Posted in Travel

The Florida Keys

 

I cannot count the number of times that I have thought about going to visit the Florida Keys in the past.  I always ended up not going as I was not sure what there was to do there and I did not look forward to the drive from Miami all the way to Key West.  These are all the wrong reasons for not going somewhere!

That all changed in 2019 as Bee and I talked about it more and more and I discovered that there were a lot of good reasons for going there.  We did so in January 2020.  We flew to Miami and rented a car from there.  Our first stop was at a Cuban Restaurant in Little Havana where we had an excellent lunch.  After lunch, we drove onto Route 1 and left the mainland USA.

Our first stop for the night was at Marathon Key where we stayed at the Hampton Inn (we are frequent users of Hilton chain hotels as they always treat us really well).  That evening, we had an excellent meal at The Island Fish Company, across the street from the hotel.

We had all day to go from Marathon Key to Key West so we decided to do some sightseeing on the way and stopped at the Curry Hammock State Park where we did a coastal trail on the North side of the Key.  Nice trail but very much in lush greenery all the way and therefore not much to photograph.  Here is an example of the typical trail we followed.

It was a very pleasant walk that only took us about 1 hour and we seemed to be the only people on the trail.

We arrived early at Key West and checked into our B&B called the Old Town Manor (details at the bottom of the post) – I would certainly recommend this B&B as it is beautiful, with very nice rooms and a great location.

The first order of business was to finalize our plans for the next day, when we were scheduled to take the Yankee Freedom to the Dry Tortugas.  This is an all day trip to the very last key, one that cannot be reached by car but only air and boat – we chose the boat.

And it is coming back from the Ferry Docks that we really lucked out!  In the main marina, I saw this boat which I thought was just gorgeous!  This poor picture does not do it justice.

As we got closer, we noticed that it was available for local cruises – a bit more discussion and we found out that the Sunset Cruise will be leaving in 1/2 hour with only 15 passengers on board.  We quickly signed up and almost ran to the B&B to get warmer clothes.

It turns out that this is “America 2.0” a replica of the yacht “America” which beat the Brits around the isle of Wight to win the very first “America’s Cup” on 22 August 1851.  It is not a perfect replica as it is made in modern materials but made to look like the original yacht.

They asked for volunteers to help raise the sails – no modern conveniences, such as electric winches here – it is all done with arm, and leg muscles.  I was only tailing, and trying to help a bit the person actually lifting the sail…

Here she is, almost fully rigged.  The wind was just perfect for a good sail and she sailed very well.

I even got to steer her!  Am I happy or what!

The two photos above with me in them are courtesy of Bee… Continue reading “The Florida Keys”

Posted in Culture, Travel

Big Bend NP – Texas

In a short lull in the Covid19 Pandemic, we decided to go to Big Bend National Park.

We had actually booked the Chisos Mountain Lodge, in the middle of the park, for the first week in June six months earlier as this was a trip we really wanted to do.  However, the lodge was still closed.  We read that the Park would reopen on June 1, 2020 for day-use only so we made preparations and decided to drive there with a short stop in San Antonio on the way.

We rented a house in the Terlingua Ranch district so that we would have cooking facilities and be more independent; we also brought essentially all of own food and drinks as we read that not much was available locally.  We arrived to a wonderful house on Jun 1 around 4PM and settled in.

On 2 June, we drove into the park early in the morning – we quickly found out that this was a good strategy: (1) there was no one to collect our money at the entrance gate and (2) we were ahead of whatever crowd would come in.

One warning – if you do not like photos of wide-open panoramas, you might as well stop right here!  Big Bend is nothing if not wide open country with many different types of views, but always expansive.

As we drove into the park heading for the Santa Elena Canyon I could not resist this shot, just to prove the point above…

I did not drive very fast, we we were able to stop for the odd wild-life on the side of the road – this one was difficult to miss…

As I was photographing, he decided to fly away.

This last one is probably the best … we were so close, I hardly needed to crop this photo to make it look better.

Even early morning (about 9:30) it was already hot as we prepared to explore the Santa Elena Canyon.

Here is the view as we approached the canyon.  The Rio Grande makes the border between Texas (USA) and Mexico.  The left side of the canyon is in Mexico.

Continue reading “Big Bend NP – Texas”

Posted in Travel

Alaska – Part 4

We are completing our wonderful trip after such a wonderful evening.

As we are heading towards Petersburg we run into more wales.

It is impossible to tire of the view of the tail from a diving whale in such scenery – maybe you are tired of these photos, so I will try to be even more creative for this last blog.  We did have a lot to see in the last two days.

We continued to stay away from the larger cruise ships. At a distance, they are not too bad…

Cruising along Storm Islands that lies between Stephens Passage and Frederick Sound.  It has an interesting light house called the Five Finger Light House, unfortunately no longer in use.  It was first lit on a very auspicious date – spring equinox of 1902, the second lighthouse to be lit in Alaska.

The lighthouse appears to be a magnet for breaching whales.  We sat there for quite some time just watching one whale and then another doing this several times in a row.  Not a full breach, but close to 50% of the whale comes out of the water in the sequence above. Continue reading “Alaska – Part 4”

Posted in Culture, Travel

Iowa in August

Yes, we went to Iowa in August 2019.  There was a very good reason for that: Bee had to drive a large farm tractor.

We also went to the Iowa State Fair and visited Madison County.  We had a really nice trip.

The tractor deal was a promise made by a friend many years before that and she did come through – her brother provided the tractor and the instructions.

Bee was concentrating hard for the maneuver to take the tractor out of the hangar.  It would not ave been good to crash right away.

It was not a very long ride, just enough to get a feel of the “beast” and say “I did it!”  We were fascinated by the switch with a hare and a tortoise – allowed to select between high and low speed.

While we were there, I drove it too.  It was by far the largest tractor I ever drove.  The oldest one must have been the Porsche I drove in the 70’s in Belgium – it was over 30 years old at the time.

The State Fair was quite an occasion.  Neither of us ad ever been to one and so it was an opportunity to see a side of American Culture that few visitors see; even a lot of Americans who live in cities have never been to a state fair.  We saw lots of farm animals, a wagon driving competition, explored some very large tractors, had chicken on a stick and tasted the six wines who had won the “Best” awards that year.  At the end of the day, we saw a concert by “Foreigner” (great – but I did not care at all for the opening act!)

This was a new experience for me: the first time I did not finish the glasses that were offered in a wine tasting.  Actually I finished one out of the six that was drinkable – the other five were way, way too sweet for my taste.  Later on during this trip, we went to one of the wineries in Madison County (The Covered Bridge Winery) and found very nice wine.  We started talking with the Winemaker and he reminded me that in judging wine, one has to differentiate between wine that one likes, and wine that is well made.  The wines that win the competition are very well made, but maybe not in a way that I like; that is a good point that I had not thought about before.  From that point on, I am now saying “I do not like that wine” rather than “that is not a good wine”.  Apparently people in Iowa prefer sweeter wines and most winemakers will make a sweeter wine to please the local palate – surprisingly enough, they do not make wine to please just me and I have to accept that.

After two days in the Des Moines area, we decided to move to Winterset, in the middle of Madison County where we had booked at the beautiful Heavenly Habitat Bed and Breakfast.  More on that at the bottom of this post.  On the way, we stopped at the Living History Farms – a large park where life in Iowa 100-150 years ago has been recreated with some original buildings.  We had a very interesting visit starting with the farms which are only reachable by taking local transport – a cart pulled by a tractor.

We went for a walk in the fields and saw this fence overgrown with wild flowers – very simple way to separate fields if you do not need barbed wire to keep animals in or out.

Not far from the fence we saw this beautiful bird who did not seem to mind our being there – or maybe he was waiting for us to leave so he could eat the bug in peace.  He is very discreet, keeping an eye on the bug, but looking distracted while doing so.

Continue reading “Iowa in August”

Posted in , Travel

Alaska – Part 3

Our continuing saga on a small ship in a large state…

It is still day 4 of our adventure and we have now moved all the way to the Northern end of the Seymour Canal, not far from where we were on Day 1. We are going to visit Park Creek, a bear sanctuary, not to rehabilitate them, but just an area that provides safety for them.  The rangers have interacted with the local bear population for many years, and quite a few bears have their own name; the bears are left alone as much as possible, but are used to human presence and do not see it as a threat.  We took the dinghy to go ashore and just as we were talking to one of the rangers, this is what we saw coming towards us.  That is when I remembered I forgot my bells!

Mama Bear with two cubs, slowly coming along the shore to where we were.  The rangers did not panic, so I figured we were safe.  They kept on coming very close to us, but then followed the shore to our right, without taking a second look at us.  We will encounter her again.

The cubs just followed Mommy.

Our valiant vessel parked in the sound waiting for us.  She is such a beauty, I have to show more pictures.

After a very short walk, we came to a river where the salmon are running.  Mama bear is now fishing for herself after she provided fish for her two cubs.

She jumped on a salmon and immediately started to eat. Continue reading “Alaska – Part 3”

Posted in , Travel

Alaska – Part 2

Continuing where we left off the first episode at the end of Day 2 we arrived at Ford’s Terror where we were not alone.  As we approached our anchorage for the evening, another boat was already there – crowded!

We went for another walk near narrows on a rising tide.  We had no problems landing from the dingy on a pebble beach – after our walk, and after the tide rose a bit more, we had more problems getting back onto the dingy as there was no beach left.

The walk was very nice – and we did not see bears, maybe because Kristin kept yelling “Hey Bear” – I have already shown you a picture of Kristin fully equipped for our defense, but she took no chances.

We were walking through beautiful scenery – this is a view of Ford’s Terror from land.

Time for portraits!  Behind is the narrow inlet that leads to the rest of the bay.  With the rising tide, the water was violently flowing making a roar, which you cannot really see or hear on this picture.

More spectacular views along the way

I liked this little pond reflecting the mountains and trees.

At the end of the walk, as we were wainting for the dingy to take us back to Catalyst, we saw a few curious harbor seals

Later in the evening, when the tide reached its highest point, we took a dingy ride around the whole bay and into West Arm Anchorage. Unfortunately it was raining the whole time so there are no pictures of that. Continue reading “Alaska – Part 2”

Posted in Travel

Alaska – Part 1

For a long time, I have wanted to go to Alaska and it seemed to me that a cruise would give me a good chance to see some of it.  However, the idea of sharing cramped quarters with 1000-4000 other guests did not thrill me nor Bee.  When we moved back to Houston, an Alaskan Cruise was one of our priorities which became even higher when it became clear that my Dad was interested in coming to visit us and would be interested in a cruise too.

We found the PERFECT way to do this!  On 31 August, we left Houston for Seattle and later Juneau where we arrived in mid-afternoon (there is a three hour time change).

We would board our boat on 1 September around noon and therefore we had a full evening to enjoy and then a morning to ‘kill’.  We had a very nice dinner at a Fish&Chip shop right on the old harbor (In the old Warf right across from the sea plane docks – Alaskan Fish and Chip Co – it was quite good).

In the morning, we went to visit a salmon hatchery which was pointed out to us by the taxi driver who took us from the airport to our hotel.

There are salmon stairs to allow the adult salmons to climb back into the tanks were they will lay or fertilize the eggs.  Unfortunately, we were there at low tide and therefore the salmons could not reach the first step.  We saw a few salmons swimming around looking for the entrance though.  It is amazing that even in this very artificial situation the instincts of the salmon pushed them back to where they were born.

Inside the hatchery there were four tanks which were filled (we were told) with 190,000 young salmons.  You can see a few swimming around where the lights from the windows shine but do not reflect.  The photo below shows two of the four tanks.  The young salmons spend 1-2 years at the hatchery before they are released back into the wild.  After 5-6 years, 1-5 % will return to create the next generation; the rest were food for men and animals throughout the region.

From the hatchery, we had a good look at the Gastineau Inlet, the narrow sea arm in front of Juneau where harbor seals were hunting the salmon waiting to get up the stairs.  Juneau is actually at the end of the inlet which creates a dead-end at low tide due to shallows – one can almost walk across it at very low tides.

A view of Juneau – these are not the boat we took!  The one on the left is one of the Mega-Cruise sips that just pulled into Juneau around 11:30 AM.  It has over 5000 passengers! The one on the right is a lot more modest – it si a National Geographic ship that was also loading as we went by.  Probably holds 200 passengers and that was still a lot more than our boat.

This is not the boat we took either.  It is a private yacht that left just as we were boarding ours.  For a moment, I thought it might be nice to take that one – the I discovered all the great features of the boat we would spend the next 7 days on and did not regret anything anymore.

This is “The Catalyst” – our home for 7 days.  The boat was christened in 1932 (there was only one passenger on board older than the boat) as a research vessel for the University of Washington.  She was a patrol boat in the Aleutian Islands during WWII and changed hands several more times after that.  She is now owned by a couple who take very good care of her and she makes regular voyages between Juneau and Petersburg from May to September.  We are actually making her last trip of the 2019 season.

Catalyst only has 6 cabins, 4 below the main deck, one at the back of the dining area and one (the one where Bee and I stayed) located on the top deck right behind the pilot house.  She has sea kayaks for 14 people, a fast tender and 4 wonderful crew members.  Since there were only 6 gusts on this particular cruise, we quickly became one happy family.

Continue reading “Alaska – Part 1”

Posted in Travel

Las Vegas – 2019

I first went to Las Vegas in 1998, on a package deal and stayed at the Luxor Hotel.  They made us enter through a back entrance, with a small registration desk, away from the main reception! I felt small and decided that I would never go to Las Vegas on a package again.

I came back to Las Vegas in 2014, during a business trip and stayed at the Hilton, which was a little out of either the strip or the downtown area – sort of near nothing.

This time, we stayed at the Tropicana – recently renovated and now part of the Hilton Chain and on the strip!  I finally got it right.

Since we are not big gamblers, we decided to rent a car and visit areas around Las Vegas first.

The first day, we went to Hoover Dam.

We went on a tour of the Nevada Side turbine room.

The room is very impressive wit 8 original turbines (seven were in operation while we were there)

They are equipped to repair all machines right there.  This is the eighth turbine going through maintenance.

The highway used to go right over the dam – it was usually a major traffic jam and became very dangerous for pedestrians.  A few years ago, they built a new bridge that by-passes the dam and the road on the dam is now essentially a dead-end with limited traffic.

The downstream side of the dam as seen from the Visitor’s Center

The upstream side of the dam from the Arizona side – water level is low (very low) as there has been only limited rain and snow on the mountains.

The dam as seen from the new bridge.  The Nevada and Arizona turbine rooms are visible, respectively, on the left and right of the photo.  The dam remains a very important source of electricity for both states, but even more important is the water reserve that is used in many surrounding states, including California. Continue reading “Las Vegas – 2019”

Posted in Travel

Costa Rica – Part 4: Tortuguero (1)

After a very short flight from Arenal, we approached the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica and the isolated village of Tortuguero.  We could see some houses and quite a few hotels and resorts as we approached.  It used to be that the only way there was a long drive followed by an even longer boat ride.  Tis is a lot quicker and more comfortable.

The airport that we are approaching, actually just a long asphalted strip is near the breaking surf, towards the top end of the last thin island on the right.

After landing, we needed a very short ferry ride and we arrived just in time to have lunch at our resort located across the water from the airport.

While we were having lunch, we watched amazed as green macaws flew in and out of the trees across the way from us.  Even though they are called Green Macaw, they have a very colorful back that you can only see when they fly, or even better wen they are are about to land on a tree.

Some flew right over us and I was able to get closer shots.

There we also vultures looking for something to eat.  They were rather far, so I was not too worried about me or my food.

Not sure you can still call these Green Macaws!  My list of birds from Costa Rica does not seem to include “Brightly colored blue, yellow and red macaws”.

And the spectacle continued – nice to have entertainment during the meal. Continue reading “Costa Rica – Part 4: Tortuguero (1)”

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Costa Rica – Part 3: Arenal Volcano

After two wonderful days in Monteverde, we slowly made our way to Arenal Volcano, first by 4-wheel drive through the mountain, later by boat on Lake Arenal and fianlly back with our driver William for the last few miles.

We first stopped in an area that had pretty good views.  You can guess at Arenal Volcano in the back ground.  It is the somewhat darker shadow capped by a big cloud.  This is how we saw the mountain for our whole stay, it seems…

On the way to the view point, we discovered some leaf-cutter ants, hard at work. The pieces of leaf that they carry are several times larger than they are.

They have been doing this for so long that they have acutally carved a path throug the grass.

A different view from the same view point.

On Arenal Lake, we had a private boat which took us across the lake.  Another typical view of the Volcano – summit still not visible.

There is a lot of bird life on the shores of the lake and we had time to stop and observe.  Great Egret, Cormorants, and Herons are all looking for fish. Continue reading “Costa Rica – Part 3: Arenal Volcano”