Monday, July 17, 2017

Alaska Cruise & Land Tour Notes (1)

- How was it?
- Would you recommend it?
That's what my cousins and other potential readers wanted to know, and that's what I'll try to tell you. With the understanding that my notes are purely personal and subjective.

Bottom line: It was great; go for it! But take into account the good and the not-so-good aspects.

First, a photo that summarizes this trip for me: the majestic, visually-elusive Mount Denali:
"Elusive" because more often than not it is veiled by clouds and mist. Our bus-driver /guide /narrator, Becky, said that only 30% of visitors to this area actually get to see the mountain. "Narrator" because that is the term used in the marketing materials everywhere. Never before have I been on a tour where all the guides were also performers, entertainers. (In stark contrast to our guides in China and Vietnam, say, where the solemn guides take their State-appointed responsibility with super seriousness and pour out tons of info as soon as you buckle your seatbelt or step out of the vehicle.)

The above pic lacks the iconic cruise ship, majestic in its own way. That's because Denali National Park & Reserve was part of the land tour we went on prior to the cruise. Which brings me to...
Tip #1: A sea journey in itself is not enough; make sure to book a land tour as well. This may sound obvious, but some people prefer the comfort of the ship. And the ship is indeed comfortable and tempts you with lots of options to waste your time and money. Did I really mean "waste"? Okay, you can call it "spend" if you prefer...

Tip #2: This is Alaska. Weather is unpredictable, even in summer. Here's a view of our lovely cruise ship, the Celebrity Millennium, on the 4th of July 2017, as it docked in Icy Strait Point, Hoonah, where we hoped to see whales. The upper decks with the hot-tubs and tanning beds were all but deserted, as mists and drizzling ruled the day:

So pack a lightweight but warm coat (my newly-acquired Uniqlo, purchased in Toronto Eaton Center, did the trick), a hat, and unless your feet don't mind getting wet (which seems to apply to most Canadians), also waterproof shoes. This sort of grey, wet weather also prevented us from getting a good look at Hubbard Glacier, for instance. Nonetheless, passengers congregated on the deck, cameras in hand, craning their necks and trying to get a good shot. I could see chunks of ice floating on the water, and some shapeless white fluff in the distance that was, apparently, a glacier. Having actually stood on Athabasca Glacier, and seen Bow Glacier in the Canadian Rockies up and personal, as you can see on my Flickr albums, the Hubbard was a bit of an anticlimax. However, on a sunny day Deck 10 was lovely:

Tip #3: Don't get your hopes up when you're told you'll see lots of wildlife. Mostly, it's a matter of chance. You're in nature. You can't count on wild animals to pop up when convenient for you. I'd love to post a photo of a bear, but the bear is not much more than a brown spot in the distance. I'd love to post a photo of a whale, but I only managed to catch its tail. Here's a relative close-up (thanks to a proper zoom lense, not thanks to my iPhone) of a brown creature with ears munching on grass next to a stream:

We did also see (mostly through binoculars or cameras with good zoom lenses) some caribou, moose, dall sheep, deer, bald eagles, swimming salmon, a porcupine up a tree, and one brave wolf who loped gracefully just a few meters in front of our bus in Denali park:

Tip #4: Travel light. Don't take the cruise's recommended "dress code" too seriously. Sure, if you have a glitzy evening dress or designer suit you're dying to show off, this is a good opportunity. But any decent pair of slacks combined with your fave non-T-shirt top will do. No flipflops or dusty hiking boots, please. I brought a "good" dress (Dorin Frankfurt, my go-to designer in Israel) but it was sleeveless and I was too chilly to wear it. I'd packed my best (D.F., again) black trousers, but had gained weight and could barely button them. Which brings me to...

Tip #5: It's a tricky balance between enjoying yourself on vacation and overeating just because the food is so temptingly set out. The food on board was indeed plentiful, varied, and aesthetically displayed. There are several restaurants, of which we chose the least formal one. Vegetarians and people on various diets will find suitable offerings. Though it always amuses me to see a person piling her plate with a selection of cakes, say, but insisting on skim milk for her coffee. I detest skim milk - it's like putting white water in your coffee.

Well, there's plenty more where this came from, but I won't try your patience.
Will add another post, or two, or three, soon.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Hanoi, Vietnam - some observations

It's great to have a guide like Son, who both knows his stuff and makes it sound interesting. A good guide tries to tell you as much as possible about the places you see, but knows when to take a break and let things sink in.

After a few days, my head was spinning. Pagodas, temples, palaces, Buddha, dragons, snakes, history. France, England, China, the United States, Russia -- everyone who was involved in Vietnam's history, for better and for worse, in recent centuries. With plenty of emphasis on Communism and Ho Chi Minh. I was actually pretty impressed with the latter's world travels before seeking a safe haven in China from whence he spread his ideas of what would be best for his homeland. I had no idea that he had travelled far and wide -- France, the U.S., the U.K., the Soviet Union, China and Thailand -- to study, work, widen his horizons and develop his political views. If you want to know more about Vietnam's history and Ho Chi Minh's part in it, go right ahead. Meanwhile, I'll jot down for you some other bits of info which found their way into my travel notebook:
  • Beer and cigarettes are very cheap in Vietnam. Seems to me like a government ploy to sedate the people. People smoke a lot, everywhere. Except on buses, where it's not allowed.
  • The prevalence of cancer in Vietnam is among the highest in the world. Among the causes are air pollution, water pollution, unsafe food (possibly the result of said pollution) and heavy smoking. The Cancer Hospital in the center of Hanoi is always overcrowded. There was a plan, or at least an intent, to transfer it out of the city, but the local rich residents objected -- it would be too inconvenient for them. So a new hospital is being built out of town, for the poorer population. 
  • Classrooms, too, are hugely overcrowded. The official standard of 35 pupils per classroom is not upheld; not even close. Some have as many as 70 pupils, and 3 teachers. (I can just see my teacher-friends rolling their eyes in dismay.) 
  • If weather turns cold (in Vietnam terms), i.e. under 10 deg C (= 50 deg F), there's no school. Because there's no heating in the classrooms. And because most pupils get to school on their parent's scooter, standing in front, as you can see in my previous blog post, and it's just too darn cold!
  • There's a restriction of 2 children per family in Vietnam.
  • Supermarkets. I could see the entrance to our right, but Son, our guide, turned to a different door on the left. Apparently, you must first deposit your bag/s in the locker room, and carry only your wallet into the actual shop. There's a very prominent sign, in Vietnamese and in English, to that effect next to the real entrance. Phrased in very strict terms (at least the English is.) We had no trouble buying chocolate digestives (sorry, not McVitie's) and tonic water, while Son bought apples.
  • The Temple of Literature -- Vietnam's first university. Isn't that a lovely name for a uni? Imagine my disappointment upon learning that it no longer functions as a university; it's just another pretty location with lots of tourists... 
  • Which doesn't mean it didn't provide for some cute items:

  • And a-propos universities: The government apparently agreed to the existence of a private university so long as it doesn't teach history, law, journalism, media; and does not grant a teaching certificate. Ain't that grand?...
  • The Water-Puppet Show. Definitely one of the weirdest shows I've ever seen.  As you can see, the pics I took aren't much good, but there are plenty of better ones online.

    If you want to listen to some live Vietnamese music and singing, and watch puppets "dance" on the water and act out folk tales, by all means go and see it. 
  • And just for fun:
Michael and Nina with Ho Chi Minh :-)

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Hanoi, Vietnam - Crazy Traffic

Okay, so there we were in the center of Hanoi, in what's known as the Old Quarter. Narrow streets. Crazy, endless traffic in all directions. Most notably 2-wheeled motorized vehicles. You know -- scooters of all sorts. Total madness. Everyone riding in any direction they please, with no attention to the concept of "lanes" and very little attention to traffic lights, which are few and far between.

We are with our efficient and super-helpful guide, Son. He says the most common scooters are Honda, Yamaha, and Vespa. Yes, you do have to take a test and get a license. Officially, the age for a scooter license is 18, as opposed to 20 for a car. Unofficially, judging by what we saw out in the country, looks like there's barely a limit. Kids start riding bikes (your basic, non-motorized kind) at a very young age; one must learn to get around one's village and be of use to the family. Once you've mastered riding a bike, what's to stop you from riding a scooter?.. Oh, you don't have a license? That can be easily arranged. You can always pay a kind of "insurance fee" that ensures you pass your test, hint-hint, nudge-nudge, know-what-I-mean.

Um, there's also no de-facto limit on the number of passengers per scooter, or the amount of stuff -- livestock, chickens (dead or alive) merchandise, crates, flowers -- you name it -- you carry on your bike. Again -- there are official limits.

But who can live on a daily basis with official limits? You and your spouse must get to work, and you have to drop off the kids at their respective schools, and your eldest is using the other scooter, so the four or five of you pile onto the parent's scooter, and off you go. The older kid stands between the driver's legs, holding onto the handlebars, and the younger kid sits behind the adult (or relatively-adult) passenger, hanging on to him or her for dear life. Sometimes there's also a baby nestled against his mother's chest, wrapped and tied up in some shawl.
Kids with helmets! Yay! A rare sight.
The adults usually wear a helmet, and the women hardly ever drive in town without a fabric mask covering their faces from under their eyes to below the chin. Why? Against pollution? Perhaps, But also so as to protect their skin from the sun and prevent it from getting tanned. 
Selection of scooter masks

Keep your complexion as pale as possible, is the name of the game. All toiletry manufacturers adjust their products accordingly.
Huge selection of cheap toiletries in the market
Statistically, there are around 10,000 fatalities from traffic accidents per year in Vietnam. It may not sound shocking considering a population of some 92 million, of which about 7.5 million in Hanoi alone. But still, when you think of it in absolute terms, it's scary.

And talking of scary. On a practical, daily basis, crossing the street in Vietnam is a scary challenge. Son confidently demonstrated how he does it, and had us follow him closely. In the evening, when we went wandering about on our own, I clung to my husband and prayed each time we chose to cross a street. The scooter drivers seemed to pay us no heed. They minded their own business, while we had to look out for our bodies and souls. Later on in our trip, even though by then we were somewhat more adept at crossing streets, there was one place where we simply gave up. But that was in Ho Chi Minh City, and will wait for a later blog post.

One more factor that complicates pedestrians' life is the sidewalks (pavements, in British English.) They are taken. In use. Crowded. Not by other pedestrians so much as by rows upon rows of parked scooters; by merchandise flowing out of shops -- dolls, bags, toys, flowers, clothes, food, etc.,
Sidewalk taken up by flowers on low plastic stools
Sidewalk taken up by parked scooters well as by coffee-drinkers perched on tiny plastic stools of the type used [in my country] for tots in nurseries and pre-school.
 Wish I could squat as these Vietnamese do. When we do squats in yoga class I am a total failure. My ballet-aficionada daughter introduced me to a wonderful fitness website that is guaranteed to improve my squatting skills if I only persist in practicing. These Vietnamese are just naturally gifted that way. And so they sit on those miniature stools, their knees close to their ears practically, sip their strong coffee and/or eat their lunch. Since I am a relatively polite person, I balked at staring at the squatting folks, and so don't have a good picture to upload :-(  The one I have doesn't do justice to this aspect of Life in Vietnam. But what's Google Images for? Search and ye shall find :-)

Useful info:
We stayed at the Hanoi Siesta Diamond Hotel, which belongs to the Elegance Hospitality Group. Extremely pleasant place, wonderful staff.

To be continued....

Sunday, February 21, 2016

What else to do in Catania, Sicily

- That is, what else in addition to taking a tour of Mount Etna.
I'd never heard of Catania. Most people have heard of Palermo. But Palermo is "just a city", I was told -- albeit a pretty one with lots of relics and stuff. Whereas Catania is the Gate to Mt. Etna.
And so it came to pass that, after spending a week in Rome, we were in a taxi from Catania airport to to the center of town.

"Is this Catania?" My husband asked, trying to stifle the dread in his voice.
"No, this is just the outskirts of town," replied our driver cheerfully, as he continued driving through the dreary, poor housing projects. (He didn't actually use the word "outskirts", but that was obviously what he meant.)
"There we are," he said about ten minutes later, pulling over to park.
I looked at the exterior of the building and my heart sank.
Entrance gate to the building
Via Dottor Consoli 55, Catania

 The inner court was not much better, with its grey, peeling walls. I couldn't even hope it was a mistake, because the sign outside confirmed we'd reached the B&B we'd ordered online.
However, once we were inside, we calmed down.
The interior was bright and happy-looking, and Lucia at the desk was effervescently friendly and helpful. Which reminds me I should offer the owners my English editing services for their website :-)

Our room, though colorful and youthful-looking, wasn't the best. But then, we did choose one of the cheaper rooms offered on Expedia. Looking back, I think it was more suitable for a couple of students on a budget than for a couple of pensioners with aching backs and too much luggage.
Michael relaxing w his iPad

Not enough room for clothes and stuff

Unnerving glass partition and door to bathroom

As you can see above, it was winter time, when bulky coats, cardigans and boots take up a lot of space. I am told tourists usually prefer going to Sicily in summer, to enjoy its beautiful, relaxing beaches. So maybe in summer, with bathing suits, flipflops, a few T-shirts & shorts, the shelves are sufficient.
I don't know why so many B&B owners give so little thought to bathroom shelves and hooks. I bet the designers are men, of the type whose toiletries comprise toothpaste and shaving gel. Though surely the typical Rome gentleman uses deodorant and after-shave? Be that as it may, I rarely find a suitable spot to place my necessaire with its cute small vials of creams and lotions.

The Elephant at the Piazza Duomo, Catania
It was Sunday afternoon, and we were starving. Off we went, trotting down Giardino Bellini to Via Etnea, assisted by Lucia's map and Michael's nearly-infallible sense of direction, in search of what my younger daughter calls FOOOOD. The streets were nearly deserted. Not only off-season, but probably still siesta-time. I have no recollection of what or where we finally grabbed a bite. So long that it was enough to keep us going.

Walking along Via Etnea (and courageously ignoring the fashionable shops), we finally reached Catania's highlights: three consecutive piazzas, each boasting a few beautiful old buildings, mostly of Baroque style I am told, and plenty of alluring cafes. My personal favorite was the elephant in Piazza Duomo.

To me, it may just be an elephant, reminding me of  Terry Pratchett's Discworld and perhaps of our trip to Thailand; but to Catanians it is a symbol of their city and its long history.

close-up of elephant
Anyone into history, architecture, and/or religion will surely appreciate the cathedrals and churches. I was rather upset by the glaring contrast between the "important" buildings, which had been scrubbed clean and were relatively well-maintained, and the adjacent "ordinary" buildings which were dirty and run-down. The city obviously doesn't have the funds to clean up and restore more than a handful of major-interest structures.
Side by side
Church, cleaned up
Adjacent building, looks like hell
 To end this totally-inadequate-post on a sweet note, here are a few recommendations and heartfelt thanks:
Food: Blanc a Manger, Brasserie Italienne, 55 Santa Filomena, Catania
Coffee and cake or snacks: i dolci di Nonna Vincenza; a chain with branches in Catania, Roma, Bologna and Milan. We enjoyed it at Piazza Duomo 17/18, Catania
Guilia Bacillieri, tour guide, Catania; works with InSicilia Vacanze and Etna Tribe; see also my post of our Etna tour
Lucia, our delightful and efficient hostess/receptionist at Miro B&B: