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2017-06-21 09:33 am
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Southern island tour (12 June)

On Monday, our final tour began with an early pick up at our hotel. It would be a long day, driving to Vík and back, and the day's itinerary included two waterfalls, a glacier, and a beach. The first part of the tour retraced the end of our tour the day before, as we backtracked past the power plant and the town of Hveragerði. The first stop for the day was the impressive waterfall, Skógafoss. Visible from the highway, once the bus was parked and we were able to get out, we discovered that we could walk right to the water's edge at the base of the waterfall (as long as you didn't mind getting a bit wet...we decided that the temperature was a bit cool to risk getting too wet). The angle of the sun produced very low rainbows in the waterfall's mist. It was really strange to be looking at the ground to see rainbows!

Skoˇgafoss 

Just a few miles further down the highway, after crossing a one-lane bridge, our bus turned off onto a side road that wound its way to the parking area for Sólheimajökull. Thirty years ago, this parking area was right at the face of the glacier, and no further effort was required to view the glacier.  However, the glacier has since retreated up the valley and now it requires a fifteen minute walk over some slightly challenging terrain to get a glimpse of the base of the glacier. There is also a lake in front of the glacier that wasn't there just seven years ago. Sólheimajökull is an outlet glacier for the much larger Mýrdalsjökull ice cap, which covers an active volcano. A major eruption here would create significant flooding for this section of the southern coast, and the town of Vìk maintains and active evacuation plan against this eventuality.

Sˇlheimaj÷kull

After stopping for lunch in Vìk, our bus turned around to begin our return journey.  The first stop after lunch was a visit to the black sand beach at Reynisfjara. Here the coastal erosion of the volcanic rocks had carved shallow caves and arches in the cliffs, leaving a wide expanse of black sand beach.  However, the same forces that created this spectacular vista sometimes makes this a dangerous place to visit. While the surf was light while we were here, we were repeatedly reminded not to turn our backs to the water, as big waves can crash onto the beach with very little warning. Apparently two tourists have died here in the last seven months because they did not heed these warnings.

Reynisfjara

Hßlsanefshellir

The final stop on our tour was just a few miles from our first. Seljalandsfoss is also visible from the highway, falling from the same coastal cliff as Skógafoss. However, this waterfall looks very different, with its narrower stream. Seljalandsfoss also has carved a small cave behind it, so that we could walk all the way around behind it. This time, in spite of the cool temperatures, we risked getting a bit damp so that we could enjoy the views from behind the waterfall.

Seljalandsfoss

The view from behind Seljalandsfoss

From here it was back to the city and our hotel. Iceland had treated us to some spectacular scenery, but we know that we've barely scratched the surface here. We may just have to return to see more.
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2017-06-20 09:17 am
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Reykjav├şk (10-13 June)

 When our ship returned to Copenhagen, the disembarkation process was exceptionally fast and efficient, and we soon were on a (very crowded) transit bus, headed back into the city. At the Nørreport station, we switched from the bus to the Metro for the final leg of our trip to the airport. After a painless check-in, we settled in to await our flight to Iceland.

When we arrived in Iceland, we quickly collected our bags and found the shuttle we'd booked for the ride to our hotel. The international airport in Iceland is in Keflavík, about a 45 minute drive from Reykjavík, but our hotel was the shuttle's first stop when we reached the city, which was convenient.  Hotels in Iceland are expensive, and we had chosen ours because it had a relatively low price with decent reviews.  It turned out to be a really great location, sitting just across the street from the iconic Hallgrimskirkja, often referred to by the locals as the "big church". This landmark made it impossible for us to remain lost in the city for very long.

Hallgrimskirkja

As we settled into our room, we contacted our tour guide from Copenhagen, who was now visiting her mother here in Iceland. She sent us some restaurant recommendations and we headed out to explore and get some dinner. We quickly discovered that restaurants in Iceland are very expensive. Appetizers are generally about US$15-20 and main courses generally will cost at least US$35. Since it was Saturday night, many places were full, and we weren't really in the mood to wait for a table, so when one of the places Inga Maria recommended had open tables, we didn't think twice. The food may have been expensive, but it was delicious and filling. 

When we returned from our tour the next day, we again contacted Inga Maria, who met us at the hotel and we all went to dinner together.  It was great to see her again, this time in her native country, and we had a fun evening out, with more great food and wonderful conversation. Our final evening was given over to more sightseeing in the city after we returned from the tour we had booked for the day.  We wandered further into the city, window shopping and generally enjoying the sights. The next morning, our shuttle picked us up right on time and took us back to the airport for our flight back home.
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2017-06-20 08:33 am
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The Golden Circle (11 June)

 We had decided to spend two full days in Iceland on the way home from our cruise, and ended up booking day-long tours for each day. On Sunday, we were picked up at our hotel just after 8:00 am to begin the Golden Circle tour, which is possibly the best known of the tour options in Iceland.  As we headed east out of Reykjavík, our tour guide began what would prove to be an almost non-stop narrative, describing the history, geography, and geology of Iceland, among other topics. It was a warm (by Icelandic standards...as our tour guide kept reminding us), sunny day, and along the way we were able to drink in the stark beauty of this volcanic landscape.

Our first destination was the Þingvellir National Park (the "Þ" seems to be equivalent to "th"). This location is significant for a couple of reasons. Historically, this is the location where the island's original parliament met, when the tribal chieftains gathered here annually in the tenth century to discuss the law and resolve conflicts. This is also a site of significant geological interest, as it is a rift valley, formed by the movement of the North American tectonic plate away from the Eurasian tectonic plate. The opposite sides of this valley are moving away from each other at a rate of about an inch (2.5 cm) per year. This is a starkly visible reminder of the powerful forces that are at work inside the Earth.

Ůingvellir

From here, we continued to visit one of the most impressive waterfalls I've ever seen.  Gullfoss (Golden Waterfall) is a two tiered waterfall that drops into a narrow canyon with steep sides.  From the publicly accessible platforms, it is difficult to see the bottom of the waterfall, but it is dramatic and beautiful, set in the stark, empty Icelandic countryside.  After gawking at the waterfall for a bit, and taking plenty of photos, we headed into the visitor's center for a quick lunch of traditional Icelandic lamb soup. Yum!

Gullfoss

On our way to our final scheduled stop of the tour we made a brief, unscheduled stop to visit with a small paddock of Icelandic horses near the road. We grabbed handfuls of grass from the edge of the parking area, and when the horses saw that we had food to offer, they eagerly came over to visit with us.  Icelandic horses are a small breed, with wild manes and spirited dispositions. They are beautiful to watch, and it was only with reluctance that we said farewell and reboarded our bus.

Our final official stop of the tour was at Geysir, an area of geothermal hot springs.  The star attraction here is the Strokkur geyser, which erupts every 5-6 minutes, with varying magnitude.  We lingered long enough to witness a couple of truly impressive eruptions. The walkways got surprisingly close to the geyser, so we got a really good look at the surface of the water as it prepared to erupt.  It is hard to describe the way the water moves in advance of the eruption, but it was clear that significant amounts of energy were at work.

Strokkur

When we reboarded our bus for our return trip to Reykjavík, our tour guide applauded our promptness at all of our stops so far and indicated that we had time for one more "surprise" stop. This turned out to be one final waterfall, at Faxi. While not as tall or as powerful as Gullfoss, it was quite pretty, set all by itself in the middle of the empty countryside.  After we took some pictures, we boarded the bus one final time. Our tour guide continued his narration as we returned to the city.  Along the way, we took detours through the village of Hveragerði, which has dozens of hot springs scattered throughout the town, and past one of the newest geothermal power plants in the country (90% of the electricity here is generated geothermally, the rest comes from hydroelectric plants).

Faxi waterfall

Along the tour, our guide noted that Iceland has a significant earthquake every 8 years or so and that one of the significant volcanoes erupts every 70-80 years.  Both are now due or overdue. My wife looked at me, clearly thinking about all the emergency response we'd already witnessed on this trip, and started to say "Wouldn't it be funny if..."  I quickly interrupted her with a definitive "NO". It's one thing to see the relatively small responses we'd already seen, but a major event in Iceland would have been something else altogether.


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2017-06-19 08:55 am
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Berlin (09 June)

 The final port on our cruise itinerary was Warnemünde, just north of Rostock, Germany. While we could have chosen to tour Rostock or spend the day on the beach, the only excursion we really even considered was the tour to Berlin. We knew that it would be a long day on a bus, and that we wouldn't spend even close to enough time in Berlin to satisfy us, but this was the first opportunity we've had to experience the city, so we decided to get a little taste, even if it means we'll need to come back to explore more thoroughly.

Our drive to Berlin was all on the autobahn through farmland. We did see villages out away from the highway, and the landscape was dotted with dozens of wind turbines for most of the trip. This tour focused on the history of Germany since the Second World War, and our tour guide pointed out how we were driving through what had been East Germany for forty years, the Soviet sector of occupied Germany, and noted that during the Cold War, it would have been difficult for us to have visited this part of Germany.

When we reached Berlin, we stopped briefly at Alexanderplatz to pick up another guide who would show us around the city. Our tour began on the bus, as we drove through the historic city center, down the Unter den Linden past the Cathedral and the Humbolt University and on to the government center with the Reichstag and Chancellery, before we headed into the Tiergarten. Finally, we stopped at the Brandenburg Gate and got off the bus to see more of the city on foot.  From the Brandenburg Gate, we walked through the Berlin Holocaust Memorial and stopped briefly at the site of Hitler's bunker, before visiting a remnant of the Berlin Wall. We made a stop at Checkpoint Charlie, which is a reproduction of the original US Army checkpoint at this location, created to satisfy the tourists, which means it is exactly as tacky as you would expect.

Reichstag

Brandenburg Gate

Berlin Holocaust Memorial

We finally made our way to the Berlin Concert House, where we reboarded our bus for the long drive back to Warnemünde and the ship.  As we had expected, this was the merest appetizer of a taste of Berlin, leaving us hungry for more. Berlin struck us as a vibrant city, busily rebuilding itself.  They are recreating many of the historic buildings that didn't survive World War II, and while only traces of the Berlin Wall itself remain, the winding path of the wall through the city is clearly marked with a double row of bricks laid into the pavement and sidewalks. We saw an incredible number of museums and performing arts venues, none of which we had time to visit. Berlin is definitely a place that we will need to visit again.

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2017-06-18 07:45 pm
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Aarhus (08 June)

 The second of our excursions that was canceled was the one we had chosen for Aarhus. When we looked to see what other options we might have, we discovered that there was only one other tour in English, so we decided just to try exploring the city on our own. We hope that there might be city maps available to help us find our way around, and we thought we might use a hop-on-hop-off tour bus service to get an overview of the city. As it happened, we were able to do both within minutes of getting off the ship.

The hop-on-hop-off loop took about 55 minutes and had nine stops. We rode the bus around to the eighth stop, listening to the audio descriptions of the city, but when we got to the eighth stop, for the Aarhus Cathedral, we got off the bus to go inside the church. The church was originally built by the Roman Catholic Church and was dedicated to St. Clement. The church has undergone many changes, but the original altarpiece with its tryptic is still in place.

St. Clement's altar

From the cathedral, we decided to walk back across the center of the city to Den Gamle By, an open air museum of historic buildings collected from around Denmark. Along the way, we walked along Møllestien, a street of colorful homes, many with spectacular rose buses. I had seen photos of this street and was looking forward to seeing it in person. I was not disappointed.

M°llestein

We spent several hours exploring Den Gamle By. The oldest buildings date to the 17th and 18th centuries, and restored to that period, with businesses and craftsmen's shops, as well as residences. These buildings show what life was like in Denmark three and four centuries ago. This section of the Den Gamle By is the largest, and we spent most of our time here.  The next section is made up of buildings from the early 20th century and show Danish life in the 1920s. Finally, we explored a series of apartments that show how people of different circumstances lived in Denmark in the 1970s.

Den Gamle By

After finishing our visit at Den Gamle By, we re-boarded the hop-on-hop-off bus to finish our circuit of the city. We stayed on the bus as it started its next loop, getting off at the stop for Marselisborg Palace, the summer and Christmas home of the Danish royal family. When they are not in residence here, the grounds are open to the public, and we wanted to explore the gardens for a bit before we had to return to the ship. Again, we were struck by the lack of physical barriers or visible security. For all appearances, we could have walked right up to the front door and knocked (not that we tried...I'm pretty sure that would have revealed just how good the security really was).

Marselisborg Palace

After satisfying our curiosity at the palace, we made our way back to the bus stop and caught the bus back to the city center. We got off the bus by the City Hall and walked back to the pier, soaking in the ambience of the city as we went. All too soon we were back aboard the ship and sailing off to our final port.
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2017-06-17 08:18 pm
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Kristiansand (07 June)

The final port in Norway was Kristiansand, on the southern coast. This was also our shortest port call, as we didn't arrive at the pier until about 1:00pm, so we were able to enjoy a leisurely morning onboard the ship before our excursion. After our originally booked excursion was cancelled, our choices were a high-speed boat tour in the harbor or the vintage Setesdal railway. Since we were concerned about being too cold out on the water in a high speed boat, we opted for the steam train (probably a good choice, since it also turned out to be a rainy day).

Our bus took us north of the city to one end of the 6km stretch of track used by this historic railway, where we had about a 15 minute wait before our train arrived. When the train finally arrived, it was full of passengers from our ship who apparently had caught it from the other end. While those passengers got off the train and we got ourselves settled, the steam locomotive was moved to the other end of the train for the return trip.


Setesdal vintage railway



Once the locomotive was repositioned, we pulled away from the station, back the way the train had come from. It continued to rain, but we had several of the windows opened so we could have a better view of the countryside. The tracks hugged the side of the valley, with rocks just feet away on one side, and a small river running beside us on the other.

When we reached the station at the other end of the tracks, we reboarded our bus for our return to the ship. Once we reached the pier, we had about an hour before we were scheduled to depart, so my wife and I went for a short walk to see some of the city. Because of the continuing rain and the short amount of time, we really didn't get to see much, but it was nice to stretch our legs a little before going back aboard the ship for the night.

Kristiansand harbor
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2017-06-17 03:32 pm
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Bergen (06 June)

The second port on our cruise was Bergen, the second largest city in Norway, home of composer Edvard Grieg. When we woke, we were still sailing into the harbor, just passing under a suspension bridge.  While the ship maneuvered into the pier and was secured, we ate a quick breakfast. When we disembarked, we immediately boarded a bus for our day-long excursion to ride the Flåm railway. The bus immediately headed out from the city. Our first stop was at Tvidefossen, a magnificent waterfall located just a few hundred yards from the highway. When we got off the bus, we discovered that we could walk almost up to the very base of the waterfall. Since it was raining, the mist from the waterfall really didn't make much difference as we took our photos.

Tvindefossen



A bit further along, our driver pulled off the highway onto a secondary road that climbed up the mountainside. After a short climb, he made a turn onto a narrow switchback that descended back to the valley floor. This switchback had a 19% grade (!!!) and made its descent between two tall waterfalls.  It was hard to know where to look, with awesome waterfalls on either side and an incredible view of the valley below us.


Looking down at the valley

After stopping for lunch in Gudvangen, we finished our ride to Flåm, where our train was waiting for us. We found the car reserved for us, and soon the train pulled out for the incredibly scenic ride up the valley to Myrdal. Along the way, we were treated to gorgeous views of the valley, with its farms and numerous waterfalls. We made brief stops at several stations along the way, as this train is a key form of transport for the residence of this valley.  Near the end of our ride, the train made a five minute stop at a special viewing platform for the Kjosfossen, a powerful waterfall that drops down under the tracks.

Kjosfossen

At Myrdal, we changed trains for a ride down another valley to Vossevangen, where our bus was waiting to take us back to our ship. As we reached Bergen, we took a short drive through the historic center of the city. But when we got to the pier, we were one of the last buses to return, and the ship's crew was waiting for us, so there was no time to explore.

The views on this excursion were incredible, but it was a long day, and we were disappointed that we didn't get to see much of Bergen itself. Because our original excursion for the next day was canceled, we were looking at two consecutive days of train rides. In hindsight, we find ourselves wondering if we should have considered a tour of the city itself, especially because of the change of plans for the next day. I guess we'll just have to come back someday and spend some time exploring the city.

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2017-06-16 09:48 am
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Hellesylt and Geiranger (05 June)

 After our day at sea, our first destination was the Geiranger fjord, one of the longest fjords in Norway. We entered the fjord sometime during the night, and by the time we woke, we were tied to the pier in the tiny village of Hellesylt (2013 population - 253). This was as far north as I had ever been (62° North latitude), and it was a chilly morning compared to this time of year at home. The ship was only staying here for about an hour to disembark passengers who had booked tours from here and would be leaving at 9:00 am to sail the rest of the way to the only slightly larger village of Geiranger at the end of the fjord.

Hellesylt

After a short stop to take photos from the bridge in front of the waterfall, our bus started up into the mountains on a one lane road, passing farms on both sides as the mountains loomed above us.  Tiny streams of water fell from the mountaintops all along the way, and everything was lushly green. When the pavement ended, our bus stopped and we continued on foot, beginning a 10km (6 mile) hike over the mountain pass to the village of Flo, on the shores of the glacial lake Oppstrynsvatnet. The climb up to the pass was gradual and did not require any strenuous effort, so we would enjoy to gorgeous scenery around us.  We followed the shores of three smaller lakes and the streams that connected them, gawking at all of the waterfalls, both small and large, that dropped from the mountain peaks around us. The air was crisp and clean, and the sun even came out for portions of the walk, warming us as we made our way. Eventually, on the shores of the third lake, we came to a collection of summer homes, accessible from the valley below by a steep gravel track that certainly required four wheel drive to ascend. The descent down this track was probably the hardest part of our hike, as it was much steeper than our climb, and the loose gravel kept slipping beneath our feet.

Summer homes above Flo

When we reached Flo, our bus was waiting for us, having driven back to Hellesylt and taken a longer route around the mountains to get there. After boarding the bus, we drove around the end of Oppstrynsvatnet to the opposite shore, where we were scheduled to stop for lunch at the Heille Hotel. The dining room had a lovely view of the lake for us to enjoy while we ate a lunch of homemade mushroom soup, fresh salmon with potatoes and vegetables, and a dessert of ice cream and berries, all washed down with a non-alcoholic Norwegian beer. After lunch, we had just a few minutes to get some photos of the lake and mountains before continuing our journey.

The view from our lunch stop

We quickly left the valley behind, climbing high into the mountains, passing through two long tunnels. As we exited the second tunnel, it was like we had driven back into winter.  The mountains were entirely snow covered, and the lakes we drove alongside were still frozen over. There was one tall, wide slope with ski tracks on it, even though there was no lift or formal ski area.  Looking closely, we could just make out half a dozen skiers working their way down the slope after having climbed up earlier in the morning. 

Our final stop before arriving in Geiranger was the scenic viewpoint at the top of Dalsnibba, the tall mountain peak at the end of the valley that holds the Geiranger fjord. Access to this mountain top is via a private toll road built and maintained by the residents of Geiranger. This steep switchback road was lined with tall snowbanks, often taller than our bus. From the top of the mountain, we were treated to panoramic vistas of the surrounding mountains and the fjord, far below, with our ship (and others) anchored, waiting for our return.

Cruise ships wait at Geiranger

From here, we began our descent, squeezing our way past the ascending traffic on the narrow road. Eventually we arrived in Geiranger, where we browsed the gift shops briefly before catching the tender boat back to our ship, arriving back aboard shortly before our scheduled dinner time.  As we ate dinner, we watched the mountains slide past on either side of the ship as we sailed back down the fjord towards the Norwegian Sea.  After dinner, we spent a little time out on deck, enjoying the scenery, at least until it got too chilly.  Eventually, we went back inside to enjoy the evening's show, and as we prepared for bed that night, we got to watch as we exited the fjord and turned south for Bergen, our destination for the next day.
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2017-06-16 09:06 am
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Costa Favalosa

 This was our Costa cruise experience, and frankly we found it a bit disappointing. While I wouldn't exactly say that we are experts at the cruise ship thing (this was my sixth cruise and my wife's eighth), we have enough prior experience to have developed certain expectations. And in a couple a significant ways, Costa fell a bit short of what we have come to expect.

Our biggest disappointment was with the food. We ate dinner in our main dining room each night, with wonderful tablemates. While the food was okay, that's really all it was.  I don't expect great food on the buffet, but I have come to expect that the dinner offerings in the sit down restaurants to be somewhat more memorable. That really wasn't the case here.  Not that it was bad, but it seemed entirely pedestrian. In addition, the breakfast service in the restaurant really wasn't significantly better than the buffet, and we heard that the lunch service left much to be desired as well (we never ate lunch in the restaurant).

Beyond the underwhelming quality of the food, we found the availability of food to be lacking as well. To the best of my recollection, every other ship I've been on has had some form of food available pretty much all day, at least until midnight. That wasn't really the case on the Favalosa, where the the buffet closed at 9:00 pm. Our dinner was during the early seating (which was fine, since we normally eat early), but after the evening show the first night, I was in the mood for a light snack before bedtime, and wa disappointed to find the buffet already closed. There were places on the ship where food was available later than 9:00 pm, but they all required payment of additional fees.

They also didn't have many options beside the buffet.  Most of the other ships I've been on have a deli/sandwich station and a pizza station where you can get made to order sandwiches or fresh pizza. The Favolosa had these as well, but they were charging an extra fee. I still can't really wrap my mind around having to pay extra for pizza on an Italian owned ship!

We weren't alone in feeling that the food quality and availability was lacking. Our tablemates at dinner also expressed similar sentiments, as did a few others we met on the cruise. Admittedly, our sample size is small and biased towards English speakers, but it reassures me that we weren't the only ones to note these issues.

Finally, we found that language was a little bit of an issue for us.  We knew that this was an Italian ship, and that we, as Americans, were likely to be a minority on the ship. That really didn't bother us. It was actually kind of fun to listen to all the languages around us, and to watch the ships staff interact in multiple languages.  However, it was disappointing to have two of our shore excursions cancelled because not enough people signed up for them in English.  Since most of our other tours were bilingual, we assume that this meant that the tour didn't have enough English requests for an English only tour, and that there wasn't a bilingual guide available for that particular itinerary. We did book a different tour for Kristiansand, but our choice was extremely limited, so when our tour for Aarhus was canceled and there was only one other choice available, we decided just to explore the city on our own. That worked out fine, but still, it was disappointing to spend the time researching and booking excursions only to have them cancelled once we were aboard the ship.

Based on this experience, I think we will be reluctant to book a Costa cruise again, unless the itinerary is one we really want to do and it isn't available from another company. I don't regret this cruise, since it took us to some spectacular places and we saw amazing things, but the ship itself left us feeling a bit disappointed, and we'll be looking for a better overall experience on our next cruise.
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2017-06-15 09:16 am

Medical Evacuation

 On the first full day of our cruise, which was our only day at sea as we sailed north along the Norwegian coast, we witnessed our third major emergency operation of the trip.  Shortly before midday, we returned to our stateroom to pick up some things and noticed the sound of a helicopter flying nearby. Almost as soon as that sound registered, there was an announcement on the public address system requesting the stretcher team to report to the ship's hospital. I stepped out onto our balcony and discovered that the Norwegian rescue helicopter was directly above our cabin!

I quickly grabbed my camera, and began to take photos as we watched a member of the helicopter crew prepare to repel down to the ship. Once he was on deck, they lowered a basket down, and the helicopter moved out next the ship while they prepared the patient for the transfer.  Over the next 15-20 minutes the helicopter appeared to remain perfectly stationary relative to the ship. But since the ship was still moving, this meant that the helicopter was actually station-keeping, moving at exactly the same speed as the ship. That pilot did a truly impressive job of flying the helicopter.



Eventually, the helicopter moved back over the ship and the patient and crew member were hoisted aboard.  When the aircraft moved alongside again, the crew was sliding the side door closed and the helicopter accelerated ahead of the ship before crossing in front of us towards the Norwegian shore. It was a very professional and skilled operation. I have no idea what the condition of the patient might have been, but we weren't scheduled to arrive at a port with a hospital until the third day of the cruise, so I can imagine a number of situations that might have been beyond the ability of the ship's hospital to manage until then.

Afterwards, we talked to others on the ship and discovered that all the outdoor decks of the ship had been closed during the operation, to prevent people from being blown overboard by the rotor wash. That meant that only those with balconies on our side of the ship had a decent chance of witnessing the operation, although everyone on the ship knew it was happening. It was the first time I've been on a cruise when someone needed to be evacuated, and I found the operation fascinating to watch. However, I feel bad for the person whose vacation was so dramatically interrupted, and I hope that they are recovering well.
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2017-06-15 08:36 am

K├Şbenhavn

I was simply charmed by Copenhagen (København to the locals). This is a capital signal that has a laid-back feel that I haven't found to be the case in other cities. It is an old city, with all the grace that often accompanies deeply historical places, but at the same time, this is also a thoroughly modern city, with a convenient, clean, and efficient transportation network that functions well in conjunction with the widespread use of bicycles.  Even as a newly arrived visitor, I found it simple to take advantage of the public transportation options: We used the train to get from the airport to our hotel, the train and bus to get from the hotel to the cruise port, and the bus and metro to get from the cruise port beck to the airport. The prices were reasonable, the connections easy to figure out, and the schedule reliable. We did all of this for less than the cost of a single taxi ride. Coming from the Washington, DC area, where our public transit system has been in crisis mode for the last few years and seems in danger of becoming utterly useless, it was refreshing to take advantage of such a well planned and maintained system.

As I was writing my initial entry about our arrival in Copenhagen, my wife was taking a nap.  Shortly after I posted that entry, she woke up and we ventured back out into the city for a couple more hours.  We walked along the water towards the old fort at the north end of the old part of the city. We weren't really looking for any specific landmarks, but simply enjoying the evening in a new city. Eventually, we discovered the Little Mermaid statue, one of the iconic tourist spots in this hometown of Hans Christian Anderson. Because it was late evening on a weekday, and because there was a concert elsewhere in the city as part of an ongoing music festival, the normal crowds that make this a difficult spot to visit were not in evidence, and we could linger to get photos from different angles, and appreciate the setting, on the edge of the harbor.

The Little Mermaid

We then began our walk back towards our hotel, exiting the castle area through the Churchillparken. We admired the handsome St. Alban's Anglican church here, and found a bust of Winston Churchill.  This is also the future site of a museum dedicated to the Danish resistance during WWII. This museum is being built underground (fittingly), and, from the descriptions on the signs we saw, sounds like something I will want to return someday to visit.

During our all day tour of the city on our second day here, we got a terrific overview of the city, as well as an introduction to the history.  We visited the Christianborg Palace, once home to the royal family but now serving to house Parliament, as well as Amalienborg Palace, the current home of the Danish Queen, as well as the Crown Prince and Princess. At each of these locations, I was struck by the lack of a security perimeter...In each case, the streets were open to the public right up to the buildings, and there was very little visible security presence. Granted, the ceremonial guards at Amalienborg were carrying very modern and functional rifles, and I have no doubt that each location is thoroughly covered by video surveillance, but the contrast to the bunker-style security we have put into place in Washington, DC, was stark.

Over our two days here, we saw a great deal, walking miles through the maze of streets that make up the old part of the city. Clearly, we didn't see everything that there was to see, but it was a satisfying visit, leaving me very impressed with the city and its people. I certainly hope that I'll be able to return someday so that I can spend some time exploring the many museums that fill the city.
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2017-06-14 06:57 am
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Visited countries map

 I'm home from our trip to Europe, and additional posts are forthcoming about what we saw and did.  But first, I want to update my visited countries map, since this trip added four new countries (Denmark, Norway, Germany, Iceland) to it.




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2017-06-02 04:51 pm

Excitement in the streets

 Today was devoted to an all day tour of Copenhagen, on foot, by canal boat, and by bicycle. As luck would have it, we were the only people to book the tour today, so we had our tour guide, the very lovely Inga Maria, all to ourselves. We saw a great deal more of the city, learned a bit about its history, and generally had a really enjoyable day. Inga Maria is originally from Iceland, but knows her adopted home well, and was an absolutely wonderful person to spend the day with.  It turns out that she is going home to Iceland tomorrow, and we may catch up with her again before this trip is over.

Early in our tour, Inga Maria pointed out the police guarding the Synagogue here.  She told us that these would likely be the only police we would see, as there is very little crime here. We also talked about the history of fires in the city, and noted that improved fire safety had served to prevent any further repeats of the runaway fires that had burned down the city from time to time.

Then, just before lunch, as we were walking in front of the Hotel d'Angleterre, a whole bunch of sirens started drawing nearer, and several fire department trucks pulled up and stopped near us. I snapped a few photos before we left the area, but as we were leaving several more trucks drove by in that general direction.



But the real excitement came as we were walking back to our hotel after the tour was finished.  We were waiting to cross Hans Christian Andersen Blvd. when we here a series of loudish pops from down the street.  Within a few minutes, there were dozens of police vehicles racing into the area from every direction. As the police closed down the street, and ambulance rushed towards the cluster of police near the side of the street.  The ambulance was only on scene for a few minutes before it rushed away towards the hospital. When I got back to the hotel, I did a search on the web and discovered that a police officer had apparently shot a man after some type of pursuit. One report indicated that the police were saying that the incident was not terrorism related.



Tomorrow, we head to the cruise port to board the ship that will be our home for the next week. I don't expect to have much internet access during the cruise, so I'll have to post about the cruise when we get home.
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2017-06-01 10:52 am
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Nothing rotten here

We left Washington yesterday afternoon, and after a brief two hour layover in Iceland in the middle of the night, arrived at the airport in Copenhagen, Denmark at about 6:00 am this morning.  Since we had cleared EU passport control in Iceland, we immediately made our way to baggage claim, where our suitcases arrived just moments after we did. After purchasing train tickets, we headed down to the train platform, below the terminal, where a train was seemingly waiting for us. Twelve minutes later the train pulled into the Copenhagen Central Station, where we began our two block walk to our hotel.  It was all quite painless and efficient.

After leaving our luggage at the hotel (where we couldn't check in until afternoon), we set out to explore the city.  As it wasn't even 8:00 yet, the city still had a sleepy feel to it, but gradually the streets began to fill with traffic and more bicycles than I've ever seen in one place before. Most of the streets have dedicated bicycle lanes, and the intersections have three distinct sets of signals: one for motor vehicles, one for bicyclists, and one for pedestrians.  We wandered over a significant portion of the old part of the city, including the colorful Nyhavn canal area before it was time to meet our scheduled tour for the day.


Nyhavn Canal, Copenhagen Denmark



At 10:30 we meet our tour guide and the other 9 people on our food tour outside the entrance to the newish food market.  Over the next four hours, our guide talked to us about the history of Copenhagen and its recent food renaissance. We made several stops to sample different local foods, from local cheeses and candies, to craft beers, to the local interpretations of the hot dog. It was all delicious, and by the end of the tour we were full, and appreciating all the walking we were doing.

After the tour, we headed back to the hotel to check in, and it looks like that may be it for today.  I've been up for almost 30 hours now, and I'm trying to stay awake until evening here, just to reset my body clock, but my wife is sound asleep, and my feet need a break before tomorrow's  tour. 
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2017-05-06 09:23 am
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Airports - ACA to ZRH (updated)

 Back in July of 2008, I made a list of airports I've used during my travels.  With my recent travels, I've been thinking about that list, curious about how many more airports I've added to the list since then.  Here's the list of airports I've traveled to or through (or will be soon:

United States
BOS - Boston Logan International Airport (Massachusetts)
BUF - Buffalo Niagara International Airport (New York)
BWI - Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (Maryland) *
CLT - Charlotte Douglas International Airport (North Carolina)
DCA - Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (Virginia) *
DEN - Denver International Airport (Colorado) *
DFW - Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (Texas) *
FLL - Fort Lauderdale - Hollywood International Airport (Florida)
HDN - Hayden/Yampa Valley Regional Airport (Colorado) *
HNL - Honolulu International Airport (Hawaii)
IAD - Dulles International Airport (Virginia) *
IAH - George Bush Houston Intercontinental Airport (Texas) *
JFK - John F. Kennedy International Airport (New York)
KOA - Kona International Airport (Hawaii)
LAS - McCarran International Airport (Las Vegas, Nevada)
LAX - Los Angeles International Airport (California) *
MEM - Memphis International Airport (Tennessee)
MIA - Miami International Airport (Florida) *
MSP - Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport (Minnesota) *
OGG - Kahului Airport (Hawaii)
ORD - Chicago O'Hare International Airport (Illinois) *
PHL - Philadelphia International Airport (Pennsylvania)
PIT - Pittsburgh International Airport (Pennsylvania)
RAP - Rapid City Regional Airport (South Dakota)
SFO - San Francisco International Airport (California) *
SJC - Norman Mineta San Jose International Airport (California)
SJU - Luiz Muñoz Marin International Airport (San Juan, Puerto Rico)
TPA - Tampa International Airport (Florida)
TUL - Tulsa International Airport (Oklahoma)

Canada
YUL - Montréal-Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport

Mexico
ACA - Acapulco-Gen. Juan Alvarez International Airport

Denmark
CPH - Copenhagen Airport

Iceland
KEF - Keflavík International Airport

Dominican Republic
POP - Gregorio Luperón International Airport (Puerto Plata)
PUJ - Punta Cana International Airport
SDQ - Las Américas International Airport (Santo Domingo)

Switzerland
GVA - Geneva Cointrin International Airport *
ZRH - Zurich Airport

France
MRS - Marseille Provence Airport
NCE - Nice Côte d'Azur Airport

Germany
FRA - Frankfurt am Main International Airport *

Italy
VCE - Venice Marco Polo Airport

New Zealand
AKL - Auckland Airport
ZQN - Queenstown Airport

Australia
SYD - Sydney Airport

The airports listed in red are new additions to the list since July 2008, while those listed in blue are ones that I have booked flights to/through for later this year. Those with an asterisk (*) after them are airports from the original list that I have used again since July 2008.
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2017-05-02 07:12 am
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All-inclusive, on the beach

 Every few years, we splurge and book a stay at an all-inclusive beach resort. I would be tempted to do it more often, but it gets expensive, because you have to pay for the accommodations, plus the all-inclusive fee (which is a set amount per person, per day) to cover food, drinks, and activities. So a week at one of these resorts can easily exceed $1500 for a couple. And that is the reason that we have always chosen to do these stays in the Dominican Republic, which is probably the country with the least expensive all-inclusive resorts*. And so we found ourselves doing our third all-inclusive vacation in our third Dominican city. On our previous visits, we had staying in La Romana (south coast) and Punta Cana (east end of the island). This time we stayed in Puerto Plata, on the north shore.



The resort we were staying at was actually just one of a whole complex of resorts, all owned by the same company, and we had access to facilities scattered across several adjacent resorts, including a number of different restaurants and pools, as well as several different bars. Our room was in one of the oldest buildings on the property, and it had its quirks, but it was roomy and the bed was comfortable, so it was adequate for our purposes, as we really didn't spend much time in our room.

The resort "beaches" were set back from the water, separated from the "real" beach by a sea wall. This allowed the resorts to control access to the property, but it also meant that you felt a bit removed from the ocean while you relaxed on a lounge chair or in a cabana. However, having a wait staff that could bring cold drinks and food to you as you lay in the sun (or, as we tried to do, the shade) certainly made up for the slightly limited access to the surf. If I could figure out how to support myself, I would be perfectly content to just stay on one of these beaches, enjoying bottomless drinks and reading good books!



The food was endless, but for the most part was only slightly above average in quality.  Which was probably just as well, because if it had all been excellent, I would have found it impossible to not eat too much.  As it was, I found myself snacking through the day, certainly consuming more calories than I was burning as I reclined on the beach. The other oddity of the resort was that the rooms did not have free internet access, but there was free WiFi on the beaches, which meant that many people lay on the beach with their phones or tablets, checking e-mail and Facebook, or just surfing the internet. Weird.



And because this was a tropical island, everything was lush and green and generally just gorgeous.  There were several resident cats on the resort, who were completely prepared to beg for whatever food you might be willing to share with them.  There were also birds that felt that it was totally acceptable to fly into the buffet restaurants and help themselves to scraps that fell to the floor or to food from the plates left on the tables when people walked away. And for those staying a few buildings over from us, there was a group of peafowl that provided a reliable, if annoyingly early, wake-up service.



We did leave the property twice during our week, on excursions to experience a little of what the Dominican Republic had to offer away from the beach.  On Monday, we visited the waterfalls of Damajagua, where, after a *very* sweaty 40 minute hike in the jungle, we jumped, slid, and swam down a series of 12 waterfalls. Then on Thursday, we dis an all day tour to Santiago and Jarabacoa. Each of those excursions probably deserve an entry of their own. 

* If you find an offer for an all-inclusive resort that includes a really low price, understand that the resort is probably taking a loss on the deal in order to get you on the property so they can try to sell you a timeshare or vacation club membership. These sales pitches are *very* high pressure and generally will cost you about half of one day of your trip, even if you consistently refuse to buy anything. This isn't to say that you shouldn't take advantage of these promotions, but understand what they are and be prepared for the sales pitch. These companies definitely try to take advantage of people who don't understand what they are being sold. If you are staying for a week, losing half a day may be worth the discounted price, but that is a decision that each traveller needs to make for him or herself.
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2017-05-01 07:10 am

Back from vacation

 My wife and I returned home yesterday after spending last week at an all-inclusive beach resort in Puerto Plata. If you have been paying attention, you may note that this is, in fact, our third trip so far in 2017. When I mentioned that we were hoping to begin travelling more, I was quite serious.

I will need to sort and upload photos, and there will probably be a couple more entries detailing the trip, but this trip was mostly about relaxing on the beach, enjoying endless food and bottomless drinks, while making new friends. And I think we managed to accomplish all of that. We managed to find some quite lovely spots on the beaches, in the shade of the palm and mango trees, where we could relax in the breeze off the Atlantic Ocean, listening to the surf, while sipping cold drinks. The restaurants were good, and a couple of the meals were quite excellent. And we met wonderful people...a young couple from Charleston who were celebrating a slightly delayed honeymoon, and another couple from the Netherlands who were in the middle of a two week stay. 

There were minor bumps along the way, including some drama at the airport before we even really got started. As our flight out of Washington National Airport began boarding, a young man with a guitar rushed to the gate, anxious to get on board. The gate crew pulled him aside...they had already made several announcements about how full the flight was and asking for volunteers to gate check some of the carry-on baggage. I'm sure that the airline personnel simply wanted to make sure there would be enough storage space for this guy's guitar, but he was sure he was going to miss the flight, demanding to be allowed to board. When the gate agent who had been speaking with him turned her back, he dashed down the jetway with his guitar, which prompted calls for security.  He only made it as far as the aircraft doorway, and after a loud debate, he was eventually convinced to return to the gate area, but not before they airline staff had threatened to cancel the entire flight! Needless to say, when we finally finished boarding and departed, he was not on the plane.

Beyond that, our travel was mostly uneventful, which is about the most you can hope for these days.  Modern air travel is no longer fun, but a chore to be endured in order to get where you want to be, at least for those of us who can't afford to sit with the 1% up at the front of the aircraft.
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2017-04-12 01:37 pm

Alpe d'Huez

I just realized that I've been home from France for a month, so it's probably time to finish writing about the trip, before I completely forget all the details. I'm going to try to summarize a week in this single post, mostly because I doubt there's much value in a day-by-day account of our skiing. Instead, I'll try to cover the highlights.
  • Weather - While we did have several beautiful, sunny days, the temperatures on those days were well above freezing, which led to less than ideal snow conditions. It also meant that we were overdressed and soaking in sweat by the end of the day.  However, the early part of the week featured a full-blown blizzard, with very limited visibility, lots of fresh snow, and ugly winds.  At one point, my wife and I were stranded on a chair lift for about 15-20 minutes when the high winds forced them to shut it down.  My best guess is that the winds were gusting above 50 mph as we bounced around on that chair like a piñata at a toddler's birthday party. That was, no question, the scariest chair lift ride of my life.

  •  Food - One of the reasons I enjoy ski trips to Europe is the food. Our package included dinner each night in the hotel restaurant each evening, and we sat as a group, sharing stories over five courses of simply amazing French food, accompanied by plentiful local wine (Côtes du Rhône), both red and white. If I hadn't been getting such a workout each day on the mountain, I'm sure I would have gained several pounds!

  • Scenery - The other big reason to ski in Europe is the scenery. While you can argue pretty persuasively that the snow conditions in Colorado or Utah are normally far superior to those anywhere else in the world, the Alps possess a dramatic beauty that the mountains here simply cannot match. On the days when the sun was out, it was impossible not to stop frequently just to soak in the views. I took a lot of photos, only a few of which actually do justice to the beauty that surrounded us.
 




  • The location - The town of Alpe d'Huez is remarkably small, considering the size of the ski area that it serves. it is also pretty remote, at the top of a long, steep road that includes 21 hairpin switchbacks (famous in bicycle racing circles for the leg of the Tour de France that climbs it). We really didn't explore the town while we were there, focusing instead on skiing during the day, and socializing at our hotel in the evenings.  The ski area is actually a number of small ski areas that interconnect and operate on a single ski pass system that tracks the usage of the various lifts in some form of revenue sharing. Unlike the corporate environment that dominates ski areas in the US, where everything on the mountain is owned by the corporation that runs the resort, here the various restaurants and bars on the mountain were independently owned. The resulting competition meant that the prices for food and drinks on the mountain were surprisingly affordable by comparison to what we've become accustomed to seeing in the US.

  • Final thoughts - It had been more than a decade since we last visited Europe, and this trip was a reminder of how very much we enjoyed our earlier visits there. I have heard people argue that there is too much to see and do in the US, so that the cost and effort of travelling to Europe doesn't make sense. While I agree that there are plenty of great places to travel to in the US, I strongly disagree that this should be an excuse not to visit Europe. I love the experience of visiting countries with much deeper histories, as well as different languages and cultures, from what I can experience here. This trip has reminded me of the value of foreign travel, and I fully intend to do as much travelling as I can, both foreign and domestic.
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2017-04-04 10:06 am
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Avignon - the City of Popes

When most people think of the Popes, the city that comes to mind in Rome. But for much of the fourteenth century, Avignon was the city that the Popes called home. Beginning with Clement V, a series of seven French Popes established Avignon as the center of Church administration and the capital of the Papal States. Avignon would remain part of the Papal States until the French Revolution.

When we booked this trip, it was this history that excited me about our stay in Avignon. I was anxious to tour the Palais des Papes (Papal Palace) and to wander this city that was the center of the Church for two-thirds of a century, just before the Renaissance.



And so that was the first place we headed on our full day in Avignon. Soon after we began our self-guided tour, we fell behind the rest of our group...I was simply to interested in absorbing the experience of the building. The architecture is stunning, even with all the damage done in the intervening centuries (much of it by soldiers when it was used as a barracks). Unfortunately, almost all of the original frescos are gone, and most of what remains is badly damaged. But they provide glimpses of how beautiful it must have been when they were intact.

The tour includes two circuits through the building, each beginning and ending in the main courtyard, just inside the main entrance. Along the way, we explored most of the important spaces in the building and even got up on the ramparts to enjoy the views out over the city and the countryside beyond.

After finishing our explorations of the Palace, we tracked down the rest of our group at Marché les Halles (the Market), where they were buying cheese, bread, and wine for lunch. Since we weren't hungry at this point, we left them to their picnic and continued our explorations of the city. We worked our way back to the Palace grounds, where we visited the Cathédrale Notre-Dame des Doms d'Avignon and the palace gardens. We also walked the perimeter of the city walls (Avignon has some of the best preserved city walls in France), and just randomly wandered through the streets of the city. By the end of the day, my wife's FitBit had recorded over 32,000 steps and estimated that we had walked more than 13 miles!
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2017-03-31 02:04 pm
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Pont d'Avignon

After returning to the hotel after our day of exploring the region, we agreed on a restaurant for dinner, based on recommendations from our tour guide and from the hotel staff. We had a little time before the restaurant opened, so we went up to our room to relax for a bit, and met everyone in the lobby when it was time to walk to dinner.

The restaurant we had chosen had both a prix fixe menu and a la carte pricing. I opted for an a la carte pasta dish that was absolutely delicious. The restaurant was mostly empty when we arrived, since we were there almost as soon as they opened, but by the time we finished our meal, it was crowded, and the bar area had gotten quite noisy. After a leisurely dinner, accompanied by a couple of bottles of wine, we headed back out into the streets.

One of the sights I wanted to see in Avignon was the famous Pont d'Avignon, the remains of a medieval bridge that once spanned the Rhone. I had seen photos of it at night and knew that it was spectacularly lit, so my wife and I set out around the city wall and along the river to the bridge. And we weren't disappointed. Not only was the bridge absolutely stunning in the lights, but the river was mirror smooth and we were, quite literally, the only people out there. I spent twenty minutes or so taking photos of the bridge from various angles, trying to get a perfect photo. But the best of the bunch turned out to be the last one, taken almost as an afterthought as we were about to walk away. I simply turned back to the bridge, framed the view, and snapped the shot.



We then strolled back along the river and around the city wall, back to our hotel for the night.