Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Alaska Cruise June 3-11, 2017

Monday, July 17th, 2017

In the words of Johnny Horton:

“North to Alaska, go North the rush is on.”

Mountains of Glacier Bay

Mountains of Glacier Bay

Mountains of the Misty Fjords

Mountains of the Misty Fjords

A trip to Alaska has been on my bucket list for many years.  I finally got to do it and the trip exceeded expectations.  Once again, I have my daughter-in-law Megan to thank for finding great excursions that enhanced the experience.  The seven-day cruise went from Seattle to Juneau to Glacier Bay to Sitka and Ketchikan returning back to Seattle along the Southeast Alaskan Panhandle.  I was surprised by many things and I will try to capture the highlights here.  It is hard to appreciate the vastness of Alaska without seeing it live.  The scale of everything is huge and you just can’t grasp it unless you view the towering mountains in the distance.

Street Entrance to Pike's Market

Street Entrance to Pike’s Market

Fish Mongers at Pike's Market

Fish Mongers at Pike’s Market

Flowers at Pike's market

Flowers at Pike’s market

A stop in Seattle wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Pike’s Market.  It’s perhaps best known for the fishmongers who make a game out of their job, throwing fish when a customer makes a purchase, chasing people with ugly fish and generally clowning around.  The flowers and produce are striking and the street performers are great.  There are lots of high quality hand crafts, foods and souvenirs available.  It’s a happy, festive crowd of all ages.

Street Performers at Pike's Market

Street Performers at Pike’s Market

Pike's Fish Market

Pike’s Fish Market

Veggies at Pike's Market

Veggies at Pike’s Market

Holland America Eurodam

Holland America Eurodam

The ship sailed in late afternoon.  We took the Holland America line on the MS Eurodam.  It holds about 2100 guests and is about 1000 feet long, not huge by today’s standards. We sailed for almost 48 hours to reach Juneau, the state capital, it was about 900 miles.  The distances between towns are hard to imagine unless you experience it.  The three towns we visited can only be reached by boat or plane. For an East Coaster, I can’t imagine living there, but the people who live there love it.  It’s common to get around in small float planes which have short take offs and landings.

Arrival at Juneau Wharf

Arrival at Juneau Wharf

de Havaland Beavers at in Juneau

de Havaland Beavers at in Juneau

Alaska State Capital Building in Juneau

Alaska State Capital Building in Juneau

I Imagined Alaska as a very cold lifeless area, but the lower half of the panhandle gets a lot of rain and it’s quite temperate along the water.  When we were there in early June the flowers were blooming and we only needed to wear a fleece.  We had scheduled a helicopter ride up on top of the glacier near Juneau, but it was so foggy that all the flights that day had to be cancelled.  So, we just enjoyed the town and the locals.

Totem Pole in Juneau

Totem Pole in Juneau

Downtown Juneau

Downtown Juneau

From Juneau, we sailed to Glacier Bay National Park which was much more interesting than I ever expected.  It’s only about 60 miles in a straight line to the mouth of the bay, but it took 9 hours to zig zag between the islands.

The bay is about 50 miles long and has a history of being covered then uncovered by glaciers.  In the late 1600’s the area was actually land but in about 75 years a huge glacier gouged out the bay.  Up until 1750 it was covered by this single glacier extending out beyond what is now the mouth of the bay.  Then in less than 100 years the glacier retreated 50 miles to where it is today, leaving Glacier Bay and about 20 separate smaller glaciers around it.  I always thought that glaciers moved very slowly, but I believe the park ranger said the Margerie Glacier currently moves about 6 feet per day.  The oral tradition of the Native Americans who lived there when it was land says the glacier moved so quickly that they had to just abandon their villages as it advanced to the sea.

Sailing Into Glacier Bay

Sailing Into Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay Margerie Tidewater Glacier

Glacier Bay Margerie Tidewater Glacier

Glacier Bay Margerie Glacier, Close up

Glacier Bay Margerie Glacier, Close up

Glacier Bay Margerie Glacier, Closer up

Glacier Bay Margerie Glacier, Closer up

Glacier Bay Margerie Glacier, Even Closer up

Glacier Bay Margerie Glacier, Even Closer up

The boat went up the bay close to the Margerie Glacier, much closer than I expected the ship to be able to approach.  This is a tidewater type glacier which means the ice goes right to the water.  It was very impressive and its size is hard to grasp.  We thought we were about 200 yards from the front of the glacier and that it was about 100 feet high.  In reality we were about a quarter mile away and it was 250 feet above the water and extended more than 100 feet below the water.

Glacial ice is royal blue in color due to the ice being subjected to great pressure and the high-density ice reflects and scatters blue light.  When the glacier cracks, it sounds like a plane flying over or a clap of thunder.  Every so often huge pieces of ice would “calve” off the front of the glacier sending water high in the air.   From there we sailed to another tidewater type glacier called the Johns Hopkins Glacier, then started making our way south out of Glacier Bay.

Mountains of Glacier Bay

Mountains of Glacier Bay

John Hopkins Glacier, Glacier Bay

John Hopkins Glacier, Glacier Bay

The next stop was Sitka, a small town of only about 1000 people.  We never went into town.  Instead we spent about 7 hours on the water with a great guide, Captain Davey Lubin.  I would describe him as a naturalist guide.  He picked us up right at the wharf.  You can tell Davey loves his job, loves the area and really knows where to go to see some wonderful things.  Every once in a while, he would look at something and comment something like “boy is that ever beautiful”.  He not only knew the name of every plant we saw, he knew their Latin scientific names.

The Esther G

The Esther G

Bald Eagle in Sitka Bay

Bald Eagle in Sitka Bay

Bald Eagle in Sitka Bay, Here's Looking at You Kid!

Bald Eagle in Sitka Bay, Here’s Looking at You Kid!

Whale Tail in Sitka Bay

Whale Tail in Sitka Bay

Whale Spout in Sitka Bay

Whale Spout in Sitka Bay

Sea Otters in Sitka Bay, "The Boy's Club"

Sea Otters in Sitka Bay, “The Boy’s Club”

His boat is the Esther G and while it is not unusual for Alaska, it is unusual to someone from the lower 48.  It was of very utilitarian construction and made from ca. ¼ Inch aluminum plate welded together; very tough for a very tough environment.  He extended the length of his boat last Fall by having it cut in half and had a four-foot extension welded in the middle.  We cruised around Sitka sound and saw whales, sea otters, bald eagles, puffins, etc.

Captain Davey Lubin Ashore

Captain Davey Lubin Ashore

Banana Slug on Kruzof Island

Banana Slug on Kruzof Island

Bald Eagle Remains on Kruzof Island

Bald Eagle Remains on Kruzof Island

Trail in Kruzof Island Rain Forest

Trail in Kruzof Island Rain Forest

Kruzof Island Trees in Rain Forest

Kruzof Island Trees in Rain Forest

After cruising around for several hours Captain Lubin took the boat into a protected area, gave us each tall rubber boots, and craned the inflatable off the top of the boat so we could paddle ashore onto Kruzof Island.  It appeared he had done this many times before.  Davey took his rifle just in case and gave Megan a can of bear spray.  Piles of logs had washed up all along the shore line and it was a difficult climb over them to get into the forest.  But once inside we were in a temperate rain forest, first time experience for me and unexpected.  Everything was covered with thick moss and even the trail had a six-inch cushion of mass to walk on.  We talked loudly as we walked the trails to make sure the bears knew we were there.  It worked, we didn’t see any bears, but there was bear scat and signs of bear everywhere.

Lava Tubes in Sitka Bay

Lava Tubes in Sitka Bay

Kelp in Sitka Bay

Kelp in Sitka Bay

Sea Star in Sitka Bay

Sea Star in Sitka Bay

Lunch on the Esther G

Lunch on the Esther G

Sitka Bay Island

Sitka Bay Island

We had lunch in another protected small bay with several hundred sea birds and raptors.  And what a lunch for being out on the water: charcuterie, salad, poached halibut, wild rice with asparagus…  Then it was back to the ship and reality.  A unique experience for sure.

Taquan Air Beaver Float Plane in Ketchikan

Taquan Air Beaver Float Plane in Ketchikan

Old Logging Roads in the Misty Fjords

Old Logging Roads in the Misty Fjords

Waterfall in the Misty Fjords

Waterfall in the Misty Fjords

Island in the Misty Fjords

Island in the Misty Fjords

Our final stop in Alaska was Ketchikan, a slightly larger town of over 8,000 inhabitants.  We took a great bush plane tour on a de Havilland Canada, Beaver float plane through the Misty Fjords on Taquan Air.  We were very lucky to be there on a day that wasn’t misty.  The sights of the mountains, waterfalls and lakes were spectacular.  Flying in a bush plane made for a spectacular experience flying over the mountains and low through the valleys.  We landed on one of the many lakes and got out of the plane to stand on the floats and grasp the spectacle.  The town of Ketchikan was very nice with interesting shops and things to do, but nothing to compare to the flight.

Mountains of the Misty Fjords

Mountains of the Misty Fjords

Fog Over the Misty Fjords

Fog Over the Misty Fjords

Looking Out Over the Plane Float in the Misty Fjords

Looking Out Over the Plane Float in the Misty Fjords

A Lake in the Misty Fjords

A Lake in the Misty Fjords

We had a quick stop the next day in Victoria, BC before our return to Seattle.  We found Victoria to be a very impressive, friendly, picturesque city.  The weather is temperate and they get very little snow.   Along the waterfront there are many interesting “float houses” which are houses built on a sort of barge, built to be in one place semi-permanently, not like a house boat.  It must be a very interesting environment to live in.  You could never do it in the lower states because of the storms.

There are a number of choices of cruise lines but their itineraries are similar.  You can also spend two weeks and go all the way to/from Anchorage.  I’m very glad I was able to check Alaska off my bucket list and experience the enormity and the very different way of life.  I guess you can feel the enthusiasm from my ramblings here…

The Dopy Moose in Ketchikan, Alaska

The Dopy Moose in Ketchikan, Alaska

 

RO 6/30/17

Cuba, Habana: People to People trip, Oct. 2016

Monday, October 31st, 2016

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I’ve wanted to visit Cuba for a long time.  I love the music and the food, and the old repaired/modified cars fascinate me.  I find Cuban people to be smart and industrious.  In short, I wanted to learn more about Cuba’s culture and the country which has been unavailable to people of the US since 1960.  Having lived through the Cuban/US missile crisis, Bay-of-Pigs, etc. I’ve always been intrigued by this island only 90-miles from the US.   With the trade and travel restrictions being relaxed I knew I had to go soon before it changed forever.

Our daughter-in-law, Megan, is entirely responsible for making this happen. She did an amazing job that made the trip exceed all of our expectations.  Megan has been taking Spanish lessons for several years and through her Cuban and travel agency contacts she learned how to navigate the system to get us People-to-People visas. She also secured the lodging and events necessary to uphold the particulars of our visa.  While you can hire translators, Megan was our designated interpreter.  She did a fabulous job of translating and engaging many Cubans to give us an authentic, amazing experience.  It was a stress free experience considering I don’t know any Spanish.  We got to see and do everything we wanted to within the confines of a 1-week visit.

I have to admit that as the date approached I was somewhat apprehensive about the trip.  This was surprising to me as I’m a seasoned traveler having visited many countries.  People told me that they heard about unsavory experiences . . . robberies, panhandlers, prostitutes, bad water, shortages, trouble getting around and trouble communicating.  As it turned out while there are shortages, our entire experience was positive.  People knew we were from the US, but they were friendly and helpful. We were comfortable wherever we went, but we didn’t go anywhere that a smart traveler would avoid.  We mingled with the people of Cuba, visited their landmarks, etc.  For me it was taking a step back to my youth. It was like the 1950’s in Pittsburgh. . .soot spewing from the steel mills, kids enjoying a pick-up ballgame in alleyways, people gathering on their front steps and street corners to converse with their neighbors.  Perhaps because of the nostalgia the trip was beyond my expectations, one of the most interesting experiences of my life.  And incidentally the restrictions on bringing tobacco and rum back to the USA were lifted two days before we left.

We never felt threatened, including by the police and military, who stood around in pairs here and there but were low key.   Images, statues and references to the three main revolutionaries: Fidel Castro, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guavero, and Camilo Cienfuegos were everywhere but we didn’t see any demonstrations or speeches.  When we asked our driver when the revolution ended he simply replied “It’s still going on”.

building-crumbling-1_img_0283_1024The population of Cuba is about 11 million, and 25% of them live in Habana.  The city is like a faded rose.  You can imagine how beautiful the colonial architecture (in Havana Vieja/Old Town) was back in the early 1900’s.  But many of the facades are broken and falling down.  If you look through a broken window you might see the beautiful building is completely collapsed inside.  I would say that half the buildings are beyond restoration…what a shame!  While once majestic, beautiful architecture like you would find in major cities, the buildings are now dirty and in disrepair. Many structures have been converted for multiple family use.  Clearly they have no means to restore them. See the photos below. None-the-less, we loved walking and driving around and taking it all in.

The Miramar area is where many of the Embassies are. Again, the buildings in this area, while mansion-like, are dirty and in need of repair.  We visited Marina Hemingway, and our driver pointed out the difference between Cuban boats (small and old) and American/Foreigner boats (er, yachts!). We were only able to find a food market to visit at the Marina.  Food markets from our perspective are scarce. The market we visited, while sizable had very little food to sell. Entire rows were populated with the same item, over and over again.

hotel-national-_img_1042_1024The first three days we stayed in a bnb in Centro Havana, on the sixth floor overlooking Malecón (infamous sidewalk in Havana) and directly on the Ocean.  It was operated by two retired sisters.  They were delightful, providing us an amazing breakfast and being most accommodating in every way.  Their home again reminded me of my home in the 1950’s, not fancy but very neat and clean.  The Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where we stayed the last three nights, is iconic.  It’s considered a monument of Habana;  it’s classy, well kept. . . just what you would imagine a top 1950’s hotel to be.  There were a few upgrades since it was built around 1930, but all in keeping with the original building.  Imagine many coats of paint on the woodwork, old style but good quality bathroom fixtures, old but well-kept furnishings, period elevators with brass mailboxes, etc.  It was built to resemble The Breakers in Palm Beach Florida.  There is a beautiful outdoor garden to the rear overlooking the water.  We were told the best hotels in Habana are: Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Hotel Saratoga, Iberostar Parque Central Hotel and Iberostar Miramar.

I didn’t know what to expect concerning the economy.  I’d never been in a communist country before.  Cuba operates on a dual currency basis.  The Cuban Peso (CUP) is for internal use only and is also called Moneda Nacional ($MN).  It cannot be exchanged.  The other currency is a Cuban Convertible Peso, CUC, which is exchangeable.  One CUC is around 26 CUP (MN).  Fun fact, CUPs have portraits and CUCs show buildings which is how you can easily differentiate the currencies.

We were advised to take Euros for exchange because Pounds and Dollars are not wanted…..boy was that good advice……and take enough for your whole trip.  We exchanged for a LOT of CUCs before we left and took a LOT of Euros as well.

The surprise to me was that it is a completely cash-based economy.  Imagine no credit or debit cards, no ATM’s, no checking accounts, no US based cell phone availability.  There were lines more than a block long to get into Western Union or a bank, or the telephone company.  Everybody was hustling.  We were told a cigar roller’s wages were about 22 $MN a month, a teacher 26 $MN and a doctor gets about 36 $MN per month, which is equivalent to $1 to $1.5 USD per month! Of course, the citizens of Cuba enjoy free healthcare, food and housing provided by the government.  People go to special government locations to pick-up their monthly allotment of food.  They supplement this with purchases from farmer’s markets, etc.    In addition to their salary, many Cubans hustle to earn extra money.  People sell water, etc. from the front steps of their homes to tourists, etc.

While most Cubans now have cell phones, the internet remains hard to come by.  In 2008, Raul first permitted Cuban locals to have access to cell phones.  It was only in 2015 that he opened the first public wi-fi spots in 35 locations.  To be granted access, you must buy an internet card that allows for just one hour of connection time.  Most hotels sell access cards where they have hot spots. But you would be walking the streets and come to an intersection with a hundred (younger) people standing and sitting around in the street with their phones…. all on the internet.  They knew where the hot spots were.

thumb_img_1055_1024OMG THE CARS!!!  If you know me, you know I’m an old car fan and I’ve restored several of them.  I was in awe of the way Cubans have kept the old 50’s US cars on the road with little or no access to US parts.  Just look at the photos below. I had seen photos of the Habana cars but before we went I thought there were only a few.  To an old car lover it’s mind boggling.  I would estimate that in the Habana area 30% to 35% of the cars are old US cars mainly from the 50’s.

A lot of them are taxis that the drivers use for their livelihood.  Many are held together with miscellaneous parts and bondo.  But while they wouldn’t be of the same quality as collector cars in the US, some look pretty good from 25 at least feet away.  I would guess that 50% still have the original engine but the others do not.  For example, we drove around all week in a 1956 Chevy Special completely rolled and pleated inside, but with a 5 cylinder 2006 Mercedes diesel engine and a 4 shifter on the column.  How did he do that?  And our driver’s other car was a 1953 Chevy Belair with a Mercedes diesel engine.

OMG THE MUSIC!!!  I’ve always liked Cuban music.  It ranges from salsa to Afro-Cuban jazz.  It seemed like half of the people either sang, played an instrument or both.  See the photos below.  I would spend half the day wandering the streets in Old Town going from bar to bar having a cerveza in each (wine is somewhat limited as it all has to be imported) and listening to the band until they went on intermission.  It reminded me of Nashville.

music-omg-2_img_0737_1024I was surprised to discover a type of guitar I had never seen before.  The Tres is a guitar-like three course chordophone of Cuban origin.  Its sound is a defining characteristic of the Cuban sound.  It has six strings: two strings each tuned (in “C” major) to “E”, “C” and “G” with the two “G” strings tuned an octave apart.  More recently some musicians are tuning the Tres a step higher (in “D” major) to “F”, “D” and “A”.

grocery-national-store_img_0265_1024The food was also special; we ate at some excellent restaurants that a tourist would never find.  While Fidel was in power restaurant signage was prohibited.  Most Cubans never ate out, as their monthly stipends covered their food need.  Today there are some signs, but it’s still not usual.  Instead, we relied on our driver and the sisters to give us good recommendations that weren’t in the US tour books.  We were never disappointed.

cigars-_img_0565_1024CIGARS!!!  While I’m not a smoker, I might now know more about cigars than most cigar smokers.  We toured both a tobacco farm and a cigar factory.  See the photos below.  The rolling factory had 550 workers wrapping for 9 hours a day.  That is a lot of cigars!  They plant the (tiny, tiny seeds) tobacco early in the year when it is drier and it takes about four months for the plants to mature.  Thus there were no plants drying in the barn when we were there.

They strip the middle vein out of each leaf before rolling.  This vein contains 90% of the nicotine and would make the cigar way too strong.  The position of the leaf on the stalk makes the taste stronger or weaker therefore they can make different types of cigars by using different blends of leaves.  It takes about five leaves to make a ½” blunt.  After rolling and putting on an inner wrapper, they press the cigar in a mold for several hours, then put on the outer wrapper, “fermented”, so it is smoother and flexible.  All by hand.  I couldn’t believe how smooth and exact in size they all were since they are all hand made.  When ready to smoke the end is cut off then dipped in honey before lighting.  Some of the commercial cigars are flavored with rum, cinnamon, etc.

donky-cart-img_0912_1024As I mentioned we were on a “People to People” Visa so we could get to know Cubans and they know us.  We took along a lot of candy, NFL caps, baseball cards, pennants, little league shirts with team logos, etc. and handed it all out, mainly to the children playing in the streets and parks.  We got to know three Cubans quite well: the two sisters who ran the bnb and our driver.  Perhaps the most important thing I returned from Cuba with is that several Cubans who we grew to know well told us to “kiss the ground” when we got back to the USA…. I did.

La Yuma, The American,

Ralph

10/16

 

Places to See:

  • Havana Vieja –  Old Town, great for walking around and listening to bands
  • Viñales- The “Grand Canyon” of Cuba
  • A tobacco farm in Viñales- Where most cigar tobacco plant leaves come from.
  • La Fortaleza- Canon firing ceremony every night at 9p
  • Revolution Square- Where Fidel addressed the people of Cuba
  • The “Forest of Habana”
  • Beach Tropicoco
  • Fusterlandia- a neighborhood modeled after Antonio Gaudi of Barcelona.

 

Things to do:

  • Buena Vista Social Club- a Cuban show that has been playing for 70 years!
  • Tropicana- Famous Cuban Cabaret
  • Revolution Museum (not terribly impressive)
  • Museum of Fine Arts (Cuban)
  • La Finca Vigía – Hemingway’s home in Cuba
  • Partagas cigar Factory

 

Where to eat:

  • El Gijones – located on Paseo del Prado.
  • Los Dos Hermanos – Named after Fidel and Hemingway.  Only open for lunch.  We had Cuban sandwiches.
  • La Fontana –  We ate the most amazing seafood carpaccio here!  Great food!
  • Paladar Vistamar- A wonderful restaurant in Miramar, in the second story of a Cuban house, directly on the Ocean.  Great food and views!
  • Many tapas restaurants/bars in Plaza Vieja, Plaza de Armas and on the pedestrian street Obispo, all in Old Town.

 

My favorite thing to do by far:

Havana Vieja –  Old Town, walk around, listen to bands, and check out the old cars.

 

See my previous post for even more photos.

Habana, Cuba

Thursday, October 27th, 2016

Below are photos selected from the many I took during my visit to Habana, Cuba October 17-23, 2016. I plan on posting my observations and experiences from the trip, but I wanted to get some photos up quickly.

Yes, the photos are very heavy on old cars and music, which is what one would expect for memories of Habana. And yes, these also just happen to be two of my top interests. I’ve included some photos on cigars, the revolution, and the Gaudi-like mosaics in the Fusterlandia area. At the end are miscellaneous shots from all around the area.

I hope that you will enjoy browsing through them as much as I enjoyed taking them. And I’m sure Habana will not look like this for long.

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Cars

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Music

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Fusterlandia

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Cigars

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Architecture / Sights

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RHO 10/16

Mount Massive Climb Nov 3, 1988

Monday, August 1st, 2016

MtMassiveClimb_1

The headline in the November 4, 1988 edition of the Rocky Mountain News read “Was it big medicine or just another snow job?” That year it was the beginning of November and there hadn’t been any significant snow fall yet. So understandably the ski resorts were getting concerned. One resort, Copper Mountain, had employed a medicine man to pray for good (concert) weather in the past so they called on him this time for snow. Marcellus Bear Heart Williams, a Muskogee Indian medicine man from Rio Rancho NM, arrived at the ski resort on the morning of November 3. He chanted, drummed, prayed and smoked his pipe and lo and behold within minutes the snow started falling!!!!! He commented “Perhaps the spirit of an Ute hunter did come by and hit the width of my mouth with a feather.”

 

Now you might ask:  Why did this matter to me?  Well that morning two of my friends, Richard and Pete (first names only to protect the innocent) and I started hiking Mount Massive (Sawatch Range) which at 14,429 feet is the second highest summit of the Rocky Mountains.  We decided to go because there was no snow and started off with a beautiful blue sky morning.  But when we were well above the tree line the snow started and it just got heavier and heavier until we had to stay within 2-3 feet of each other just to maintain visual contact.

 

MtMassiveClimb_2

Finally, within 500-1000 feet of the summit (according to Pete’s altimeter) I made an executive decision “Let’s get the $%*! off this mountain!” to turn back.  Thank goodness.  At that point there was no chance of seeing the trail, all we could do was just head downhill and then parallel the tree line until we found a trail.  I remember trudging along for the last stretch, by then at dusk, for over an hour.  None of us said a word and all you could hear were the crunching of our steps in the snow.  It was tense and scary.  But fortunately we did find the right trail head and our car just as it was getting too dark to see anything.  We could have easily gotten lost and been found in the Spring.  Back then there were no GPS devices or cell phones of course.  It was perhaps the closest I’ve ever come to dying and is a reminder to me just how quickly one can go from really good to really bad.

London Downtown… interesting places (Updated!)

Monday, April 27th, 2015

Restaurants and Wine Bars

Gordon’s wine bar… A MUST, basement down Villiers St. next to Charring Cross Station. Very old, buy a bottle and drink it in the arched candle lit rooms or outside in the courtyard.

Bedford & Strand Wine Bar… 1A Bedford Street just off the Strand near Charing Cross, nice selections and atmosphere.  Not as crowded.

Bibimpap Korean restaurant in SOHO at 11 Greek Street London, W1D 4DJ  (020 7287 3434) 2 streets away from Ronnie Scott’s.  Very casual. Cheap and cheerful, queue in the evening.  Try Kimchi Pancake, Pork & Vegetable Mandoo and raw beef and egg Bibimpap.  Bibimpap cooks itself in a very hot stone bowl as served.

Bierschenke, German Bier Kellar at the corner of The Strand and Essex Street across from the Royal Courts of Justice, lots of Barristers, 020 7936 2536 www.bierschenke.co.uk

Café Des Amis… upscale wine bar near royal Opera House and Covent Garden, Bow St to Horal to 11 Hanover Place (alley) 020 7379 3444

Café Pacifico Mexican bar and restaurant… 5 Langley St, Covent Garden WC2H 9JA, near Covent Garden tube station,  020 7379 7728, www.cafepacifico-laperla.com

CnR Malaysian restaurant in the heart of China town near the W hotel, Leicester Square.

4 Rupert Court W1D 6DY very small side street off Rupert Street near the W and pizza express).   Try the Roti Canai and Singapore Laksa if you don’t know what to order

Cork and Bottle Wine Bar… almost as neat as Gordon’s….wider wine and food selections.  In the basement with interesting little carved-out rooms.  44-46 Cranbourn St. Just off Leicester’s Square near the tube stop.

Cicchetti, fine Italian food and dining, 215 Piccadilli, London W1J 9HL, 020 7494 9435, www.sancarlocicchetti.co.uk

Covent Garden, nice wine bar/restaurant in bottom of stall area, great restaurants and pubs.

Daly’s Wine Bar, at the corner of The Strand and Essex Street across from the Royal Courts of Justice, better wines.  Owner Gerry Hanratty, 020 7583 4476  Lots of lawyers. www.dalyswinebar.co.uk

Dirty Dick’s Pub, near the Liverpool Street Station, financial district,  (One of) The oldest Pubs in London, est 1745.

Fortnum & Mason, Piccadilli (downstairs) wine bar;  red and white flights, live music.

Great Queen Street, Queen Street… Traditional English food

La Perla Mexican Bar… 28 Maiden Lane WC2, near Covent Garden.  Mexican food and drinks.  Also Café Pacifico…  5 Langley Street WC2  Locations in Paris also.

Little Italy Ristorante/Bar across the street from Ronnie Scott’s, 21 Firth St.,  London W1D 4RN  0207 734 4737  www.littleitalysoho.co.uk

Madeira Portuguese Restaurant, open until 2am, live music.  Vuxhall station Embankment.

Wahaca Mexican Market Eating… Neuvo Mexican, Maiden Lane Covent Garden

Rules Resturant, 35 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden,  020 7836 5314, Horse themed, claims to be the oldest running restaurant in London, also great cocktail bar upstairs

The Ritz Hotel, THE RITZ near Piccadilly Circus.  Marvelous décor, great high tea but have a cocktail right at the cocktail bar so you can watch the cocktail preparers preform their art.

The Savoy Hotel on The Strand is a famous old hotel and really neat to just go, have a glass of wine in the New York Bar and take in the atmosphere.  Be sure to check out the “historical display” on the way to the bar with artifacts from all the stars of yester year that stayed there, Monroe, Astaire, Gable to name a few.

The Wolseley restaurant, 160 Piccadilly, 020 7499 6996, great atmosphere located in the old Woseley motor car showroom.  www.thewolseley.com

 

Interesting Places & Music

Camden Town, lots of “crazy” young people too much “flea market” to imagine, ethnic food, old London Locks/Boats, very crowded on weekends…

Covent Garden, good shops, stalls, good street performers

There is a series of markets near Liverpool tube stop that are similar to Camden Town:  Old Spitalfields Market, the Brickline Market, Petticoat Lane Market, and the High Sunday Market.  New and old things and lots of ethnic food from everywhere in a very crowded and diverse neighborhood. Mostly only open on Sunday.

Near Spitalfields is the “Market Coffee House” with jazz every Monday starting at 7:30, 50 Brushfield St. www.marketcoffeehouse.com  020 7247 4110

Great Indian restaurant district near the Sunday markets on Brick Street.  Go to the Aldgate East tube stop, down Whitechaple to Osborn which becomes Brick Street. Try Aladin among all the other eateries that try to talk you in as you walk down the street.

SOHO, “Bohemian” area, very, very interesting people watching, china town… be careful

Ronnie Scott’s, premier jazz club of London. Frith street in SOHO, go to listen not great food, some great acts open late book in advance at www.ronniescotts.co.uk

Jazz After Dark, in SOHO, 9 Greek St W1D 4DQ, small venue with live music open late Tuesday through Saturday, book in advance.  www.jazzafterdark.co.uk  020 7734 0545, 077 7480 3328

Carnaby Street, Oxford Circus, good shopping, trendy shops, Liberty dept store, great Soccer/Rugby store, interesting pubs

“Ain’t ‘nuthin But” Blues club on Kingly St., near Oxford Circus and Carnaby Street, young crowd, somewhat seedy,  may not like it, local blues bands, open mike Sunday starts 4pm.

“Spice of life” Blues, Cambridge Circus, Tuesdays

“Adelaide Road Pub, blues, Clark Farm tube station, Tuesdays

“Heathcote Public House” blues jam Leytonestone tube station, E11 bus, Wednesday

“Globe Public House”, blues, Morning Lane E8, Monday

“Town Hall”, blues, Mare St., Bethnal Green tube station, Bu 254

Tourist musts…Greenwich observatory museum, take the Thames river boat shuttle, great views, stand on the prime meridian, read about the longitudinal clocks before you go, I love mechanical antiques.  Tower military museum, really great dark ages armament neat tour by the beefeaters, royal jewels.  Westminster Chapel, very historic.  War rooms.

A Week in Tuscany… Put It on Your Bucket List

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014
Cinque Terra

Cinque Terra, Manarola from the Water

Our group, actually 22 people, recently spent a week in Tuscany. It was well beyond, and very different from, my expectations and I would recommend it to anyone. What you will find is lush rolling hills, a temperate climate, interesting hill towns, culture and fine art… and of course great food and wine.

Tuscany is a product or it’s history and civilizations. The Apennine culture dominated the late second millennium BC, followed by the Villanovan culture (1100–700 BC). Tuscany, and the rest of Etruria, was then dominated by City-states before the Etruscan civilization rose in the 7th and 6th centuries BC. Then came the Romans in the first century AD followed by the medieval period. Tuscany (Florence) is often referred to as the birthplace of the Renaissance. I didn’t realize how many people died in the “black death” which started in 1348, 50% of the population overall and up to 75% in some cities.

We spent about two weeks in Italy but “the group” all stayed at Villa Ponte in Bettolle for 7 days (previously called Il Casale Del Marchese or La Bandita). The villa dates back to the 18th century but has been beautifully restored and the manager/chef, Gian Luca, is a hoot. While at the villa we did day trips on our own, mostly by car.

Below is the list of towns and places visited:

Cinque Terra:
Actually 5 towns on the Italian Riviera, Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. It’s a fairy tale land with multicolored houses built on the steep hills and terraced gardens. Take the (underground) train and the ferry. Be prepared for lots of walking up and down the steps.

Lucca:

1929 Mercedes

1929 Mercedes SSK in the Mille Miglia

A very quaint walled city. We just happened to be there on the day that the 1000 Miglia, passed through town. The Mille Miglia started in 1927 as an open road endurance race and is now limited to cars made before 1957. I lost count at 100 vintage racing cars.

Castello Banfi and Banfi Wines:
A very large vineyard and winery producing 12 million bottles per year…..plus olive oil. We had a tour then a great lunch in the restored castle.

Montalcino:
Yet another quaint hill town/commune famous for the Brunello di Montalcino wine made from the sangiovese grosso grapes grown within the commune.

Siena:

Siena Cathedral

The Romanesque-Gothic Siena Cathedral

Spend some time people watching in the Palazzo Pubblico where the Palio horse race is held twice a year. The Romanesque-Gothic Siena Cathedral is a must see as well as the home of Saint Catherine of Siena, one of the two patron saints of Italy.

Florence:

Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio on the Arno River; Get out Your Wallet

What can you say about Florenza?….Santa Maria del Fiore, The David, Uffizi Gallery, Piazza della Repubblica….the cradle of the Renaissance. And of course Ponte Vecchio, the Medieval bridge over the Arno river, now home to jewelers, art dealers and souvenir shops.

Bagni San Filippo:
Hot springs, a great surprise and change of pace. We “sort of” stumbled on hot springs that were a bit of a hike back into the woods and with few other people there. There was a series of rustic pools people had damned up going down the hill with the top pool at the source about 96 degrees F.

Pienza:
A hill town/commune with beautiful panoramic views. The town was originally called Corsignano, the birthplace of Aeneas Silvius Picolomini who later became Pope Pius II and entirely rebuilt it as an ideal renaissance town.

Civita:

Bridge To Civita

Don’t take the bridge to Civita if you are afraid of Heights

A very interesting hill town, less restored then the others because it was isolated for years after the original land bridge collapsed. You can still see Etruscan caves in the area. I got vertigo for the first time in my life while walking up the bridge.

Orvieto:
Another interesting hill town perched on vertical cliff faces with a subterranean city of caves and tunnels one can tour. The Duomo, the Orvieto Cathedral, is striped in travertine and basalt.



Other cities people in our group visited included Rome, Venice, Pisa, Cortona, Bologna and Milan.

RO 6-14

Obie’s Things to Do: Aruba

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

Restaurants

Pellican Pier – Informal bar/grill, my favorite place for a grouper sandwich at lunch time, 5 times a week. Fantastic view and I love the atmosphere. At the Holiday Inn out into the water.

Marandi – Large tiki covered “hut on the water”.  Try the capriccio appetizer and Grouper.  Hard to find, on the water near the airport, 297-582-0157

Chef’s Tables – Top notch food, ask for the capriccio appetizer. Turn at Adventure Golf, Bubali Street.  297-587-8140

Madame Janette’s – Top notch food, again try the the capriccio appetizer.  Turn at Adventure Golf.

Simply Fish – Watch the sunset.  On beach at the Marriott Hotel.   297-586-9000

Papiamento, 297-586-4544

Flying Fishbone
– East of Airport about 5 miles toward St Nicholas on the water, Savaneta 344.  297-584-2506.

Screaming Eagle – Sister to Flying Fishbone.  On Eagle Beach,   297-587-8021

Cuba’s Cooking – Downtown, Cuban food is fair but live music most nights. info@cubascookin.com Wilhelminastraat #27, Ornjestad. 297-588-0627

Le Petite Café – Cook/serve on hot stones. Several locations.

Charlie’s – Seedy, lots of atmosphere, great BBQ shrimp.  In St. Nicholas, 297-584-5086

Pincho’s – 297-583-2666

Que Pasa – 297-583-4888

Activities / Clubs

Sunset Sail and Snorkling: The Mi Dushi, 100 year old wooden sailing ship. Also the Jolly Pirates has two sailing ships.

Snorkeling trips: Many variations, one to three stops plus lunch, dinner

Mi Dushi (my favorite), De Palm, Pelican, etc.

ATV excursions: My favorite is Rancho Desperado, fewer rules.  Swim in the natural pool, also Watanabe tours

Horseback riding: Again Rancho Desperado

Mambo Jambo – Late, Salsa club, live bands weekends. 297-583-3632

Garufa Lounge – Live Salsa, downtown.  297-582-3677

Xsizzle – Supper club with live music. Hot weekends near Marriott @ Paseo Herencia. 297-586-3800

Take a ride into the desert side for a picnic; need four wheel drive

RHO

Obie’s Things to do in St. Petersburg – Tampa, Florida

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

Saint Petersburg

–Maazzaro’s Coffee & Italian Market – amazing selection of great gourmet Italian food, eat in or take out, catering. 2909 22nd Ave N, St Pete, Beyond Lowes/Home Depot, 727-321-2400

–Melting Pot – 4th Street and 23rd Ave North, St Pete, FL

–Moon Under Water – Beach St. between 3rd and 4th Ave N. St Pete, British Bar with Indian flare.

Old North East Tavern – Fun bar with good food for the locals. 201 7th Ave North, St Pete

Parkshore Grill – 300 Beach Dr NE # 104, St Pete, FL‎ – (727) 896-9463‎ Expensive but good downtown St Pete, water view dining.

–Red Mesa Mexican Restaurant – on 4th Street and about 50th Ave North, St Pete, GREAT authentic Mexican food.

–Taste for Wine – 241 Central Ave, St Pete, (727) 895-1623. – Second floor of building overlooks central Ave. Wine by the glass, nice place to unwind.

–Ted Peter’s Famous Smoked Fish – 1350 Pasadena Ave S. Pasadens, St Pete Beach 727-381-7931, 100,000 pounds of smoked fish per year, try the mullet

Tampa

Aquaknox, The Weston Tampa Bay Airport, 7627 Courtney Canpbell Causeway, Tampa. 813-675-8700 Glitzy waterfront, water encased walk-in wine tower, open kitchen

–Big John’s Alabama BBQ, 5707 N. 40th St., Tampa. 813-620-0603 area has a half dozen good spots

–Bern’s Steak House, Tampa. One of the largest wine cellars in the world, tour the kitchen and wine cellar. Have desert and a port in the barrel rooms upstairs.

SideBerns, 2208 W. Morrison Ave, Tampa. 813-258-2233 Next door companion to Burns,

–Channelside – Chain restaurants and bars. Howl at the Moon Piano bar. Nice place by the water with a movie theater (In Downtown Tampa).

–Dubliner, The Outdoor Irish bar in Hyde Park, corner of Azeele St and Howard Ave

Las Palmas Café: 19651 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., Tampa. 813-907-1333. Traditional Cuban food

–Ybor City, Tampa: Many places restaurants, bars clubs. Great Sushi at Samari Blue – Neat “warehouse” type restaurant atmosphere. Don’t stay out past 11PM because it can get rough here.

Surrounding Cities

Caddy’s – Beach bar –  9000 W Gulf Blvd, Sunset Beach, FL 33706

Frenchy’s – Causal Fish Dining – Clearwater FL,  various locations

–Gator’s – St John’s pass, St Pete Beach, boasts the largest “Water front Dock bar” anywhere… pull up in the boat and eat there…Also a “boardwalk” with a number of restaurants on the other side of the pass from Gators.

Hula Bay Club, 5210 W. Tyson Ave, 813-837-4852, Waterfront Bar and Grill at Marina

–Informal fish rest/bar on the bay side in Pass the Grill, St. Pete Beach ???

Salt Rock Grill – water front Dining- 19325 Gulf Blvd Indian Shores, St Pete Beach, FL

Enjoy!

RO

Obie’s Things to do in Chicago

Monday, April 20th, 2009

Jazz and Blues Clubs

Buddy Guy’s Legends – Premiere blues club, open 7 nights, 754 Walbash,  312-427-0333

Jazz Showcase – 59 W. Grand & Clark, 312-670-2473

Andy’s Jazz Club – 11 E. Hubbard, 312-642-6805, early start

Blue Chicago – 1 cover, 2 locations, 4 blocks apart  Blues@bluechicago.com

  • Blue Chicago # 736 Clark, 312-642-626
  • Blue Chicago # 536 Clark & Ohio, 312-661-0100,

Howl at the Moon – Dueling pianos! – Near Dearborn & Hubbard

Back Room – Quiet & classic, 1007 N. Rush, 312-751-2433

Green Mill – 4802 N. Broadway, 773-878-5552, Northend

Kingston Mines – 2 live bands per night, 2548 N. Halsted

Second City Comedy Club – 1680 N. Wells, 312-644-4032

Restaurants

Café Ba Ba Reeba – Spanish Tapas; 2024 N. Halsted, 773-935-5000

Billy Goat Tavern – “hole in the wall” 3 blocks from Courtyard Hotel

Fogo de Chao – Brazilian featuring 15 different meats, 661 LaSalle, 312-932-9330

Mambo Grill – Mexican, 412 North Clark, 312-467-9797

Geja’s – Fondue, 340 W. Armitage, 773-281-9191

Maggiano’s – Italian with a piano bar, North Clark, 800-983-4637

Scoozis – Fun Italian, good bar, see and be seen, 410W. Huron, 312-943-5900

Twin Anchors – BBQ ribs, 1655 N. Sedgwich, 312-266-1616

Greektown – Lots of Greek restaurants, Greek Islands, Artopolis, 200 S. Halsted

Chicago Pizza – Try Uno, Due, Gino’s East, Giordano’s, etc.

Charlie Trotters – Top 10, 816 W. Armitage, 773-248-6228

Mortons of Chicago – I’m not into steaks but it’s a great Steakhouse, 1050 North State, 312-266-4820