Skip to content

Florida to Los Angeles in Just 17 Days

For the past 50 years I’ve been living on the east coast of the U.S., two years in Washington, D.C. and the other 48 years in the greater New York City metropolitan area.  I love New York and all the culture and all the “Big Apple’s” attractions, but I also love my birthplace, Los Angeles,  the weather, the beach, but more importantly, my immediate family are all in California.

So I consider myself very bi-coastal and I’ve made a habit of hop-scotching back and forth between New York and LA numerous times a year.  I’ve driven twice cross country,  but all those other hundreds of times, it’s always been flying.

Once, back in the 80’s if my memory serves me correctly,  I was lucky enough to fly cross- country on the Concorde, a positioning flight back to New York from Seattle, but flying at slightly under the speed of sound so as not to cause sonic booms and create undue controversy on the ground under the flight path.  That was unique, indeed.

After all these years, I’ve finally managed to, literally,  slow down the travel from the eastern seaboard to the west coast – no, not the train and no cars – but  rather, the “slow boat to LA,” with plenty of diversions in between.

princessMy travel experience, bypassing “flyover country,” was the graceful Pacific Princess,  a 670 passenger Explorer-class cruise ship, embarking on a 17-day cruise running south from Fort Lauderdale through the Caribbean, transiting the Panama Canal, and then northwards along the western coast of Central America and Mexico to Los Angeles.

At first glance of the ship when arriving at the Port Everglades port terminal,  the ship seemed smaller than the behemoths I’ve often seen in Miami or Brooklyn.  And in fact, it was very much smaller than some of the newer floating 3,500-plus passenger ships I’ve seen from a distance while driving on the causeway to or from Miami Beach on a Saturday or Sunday morning.

I have been on even smaller ships, some carrying between 100 and 200 passengers, all of which are most pleasant and I’ve come to like the smaller vessels much better.  You get to know fellow passengers and ship’s crew and it all seems a bit more friendly and social.

Boarding the Pacific Princess was easily and quick – it seemed that boarding at 2:30 p.m., keeping in mind the 4 p.m. departure, was utterly painless as we must have been grouped amongst the last passengers boarding.  I also learned that about half the passengers on board had joined in previous ports, in fact our itinerary, was, in fact, the last leg of an “around the world” 111-day cruise which actually began back in late January from Los Angeles.

So in the first few hours of travel, rather than flying over the routine of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio, we headed southeast through the Bahamas Channel, north of Cuba, and then after turning due south and passing the Island of Hispaniola, we were bound for Curacao, located in the Netherland Antilles, part of the “ABC”  Dutch island group of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao.  The islands are really closest to Venezuela, paralleling the northern coast of South America.

Funnily enough when flying cross country in either direction, one usually encounters a bit of choppy air flying over the Rocky Mountains.  On the cruise, one also may encounter a bit of “chop.”  Plying down through the Bahamas Channel was sunny with serene water,  and the ship could run at its normal cruise speed of about 20 knots.  But then once into the more open Caribbean Sea, the swells and headwinds come alive creating a slightly bumpier ride and the ship is only able to make about 15 knots.  But with very experienced ship’s navigators at the helm,  we easily make Curaçao, our first destination where we are able disembark and re-establish our land legs.

Due to the wind and rough sea, we actually wound up several hours late arriving at Curacao, but it made no difference to the shore or ship’s activities.  The ship’s tour staff were able to reschedule the numerous city and island tours. Individuals disembarked on their own with no problems and set forth on their inspection and exploration of the capital, Willemstad, and unbelievably, a huge lot of passengers never got off the ship.  They just did their own thing relaxing on the ship whilst in port.

willsteadWillemstad is a cute, quaint little town full of colorful buildings, many constructed in traditional Dutch design with others built in a more historically traditional design found in America or the UK.  Tons of shops line the many streets, mostly catering to the tourists coming off the cruise ships.  There’s everything from fresh fruit and vegetables, clothing, jewelry, tchotchkes of all shapes, sizes and color, – lots of it pretty junky – and even a McDonalds for people in need of an all-American fix.  The island’s economy is pretty much based on tourism of one kind or another – one day tourists off the cruise boats or the visitors staying at beach resorts for a week or more.  I found Spanish and English to be the predominant language although many speak Dutch as well as Papiamento, a creole type of tongue that combines Spanish, English and Dutch.

After departing Willemstad and another day at sea, we arrived at Cartagena, Colombia, a city founded  by Christopher Columbus in 1502.  Over the centuries centuries, Cartagena served as a trading port, a pirate’s hideout and one of Spain’s political and very strategic strongholds along the northern South American coastline.

cartaToday Cartagena is a bustling port as well as a destination for sun and beach, particularly attractive during the hard North American and European winters.  It’s real charm is the old city surrounded by a very intact 10-mile wall as well as several old Spanish forts that are in  reasonable condition for tourism.  Inside the walls there is a melange of small shops, restaurants, parks and the most beautiful Spanish style homes and buildings.  It’s definitely worth a day-long walk through.  And if one has time for a quick brunch or lunch, Milas Vargas is a terrific patisserie offering a great selection of yummy selections, including a potpourri  of cakes, cookies and croissants, plus familiar egg combinations and sandwiches.

A day after Cartagena, the ship arrived at the Gatun Locks, Panama,  for the start of the westbound transit of the Panama Canal.  Without going into the minute details of the history and the early crossings of the Isthmus of Panama,- there are volumes written about the trials and tribulations about – the ship’s passing to the Pacific from the Atlantic is most interesting and fascinating, and only by seeing the whole process, one can get an appreciation and understanding of the tremendous effort it took to construct the canal in the early 20th century.  It is, without a doubt, one of the major engineering marvels of the world.

The actual  ship’s crossing from the Atlantic to the Pacific takes pretty much ten hours; it goes through three sets of locks, two lakes and one ”cut” as well as one transcontinental divide.

locksProbably one of the most amusing observations about going through the canal process was that most passengers jammed the upper decks to see everything when going through the first set of locks.  That took about two hours.  After passing through the Gatun Locks, the vessel crosses the Gatun Lake to the second set of locks, the Pedro Miguel Locks.  That occurred about midday and the crowd on deck for the second set of locks was not quite the size of the morning lot.  Perhaps many of the passengers were enjoying lunch.

Once through the second locks, the ship crossed through the Culebra Cut, a made-made river or channel carved out of the earth to connect the Gatun Lake and the Miraflores Lake on the Pacific side which then empties into the Pacific Ocean.

During the time negotiating the third lock, the Miraflores Lock, very few of the passengers remained on deck to watch the last lock process.  It was most curious that only the die hard observers and photographers saw and recorded the final transit into the Pacific Ocean.  Granted, many passengers had done it before, but it was quite humorous to see, and count on four hands, the die hards on deck for the last set of locks.  Once out of the locks,  the time being about 5:30 p.m., and into the inlet that empties into the Bay of Panama and the Pacific Ocean, it’s full steam ahead westward and then north towards the next port.

After one day at sea, we arrive at Puerto Quepos, Costa Rica, a small, coastal town two and one-half hours by bus, west of the capital, San Jose.  Puerto Quepos caters to leisure travelers looking for beach, salt-water fishing and even retirees from the USA.  It’s worth a few hours of walking around or visiting the nearby rain forests, parks and beaches.

bagelsOur most favorite find in Puerto Quepos was a quaint little bakery called the ‘Brooklyn Bakery,’ run by a transplanted Israeli named David Oren.  Not only does Oren make real hand-rolled bagels, fabulous doughnuts and babkas, but also an array of fresh sandwiches, salads, smoothies and other delights, all for very reasonable prices.   Brooklyn Bakery also offers free wifi, and we were able to check all our emails, Facebook messages and we made several phone calls via FaceTime and magic jack – all thanks to David Oren’s generous free wifi.  It’s a must visit in Puerto Quepos.

Departing from Puerto Quepos, the ship embarks on a four-day, northwesterly voyage to Topolobampo, a tiny fishing village with a population of just over 6,000, located about 131 miles northwest of Mazatlan, just inside the Gulf of California on the Mexican west coast.

It’s the first time a Princess cruise ship visits this small, deep-water port, famous for its proximity to Copper Canyon, Los Mochis and El Fuerte.  Copper Canyon, situated in the Sierra Madre Mountains, claims to be four times the size of the USA’s Grand Canyon and almost 300 feet deeper.  It also boasts a spectacular train ride which traverses the canyon.  Los Mochis is the closest city to Topolobampo and El Fuerte is a 450 year-old town at the entrance to Copper Canyon and boasts of a supposed connection to Don Diego de la Vega; remember the swashbuckling television and movie hero, “El Zorro.”  That’s where it all started – well, maybe!

Los Mochis is a city of over 256,000 and at the first glance driving towards the town plaza, it’s a little America with such retail establishments including Sears, Wal-Mart, Home Deport, Office Max, Burger King, Subway and KFC.  Certainly the list goes on, but there are also plenty of Mexican stores., i.e. Liverpool, the Macy’s of Mexico, plus lots of small shops and stalls found along the main street of Los Mochis.  Lots of good bargains may be found just be a bit of snooping about the town center and comparing prices.  However of late on some itineraries, Los Mochis is being by-passed because of the rise of violence due to drug cartel wars.

Next port of call to the southwest, almost 200 miles across the Sea of Cortez at the very southern most tip of Baja California, is Cabo San Lucas, “a not so sleepy anymore” leisure port that runneth over with yachts, new hotels, condominium complexes and too many flea market-type shops charging ridiculous prices for less than attractive Mexican souvenirs.  Actually the best prices were found in the luxury shopping mall at the south end of the harbor.

caboThe north side of Cabo’s harbor features some rock formations which are quite unique and beautiful, and a one hour boat tour in and around the rocks features The Arch, Love and Divorce Beaches and several caves really make the area quite inviting.  But the rest of Cabo seems to be getting very overbuilt and even a bit tacky.  Nevertheless, the area is a welcoming warm respite during the nasty months of winter in the Northeast U.S. and Canada.

From Cabos San Lucas, it’s a straight shot north to LA’s port city of San Pedro where the canal trip ends.  It’s a musty, rainy morning disembarking in Southern California, not the usual sunny weather that one expects 350 days of the year.  At any rate, this right coast to left coast sea venture has been down-right illuminating and restful.  The Panama Canal is one of the the world’s engineering marvels and anyone who enjoys the mechanics of travel should put it high on their bucket list.

R E C E N T   U P D A T E

In the last decade or two, both passenger and cargo ships have become longer, wider and heavier necessitating a wider and deeper canal be built through the isthmus of Panama.  Rather than reconstructing the old canal and blocking sea traffic for many years, a new set of parallel canals and locks on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the Gatun Lake have been built, and the new complex opened  June 26, 2016.  Traffic has increased and the massively larger cargo ships are enabling cities around the world to dispatch and receive more timely and quantifiably larger shipments to and from their ports.

For the cruise industry, the new canal means higher volume of transits as well as the ability of the new canal to accept the newer and larger passenger vessels.

Whereas several years ago, the Pacific Princess just made it through the old, narrow canal,  such newer ships like the Caribbean Princess, carrying four times as many passengers, transits the new Panama Canal with speed and ease.  The new canal now takes ships with a breadth of almost 160 feet whereas the old canal could only accommodate ships with a maximum width of 120 feet.

The New Panama Canal cruise now includes a daylong visit to ‘Princess Cay,’ a Princess-leased beach on the island of Eluthera in the Bahamas.  After a day-long bask in the sun, those taking advantage of the beach experience return to the ship, and then the ship sets out for its two-day sailing to Cartagena.

Cartagena, at least the old town of Cartagena, is still beautifully and tastefully intact and offers culture, heritage, food and vistas unlike any other Northern Colombian City nestled along the Ocean.  The Hotel Santa Clara, located pretty much smack in the middle of the old town,  still exudes the charm and delight of 19th century Cartagena.  It is walking distance to small quaint shops as well as the adjacent plaza where hawkers still lure tourists to buy everything from sombreros, dresses, posters and paintings and a thousand other bits of tchatkas.

Horse drawn buggy tours pass the hotel frequently and when one closes the eyes and turns on the imagination, the clip-clop steps of the horses on the narrow cobblestone streets really take one back into historic Cartagena.

From Cartagena it’s on to the new Panama Canal, the 10 year-long project that opened in 2016 and now permits the mega-vessels to transit between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.  Whereas the old lock doors swing in and out permitting ships to enter and exit, the newer locks are actually sliding doors that are much more efficient with their water compartments taking up millions of water less than the old canal.  Yet the older locks work in tandem with the new canal and twice as much shipping now transits the isthmus.

Seeing the old or new canal mechanism work from the deck of a ship, one may only grasp the engineering and construction that went into the world class marvel.  Captain Marco Fortezze, Master of the Caribbean Princess stated, “The new canal is a milestone for my profession allowing the newer and larger cruise ships to make the crossing rather than not having to go south to circumnavigate Cape Horn.  The time, fuel and energy saved with the new canal is nothing short of amazing.”

gehryTwo points of interest not to miss whilst in Panama City are the Frank Gehry Museum of Biodiversity and the Panama Canal Museum which displays the evolving history of the building the old canal over the last one hundred years.  After optional day-long excursions to Panama City or environs, the ships sets sail back to the Atlantic side and onwards to Costa Rica.

The next day the ship anchors in the port town of Limón, Costa Rica, the largest port for banana exporters in Central America.  Driving in Limón is really the art of dodging the huge semi-trailer trucks hauling fruit from the Dole or Chiquita banana terminals to cargo ships awaiting their loads at the harbor.

Aside from banana production, Limón offers are variety of tours including the Veragua Rain Forest National Park with its cable car and zip-line attractions going through the miles of triple canopy jungle.

Walking or driving on the unpaved dirt roads of the forest, with luck one will encounter a three-toed sloth hanging from a nearby tree, a plethora of tiny, colorful, but slightly poisonous frogs jumping from pond to leaf to back to pond and several purpose-built sanctuaries displaying the various animals found in the rain forest.  For the biologist, botanist as well as the conservationist, this natural eco-system is bountiful and ever-lastingly evolving.

After a day in Costa Rica, the ships heads northward to Grand Cayman where the British influence now takes over from the past few days of Latin environments.  Grand Cayman has glorious beaches, especially the ‘Seven Mile Beach,’  just a 10 minute drive from the Georgetown Port on Front Street.  More famous, or infamous, are the bevy of banks and caymanfinancial services companies located in Georgetown as the Cayman Islands are renown tax havens.  The waters and the sky are beautifully clear blue, but the islands are kept ‘awash with green’ with monies pouring in and out of the Caymans.  And aside from several small shopping malls boasting high-end jewelers, plus the usual array of tourist shops in Georgetown, the island’s main attraction is sand, sun and a variety of water sports including diving and snorkeling.

From Grand Cayman, it’s a day and a half back to Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades Terminal and disembarkation.  The Port Everglades cruise terminal #2 does have a Global Entry lane which certainly permits a faster getaway.  Busses and taxies are in plentiful supply to the Fort Lauderdale Airport, Miami International Airport and other locations in South Florida.   The cruise terminal is located minutes away from the Fort Lauderdale Airport and approximately 15 to 20 minutes from the junction to north or south Florida via Interstate 95.

Princess and other cruise companies offer a variety of Panama Canal crossings and tours year round; aside from its century old history and the evolution of new technology aiding the canal transits, the canal still casts a spell of significant enthrallment and revelation.  And Panama, the city, the country, and the people, despite their volatile political past, is still full of riches to behold and cherish.

The cruise lines also like to alter their itineraries from season to season much depending on political situations, acquisition of new resorts and facilities, and passenger likes and dislikes, all charted from months of feedback and surveys.

Information on the wide variety of Princess cruise and excursion offerings is available from its extensively robust website, http://www.princess.com.

Advertisements

Let Me Take You on an OCEAN Cruise

qm2Recently I had the sheer pleasure of experiencing a 17-night voyage on the only existing “real” ocean liner–the Queen Mary 2–on the second leg of its 2017 “world cruise” sailing to Cape Town, South Africa, from Southampton, England.

For years, really decades, I had wanted to visit South Africa, but because of apartheid, political turmoil, expensive flights, full flights, long distance and work, I never got the opportunity. It was always at the top of my travel list, but never made it a reality.

Even my doctor at the Mayo Clinic, originally from Cape Town, urged me for years to go. He even threatened me once, “Go to Cape Town this year, and if you don’t, I’ll pass you on to someone else.” It was prophetic as he retired several years ago and I still hadn’t done the trip.

But late last year, thanks to an on-line travel agency advertisement, I found the Queen Mary 2 sailing and it fit our diary perfectly. We booked the trip last fall, and as the holiday season approached, the excitement mounted. We were finally going to visit Cape Town, but by a means much more glamorous than flying; it would be the most fashionable and gentile way possible, the Queen Mary 2.

Sailing day arrived and we met the Cunard greeters at London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Three and were directed to a nearby coach for the 90-minute road trip to Southampton. Once in Southampton at the city’s main terminal port facility, the check-in and bag-drop process was relatively easy. Although there was about an hour of waiting, the time passed quickly and soon we were walking the gangway onto the vast ocean liner.

Our stateroom was luckily situated towards the front and on one of the lower decks. It’s better to be in the middle of the vessel, especially if one encounters rough seas, the motion of the ship is much less than if one is at either end or on one of the upper decks. A learning point after taking many cruises.stateroomOur stateroom didn’t have a balcony, but we did have the extra space that would have been taken up by the balcony, making for a very spacious accommodation. The bed was most comfortable. The bathroom was slightly larger than most cruise ships I’ve experienced. (It’s a great plus to have more room in the shower.) As it turned out, when talking to fellow passengers comparing various bits and pieces about the ship, our stateroom was bigger than most. The one improvement that could be made would be to enlarge or widen the closet space; there’s plenty of empty wall space, even with the huge window. On the whole, however, our accommodation was excellent.

The dining propositions were extraordinary The real problem for me? Not overeating. The three daily meals plus snacking opportunities are endlessly superb and the variety is overwhelming.

There are numerous options at any time of the day. Full breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinners were served in elegant or casual venues and buffets offered everything and anything. The dining rooms serve up menu options such as steak, prime rib, pork or lamb chops, shrimp or lobster and the most delicious desserts. There is also a Canyon Ranch option served at the dining rooms in the event one is watching their weight. One may also order from a varied room service menu, too. Throughout the day, there were specialty venues serving a variety of coffees, chocolate drinks, sandwiches and salads, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages and tons of dessert goodies.

Once the culinary and hunger issues have been dealt with and one feels perfectly satisfied with their choice of venue and menu, there’s always the question of what one does the rest of the time? Well, the answer is kind of like the universe: It never ends.

During the day there are lectures ranging from current news topics and global warming to the latest in fashion, art and jewelry and highlights of the Queen Mary 2 destinations. The Queen Mary 2 is the only ship with its own in-house planetarium. There are movies everyday plus indoor games galore: bridge and bridge classes; chess; draughts; board games; and even knitting classes. The QM2 has the largest library at sea and it is full of reference material, maps, fiction and non-fiction books. There also is a complete gym with tons of workout equipment and trainers to advise workout routines.

Outdoors there is paddle tennis, a golf driving cage, table tennis, shuffleboard, several pools and the classic, lovely, old-fashioned wooden chaise lounge chairs to take in the sun while reading or snoozing.

For those guests wanting a more “wellness” lifestyle onboard and willing to pay for it, there’s the Canyon Ranch SpaClub that features a Jacuzzi and saunas. Or one may indulge in massages, facials or specialist treatments.

Evening activities include movies, classical and pop music concerts, club and pub entertainment, headline shows in the ship’s main theatre, dancing in the ship’s ballroom as well as the old standbys of bar crawling, gambling in the casino and more eating. It never stops.

Some of the excellent headliners during our recent sojourn were U.K. opera soprano Susan Parkes and her classical pianist husband, Warren Mailley-Smith; Katie Clarke, a brilliant pianist playing everything from classical to pop; cabaret and concert pop singer Lovena B. Fox; operatic and pop singer Roy Locke; and the usual array of comedians, magicians and ship’s company of dancers and singers.

For the first few nights, we didn’t make an effort to attend the shows. But dinner table partners urged us on, we got into the show-time pattern and wound up going every night and actually made friends with some of the entertainers. And as the ship, indeed, is a captive audience, one often runs into the personalities about the ship. Most are very personable, engaging and fun to chat with.

One of the interesting aspects of running such a “floating hotel” is how on earth do they plan for all the restaurant and buffet meals without repetition and driving the passengers to hunger boredom. You can only eat surf ‘n turf so many times–or at least until nothing fits anymore.

Queen Mary 2 Executive Chef Nicholas Oldroyd has his work cut out for him. Each day he oversees a staff of 150 chefs and 85 utility kitchen workers who assist in the preparation of over 15,000 daily meals–for both passengers and crew. A native of Yorkshire, England, Oldroyd has trained in the United Kingdom and France. He joining Cunard in 1999 and has worked on all three of its vessels: the Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Victoria, and, since 2013, the Queen Mary 2.oldroydHis regular menu cycle for the main restaurants runs for 24 days. On our sailing, there also was the requisition, preparation and serving of exotic local meats such as wart hog, wildebeest, kudu or locally sourced fish such as kingclip. These specialty South African cuts must be served within three days as their “halo” effect only lasts while the ship is within range of South Africa. Once the ship gets to Australia or South East Asia, the importance of such local foods fades rapidly.

“There are also times when passengers spontaneously challenge me,” Oldroyd said. “Guests decide to host special parties for their friends or relatives without advance notice and we have to come up with special menus of the quantity and quality they desire. Thank goodness the ship has tons of space to store dry goods, wines, liquors and most anything party givers want to provide.”

One of the more interesting quirks about Nicholas is that he has a twin brother, Mark, who is also an executive chef onboard the Cunard ships. They work on their own, usually separated by thousands of miles of sea, but their lives are bound by their love of sailing and food. When they do occasionally meet, it’s usually at their vacation home in central Florida.

What’s it like to run floating hotel such as the Queen Mary 2? Just ask Hotel Manager, David Shepherd, who literally manages a mini-United Nations of more 1,000 staff comprised of almost 40 different nationalities. Shepherd supervises the total hotel and food operation of the ship, everything except navigation and engineering. His background is, obviously, hotels and ships, and he must work 24/7 to keep the operation ship-shape. He does it extremely well!shepherd.jpgWhat is so different about the Queen Mary 2? What makes her an ocean liner–the only real ocean liner existing today–compared to some of the much larger cruise ships? To find the answers, we go to the “master of the ship,” the man who sports the four gold stripes on his shoulder boards, the Captain.

“Most of the difference between the QM2 and other cruise vessels is the design of the hull–the forward section and to a lesser degree, the aft of the vessel”, says QM2 Captain Kevin Oprey, a mild-mannered man that could have come right out of central casting. And would you believe, he is a native of Southampton, England, and the sea has always played a part in his family life? From an early age, he was interested in sailing. Growing up in Southampton, he saw all the famous transatlantic ocean-going ships, including “the world-renowned Queens” of the Cunard Line. After college, navigation school and years with a variety of sea transport and energy-related companies, he joined Cunard in 2011 as captain of the Queen Mary 2.

oprey2
“A ship is classified as a bona fide ocean liner based on the shape and strength of its hull and its ability to cut through the water,” Oprey explained. “Whereas a cruise ship plies the calmer seas and visits various ports on an almost daily basis, the true ocean liner crosses the major oceans and has to deal with all types of weather and sea conditions. Our ship copes with it all pretty comfortably thanks also to the height of the ship as well as its long bow, which takes up the first one-third of the vessel.”

Under the command of the captain, the ship’s management team is divided into three main groups: deck and marine crew, technical and engineering and the hotel group.

The deck and marine crew is responsible for the maneuvering and navigation of the ship, the technical group oversees engineering and maintenance and the hotel group is responsible for food and beverage, housekeeping, concessions, entertainment and medical.

“On this particular 6,900-mile voyage from the North Atlantic to the South Atlantic, there are 1,260 crew from 55 countries and 2,692 passengers representing 37 nationalities. It’s like running a small town of over 4,000 inhabitants,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to meet so many interesting people and see so many cities and countries, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.”

From top to bottom, bow to stern, the Queen Mary 2 is a most luxurious and want-for-nothing floating hotel. The 17 nights on the QM2 were beyond expectation and the pay off was arriving in the beautiful city of Cape Town relaxed, happy and ready to embrace South Africa.capetownThe Queen Mary 2’s program for this year and next is available from Cunard.com. If one has the time and inclination for a grand sea voyage, there’s no equal.

The Hills Are Alive in New York City . . .: http://www.johnnyjet.com/the-hills-are-alive-in-new-york-city

Cruisin’ on the Danube–No Better Way to Go

Cruising on a large ship, whether it’s a five night journey across the Atlantic, a two week trip through the Norwegian fjords or a short jaunt through the Caribbean, has always appealed to me as I can check-in, unpack, and that’s it! It’s a moveable feast, both literally and figuratively with no constant unpacking-repacking. Aside from the oceans and seas, I’ve always wanted to do a Mississippi riverboat cruise, but the timing and the opportunity has just never come together.

BUDAPEST
Last fall, a different set of stars came into alignment and I found myself in Budapest, Hungary, preparing for a week-long cruise, northbound on the Danube. Because my parents came from Austria and my wife and I have visited Vienna many times, I thought this might be the perfect opportunity for the long-awaited river cruise and I could finally tick that journey off my bucket list.

It’s not the Mississippi, but the Danube has its own image and well earned reputation for beautiful scenery, extraordinary cities on its banks and, for pure comfort, smooth waters throughout the year.

So, here I am in Budapest, the first stop – the embarkation city for a seven-day cruise up the Danube on one of AmaWaterways’ newest ships, the AmaSonata.

BOSCOLOBefore casting off, a side-bar anecdote. I must tell you about the very unique hotel I discovered in Budapest – the Boscolo, a 120 year old palace converted into a hotel with rooms overlooking one of the main thoroughfares of the city. The room I was assigned was huge with very high ceilings, a most comfortable king-size bed, sumptuous closet space for several wardrobes and a bathroom as big as my New York apartment.   I really felt like a guest in a palace, and one of the best parts was the rate of $135 per night for what I would term a very expansive suite.

Our concierge, Peter, was one of the highlights as well. He suggested, communicated and consummated two special evenings for us – one at the ballet and one at the opera, all for incredibly low prices. It was a steal compared to London or New York.

In addition to the palatial accommodations and super sightseeing in Budapest, there were several extraordinary meals – my favorite, schnitzel, of course, and then a half- GALLERTday session at the Gellert Baths, world renown for its indoor and outdoor swimming pools and thermal baths and massages. For anyone visiting Budapest, this is an experience not to be missed.   And since Hungary is not yet on the Euro, everything is fairly cheap. Now back to maritime matters.

It’s boarding time, and the appetite for Budapest has been whetted. The AmaSonata is docked close by a metro station in Budapest, making the hotel to ship connection incredibly easy. The ship is elegant and comfortable, easy to get around in, and there are drinks and snacks always available. The staff is professional and welcoming. The first evening is spent checking out the menu selections, the dining room layout, the friendliness and professionalism of the waiters, the quality of the food and then attempting to get to know a few of the fellow passengers.

After dinner, we met with a very outgoing gentleman, Dijan, the ship’s Cruise Director, in order to plan our sightseeing tours for the week-long journey. He was a fountain of information and incredibly accommodating.

AMA.The ship set sail seamlessly and unknowingly during the night – one doesn’t even notice the vessel’s movement and after a restful sleep in a very comfortable bed and spacious stateroom, one wakes up the next morning by announcements from the convivial captain saying that we have arrived in Bratislava. Breakfast is served in the dining room and the gangway is open from 9 a.m. and everyone is instructed to be back on board by 2 p.m. And, of course he says, “Enjoy the morning in Bratislava.”

Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia and the only European city, boarding two other independent countries, Austria and Hungary. It’s a quaint city, resplendent of the once mighty Czech – Hungarian Empire from a century ago. Now with Slovakia and the Czech Republic existing separately, Bratislava has a life of its own without having to answer to Prague. It is a member of the European Union and for the sake of simplicity and value for money in this small country, Slovakia trades with the Euro.

Walking around Bratislava’s old town center with its picturesque buildings and palaces (now mostly offices, embassies and hotels), spacious squares featuring small touristy shops, coffee houses and restaurants, one has the flavor of really being in a Europe of 120 years ago without the hustle and hassle of one of Europe’s larger cities.

NAPOLEANBratislava has its own lovely opera house, a museum which was once a home for Mozart in 1762, some very amusing manhole covers and a comedic statue of Napoleon leaning on a bench seemingly trying to overhear what might being said – all quite amusing. It’s definitely all worth the morning stop.

All the cities along the Danube are situated pretty close to one another; one can drive between them in a few short hours, but, of course, to do it by boat is much more relaxing and peaceful. The afternoon is spent cruising up-river to Vienna from Bratislava. A few hours later, we’re tied up at Vienna with the dock a five minute walk from an U-Bahn station, the U-Bahn being the city’s subway – how convenient is that!

Vienna is an integral part of my life, heritage and culture. My parents were born and raised there and the city is inbred into the fabric of my life. As a child, all I heard was Vienna this and Vienna that. From the museums to the coffee houses and restaurants, from the wines (the only European city with its own wineries and vineyards) to the Stateoper, Ratthaus, Weinerwald, Schönbrunn and Hofburg Palaces, the Spanish Riding School and the Prater Park, nothing was better or finer than Vienna in their opinion.

Through the years, I’ve tried to find some truth to all those family stories and legends, and have kind of seen or heard them all. The sum total is that Vienna is pretty much what they said – a fabulous city with a regal and Freudian history (excluding WWII), magnificent buildings, churches and museums, sites to visit and nowadays, a magnet for foodies and wine aficionados. And of course, for shoppers, there is a variety of stores in and around the Graben and Kärtner Straße – Vienna’s main shopping boulevards.

The central part of the city is laid out in a series of rings and since I kind of knew the Inner Ring layout, we went into town with the city tour and did our own thing. There was apple SCHNITZELstrudel, afternoon pastries and a fantastic schnitzel dinner with the beautifully cooked, thin slab of pork hanging off the sides of the giant plate at Film üeller (book first!).   It was a most wonderful day of museum hopping, window shopping and eating. Don’t miss the Albertina, the Leopold and MAK museums. Vienna is a must see city on anyone’s European bucket list.

WACHAUFrom Vienna, we cruised overnight up through the Wachau Valley, famous for its wines and apricot industries, and stopped for the morning at the minute village of Dürnstein. It’s a place that can be seen in ten minutes; the real attractions being the ruins of a castle with an interesting legend starring Britain’s Richard The Lionhearted, and the showroom and shops of the Wieser Apricot company, which manufactures a myriad of apricot products from marmalade to schnapps to candies. How fantastic was this! After all the free samples and buying the most delicious apricot marmalades and liquor, who needs lunch after this yummy excursion through apricot heaven!

After the Dürstein short visit, yet long enough to taste and buy, we set sail for the small town of Melk, famous for its monastery,and its ecclesiastical library of more than 80,000 books. It’s a five star attraction and well worth the tour.

LINZAfter an overnight slow cruise northbound, the next stop was Linz, our gateway to land-locked Salzburg. I had visited Salzburg some 35+ years ago on a self-driving tour through Austria, but honestly couldn’t remember much of that trip.

After a one hour bus ride from Linz, we arrived in Salzburg for a daylong walkabout in this very traditional Austrian city. Luckily the weather cooperated, and despite the fall chill air, we toured historical sites and parks. Then the fun part – off to the main shopping streets which were actually starting to get into the end-of-the-year holiday roll.   Lots of gift shops already displayed beautiful holiday decorations and ornaments for the oncoming season. And it was another occasion to lunch over, well you guessed, weiner schnitzel and for dessert, the delicious sweet soufflé, Salzburg Nockerl. And true to form, they did not disappoint.

Back to Linz for the evening and as luck would have it, a stone’s throw from the ship’s dock, was the Linz Brucknerhaus concert and festival hall. And for just 25 euros, we attended a “Women In Jazz” concert. It was a bit “avant garde” in terms of music quality and selection – very eclectic indeed. But it was exactly what the evening needed as we were nearing our final Danube destination, Vilshofen, a small town on the Danube that serves as the Danube river port for Munich.

Scrambling the last evening in the late hours to pack our bags, we did manage a few hours of sleep, as we had to wake-up in time for the 7:30 a.m. bus departure from the ship to Munich International Airport and our flights back to London and the connection to New York. Vilshofen is about 90 minutes from Munich Airport and during the comfortable bus ride we could see the fall season flatland landscapes of plowed fields and forests from the highway. Some of the foliage was turning bright orange and red from its green summer colors so we didn’t feel too bad about missing the turning of the colors in New York and the Northeast environs.

In looking back over this Danube adventure, I now want very much to do it again, but possibly some of the other waterways featured in the AmaWaterways programs. There is a variety of programs featuring most of Europe, Russia and the Far East. Touring via these ships is absolutely relaxing without the hassle of having to be here or there at someone’s scream or whistle. No tour leaders with raised flags or umbrellas yelling at you either. It’s the best way to go!

AmaSonata Notes: The ship’s accommodation is more comfortable than most. The AmaSonata features a very advanced design, seemingly well ahead of most river cruise vessels currently in operation. Twin Balconies are available in most staterooms, which measure a spacious 210-235 sq. feet, with four suites measuring 300 sq. feet. Passengers enjoy gourmet dining with free-flowing fine wines at multiple onboard dining CHESSvenues; a heated sun deck swimming pool with a ‘swim-up’ bar; fitness center and spa; complimentary ship-wide Wi-Fi and in-room Internet and entertainment on demand; and a number of bicycles carried onboard for guests to enjoy on their own or on guided bike tours. Throughout the voyage one never hears the engines or mechanical workings of the vessel, and despite quite a lot of river traffic on the Danube, there’s never incessant horn blowing during the river voyage.

Further Information on AmaWaterways’ itineraries, departure dates and pricing may be obtained at their website, www.amawaterways.com

Bright Lights in Dyker Heights: http://www.johnnyjet.com/2015/12/bright-lights-in-dyker-heights-brooklyn

My LA Times story, Dec. 16, on the New York Holiday Store Windows: http://www.latimes.com/travel/deals/la-trb-new-york-holiday-windows-20151215-story.html

http://www.latimes.com/travel/deals/la-trb-new-york-holiday-windows-20151215-story.html

“Havana Rakatan” Sizzles & Rocks!

NEW YORK, Feb. 21 – – This afternoon two dear friends from Tel Aviv, my Cuban wife and I had the distinct pleasure of attending a dance performance at New York’s City Center, “Havana Rakatan.” My wife, often times, can be very dubious about “artists” from present day Cuba as so many have been outright duds. But this troupe, part of City Center’s Latin dance festival, proved that the small island in the Caribbean often produces over-the-top brilliant performers and artists, and these musicians and dancers were utterly supreme. So much so that often during the Saturday matinee, the audience gainfully applauded with standing ovations. At the end of the show, the audience screamed and yelled in appreciation almost as though the Beatles or the Rolling Stones has just performed one of their top hits.

This “Havana Rakatan” performance left me constantly tapping my feet and air drumming my hands and fingers on my wife’s hands and arms – I was at the ready to jump up in my seat and start a mambo or a cha cha as the music progressed through a series of fast-paced numbers with brilliant choreography coupled with the brilliant musicians. The dancers, most of which must have had ballet backgrounds (so it seemed by their smooth and seamless movements, leg stretches and ability to fly effortlessly) were gorgeous, both in movement and in dress; again kudos to the costume designers and dressers.

The female vocalist, very reminiscent, of Celia Cruz, was also at the top of her game, and from the program notes, has a very promising career as a singer, composer, arranger and choral director.

By all means if you enjoy Cuban music and heritage and are searching for something to do on a Sunday afternoon or evening, snap up a ticket for Sunday’s last performances at City Center. It’s well worth the time and effort and you’ll come away with a huge smile and tapping hands and feet.