pan Pacific Hotel where you’ll find luxury accommodations and fine dining. But the whole area is chock full of hotels and restaurants. One of the attractions housed at Canada Place is the FlyOver Canada. It is similar to the FlyOver America exhibit at Disney World at Orlando, Florida. It is a flight simulation ride that has you soar over Canada, feet dangling in space. The giant dome screen takes you coast to coast and has some effects like smells, sounds and even mist as you fly over Niagara Falls. The other trade and convention centre is the new one built to accommodate an ever growing convention trade. It is noted for its green architecture – a plant covered roof among other things. Both centres are active year around with various events, many open to the public though usually with a fee.
The new trade and convention centre with Canada Place reflected in its windows.
Coal Harbour Walk – From the trade and convention centres you can walk along a seawall that takes you past various marinas, restaurants, hotels and gardens as you make your way to Stanley Park. You can watch sea planes land and take-off and enjoy a leisurely meal at one of the many restaurants, most of which have outdoor patios. Stanley Park – Stanley Park is one of the world’s greatest parks. It covers 1001 acres and includes vast tracts of wilderness as well as modern amenities. All of it is criss-crossed by nature trails and you could easily spend a day just exploring the park. The park is circumnavigated by the Seawall, a nine kilometre walkway that serves both pedestrians and cyclists. I’ll do a separate post on the park some time but here are a few highlights.
  • Vancouver Aquarium – a world class aquarium, it was known for its beluga whale exhibits until recently. Both of its captive belugas died recently and the Vancouver Parks Board banned further importation of these creatures. My wife, son, granddaughter and I visited recently and it has managed to re-invent itself with new shows and attractions. There are dolphin shows and sea lion shows several times a day, and the sea otters remain a popular attraction. And the aquariums are large and cover a wide variety of marine life with notable jellyfish displays. An Amazon jungle exhibit is also featured.
    Sea lions have replaced the beluga whales as a main attraction at the Vancouver Aquarium
    Sea lions have replaced the beluga whales as a main attraction at the Vancouver Aquarium
  • Beaver Lake – located in the northwest of the park smack dab in the middle of a forest. Walking along the trails here is very peaceful and relaxing.
  • Prospect Point – overlooks the Lions Gate Bridge and also has a restaurant.
  • Siwash Rock – a large pinnacle of stone covered in vegetation off the shore from the park.
  • The Tea House – a nice restaurant near Third Beach where they know how to make a proper cup of tea.
  • Malkin Bowl – near the aquarium, Malkin Bowl is an open air theatre that has summer runs of musicals. It is known as the Theatre Under the Stars.
There are many more attractions in Stanley Park, of course, but that covers some of the highlights. First Beach – After circumnavigating the park, we arrive at First Beach. It is surrounded by gently sloping lawns and has many large trees. First Beach is the locale for the annual Celebration of Light – a four day fireworks extravaganza featuring competitors from several countries. First Beach is also home to the Inukshuk and is adjacent to the corner of Denman and Davie streets – a vibrant restaurant and shopping district. Davie Street has long been known as a gay enclave within the city. Granville Island – Granville Island used to be an industrial district but was revitalized as a mecca for visitors with many specialty shops, restaurants and the Granville Island public market. It is still home to some industry, most notably Ocean Cement, but even its massive concrete funnels have been turned into an attraction after being painted as giant men in overalls. The island is home to Emily Carr University, a visual arts centre. It is also home to the Arts Club theatre where you can catch live theatre and to the Theatre Sports League where you can watch improv comedy. The plaza by the public market is home to wide variety of buskers – singers, musicians, acrobats and jugglers.
Even the concrete silos at Ocean Cement have become an attraction on Granville island
Even the concrete silos at Ocean Cement have become an attraction on Granville island
Granville Island is across False Creek from downtown Vancouver and can be reached by walking across the Burrard Bridge or catching one of several small passenger ferries that traverse the creek. Yaletown – Yaletown can be reached from Granville Island by one of the False Creek ferries. Here you’ll find many shops and restaurants. Vancouver Public Library – known for its distinctive architecture, this is a great venue for the book lover and just to walk around and visit the shops and restaurants in the area.
The Vancouver Public Library seen from our hotel room on Hamilton Street
The Vancouver Public Library seen from our hotel room on Hamilton Street
Our tour has taken us around the downtown area starting at Gastown and ending at the library nearby. That covers downtown Vancouver more or less. There are other attractions including downtown shopping, Robson Street, the courthouse, and the art gallery, as well as a variety of movie theatres.
Outside Downtown
There are many things to see and do in Vancouver outside the downtown. These include the University of British Columbia and various parks and beaches. Here is a short list. Van Dusen Gardens – a beautiful botanical garden well worth a visit. We often visit around Christmas when the garden is festooned with lights that flicker in time to music. Simply amazing, and even more spectacular when there is snow.
The light show at Van Dusen Gardens around Christmas is fabulous.
The light show at Van Dusen Gardens around Christmas is fabulous.
Queen Elizabeth Park – set in an old rock quarry, Queen Elizabeth Park can be compared to the fabulous Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island, but on a smaller scale. It’s set on a hillside so you get a great panorama view of downtown from here. Q.E. Park is also home to a botanical conservatory, a geodesic dome structure and hot house home to many tropical plants. Museum of Anthropology – located at the University of British Columbia, this world-renowned museum is known for its extensive collection of native British Columbian art and artifacts. Various Beaches – while downtown is surrounded by First, Second and Third Beaches, there are many more when you leave the downtown area. On the western end of the university endowment lands you’ll find Wreck Beach, a nudist beach if you’re inclined to get a full body tan. That’s it for Vancouver proper. I am sure I missed a few attractions and readers are invited to post additions in the comments section. In the next few days I’ll cover the neighbouring communities and their attractions, including the north shore communities of North and West Vancouver with their nature parks and ski hills as well as attractions from Mission to Squamish. Again, that will be an overview. I may post more detailed accounts of specific attractions at a later date.

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The Forgotten Island

Follow us on Facebook! When we think of the Bahamas we think of the cities of Nassau and Freeport and maybe of the fabulous Atlantis Resort. We also think of an island archipelago with many sandy beaches. The Bahamas, in fact, has over 700 islands of varying sizes. One of them used to be the home to an American Naval Facility which operated from 1957 until decommissioned in 1980. This island also used to be a playground for the rich and famous – mostly Americans, mostly Hollywood types, who maintained vacation homes there. Now that island is largely forgotten. Tourism is still its mainstay, but it is a permanent residence to just 11,000. We happened across it by chance as it was the first stop on a cruise we took in January 2015. Our cruise was with Princess Cruises and the stop was at a place at one end of the island called Princess Cays Resort. As far as we know, it is an exclusive stop for Princess Lines. No other cruise ships visit here.

The Ruby Princess at Anchor at Princess Cays
The Ruby Princess at Anchor at Princess Cays
The island is Eleuthra, a long boomerang shaped island 110 miles long and just a mile wide at its narrowest point. It was discovered by Christopher Columbus and the Spanish who left the island decimated, its native population routed by disease and the remainder carried off as slaves to work the mines on Hispaniola. It remained largely unpopulated until rediscovered by Puritan colonists who called themselves the Eleutherian Adventurers. They had originally settled in Bermuda but refused to swear allegiance to the British Crown. They struck out for a place they could practice their faith free of persecution in the late 1640s (some time between 1646 and 1648). They were the first settlers of the Bahamas and gave Eleuthra its name. The Adventurers were led by William Sayle who had created a constitution of sorts. Dissension in the ranks led Sayles and his followers to retreat eventually to New Providence where the city of Nassau is. But it is said that if Sayles had been successful, Eleuthra would have been the first independent democracy in the Americas, some 130 years before the American Revolution. Sayles later became Governor of the Colony of South Carolina. On our cruise, we were taken by tender to the small dock at Princess Quay. There, as is usual with cruise ship stops, we had a variety of options open to us, including just lazing on the beach. We opted for a bus tour that would cover about half the island. Our guide gave us a short history of the island before we came to our first stop – a small church sandwiched between the highway and the shore near Rock Sound. It was a Sunday so services were in progress at the time.
Anglican church near Rock Sound
Our next stop was the Blue Hole. Our guide called it the Blue Hole but apparently its actual name is Ocean Hole. Blue hole is the generic term for such geological features. It is not far from Rock Sound.
The Blue Hole near Rock Sound on Eleuthra
The Blue Hole near Rock Sound on Eleuthra
The hole is a salt water lake a mile inland from the ocean. It was stocked by locals with salt water sea life many years ago. It is said to be bottomless and it rises and ebbs with the tides so there must be a subterranean connection with the ocean. Jacques Cousteau, who used to live on Eleuthra, tried to find the connection but failed.
Feeding Fish in the Blue Hole
Feeding Fish in the Blue Hole
We continued on to Governor’s Harbour, about half way up the island. There we saw Government House as well as a number of homes boarded up while their owners were away. There were also some abandoned buildings. Our tour guides sang the Bahamian National Anthem for us on the steps of Government House.
Our tour guides sing for us in front of Government House
Our tour guides sing for us in front of Government House
On the return trip we stopped at Tarpum Bay, a small and picturesque fishing village along the way.
Tarpum Bay
Tarpum Bay seen from the dock
Then it was back to Rock Sound where we stopped for lunch and entertainment at a seashore restaurant. Most of the staff and entertainers were black and I discovered that black culture has a long history in the Bahamas. After the American War of Independence, many Loyalists to the Crown fled the United States, many of them settling in the Caribbean. Thousands settled in the Bahamas. They brought their slaves with them. The Bahamas became a haven for freed slaves and formally abolished the practice in 1834. Today descendants of freed slaves and free Africans make up 90 percent of the population.
Junkanoo musicians and dancers in their colorful garb
We very much enjoyed the Junkanoo parade put on for us. Junkanoo is an annual festival and parade with colorful costumes, dancing and music. Some locals also demonstrated how to prepare conch as a meal. They showed how to remove the live conch from its shell and then prepare it in a salad.
Making conch salad
Making conch salad
All in all, we very much enjoyed our trip to this fascinating island. Below is a link to an additional photo gallery as well as another link of interest.

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Photo Gallery: Eleuthra

Follow us on Facebook! Here are some additional photos of our visit to the island of Eleuthra in the Bahamas.

Our tour guide on the bus tells of the history of Eleuthra
Our tour guide on the bus tells of the history of Eleuthra
During the ride we were shown how to make some crafts, including this headband made from reeds
During the ride we were shown how to make some crafts, including this headband made from reeds
A house shuttered against storms while the owner is away
A house in Governor’s Harbour is shuttered against storms while the owner is away
Myself at Tarpum Bay
Myself at Tarpum Bay
Tarpum Bay homes and businesses
Tarpum Bay homes and businesses. I believe the blue building is a small hotel.
A pile of conch shells
A pile of conch shells
How to extract a conch from its shell
Extracting a conch from its shell
Slicing up a conch to make a conch salad
Colorful Junkanoo dancers and musicians
Colorful Junkanoo dancers and musicians

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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.

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.