To celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary we spent a week in Paris followed by a Mediterranean cruise. The first port of call was Sicily. The ship passed through the narrow strait between the island and the toe of Italy’s boot and then into the harbor of Messina, the island’s third largest city. A golden statue known as the Madonna of the Letter greets you as you enter the sheltered bay. The latin quote at its base says “Vos at ipsam civitatem benedicimus”. It means “We bless you and your city” and is a taken from a letter sent by the Virgin Mary to the people of Messina in 42 AD.
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean and is rich in history with Greek, Roman, Phoenician and Byzantine influences. There are many ancient ruins as well as cathedrals to visit, but we opted for a trip up Mount Etna. The only volcano I had seen up close before was Mount Saint Helens in Washington state.
A bus took us along the shore road that included a number of short tunnels as we wended our way south. We stopped at the town of Giardini Naxos where we saw a copy of the Winged Nike, Goddess of Victory. The original is in the Louvre in Paris. The metal statue was created by Italian sculptor Carmelo Mendola in 1965. It stands on Cape Schiso looking out to sea. It marks the spot where Greeks landed to found a colony in 734 BC.
From there we went up the coast to the small town of Giarre where we visited the artisan jewelry factory of Gival. It is located in a grand old mansion, a beautiful building which features gilt ceilings in its spacious lobby.
In the basement we saw a number of artisans at work. Later we were treated to complimentary drinks and snacks. The banquet room had a display of seven swords in a fan shape on the wall.
After we left the jewelry place, we took a long and winding road up Mount Etna, passing a number of vineyards along the way. The road took us to the Sylvestri Crater, the highest point you can reach by car or bus (1900 metres). Etna erupted at this point in 1892 but it has been dormant since then. The Google Earth map below shows the crater.
As you can see, there is a restaurant nearby as well as a large parking lot. The entire complex straddles a lava flow from higher up. The landscape is stark and almost barren. A few grasses have managed to emerge in places.
A roadway between the restaurant and the parking area runs right over the lava flow. This flow, a guide told us, is less than twenty years old. Etna is still a very active volcano. Unfortunately, some people don’t know how to take pride in this piece of heritage and litter could be seen on the lava.
Nearby was a gondola ride to a higher elevation. It was a bit foggy on the day we were there so we did not go higher. But what we saw was spectacular. I’d love to be there when Etna is actually erupting. That would be one heck of a sight!
After some time on Mount Etna, we took the bus back to our ship. I’ve got more pictures in the accompanying Photo Gallery. And a few additional links.
The fourth stop on our 2009 cruise was Malaga, a small Spanish city on the Mediterranean 134 kilometres from Gibraltar. As we did in Cadiz, we decided to explore Malaga on our own rather than take an organized excursion. The city is a short hop by bus from the port.
Malaga is an ancient city with a history spanning 2800 years. It was founded by the Phoenicians in 770 BC. Like Cadiz, it is also within the autonomous region of Andalusia.
Upon leaving the ship, we took a short bus ride to the city. We were dropped off at the Paseo Parque, a broad boulevard spanned by parks on both sides. These parks are lush with greenery and the occasional statue and fountain.
We wandered though the Parque de Malaga to a road that took us to the first of two castles, the Alcazaba. The road is flanked by a steep retaining wall which is dotted with little pigeon holes.
Tha Alcazaba is an old fortress built by the Moors from 756 to 780 AD and extensively rebuilt by the Hammudid Dynasty in the 11th Century. It has features of Roman, Moorish and Renaissance architecture.
The roadway took us to an elevator which took us up into the fortress. Inside we found gardens and fountains as well as displays of crockery and other artifacts. There were also stables and drinking troughs for horses. We enjoyed walking around the battlements which command an excellent view of the city.
While we were there, a teacher dressed as a knight explained the history of the Alcazaba to his students. A colourful and interesting outing for the kids.
But the Alcazaba is just one of two Moorish castles in Malaga. The other is a short walk up the hill – the Castillo de Gibralfaro. The road is fairly steep and we passed fields of cacti.
Along the way we got a good view of the Malagueta, Malaga’s bull fighting arena. This 14,000 seat stadium was built in 1874 and bull fights are still staged every year from April through September.
Arriving at the Castillo de Gibralfaro, you enter through a museum showing military uniforms through the ages as well as a model of the two fortresses. There is a similar model at the lower fort. from there you can wander at your leisure. The fort is a large one and offers excellent views of the city from its ramparts. We circumnavigated the parapet as we had done with the lower fort.
At one point there was a sort of small dungeon below the walkway, with a grate above it. My wife and her friend Sheila went to check out the place while I stayed above with the camera. When they entered I shouted down to them, “Look up! Look waaaaaay up!” Someone nearby quickly added, “And I’ll call Rusty!” and we all had a good laugh. A fellow Canadian! The lines come from a popular kid’s show called The Friendly Giant.
We explore some more of the castle and then made our way back to the street level and a beautiful garden park called the Jardines de Pedro Luis Alonso.
We wandered back to downtown through the park flanking the Paseo Parque and stopped at a restaurant for some paella. Then we wandered through part of the downtown with its marble pedestrian ways and beautiful buildings. The city looked so clean and bright. A gorgeous city.
Along the way we came across some street entertainers. They were living statues. They were dressed in gray costumes and stood absolutely still like statues. If you put a coin in a hat, the statues came alive and posed for pictures and gave you a souvenir coloured pebble.
We wandered back towards the ship and passed a bus, half buried in the sidewalk. It was an ad, an unusual billboard for a movie, Fuga de Cerebros, a romantic comedy about young college students. It was panned by critics but the biggest drawing Spanish movie of the year, later released in English as Brain Drain.
We loved Malaga. It is a beautiful city with two great castles to explore, lush green parks, great restaurants an a colourful and entertaining downtown. Well worth a visit.
We took so many pictures you’ll find a separate photo gallery linked below. Or just keep scrolling if you’re on the home page.
The second port of call on our 2009 trans-Atlantic cruise was Lisbon, Portugal. While had taken a shore excursion on our first stop, Tenerife in the Canary Islands, we opted to check out Lisbon on our own. Upon disembarking, there were free shuttle buses to transport us to the Baixa and surrounding districts which make up the historic centre of Lisbon, much like the 20 arrondissements make up the historic centre of Paris.
Lisbon has a lot of history behind it. It is one of the oldest cities in the world, predating London, Paris and Rome by centuries. The bus dropped us off at outside the Rua Augusta Arch – the gateway to Old Lisbon.
We passed through the arch into the downtown area, a warren of narrow streets with shops and apartments, as well as large plazas. The area was bustling with activity. It is largely a pedestrian only area though there are trams running up and down the narrow streets and some cars as well. Lisbon also has three funicular trams as the city lies on a hillside sloping down towards the Tagus River.
We noticed a large fortress off to our right so we decided to check it out. The Castelo de Sao Jorge is in the Alfama district, one of the oldest districts in Lisbon and the only one not destroyed by the 1755 earthquake. To get there we strolled up some narrow streets, passing the Lisbon Cathedral along the way.
The castle itself is Moorish and was captured by Christian forces in 1147 during the Second Crusade. Lisbon became the capital in 1255 and the castle was renovated and extended over the next hundred and twenty -five years.
We spent a good while there exploring the castle and walking along the battlements which command a panoramic view of Lisbon.
Then we walked back towards the central part of old Lisbon. Along the way we watched as the trams made their way through the narrow thoroughfares.
Up the hill from the Rua Augusta Arch we came across the San Justa Lift. The Baixa district is flanked by steep hillsides, one leading to the Castelo on the right and another to the Bairro Alto on the left. The San Justa Lift takes passengers from the Baixa up to the Largo do Carmo (Carmo Square). Construction was started in 1900 and completed in 1902. Originally powered by steam, it converted to electricity in 1907. It stands 45 metres tall (about seven stories) We did not go up the elevator but did take a funicular later in the day.
Further up the road from the lift is the impressive Rossio Square. The square features a large fountain and a statue of Pedro IV (Peter the Fourth). During the Spanish Inquisition, the square was the site of public executions, the notorious auto-da-fé which saw its victims burned at the stake.
But its most striking feature is the Portuguese pavement. Portuguese pavement is a surface created with inlaid stones of different colours to form intricate patterns. The Rossio plaza is particularly striking because of the optical illusion it gives of waves and motion. You can see in the video below that my camera did not like it much.
We wandered further up the hill and came across Lisbon’s Hard Rock Cafe (seems every major city has one!) And across the plaza from the Hard Rock we found the Ascensor da Gloria, one of three funicular trams in the city. This inclined railway dates from 1885. We hopped the tram and later walked back down to the Baixa.
Walking back down we passed a little shop whose door was flanked by two carved wooden figures. These figures seem to be popular in Lisbon. We saw quite a few of them at various places.
All in all we had a terrific time in Lisbon. A lovely city with many interesting sights.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It so happened that Australia Day happened during the cruise and with such a large contingent of Aussies aboard, the ship celebrated as well.
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.
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.
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.
James Bond fans may remember 1974’s The Man With the Golden Gun, starring Roger Moore as 007. Not one of the best Bond films, but memorable in part for the spectacular scenery of Phang Nga Bay in Thailand which served as the setting for villain Scaramanga’s hideout.
The movie drew attention to the area and put pressure on Thai authorities to preserve this natural beauty. In 1981, much of the area was designated as Ao Phang Nga National Park, including the many islands in the area. It has become a major eco-tourism destination.
On our second day in Phuket we booked an excursion to explore sea caves in the area. We boarded a bus near the pier in Patong Bay for the hour long drive to Laem Sai Pier at the northern end of the island. There we boarded a motor launch for the hour boat cruise to Hong Island and the surrounding area.
The scenery was, indeed, like that in the Bond movie. Spectacular islands densely covered in vegetation with deep pitting in the exposed limestone, particularly at sea level.
We dropped anchor offshore from one of the islands and a myriad of small three person canoes were launched – two tourists and a guide in each. Janis and I and our guide followed some other craft into a cave and out the other end into a sheltered area surrounded by steep cliffs, limestone rock formations and lush greenery.
An island near the end of the channel looked much like the island in the movie that had the solar power unit atop it, though it was not the actual island. One of the other excursions did go to that island, now actually called James Bond Island.
We paddled around, occasionally drifting in to shore to see the rock formations up close and on one occasion, we lay back as our guide paddled us into a deep low-hanging cave and back again.
The entire area was spectacular – stunningly beautiful with streaks of red sandstone interspersed with grey and yellow limestones.
We paddled around taking in the scenery for a good half hour before paddling around an outcrop and back to our ship.
We were allowed to swim in the bay, so I gave Janis the camera and went over the side, swimming behind our kayak to the mother ship. The water was very warm.
Once aboard, we tootled off towards another island – destination: the bat cave. Not that batcave! No Batman and Robin in sight. But we once again took to the canoes and went into a much deeper cave system. Here we entered total darkness, only the guides’ flashlights providing illumination. We saw dozens of bats hanging upside from the ceiling as we paddled deeper into the cave, then we turned around and paddled back. Unfortunately it was too dark for my camera to take pictures.
From there we headed off to another island, the crew serving us a very tasty lunch along the way. At Lawi Island we dropped anchor again and were able to go ashore to a nice beach. Janis took a canoe but I just jumped in and swam ashore. We enjoyed a pleasant swim and soaked up the sun for an hour and then back to the boat again.
Back on Phuket Island we took the long bus ride back to Patong, stopping at a cashew stand that I’m sure must give kick-backs to tour operators because almost every excursion available included a visit to the “cashew factory”. It was not a factory. It was a shop. I don’t know if these additional stops add anything of value to a tour. I could have done without it. But some people were buying so I guess it pays off for them.
The sea cave adventure was by far our favourite excursion on our cruise – and the most expensive at US$149 a person. Sometimes spending a little more pays off in a big way.
At 5:30 PM the cruise ship weighed anchor and we headed off back to Singapore. All in all, a great end to our voyage. You’ll find additional photos of our sea cave adventure linked below.
I’ll be adding an overview of our cruise as a whole next, with links to all ports of call and our extended visit to Singapore. Stay tuned!
Note:some of this travelogue includes discussion of the sex trade in Thailand. If that may offend you, after the picture of the masseuses, skip to three paragraphs past the picture of Patong at night.
Our fourth port of call on our Southeast Asia cruise was Phuket, Thailand. Our ship anchored out in Patong Bay for two days giving us ample opportunity to explore on our own and to take an excursion or two if we wanted. We opted to explore on our own the first day and take an excursion the second day. I’ll write about that, a motorboat and canoe adventure in Phang Nga National Park in another post. Today I’ll look at the town of Patong, the largest on Phuket Island.
Because we were anchored in the bay, access to the city was by motor launch – a regular ferry service from ship to shore and back that ran every fifteen minutes to half an hour, depending on the time of day. We stayed on the ship for breakfast and avoided the crush of people leaving the ship by waiting until noon to go.
The shuttle craft took us to a long pier at one end of the fabulous beach at Patong Bay. We walked up the pier where hawkers were promoting various tours and activities. Moving along the sidewalk, we saw many small mini-cabs and three wheeled vehicles called tuk-tuks, sort of a motorized rickshaw.
Patong Bay was heavily damaged by the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. Around 250 people were killed on Phuket, including tourists. But today the town of Patong has largely recovered, though we did see some new construction along the busy street that borders the beach.
The beach itself is fabulous. We left the sidewalk for a while, took off our shoes and walked along the beach before heading inland. Along the shore near the pier were many long-tailed boats for hire, as well as a lot jet ski rentals. The long-tailed boat is a common in Southeast Asia. It consists of a wide canoe like body with an upswept bow and powered by an old automobile engine connected to a propeller by a long shaft.
Patong is a major tourist center and many western fast food brands were apparent including a MacDonald’s and a Burger King along the shore road. Inland a bit we later came across a Hard Rock Cafe as well as Starbucks.
One of the first things we noticed as we walked was the huge tangle of wires between power poles. Throughout the town – wires, wires, wires. More wires than you could shake a stick at. Some of them were hanging quite low. We wondered if all of them were live, and if so, how the heck would a repair guy find the right one if there were a power problem.
In any event, we wanted to find a shopping area so we thought we would head towards some tall buildings we saw not far inland. Walking along we came across endless numbers of small shops and a great many massage parlours, the masseuses sitting outside in uniforms that looked much like flight attendant uniforms.
We had heard about how prevalent prostitution was in Thailand, including child prostitution. We wondered if these massage parlour were all fronts for prostitution. Fortunately none of the ladies sitting curbside looked underage. They all looked to be in their late twenties to mid-thirties.
But the number of massage parlours was astounding. A dozen or more along a single street. There was one huge massage parlour the size of a small mall. It’s called the Christin Massage and is the largest “soapy massage” parlour in Phuket. Not sure what a soapy massage is? Neither was I until I googled it.
One of the excursions available to us was described as a Sightseeing and Cabaret Extravaganza, which ended a day of sightseeing and shopping with a visit to “Asia’s biggest transvestite cabaret show performed by the famous lady boys of Simon Cabaret”. So we had an opportunity to explore the seamier side of Patong but we opted to stay on the ship in the evening. But we did take in the view of the town at night from the ship and were amazed by a giant LED screen that looked like it may have been the size of some of the signs on Times Square in New York.
Our dinner companions and their thirteen year old son did decide to explore the town after dark. They later told us that there were bandits in motorboats who would drive up close to the dock as people were heading to shore and snatch a purse if they could and then speed off. But they were particularly appalled that some of the sidewalk masseuses pawed at and propositioned their son.
The night before we had discussed our upcoming port of call at dinner and one of our companions asked if we had heard about the ping pong shows. We had not, but I remembered a few years ago a couple of strippers in Vancouver calling themselves the Chiclets achieved some notoriety in the press for an indecent show involving ping pong balls. A search online confirmed that the ping pong shows were exactly that. I won’t go into detail but you can follow the link if you must.
Much of this sordidness is officially illegal in Thailand, but the authorities tolerate it. Their relaxed attitude to such things appeals to me politically as a libertarian, but it is decidedly not a place for a family vacation, though there are many private gated resorts that are family friendly in the area.
But back to our daytime exploration. Besides massage parlours, the leading industry seemed to be medicine. Notably dentistry. We saw many many ads for and offices of dentists, way more than a small town could possibly need. We also passed a large office promoting plastic surgery. Medical tourism seems to be big here as well. And there were a fair number of tattoo parlours.
In any event, we wandered uptown until we came to an ultra-modern shopping mall called JungCeylon. It featured many western shops including The Gap as well as more localized offerings. There were a few booths promoting condo developments. One of them, Citygate, offered condos from US$64,000 which the company will rent out for you when not using it, promising a seven percent return.
After exploring the mall and savoring a coffee at Starbucks, we headed back down another street and came across a great many sidewalk souvenir shops catering to tourists. And more massage parlours. And a Hard Rock Cafe. After an entertaining day walking around Patong we headed back to the ship for the night.
The next day we were set to explore some sea caves by canoe. That would turn out to be one of the highlights of our trip and I’ll tell you about that in the next post!