Category Archives: Cruising

Welcome to Zeeland

After a morning cruising through locks and idyllic scenery, we have arrived in Zeeland in the southern part of the Netherlands. Today we are visiting Middleburg the capital of the province, in (as you can guess) the middle. From our riverboat, the AMAPrima, we took a two-hour walking tour into this charming city with origins dating back to the 1100s.

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Fields of Tulips!

The tulips are amazing.

Our first full day on the AMAPrima river cruising has been a delight. It helps that we are blessed with perfect sunny, cool weather. We cruised through locks, rivers, and lakes on our way to the charming town of Hoorn where we began our countryside drive to a working tulip farm.

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Have You Ever Eaten Cactus?

Prickly Pear Cactus.

Prickly Pear Cactus.

Well, prepared by the ladies at Antojitos Doña Pili in Cozumel, Mexico, it’s delicious.

Authentic quesadillas are a pretty basic affair in Mexico, a small tortilla (usually corn), a small amount of the main ingredient, and maybe a little bit of Oaxaca cheese.  Add salsa if you dare.

Nopales, from prickly pear cactus was our favorite of the local homemade quesadillas prepared for us at the first of our six stops during our amazing Mexican food tour.  We also tried tasty poblano pepper as well as huitlacoche, which is a mushroom-type fungus that grows on corn and was bland without the sauce.

Our group of six has a bunch of dietary restrictions and our enthusiastic local foodie-guide Geraldo (Jerry for the Anglos), very professionally and seamlessly, managed necessary substitutions. This food tour is designed to get visitors around to off-the-beaten-path local eateries. We booked it independently, while in town on a cruise ship stop. It was a great choice.

Conchinita pibil.

Conchinita pibil.

We enjoyed conchinita pibil tacos, which are cooked with sour orange juice in banana leaves, a favorite in the Yucatán peninsula.  Like the quesadillas, tacos are not the Tex-Mex orgies we get in the States; they are simple, just the chopped pork and some onion held together by a corn taco. The next stop was for a large bowl of Sopa de Lima, a soup full of shredded white meat chicken and a broth with a hint of lime.

Delicious ceviche.

Delicious ceviche.

Voted winner of the day: Pescadoria San Carlos, where we feasted on incredible grouper ceviche and whole fried freshly caught grouper.   Those of us from Florida who are used to fresh (even whole fried) fish thought it was wonderful and our other friends pronounced it the best fish they had ever had.  It was really good.

The gregarious owner of this colorful restaurant sang for the group and apparently, is also a popular local comedian.

Along the way we had all sorts of great drinks to try including local Montejo beer, Hibiscus water (Agua de Jamaica), Pepino (cucumber & lime), Horchata, a milky sweet drink, and Chia Fresca complete with floating chia seeds.  We stopped at a local market to get a first-hand view of the various ingredients we were eating and we ended the 3-hour tour at a bakery, but were too full to sample more than a bite of the large local pastries.

¡Salud!

If you want to go: contact emily@cozumelchef.com  They book through Viator, Inc and we booked through Cruise Planners/ShoreTrips.

So many kinds of peppers. The adventurous among tried different types of salsa, made with different peppers, at every stop.

So many kinds of peppers. The adventurous among tried different types of salsa, made with different peppers, at every stop.  

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All gone.

All gone.

Thai Massage Anyone? Ko Samui

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We make a short call at the beach town of Na Thon on the resort island of Ko Samui. Not being beach people, it was a perfect opportunity to get an authentic, famous Thai massage. img_0047And so we did. It was rigorous, but we were able to walk out without assistance. It was so inexpensive – about $10 each and that was with a generous tip.

#LoveTravel, @AzamaraJourney @AzamaraVoyages

The Kingdom of Siam: A Visit to Old Bangkok

In the Grand Palace complex.

In the Grand Palace complex.

We did not have a lot of time in Bangkok, since we chose to zip over to Cambodia while here, so we needed to make the most of the time we had.  With the help of our wonderful A&K guide Annie, off we went.

No trip here would be complete without seeing the famous Buddhas.  The guidebooks say if you see one thing here, it has to be the Grand Palace.  We did see the Palace and the Emerald Buddha (actually jade), but my favorite site was not the Grand Palace, but Wat Po, the temple complex that houses the Reclining Buddha.

The Reclining Buddha.

The Reclining Buddha.

The Grand Palace complex is huge, beautiful and has many buildings and even commercial shops.  King Rama IX died in November, and the country has recently completed 100 days of mourning. The Palace complex is very crowded with locals since the King’s body is lying in state and traffic is closed on the immediately surrounding streets. Security was tight, everyone passes through metal detectors and a photo ID, in our case a passport copy, must be shown. Ankles and shoulders must be covered (and not with a shawl). I saw people turned away. Many locals are still wearing black to honor their beloved King.

The Emerald Buddha is small and positioned quite high, and was dressed for winter (one of its three outfits), covering all the jade except his face.  Visitors maybe not photograph inside the Wat Phra Keo (temple) that houses this Buddha, and from outside the temple, only a camera much better than mine would have a lens good enough to get a decent photo.

Area of Wat Po.

Area around Wat Po.

Conversely, the buildings at Wat Po were closer together and look like something in a fairy tale.  As with other ceremonial locations, tiny tiles of stained glass, ceramics and richly painted murals cover every surface inch of space.  The effect is magical, sparkling in the sunlight, vibrant color everywhere. Again, I find my camera lens insufficient to capture what I am seeing.  The 160-foot-long reclining Buddha is far larger than it looks in photos – breathtaking.

I was blessed by a monk here – being “tapped” (it was pretty hard) on the head and shoulder with a short straw broom and basically doused with a substantial amount of cold water. It was so hot, it did feel good. We also visited the massive Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit.

The solid gold, Golden Buddha.

The solid gold, Golden Buddha.

Solid gold and weighing in at 5 tons, but skipped a visit to Wat Aron, and settled for seeing it from the river since the entire temple is scaffolded for renovation.  Clearly, these temples are meticulously maintained; they are all so elaborate and seem in perfect condition.

The temples we visited are in Old Bangkok, but the rest of this sprawling, modern city was not unlike our home city of Miami. Skyscrapers, modern elevated expressways, tropical vegetation and sunshine.  Our focus was to see as much of the ancient and traditional features of Bangkok as possible, so we embarked on a private long-tail boat trip through the canals (khlongs) of Thonburi.

A canal vendor.

A canal vendor.

Traveling through locks (they say “water gates”) on the way in and out of this charming area, we enjoyed seeing the wooden shacks, beautiful new homes, Temples, waterside markets and even restaurants with cooks preparing food from small boats in the canal. I’ve read these waterways make Bangkok the Venice of the East, but they reminded me far more of the Florida Keys.

Thanks to the efficiency of our intrepid, always smiling guide Annie, we even managed to get in a ride on a tuk-tuk, one of the motorized three-wheeled carts so prevalent in this city.  Thankfully our smaller ship, Azamara Journey, docked in town on the Chao Phraya River (larger ships dock two hours from town), and we were able to productively use every minute of our time here.

I now understand “The King & I” is more fairy-tale than truth (it’s banned here), but do plan to re-watch.

Side bar: Originally, I had wanted to visit the MaeKlong Railway Market, a market that covers rail tracks, and is quickly picked up just prior to the train entering the station. But it’s about 90 minutes out of town and this time of year, the train only comes through twice a day, 8:30 AM and 3:30PM. Apparently, many of the local vendors have quit going to the market, because the growing number of tourists is having a negative impact of their ability to sell their fruits, vegetables, etc.

Wat Traimit, home of the Golden Buddha.

Wat Traimit, home of the Golden Buddha.

 

#LoveTravel, @AzamaraJourney, @AzamaraVoyages

Indiana Jones Territory – but with a lot of “extras.”

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The Angkor Temple complex is huge – with boundaries well beyond the more famous Angkor Wat. Its Hindu origins were easily adapted for Buddhism by the Khmer dynasties.  Temples were being built as early as 790.  Smithsonian Magazine (April 2016) published a fascinating article about a “lost city” likely dating earlier than Angkor Wat, and possibly even a template for the newer site.  Using state-of-the-art Lidar (laser) technology, archaeologists are able to visualize and map structures that are hidden beneath the surface.

The appearance of the Angkor Wat temple site was not surprising, but the massiveness of the entire complex was not expected. Nor were the thousands of Chinese and Korean tourists that flooded the area, in part due to the Chinese New Year holiday, but also because it was a good, dry time of year to visit. I predict UNESCO will have to step in and put in place more restrictions.  They are doubling the entrance fee next week, but I think they will need to limit daily visitors and ban selfie sticks! Read the rest of this entry

10 Million People & 6.5 Million Motor-scooters

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The image of locals bicycling around Vietnam is a thing of the past – now they are on motor-scooters. Sometimes as many as 6 people, an entire family, are on one; mothers are bottle-feeding children, workers are making deliveries; lots of riders are hauling large plants for the New Year.  Well-behaved children smile and wave, geese try to escape, riders don’t seem to worry about their often-precarious loads. Some look like students, many like average workers, and others are quite dressed-up, women even wearing high heels; almost everyone wears a mask against the dust and pollution, and helmets are now required, but not one had any sort of otherwise protective clothing.

As we journeyed out of Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City to and from the Mekong Delta, it became an obsession with us, and everyone in our group, to marvel at the massive tide of motor-scooter riders leaving the city for the holiday. They were in every direction, sometimes even in our lane of traffic, coming straight at us.

dsc_0096-copyWe loved getting out of the industrial city of Saigon, Vietnam’s largest city.  The rural countryside was green, the sky blue and air fresh.  From the Mekong River village of My Tho, we boarded a boat to visit a few local island family businesses and sample the locally produced honey, bee pollen, coconut candy and fruit.  We also rode in a four-passenger sampan through a crowed canal back to the larger river.  It was very entertaining and interesting. The young teen and older man who paddled our sampan worked hard.

The river is crowded with colorful fishing boats and all sorts of lively boat traffic.  After leaving the river, we stopped for a traditional Vietnamese lunch that included “Elephant Ear” fish from the river and fish soup. Unlike some in our group, my husband and I were undaunted by having a whole quick-fried fish placed in front of us, and enjoyed the delicious rolls made with rice paper, the firm fish, noodles and very thin slices of mango (I think it was mango); we did ask our server to leave out the lettuce.

img_9759-copyThen back to putting our lives in the hands of our bus driver for the mad-cap ride back to the port. Getting drenched running through a pop-up rainstorm to get on our ship, we barely made it back for the ship to depart on time and make it under the bridge before high tide.  And then, as fast as it came, the rain was gone and we were enjoying the view, as the Azamara Journey sailed south on the Saigon River.

#LoveTravel, @Azamara Voyages, @AzamaraJourney

The Consequences of History: Central Vietnam

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Today was a confluence of sights, sounds and impressions.

The highlight of the day was a bicycle ride through a rural area in the settlement of Cam Thanh. It was a lovely, lush area and actually seemed pretty affluent. Preparations for the New Year were evident as we saw people cleaning their property, special signs and traditional chrysanthemum and kumquat plants everywhere.

Some of the paths were paved, some were dirt and many were quite bumpy, but the only part that was a bit scary was the constant appearance of fast-moving motor-scooters.  When they had large, overlapping loads, or were leading something like a water buffalo, it was intimidating. I just wish I could’ve taken my hands off the handlebars with more confidence to take some photos. The scenery was just as I imagined – rice paddies, water buffalo, and small fishing boats along the river. img_9338-copy

At one juncture along our path, there was commentary being loudly broadcast over a loudspeaker followed by music.  When asked later, our guide explained this is how the government still communicates in many rural communities.  For us, it was an eerily, MASH-like moment. On a less bizarre note, we stopped along our ride to visit a beautiful Buddhist Temple, complete with chanting monks.

All-in-all, the bike ride was a very memorable experience.

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Incense coils in the Chinese Temple, Hoi An.

img_9531-copyWe also did a walking tour of historic Hoi An, another UNESCO site. Untouched during the war, Hoi An is 45 minutes from Da Nang, where the US had a large military presence during the war (we saw the air base).  A trading crossroads for centuries, this mostly pedestrian-only zone has wonderful surviving elements of Chinese and Japanese cultures.  I say mostly, because around 11AM, they let motor-scooters back in. Today, Hoi An continues its role as a trading crossroads – but basically to “trade” with tourists; taking both credit cards and US $.   The city has been preserved well, with dozens of inviting restaurants and attractive shops featuring local artisans and handmade items. I loved all the colorful lanterns strung across the narrow streets.

The area is also known for silk, and is a huge center for custom-tailored goods.  Because of the New Year, we saw the occasional shop-owner burning symbolic money for good luck.  And OMG, the cooking smells emanating from the restaurants were incredibly good. We eventually did enjoy a wonderful Vietnamese lunch.

From the road, we could see the Marble Mountains in the distance, each named for the five elements-water, metal, wood, fire and earth, and we had a photo-op at the 20-mile Non Nuoc Beach, famous in the US as China Beach (where US servicemen went for R&R). Locals don’t like to call it China Beach, and although they say it’s because they don’t want to credit China, you have to wonder about the US/war affiliation.

Overall, I have to comment this part of Vietnam is being rapidly developed and construction is hi-end with obvious foreign investment.  Four Seasons, Raffles, and Hyatt are there and several major resorts are currently under construction.  It appears the entire beach-front has been optioned. There is even a casino for the Chinese visitors (locals are not allowed to gamble).

Someone needs to tell the Vietnamese guides they do not need to talk 100% of the time . . . .

Remembering Sacrifices of the War

This beach area in Vietnam (Nom O Beach) is where 3,500 US Marines landed on March 8, 1965, becoming the first American ground troops in Vietnam. And the rest is history.  It was also in this area that the Tet Offensive in 1968 was launched by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, essentially marking the beginning of the end of US involvement in the war.  It was called “Tet” because it was planned for the Lunar New Year celebration (which is this very week in Asia). The North Vietnamese correctly guessed the opposition soldiers would think the initial assault was just firecrackers from the celebration and be caught off-guard.  My husband was luckier than others and did not have to serve here; but he has nevertheless been soberly reflective during this visit.img_9371-copy

For my trivia buddies, one fact I never knew til preparing for this trip: It’s bad form to stick chop sticks into a rice bowl vertically – it’s the Buddhist sign of death.

#LoveTravel, @AzamaraVoyages

Birth by Dragon: Halong Bay

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A picture is worth a thousand words – this is Halong Bay.

Halong translates to “Descending Dragon” and you can see how this UNESCO site got that name. Many of the limestone formations have also been given names, such as “Heavenly Gate” pictured here.  The Bay is located in the Gulf of Tonkin within the South China Sea. Fog and haze surrounded our morning trip on a re-imagined “junk,” as we journeyed around a few of the areas’ thousands of Karst islets.dsc_0994-smcopy

Our visit to the Thien Cung “Heavenly Palace” Cave on Dau Go Island was magical and far exceeded my expectations; even a claustrophobic would not feel oppressed here.  It was so amazing, I didn’t even think about the hundred steps up to enter or the few hundred more once inside.  Locals have added some colored lights and while not at all necessary, it was a very pretty effect that photos don’t do justice.  Nor do photos capture the enormity and grander of this unique underground system.

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Generally, visitors here also see floating camps of fisherman, but with the pending New Year celebrations, they headed inland for vacation.

Our ship was anchored in the Bay and by the sail-away later in the day, the haze lifted and it proved to be a fabulous photo-op. I didn’t want it to end.

#LoveTravel @AzamaraVoyages @Azamara Journey

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The Long Trek to Hanoi


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Preface:  This is the first of my posts about our wonderful cruise on the Azamara Journey to Vietnam & Thailand, sailing from Hong Kong and ending in Singapore. Sailing with Azamara is a favorite of ours.  We love the ship size (<694 passengers) which is small enough to get to great destinations and large enough to have first-rate entertainment, wonderful spa, and other amenities. Service has always been exceptional and was on this cruise as well. Dining options are varied and excellent, especially the two specialty restaurants (Aqualina & Prime C), Chefs Tables, and interesting specialty dinners.  Azamara also stays more nights in ports, a feature that allows passengers lots of options including taking advantage of interesting alternatives offered by the cruise line.  One of the reasons I chose this trip was the option to fly from Bangkok to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat; it was amazing. I love Azamara’s focus on culture, flexibility to offer wonderful value-added (sometimes impromptu) experiences, and casual yet high-end vibe. To read more about my reflections of the trip, just click to the next entry.

cropped-dsc_0994-smcopy.jpgThis morning we arrived in Halong Bay – long on my travel bucket list. For years I wondered where this beautiful landscape existed . . . . a favorite with movie directors (think James Bond).  Eventually, I figured out it was Ha Long Bay in Vietnam.  But, more on that with my next post.

Today, we decided to make the long three-plus hour trek into the interior lowland city of Hanoi.  I mean, we are in Vietnam, we have to make the effort.  So we boarded a cramped bus (Americans are much bigger than the locals, who I’m sure are very comfortable), that sped along passing every vehicle in sight, honking each and every time.  It’s apparently the law here – with all the motorcycles, etc., drivers honk to let others know they are being passed. Read the rest of this entry