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Saturday, April 15, 2017

Abu Dhabi, Day 1

Spent a low-key first day in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, mostly recovering from jet lag, becoming acclimated to the heat, learning our way around the Corniche district of the city that we are staying for three days, and learning what is available to eat and drink! Among other things, this Persian Gulf city is noted for its modern and dramatic architecture, a glimpse of which can be seen from our hotel, the Majlis Grand Mecure Residence. 

Finding un-exotic things to eat and drink would, unfortunately, be about the easiest thing to do here, as this city is rife with American chain restaurants like KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Wendy's, and even Denny's! These sorts of places might be popular with ex-pats living or working here, Westerners visiting from places in the region without such amenities (e.g., most of Africa), or even non-Americans, but they are the last things were are interested in when traveling abroad. Not much was open during the day when we wanted to get lunch, so we walked over the the Abu Dhabi Mall and found a shawarma place in the food court and had a decent meal there. 

Then, in the evening, we walked around for about an hour before deciding on a place called Lazeez, one of the many Indian restaurants that can be found in the city and which cater to the large South Asian workforce living here. 

At Lazeez we had what seemed like some very authentic lamb biryani, and some sort of grilled chicken skewers that came on their own little smoking charcoal brazier, along with traditional sides and sauces. 

It is, in any event, very hot during the day and, consequently, quiet on the streets throughout the afternoon, with very few people walking or even driving around, giving the city almost the demeanor of a ghost town. Once sundown hits, however, people come out in droves to sit outside, lick soccer balls, and go shopping, restaurants open up, and the streets are crowded with vehicles, all until about 11 p.m., when activity begins to taper off and then pretty much ends by midnight. 

A few random perceptions and bits of trivia follow: 

* "Gents" is the term of choice used to refer to men in signage (e.g., on restroom doors, hotel prayer rooms). 

* Many toilets have two, side-by-side buttons for flushing them, sometimes in slightly different sizes, but both of which appear to function identically. I have no idea why. 

* Alcohol cannot readily be found, as U.A.E. is a Muslim nation, but is available at some places, primarily at hotel restaurants and bars. Some non-hotel restaurants do make big play of their "mocktails," but for those of us in the mood for an actual drink the "mock" part of that word feels all to personal. 

* "Cafeteria" is a word used in the names of many of the more casual eating establishments in the city. 

* Many non-hotel restaurants have separate sections for men, unaccompanied women, families, and couples (e.g., in the Indian restaurant we ate at men were seated on the ground floor, women and children were on the second floor, and we were seated on the second floor in a private booth separated from the rest of the area by a curtain). 

Abu Dhabi is pretty green for a desert city, and has more than 2,000 parks, gardens, and green spaces of various sorts! 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Six Destination-Oriented Special-Interest Lectures (Celebrity Millennium)

My most recent cruise, a 12-day voyage on Celebrity Millennium from Hong Kong to Shanghai, China, via Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea, marked the 10-year anniversary of my serving aboard ships as a lecturer. Over the past decade I have worked variously as a destination speaker, a special interest speaker, and, most recently as a destination-oriented special-interest speaker, giving talks tying in with the cruise itinerary and intended to help enhance the trip for attendees. 

On this one I gave a series of six thematic presentations, on an "Incident in the Gulf of Tonkin," "A Maritime History of the Philippines," "Exploring the Dragon's Triangle," "Taiwan:Cradle of the Pacific," "The Pueblo Crisis," and "The Korean War at Sea," all of which appear here. Suffice it to say that I am grateful to the cruise staff for shooting these terrific videos of my presentations, which aired on the ship's closed-circuit television network after I gave them in the theater, and to graciously providing copies of them to me. Very much hope you enjoy them! And please subscribe to my YouTube channel to keep track of everything I post there.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

My Cruise History

Now that I am back from my most recent cruise, from Hong Kong to Shanghai, and getting ready for a big and particularly exotic one I will be doing in spring 2017, from Abu Dhabi to Rome, I wanted to update my cruise history! Some of the following entries might be missing ports or even inadvertently had incorrect ones added that we are remembering from other cruises, and not all sea days are reflected, but we are confident that it is pretty accurate overall … (shown here is La Fortaleza, the historic governor's mansion in San Juan, Puerto Rico, decorated for the 2016 holiday season).

August 1998: Royal Caribbean, Majesty of the Seas, seven day, western Caribbean (Fort Lauderdale/Miami; Labadie, Haiti; Kingston or Montego Bay, Jamaica; Georgetown, Grand Cayman; Cozumel, Mexico; private island, Bahamas; Fort Lauderdale/Miami). This was pretty typical of a "starter cruise" in terms of length, line, and itinerary.

January 2002: Royal Caribbean, Radiance of the Seas, seven day, southern Caribbean (San Juan, Puerto Rico; Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; St. John’s, Antigua; Phillipsburg, St. Maarten; Bridgetown, Barbados; Castries, St. Lucia; San Juan, Puerto Rico).

December 2002: Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL), Norway, seven day, eastern Caribbean Miami, Florida; Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; Phillipsburg, St. Maarten; maybe other ports … private island, Bahamas; Miami, Florida). My parents, Mike and Merrilea Varhola, accompanied us on this cruise. Launched as SS France in 1962, Norway was reminiscent of a classic ocean liner and, of all the ships I have been on, was my favorite. Sadly, she was badly damaged by a boiler explosion in 2003 and was eventually dismantled at an Indian scrapyard in 2008.

December 2004-January 2005: NCL, Norwegian Wind, 13 day, Hawaii & Kiribati (Oahu; Hilo or Kona Hawaii/Big Island; two ports in Maui; Kuai; two sea days directly south; Fanning Island, Kiribati; two sea days directly north; Hilo or Kona Hawaii/Big Island; Oahu).

September-October 2006: NCL, Norwegian Jewel, 13 day, Aegean, Adriatic, and eastern Mediterranean (Athens, Greece; Corfu, Greece; Olympia, Greece; Crete, Greece; Santorini, Greece; sea day; Alexandria, Egypt two days; Mykonos, Greece; sea day; Kuzadasi, Turkey; Istanbul, Turkey. Best itinerary ever! We did an excursion in every port except Corfu, including an overnight trip to Cairo while we were in Egypt. We also spent one night in Athens before the cruise and three nights in Istanbul at the end of it.

January 2007: Princess, Regal Princess, 10 day, Panama Canal (Acapulco, Mexico, to San Juan, Puerto Rico). This was the first cruise on which I served as the ship’s lecturer! This image is from one of the man-made lakes that are part of the Panama Canal and which our ship crossed during the cruise.

May 2007: Royal Caribbean, Empress of the Seas, seven day, Bermuda (Norfolk, Virginia, roundtrip). While we had fun and loved Bermuda, this was in many ways our least enjoyable cruise for a number of reasons, one being that we had an inside cabin that was also the smallest we have ever had, the other being the high proportion of trashy locals who had clearly purchased cheap last-minute passage on the ship.

c. October 2007: Azamara, Journey, seven day Bermuda, (roundtrip from Cape Liberty, New Jersey).

c. November 2007: Azamara, Journey, seven day, Bermuda (roundtrip from Cape Liberty, New Jersey). This one I did on my own after the cruise line asked me to stay on board and lecture for an additional week and Diane had to return to work! I spent a lot of the five days in Bermuda exploring the interior of the island, the highlight of which was a nine-mile hike along with historic Rail Trail (part of which, near one of the historic lighthouses toward the east end of the island, appears in this photo).

January 2008: Princess, Coral Princess, 10 day (?), Panama Canal (roundtrip from Fort Lauderdale). My details on this one are a little fuzzy because I took my daughter, Hayley, with me instead of my wife, who serves as my institutional memory. We took three excursions, including a horseback ride in the Costa Rican rainforest, a canoe trip to a native village in Panama, and a bus trip to a number of historic sites in Kingston, Jamaica (an image from the first of those excursions, of Hayley on her Costa Rican forest stallion, appears here).

September 2008: NCL, Norwegian Pearl (?), six day, New England & Canada (roundtrip from New York City/Manhattan). This one was different than the norm in that it took us north instead of south! We did not take any excursions but did independently explore all our ports of call, to include visits to a number of museums and at least one fort.

October-November 2008: Celebrity, Constellation, 11 day, southern Caribbean (Cape Liberty, New Jersey, to Fort Lauderdale, Florida).

November 20-December 4, 2010: Celebrity, Constellation, 14 day, southern Caribbean. This was our longest cruise to date and included three ports of call we had not yet visited, including Bonaire, Grenada, and Curacao (from which this picture was taken). No excursions but we are wishing we had taken one to a beach at some point early in the cruise.

*December 2012: Royal Caribbean Navigator of the Seas, seven days (roundtrip from New Orleans via Jamaica; Grand Cayman; Cozumel, Mexico). *Diane did this one with our daughters Lindsey and Hayley.

c. April-May, 2013: Celebrity Eclipse, c. 14 days (trans-Atlantic from Fort Lauderdale to Southampton, England, via San Juan, Puerto Rico and Philipsburg, Dutch St. Martin). This cruise sailed right past the Azores but did not make a port of call at them!

September-October, 2013: Royal Caribbean, Radiance of the Seas (trans-Pacific from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Sydney, Australia, via Bora Bora; Tahiti; Moorea; Wellington, New Zealand; and Picton, New Zealand).

*March 31-April 10, 2015: Royal Caribbean, Grandeur of the Seas (roundtrip from Baltimore via Labadie, Haiti; Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; Philipsburg, St. Martin; San Juan, Puerto Rico). *Diane did this one with our daughters Lindsey and Hayley. 

January 23-30, 2016: Norwegian Jade, seven day, western Caribbean (roundtrip from port of Houston via Belize, Roatan; Cozumel, Mexico). This is the only cruise since 2006 that we simply paid for and for which I did not serve as a special interest or destination speaker! Of all the cruises we have been on, this one had the lowest standards for passenger conduct and did not enforce its own dress codes, allowing people into the formal dining room wearing camouflage hunting gear, swimwear, baseball caps, and the like. We had a good time but would have enjoyed it a lot more if we had not had to share so much of it with a ship half-filled with weird hillbillies.

November 26-December 3, 2016: Celebrity Reflection, seven day, eastern Caribbean (roundtrip from Miami via San Juan, Puerto Rico; Philipsburg, Dutch Saint Martin; and Basseterre, St. Kitts, Federation of Kitts & Nevis). Served as destination speaker and gave presentations on "A History of St. Martin," "Exploring the Bermuda Triangle," and "Ghosthunting Florida." Shown here is Hotel El Convento, where we reprised our tradition of drinking a pitcher of its great sangria.

December 4-December 11, 2016: Celebrity Silhouette, seven day, eastern Caribbean (roundtrip from Fort Lauderdale via San Juan, Puerto Rico; Philipsburg, Dutch Saint Martin; and Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands). Served as destination speaker and gave presentations on "Blockade Running During the U.S. Civil War," "A History of St. Martin," "Exploring the Bermuda Triangle," and "Ghosthunting Florida."

January 14-26, 2017: Celebrity Millennium, 12 day, East Asia (Hong Kong to Shanghai, China, via Chan May, Vietnam; Manila, Philippines; Keelung, Taiwan; and Busan, South Korea). Served as destination-oriented special-interest speaker and gave presentations on "Incident in the Gulf of Tonkin," "A Maritime History of the Philippines," "Exploring the Dragon's Triangle," "Taiwan:Cradle of the Pacific," "The Pueblo Crisis," and "The Korean War at Sea." Shown here is an artistic display of Chinese lanterns at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan, which we visited during a city tour excursion.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Busan, South Korea (Celebrity Millennium)

Today we arrived in a wintry, near-freezing Busan, South Korea, at noon and after clearing immigration headed out on an excursion to several historic sites around the city. 

Our first stop was the beautiful 14th century Haedong Yongkung Temple, a sprawling Buddhist worship complex situated on a rocky coastline, where we saw preparations for celebration of the lunar new year, called Seollal by Koreans (at bottom is a larger-than-life golden idol of the Buddha). 

We then went on to the APEC House, a site used for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and other events, and then the colorful Busan international and fish markets (a display from the latter appears at right). 

We had a traditional Korean meal, one of the best of the trip, at a restaurant at the huge Aqua Mall and then spent time browsing local consumer goods before returning to the ship and sailing out around 10:30 p.m. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Keelung and Taipei, Taiwan (Celebrity Millennium)

Today we arrived at the port of Keelung in Taiwan and boarded a bus for the capital city of Taipei, located about half an hour away. 

There we visited several key sites, including the fantastic National Palace Museum, home to more than 600,000 artifacts; the Martyr’s Shrine war memorial, where we saw a changing-of-the-guards (a detail of which appears below); and the memorial hall dedicated to Chiang Kai-Shek, who ruled the nationalist Republic of China from 1928 to 1975 (an entrance to which can be seen at right). 

We had an excellent lunch at the Grand Hotel, built during the 1960s largely to accommodate American troops on R&R from duty in Vietnam. 

Throughout the city we saw people readying themselves for the Chinese New Year, a key holiday in Taiwan, and I purchased a small, hand-carved wooden rooster as a memento of my trip. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Manila, Philippines (Celebrity Millennium)

Second day in the Philippines we drove through the sprawl of Metro Manila and then a few hours out into the countryside to Hidden Valley Springs, a rain forest preserve at the base of a dormant volcano from which flow several mineral springs. 

We hiked out to the waterfall there (which appears at right), bathed in the warmest of the pools, and had a Filipino lunch before riding back to the port and departing that evening. 

A glimpse of Metro Manila, about half of which consists of slums, can be seen here. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Manila, Philippines (Celebrity Millennium)

Today, ahead of a midday arrival in Manila, I gave my third presentation, on “A Maritime History of the Philippines.”

Our first day in Manila we visited the walled city of Intramuros, to include Spanish colonial-era Fort Santiago (a glimpse of which appears here); St. Agustin Church, one of only seven churches in the historic district to survive World War II; and then finally the underwhelming Mall of Asia, where we killed time and waited to go back to the ship. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Chan May and Hue, Vietnam (Celebrity Millennium)

Today we arrived at the little Vietnamese industrial port of Chan May, the country’s main export point for sandlewood chips. 

In that it was pretty isolated and uninteresting, we were glad that we had signed up for an excursion, to the old imperial city of Huế, nearly a two-hour drive away (during which we got some great views of the Vietnamese countryside, including the rice paddy that appears below). 

There we visited the mausoleum of Emperor Tự Đức, who ruled from 1847-1883; the Heavenly Lady Pagoda and monastery, home of monk Thích Quảng Đức, who famously set himself on fire during the Vietnam War; and the Imperial Citadel, which was a battleground for U.S. and North Vietnamese forces in 1968 during the brutal Tết Offensive (one of the gateways within the citadel can be seen at right). 

Tết, in fact, is the name for the New Year in Vietnam, and we saw more public preparations for the holiday here than anywhere else during our trip.