Category Archives: Uncategorized

Spelunking Playa Del Carmen

Location: Cozumel, Mexico

Today was our second and last day in Cozumel. We booked an excursion that would take us to a nearby limestone cave on the mainland. We had to wake up pretty early this morning to take the tour, like earlier-than-the-oceanview-cafe-is-open early. Not because our excursion was particularly long, but because the Chichen Itza tour needed to leave really early, and they wanted all of the mainland tours to take and return on the same ferry.

So we left the sip at 7:00 and took the ferry across the channel to Playa del Carmen. Last year the voyage was pretty rough and lots of people got sea sick. We were extra prepared this time and wore seabands, took bonine beforehand and sat in the back of the boat. It wasn’t needed because the waters were pretty calm.

Next we met the pier guide and boarded a van to take us to “Rio Secreto” (or Secret River) site. From there we got into our swimwear (we had an option for wet suits), showered, put on life vests, hard-hats with lights, and equipped a walking stick. Then we took a short hike through the jungle to get to the cave. They claimed that we were entering the Mayan underworld, so a Mayan priest said a prayer and shook incense before us prior to going down the chasm.

This one cave is one of the largest in world, coming in about 27 miles long. There is another cave nearby which is nearly as large, if the two were discovered to be connected, then it would be the largest in the world.

We spent about 2 hours in the cave network. The only lights were from our hard-hats lights, guides flashlight, and the flash of the photographer’s camera. It could get very dark in there. We traveled about half a mile during that time and went between 20-60 feet deep. We had to navigate and climb over and between stalactites and stalagmites. And for prolonged periods we had to wade through waist-deep water. The water was comfortably cool/warm, about 75F. The path through our section of the cave, nicknamed “Happy” was generally clear. Our trek through the lava tube in Iceland was more challenging. At times our guide stopped to briefly talk about the formation of the chamber and some of the geology of the cave. Rachel occasionally added to the conversation with her geology background. During this time the group photographer would sneakily preposition himself to get pictures of us going through the cave.

You might be wondering at this point ‘Where are Rachel’s photographs?’ Well there aren’t any. We weren’t allowed to bring our cameras on this tour. We did have an option to buy photos of our tour at the end, but they weren’t the most flattering. Plus, when Ryan heard the price he asked “US Dollars or Pesos?!”. …So this post will be a little devoid of original photos. But you can see a few examples on the company’s website.

Toward the end of our journey through the cave we had to forgo hiking and actually swim through the underground river to progress through network. We were very adept at the swim, especially compared with the rest of the group.

Eventually our journey through the underground river came to an end and we made our way back to the surface. We dropped off our gear at the station then went to food-hut for lunch. An authentic Mexican buffet lunch was provided. We heeded the warming about the very hot and spicy sauces and had a mild lunch. Others in the group ignored those warnings to their own dismay.

Following lunch we were driven back to Playa del Carmen. We had about two hours here of free time before we could catch the water taxi back to Cozumel. We couldn’t leave any earlier, and we had to wait for the Chichen Itza tour to return so that all of the mainland tours could arrive at the ship at the same time.

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We spent some of this time at the beach. And even took a short break for ice cream before taking the water taxi back to the ship.

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Tonight’s entertainment was David Guidice, who performed a Billy Joel tribute on piano. Always fun.

Tonight was also lobster night. We each had two lobster tails.

Tomorrow is a day at sea and our last full day of the cruise. We don’t plan to be very active, just more of the usual. If we don’t post tomorrow, we’ll post the following day.

Free purell squirts: 3

Total steps: 10,090

Total distanced caved: ~ half a mile underground, but a quarter mile through the jungle

 

The Atlantic Locks of the Panama Canal

Location: Colon, Panama

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Last night we posted the blog and tried to go to bed early for our early morning excursion to transit the Panama Canal. But things didn’t quite go as expected. Soon after uploading last night’s post we got notification that the ferry that is used for the excursion to transit the canal was down for repairs, and that our excursion was cancelled. Because it was so last minute, we were only given three options as a replacement:

  1. Going to a shopping mall in Panama City
  2. Visiting Portobelo, Panama which according to the tour description “is severely affected by poverty, the facilities are substandard”
  3. Visiting the Gatun and Agua Clara Locks of the Panama Canal

Regardless of disappointment we booked the locks tour late last night. Our tour would limit us to one ocean, one continent, and no water transportation.

This morning Ryan was in a mood. But we still got breakfast and boarded a tour bus that first drove to Gatun locks area. Along the way we learned that there are no traffic laws in the Colon Province (this is actually true), and that most of the countries economy comes from the Colon province, but all of that money gets reinvested into the Pacific coast side of the country. And it really showed while driving through Colon.

We started our tour of the locks at the new (one year old) Agua Clara locks visitor center. These are the newest locks of the canal and are about 60% bigger, but use 60% less fresh water than the previous locks.

Agua Clara Locks
Agua Clara Locks

But because they are so much bigger they are also slower. We were at the visitor center for about 1.5 hours and only managed to see one larger super-carrier make it though 1 of the 3 locks.

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After that we went to the older Gatun locks.  We were there for about 45 minutes and saw a couple ships pass through the locks.

Driving over the Agua Clara Locks. That is the same container ship from the previous pictures.
Driving over the Agua Clara Locks. That is the same container ship from the previous pictures.

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Ryan, Rachel, Becky, and Leigh
Ryan, Rachel, Becky, and Leigh

We also got to see the use of the mule trains which help move the ships through the locks.

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And play engineer on a model mule near the entrance.

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Overall it was a pretty neat tour. It’s still upsetting that we couldn’t transit the canal on this trip as planned. But we suppose it prevents us from doing it twice if/when we come back again to do a proper cruise ship canal transit.

We made it back to the ship in time for lunch. One “advantage” to having out tour cancelled and rebooking a different one was that we could take advantage of the “in-port” prices for a massage. A relaxing massage ensued later that afternoon.

In the evening we saw the production show Elysium. It was entertaining as always.

Today also marked the southern most part of the trip at (9.3 N).

Tomorrow we make port in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica, where we’ll go on a tour of the rain forest.

Total Oceans: 1 (North Atlantic)

Total Continents: 2 (South America – on foot, and North America by sight)

Free purell squirts: 6

Total steps: 8,779

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Seward’s Ice Box

Location: Seward, Alaska

It wasn’t acutely cold in Seward today. We just couldn’t think up an appropriately witty title for today’s post.

Today was the last of our early morning wake ups for the trip. Ryan got up very early to return the rental car and take the hotel shuttle back, while Rachel stayed back to finish up packing. By 8:40 we were on a shuttle on our way to Seward to board a cruise ship.

We had a couple stops along the way. Our first stop was Beluga Point. We had a few minutes here to stretch our legs and look for the white beluga whales. We didn’t see any here.

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Beluga Point

But we did see a pair a half hour later down the road. We were going to fast and weren’t in a position to pull over so we couldn’t get any pictures.

The next stop was the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. This facility takes in injured and orphaned wild animals and attempts to heal them back to health. Those that can be reintroduced to the wild, are sent out. Those that can’t be released, find a comfortable and spacious enclosure view-able to tourists. We saw grizzly bears, elk, bison, moose, fox, lynx, and many more.

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Grizzly Bear
Lynx
Lynx
Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle

We arrived in Seward for the second time in two days. We had several hours before we had to board the Radiance of the Seas, so we dropped off our bags with the porters and took the Seward Shuttle to the Alaska Sealife Center.

The Sealife Center is essentially an aquarium featuring local aquatic species. It’s a large modern building that stands out from the rest of the town. Among the highlights are a large aviary with numerous puffins, gulls, ducks, and mulls that can fly around with visitors.

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It also had habitats for seals and sea lions.

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A playful seal

After our visit to the Sealife Center we took the shuttle back to the cruise terminal. This was probably the easiest time we ever had boarding a cruise ship. It didn’t even feel like we were starting a new phase of the trip, so much as going on the next tour. We think this had to do with the Radiance being a smaller cruise ship and the abnormally long time the reduced number of passengers had to go through the boarding process.

We spent the rest of the day going through our first day cruise routine. We unpacked, explored the ship, hit the hot tub, did the muster drill, and had a frosty fruity beverage as we watched the world sail away.

After diner, because it was still light out, we got a few more pictures of the nearby fjords as we sailed southeast.

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Tomorrow is an “at sea” day were we have a scenic cruise of the Hubbard Glacier.

Today’s weather: High 63, Low 52, Sunny

Sunrise: 4:52am, Sunset 10:58pm

Total complimentary purrell squirts: 0, they give us disinfectant wipes

Total complimentary disinfectant wipes: 3

Total steps: 11,508

 

Labadee, Haiti

Location: Labadee, Haiti

Today we made port in Labadee, Haiti, a private peninsula on the northern side of the island of Hispaniola leased by Royal Caribbean. It is pretty well cordoned off from the rest of the country, so we’re hesitant to say that we got the true Haitian experience.

Royal Caribbean has also developed the area significantly since the last time Rachel was here. There are permanent structures, water and land activities such as ziplines and roller coasters. However those activities required a special fee, so we made it a beach day. But we were still very impressed with the little company village that was set up. Rachel took lots of pictures.

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One of the first things we did was walked across the peninsula to the artisans market where locals had stalls set up to sell various wares. The usual haggling rules applied, but the stall owners made a point of not pressuring the customers. We bought a wood carving and a couple magnets.

We walked back across the village to get a beach bar-b-que buffet lunch, then spent a few hours relaxing on the beach. Rachel read her kindle, Ryan listened to his ipod, we both worked on our tans.

Ryan enjoying the beach.
Ryan enjoying the beach.

Eventually we made our back to the ship, were we went to the solarium and continued the relaxation in the pool.

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In the evening as the ship sailed away from Haiti we were treated to a breathtaking sunset. Ryan went to the gym and Rachel went to the casino.

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The evening entertainment was the illusionist Drew Thomas. He performed the usual magic tricks you would expect on a cruise ship, along with some new twists. His show was also integrated with performances by the ships singers and dancers which made things more entertaining. We enjoyed the show quite a bit.

Tomorrow we make port in Falmouth, Jamaica. We don’t have any excursions planned so it will be a free day.

Total steps: 11,920

Total complimentary purell squirts: 9

St. John

Location: US Virgin Islands

This was probably the most busy day of our vacation.  We woke up early to have breakfast in the diamond lounge with Rachel’s parents. Then we went down to the future cruise sales desk to arrange for our next vacations. Leigh and Becky booked their long awaited transatlantic cruise. We also booked our 2016 mega-trip, but we’ll leave that for a future post. 🙂

Afterwards we went up to the sundeck to try the Flow Rider, but it was closed while we were in port at St. Thomas. So instead we played a few holes of mini-golf and played some casual ping-pong.

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After lunch, the young group got off the ship and walked around the pier to observe the iguanas sunning themselves on the rocks; and to take some selfies with the Oasis behind us. Soon after that it was time to leave for our excursion to Trunk Bay on St. John.

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Harry, Abby, Rachel and Ryan
Harry, Abby, Rachel and Ryan

We boarded the Island Girl and took a 30 min boat ride to get to the other island. The seas were a little rough but we got to see a halo rainbow. Along the way our boat guide gave us some background on the history and geology of the US territory. Once we got to St. John we got off the boat and boarded a taxi truck which took us in deeper into the National Park, eventually getting to Trunk Bay.

Ready to go to the beach!
Ready to go to the beach!

Trunk Bay is an absolutely beautiful beach. The sand is full, fine, soft and clean. The bay features a coral reef with decent visibility. The reef has a path which snorkelers can follow and read signs teaching them about this environment. Most of us went out into the bay and followed the sign buoys. All the while we got to see many kinds of reef fishes and corals. Towards the end of the beach trip though, we all congregated in the shallow area to relax. Ryan and Andy spent time observing a small and well camouflaged crab.

Trunk Bay
Trunk Bay
Ready to snorkel!
Ready to snorkel!

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Eventually we had to leave the beach paradise and made our way back to St. Thomas and onto the ship. Before dinner most of us saw “Oasis of Dreams” the diving and water show. The performers were a mix of acrobats and divers, and together they put on an incredible show!

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In the late evening, we went out to the sun deck to try to see the Venus-Jupiter conjunction. Sadly it was too cloudy and rainy to be able to see it. We’ll have to try again in a few years when it happens again.

Tomorrow we make port in Sint Marteen/St. Martin.

Total Steps: 12,403

Rachel and Ryan
Rachel and Ryan
Jo Ann and Harvey
Jo Ann and Harvey
Abby and Harry
Abby and Harry
The 'Boys' - Andy, Harvey and Harry
The ‘Boys’ – Andy, Harvey and Harry

Beneath the Surface in Iceland

Location: Reykjavik, Iceland

Today was extreme geology fun day. Our tour today first took us to Leiðarendi cave in a lava field south of town. We donned caving helmets and strapped on LED helmet lights and made our way across the lava field to the cave entrance. The entrance itself was a small hidden hole in the ground. A fresh rope double staked into the ground provided the only support down the steep icy path to the depths within the cave.

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The hardest part of the cave was in the first 20 meters or so. It was still cold toward the front and the icy deposits were all over the cave floor. In the summer this would not be a issue, but today it was a very slippery and scraping against the tough walls was a guarantee. Travel deeper into cave was not much easier, ice was replaced with uneven rock piles and stacked boulders which all required careful maneuvering to pass. But the effort was well worth it, we got to see many aspects of this lava tube including a variety of colors, stalactites and stalagmites, and sparkling bacterial colonies. Toward the back of the cave, there were even remains of a 800+ year old lamb. Archaeologists date it back to one of the earliest settlers on the island. It appeared that this goat was trying to escape a volcanic eruption which occurred at the time.

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stalagmite

 

Getting out of the cave was nearly as much fun, but strangely easier than we dreaded.

Our next stop took us north of Reykjavik and back to þingvellir park. We were going below the surface again today, but not underground. Instead we were going snorkeling in the silfra fissure. Slifra is one of the rifts between the North American and Eurasian plates. It is connected to the lake and it therefore flooded. The source of water from the lake is from a nearby glacier. But to reach the lake the water must first spend 20-30 years being filter through lava rock. The results is crystal clear water. Visibility is over 160 m!

Yes it is still essentially winter in Iceland, yes it was snowing, and yes it was really cold. But the water was only 2 C, not freezing. But yeah, still really cold. So to help, over our normal clothes we wore these teddy-bear suits, essentially a down full body suit. It was very comfortable! So comfortable and warm in fact, that the dive instructor later told us the he frequently has to stop people from stealing them. On top of the warm body suit we had to wear a tight dry suit, which kept the water from leaking through. A rubber choke collar completes the set. A lot of air naturally got trapped inside and provides ample buoyancy while snorkling. We were also given special padded thick latex gloves and head gear to make us marginally less frozen in those areas. It took about an hour for everyone to get their gear on properly.

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We had a 5 minute walk to the Silfra Fissure which feeds into the lake, crossing a street. It´s pretty comical to see people in snorkel and scuba gear crossing the road in Iceland. After reaching the lake, we donned our masks, snorkel, and flippers and walked into the water.

We are ready!
We are ready!

It was still cold. Especially in the unprotected area of our lower face.

But the view was magnificent! Perfectly clear water. We could see the two continental plates within arms reach on either side. Crustal rock, pulled apart from by plate tectonics littered the lake bed. We had a gentle swim through Silfra, aided in part by the glacial water current which feeds the lake. It was a scenic, awe inspiring, and cold 20 minutes before we made it to the lake proper. The fissure was at times over 25 m deep. We could easily see the bottom. Toward the end of the fissure we could see an island on the lake over 160 m away. The water was so clear that is appeared to be only a very short distance away.

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At some point during the snorkel it started snowing.

Instead of venturing further into the lake, we were directed to a nearby lagoon. Our guide called it the true blue lagoon. A gentle jab at the popular tourist trap near the airport. We spent some time exploring this shallow blue area before getting out to go back to the hotel. It was a cold, snowy walk back from the lake to the van to get changed. It took about 20 min for everyone to strip off the swim gear.

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An amusing scuba crossing sign.
An amusing scuba crossing sign.

The ride back to the hotel was uneventful. But we did have a short stop to sample dried cod, and Icelandic staple.

Speaking of which, we had dinner again tonight at the hotel restaurant, Satt. We came back to have the baby-back ribs because, they were some of the best ribs we ever had!

After dinner we went out to watch the northern lights.This time we went with a different company, Gateway to Iceland, which used a van instead of a large bus. Tonight we ventured to a dark corner in the southwest section of the country, not far from the international airport. There weren´t many clouds in the sky, and it was pretty dark. Our guide pulled over in a nice secluded spots in farm country. We quickly got off the bus and set up our first camera. We pointed it at a patch of sky slightly brighter than the rest. We learned a lot from our experience on Saturday. Meanwhile the driver started to gather the other passengers around. He explained that it can take a while to find the lights even on the best of nights, and that paitence is a necessaity. He began to explain that sometimes cameras can see the lights before humans when…

Rachel´s first photo returned. We spotted the aurora within a minute. Ryan shouted, “we found the lights. it´s over there” and pointed in the direction of the aurora. And that´s pretty much how the rest of the night went. We spotted the aurora and helped out a few others with their camera work.

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There was one really good aurora tonight. We saw it do its dance in the sky, and at times could see both the greens and reds with the naked eye. The camera however spotted other colors, such as blue, purple, and pink.  Unfortunately the best photos were taken using a camera with the SD card, so we can´t upload those photos today. We hope to show those pictures and others later this week after we return home and can properly process them.

During the tour, the driver moved the van twice more to get a better view in the sky. A great improvement over last night.

Tomorrow, we sadly have to fly home. We plan to be Icelandic and lounge around in a hot tub in the morning, then fly home in the afternoon.

Total steps: 12,593

Total continental plates steped upon: 2 (North American and Eurasian)

Total northern light colors seen: 5 (green, red, pink, purple, blue)

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p.s. The hotel (Icelandair Natura) helped us secure a refund for the Northern Lights tour from the previous night.

The Partial Solar Eclipse Over Reykjavik

Location: Reykjavik, Iceland

Last night we began our week-end getaway trip to Iceland. We originally planned this trip a few months ago with the intent to see the aurora borealis in Iceland and if possible see a partial solar eclipse. Statistically, the best time to see the northern lights is near the equinoxes. And generally its best to view during a new moon. This year, a total eclipse was occurring on the spring equinox over Svalbard and the Faroe Islands; only narrowly missing Iceland. So a trip this weekend was a perfect match.

Ironically we almost saw the aurora a couple of days ago back in Maryland, when one of the most powerful solar storms in a decade hit earth. Sadly it was not dark enough yet on our side of the planet to see anything. No matter though, we still had this Iceland trip.

The flight from DC to Iceland occurred overnight so we got seats on the port side of the plane to try to see the northern lights while in the air. We did get to see the aurora from the plane (a little), somewhere over the waters between Labrador and Greenland. Rachel took some great pictures. *Unfortunately though, both of our SD card readers are not working properly so we couldn´t upload them to the blog post.

The rest of the flight went smoothly and we landed on schedule. We didn´t sleep on the plane. It took an hour to get through the airport and another hour to take the transfer bus from the airport to the hotel. The eclipse started at 8:38 AM, and we made it to the hotel with only a few minutes to spare.

Luckily though, this is our fifth eclipse together and we are pros at this by now. We got off the bus, and set up our cameras and filters quickly in front of the hotel and got to work taking pictures. We didn’t bother to check in either, our bags were out there with us!

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Many first time eclipse watchers would join us outside the hotel. We provided guidance and lent extra filters and glasses for people viewing or trying to photograph an eclipse for the first time. By the time of maximum eclipse, there were about 50 people outside the hotel with us viewing the eclipse. We were the only ones who spent all two hours watching the spectacle. Most people only watched for about 10-30 minutes. Rookies…

The weather was very cooperative for the eclipse. Unlike usual Iceland weather, it was mostly sunny. The only clouds were low lying thin clouds that barely obstructed our pictures. Have a look below.

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Following the eclipse we had a quick-lunch and then took a bus to the blue lagoon. The blue lagoon is a major tourist attraction and made the National Geographic 25 wonders list. It is a huge natural hot salt water spring and the water is a milky turquoise color. It also serves as a spa. We thought it was a bit too developed and commercialized, but we enjoyed several relaxing hours in the hot spring and had a natural silica clay facial.

 

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In the evening we were supposed to go out on a northern lights viewing tour. But it was cancelled due to bad weather.We were simultaneously disappointed and relieved. We really need the sleep.

Tomorrow we go on a tour of the Golden Circle: seeing waterfalls, rock formations, and geysers. And in the evening we will try to see the northern lights again.

Total Steps (not counting the walking in the water at the blue lagoon): 6,577

Our 100th Post and The Year Ahead: 2015

2015 will be another great year of travel for us. Unlike previous years where we would take one large trip, this year we will go on three much shorter trips.

First up in March we head North beyond the Wall for a trip to Iceland. We’ll attempt to see a partial (>.99) solar eclipse, watch the northern lights, snorkel in the rift between continental plates, explore interesting geology. view and attempt to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, and more!

In June, we are traveling with family and friends for a celebratory Eastern Caribbean cruise. We’ll visit the USVI, Bahamas, St Martin and Sint Marteen. Unlike most of our other trips, this one may actually be relaxing.

Lastly in the fall, we’ll visit our seventh and final continent: Africa. We’ll venture again below the equator to see southern Africa. First we’ll tour Cape Town, hike around the Cape of Good Hope, hang out with African Penguins, and maybe cage dive with great white sharks! Next we go on a safari near Kruger National Park to see the big five and follow it by seeing Victoria Falls in Zambia/Zimbabwe.

africa trip map

This is also the 100th post of the blog. Over the last 3 years we’ve had over 6,700 views from people in 78 different countries across all inhabited continents, plus about 100 regular followers. Thanks for reading!

The adventure continues in a couple weeks.

Pompeii

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Location: Amalfi Coast, Italy

We made port in Salerno, Italy early this morning. Salerno is at the southern end of the famous Amalfi Coast. And it’s only a 45 min drive north to get to the much larger city of Naples. But we weren’t here to look at scenic cliffs and seaside towns; we had loftier ambitions. We boarded our tour bus in the morning and made our way to Mount Vesuvius.

We eventually arrived near the top of the infamous Volcano. Our guide let us off the bus and told us to hike up the trail (300m up) where we will meet another guide who will give us a tour around the peak. He said it was a 20 min hike.

You can kinda see the path up the volcano in this picture.
You can kinda see the path up the volcano in this picture.
The view of Naples.
The view of Naples.

 

 

 

Forty-five minutes later we reached the top. Due to the limited time, we and several other people on the tour declined the additional guide, and explored the volcanic rim on our own.  

The crater.
The crater.
View with a fish-eye lens.
View with a fish-eye lens.

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It took us another 30 min to make it down the mountain and board the bus again. Our next stop was Pompeii. It was not a long drive. Naturally the lost city would be near to the volcano that destroyed it.  

Walking down the mountain.
Walking down the mountain.

 

Our guide told us that it normally takes two days to explore Pompeii. We had two hours. He did a good job taking us through the city, hitting the highlights and carefully explaining their significance. We began at the theater where he explained and demonstrated the design and acoustics. Next, we walked along the elevated sidewalks beside the streets. The tough lava rock prevented the Romans from building a sewer system in the city. Instead the sidewalks and structures were built above the base of the roads. The roads doubled as means of removing water from the city during storms. Only carts, chariots and animals walked the streets.  They even built ‘crosswalks’ so people did not have to walk in the water to cross a street.  

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The 'crosswalks'
The ‘crosswalks’
A theater
A theater

Next we visited a Pompeii home. We saw the bath and courtyard, as well as the other normal rooms of a residence. We also saw human bones and broken volcanic-ash husks. This house was looted post-excavation disturbing and breaking the husks before they could be properly preserved. When the pyroclastic flow destroyed the city, it immediately enveloped the bodies of people. This created tight stone outlines of the people as they died. These statue like objects still exist today. Over time, the bodies would decay away inside the husks leaving only bones. The husks are fragile unless filled with cement.

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Bones in the display cases.
Bones in the display cases.

We would see examples of intact husks later in the public baths.

The Baths
The Baths
An intact 'husk'
An intact ‘husk’

Our next stop took us to the brothel. Detailed illustrations of the services offered still appear on the walls today. Rachel did get some pictures, but they are not PG rated. You’ll have to google it to see them. And FYI, the gift shops outside the city sold magnets and calendars with these illustrations. And no, we did not buy any.

Last we went to Forum. There was a very nice view of Vesuvius.

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Later in the afternoon we made it back to the ship. We boarded and relaxed in the hot tub for the last time. Afterwards we packed our bags because we go home tomorrow. We had our last dinner with our cruise companions as well tonight. We’re sure to see them again on another vacation.

In other news, our cruise companions when on a scenic boat tour of the Amalfi Coast. They enjoyed it and shared war stories of their tour with us at dinner.

Tomorrow we disembark the ship early in the morning and fly back home.

Total steps: 16,001

Total time Rachel got out of a hot tub without injury: 12/12

Malta: The Tiny Island Nation You’ve Never Heard Of

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Location: Malta

Today we made port at the sixth country of our trip: Malta. Malta is a tiny nation made up of 3 islands south of Italy in the middle of the Mediterranean. It spent most of its history being conquered by various empires, before eventually achieving independence from Britain in 1964. It joined the EU in 2004. It is best known for its offshore banking, online gambling, and ship registry. Celebrity Cruises flags all of their ships (except the eXpedition of Ecuador) in Malta. More seasoned travelers know it for its scenic landscape and quiet villages. Nearly every structure in the country is made from limestone mined from the island.

This morning we and our cruise companions left the ship to go on a private tour of the island. Our tour guide, Godfrey, was once a lecturer at the local university and was a wellspring of information about the country.  We started with a tour of the capitol city Valletta. This town is based around a natural deepwater port. It was founded by the crusader Knights of St John. The town was originally laid out in a grid (an oddity in Europe) and is surrounded by very thick and steep walls designed to keep the Turks out.  Godfrey briskly walked around the city pointing out monuments, the Parliament, Prime Minister’s office, and stock exchange. We also saw the Barrakka Gardens at the top of the city walls overlooking the harbour and the castle used to defend the city during the last Ottoman siege.

Barrakka Gardens
Barrakka Gardens

 

Later we walked down commerce street and toured the inside of St John’s Co-Cathedral and Museum. The cathedral was ornately decorated. But each section of the cathedral was decorated by knights from different countries. Godfrey explained the differences between them. Before leaving Valletta, Ryan and Leigh stopped by the public bathrooms. They described the automated restrooms as the most interesting places they’ve ever conducted business.

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Our next stop took us out of town to see the Blue Grotto caves and cliff formations. These limestone formations are one of the larger tourist draws of the country. We stopped by a viewing point at the top of the cliffs nearby and we able to get some nice photos.

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Next we visited the Hagar Qim Temple and Museum. These ruins predate the pyramids and are the oldest free-standing stone structures ever discovered. They appear to be an ancient temple dedicated to a fertility goddess built around 3500 BCE. Whomever built them have long since disappeared. The ruins were forgotten until rediscovered in the 1800’s. The museum also premiered its 4D immersive movie about the temple and its history today. We were amongst the first visitors to actually see it. The movie was animated in 3D, and featured wind, rain, and scent effects. It was a pleasant surprise for us. Godfrey walked us through the museum pointing out theorized construction techniques, astronomical connections (equinox and solstice orientations), and other symbolism. Then he walked us around the ruins of one of the temples and explained the various rooms.

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We had lunch in the small fishing town of Marsaxlokk. We ate alongside the harbor at a restaurant called Pisces. We unintentionally had a grand feast of fresh seafood. It was all excellent.

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After lunch we visited another crusader city further inland called Mdina. This city has never been taken due to its massive defensive walls. Inside we found tight streets, lined with churches, palaces and stores.

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All too soon we had to return to the ship. We arrived not long before the ship had to leave for its next destination. The journey out of the harbour made for some great pictures.

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In the evening we saw the ventriloquist Gareth Oliver. He had a different take on how to do ventriloquist comedy without the use of dummies. He claim to fame is losing to Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent five years ago.  It was not what we expected, but it was entertaining.

This is the southernmost point of our trip and the last new country. Beginning tomorrow, the rest of our trip is entirely in Italy.

Tomorrow we visit Catania, Sicily. We will tour Mt. Etna and the nearby village of Taromina.

Total Steps: 14,255

Total time Rachel got out of a hot tub without injury: 11/11