What makes a great cruise?

Management and leadership usually make the difference.

Captain Georgios Theodorou takes his daily morning walk.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, as it was known at the time, transferred two ships to its new subsidiary Azamara Cruises in 2008.  One of these was renamed the Journey.

In December 2009, we took what I believe was the Journey’s first transatlantic sailing from Barcelona to Miami.  I believe it was the first time because the cruise was incredibly inexpensive.  I’m not sure one could find a similar bargain today even as cruise lines struggle to rebuild their businesses.

We will never forget that trip simply because of the amazing crew.  We are lucky to have had other great cruises, but that trip was unique.

The Journey had 634 passengers with 405 crew, so we saw the same people frequently.

Almost all cruise-line crew are friendly, but on that trip, the friendliness seemed so genuine.

Although not a formal part of the schedule, two of the small entertainment cast volunteered to give those who wanted an “acting/improvisation” class.  Alie wasn’t bad; nothing shall be said about me.

Since it was a small ship without many professional entertainers, they had a crew talent show; we were surprised by some remarkable performances by non-professionals.

Crew talent show

The head chef came by our table, but we did not have a brief “how was everything; it was great” conversation.  She stayed a full fifteen minutes, and we had a good conversation about both the food and her career.

The Head Chef participates in a class.

When we boarded, Alie was experiencing a bad arthritis flare and could not walk; I pushed her everywhere in a wheelchair, but she told everyone she planned to be walking before we reached Miami.  She improved enough late in the cruise to be able to walk into the dining room.  When she did, the three men sharing the position of maitre d’ serenaded her.

Three “Journey” Maitre d’s

Several times we have sailed on a ship more than once and found the level of service and attention detail was not the same each time.  We decided the captain and hotel director, the person who manages the part of the crew that deals most often with customers, make the difference.

The Journey’s Captain Georgios Theodorou, was the most accessible we ever encountered.  He was often seen around the ship.  A former Greek Olympic athlete, he walked the upper deck track every morning; he was in shape and worked to stay that way even in middle age.

When we took at tour of the bridge, Captain Theodorou gave us a very interesting lecture on the history of navigation from reliance on stars to the sextant to modern global positioning equipment and electronic mapping.  He told us he served on an international committee which he hoped would give captains almost instantaneous notice of hazards at sea.  For example, if a container fell from a cargo ship [which evidently is not that uncommon], other ships in the area would see it marked on their electronic charts.

Later, he and the cruise director gave anyone who wanted to participate, an hour-long class in Greek dancing.  I can’t say I learned how to do it, but it was fun.  Even more fun was when the two gave a demonstration and the Captain did a flip and danced on his hands – his somewhat prominent belly then became a massive “chest.”

Click on photos to enlarge.

Dates of our travel: 4-18 December 2009

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With the wealthy in Peru

Detail from a Moche pyramid after the wall in front of it was removed.

“I like the wealthy; I like the way they live; I like the way I live when I am with them.”  That is a distortion of something said in a movie, but sometimes I identify with it.

Another phrase we use is “best excursion ever.”  Sister-in-law Michelle said that when we cautiously asked her about her tour after seeing people lined up demanding a refund.  She finds pleasure in everything, a wonderful characteristic.

But when Alie and I mention the best excursion ever, we know we are remembering one we took on a cruise that stopped in Trujillo, Peru.  It took us to a colorful Moche pyramid; to a museum in Lima that was well organized, had easily read descriptions and had a amazing display of gold artifacts; and finally to a beautiful hacienda to watch Peruvian Paso horses.

The Paso horses particularly stick in our minds and gives rise to this post’s title.

Latin America is still plagued with enormous extremes of wealth.  Our tour bus passed through large areas of sub-standard homes, yea even shanties, and then through a double set of high gates with armed guards into a spectacularly beautiful home and horse farm.

We sat in comfortable leather chairs while being served pisco sours as we observed the owners and staff riding Peruvian Paso horses.

“The Peruvian Paso or Peruvian Horse is a breed of light saddle horse known for its smooth ride. It is distinguished by a natural, four-beat, lateral gait called the paso llano.” Wikipedia

Although we know little about horses, it was wonderful just to watch these beautiful animals and their riders.  Some say the horse has the smoothest ride in the world.  We were offered the opportunity to ride ourselves.  Had I been able to ride alone, I would have done it, but they were just leading people around like a child on a pony-ride.  Looking back, perhaps I was a snob and should have ridden one.

After the demonstration, we were taken to another open-air pavilion and fed a fine meal with nice china and crystal.

Click on photos to enlarge.

It was the best excursion ever.

Date of our visit: 14 April 2007

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Postcards from San Gimignano, Italy

Tuscany

We are in a period of transition, first the restrictions of the pandemic and then the disruption of a move.  Our travel has been limited, and I took the opportunity to look back and relish many amazing experiences we had after we retired.

In 2006, we visited the more prominent tourists spots in Italy and the Greek Isles, not our normal off-the-beaten track travel.

Among our hundreds of photos from that trip are some from the walled Tuscan town of San Gimignano which sits, like many medieval Italian villages, on top of a hill.  An unusual number of 12th and 13th century towers still exist.  Those high towers were built both as fortifications for wealthy families and a way for those families to brag about just how wealthy and important they were.

Alie learned an amazing amount of Italian just for our trip and could pronounce the names.  The rest of us just called it “Saint Jimmy John.”

The town is so picturesque, my own images remind me of postcards.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Looking at the first photo in the set above, I decided it really was a postcard I must have scanned.

Date of our visit: 11 October 2006

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Visiting Cassis, not drinking it.

Cassis

I never gave Cassis much thought because I was only familiar with Crème de Cassis, a sweet, dark red liqueur made from black currants.  Then in 2006, we were on a cruise ship that offered an excursion from Marseille to Cassis, a small Mediterranean village and vacation destination.  We have often said, while they don’t give one much time anywhere, cruise ships have taken us many places we might not have otherwise visited.

The town surrounds a small harbor near the foot of  Cap Canaille, 394 meters high (1,293 feet), the highest maritime cliff in France.  The surrounding hillsides have many pretty vineyards producing white and rosé wines; Crème de Cassis is actually produced in Burgundy and gets its name from the French name for black currants, not the town.

Limestone quarrying was long a major industry both for the stone and to produce cement. The Cassis area also produced olive oil, dried cod, wine and clothing.  But gradually the economy shifted to tourism in the twentieth century.  People came to enjoy the village’s pretty streets, attend a summer music festival and/or walk to beaches in  sheltered inlets called calanques, steep-sided valleys.  The sign at beach in the village itself seemed less than welcoming to us, and we did not have the time to walk to a calanque, but our tour did take us to the top of Cap Canaille.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Date of our visit: 18 May 2006

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Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

We have traveled with a recreational vehicle and using motels and hotels.  There are advantages and disadvantages to both.  For us, one major advantage of an RV is that it can take you places where there are no motels.

In 2005, we spent several days in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  The nearest motel is in White’s City, New Mexico, about 35 miles away.  That is certainly doable, but you should plan to stay in the park at least a few days and a 70-mile round-trip commute might be challenging if the day includes hiking and exploring.

This was and is truly the “wild West” once inhabited by Mescalero Apaches, Kiowas and Comanches, explored by mountain men and trappers, crossed by immigrants looking to settle further west, and settled by a few hardy ranchers.  It was the sight of bloody conflicts between the African-American Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry, First Americans and outlaws for eight years between 1867 and 1875.

McKittrick Canyon’s two-thousand-foot-high walls protect an oasis in the desert.  It is thought to be named for Felix McKittrick who worked cattle in the area in the 1870s.  Many feel it is the most beautiful spot in Texas, especially in the fall.

The first permanent structure was built by two bachelor brothers, the Raders, at The Frijole Ranch in 1876.  Its thick stone walls were built near a spring.

Frijole Ranch, Guadalupe Mountians National Park

Because we had a four-wheel drive vehicle, we were allowed a key to the gate at the beginning of a seven and a half-mile drive to the Williams Ranch.  The drive in took us an hour.  The building, built in 1908 in a style more appropriate to the East, was not open.  But it proved a great place for an isolated picnic, we enjoyed being alone, and the scenery inspired mental images of pioneer life.

On your way to the Williams Ranch, you cross the route of the Butterfield Overland Mail.  This stage coach line only ran from 1859 to 1861, but it was the first transcontinental (St. Louis to San Francisco) mail and passenger route.  You can still see the track in the desert after all these years.  Earlier we had walked around the “Pinery Butterfield Stage Coach Station” ruins near our campground.  Our truck was slow by modern terms, but it was air-conditioned and comfortable as we imagined passengers on those stage coaches.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Dates of our visit: 22 April to 25 April, 2005

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An offbeat pause in London: Ohio not England

A Pelotonia particpant

After moving and spending a week unpacking our worldly goods, we decided to take a break.  Our nephew Doug was doing a one hundred-mile bicycle ride to support a Columbus, Ohio charity Pelotonia, which raises money for cancer research.

He has ridden before, but it has always been a massive event.  This year, the official event was cancelled because of COVID-19, but individuals have gone ahead and done things on their own.  It is amazing.  As I write this, 10665 participants have raised $6,226,324 already in 2020.  Altogether, $213,662,320 has been raised over the years.

Doug said he would be stopping for a break at the London Coffee Peddler in London, Ohio, and we agreed to meet him, just to cheer him on his way.

Established in 1811 as the Madison County seat, London grew in the 19th century because two railroads passed through it.  Today it has a population of around ten thousand.  It is not a town to go out of one’s way to see, but as always we had a good time.

The coffee shop was close to a railroad track, and a train passed by while we were waiting for Doug and his buddy to arrive.  It had four diesel engines and 177 cars – yes, we are the types who count passing train cars.  It was the longest we have seen.  Our previous record was 166 cars along the Mississippi river.

Soon Doug, Dave and Tony, a fellow they invited to join them because he was riding alone, arrived.

Mike, the proprietor, says it is a “coffee shop with a bicycle problem.”  There is a rack outside to park your bike, and a logo is a bike with a coffee cup on it.  Inside, charts of various local biking events and routes decorate the walls. Used bicycles for sale take up almost as much space as the tables, and Mike repairs bikes in a wide back hallway.  You had to move bikes out of the way to get to the restrooms, but the restrooms were spotless.

The bikers went on their way while we talked a little with Mike and lingered over our bagel and beverages, a mocha frappe for me and a mango and coconut “Italian soda” for Alie.  Neither of us had tasted an Italian soda before.  It was very refreshing.

We then wandered around the town a bit.  Main Street has some fine examples of Victorian architecture.  The highlights were the 1890 sandstone courthouse and an 1893 Methodist Church.

The church had what appeared to be large wonderful stained-glass windows, but it was not open and we took no pictures.

We did, however, walk around the courthouse looking at various monuments commemorating the dead of so many wars.  The cornerstone was interesting because it not only listed the names of the architect and various citizens, but the roles they played in the construction.

We had a good break.  Was it good because we have been cooped up too long by COVID restrictions?  I think we just have a good time wherever we are.

Click on photos to enlarge.  For more information on Pelotonia, click here.

Date of our visit: 8 Aug 20

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The Rose Parade: Pasadena, California

The J. Paul Getty Museum sits high above Los Angeles.

We purchased our first color television in 1972 and from that time forward became faithful watchers of the Rose Parade held each year in Pasadena, California on New Year’s Day.  Seeing the actual parade live soon became a bucket list item.  But taking a trip from one coast to the other just for a parade while working and during the holidays made it problematic.

Finally, we made the trip in December 2004.  We purchased a professionally guided trip, and it was worth the expense.  We did not worry about hotel accommodations or transfers to and from the airport.  But most of all, we did not have to worry about finding our way to the parade through heavy traffic, finding parking, finding our seats and finding our way back from the parade, again in heavy traffic.

We flew out on December 29 and spent the next day doing a little sightseeing and seeing some cousins.  On the 31st, we were up at five in the morning to see people working on the Rose Parade floats in the construction pavilions.  In the afternoon, a bus took us on a Hollywood sightseeing tour and to the J. Paul Getty Museum.  The building, was as interesting to me as the art inside.

We were up at four to go to the parade.  It had been raining the day before, but the weather was perfect and our seats in bleachers on a bridge were closer to the floats than those at other places on the street.   I saved 67 images but it would be too much to show them all; choosing among them was hard.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Later, I didn’t completely lose interest in watching the parade on TV, but it was never again the same.  Our tour was worth the time, energy and money, and I would love to go back, but that “bucket-list” item has been accomplished for now.

Dates of our visit: 29 Dec 04 to 2 Jan 05

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Xunantunich Mayan ruins: Belize

I first visited Belize City with friends in 1984 to charter a sailboat for a week of diving.  It was an extremely poor town with unpaved streets.  Cruise ships started visiting in 1998, and when Alie and I stopped twenty years after my initial visit, it was a very different place.  I wonder what it is like now after another sixteen years.  As a friend once said, “time flies, even when you aren’t having fun” to which I would add, even in a Covid-19 lock down.

I wonder if they have built a bridge since our 2004 visit.

We took a tour which drove us 74 miles almost to the Guatemalan border to see Xunantunich.  In Maya, Xunantunich means “Stone Woman” but that is a modern name.

We don’t know what the Mayans called the place when it was built in the seventh century C.E.  Researchers say it was not a particularly important site.  But when one looks at the ruins, the statement that it was not particularly important just emphasizes how extensive the Mayan culture was at its height. An estimated 200,000 people lived in the area.  Most of what is jungle now was farmland.  The ruins are in a center core one square miles [2.6 square kilometers] large.  It has six plazas surrounded by more than 26 temples and palaces.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Date of our visit: 18 May 2004

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New York City 2003

She spent many years in Philadelphia and Washington, but Alie still doesn’t enjoy large cities; we rarely visit them together.  In 2003, however, I was able to use a friend’s home to visit New York City for a week.  I didn’t record most of what I did or saw even though I took in museums, a Broadway show and visited friends. My file also has more images from Central Park than any other one place; perhaps Alie and I are well matched. 😊

Click on photos to enlarge.

Dates of my visit: 29 May to 5 June 2003

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Fort Davis and the McDonald Observatory, Texas

After visiting Big Bend National Park, we headed north and camped near Fort Davis.

Fort Davis, TX 1 May 01

Established in 1854, the fort was named for Secretary of War Jefferson Davis.  It was built to protect the San Antonio – Franklin [now El Paso] Road which was heavily traveled after the discovery of gold in California.

Although the fort had over four hundred enlisted men and officers, they were relatively ineffective protecting the 600-mile-long road against Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache raiders.  It was not until after the Civil War, that extensive scouting excursions aided by modern technology – the telegraph – began to limit the First American raids.

Federal troops left the fort with the onset of the Civil War, but it was reestablished in 1867.  Ironically, after a new law in 1866 allowed black Americans a permanent place in the United States armed forces, the fort, named for the man who became President of the Confederacy, was manned by black “Buffalo Soldiers.”

The fort did not have a wood stockade so often seen in movies.  The mere size of the force kept the enemy at bay.  A few restored buildings remain, and there was an interesting video describing the fort’s history.  But my clearest memory is of sitting on the porch of a building while they reproduced the sounds of an actual 1875 retreat parade [the assembly of the forces at the end of the day].  We heard the commands, the horses, the band and bugles, and the equipment passing by.  It was not hard to “see” it as we sat there.

A “star party” at the nearby McDonald Observatory gave visitors simple instruction in astronomy and let us look through four telescopes at the moon and several stars including a cluster of about a million that looked like a fuzzy dot.  I was interested that light from the moon took a little over a second to arrive; from the sun 8 minutes; and from Jupiter on that day about 45 minutes.

McDonald Observatory 2 May 01

We went back the second night to the Observatory for a very interesting tour which included the 107-inch telescope and the then new 433-inch Hobby Eberly telescope.  The 107-inch telescope was reduced in effectiveness to about 102 inches by seven divots produced by nine-millimeter bullets fired into it by a disgruntled employee who went gone on to do other things, probably as a postal worker.  They also told us about an excited astronomer who got the whole staff up at three in the morning because he thought he had evidence of extraterrestrials; he was informed a firefly was inside the telescope.

The 433-inch was built with stock parts including fans from Walmart, kit structures usually used to hold roofs, a kit dome by a company that built radar domes, a steel framework built by a company that built bridges, and it moved on industrial air bearings that worked like hover crafts.  At a cost of $13 million, it could cover eighty percent of the sky at about fifteen percent of the normal construction cost.

McDonald Observatory 2 May 01

Click on photos to enlarge.

Date of our visit: 1-2 May 01

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