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.
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.
We 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.
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.
Cannes is beautiful. We tendered in right by the Vieux Port (Old Port) and were met by MoMo, a driver we had contracted for a few hours. The goal was to get out on the coast and take in the scenery, and that is exactly what made this day so special.
Before we left town, we headed up the famous waterfront on the Boulevard de la Croisette, where the Palais des Festivals hosts the annual Cannes Film Festival and grand hotels like the Majestic, Carlton and Martinez are found. Among the high-end shops you can find Chanel, with the address Number 5, the origin of the famous perfume name. The Rue d’Antibes offered even more shops, but without the distraction of the colorful parks and action on the waterfront.
We wanted to drive along the Corniches (roads cut into steep hills) and we started with the lower, Basse, Corniche along the coast to Antibes and Cap d’Antibes. The entire area was extremely beautiful and obviously very wealthy. In Antibes we also visited a local market, sampled the delicious Socca (made from chickpeas and olive oil) and purchased some Absinthe, the legendary and controversial, potent liquor. We took in the 13 mega-yachts and one 92’ baby-yacht, all but one with Cayman Island registry, and then drove by stunning villas along the coast.
In the distance we saw the Lerins Islands of Sainte Marguerite (where the Man with the Iron Mask was jailed) and Sainte Honorat.
We did drive on all three of the Corniches, including the Grande (upper) and Moyenne (middle); these roads all follow the coastline, but at various heights along the route. Ah, yes, and more bocce “courts”, which look like large sandy fields in France, where the game is actually called Petanque.
Our drive took us to the hilltop village of Eze, where we enjoyed a quick survey of the shops, cafes and 5-star hotels scattered along the steep, narrow stone pathways.
Once back in Cannes, we visited the Old Town of Le Suquet with its Notre Dame d’Esperance 17th century, Franciscan church and castle ruins.
A final stop at a waterside café for a glace was a perfect ending to the day.
Virgin Gorda looks like a perfect script-writers version of what a tropical island should look like. It features beautiful seascapes with sparkling turquoise water, lots of park land, drivable roads and less obvious poverty.
This is a small island, and we could easily navigate the entire area, even while driving on the left. Traffic was relatively light and the road conditions were better than we have experienced on this trip. We rented a car from Mahogany rentals and it all worked out fine, even though I had been worried about their very casual approach. We called a day ahead as instructed and they brought the car to us at the Spanish Town Yacht Harbour where we tendered in; when we returned, we parked, closed the windows and left the key under the driver’s side mat. It was all very relaxed.
We drove through 250-acre Gorda Peak National Park (elevation 1375’), and since most roads here are coastal, really enjoyed the stunning views along the route. We skipped the hiking trails in the interest of time; there were lots of spots to pull over and enjoy the vistas. One of the routes suggested by our Mahogany rental rep, was to follow signs to “Hog Heaven” to get us to the other side of the Park for our return drive. Hog Heaven is a small restaurant with a striking vista and since it was early we did not linger. I later learned from another passenger who stopped in for lunch that Morgan Freeman, who has a home here, was there.
We saw the North Sound and Nail Bay areas, along with the rougher white caps on one side of the island and beautiful beaches and harbours on the other. We eventually worked our way to the complete other end of Virgin Gorda to The Bathsand Devil’s Bay National Parks a striking, unusual beach with random boulders and rock formations that look like a juvenile giant had tossed them during a tantrum. Made even more famous because of the international photo shoots here (as in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition), this small beach was crowded and there were numerous yachts and sailboats anchored just off shore. The walk through, under and in between the boulders on the Devil’s Bay Trail proved daunting because we were carrying too much stuff, so we only went part way. You need to use both hands, have rubber water shoes and not be burdened with backpacks, towels and bags that make it difficult to maneuver between the tight boulders, climbing the slippery stairs, and hanging onto the badly fraying rope ‘rail’.
From the entrance ($3 per adult fee), it’s a 150 yard trail to the beach. When you are done and back by the entrance, you will see Top of The Baths open-air restaurant and bar, which is a great spot for a nice drink and/or lunch.
Before heading back to town, we visited the Copper Mine Ruins at the aptly named Copper Mine Point on Copper Mine Bay, and watched the waves crashing and swirling. In use from the 1830-60s, the Mine sent more than 10,000 tons of ore back to Wales.
This peaceful island with its laid-back vibe and dazzling scenery was my favorite of the trip.
On most trips, my husband forgets at least one essential item – this time, it was shorts. For a South Florida guy who pretty much lives in shorts, this was a big surprise. So, we have another fairly immediate shopping opportunity.
Yesterday we flew to San Juan, Puerto Rico to sail on the Azamara Quest for a New Year’s trip in the Caribbean. This morning we woke up in the USVI, St. John to be specific, to bright blue skies, turquoise water and an amazing rainbow. Awfully nice of the Azamara folks to schedule that rainbow; we hear the President of the company is on board, so maybe it was planned. . .
It was a relaxing day visiting the Virgin Islands National Park (covering 2/3 of this small island), enjoying incredible views, seeing ruins of the Annaberg Sugar Plantation, and walking along the famously beautiful Trunk Bay beach. Got some great scenic shots before lunching on Mahi tacos and Conch fritters at the harbor-side restaurant, High Tide. We concluded our shore visit by successfully searching the Cruz Bay area shops for shorts!
Now, about time for that massage.
We are cruising the Dalmatian Coast on the Azamara Quest and docked in our first Croatian port of Hvar at around 11AM. First order of business was to tender into town to venture out on a tour of Island Highlights. This coast is incredibly beautiful with deep blue sea, bright blue sky, a light sea-breeze and layers of history. Today we toured the medieval Hvar Town and Stari Grad (formerly Pharos), stopping at a Dominican Monastery to see some archaeological antiquities from the Roman era. Our guide was excellent at filling us in on the complex history of Croatia and it’s tenure with the ancient Greeks, Romans and Venetians, just to name a few who once ruled this land that was most recently part of Yugoslavia. Our daughter was particularly alarmed to hear about the large number of wild boar and snakes inhabiting this island.
The bay in Hvar is lovely and we saw an unusual number of extremely large mega-yachts.
In town, we walked through the square with its church and bell tower, as well as one of the earliest public theaters, built not long after Shakespeare’s theater in London.
The day was extremely warm, and as we traveled into the interior, it got even warmer. We visited a typical Konoba (Taverna) in the village of Vrisnik for a tasty typical snack of cheese, smoked ham, bread, olive oil and wine. The white wine was not bad.
Once back in Hvar we toured the storybook fortress overlooking the city, and marveled at the commanding views of the town and bay. The complex also houses a prison with a long, slick, claustrophobic staircase and dungeon-style cells hidden far below.
Then back to the ship: hot, tired and heads crammed with new lessons about history, geography and culture.
We boarded the ship yesterday in Venice and experienced an amazing scenic sail-away on our way out of port. For the second night in a row we managed to consume about eight desserts at dinner; we don’t order, they just bring them – this has got to stop . . . .