Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Icy Expedition Cruise

Sea Spirit off Bear Island, Nuuk Fjord, Greenland. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Most cruise bookings are determined by itinerary, dates and cost. Itineraries change only under extraordinary circumstances.

The unexpected is ordinary on an expedition cruise.

Photo © by Judy Wells.
Expedition cruises go into areas of the world where exceptional is the norm. Crews do their best to stick to the advertised itinerary, but environmental conditions may make it impossible. 

Sea Spirit.
Especially on the first voyage of the season like the one I recently took to Western Greenland aboard Poseidon Expedition's M/V Sea Spirit.

Greenland caught my attention in part because it is the world's largest island, three times the size of France with a coastline longer that the earth's circumference yet only 56,000 people live there (56,001 if you count Santa Claus at the north Pole). It is also the Mother of Icebergs. One glacier we expected to visit calves 20 billion (!) tons of them a year.

Qoornoq "Bear Island," Sermitsiaq, Greenland. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Itinerary changes began our first full day. 

Qoornoq, Bear Island." Photo © by Judy Wells.
After a fascinating visit to Bear Island in the Nuuk Fjord, an abandoned fishing settlement where small icebergs, bergy bits and growlers were arrayed like nature's sculpture garden, our expedition team leader announced the afternoon excursion had been cancelled; the captain was heading out to sea.

Growler in the forefront, bergy bit behind. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Note: Bergy bit in height is greater than three feet but less than 16 feet above sea level; area is normally about 1,076-3,229 square feet
Growlers are smaller, about the size of a grand piano or a truck.  

Iceberg. Photo © by Judy Wells.
An iceberg's height must be greater than 16 feet above sea level, the thickness must be  98-164 feet and the ice must cover an area of at least 5,382 square feet.

Sea ice.
Winter had been exceptionally harsh and sea ice, frozen salt water, was still too thick to navigate safely. This set the pattern that would be repeated throughout the cruise. 

Posing under a whale jaw in Sisimiut, Greenland.
We visited a number of towns and settlements, snapped numerous photos of brightly colored houses and buildings against snow patched hills and interacted with their Inuit residents. 
 
Kangaamiut Harbor, Greenland. Photo © by Judy Wells.
 
Glacier at Kangerlussuatsiaq. Photo © by Judy Wells.
We ventured out in zodiacs to get close up looks at massive icebergs and glaciers. 

First time Arctic Circle crossers get a traditional dousing of polar water from King Neptune. Photo © by Judy Wells.
We crossed the Arctic Circle several times and were initiated.

We were in awe of the young expedition team members who scrambled to find alternative landing sites and entertainingly educated us on Greenland, its language, people, explorers, flora, fauna and environment. 

The crew went fishing and we dined on fresh halibut.
The chefs prepared wonderful food, waitstaff made sure we enjoyed each meal, stewards kept our cabins tidy, the ship provided attractive, comfortable quarters and public spaces and Greenland itself filled our memory cards with photogenic scenery.

We did not make it to that prolific glacier or very far into Disko Bay with its proliferation of wildlife.

We did, however, see huge bowhead whales that grow to 65 feet in length and weigh in at 100 tons compared to the humpback's 40 tons.

We were serenaded by the Nuuk Choir.
Nuuk Choir. Photo by Judy Wells.

We saw snow-covered mountains when the clouds lifted.

We experienced the midnight sun and days where there was little change in light from morning to morning. 

Nordre Stromfjord, Greenland. Photo © by Judy Wells.
We experienced a few firsts like landing on coasts no tourist had ever visited.

Our transport arrives. Sarqardlit, Greenland. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Most exciting of all, when we couldn't get the ship up a fjord, having our luggage air-lifted in a sling to the airport and taking zodiacs to an abandoned spot where a Sikorsky helicopter could land and give us a 25-minute ride there, too. 

In Poseidon's 18 years of polar expeditions in the Arctic and Antarctic, including an atomic-powered ice breaker to the North Pole, it had never happened to them either. 

Now that's a story to bring home with that bright red polar parka with almost as many patches as a NASCAR driver.

It's also the sign of a well-run cruise operation that knows its territory and has an excellent relationship with local sources. 

Expedition cruises aren't cheap - $6,000 and above per person double occupancy, for eight days in Western Greenland - but given the uncertainty of itineraries, the first cruise of the season is often discounted, especially as departure nears. There is usually an upcharge to kayak because of added staff and specialized equipment.

Sea Spirit has 114 en suite cabins and combines the re-enforced hull and equipment of an expedition ship with the ambiance of a boutique cruise ship. You borrow the water proof rubber boots but with Poseidon you get to take the polar parka home.


Reminder: It's cold at the ends of the Earth.


Sun Gazing

If you haven't selected your eclipse viewing spot yet, or if you have and don't know if you should drive closer to the path of totality, this from Bravo Jet Set
might help. Thanks to Escape to Blue Ridge for passing it along to me.

The closer you are to the zone of totality the longer and the clearer its effects. 

For example, in Blue Ridge, plan to catch the eclipse in totality at 2:35 p.m. for 35 seconds. The town is on the southern edge of the shadow, so totality only lasts for 35 seconds. 

However north and east of Blue Ridge in Fannin County, in McCaysville and Morganton, the totality lasts longer. In Morganton, the partial phase start will begin at 1:05:05 p.m., with the totality phase beginning at 2:34:45 p.m. and lasting one minute and 10 seconds. In McCaysville, the partial phase start will begin at 1:04:43 p.m., with the totality phase beginning at 2:34:08 p.m. and lasting one minute and 34 seconds.

Count on Blue Ridge and everywhere else along the path to have specials from sun-inspired food to sets of viewing glasses at accommodations.



Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Warsaw, Poland - Europe's Next Hot Spot?

Royal Palace in Warsaw's Royal Lazienska Park. Photo © Judy Wells.
A steady stream of Americans visits Poland; after all, Chicago has the second largest concentration of Poles, making it Poland's second largest city. Increasingly, the rest of America and the world are discovering this reasonably priced center of interesting history and sites, beautiful countrysides and welcoming hosts. After centuries of struggling to rule their own nation, the Poles have achieved their goal and want to show off.

LOT Dreamliner gets the inaugural traditional water spray welcome at Newark.
 LOT, the national and most aggressive airline in Europe, is making it easier with 27 new or reinstated routes for 2016. A direct flight between Los Angeles and Warsaw and Chicago and Krakow have recently been added. I was invited on the inaugural reinstated flight from Newark to Warsaw April 28 followed by a quick look at Warsaw and Krakow.

Here's my take on Warsaw.

The Holocaust

It is impossible to ignore the tragedy of Poland's Jewish populations. From the mid-13th century, Poland was known as the most enlightened and tolerant of European countries. Its rulers gave Jews all the rights of Christians. Scholars, musicians, merchants, writers and scientists flourished and so did the country. All changed with the 20th century and the rise anti-Semitism exacerbated by fascists and Nazis, who turned Jews, gypsies and homosexuals into scapegoats for all of society's ills.

There were more than 3.5 million  Jews, a large percentage of the world's Jewish population, living in Poland prior to World War II. More than 3 million of them were killed by war's end.

More Polish gentiles, 6,706, have been recognized by Israel for their efforts in saving Jews than in any other country.

Flowers fill the base of the Holocaust Memorial at POLIN Museum of the History of polish Jews.
Memorials to victims of the Holocaust dot the Polish cities and countryside, always with fresh flowers.

Warsaw

The current Old Town isn't so old. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Old Town after the war.
Most - 70 percent - of Poland's capital was destroyed through World War II and the Soviet takeover, but in many areas, primarily Old Town, you'd never know it. Even the Soviets recognized the importance of recreating the 13th century historic district.

Photo © by Judy Wells.
Tourists and natives flock there, picking up souvenirs, snacks and floral headbands, a popular adornment.

The "Palace's" redeeming feature is its 360-degree view deck.

The Soviets also made sure major boulevards were wide (easier crowd control) and gifted the city with the enormously large and ugly Palace of Culture and Science, tearing down what bombs hadn't already destroyed around it. Unfortunately, one of those wide roadways the Soviets built runs along the Vistula River, effectively separating it from the city.

Outside the Warsaw Rising Museum. Photo ©by Judy Wells.
Two museums that are musts for anyone with a taste for history.  The Warsaw Rising Museum effectively recreates the uprising of Polish Nationalists and Jewish ghetto residents Aug. 1, 1944, the heroic but doomed to fail struggle. From Nazi occupation, torture and systematic killing to post-war communist fears and oppression,  the museum honors all who have given their lives for a free Poland.

A recreated 17-18th century synagogue is exuberant from ceiling to floor.
POLIN,  Museum of the History of Polish Jews, entertainingly, joyously and gut-wrenchingly covers 1,000 years of Polish Jewish history.

The POLIN.
Named Europe's Museum of the Year in 2016, it is worth the better part of a day's visit. Design your own 12th century coin in Hebrew, see a book printed in 1644 in Krakow, listen to Klezmer music, follow the footsteps to dance a tango, watch a Jewish movie, wonder at the dazzling ceiling of a reconstructed 17-18th century synagogue and yes, feel the terror and horror of the Holocaust.

Poles set up their own altars when Soviets discouraged religion. Photo  by Judy Wells.
Warsaw is still getting its act together. Some areas are in disrepair, others will have ramshackle buildings  amid attractive period or contemporary-style ones. Tangles of ownership are yet to be untied.

Inside the Neon Museum. Photos © by Judy Wells.
As soon as ownership is established, urban renewal jumps in as it has in the artsy Praga, the Bohemian district, where you will find the Neon Museum and snazzy restaurants moving in near the old Milk Bars and the unrestored area where "The Pianist" was filmed.

Chopin is front and center in Royal Lazienka Park. Photos © by Judy Wells.
Parks, 40 percent of the city, add to its charm. Don't miss Royal Lazienka Park with the larger than life memorial of favorite son Fredyryk Chopin under a willow tree. If you can't make one of the Sunday afternoon concerts there at noon and four mid-May through September, look for the marble bench, one of several near significant spots for the musician. Sit, download an app and listed to his music.

Zoologist Richard Totola chats with Moshe Pirosh, who became friends with Richard, son of Zookeeper Dr. Dan and Augustina Zabinski, when as a 10-year-old he was hidden in the Zabinski's basement.
If you are a fan of The Zookeeper's Wife, definitely visit the tree-filled Warsaw Zoo and arrange a tour of the house where it all took place. Quite an experience.
The tunnel through which Jews were smuggled into the Zabinski's basement and out to, if lucky, freedom.

Food can be a highlight of your visit.

Elixer Dom Wodka, the vodka restaurant, combines imaginative cuisine with vodka pairings in a sleek setting.  

Der Elefant attracts families and singles with a wide array of choices - pirogie to tartare to creative burgers and plate-filling fish. There's even a supervised children"s room so the adults can linger.

Regent Warsaw Hotel Lobby. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Our group was hosted by the Regent Warsaw Hotel, a beautifully designed contemporary retreat near Royal Lazienka Park. Staff is helpful, breakfast excellent, rooms large and well-equipped with divinely comfortable pillows.

Hotel Bristol.
If you want something more historic, Hotel Bristol is your spot. The rooms are smaller but you will be sleeping in an Art Deco-style hotel once owned by composer, pianist and politician Ignacy Paderewski where heads of state and celebrities have stayed.

Wasn't there long enough to evaluate the night life, said to be hopping, but Warsaw is definitely a work in progress.

Incredible India at a Bargain

Twelve days, Delhi, Ranthambhore (tiger reserve) and Jaipur in 5-star hotels, 15 meals and all the rest offered by World Spree Travel.

Hard to resist at $1,599 to $1,899 per person double occupancy depending on departure date (Sept. 29 to Dec. 5, 2017), including air.

Details: Log onto www.worldspree.com  and  click  “Destinations”  and  then “India.”  World Spree’s toll-free telephone number is 1-866-652-5656.



Naples, the closer one

 The Inn on 5th and Club Level Suites have paired up for a two-night "Cuisine and Cruise" package in downtown in Naples, FL. Room for two nights, sunset sightseeing cruise for two and $100 credit for dinner at Ocean Prime.

Package price, $403 for deluxe room, $623 club level suite. Taxes and tips extra.
Go to www.InnonFifth.com.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Hawai/'i is worth the effort to get there

The beautiful shores of Hawai‘i. Photo © Judy Wells
Having grown up in Florida I never had the urge to go to Hawai'i because I already had beautiful beaches, blue water and tropical flowers in my own state.

Having just spent two weeks visiting four of the 132-island chain - Kaua'i, Hawaii the big island, Maui and O'ahu - boy, was I wrong. From the attitudes of the residents of this multi-cultural state to its endearing mountains and enticing aromas, Hawai'i should be on everyone's bucket list.

Here's a brief synopsis of those four islands.
AKilauea National Wildlife Refuge, Kilaue. Photo © Judy Wells.

Kaua'i, the Garden Island

 It comes by its sobriquet honestly. Five million years since its volcano went dormant has given Mother Nature time to cover lava with a flourish. You soon realize why Kaua'i is Hollywood's first choice for scenic jungle. Ever since "South Pacific," when Mitzi Gaynor washed that man out of her hair and Bali Hai called, the film industry has been a frequent visitor.

One branch of 'Opaeka'a Falls. Photo© Judy Wells.
The lush green slopes of mountains meet the blindingly blue ocean. Slices of golden sand beaches, jagged black rocks and a sliver of two- or one-lane roads separate the two forces. Fruit and flowers abound, the invasive African tulip and and albizia trees stalk the slopes adding fringed canopies over the roads and flame orange blossoms to the multiple shades of green. Stalks of ginger, hibiscus, plumaria blossoms, crotons, Ti plants and ferns add color and aroma.

The Alula, was thought to be extinct until a few examples were found among he cliffs on the Napali Coast cliffs. Botanists at Limahuli have propagated it and hope to reintroduce it back on the island some day. Just one reason the American Horticultural Society named it the best natural botanical garden in the U. S. A. Photo © Judy Wells.
Limahuli Gardens, just short of where the road ends along the north shore, is a must-see for gardeners and anyone curious about the early Hawai'ans or what all of these tropical plants are and how they were used.


Waimea Canyon. Photo © Judy Wells.
Waimea Canyon, Hawai'i's version of the Grand Canyon, cuts through Kaua's  midsection, and the island's west side, the Na Pali Coast, is accessible only by helicopter, boat or on foot.
"The Cathedral," Na Pali Coast, Kaua'i. Photo © Judy Wells.

Roosters and chickens probably outnumber the human residents on this least developed of the main islands.
Jungle fowl. Photo © Judy Wells.

Maui, the Valley Isle

Hana, Maui. Photos © Judy Wells.

Two volcanoes whose lava flows overlapped to form one island make for many valleys, thus the nickname.

Windsurfers at Kanaha (Kite) Beach Park, Maui. Photo © Judy Wells.
Humpback whales love its waters. Surfers love its swells; amateurs at Ho'okipa Beach, the pros at Pe'ahi (Jaws). Wind and kite surfers/boarders love its water and wind at Kanaha (Kite) Beach Park. Astronomers love the lack of light pollution atop Haleakala crater, the younger of the volcanoes.
Observatories at Haleakala State Park, Maui. Photo © by Judy Wells.

Daredevils like getting there.

"We don't have carnival rides on Maui," said our guide and driver. "Our number one thrill is Haleakala Highway."

Haleakala rim at sunset. Photo © Judy Wells.
The journey up 10,000 feet to Haleakala National Park is a curvy challenging one with several stops to adjust to altitude. At the top you realize how diverse Maui's climate can be. Sunset, sunrise and moonless nights are the most popular and dramatic times to visit and whenever, you are likely to encounter very cold temperatures, sometimes even snow, and a strong wind that chills to the bone. The observatories are visible but off limits.

Black sand beach at Wai'anapanapa State Park, road to Hana, Maui. Photo © Judy Wells.
Another challenge to reach is the sleepy burg of Hana. The road to Hana confronts visitors with 56 one-lane bridges, 617 curves, waterfalls, black sand beaches, fern and bamboo forests and a halfway stop for ice cream or shave ice.




Hawai'i, the Orchid Island, the Big Island


Wild orchids growing from lava fields and its size - larger than the other islands combined - account for its identifiers.

Hilo


Kilauae lava ash field, caldera in the background. Photo © Judy Wells.
I started in Hilo, the dry side of the island. This is where you come to see and experience active volcanoes complete with steaming calderas and lava lakes, boiling steam vents, lava fields and tubes, flowing lava and vog, noxious fumes from lava that can cover the slopes like fog and send visitors to emergency stations.

A group walking on the lava ash field seen in photo above. Photo © Judy Wells.
And yes, you can get up close to the hot stuff at Volcanoes National Park.

Kilauea's crater. Photo © Judy Wells.
 Kilauea, the "spewing" in Hawai'an, is the most active, erupting lava daily since 1983 and adding 36 acres a year to the Big Isle. Moana Kea is the snow mountain and Moana Loa, long mountain, is not only so heavy it has made a dent in the ocean floor, it is overdue to blow, say the natives. Don't be surprised if the Jimmy Buffett song, "Where ya gonna go when the volcano blow," keeps popping into your head.

Didn't see any rainbows at Rainbow Falls but it was worth a stop.

At 1:04 a.m. 1946, a tsunami from an earthquake in Alaska hit the old town of Hilo, destroying much of it. Since then the town has been rebuilt but farther up the mountain.

Kailua-Kona

Hawai'i coast at night where live lava spewing from Kilauea can be seen hitting the ocean. Pele, goddess of volcanoes, decided to obscure the mountainside flow with vog, heavy steam, but we did see the explosive meeting of two elements.
Kailua Kona is almost directly across the Big Island on the leeward (sunny and dry) side. You learn this is the site of the annual Ironman World Championship as soon as you land at the pier because this is where it begins and ends.

A combination land and sea tour is the best way to appreciate this piece of paradise where King Kamehameha the Great ruled before uniting the islands

There is another volcano here, Hualalai. It shakes from time to time but hasn't erupted since 1801. However, it has been on a 200-year cycle.


When you reach 800 to 2,000 feet above sea level,  you have reached coffee, Kona coffee, territory, grown only here. Prepare to learn about coffee culture and to sample dozens of varieties. Never much of a coffee drinker, I went along but wouldn't you know, actually found one I truly liked, pea bean, at $50 a pound. Think I'll stick to tea. 

The Painted Church. Photo © Judy Wells
British explorer Capt. James Cook arrived here in 1778, missionaries followed in the 1800s. Belgian priest Jean (John) Berchmans Velghe had yet to learn the Hawai'ian language so when he built a church painted its interior to teach the natives through pictures.

The result is charming as well as a remarkable piece of work. Officially the St. Benedict Roman Catholic Church, everyone calls it the Painted Church.

Two ki'i warn visitors of great manu here. Photo © Judy Wells.
Poohonau o Honaunau National Historic Park is a great spot to learn about pre-Cook Hawai'ian culture. In addition to housing the bones of 23 chiefs, including King Kamehamea's great-grandfather, which gave it manu, great spiritual power, this was pu'uhonua, a place of refuge.

ack e
Kapu was the spiritual law of the land and death followed for anyone who broke it. Unless lawbreaker could escape on foot, swim to a place of refuge, cross the sharp volcanic rocks and reach land, he or she could be absolved by a priest.

Snorkel boats surround the monument to Capt. James Cook's landing. Photo © Judy Wells.
By sea, everyone looks for whales, sea turtles and spinner dolphins. Along the way, tour boats head to Lealakekua Bay. It's easy to spot thanks to a white pillar, memorial to Captain Cook's landing place. Snorkelers head here, too, as this marine reserve is the best place to commune with fish. So good that Disney researchers came here for the film Finding Nemo. 


Speaking of fish, those beautiful, golden sand beaches around Kona? Parrotfish poop. Yup. The colorful finned ones eat algae it finds on chunks of coral, grinds it in it teeth, digests it and voila! sand. Isn't travel educational?

Madam Pele is watching you. Photo © Judy Wells.
Back en route you will pass by Madame Pele's Eyes. They do seem to be watching the water so that no one removes any of her lava from the island. Those who do are cursed. More than one resident tells of post offices with a pile of souvenir lava rocks that have been mailed back by repentant tourists.

O'ahu, the Gathering Place


Honolulu and Diamond Head. Photo © Judy Wells.
No question about that nickname. Honolulu comes as a shock. Skyscrapers, wide paved streets, traffic lights, expressways, traffic, lots of people.  It is the state capital, the business capital, a city rather than the towns and villages we've been in for the past two weeks.

Time is short here. Arrive at 7 a.m., fly out at 7 p.m. A tour of Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Monument followed by a quick city tour will have to suffice.

The U.S. Arizona Monument. Photo © Judy Wells.
The Pearl Harbor complex is impressive and the itinerary is set. Tickets are timed for entrance to a film on the Japanese attack on the base from which you exit to a boat to the memorial over the sunken Arizona. It is impressive and incredibly moving.

 Bowfin. Photo © Judy Wells.
Before or after, take advantage of the museums, equally compelling thanks to the stories of those who lived through the war there. You can take the submarine tour of the Bowfin,  the aviation museum tour or of the U.S. Missouri. read the memorials and listen to the high school bands that play daily.  Most of all, pay tribute and give thanks for the men and women who sacrificed their lives.

'Iolani Palace. Photo © Judy Wells.
We paused to take pictures of the royal 'Iolani Palace and of King Kamehameha's statue in front of Alioli Hai Judicial Museum .

King Kamehameha. Photo © Judy Wells.
Then it was out for a look at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in the Punchbowl Crater,  high above the city.
National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.


We soon realized that like the rest of Hawai'i the beauty of nature is not far away as the driver took us up to Nuuanu Pali lookout.

Standing at the railing, gazing out at the Koolau cliffs and lush windward coast left an irresistible desire to return.
Windward Coast, O'ahu. Photo © Judy Wells.

 As we learned on Kauai, Makana,or Bali Hai as South Pacific dubbed it, will call you.