Monday, February 29, 2016

St. Lucia

Another exotic location, with lots of brilliant sand, including black sand beaches, and lush foliage.  Many of the islands are known for rum.  So if you’re a rum drinker, this is the place to be … the Caribbean Islands.  However, St. Lucia is best known for silk-screened and hand-printed fabrics called batik.  Created from lava, the twin peaks of the Pitons look as though they’ve risen from the water, and rise about 2,000 feet above the ocean.

As we entered the bay, we could see this landmark of some sort, but I couldn't find out what it was.

As we continued to the pier, we saw what appeared to be a ship boneyard of sorts.  You can also see the traffic on the road at the left, and hillsides lined with homes.  This island is called the, "land of beaches, hills and valleys, fairest isle of all the earth."  I'm not sure of that, but it was still a stunning place to see.

We landed in Castries, the capital, another colorful town, and home to about 60,000, although the entire population of St. Lucia is about 170,000.  The people here are of a persistent nature as Castries has been rebuilt many times, following major fires in 1796 and 1813, and more recently, in 1948.

Today was a morning excursion, a SNUBA tour.  It’s a snorkel-type of experience, but you have a breathing regulator like a Scuba diver, and are connected to a 20-foot-long air hose that hooks to tanks floating on a raft.  You can stay on the surface, or dive down below to see the wonderful reefs or fish.  I was excited to see if I could do it since I’ve had issues even snorkeling.
There were a number of vendors along the road. 
The van ride took us through town.  These little places have their own versions of traffic congestion, and this one was no exception.  I’m finally getting used to the driving on the other side of the road, but still haven’t mastered keeping my nerves in check when going to the left on a round-a-bout.
Go left!!  Agh!!!!!
We got to the beach and marina and I stared at the little rafts they would use … for our SNUBA and for the ocean walk that others were doing along the bottom under the water.  We all gathered around and got our snorkel gear, fins, weight belts and breathing apparatus.  Half of the group went to the water for their briefing and outing. 
The blue raft to the right is the one Jaz and I were attached to when we went on our trek.
Our half of the group stayed behind with a lady who called herself “Cocoa Puff.”  She instructed us very well in what would happen and how it all worked.  I let them know that I was not comfortable in the water and had some issues snorkeling.  They took Jaz’s and my weight belts and said they’d give us a personal tour.  We waited.  And waited.  And waited.  It was not well-organized and we suspected they were short a couple of employees that day.

Finally, one of the guys came to be our guide.  He took us out to our raft, and instructed us in getting ready for our adventure.  He had us practice with the regulators.  I tried, and could not.  I tried, and could not.  I told him and he said to keep trying.  So I did.  And what do you know, eventually I was able to do it.  I was excited by now.  I asked if I could just hold on to the raft, and he said I could, and then he swam beneath the water and led us on our jaunt. 
This proves I did it.
Jaz did not have a weight belt so she couldn’t go beneath the water and we bounced like corks.  So, her excursion was not all it could have been. 
Jaz is very comfortable in the water ... look at those legs pumping along.
Mine?  Perfect, and I regained a bit of confidence in the water and was hopeful for our future water excursions.  I had so much fun, and was ecstatic about the water by now.  I’d seen fish and coral and nearly hit one of the poles on a small dock that jutted out into the water. 
Fish!!  I saw them.
The black sea urchins are in abundance.
I assume this is some type of coral.  But I don't know.
I know this is coral.
Little fish were all over.
This odd coral arrangement looked as though someone had planted it in a design.
 Yep, it was an awesome day for me, conquering a fear that had magnified last year with a bad snorkeling experience and a Scuba non-experience due to a failure at mask-clearing.  Yahoo!  I’m ready for more.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Antigua ... known for its beaches

Today, Feb. 25, was our first excursion.  We pulled into the harbor at St. John’s, the capital of Antigua.  The island is in the Eastern Caribbean, and is 14 miles long and 11 miles wide.  There were four big cruise ships docked here today, but the Royal Princess was the largest.  And we were proud she was ours for a few weeks, the biggest, baddest ship of all.

It's easy to tell which one is the Royal Princess.
Jaz’s and my excursion didn’t leave the dock until 11:50 a.m. so we got off the ship and walked around town a bit.  As the temperature averages 75-85 degrees, and the humidity is low, it was perfect. 

These headstones were along the walk and we wondered if they'd been moved and just put here.  There seemed no rhyme nor reason to where they were standing.
This sign just amused me.  Many are hand-done and simple like this one.

The island is marketed as having 365 beaches, one for every day of the year.  From the ship we could see a number of them, white, beautiful sand and turquoise-blue water.  It’s the water and beaches of tropical dreams.  The houses around the port are colorful … orange, lime-green, blue and more … and lend a gaiety to the area.

One of the many beach areas along the shore ... and there were many we could see just in the area from the ship.
It's hard to see, but the colorful buildings stand out.  The lime green, one in particular.

Everyone seemed quite friendly.  The island only has 85,000 people and today they were overrun by probably 11,000 tourists.  But they love it, or so they say, as 85 percent of their income comes from tourism.  Ships come in about five days a week, so there are a lot of tourists visiting at any given time.  They didn’t make much off of us on this day as neither of us bought anything.  I usually do, but just wasn’t in a trinket-buying kind of mood.  I wanted the walk and to look around.

We got back to the ship and had a coffee and a small bite to eat since we’d be gone for about four-and-a-half hours.  We’d decided that this cruise we would book all of the extreme and adventurous tours.  Today we would be kayaking, a first, snorkeling and doing a hike up a mountainside.
Loved kayaking.  I never thought I'd enjoy it so much.
The kayaks each held two people.  They were bright-orange hard plastic, with places to stick your feet and your butt.  They were not real comfortable.  I’d been a bit unsure, but once on the water, had a ball and absolutely loved paddling.  We paddled around mangroves, with our guide in the lead.  He showed us a variety of sea life … sea cucumbers, starfish, jellyfish.  We, of course, wanted to race him back.  He was young and strong and two old ladies were no match.  But I like to think we gave him a run for his money and he did think we were okay. 
We paddled in and out of the mangrove trees in the park.
From the kayak we went in the square-prowed boat to a snorkeling place.  I still had an issue with getting my head in the water.  I stayed in for a short time but got back in the boat without really getting my head under.  I still enjoyed my time as I love boats, so all was good. 

We all got back into the boat and headed to the shore.  They had rum or fruit punch and banana bread as a little snack.  They make a lot of rum here, but it still wasn’t a draw for me.  Then our guide asked who wanted to climb the hill to see the view.  We did. 
On shore in the little tide pools I found these little things that looked like mushrooms growing in the water.

  The climb was rocky, with what appeared to be lava, and some sand.  I was not the weakest link.  And, in fact, was first up.  It was a great view with some birds flying around and an opening in the rock below where you could see the water.  It was a great day.

You could see the water way, far down.  Don't venture too close.
Jaz and others enjoyed the water prior to getting back in the boat and heading back to port.

We got loaded back into the two boats that had carried all of us out and raced back to the marina.  Fast was awesome.  We won!!! 

The drive back to the cruise port was a bit slower due to traffic.  I don’t know that I’d ever get used to driving on the right-hand side of the road, and I know it’d be even more difficult to navigate a round-about going to the left rather than the right.  It was quite unnerving!!  But a great day!!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Cruise day

Feb. 22, was boarding day for the cruise.  We were ready early and headed out to return the rental car.  We went round and round some more before we got on the right road.  It had something to do with several highways and roads all running in the same direction and coming together in the same area, right in front of our hotel.  But we finally got out of that area only to get confused with the airport … and went round and round some more.  Finally.  The correct road, and we were stopped by railroad signals announcing the coming of a train.  We waited.  Cars started pulling out of line and turning to go the wrong way on the one-way road we were on.  More cars pulled out.  The lights were still flashing and we realized, as did the others, there was no train.  Jaz pulled out and turned around.  She floored it.  I hollered, and it was like bumper cars going in all directions, avoiding each other, trying to get to a second road that ran somewhat parallel.  Cars went up over the grassy median, they went the other way, they went forward.  It was a free-for-all like I’ve never before seen.  Somehow there was no mashing of fenders and we found our way to the rental car return.

The rental agent began hollering at us to “move up, move up” and we tried.  But how would the vehicle in front of us get their luggage out of the trunk?  The agent didn’t care.  “Move up, move up!!”  We did as we were told.  We went back to the trunk to get our luggage.  He got in our car and I was afraid he would move forward before we were finished.  I told him to stop.  He said he wasn’t moving, but I didn’t believe him.  We got our things and made our way up a level, across a walkway and back down a level to find a taxi to take us to the port.

Finally, relaxing a bit as we were on our way, we enjoyed our taxi ride, made our way through port security and were close to the cruise port embarkation area.  All of a sudden I heard this, “Shit.  Shit, shit, shit!!”  What?  Jaz had left a bag in the vehicle and it was the one that contained her passport.  Uh oh. 

I had kept the contract and she located a Lost and Found phone number, luckily staffed by a person, and they said they’d look for it.  We had the taxi turn around, and back out through security we went, headed back to the airport.  It’s maybe five miles away so it wasn’t too bad, and we were still early.  Just as we were arriving at the airport the car rental called and said they had her bag.  We drove through the rental area, met the guy with the bag, and were off to the cruise port again.  Catastrophe averted. 

We arrived, got our luggage offloaded, tagged and dropped off, and headed to the line awaiting the movement that would begin our embarkation process.  We stood in line for a bit and then were told along with others, to form a second line.  Up we went.  To our left two unsmiling women told us we were not allowed to cut in line.  We explained what we’d been told to do.  They didn’t like our explanation, and continued to harangue us.  We just stood, and then another guy got into the fray.  His wife was quite nice, and just told us to get behind her.  The guy was now siding with the other two biddies, and said he was going to go get a Princess employee.  He did.  The two came back, and we explained what we’d been told to do.  The Princess employee said to get in line where we were.  We did.  Mr. Pink Shirt and the two biddies were unhappy.

Later one of the biddies was standing talking on the phone … trying to locate the other biddy who had gone back to find their husbands.  Bummer for them.  We passed them, without saying a word as we were quite ladylike, and we got processed, boarded the ship and went about the business of having lunch.  I was hoping to see them again and wish them a good day as it obviously wasn’t for them.

Our first look at our ship was one of amazement.  The Royal Princess is a large ship, weighing in at 141,000 tons, and nearly 1,100 feet long, 217 feet high, with 19 decks and a speed of 22 knots.  She can hold 3,560 guests in 1,780 guest cabins, and I believe all of those were in the Horizon Court buffet line at once.

The ship was built in Italy, and made her inaugural cruise June 16, 2013, after being christened by Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of Cambridge.  It appears that many on board are from England, and it’s a very different type of passenger from those we saw on our cruise to South America last spring.  People seem more courteous and way more friendly, including the crew.

The crew were untangling the flags and getting them stowed in anticipation of leaving the dock.
There is an unbelievable atrium, large with more seating and truly beautiful, and a skywalk that takes you out 128 feet above the water.  Don’t look down.  This is a gorgeous ship, and we are bound to have a great time on it.

This photo doesn't begin to do justice to the atrium.

The skywalk prior to leaving shore.  So, no water under it yet.

Turning into the channel that will take us out to sea.

Even some of the condo dwellers approve of Princess.

Fort Lauderdale in our rear view mirror.

We spent the day and evening wandering around getting our bearings.  We found our friends, Mike and Vangie, and our little group was complete.

The next two days were at-sea days.  They were spent playing bingo, going to a variety of shows, having high tea, attending the Captain’s Ruby Circle party, listening to speakers and I even went to a foot pain relief consultation.  We walked, we’ve made a couple of new friends, one of which we’ve spent some time with, and we played a game to guess the number of shark teeth in a bowl.  I was off by 34, and won a bottle of champagne.  Now I have to look for someone to give it to.  It’s been busy, and the first night at sea we were in the cabin early and in bed so early our cabin attendant didn’t even get to come in to turn down our beds and put a chocolate on our pillows.

We were on the ocean and headed to the Caribbean.
We’ve seen our other Alaskan friends, and met a couple of the other Alaskans.  We’ve also already booked our next cruise.  We’ve been busy … and now we’re set to begin our stops with Antigua being first up.  Let the excursions begin.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Florida bound, and round and round

We arrived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, late afternoon, Feb. 17, ready to enjoy the sun and to spend a few days of weather-acclimating before boarding our cruise ship to the Caribbean.  Our first order of business was some real food after nothing but snacks all day.  The second order of business was sleeping.

On Thursday morning, we got up and headed to the airport to pick up our rental car.  Long lines awaited us.  But we did it … ending up with a powder-blue Volkswagen rather than the SUV that had been requested.  But the blue VW is quite easy to spot in a parking lot, making it an advantage in the oceans of vehicles that are white, black or some other variety of dark. 

After the vehicle pick up we headed to the Flamingo Gardens, a 60-acre wildlife sanctuary and gardens, and home to more than 3,000 species of plants and the largest tree in Florida.
A Peacock with its brilliant colors is always a joy to see.

Wood Storks are actually pretty even if they are bald.  Bald is beautiful.

This guy had a feather in his beak and fought his way through birds that tried to snatch it from him until he reached the tree where his mate was sitting on a nest.  He flew up and gave her the feather ever so sweetly.

Silly Ibis.
The sanctuary did not disappoint us, as the birds here are injured and non-releasable and therefore, used to educate the public as well as provide a way to spend time seeing some beautiful birds, and some other animals, too.  This was a great way to spend a day.
A Roseate Spoonbill ... this has to be one of the most silly-looking but beautiful birds I've ever seen.

Flamingoes added the brilliant oranges that you associate with warm weather and tropical birds.

The birds flocked to us as they were used to receiving handouts.

Believe it or not, these big-beaked birds took the kibble from my hand so gently I could hardly feel it.

They were never aggressive at all.
The goal of Flamingo Gardens is to provide a refuge for the animals, including those that are a threatened or endangered species, and to hopefully release some of the young back into the wild.  It was a great day spent doing what we enjoy doing … photographing … and a lot of birds made it even better.
I'd never heard of a mute swan that can be identified by the orange bill.  They are not mute although are thought to be quieter than others.  It's one of the heaviest flying birds in the world and can weigh more than 33 pounds.  That's a big bird, and I'm sure if flying there's a lot of other stuff flying around, too.  Ugh!  But I've never seen a more beautiful swan with its wings curled up into the perfect photo opportunity. 

We were there for the otter feeding.  I believe this was chicken.

This lizard was stealing food from the tortoises.  He got away with it and was whipping his head back and forth to get a chunk to fall off for him to eat.  Then he'd grab it again and repeat.
On Friday we decided to get an earlier start and head to the Everglades, with our destination being Flamingo Station, that's a 38-mile drive in to the end of the park.  It was a town a long time ago, but is now just a park station. 

Lines, lines and more lines of cars, and roads and Interstates that were not much better than slow-moving parking lots.  It took us three hours to go the 70-some miles to the park entrance.  Traffic was awful, and that’s an understatement.  We drove to the end of the road and wandered around the Flamingo Station area.  There weren’t many birds but we did spot an Osprey sitting in a nest.  A gentleman sitting on top of his motor home told us there had been four birds, two pairs, who were duking it out to claim the nest.  The one there was parked and not leaving as she decided it was HER nest. 

This was another pair of Osprey we saw in the Everglades.
We headed back and stopped at a few other areas, one of which we’d visited a couple of years ago.  This time there weren’t many birds and only a couple of alligators. 

This one was laying across from where we saw one last year.  Could it be the same one who hasn't moved very far?

Perhaps he doesn't need to move far.  "Come closer, baby.  I know you taste like chicken.  And I love chicken."
We did see a manatee at one of the small harbors, but it never came up enough to get a great look at it.  Guess that’s why they call it wild life; it’s not dependable nor on a schedule.

Whatever this plant was, it was very cool, and looked kind of furry.

Like an iceberg, only a part of him is visible at the top of the water.
A Laughing Gull ... he was outnumbered by others, but was a very nice and clean-looking little guy.

The traffic on the return trip was no better than when we’d headed down.  The car dealers must be making a fortune based on how many vehicles are here.  How do people live with this and get anywhere?  We’d spent the better part of a day in the car.  That wasn’t our favorite part at all.

Saturday morning, Feb. 20, we decided to stay closer to home and just go to Olas Avenue, a shopping area and not too far from the beach.  More lines.  This time it was road closures due to a bicycle race.  We’ve not had very good luck getting around, and mostly seem to go in a lot of circles.

We did finally get there and walked a few miles toward the beach. 

There were some cool sculptures to see.

This area is considered the Venice of Florida.  You can get on river taxis or there are even gondolas.

There are little boats everywhere and it's fun to see all of them.

There are beautiful buildings all along the canal.

This colorful building was one of my favorites.
We didn’t have enough time on our parking meter to get to the beach and headed back to get the car and drive to it.  We got to the beach and drove along for a few miles.  Talk about crowds.  Wow!!

The city is beautiful in the distance and we'd driven through some of it.  Yep.  Traffic.

It was beautiful although the weather has not been the most cooperative since we’ve been here, with some clouds and even a few sprinkles.  But it’s nothing we Alaskan girls can’t handle.

Feb. 21, Sunday, is our last day on land.  Woo hoo.  But we must first be the good tourist for another day. 

Today we thought we’d try to get to the beach and walk on them for a while.  We got sidetracked when we saw a sign for a birding trail.  We wandered to the Anne Kolb Nature Center.  There was a little boat ride through canals and around a man-made lake and some trails that we walked. 
We saw a Black-crowned night heron on the boat ride.  He was tucked back into the trees and our boat captain spotted him.  He looked a little sleepy, so maybe we woke him.
Red mangrove are one of the species and this one was in the lake.
Years ago developers wanted to take the area and develop it.  But others foresaw the need for the park and it’s beautiful.  Developed in 1996 it’s a 1,500-acre coastal mangrove wetland. 
It was a perfect day to be at the beach, with some cloud cover and some sun.
After visiting the park we finally made it to the beach and walked along it.  I was wearing my sneakers and ended up getting them wet … the water felt so good on my feet. 
Yep.  We're enjoying the weather and the beach.

This beautiful little guy is a Tufted Tern.
Someone had been playing in the sand.

And they were quite talented, apparently using a planter to build this.
Our friends, Mike and Vangie, from California arrived today and we met them for dinner.  We met them on the cruise last year and they decided to do part of this cruise with us.  We will be off the round and round and will have a blast.