Celebrity Equinox Caribbean: Days 5 & 6

Our next stop was Bridgetown, Barbados. We docked around 9am. The port is an industrial port, with no ambiance at all. To be honest, we were pretty exhausted from St. Kitts and our ATV adventure, so we walked around the part of town near the port, and then went back to the ship. We pretty much bummed on board the whole day. Friends took a tour around the island, and reported that it was nice, but not spectacular. I know that’s not fair to the locale, but I will say that the idea of one day on land, one at sea, is quite attractive!

Day 6 (Thursday, the 22nd) was Rosseau, Dominica. It was the highlight of the trip. We docked early, but didn’t have our tour set until about 10am. We met our guide, Clem, at the port, and headed off to Emerald Pool and Trafalgar Falls. Guide Clem reported that he has spent the past 20 years or so working with travel abroad students from various colleges. Apparently, Clemson University established a center on the island, and then partnered with other colleges to give students the chance to visit this tropical, volcanic, isle for study (and probably beach time….). Clem drove us along, providing a running commentary on the various zones we were passing through, and others we could see. Dominica has a dry band, rain forest, littoral forest, and cloud forest. Our explorations were in the rain forest; we’re just outside the rainy season (lucky us), so the landscape was a lush, but a bit on the dry side.

Emerald pool is located about 20 minutes walking time from it’s visitor’s center, on a delightful hike through the rainforest. There are apparently a multitude of tree species located in the zone, which acted as a deterrent to logging, as the economics of sorting the desirable wood from the undesirable has rended the island immune from that type of exploitation. The forest was slightly damp, deliciously shady, with a slightly rugged trail that wound its way down to the pool. This is a large grotto under a small waterfall that displays a lovely emerald green color (unfortunately mottled by the bodies of tourists spalshing about….). Very idyllic. There streams feeding the area play host to a unique species of fresh-water crab, a few of which we spotted crawling about.

After hiking out, we boarded our bus, and headed to the falls. Our trail took us back down towards downtown, then up again into the rain forest band. As we drove, Clem explained that this portion of the island remains volcanically active, and that ( as we found out) there were quite a few areas of hot springs and pools, and sulfurous emissions. In fact, the government is in the process of drilling some test wells for potential geothermal exploitation. We passed one such site on our way back out.

The falls are also accessiable by a slightly more rugged hike, leading to a large pavilion that lies beneath them, offering a very nice view. I will post some panos to Tour Wrist when I get back. As with the Emerald Pool, we were surrounded by lush vegetation, lovely forest, and lots of tourists. The trail continued downward from the Paviion to a series of hot pools into which several members of our party entered. They reported them quite pleasant; after seeing Dante’s Peak several times (where two romantically inclined locals were boiled in similar pools), I was a bit hesitant to join them, so I hiked farther down to the base of the falls. This was very rugged, and pretty typical of such areas, with large jumbled boulders and small rapids spawned by the rushing water. Very pretty – I also have a nice pano of that area, which I will also post in the near future.

We hiked back up, and headed down to the ship, passing the drilling site, and crossing a stream that had some large plumes of steam, and a strong smell of sulfer, from the volcanic activity nearby. We took a quick trip through the botanical gardens, where the English established a sort of agricultural testing station during their early occupation, bringing (according to Clem) plants from all over the world to see which ones would survive the climate.

We bid farewell to Clem, and headed back to the ship ready to rest for our trip to St. Maartin.

Celebrity Equinox Caribbean: Day 4

Our next stop was St. Kitts. We had a free morning, so everyone went ashore to explore the shopping. As is typical with cruise ports, there is a “shopping village” that the cruise lines direct you to for ‘guaranteed’ shopping. The shops are pretty much the same from port to port – Colombian Emeralds, H. Stern, Diamonds International, and a few more. Its like going to generic malls in the US. There’s usually a few locals thrown in for variety, but if you could easily forget where you were.

The town itself is also typical of most Caribbean ports, but in this case, a lot poorer. It’s kind of sad, in a way. The travel industry is trying to capture as much of your dollars as possible before you get out of the port. Once in town, there’s a few high-end shops selling diamonds and watches, but for the most part the common shops are locals selling crafts or souveniers, trying to make a living. You have to wonder why more of the income from the port isn’t invested in improving the town. My suspicion is that a lot of the funds that comes into the cruise port heads right back out of the country. Someone made a comment about the locals having jobs, but it’s not a high percentage, and I doubt the wages are that stupendous.

After our morning foray, we met our tour-master to head off for an ATV trip on the other side of the island. I thought that this was a rainforest tour, but that’s Dominica. We drove off through the country side, along the shore. It was interesting to get away from the commercial area. There are several medical schools, a nursing school, and a vetenairy school. One amusing sight: a diamond-shape caution sign with a picture of a cow on it, with “school crossing” below. We figured out it was for the vet school. Not sure if it was a warning for cows or slow students.

The ATV tour starts off in a large clearning overlooking the sea (to be fair, almost everywhere on the island overlooks the sea…). Each of our party was assigned a vehicle, and were directed to drive around a circular path to acclimiate. Myriam had a lot of trouble with hers, so I volunteered to have her ride behind me, but our guide Ivan brought out a 2-person ATV, allowing Myriam to ride in style. Our intrepid group set off to explore.

Truth: the scenery was mostly underwhelming. The trails run through what appear to be largely abandoned cane fields, interrupted with occasaional trees. It was pretty hot and dusty. The highlight was actually riding the ATV’s around. We stopped at one point under a coconut tree, which Ivan skinnied up to drop some coconuts. He and his partner lopped open the nuts so we could drink the coconut water, then cracked them open to get to the jelly. It was pretty tasty, and (I think) a first time experience for some of the party. We also visited an old sugar cane processing site that is being turned into a hotel, and tried to stop at the Romney Mansion (not him….), but we were very tight on time. We got a few photos of the ‘Salmon Tree’ and headed back to the starting point. Would I recommend this to future travellers? Only if you’ve never ridden an ATV, and want to try it out. It was certainly fun, and I think that even Myriam had a good time.

Back on the ship, everyone cleaned up as we departed port. We had signed up for a champagne tasting and a sabering demonstration at 5, so that’s where we headed next. Of the group, I think I was the only one that had see sabering before; it’s pretty cool, and I think I will try it when we get home with some of the left over sparkly from the wedding. The wines tasted were pretty good as well – I will post that to my tasting column next week. One of them – a Spumante – was not worthy, but the other three were all French, and quite nice. My only complaint is that the wine director, who led the seminar, laid out a lot of mis-information about Champagne which I am sure was taken to heart by many in the group who were not wine-saavy. Oh, well.

The day ended just fine, with a light dinner and a deep sleep.

Next stop: Barbados.

Celebrity Equinox Caribbean, day 3

Third day out, first day on land, we hit St. Thomas. Our friends have a time share here, so they were familiar with the island, and we had been here a couple of years ago for a week or so. It’s a pleasant place, technically part of the United States so (unfortunately) our cell phones worked (for a bit, anyway).

We took off from the ship early, and headed to the opposite side of the island to meet a boat that we had chartered for the day. Our captain was Francois, and the crew Molly. The ten of us headed out into the sea.

Our first stop was a snorkel place about 20 minutes out. Calm seas and colorful fish made this a pleasant stop. We anchored near a rocky island that was split in two, so the ocean floor rose up to where we could stand. The water off the boat was about 20′ deep, but so clear you couldn’t really tell how deep it was. There was a nice assortment of tropical fish – damsel fish were the ones I recognized. Friend Ellen took some video, so when she posts I will stick a link it.

We spent about a hour paddling about, then headed to Jost Van Dyke, an island in the British part of the chain. Our first stop there was a bar called Foxy’s, where bartender Leon mixed up a “lime in the coconut” drink for the girls. I had a local brew (have to find the name…). Kind of fruity for a beer, but it was not bad. Our friend Don had brought a banner to hang on the roof of the bar. You’ll see in the photos that there are license plates, underwear, banners, tee-shirts, and lots of other stuff stuck to the ceiling. Apparently a long-standing tradition.

Our next stop was the famous (or infamous) Soggy Dollar bar, so named because the only way to get there (supposedly) is to swim in. Legend has it that if your money’s not wet, you can’t buy anything, but that proved not to be the case. Apparently they’re not worried about the state of your credit card…. All of these places are out of doors, so we lunched under a large canopy. There was quite a crowd gathered, as this is a pretty popular place. They even have a web cam, but we couldn’t get it up on our iPhones to see ourselves (redundant, I know…). One thing I learned from this stop is that its a LOT of work to swim 100 feet or so with a cap and glasses on, and not get them wet. I did manage to lose my sunglasses case, which floated out of my pocket.

After lunch, everyone was pretty lazy, so we headed back in to port. Along the way, we stopped for fuel and to report in to US Customs. That was a bit surrealistic (although kind of in keeping with island tradition) because we actually re-entered the country before customs knew we left. Apparently the “I’m leaving” paperwork takes 24 hours to get to them, so in essence, it is closing a loop, rather than any kind of logical progression.

We got back to the boat, tired and slightly inebriated, but happy. Sunset bar for a drink, then dinner, then bed. Day 4 is on Kt. Kitts, where we’re planning to ride an ATV (worth seeing Myriam on one!).

Stay tuned!

Celebrity Equinox Caribbean: Day 2

Our second day at sea was nice and quiet. Perfect. No one did much of anything. I walked the decks, our friends soaked up some sun, and then everyone had lunch. The volume of food that they have available is astounding. Equally astounding is the amount of food that we see piled on various plates wandering around the dining room. But I won’t go there…

The ship’s activities are divided up into tracks; health (yoga, stretching, working out), wine and food, and a couple others. Obviously my interest lies in the wine track, so we went to a wine tasting yesterday that was advertised as 12 great wines from around the world. The count was right, as was the fact that they were from various countries. None of us was very impressed with the quality of the wines. The two best were a Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, and a red from the Douro region of Portugal. One of the whites (from Italy) had a nose like propane, and the Pinotage from South Africa tasted like burnt rubber (one of my cohorts insisted on hot garden hose, but I am sticking to the burnt rubber). I know they have better quality wines on board. No idea why they picked these. There was a silent auction for 8 wines at the event, but not any of the ones we were tasting. Seems like they would have presented some excellent wines for tasting, and then auctioned those off to the group.

So not much else other than relaxation, which was enough for me.

Monday is our first day on land, at St. Thomas, where we are going to spend the day out on a boat. Should be fun!

Celebrity Equinox Caribbean: Day One

View from our balcony

This is our “recovery cruise” from our son’s wedding last week, and we’re really looking forward to 10 days away from everything! Our group – christened by me as “Crew 92” consists of 4 couples who are making their 3rd cruise together. It’s a lot of fun traveling with friends; being alone with 2,500 or so strangers can be a little intimidating, although it’s not too hard to make friends in the cruise environment. I think that having at least one other couple along makes it more fun, because you (hopefully) share common interests, and can share your experiences with each other in future times, and (probably the most fun) gossip about the other passengers.

We boarded Friday afternoon. Getting all the “necessaries” done for work, home (real and imagined) is very stressful, but just seeing the ship on the horizon started to get us into “wind down” mode. I am writing this on Sunday, 600 nautical miles out, and it’s just starting to feel like we’re away. I expect tomorrow’s flood of e-mails will change that, but we’re going to be spending the day on St Thomas in a boat, so I hope to be partly insulated. Of course, given that ST is in the US Virgins, my AT&T will work just fine…

Embarking is pretty straightforward. Our friends had come on board earlier – we travel with three other couples – and they had started their day getting “happy” at the bar(s) on the ship. Myriam and I were just happy to get to the stateroom and unpack. Unfortunately, our luggage was confiscated by security because I had stuck a couple wine bottles in the bag; claiming them was easy, as the crew was more interested in finding liquor than wines. So we got our stuff and stowed everything. And found (typically) that we’ve got enough clothes to last for about a month. Each cruise, we learn that a couple bathing suits, a couple shorts, a pair or two of slacks, and some nice shirts, are enough. I think I need to make a list. Plus, we’ve got buffalo pretzels, nuts, and god knows how many other snacks in the bags, as if the ship would run short of food. Ha.

On deck, day at sea

Saturday and Sunday are sea days, which is nice, because we get two full days (2.35 if you count Friday) to get into the rhythm of the cruise. Myriam and friends are spending time in the sun, others in the group are working out, sunning, reading, and eating. I’ve been learning Kumihimo on a disk (sorry, Adrian…) which is quite meditative, and reading. My routine is to walk the ship from top to bottom, or vice versa. It’s about 600 steps round trip. That translates into about 1,600 feet per deck, or about 1/3rd of a mile. There’s 8-1/2 decks, so that works out to about 2 miles. Given that the sun and I are not on good terms, it works out well.

The crew is great – everyone is very pleasant and polite. Walking the stateroom decks results in a lot of interaction with the attendants cleaning the rooms, and almost every one has a “good morning” or “how are you” and “have a great day” to offer. The first day, it’s kind of odd. I acclimated quickly because we were on this ship two years ago, in Europe, but you can see the “newbie” cruisers acting kind of defensive. When passengers pass in the halls, it’s usually eyes down, but today you can see the incessant politeness of the crew catching on, and I had a few “good morning’s” from fellow passengers. By the end of the cruise, we’ll all be high-five-ng each other in the corridors.

I see that it’s time for lunch, so ciao for now!

Some slides from the first few days…

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September 11th Memorial, New York City

The 911 Memorial is located in Lower Manhattan, near the Financial District. The neighborhood is like many in Manhattan; a construction site, an old church, high- and low-rise buildings, but more people thronging the streets. You can’t see the site from the street; a fence that obstructs the view of what’s beyond. To reach the memorial, you circumnavigate the site, pass through security, then walk down a road to the entrance. Your first view is of a large construction project, with cranes, concrete trucks, and workers in hard hats. A few more steps and you’re in the plaza.

The first impression: anticlimactic. The space is a large, open plaza surrounded by buildings under construction. There are chain-link construction fences protecting the construction areas. The plaza itself is large, open, and dotted with trees. In the distance to the East and North are two low brownish walls. A simple sign with 911 Memorial is bolted to the fence to the right of the opening,

Given the magnitude of the events that took place here, you expect something dramatic, that overwhelms you on first view. At first glance, it looks like a large, urban park. That impression changes as you walk into the plaza.

There is a heavy security presence, mostly police. There seems to be a large number of firefighters walking around, denoted by the universal symbol emblazoned on their shirts. In the distance, towards the far edges of the plaza, there are some low, brownish walls with people congregating around them, looking into their centers. In the background, the noise of a lot of people talking is underscored with a muted, roaring, noise.

Michael Arad and Peter Walker, the designers of the monument, have created a stunning, emotional, tribute to the staggering, unbearable events of that day. Their creation won out of more than 5,000 designs submitted from around the world. Here is an excerpt from their design statement:

“This memorial proposes a space that resonates with the feelings of loss and absence that were generated by the destruction of the World Trade Center and the taking of thousands of lives on September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993. It is located in a field of trees that is interrupted by two large voids containing recessed pools. The pools are set within the footprints of the Twin Towers. A cascade of water that describes the perimeter of each square feeds the pools with a continuous stream. They are large voids, open and visible reminders of the absence.”

You can read more here…

The memorial holds two reflecting pools, each set within the footprint of the original North and South Towers. Each is almost an acre in size. They are surrounded by a continuous plaque inscribed with the names of everyone who died in both the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, and those who died on September 11, 2001. The memorial is understated in design, overwhelming in impact. Neither words nor photos can do justice to the sheer emotion of standing in that place.

The photo below is a composite. The left side is a picture taken by my brother-in-law,Chief Ron Khawly. FLTF2 Task Force Leader. The right side was taken by me. As you can see, it’s a view in the same direction. I am a little farther back than he was, but the image is striking.

South Tower

Firefighter's Names

The impact of the names, running around the perimeter of the pools, is the most tearing. There, you find the names the innocent people who, simply going about their lives, died in the tragedy, and you find the heroes of the day: the passengers on Flight 93, and a tragic, unbelievable, number of firefighters and police, who sacrificed their lives for the sake of others. The names are grouped by flight, company, or squadron, keeping everyone together for all time.

In seeing this place, you also come to understand the numbers of firefighters and police that come to visit, from all over the world. Here, the real truth about the jobs that they do, and the fact that any one of them, faced with the same choice – to risk their lives to save others – would do the same as the brave men and women of New York did, on that day.

This is a place to understand the true nature of heroism.

New York tips for the tropical traveler

Copyright, Asterio Tecson, Flickr.com

Time Square, December 2010

New York is the center of the universe, as most New Yorkers will gladly tell you, but for visitors from other planets (like Miami…) it can be a challenging place. Having spent quite a bit of time travelling between these two planes of existence, I thought I would share some of what I have learned in my visits. New York is a great place to visit, but when the weather turns cold, the tropical traveler needs to beware.

As you can see from the photo on the right – taken by Asterio Tecson in Times Square, December 2010, it can get pretty miserable, pretty fast. Even New Yorkers were caught by surprise with this storm! Imagine being up there from Miami! Brrrr.

Here, then, are some tips, tricks, and techniques to make your visit a fun, safe, and (relatively) warm one:

Directions: To most of us, the “top” of the world is north, and the “bottom” is south. In New York, you’ll rarely hear those words, unless you ask another tourist for directions. To New Yorkers, it’s “uptown” and “downtown.” The traveler usually needs to know direction when emerging from the subway, as it is easy to become disoriented when you reach the surface. All you need to do is ask (in a raised voice) “UPTOWN?” or “DOWNTOWN?” and someone (often several someones) will point in the right direction (often without even looking up or acknowledging you). For the other two cardinal directions, “East side” and “West side” bear some resemblance to normalcy. Things get a bit more complicated with “Upper East Side” and “Upper West side” but those should be rather obvious.
Walking: The reason directions are so important is because you will be doing a LOT of walking! The NY subway system is fabulous, but it mostly runs uptown/downtown (north/south, if you’ve forgotten already). The uptown/downtown blocks are rather short, but the east/west blocks are really long, so planning your subway journey’s start/end points is important. You will find that it’s often easier to walk a few extra blocks than to jump back onto the subway, as the wait for the train is often as long as the walk, but the walk is free. Of course, if the temperature is below freezing (around 50 for the tropical traveler), you may want to take the train for the warmth.

The Streets: Most streets in the city are one way (most, not all). There is no right-turn on red, and when you, the pedestrian, have the light, you rule. Don’t jaywalk! And be SURE that you have the light when you cross. Native New Yorkers are able to “read” traffic, and will often cross against the light. You should not. ALWAYS watch the traffic light for your walk signal! While you are crossing, it is not uncommon to have cars driving around you, turning right or left. It is a bit unnerving, but if you follow the cardinal rule of New York Street Crossing: never stop walking!, you’ll be OK.

Addresses: New York’s addresses are not related in any way to the position of the location to its placement on the street. They do progress from low to high as you move from downtown to uptown, or east/west, but there is no relation to where you are. Most New York businesses give their address and a cross street so you can find them. In most of the world, addresses remain constant as you move perpendicular to a cross street. We would expect 296 Third Avenue to be in the same place as 296 2nd Avenue, 296 5th avenue, and so on. Not in New York. There, you’ll fine 296 Third Avenue near 23rd Street, while 296 First Avenue is near 17th Street – 6 blocks South. Always get a cross street, and use it to navigate.

Walking shoes: Comfortable, warm, and absolutely dry shoes are a must in the city. There may well be a lot of slush, so sneakers or open shoes are not advisable. The tropical traveler is better off to get a pair of good hiking shoes that are water resistant, or even a good pair of boots (Uggs), for outdoor meanders. To that end, you want to pay careful attention to your…

Nose & Toes: The winter air in the city is dry, and you will find that your sinuses dry out easily. Staying hydrated is very important, but drinking lots of water is not enough. You should bring spray saline, and even some nasal gel (or Aquaphor) to combat the drying effect. Even just a few days can leave you feeling rather raw. You also want to bring extra socks (thick, warm ones, from an outdoor or ski shop). If your feet do get wet, you want to have something to change into. For ladies, carrying a pair rolled up in your purse is a very good deal. Guys, cargo pants!

Time Square Winter 2010

Staying Warm: You’ll want to check the forecast before you travel. It’s probably not necessary to bring long underwear (maybe an undershirt), but heavy jeans or think pants are highly advisable, or a long trench-type coat. You will spend a lot of time indoors, but if you’re going to walk more than a few blocks, the wind will not be your friend! Plan to layer clothing: denizens of the warmer climates will find that layering so that you can shed or add as the temperature changes is a very good strategy. Bring a hat/cap that covers your ears! A knit cap or flappy hat is the best bet. Also bring a scarf – wool, not silk, to wrap around your neck, or even around your head if it gets to cold.

Rest Up: It is highly advisable to get plenty of rest before you travel, as you are guaranteed to engage in a lot more physical activity than you are used to. Pushing your body to the limit to “get ready to go” will almost certainly result in a cold or illness once you hit the dry cold. Being indoors around lots of people is a sure germ-spreader, and dried out noses and tired bodies are prime attractants. It’s also a good idea to spend the weeks before the trip just walking around – long walks – to build up your stamina. It is not unusual to take several walks 30 mins or longer each day. I’ve easily walked 5-6 miles in a day (see “Walking shoes”).

Bathrooms: NY is NOT bathroom friendly! Very few places provide or even allow access to bathrooms. Some restaurants have them, but limit them to customers only. I can tell you from experience that you can be in contortions with the need to “go” and the clerks will look at you with no sympathy. Large stores, like Home Depot, Target have bathrooms that are easily accessible, as do all Starbucks and MacDonalds. Some stores’ facilities are unisex, so be prepared.

Germs: Oh, do germs LOVE cold, dry weather! You should be sure to carry a handkerchief, Kleenex, pocket hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes. And, try to use your non-dominate hand to grab rails (stair, subway, etc.), and be very careful to keep the grab-hand away from your face until it’s sanitized. Remember that the population of New York City is 1.5 million as of the 2010 census (that is only Manhattan), crammed into about 23 square miles (that’s about 65,000 people per square mile. The population of Miami-Dade County, in 2010, was about 2.5 million, but they live in 2,000 square miles (that’s a massive 1,250 people per square mile). Quite a concentration.

Subways: Speaking of subways, you will spend a lot of time on them. You will want a good subway map to orient yourself and figure out where you are going. Subway access is via a pre-paid “Metro Card” that you can purchase at most stations. You can by single or multiple trips. We strongly suggest that you get a $10 or $20 card, as there are bonuses for these. Multiple people can use one card, if you run short. And, you can re-fill the cards at many stations.

Cabs: Next to the subway, cabs are the most common form of transport, but they can be expensive. However, in inclement weather, if you’re running late, or dressed in nice clothes, they are a viable option. The main rule for cabs is to always be IN the cab with the door SHUT, before you tell the driver where you want to go (especially if it’s a short distance). Never ask first (can you take me to ….) because if the driver does not feel like it, they’ll just drive off. Once you’re inside, you’re OK. Remember that when you tell the cab where you are going, you need to give him both the address and the cross street!

“Entrepreneurs”: Down here, we mostly call them homeless guys, but in New York, it’s a bit more subtle. You will encounter the usual spare changers all over the place, but it is not uncommon to find people in the subway stations playing musical instruments for spare change. In the cars, it is very common to have people climb on and start singing, playing musical instruments, declaiming, or muttering strange phrases in loud voices. I was once entertained by a three-piece mariachi band! Most New Yorkers just ignore them; you can give, if you like, but don’t feel obligated. Some of the beggars have gotten quite creative, huddling up with a cute puppy or kitty to further tempt you. We suspect there might even be a rent-a-puppy franchise, as you see so many strange “pet owners” on the streets.

Speaking of dogs: New York is very dog friendly. New Yorkers generally clean up after pooch (but not always), so watch out for landmines as you walk around. And don’t be surprised at seeing dogs inside public places (rarely restaurants or food stores). I once ran into a golden retriever in Saks 5th Avenue.

Things to bring:

  • Get a cheap capsule umbrella; something small that will fit in a pocket or purse
  • Saline nasal spray / saline nasal gel
  • Warm socks (and extra warm socks)
  • Good cap or knit cap that will cover your ears and keep your head warm
  • Wool or cashmere scarf
  • Hiking boots or Ugg-type boots