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Panama City, Panama

Saturday the 8th was a day at sea. Had a nice breakfast with Mel on the fantail at the Veranda Café. I finished my grading (I am completing an online course for Foothill College next week). Mel and I had lunch and then attended a wine tasting at 3:00 in the restaurant that was really nice. We tasted 3 whites and 3 reds.

The whites were two Sauvignon Blancs from France, a 2001 Chateau Olivier and a 2001 Poully Fume de Ladourette. The third white was a 2005 Domaine Laroche from the Chablis appelation. Mel liked the Chablis the best and could not tolerate the Pouilly Fume which has a very strong nose often characterized as ‘dirty sweat socks.’ I liked the Chablis, but preferred the Pouilly Fume.

The reds were a 2002 Gavrey-Chambertin (from Burgundy thus a Pinot Noir), a 2003 Henzel Pinot Noir (Alexander Valley) and a 1998 Chateau Talbot St. Julien (a Bordeaux). So we tasted French and California Pinot Noir side by side and that was fun. The French one was superior, but still so tannic it needs years of aging. The Calofornia one more ready to drink with gobs of fruit on the palate. The climax red was the Bordeux that turned out to be not all that thrilling – dark and inky and nice, but not a 90+ point wine imho.

For dinner we took a wine we brought aboard: a 2005 Hendry Block 7 Zinfandel. Mel and I enjoy this Napa vintner’s wines very much.

Dinner was fun – the sommelier I think has decided that we have some credibility and we shared some of the Hendry with him, I think he enjoyed it.

To give you some idea of the cuisine on board I will outline what Mel and I had:

Mel started with the Chilled Sweet Pea soup with Maine crab meat and rosemary brioche croutons, followed by a salad of baby spinach leaves and crsis shallots with a balsamic dressing. For the entree she had a beautiful grilled Filet Mignon with parmesan potato gratin and a roasted shallot marmalade.

I had the cured and roasted lamb loin appetizer with mango coulis, thai chiles and spicy mint oil – a beautiful presentation! Then I had beef consomme and fingerling potato salad with horseradish, quail eggs and double smoked bacon. For the entree I ate pink roasted venison sirloin medallions with a foie gras sauce and caramelized pear. Yum!

Our Hendry went really well with the meal, and we enjoyed it very much.

We arrived Sunday morning the 9th in Panama City – the port of Puerto Amador at the end of a chain of three islands that had been connected by a causeway formed from deposits from the digging at the Gaillard cut through the continental divide. Being Sunday the locals were out it a big way. Lots of bicyclists, runners, people strolling with babies and dogs, and out on the water with us fishing and enjoying the day. Pretty hot and humid, but not oppressively so.

First thing in the morning we went on a shore excursion to the lake which forms the heart and headwaters of the canal – Gatun Lake. We boarded small boats and headed towards the Caribbean side to see ‘Monkey Island’ and boy did we! A troop of (very habituated) white faced monkeys was down along the waterline posing for photos and hoping for (and getting) pieces of banana. They are fun to watch, very intelligent and agile with prehensile tails they use to great advantage. On was hanging on with his for dear life as he leaned way out catching pieces of banana thrown to him by our guide. Here are some shots:

White-faced Monkey Monkey Island, Gatun Lake, Panama
White-faced Monkey, Monkey Island, Gatun Lake, Panama

White-faced Monkey Monkey Island, Gatun Lake, Panama
White-faced Monkey catching banana, Monkey Island, Gatun Lake, Panama

White-faced Monkey Monkey Island, Gatun Lake, Panama
White-faced Monkey looking for a treat, Monkey Island, Gatun Lake, Panama

The rainforest and the islands (formed by flooding the lake) are really beautiful. I took quite a few shots of the vegetation, the towering high-canopy trees and the water but they do not turn out that well. One must see them with the naked eye.

Rainforested Island, Gatun Lake, Panama
Island with lush rainforest, Gatun Lake, Panama

We returned to the resort’s marina and then had the requisite trip to the resort proper. This is built (as were many things we saw today) upon the foundation of what were American Canal Zone compounds. This one was an Army barracks, and the old buildings have been restored and turned into hotel suites – sort of for long-term rentals by families. The new building contains the lobby, bars and restaurants, and many new hotel-style rooms. The site overlooks the lake and jungle surrounding.

The tour guide sort of droned on and on about the canal. Panama = canal for sure. The take over of the canal by the nation in 1999 looms large in the Panamanian psyche and they are very proud.

The architecture of the canal zone buildings, while not exactly striking, is of historical interest and very consistent from compound to compound as we drove 25 miles up the canal. The buildings generally elevated, with two living floors and corrugated roofs and louvered windows with cantilevered roofs over each row of windows. The traditional building material is wood – lapping slat exterior, much of it painted a creamy yellow which seems institutional and may be the original canal zone colors, who knows? We now see air conditioning compressors attached to each building.

I was reminded today that the canal’s essential engine is rainfall. Without the huge inflow of water into the lake allowing flow through the locks to elevate the ships this canal is a useless ditch through the mountains. The government is interested in preserving the rainforest for reasons pertaining to the functioning of the canal. Our guide told us of being a student and seeing an Ocelot in the park.

Along route today was a one-lane highway bridge right alongside the single-track railway bridge across the Chagres river. On the return our bus awaited a green light behind two passenger vehicles. When the light turned green the two vehicle in front of us took off in spite of the fact that there was plainly visible a car coming the other direction on the bridge. When they met near the middle there was a stalemate. This then was followed by more inflow onto the bridge from either end as the signals went through their paces. What struck me was the immaturity of the drivers on the bridge in solving this problem. It was all about ego; no one was willing to back up, each believing they were in the right and insisting the other party back down.

While we awaited a solution to the stalemate, a train crossed the bridge. We were hoping the bridge could take the load!

Stalemate on the Bridge, Gatun Lake, Panama
Stalemate on the bridge across the Chagres river, Panama

Our guide almost immediately called the police on his cell phone and it took their presence to untangle the stalemate, although to our guide’s credit he had essentially negotiated a settlement prior to their arrival.

We had a nice dinner hosted by our cruise director Jan Spearman. Mel sat next to a man who is the inventor and patent holder of the aerosol can, among other things. A charming man who is hobbled by having had multiple hip replacements and a stroke. I am looking forward to talking with him some more.

We are approaching the entrance to the canal. The schedule is to pick up the pilot about now, then transit the Miraflores locks around 8:30. In fact I just now see the pilot boat coming alongside. We are then expecting to go through the Pedro Miguel locks around 11:00 am. After transiting the Galliard cut we cross the lake and descend through the Gatun locks around 5:00 pm. If you want to try and catch us there are webcams at http://www.pancanal.com/eng/photo/camera-java.html. The times I have listed are EST times.

The canal is very interesting and we look forward to its transit today!

Happy Travels!

-Steve

Manuel Antonio National Park, Quepos, Costa Rica

We arrived in Quepos, Costa Rica, this morning. Mel and I ate breakfast in our suite at 7:30 and prepared for our shore excursion to the nearby Manuel Antonio national park. Our guide Anna was great, and knew lots about the abundant flora and fauna of the park.

Manuel Antonio is, I believe, the first state park to have been created in Costa Rica. There are many more in the country, but this one is prized. It is the one most visited by Ticos. It is small and consists essentially of an offshore island that is no longer offshore, having been connected to the mainland by the accumulation of sand between it and the coast. It is now named Punta Catedral (you do the translation!). The coves, beaches and rocky points covered with lush forest are home to many creatures, among them troops of howler and white-faced monkeys, black and green iguanas, American crocodiles, caymans, sloths, and countless species of birds and butterflies. We saw a few of these:

White-faced monkey in Manuel Antonio
White-faced monkey in Manuel Antonio National Park, Quepos, Costa Rica

Black Iguana in Manuel Antonio
Black Iguana sunning at the beach in Manuel Antonio

Crocodile in Manuel Antonio
American Crododile – Manuel Antonio National Park, Quepos, Costa Rica

As we returned to the entrance of the park I took a couple of shots from the trail along the beach:

Cove with boats at anchor
Cove with boats at anchor – Manuel Antonio National Park, Quepos, Costa Rica

Islet just offshore
Islet just offshore – Manuel Antonio National Park, Quepos, Costa Rica

Manuel Antonio is suffering from its popularity. Camping in the park is no longer allowed and the number of daily visitors is limited to 600. In addition, parts of the park today were closed. We were told this is done to give the natives a breather from the hordes. But it is a remarkable place – put it on your list of things to do!

We were again invited tonight to join a table at dinner hosted by the assistant cruise director. We begged off, wanting to dine alone and relax a bit.

Tomorrow we have a day at sea enroute to Panama City and the canal transit the following day. We need the rest!

-Steve

Seabourn Legend – Costa Rica and San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

We arrived Wednesday morning December 5th around 7:00 am in San Jose and after a suspenseful wait, our four bags rolled off the conveyor belt. Our transfer to the ship was prearranged, and an agent from Seabourn found us at baggage claim and gave us a sticker to put on identifying us as a transferee. We got on to the small bus and headed out for the Marriot on the coast where we would await transfer to the ship itself. After driving for around 45 minutes the guide announced there had been a misunderstanding and that we were to be transferred to the Marriot in San Jose, right back where we had originated. So, back to San Jose we drove.

Once at the Marriot we were told that our transfer would pick us up at 12:30 pm, and that there was a café and restaurant on the property we could avail ourselves of. We had around 3 hours to kill after a long day preparing and packing for the trip followed by a (for me sleepless) red-eye flight to Costa Rica. We ate a good buffet breakfast and found a sofa to snooze on until transfer time.

At noon or so we and our luggage were loaded on our private mini-bus with our name tag on the windshield equipped with both a driver and an English-speaking guide. We learned a bit about Costa Rica on our 2 hour drive to Puerto Caldera, where our yacht the Seabourn Legend awaited us.

The drive was beautiful, from the central valley up over its volacanic rim and down to the Pacific ocean to the west. The Costa Ricans (‘Ticos’) are very industrious, and everywhere were plots of crops, or orchards, or coffee plantations, or plant nurseries. Lots of very steep fields with cattle grazing. The country is steep and deeply forested.

We arrived at the port and boarded our yacht. Finally! We were both so tired we were running on fumes, but felt compelled to go on deck for the bon voyage party and to watch us depart the pier and harbor and set off to the north for San Jose del Mar in Nicaragua, where we are at anchor as I write this

Last night we were phoned and asked if we would dine with the classical guitarist in the restaurant, and we accepted the 7:45 date. We were assigned seating at a table for 12 so that Mel and I were not seated next to one another. This is nice for the single people on the cruise of whom there were a couple and a nice way to mix and meet some folks. At the table near Mel was a woman who has done 18 cruises, some on Seabourn, and had an interesting tale to tell of the Pride running aground at Crete, and making a miraculous recovery in Turkey (courtesy some Turkish divers, I gather) and completed the voyage. We do not need that sort of excitement!

We got to be around 10:00, deeply tired and I awoke at 7:00. Room service press-pot of coffee looking out our balcony window at the Ryndam (HAL) anchored nearby. We are receiving wireless signal in our suite so that will be very comfortable for writing posts and doing my grading while aboard.

Today Mel and I ate breakfast around 10:30 on the veranda café, and after breakfast we came back to our suite and readied ourselves for going ashore in San Juan del Sur. The bay we are anchored in is beautiful with cliffs and beaches ringing it. The town itself is a nice little town, a bit third-world (I think) for the Seabourn crowd. Interesting to have seen as many world traveler types as we did along with the pizza places and Hospedajes they stay in in town. Lots of surfers here too, and gringos driving nice four-wheel drive trucks around town – expats I think. I have heard that this is a center for folks looking for cheap ocean-front real estate and a place to live where to dollar goes far. A couple of real estate development offices with signs all in English and rental signs.

The church was restored in 2001 and completed (I think, based on my reading of signs in Spanish) in 2004. We spoke with a man who was sweeping up the altar area and he said that the posts and walls are original, and had been stripped of paint during the reconstruction. He also said the ‘ceiling’ was new – the wood forming what Mel and I would call the roof was indeed new looking. The pillars are of some incredible hardwood the man called ‘black wood’ (‘moreno negro’). Some of them looked pretty sketchy. But overall a very nice restoration.

Interior of restored church - San Jose del Sur, Nicaragua
Interior of restored church – San Jose del Sur, Nicaragua

Here are some shots from around town and of the bay and beach in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua:

Painted Building - San Jose del Sur, Nicaragua
Painted Building – San Jose del Sur, Nicaragua

Rocking Chairs on Porch - San Jose del Sur, Nicaragua
Rocking Chairs on Porch – San Jose del Sur, Nicaragua

Municipal Building - San Jose del Sur, Nicaragua
Municipal Building – San Jose del Sur, Nicaragua

Beach and Bay  - San Jose del Sur, Nicaragua
Beach and Bay – San Jose del Sur, Nicaragua

Tonight we have a formal night, I will wear my tux and Mel a gown. We have been invited to dine at the captain Tom Thomassen’s table – we feel quite honored. I think as repeaters aboard for four weeks and having accepted last dinner with the guitarist las night we earned some points and got the invite – it will be fun.

Now I just have to remember how to tie a bow tie….

-Steve

Mel’s Birthday Weekend

For Mel’s birthday we had a nice road trip. We took Ras the wonderhound and drove from home in South Lake Tahoe over Carson Pass on highway 88 and down to the Shenandoah Valley area near Plymouth, CA just off of highway 49. This is Sierra Foothill gold country, and some good wine country as well. Mel and I both enjoy Amador county wines from the Shenandoah appellation, especially Zinfandels. Yum!

We spent Saturday afternoon tasting and buying wine. We are especially fond of the first winery we visited Sobon Estate . We had had luck there before (2001) buying a sort of sleeper Zinfandel that went on to win just about every gold medal that year at the fair tastings.

There are 30 wineries or so in the area, the terrain is beautiful and in late September the weather is delightful. Amador Vintners have a nice website with information on this favorite area of ours.

We then continued south on highway 49. Near Sonora we visited Columbia, a mining town that is preserved as a state park. These mining towns were subject to periodic fires that burned them to the ground. After 3 devastating fires in 4 or so years the residents rebuilt in brick. The town is semi-preserved and the circa-1855 buildings along the old main street are fun to stroll by and explore. There is a hotel operating in one of these buildings – the City Hotel. This hotel is of particular interest as it is run by students from the nearby Community College. On the ground floor is the hotel restaurant, operated by culinary arts students from the same college. Truly fine dining here!

After heading further south on highway 49, we turned east on highway 120 for Yosemite. Mel had no idea where we were staying that night, but as we approached Groveland she began to get the drift. I’d made reservations at the Groveland Hotel for both a room and dinner at its very fine restaurant.

After checking in, strolling with Ras, and taking a brief nap, we dressed for dinner and went downstairs to eat. The wine list is extensive and reasonably priced, and we ordered a 1997 Spring Mountain meritage we thought we’d like. We made out – the bartender opened the wrong bottle of wine, a 1997 Spring Mountain reserve meritage that was just out of this world – holy smokes! They’d caught their error and we paid for the wine we ordered. Oh, the dinner was wonderful too!

The next day we took off for Yosemite National Park. That day in the valley was simply wonderful – warm, uncrowded, a lovely indian summer day. We found a picnic area parking lot we’d not know about before and pulled in. From there we followed a path to a beach on the Merced river with views upstream to Half Dome, and downstream to El Capitan. Mel and I both agreed this was the moment of the weekend.

View of Half Dome From Merced River Beach
View of Half Dome from a beach on the Merced River in Yosemite Valley

Ras at the beach in Yosemite Valley
Ras the wonderhound in the Merced River, Yosemite Valley

Meadow and Half Dome, Yosemite Valley
View of Half Dome from the meadow near the Orchard at Camp Currie, Yosemite Valley

We continued east from the valley up and over Tioga pass via Tuolumne Meadows and then down to Lee Vining, Mono lake and highway 395. This route provides magnificent views of the Cathedral Range and other ranges of the high country of Yosemite – magnificent!

View of Half Dome and Cloud's Rest
View of Half Dome and Cloud’s Rest from the road to Tioga Pass, Yosemite National Park

Once we descended down to highway 395 we were in familiar and happy territory – this route along the east side of the Sierra Nevada is a very special one for us. We have enjoyed it for years.

We drove northwards back towards home and stopped for dinner at Walker Burger in Walker, California. Walker Burger is a great road-food place with really nice gardens with tables under the shade trees and lawn for Ras to enjoy. A traditional stop for us while driving this route.

Back home we relaxed after a wonderful birthday weekend. Happy Birthday Mel!

And happy travels to you all…

-Steve

Snow!

We have awoken to our first snowfall (at lake level, anyhow) of the year.  Only 1/2″, but it is still the earliest snowfall either of us have experienced in South Lake Tahoe.  The first September snowfall either of us has seen.  There are now only two months of the year I have not experienced snowfall here:  July and August.  But the old timers have seen that as well, I am told.

Little St. Simons Island, Georgia Coast

Last Spring Mel and I traveled to the southeastern seaboard. We went to N. Carolina, S. Carolina and Georgia. Late March and early April is a really nice time of the year there, we had really great weather, and the dogwood were blooming in many places we visited.

The barrier islands of Georgia include the ‘Golden Isles’ in the vicinity of Brunswick including Jekyll Island and St. Simons Island. These constitute what I think of as typical barrier resort islands with lots of summer homes, golf courses and beaches. There are lots of waterways, river mouths and creeks in this area providing habitat for lots of wildlife.

Off of the northern end of St. Simons Island lies Little St. Simons Island. This island is privately owned and is run as a resort – The Lodge on Little St. Simons Island (warning: this is one of those awful flash websites.)

The island was originally acquired in the early part of the 20th century by a pencil factory for its cedar. The owner of the pencil company came to the island after the company purchased it to assess the cedar on the island and found it wanting – way too storm-twisted to be useful for pencil blanks. But he fell in love with the island and bought it from the company for himself. He built a lodge and used it to house and entertain guests while they fished and hunted and enjoyed the wildlife and scenery of the island.

Today the original lodge still stands, and, together with a couple of more modern buildings and a swimming pool, are run as a resort.

The island is only reachable by boat. You park your car on St. Simons Island (the very furthest point of the island) and board the shuttle boat to Little St. Simons. It runs twice a day, around 10:00 am and around 4:00 pm.

Once on the island, transportation is provided in trucks. Guests may also use mountain bikes to get around, arrange horseback rides, or walk. There are kayaks and canoes and small outboard-powered boats to use as well.

The resort is all-inclusive. Meals are taken at a single seating family-style with a maximum of around 40 guests (if I remember correctly). Cocktails at 5:00, dinner at 6:30. The food simple, well-prepared and fresh.

Guests are catered to utterly. Each breakfast ends with one of the employees coming into the dining room and asking ‘what do you want to do today?’ Some scheduled activities occur daily such as a ride in the back of a truck with a guide looking for wildlife or other natural features of the island. Mel said she thinks of the place as ‘summer camp for adults.’ You can go to the beach and do nothing. You can fly fish. You can take a boat out on the waterways and try to see dolphins. You can ride bikes along the paths. You can birdwatch. You can hike trails with your packed lunch and find great picnic spots. This is unspoiled barrier island ecology, and we just loved it.  Be prepared to see alligators!

The Lodge website has some great pictures if you want to get a sense of the place. Here are a couple we took:

Front Porch - Lodge at Little St. Simons Island

Front Porch – Lodge at Little St. Simons Island

Fireplace - Lodge at Little St. Simons Island

The fireplace at the Lodge at Little St. Simons Island

Sitting Room - Lodge at Little St. Simons Island

Sitting Room – Lodge at Little St. Simons Island

Deck of Guest Lodge - Little St. Simons Island

Deck of Guest Lodge – Little St. Simons Island

Oysters Feed - Little St. Simons Island

Oyster Feed – Little St. Simons Island

Guest Lodge - Little St. Simons Island

Guest Lodge – Little St. Simons Island

We went for a long bike ride one day that took us by an old home site, where a freed slave family had lived after the Civil War. The chimney and part of the foundation remain.  We also saw a shell midden from Indian times. We also surprised and alligator along the way. Tons of birds and, of course, Armadillos snorting their way through the topsoil.  We hustled back so as to be on time for lunch and made it.  A great morning.

This is a wonderful place, and we hope to be back one day. Bring your bug repellent!

Happy Travels!

-Steve

Angkor, Cambodia

In January, 2005 Mel and I flew from Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) to Siem Riep, Cambodia. Siem Riep is the gateway to the ancient complex/city of Angkor, home to Angkor Wat among other things. (‘Wat’ means temple as anyone who has been to Thailand knows – they are ubiquitous there.) This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and deservedly so.

I had always been interested in seeing Angkor. But recent history here is sad, with the Khmer Rouge, nearby Vietnam war and so on. But recently, Cambodia has stabilized and this region, remote from the capital city of Pnohm Penh, is now safe for travel. Unfortunately, there are still vast mined areas in the region dangerous for travel. One sees amputees wherever one travels around this area.

Around the 12th century the Khmer civilization prospered here. Wikipedia states the region “flourished from approximately the 9th century to the 15th century A.D.” Reservoirs were built enabling a rice-growing agricultural economy, and a large city was built with the requisite temples and palaces and parade grounds. These were all grown over after the city was abandoned, which was ‘discovered’ by French archeologists in, I believe, the 19th century.

Do not travel to Siem Riep by boat from Pnohm Penh. We heard unanimous horror stories about this trip, which goes from Pnohm Penh up the Mekong to Tonlé Sap, a large lake in the interior of Cambodia quite near Siem Reap. The trip is long, hard, noisy and one arrives late and tired with touts at the pier competing to sell you lodging and transportation to Siem Riep. We found the flight very civilized, and the transportation from the airport into Siem Riep easy to arrange.

The only reason to go to Siem Reap is to visit Angkor. Fees are moderate. I think we paid US$20 each or so for entry, and another US$20 for transportation around the complex via motor-scooter-drawn carriage. These are referred to as ‘tuk-tuk’s, a term whose use seems to me to be stolen from its use in Thailand for the (terrible) two-stroke motor trikes that ply Bangkok and other cities there. Anyhow, here is our dude:

Our ride through Angkor

Mel and I admit we are not the best at spending lots of time at ruins (‘rubble’ as we have come to call them) and museums and such. We spent most of a single day touring the site and called it quits. Depending on your level of interest you could spend way more time here. I would guess the more patient traveller would spend two days exploring the site. One could spend a lifetime studying this place.

Angkor Wat (Angkor Temple) is the most well-restored complex within Angkor, and lies outside the walls and gates of Angkor Thom (the city proper). This is the first site one visits. Here are some pics:

View of Angkor Wat.

View of Angkor Wat temple, after a long walk across the temple grounds.

A hallway withing Angkor Wat

Steve walking in a hallway within the temple. The walls used to be painted.

An interior courtyard within Angkor Wat

A courtyard within Angkor Wat. The basin was filled with water.

Detail of wall sculpting – Angkor Wat.

After seeing Angkor Wat, we set out to see the city, Angkor Thom. One crosses a moat and enters through a gate. We entered the Victory Gate if I remember correctly. The bridge across the moat has amazing railings carved into Buddhas:

Bridge railing, Angkor Thom

Buddha images lining the bridge into Angkor Thom.

Inside are more temples. These have not been restored nearly to the extent that Angkor Wat has been. (More rubble!)

Detail of Wall Carving - Temple in Angkor Thom

Detail of Wall Carving – Temple in Angkor Thom.

A Buddha in the ruins - Angkor Thom

The temple grounds, though in ruins, are still used. Here a Buddha, draped in saffron robes, with incense burning. Angkor Thom, Cambodia.

Also in the city is a large parade ground and reviewing stand. The royals, I guess, used to sit on the stand and watch the processions go by:

Reviewing Stand with Elephant Carvings - Angkor Thom

Reviewing Stand with Elephant Carvings – Angkor Thom.

The last site we visited is an interesting temple which has not been excavated or restored at all, named Ta Phrom. It is quite overgrown:

Tree flowing over wall of Ta Phrom

The ruins of Ta Phrom, unexcavated.

We really enjoyed walking (and climbing and crawling) through Ta Phrom. It is nice to get a sense of how this place has decayed over the last 500 years in the forest, and seeing these huge trees flowing over ruins is magical.

Angkor is an amazing place, put it on your list.

The cultures of South East Asia are intriguing, and we enjoy traveling there very much. Traveling in Buddhist countries is a nice experience – people have a calm, even amidst a harrowingly busy city such as Bangkok. I guess it goes along with a belief in reincarnation – one has time, time to get it right. Western urgency is less prevalent.

Happy Travels!

-Steve

p.s. I got some nice feedback from our friend Cathy Cavender – thanks Cathy!

Milford Sound, South Island, New Zealand

In November, 2004 Mel and I embarked on a trip around the Pacific. First stop was New Zealand. We landed in Auckland (on the North Island), cleared customs and immigration and caught a flight to Queenstown on Lake Wakatipu in South Island. The approach through mountain passes and cols had my palms sweating! Seeing a plane going the other direction immediately below us did not help matters. Mel appreciated the sheep grazing on the airport fields.

We rented a car (driving on the left is exciting) and left the next day for Te Anau, gateway to Milford Sound. We did not find anyplace to stay that we really liked there, so we went south to Manapouri. We found a wonderful place to stay there with Rennie and Mary and their Jack Russel terrier, Biddy – the subject of another post. We stayed with them two nights and spent the day in the middle driving to Milford Sound.

The mountains, streams, rivers, valleys and lakes of the Southern Alps in this region are indescribably beautiful – sometime literally breathtaking. Here are some pictures from our drive to the sound and back that day:

Glacial Valley on the route to Milford Sound

View of the glacial valley en route to Milford sound from Te Anau. Leave early and beat all of the tourist buses which take people there from Queenstown!

Peaks in the mist enroute to Milford Sound

At a pass in the mountains we stopped for a look. The misty clouds and strong Spring-time sun produced stunning views.

Mel and Steve enroute to Milford Sound

Needed a pic of us and our car!

Milford Sound

Milford Sound. This is taken from a short walk one can go on from road’s end. There are good facilities there including a hotel and restaurant – it would be a nice place to linger and watch the sun go down. Big thing to do from here is to purchase a boat trip out into the sound. We did not do that as we had a long trip ahead of us and were very budget conscious. But we probably should have done it, especially on a brilliant day such as this one was…

Mel and Steve at Milford Sound

Pic of us at Milford Sound. There were many, many small (sand?) flies there and we learned the ‘Milford Wave’.

Milford Sound

Another view of the sound from a short walk we took.

Waterfalls in the Souther Alps near Milford Sound

Driving back over (and through – there is a tunnel through the mountains the road goes through) the mountains we were just amazed at the water. November is equivalent to March in the northern hemisphere, and the snow melt had begun in earnest. Waterfalls everywhere you looked!

Cirque on the Eastern side of tunnel to Milford Sound

Just on the eastern side of the tunnel we stopped for a look at the cirque. These are mighty mountains.

We had an extraordinary day. Rarely, we were told, is the weather this good. We were able to go on two or three small hikes in shirtsleeves, finding great views, much water in rivers and streams, and lush vegetation with moss and ferns growing in the Beech forest.

We love the South Island of New Zealand and found ourselves dreaming of lingering (or living) there.

7 Ways To Find Cheap Airfare

  1. Travel Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
    Stay away from weekend travel if you can. If you must travel on the weekend, do it on Saturday – the middle of the weekend. Separate yourself from the hordes trying to maximize their weekend – i.e. flying out on Friday (or Thursday) and returning Sunday (or Monday).
  2. Include a Saturday night stay.
    The airlines figure they can charge business travelers a premium. Business travelers want to be home for the weekend. By staying over the Saturday night, you are placing yourself in a different category and earning yourself lower fares.
  3. Check alternate airports.
    Try flying to an alternative airport near your destination. For example, if you want to go to San Francisco, check airfares to Oakland as well.
  4. Fly routes the low-cost carriers fly.
    Legacy carriers will lower fares to compete with the low-cost carriers on the same route. For example, we can fly to Norfolk, VA for less than we can fly to Richmond, VA. Southwest airlines serves Norfolk, but does not fly to Richmond.
  5. Purchase 21 day advance, non-refundable, non-changeable fares.
    These fares are the cheapest offered. Don’t be too scared by the non-refundability of the fares – if you cannot make your trip, you can apply the fare paid to a subsequent trip, less a re-booking fee of around $100.
  6. Buy last minute.
    Airlines offer good fares for the upcoming weekends on undersold routes, with Wednesday through Saturday departures and Sunday through Tuesday returns. We have signed up for email notification of such fares from American Airlines. They send us the email on Tuesdays.
  7. Buy a package including hotel and/or rental car.
    These can be good deals when booked all together from the airline or a consolidator like Site59, Travelocity, Orbitz and the like.

Desolation Wilderness, Lake Tahoe, Sierra Nevada

Home is nice too! In summer I especially enjoy hiking. The other day I hiked one of my favorites – the Bayview trail to the outlet of Fontanillis lake. This hike ascends Maggie’s peaks from which you have great views of Granite Lake, Lake Tahoe and of the mountains of Desolation:

View of Granite Lake
View of Granite Lake from Maggie’s Peaks

View of Lake Tahoe from Maggie's Peaks
View of Lake Tahoe from Maggie’s Peaks

View of the peaks of Desolation Wilderness
View of the Peaks of Desolation Wilderness from Maggie’s Peaks

Then the hike takes you towards Upper Velma Lake. After a bit, I take off cross-country for the outlet of Fontanillis Lake, which flows down a beautiful cascade into Upper Velma Lake. This is a gorgeous place to rest, lunch and take in the magnificent view:

Looking up the outlet of Fontanillis Lake
Looking up the cascade – outlet of Fontanillis Lake

Cascade and Pool - Fontanillis Lake Outlet
Small pool and view downstream of outlet to Fontanillis Lake

Summer in the Sierra Nevada = heaven on earth!