New York City Sights

IMG_4329Our very last day of three weeks on a cruise ship. It could have lasted much longer – it was wonderful to not have to pack and unpack all the time, to be in one room, with fabulous meals and room service. To magically get from port to port…

But now we’ve spent three days and two nights at sea, leaving the Caribbean, passing Puerto Rico, even passing through the Bermuda Triangle without vanishing…

IMG_4245And now our final port is in sight. We get up early because how often in your life do you get to sail past the Statue of Liberty? She stands there in the early morning hours holding her torch high after we sail under the George Washington Bridge. IMG_4249

And then, after one final breakfast, we have to leave our stateroom. Dragging one little suitcase each, we leave our bubble and re-enter the real world. For as far downtown Manhattan can be classified as the real world.

We can actually walk from Pier 88 to our hotel, which is less than a block from Central Park. We’re happy to get the exercise and the weather is great. It feels like spring. IMG_4315

Even though it is only 10 AM, our room is ready The hotel is unusual: it seems a cross between a rinky dink old building and a modern hotel. A large empty lobby, tiny rooms. Some things are renovated but the window is old and single pane. We hear all the sirens of New York all night long. But the place is half a block from Central Park. (https://www.morganshotelgroup.com/hudson/hudson-new-york)

As almost always, I book most trips through: www.orbitz.com

And right next door is a fabulous eatery, a cross between an old fashioned diner and a trendy restaurant, Fluffy’s has amazing breakfasts, anything you could think of for lunch and good coffee, plus gorgeous pastries at good prices: http://fluffyscafe.com/fluffyscafe_main.html

IMG_4311We walk to Broadway, cross Time Square. I love the weirdness, the wildness of NY. Everything is possible in this city that never sleeps. I don’t either. 

IMG_4283My favourite is a visit to the New York Public Library with its famous lions. We visit the children’s library and I sign the copies of my books they have. And we admire the original Winnie the Pooh, Eyeore and Piglet on display. How cool is that. IMG_4305

The next day we planned on renting bicycles to see all of Central Park. But a cold wind helps us to decide against bikes and to just walk. We end up walking 10 KM – criss cross through the park, past the Met and the Guggenheim, along lakes and statues and the carousel. What a fabulous foresight the designers had who decided, well over a hundred years ago, to set aside this land for a public park. And how awesome that greed never turned it into  yet another high rise here or a condo building there. 840 acres (340 hectares) of public lands where people hike, jog, ride, stroll. Squirrels chase each other, birds sings. You can almost block out the sirens and the honking rows of yellow taxis here.

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What would Columbus think now?

For the very last night of our holiday, we find a lovely Italian restaurant with out-of-this-world-pizza. OMG, best pizza I ever had: http://bricconyc.com

So we sit in this little hide-a-way Italian place in Manhattan with pizza and wine and toast: to a great cruise, and to our next trip!

The ABC Islands of the Caribbean Sea

IMG_4067Aruba: One Happy Island

As kids in school in Holland we learned about The Netherlands Antilles: Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. We were thrilled that these islands were included in our ship’s itinerary and that we’d finally get to see each one.

IMG_4070Again we did our homework before leaving home. I studied the map of Aruba on Google Maps and read about the island. Aruba sounded like the most ‘party island’ of the three. One comment on TripAdvisor suggested that this is a good place to rent a car. We thought that was a brilliant idea. On Google Maps I found a car rental place right next to the pier and booked a small car for the day. An excursion only to the Lighthouse would have cost us 65.- per person. Now we had a car to ourselves, all day, for about 45.- plus taxes and fees, about 73.- total.

We got a map from the car rental place and headed south along the very busy, touristy boulevard. It was so interesting to see traffic signs and street names all in Dutch. Even the traffic rules are the same as in Holland: traffic coming from the right has the right of way; no right turns on a red light.

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From Oranjestad we drove to Sint Nicolaas and beyond, We stopped at a white sand beach along azure waters. We watched some kite suffers on this very windy day. Then we proceeded to drive every main road, across the island to the far side, all the way north and back again.

We stopped at, what turned out to be, a very popular bakery. They had lots of Dutch things and everyone speaks Dutch. “We learn five languages in school,” someone told us, “Dutch, English, Spanish, Papiamento and Portuguese”.  It was fun to be able to chat with someone in several languages mixed together.

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The currency was even more mixed up. Prices in the tourist area were posted in US dollars. But in more local shops, like the bakery, the cash register showed Antilles guilders. We were told we could also use euros.

The license plates here have the slogan: One Happy Island. We thought it would be fun for our grandkids to have one of these old license plates, if we could find one. We stopped at an old garage and tire place. “Oh, we just threw out a bunch yesterday…” the guy told us, in Dutch. At the next garage, they didn’t have any either but a customer overhead and said “Just follow me home and I’ll give you one.” So we did… and now we have both a souvenir and a story.

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We drove all the way to the northern Lighthouse and then back along the shore to Oranjestad. It seemed to us that most of the older, smaller homes for locals were in the south end. It was a bit dilapidated, with lots of little beer shops and night clubs. The northern end, however, had endless rows of newly constructed, and still being constructed, apartment buildings and condo’s. Signs pointed to “high rise hotels” and “low rise hotels” with casino’s sprinkled in for good measure.

The water front in Oranjestad was choked with tourists, busses and other traffic. It was very touristy and did seem to live up to its reputation as a party island. 

Willemstad, Curacao

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For many years I had seen photos of a picturesque, pastel coloured row of Dutch houses along the water. Willemstad, Curacao. I didn’t think I’d ever see the place in person so I was excited when I saw that this was one stop on our cruise itinerary.

The three Caribbean islands have been a Dutch colony for hundreds of years. In 2010 the islands wanted autonomy and some separation from The Netherlands took place. Now, they are not independent because that would have meant loss of social services, European citizenship and economic support. But the islands are ruled almost like a Dutch municipality, albeit remote.

The ship docks here just outside the town. We walked first through a total tourist trap: the old stone remnants of the city fort have been turned into a corridor of shops and restaurants that steer visitors right through it, no way around. It’s even hard to find the exit into town.IMG_4107

But after that we strolled the quay and crossed into city center over the Queen Emma Bridge, a long wooden swing bridge. To our delight a sail ship had to pass so the bridge swung open to let it through, a fascinating system. People can even stay on the bridge as it swings open and back again.

Stretching across the far side of town is the large blue arch of the newer Queen Juliana Bridge.

We strolled through quiet, Sunday morning streets. Most shops were closed but we found a nice coffee shop with wifi along the water. It was like being in Delft or any other historic Dutch town. The very same architecture, alley ways, even products (Heineken and Amstel…). All signs are in Dutch and everyone speaks it.

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We walked by the floating market, crossed a square, saw the churches. Then we crossed back across the swing bridge (there is also a free ferry but it didn’t seem to have a schedule on Sunday morning) and walked into the other, slightly rougher side of town. This seemed less geared at visitors and more at locals. We found little shops and eateries with signs mostly in Papiamento. We ventured into one little cafeteria and ordered croquettes and beer before strolling back to the ship.

One of my best friends was born and raised on Curacao so it was a really neat experience to see her place of origin. With cascading bougainvilleas and a laid-back atmosphere, Curacao certainly seemed like a good place to spend time in the winter! And I’m grateful I finally got to see that pastel coloured row of Dutch houses along the water in that remote Dutch settlement.

Bonaire: The Diving Place

Of all the places we visited on this trip, Bonaire is the island I would have liked to spend more time. Judging from our brief visit, it seemed the most natural of the three with huge green areas and nature parks. As the license plate states, Bonaire is ‘The Diving Place’.

From the ship we saw a long skinny island stretching north and south from the town of Kralendijk. We joined the group that had signed up for a glass bottom kayak and snorkelling tour. We walked down to where the kayaks were stacked along the beach, donned our life jackets and paddled across the bay to a strip of white beach further south. It was a very windy day so we battled good waves. Thanks to the glass bottom in our sit-upon kayak we could see the corral and sand on the bottom. image.png

After a tricky landing on the beach, through a narrow path in the corral reef, we beached the kayaks and snorkelled for a while. Loads of little blue fishes, tiny bright yellow ones… I always love snorkelling in warm waters. Our (Dutch) guides were perfect and I highly recommend a trip with them if you ever visit Bonaire: http://www.kayaktoursbonaire.com  

After our kayak adventure, we still had a few hours so we walked briskly all over town to explore some more. We picked up diving information for our diving son, chatted with locals, found the dive shop, and of course found another great coffee place with wifi. 

On the way back to the dock we came across the cutest Dutch pub and couldn’t resist sitting in the typical wicker patio chairs with a Dutch beer. 

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Bonaire seemed less touristy to us, perhaps a bit more planned, less tacky than Aruba which had life size plastic cows and horses all over the place…

This is our last stop and we drag our feet getting back on board because now we will spend 4 nights and 3 full days steaming back north to New York. We dread the upcoming temperature change…. But in two days it will be Valentine and, just before we leave this last, lovely Caribbean island, Kees buys me a little piece of Bonaire: a gorgeous necklace with a aqua coloured piece of glass that will always remind us that we’d like to return to these exotic islands some day.

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Sauntering and Hiking in Cartagena and Santa Marta, Colombia

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Cartagena is a beautiful, white city

I was really looking forward to the two Colombian ports on our ship’s itinerary.  I have been to Venezuela before but not to Colombia. We debated the best way to spend a day in each Cartagena, the capital city and in the oldest city in Colombia: Santa Marta.

Rather than spend time in a bus with a whole group of people, we just wanted to walk at our own pace around the old city center. We could take a taxi to get there. I figured out, online, that it would only cost about $7.- to go by taxi from the dock into the centre. But what if we got stuck in crazy traffic on the way back? So, in the end, we settled on booking transportation from the cruise dock to the old town by catamaran. It was 15 minutes and pretty much guaranteed no delays. Turned out to be a good choice. IMG_3904

We sailed by the old St Felippe Fort and arrived right next to the historic city walls. We really enjoyed strolling through the narrow streets, along pastel coloured houses with the most gorgeous wooden balconies. IMG_3926Of course Cartagena reminded us of Spain but the solid teak balconies with cascading bougainvilleas were even more gorgeous than those of the old country. Bright yellow churches, green pubs and pink shops leaned against each other until they made way for the rough stones of the ancient city wall. We climbed to the top and looked out, the way the cannons pointed, over the sea. I enjoyed walking along the many little vendor stands shaded by a large portico, selling unusual fruits, cookies, candied, coffee and chocolate. We crossed squares and discovered alleys. IMG_3910

We found a tiny little pub, in an alley, with beer and mango smoothies. And wifi! We even found a post office to mail home the mandatory postcards for our grandsons. The post office did not take US dollars so we made a quick stop at a money exchange and got a few Colombian pesos to buy stamps.

It’s interesting how each place has its own unique flavour. Even though all these ports are Caribbean with a similar history, their sights and sounds are all unique. Each has its own music. We heard drums, bongo’s and all sorts of instruments the names of which I don’t know. In Cartagena many women wear colourful head bands and long flowing dresses with baskets of fruit in their head. But mostly for tourists who will pay them for photos. One kissed me and hugged me, but I still had to pay if I wanted to take her photo… IMG_3919

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We strolled back, through the old city gate, to where our catamaran was waiting. On the pier side was a lovely tiny zoo with exotic birds, Amazonian ant eaters and monkeys.  And it was hot. Must have been well into the 30’s as we walked along the quay back to our ship.

In Santa Marta, the next day, we booked a hike to a nature reserve. A bus took us from the pier, through the city, and into the hills. Santa Marta reminded us very much of Cambodia with similar roadside stands, lots of motorbikes, dogs sleeping along dusty roads, and tidy kids walking to school. IMG_3916

As we left the city behind, and eventually the squatters’ huts in the hills, the landscape was cacti and palm trees. Those gave way to major banana plantations. We passed an important National Park which closes one month of the year to allow indigenous people privacy as they celebrate religious ceremonies. And finally we arrived at a nature reserve where we tracked across a dry river bed and through a forest of towering palms, ficus and bamboo.

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We heard birds, some distant monkeys calling, and saw one big spider… And lots of flowering plants that are house plants in Europe or North America but flourish here in the wild, including hibiscus. Butterflies and hummingbirds darted in and out of the sunshine.

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Cacao pod

Along the path were 2 or 3 little stands, crudely made of branches and planks. At one we bought fried bananas stuffed with cheese and papaya. As soon as we ate them, we were surrounded by dogs. I don’t know where they came from so quickly and they dissipated again after we ate.

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At the end of the trail we reached a pretty waterfall that tumbled out of the jungle and
IMG_4017into one large pool. I had a lovely refreshing swim here. Kees waited in the shade under some trees. Suddenly there was a tremendous crash! Another man jumped out of the way. Turned out that a very large iguana had been lazing on a branch above his head and fell out of the tree! 

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The Panama Canal

IMG_3822The main reason for selecting this particular cruise itinerary was that it included going through the Panama Canal. With its fascinating history, we were curious to see this crossing on the narrowest bit of land between Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

And finally, after almost a week of cruising south, we were entering the Panama Canal around 8 AM. Many people on board got up very early in the morning so that they wouldn’t miss a thing.

There were many decks and a good view on either side so we found ourselves going up and down, from starboard to port side all day long so that we always had a good idea of what was happening.

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The Bridge of the Americas

There are three sets of locks between Pacific and Atlantic, bringing the ship up a total of 26 meters in elevation.

The canal was built over many, many years. It took tens of thousands of people, many different countries. It required the creation of a new country and claimed countless lives. It truly felt like a sail through history and we were left in awe of the power of the human will to cut across a continent.IMG_3722

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Notice the ship in the new canal at the top

A wonderful narrator came on board. He explained the entire process in details, clearly and with lots of anecdotes. This made the whole crossing pleasant and understandable even for someone like me who’s not too technical about locks, construction, etc. He even alerted us to the fact that a crocodile was sunning on the bank.

From the Pacific Ocean, we first sailed under the tall Bridge of the Americas. We passed through three sets of locks: the Miraflores Locks, the Pedro Miguel Locks. Then we crossed the bulk of Panama through Gatun Lake, entering the Gatun Locks before reaching the Atlantic and sailing into the Caribbean Sea. 

IMG_3701It took about 10 hours to cross the continent at this narrowest section. What really amazed me was that it take about 1.5 hours by train to travel from the Pacific to the Atlantic here. In Canada that would take about 5 days! Our ship’s itinerary did not include a land stop in Panama so we continued on.

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If you are really interested in the mechanics, it’s a good idea to also take a land tour of the locks. It was really weird to see how our huge ship fit into Locks that seems much narrower than the ship itself. We did only have inches, probably less than a foot, on either side. The little trains you see in my photos keep the ship from bumping into the sides.

IMG_3705This is a wonderful video of the history of the Panama Canal. As far as I know it is quite accurate. Just listen closely, the narration is very fast:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WR_hCMR2Xvc

If you can’t go in person, there are web cams that allow for a virtual trek through the Panama Canal. The first link is to the Canal’s web cams on shore. The second link it to a site with links to different ships, using their bow web cams.IMG_3746IMG_3845

http://www.pancanal.com/eng/photo/camera-java.html

http://www.cruisin.me/cruise-ship-webcams/

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A Tiny Taste of Central America

Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica

IMG_3626One of the draws for this cruise was the fact that the ship docked in many countries we had not yet visited. We were curious to see both Guatemala and Nicaragua. The coast line was green with lots of volcano peaks. The offer of shore excursions in Guatemala was minimal and none appealed to us. They were expensive and most seemed to be several hours on a bus. True, you get to see some of the country that way but we didn’t feel like spending our day on a bus going to a big city. We had thought we’d simply wander around the port area. However, once we docked we were told that no one was allowed to walk in the port area. What we could see, from the ship, was not attractive: a very industrial area with hot, dusty pavement, and lots of machinery. With many other passengers leaving for the day, we decided to not even disembark here. We spent a lovely day relaxing, swimming in the pool and reading our books. Too bad we can’t really add Guatemala to our country list, but Puerto Quertzal just was not at all an attractive place to be. IMG_3602

Our next destination was Corinto, Nicaragua. From the ship, we could see the small town and study the lay of the land. The town was at the end of a long, narrow strip of land jutting out into the Pacific from the mainland. We walked off the ship and right into town. Only to be accosted by a large flock of peddlers: t-shirts, gawdy souvenirs, lots of lots of tricycle drivers, and so forth. But we have learned to ignore, say ‘no, gracias’ and walk straight through. Church bells chimed as we strolled through town on a Sunday morning.

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Corinto, Nicaragua

We found a great coffee shop with wifi and spent some time there, cooling down under the fans. It was very hot here!

Then we followed streets around the shore. We took some back alleys and watched kids play the national sport: trompo is an amazing spin top game. The string gets wound flat and tight around the large wooden top. Then, with one loop around a finger, the player throws the top to the ground where it should spin for a long time. It’s fun to watch:

We spent time in Costa Rica several years ago. But we had not visited the Pacific coast and were curious to see Puntarenas.

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Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Our ship docked right in town. To both sides of it lay wide sand beaches. We walked north along one beach, watching pelicans dive, fishing boats and suntanning visitors. Then we strolled along the streets of the small town and found postcards for our grandsons: two faded, crumpled old cards. Then we walked and walked until we finally found a post office. It had air conditioning so at first we didn’t mind that there were hordes of people ahead of us. Waiting in line must have been normal here because there were three rows of chairs in front of the wickets. Each chair had a number on the back. Once you got down the line to where the chairs were, you had earned the right to sit. Then, if and when the line moved again, everyone moved over one chair. Kind of like postal musical chairs. The problem was that no one moved very fast. Everyone was busy visiting or, mostly, watching their cell phones. After 20 minutes I had moved one chair. We finally had cooled down enough that we decided it wasn’t worth the wait for 2 stamps. IMG_3609

We walked back, along deserted streets, to the busy souvenir shops by the 

cruise dock. Here one market stall advertised with stamps for sale! Yeah! But it turned out that she took our cards and enough money for each stamp in exchange for the promise to go to the post office to buy stamps and mail them. Will she really go play postal musical chairs one day? Will she really buy stamps for our cards? Will she actually mail them? Only time will tell….IMG_3610

Mexican Ports – Muy agradable

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The first three ports we stop at, after 2 days at sea, are in Mexico. In Cabo San Lucas we simply enjoy walking around the boardwalk, eating a Mexican lunch at a little café with servezas a fraction of the cost of those on board, and taking in the scenery. A modern tourist information center had city maps and English speaking staff, even if I can now get around with a little bit of Spanish. Plenty of local taxis if we wanted transportation but we simply walk to the town center following the board walk, find free wifi at Starbucks and stroll back.

Having studied Google maps, we saw that in port #2, Puerto Vallarta, the old city center was a long ways away from the cruise dock. So we did book a tour here: one that took us to town by bus, then around the old city on foot, then by bus around the area and to a restaurant for lunch in the hills, and back to the ship. It was a wonderful introduction to Puerto Vallarta. We walked quite a bit, through little city streets, to the cathedral, across a market, and the water front. We noticed that the city was quite clean and well kept. Lunch was great with good views of the beach, the city and our ship in the distance. Lots of high rises, very busy and not necessarily a place I’d go back to but clean, with nice beaches and lots of resorts.

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In Manzanillo, our last Mexican stop, we walked along the nice, wide boulevard to a wonderful coffeeshop with great, free wifi and enjoyed good Mexican coffee while catching up on emails. Since we always send a postcard from every place we visit, to our grandsons, we asked in one little shop if we could buy stamps. A friendly young man dropped everything he was doing and walked us through a labyrinth of streets to a local post office. Would have never found it without his help!

It was fun to wonder back, look at the shops and get a feel for this town. It seemed more authentic, more Mexican than the previous stops – a place I might just look at in more detail for a beach holiday.IMG_3599

Sail and Read: our Cruise from LA to NY

Our home for the next three weeks is the Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Gem. In the previous blog I introduced you to the ship. A cruise ship really is so much like a floating hotel, a floating village almost. Once we were allowed onboard, the rooms weren’t ready yet but we found a spot in one of many restaurants for lunch. And pretty soon there was an announcement that the rooms were ready. We found our floor and walked the long corridors that would become so familiar.

IMG_3563Our room is an inside cabin. We always try to travel on a budget so instead of opting for a more expensive room with a balcony, ours is inside. Which also means there’s less motion in a storm. We have a king size bed and lots of storage. A small bathroom with a shower. And the bow camera on TV shows us the view from the front of the ship. Everything we need. 

We have cruised before but never for three weeks. Will we like it? Or will we be anxious to get off at the end?

Our cabin is cleaned twice a day. The bed is perfect, we get clean beach towels twice a day. Because we were on a Norwegian cruise before, we find a bottle of champagne in our room on the first night. And each night we get a newsletter with information about the upcoming day. It tells us the sunrise and sunset times, the weather forecast, information on the next port, but also lists all entertainment. IMG_3598

We brought lots of books and planned to read and write in a quiet spot. The onboard library is perfect – people whisper, the chairs are comfy and we have a view while we sail and read. There are many books to be checked out, in different languages, but also a trading library. We end up donating quite a few books. Most importantly, the library is quiet. Sometimes it’s just a relief to come here and listen to the silence. With so many people on one ship, it’s hard to find quiet spaces.

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The ship’s library.

To my surprise, we also end up taking in some of the entertainment. There are several talented dancers and musicians on board. One night we watched the broadway show Swing! Excellent quality of singing and dancing. Kees was able to watch the Superbowl on a gigantic screen, complete with beer, hotdogs and chicken wings!

One of the performers is a fabulous guitarist who plays great songs; we enjoy sitting back and listening to him many evenings.

During the first few days we keep getting lost but also coming across different venues. There are many smaller pubs, each with its own entertainment. A life band often performs by the pool. There are quiz nights and games, a real casino (which we avoid), even options to go dancing. To my utter amazement, Kees agrees to participate in ‘The (Not So) Newly Wed Game’, based on the popular TV show from years ago. It is a blast, especially because we win. Our prize is a $100 bottle of bubblies which we sip slowly….

When we booked this cruise at a low price, we knew there were no extras. But even at higher prices, not many extras are included. I’m not impressed with all the hustling the cruise line does (and I don’t think it’s just Norwegian) to try and get you to spend more money. 

  • Would you like to buy a water package? For $45 you will get 24 one liter bottles. Really? When each restaurant has water available?
  • Would you like a liquor package? This is from the NCL website: Prepaid @ $99.00 USD per person per day x Cruise Days plus 20% gratuity and beverage service charge. So for 120.- you can get drunk each day.

You cannot bring any liquids on board so forget about buying some beer or wine in Mexico and bringing it to your room. One beer onboard comes to about 8.-, a glass of wine is over $10.-

Worse is the medicine. I had a terrible ear problem with one badly plugged ear. I was afraid of an ear infection so decided to consult the ship doctor. For $149.- he looked in my ear for not more than 2 minutes. He gave me a tiny bottle of ear drops. The bill for the drops was 195.- US for a total bill of 344.- No kidding. This, to me, is piracy on the high seas.

The internet is another bone of discontent. There are no sim cards that will work in all countries, so we leave the ship in each port and find a coffee shop with good wifi. No problem. But if you’d like to check your email on board, you need to fork over a lot of money. We chose the $75 option which gives us 100 minutes. Not much if you try to spread it out over 3 weeks.

Shore excursions are another way to add a lot of money to your cruise. We learned this in Alaska, where a day excursion on the Alaska and White Pass Railway cost 220.- We knew from having been there before that it would cost 120.-  if we just walked from the ship to the train station and bought a ticket directly. In one Alaskan port we noticed a van that shuttled people for free from the ship to Walmart or Costco. So instead of booking costly shore excursions, we enjoy different outings, although we did book some excursions. More on that in the next blog.

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The carpet in the ship’s library.