Monday, November 27, 2017

Arriving in Cuba

This morning is overcast and cloudy with a light drizzle. Thomas and I woke up around 6:30am and went out onto the balcony to see the beginning of the day. Today we anchored off the coast of Cuba at Cienfuegos and will be tendered onto shore for our excursions. We don't meet for our excursion until 9:00am. So we showered and dressed and then went for some breakfast in the World Café. We returned to our cabin around 8:00am and got our things ready for the day. We need our passports, visas, custom forms, ship ID card and our shore excursion tickets. Of course, I had my camera with extra batteries, our hats and sunglasses, and some toilet paper, wet wipes and hand sanitizers. We were warned that some of the public restrooms lack toilet paper and soap. So once we were ready we just did a little reading until it was time to go to the meeting area for the tender to shore.

We arrived at the Star Theater at 8:55am, were told we were in Group 6 and then we found seats to wait until we were called. At 9:05am they called our group and we made our way to Deck A and climbed aboard the tender. It was a 10 minute ride to the dock. Once on shore, we made our way through customs. First, we entered an air conditioned building where a man watched a computer screen. We noticed a camera on the wall that pointed to about head level. When we reached the computer we saw on the monitor a thermal image on the heads of the people walking through. We assume they were checking people for a fever to make sure no one was sick - not sure if that is correct or not. Then we entered a second building with agents at booths where we had to turn in our customs forms, give one half of our visa and get our passports checked. Then we went through a gate and were directed to the bus for our excursion.

On the bus, we met our guide (Letty) and headed for our first stop - Laguna Guanaroca. The bus ride lasted about 30 minutes. We parked in front of a small hut with a covered patio area. There really wasn't a parking lot, we just parked in the grass off the road. Our guide divided us into two groups and then we had to wait for a second guide to take our tour of the park. The weather was overcast and cloudy but luckily we had no rain. When the guide for our group showed up we headed out for the tour. We followed a small path for a little while. Along the way our guide pointed out a few things. We saw large ant hills along the trail and termite nests in the trees. We also saw some calabash trees (Crescentia cujete) along the trail. The tree produces a gourd like fruit that they use to make maracas. The trail led to a small dock area where we saw some small row boats with rowers. We were divided into small groups of three to a boat. So me, Thomas and Deanne got into a boat and our rower took us out into the lagoon. He paddled out to the middle of the lagoon where we saw a flock of about 26 flamingos. Our rower paddled us around the lagoon but didn't get too close to the flamingos and we were able to get some pictures. The lagoon was beautiful - surrounded by mangroves with some views of mountains in the distance. On our way back to the docks our rower took us to the edge to the mangroves and caught a small crab that was climbing up one of the trees. I loved being on the water and seeing the flamingos in the wild. Then we got off the boats and then finished the trail and returned to the patio area. When the second group returned we got back onto the bus and headed to our next destination - Jardín Botánico de Cienfuegos. The drive to the botanic garden took us about 15 minutes. We stopped at a visitor center and picked up a guide for the gardens and then drove a short distance down the road. The bus stopped and we all got off and then the bus continued down the road. Our guide walked us along the road and talked about the trees and plants along the way. We learned about bamboo, different fruit trees, flowers palm trees, banyan trees and brazil nuts. After about an hour the tour ended and we returned to the bus and headed back to the port. Our drive took us abut 45 minutes and we got a tour of the outskirts of Cienfuegos and then the city itself. Most of the buildings were run down and needed a lot of TLC. You could tell that once upon a time it was a beautiful place with lots of color and splendid architecture. I loved the lagoon and gardens but would have liked to see more of the city. We made it back to the dock and boarded a tender and we were taken back to the ship.

Once back on the ship we headed to the World Café for a late lunch but it was closed so we ended up at the Pool Grill. Thomas and I had a burger and fries and we just sat and relaxed by the pool and enjoyed the afternoon. After an hour and a half we headed to our cabin where we took showers and rested for a bit. At 5:00pm we met Dave and Deanne in the Explorer's Lounge for a drink. We relaxed and talked and then at 6:00pm we headed to Manfredi's for dinner. We had reservations in this specialty restaurant (no extra charge) for a nice, special, delicious Italian meal. The meal was so good and we all enjoyed ourselves. It was a quiet, relaxing dinner that lasted two hours. After dinner Thomas and Dave went back to the cabins and Deanne and I went to the Explorer's Lounge for another drink. An hour later I was ready for some sleep.

We had a great day in Cienfuegos and a wonderful meal back on the ship. We have to be up early tomorrow for our trip to Havana so it is time to hit the pillow.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

A Relaxing Day at Sea

Yesterday afternoon we left Key West and started cruising for Cuba. And today we have the entire day at sea with nothing planned. I did get up at 6:00am and go to the fitness center. I walked on the treadmill for about two miles and then went onto the jogging track and did one lap.
After walking I returned to the cabin to shower and get dressed. At 8:00am Thomas and I met Dave in the restaurant for breakfast. Deanne decided to go to the World Café. After a nice breakfast I returned to the cabin to get some papers filled out - we need visas to get into Cuba so we needed those filled out as well as a customs form. We also needed to fill out a disembarkation form and an embarkation survey. It took me 30 minutes to get all that done. Then I took everything down to the guest services desk to get checked and turned in.

With all of that completed I decided to wander the ship and take pictures.
Explorer Lounge
Last night Deanne and I had a drink in the Explorer Lounge but we only saw one small area of it. So this morning I explored the entire area (both levels). I have to say that I think is the most beautiful and relaxing part of the ship. And my second favorite is the Wintergarden. I didn't get to see the entire ship but I did get a lot of pictures. Then at 11:00am we all went to the Star Theater for a lecture about Cienfuegos. It was called Port Talk - Cienfuegos. We learned a little history and a little about the culture and then we got some information about the excursions we are going on while in Cuba. The talk lasted about 70 minutes and by this time we were ready for lunch. We ate at the buffet in the World Café and just relaxed as the ship glided through the water.

After lunch we returned to the cabin, did a little reading, organized a few things and relaxed. At around 3:00pm Deanne and I headed to the spa.
We did the Nordic Bathing Ritual. This was described in the spa booklet as . . .
Bade [Bathing] - The tradition of alternating sauna bathing with cold dips or snow runs in our Nordic culture. It detoxes the body, relaxes tired muscles and boosts circulation.
And this is how it is done . . .
* Relax in the sauna
* Dip into the cold plunge
* Heat up in the sauna again
* Step into the refreshing snow grotto
* Repeat as many times as you like
It was invigorating and relaxing all at the same time. After enjoying the ritual we found a couple of lounge chairs and relaxed for a while before returning to our cabins to get ready for dinner.
Thomas and I met Dave and Deanne in the Explorer Lounge for a drink before dinner and then around 6:30pm we headed to the restaurant. Thomas had Caesar Salad, Szechuan Style Beef Tenderloin, and Walnut Cake. I had Shrimp & Corvina Ceviche, Gambas Sauté Provençal (shrimp with rice), and Maple Pecan Bread Pudding. Another incredibly delicious meal. After dinner we walked around the ship a bit and then returned to our cabin. It has been a relaxing day and now we are ready for Cuba. In the morning we dock in Cienfuegos - I am truly excited about the next three days.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Cayo Hueso, Key West, The Conch Republic

Cayo Hueso translates to 'Island of the Bones' which was what Key West was named when Ponce de Leon arrived in 1851 to find nothing but a burial ground. Later the name was changed to Key West and then for a short period of time it became The Conch Republic in protest of a blockade on US1. To get a better history of the island go to The History of Key West. So, as you can guess, today we are in Key West, Florida.

Why did the chicken cross the road?
My day started at 6:00am when the alarm went off. I got dressed and made my way to deck 2 to the jogging path. I met Dave up there and we walked a couple of miles. It was a great way to start the day and we got to see the sunrise as we walked. After completing the two miles I returned to the cabin and took a shower and got changed. Then Thomas and I met Dave and Deanne in the World Cafe for breakfast. Here there is a buffet but you can also order eggs the way you want. So we had a leisurely breakfast and made plans for the day. At around 9:00am the ship docked in Key West. To get into town we had to take a trolley. We docked at a naval base and you are not allowed to walk through or take pictures. You can only leave and enter on the trolleys and you have to show your ship card and a government photo ID. So we took a shuttle which dropped us off in Mallory Square.
"Embracing Peace" by Seward Johnson
From here we walked along Front St. for a while and then turned around and went back to where we started. Then we walked down Duval St. for a while. We just enjoyed looking at everything and went into a few shops. Around 11:15am we got back on the trolley and returned to the ship for lunch. We ate again in the World Cafe at the lunch buffet and then relaxed in our cabin for a short time before leaving the ship again - this time for a guided Trolley Tour. We were on the Old Town Trolley Tours which is one of those hop-on/hop-off tours. There are 13 stops on the tour we took. For the most part we stayed on the tour until we got to the stop for the Southernmost Point of the Continental United States. We got off the trolley and walked about three blocks to the marker. We had planned to all take a picture here but when we arrived we noticed a line that was almost two blocks long of people waiting to do the same. I just went and got a picture of the marker and then we decided to just walk along Duval St. back to Mallory Square to catch the trolley back to the ship.
The trolley driver/tour guide was extremely talkative and funny. One story he told was of the three names that Key West has had as I mentioned in the title and first paragraph. The interesting part was the name 'The Conch Republic'. It started with a blockade by the border patrol to fight illegal drugs and immigration. This was an inconvenience to tourist and Key West relied on tourism. So, to fight this they decided to secede from the United States in 1982. Of course, this only lasted a short time (only a minute), and then The Conch Republic surrendered and then demanded one billion dollars in foreign aid to rebuild their nation. You can read more about this at Our History - The Conch Republic. Their motto is "We seceded where others failed.".

Once back on the ship we went to our cabin, showered and changed for dinner and then joined Dave & Deanne for  drink in the Atrium. While having drinks the ship left Key West and we set sail for Cuba. At 6:30pm we headed for the restaurant for dinner. Tonight Thomas had the chicken and I opted for the destination menu. I had Key West Conch Chowder, Cilantro Crusted Grouper and Key Lime Pie. All were amazingly delicious! After dinner Thomas and Dave went for a walk around the ship and Deanne and I went and worked on a jigsaw puzzle and had another drink. We weren't worried about making it an early evening as tomorrow is a day at sea with nothing planned.
We thoroughly enjoyed our day in Key West but we would have loved more time. No problem, we will plan another trip just to visit the Keys. So far the trip is definitely living up to expectations.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Dirigido a Cuba

Thomas and I are off on another trip. This time on a Viking Ocean Cruise. Our trip is called Cultural Cuba and we are on the Viking Sun. We sail from Miami to Key West then to Cienfuegos and then back to Miami. The plans for this trip began about a year ago and we have had a couple of hiccups along the way. Originally, we were suppose to go to Key West, Havana, Belize, Cozumel and Miami. But because of docking issues they changed it to the current itinerary. Not too bad as the new trip gives us more time in Cuba. And Viking gave us a $500 ship board credit. Then came all the hurricanes. Thankfully for us, Cuba wasn't hit too bad and our trip didn't change. So now we are off on this new adventure.

Our day began at 3:30am when the alarm went off. We got ready and loaded the car and left for the Albuquerque International Sunport a little after 4:00am. Everything went smooth, we checked our bags in and got our boarding passes. We were TSA Pre so going through security was quick and easy. Our flight from Albuquerque to Dallas was on time and we had no problems until we landed in Dallas. Our connecting flight has been delayed two hours. Now we have a cause for concern. We were landing in Miami around 2:00pm and then we would get shuttled to the ship by Viking. But with the delay we wouldn't arrive in Miami until 4:00pm. This worried me as my itinerary said the ship left the port at 5:00pm. So, after checking with the airline about the delay I called Viking. They changed our arrival time and said a Viking representative would be waiting for us and they would get us to the ship. I inquired about the departure time and was told that the ship wasn't leaving the port until 7:00pm. There wasn't anything else we could do so we just found a place to sit and read until our flight at 12:30pm.

Our flight didn't change again and we boarded our plane starting at noon and we took off at 12:40pm. The plane was pretty big - two seats on either side at the windows and three seats in the middle. There were 44 rows (not sure if this included first class or business class). We were in row 42 and we had all seven seats across for ourselves. Obviously, the plane wasn't full. We spent the two hours and 45 minutes reading and resting. We arrived in Miami a little after 4:00pm and after what seemed like an hour we got off the plane. Once we arrived at baggage claim we found the Viking representatives and let them know we had arrived. Then we waited about 15 minutes for our bags. There were two other people (also on our flight) and they shuttled us to the ship. It took us about 30 minutes to go through security and to get checked in. Once we had our cabin keys we made our way there to get settled. Then we contacted our friends (who happen to have the cabin next to us) and they came over and we visited for a few minutes and then we all decided to head to the lounge for a drink before dinner. Then at 6:30pm we headed to the dining room and had our first dinner on board the Viking Sun. It was fantastic. The ship offers a nightly menu, a destination menu (based on food from the area we are cruising to) and a set menu that is available every night. Thomas and I both got the destination menu which consisted of bacon wrapped plantains for a starter, coffee crusted ribeye with potatoes for the main course and peanut butter brownie sundae for dessert. Viking offers free wine and soda at lunch and dinner so we each had a couple of glasses of wine.  After a great meal and a lot of talking we headed out to explore the ship a bit. The thirty minutes later we headed for our cabin. We got things put away and took showers. Then figured out what we are doing tomorrow.

It has been a long day and now we need some sleep so we can enjoy Key West tomorrow. We are meeting our friends for breakfast at 8:00am and then we will head off the ship and explore Key West.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Buffalo and Beyond

Its our last day in New York and this morning we packed up, checked out of the hotel and headed out for one last day of adventure. Our first order of business was to find a letterbox which took us on a beautiful drive (avoiding interstates) along NY5 following the shore of Lake Erie.
You can read about that at One Last Box in New York. During the drive to Dunkirk for the letterbox we stopped in at a Tim Hortons for a coffee and snack (we had to do it - we saw Tim Hortons almost every day of our trip and we couldn't fly home without stopping at one). After finding the letterbox we retraced our drive back toward Buffalo. We stopped along the way to take pictures of the lake and we stopped at Evangola State Park. This is a beautiful park with a beach along Lake Erie. We took a little walk around the park and along the beach, took some pictures and relaxed on a bench enjoying the views of the beach and the lake. I am so glad we took the time to stop here. After about 40 minutes we shuffled off to Buffalo.

Once in the city we headed for the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens.
When you turn into ground of the gardens you are greeted with an amazing view of a beautiful Conservatory. We parked and entered the building from the front. We paid our fees and then took a self guided tour or all the houses in the Conservatory.
There are 12 houses, each with a different theme. We got to walk through all of them except one - it was being remodeled and was closed. Once we made it through all the indoor gardens we then went outside and walked through those gardens. This is a beautiful place and we enjoyed our visit. We decided to leave our car in the lot at the gardens and walk down the road to visit Our Lady of Victory Basilica. We first walked around the interior and took pictures and then we walked around the exterior and took pictures. A very beautiful building both inside and out - just incredible. We then walked back to the car and headed to one last stop.
We drove to Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site. Once we parked and made our way inside we paid our fee, I got the Passport Stamps and bought some postcards. Then we went on a guided tour of the house and learned some very interesting facts about Teddy. It was a very enjoyable visit. After the tour we decided to call it a day and head for our hotel.

Our hotel for tonight is right at the airport. We fly our at 6:00am and I didn't want to drive from Niagara Falls or Buffalo so I made reservations close to the airport - like right across the street. Once we found the hotel we decided to grab some dinner and then fill the car with gas so it would be ready to bring back in the morning. Then we checked into the hotel, showered and then got things packed for the trip home. Now time to get to sleep - it will be an early morning and a long day tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Niagara Falls USA

I was up early this morning (somewhere around 5:30am) but opted to lay in bed and read. After a while Thomas and I got up and ready for the day. Around 8:00am we left the hotel, turned left and walked along Rainbow Blvd. to 1st St. where we took another left. We followed 1st St. which took us onto a bridge that crossed the Niagara River over to Goat Island.
Once onto Goat Island we turned right onto Goat Island Road and followed it to Cave of the Winds. We were a little early and had to wait about 15 minutes before they opened the ticket window. We were two of only five people there waiting and I was excited that it wouldn't be crowded at the exhibit. We followed the roped off walkway, was issued a poncho and sandals and then we entered an elevator that took us to the platform that lead to the base of the American Falls. With the water falling from above, hitting and flowing over the rocks and wind it was a very wet experience. And as we went from platform to platform and got closer to the base of the Falls we definitely felt that Cave of the Winds was the perfect name - the wind whips around and sprays water everywhere. We made it up to a platform called Hurricane Deck. Being from Louisiana and having experienced a few hurricanes I think they aptly named this area. This brought us to the end and we made our back to the elevators totally drenched. The poncho and sandals helped some but not much. Thankfully it was a beautiful, sunny, and warm day which helped us to dry off relatively fast. I loved this tour - it was fun and exhilarating!

We had towels so we were able to dry off a bit and then sit on a bench in the sun for a while before continuing with our day. Off we went to Terrapin Point. This brought us to the edge of Horseshoe Falls. We took pictures, enjoyed the views and talked about how much we have loved this trip. Then we walked over to the Nikola Tesla statue and then crossed over to Luna Island which brought us to the edge of the Bridal Veil Falls and the American Falls.
At this point we had great views of the Cave of the Winds Decks, Bridal Veil Falls and the American Falls. We could also see the boats for the Maid of the Mist tour and the Observation Tower. Next we followed a trail along the Niagara River and crossed a bridge to Green Island and then over to the main part of Niagara Falls State Park.
We took paths that lead us to Maid of the Mist ticket booth. We got our tickets and followed the line to the boat. When I say line it really wasn't a big line, more like a trickle. Once on the boat it was a short wait for the ride to the base of the Horseshoe Falls. This was our second trip to the base of the Falls. We took the Hornblower Tour on the Canadian side a few days ago. We enjoyed the first trip so much we decided to do it again. We didn't get nearly as wet as we did at Cave of the Winds and we dried off much quicker this time. After the boat ride we made our way to the Observation Tower just to get some views. We took a few pictures, hung out, and then decided it was time to move on.

By this time we were hungry so we made our way to Hard Rock Cafe and had a leisurely and relaxing lunch. After eating we walked through One Niagara Welcome Center and looked around a bit. Then we decided to call it a day and head back to the hotel. Tomorrow we check out of this hotel so we took some time to organize and pack and then we sat around and read for a while. Later we walked a couple of blocks to The Twisted Olive for some dinner before calling it a night. We had a great time in Niagara Falls and I am so glad we took this trip. We also came at a great time - it wasn't busy and there were no crowds - extremely enjoyable and we check off another item on our bucket list. We have one more day on this trip and we will spend it in the Buffalo area.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Rainy Day in Niagara Falls

We woke up this morning to a pouring rain. So we lounged around and read for a while and hoped that the rain would at least slow down. Eventually it did and we decided to skip any of the Falls activities and doe some things around the area - it mostly involved letterboxing.
You can read the details of that adventure at Niagara Scenic Parkway Boxes.

We left the hotel and drove the Niagara Scenic Parkway and ended up in Youngstown. We did our letterboxing and thought we might go to Fort Niagara State Park but the rain kept coming on and off. So we headed back toward Niagara Falls. We stopped at Devil's Hole State Park when the rain let up and we had a bit of nice weather to walk around along the river. I was surprised to learn of all the State Parks in this area. Here is the list I made of the State parks in this area . . . Fort Niagara State Park, Joseph Davis State Park, Devil's Hole State Park, Whirlpool State Park, De Veaux Woods State Park, and Niagara Falls State Park. Amazing!
We only made stops at Devil's Hole and Whirlpool. Mostly because it rained off and on and we didn't feel like hiking in the rain. But when the rain stopped we did get to walk around and enjoy the views. And we did get some letterboxing in and you can read about that at Niagara Scenic Parkway Boxes.

Eventually, we became hungry and decided to find a place to eat. We ended up at Rock Burger. A small hole in the wall at the back of a sports bar. After a great burger we decided to call it a day. We were a little damp and wanted to take showers. Once at the hotel and cleaned up we spent time reading and relaxing. The forecast for tomorrow calls for a beautiful day and we will probably spend the day at the Falls.