Pandemic Journal, Day 509

It was our last day in Iceland; we had breakfast at the hotel again (the barista there makes a very nice espresso macchiato!) and finished packing before setting out for a little last-minute exploration.

We hadn’t walked all the way around The Pond yet, so that was our goal. Along the way, I was playing with Google Maps and found something called “Trivial Earth Lovers” – the description calls it a place of worship, but the photo associated with it appears to be that of the headquarters of the DAS Lottery! At any rate, that made me think of geocaching, so I hunted for easy caches near us and found two virtual caches, The Unknown Bureaucrat and Monument of Jón Sigurðsson – we’d been to both statues several times during the trip, so all we had to do was go back and take photos with one of us in the picture with the statue and submit the log.

We finished our walk around The Pond before getting the necessary photos; it was a pleasant day for a walk (we were amazingly fortunate in the weather the whole time we were in Iceland). If we’d had more time, we might have explored the “Human Expansion Station

but we skipped it in favor of leaving time for a visit to the National Gallery of Iceland (our Reykjavik cards were still valid, and I wanted to get full value from them!).

The National Gallery had a number of special exhibits – we had just enough time to visit two. The first, Death is Elsewhere, was a seven-screen video showing a couple dancing and singing very odd songs (in English) about Death being elsewhere – we stayed for a few minutes and moved on before the songs became total earworms.

The second, Hello Universe, was more traditional – it mostly had paintings, though there were some odd mixed-media pieces like Halldór Ásgeirsson’s Aurora Borealis Bar.

The labels for “Hello Universe” were only posted in Icelandic; fortunately, the museum had put the English versions online so we could look at them while walking through the exhibition.

After visiting the National Gallery, we took photos at the two geocaches and walked back to the hotel to finish packing and to check out, then we set out for one final meal at the Reykjavik Fish Company. I was pretty sure I knew where it was, but I brought it up on Google Maps to be certain – that was a mistake, because Google had the wrong address! We found it anyway and enjoyed fish and chips (they were out of Arctic char). It was next to Valdis Ice Cream – even though I wasn’t the slightest bit hungry, I wanted to try the ice cream. Valdis was the place we’d been hunting for the entire trip – our trainer had told us to find a place that served ice cream on waffles – but I had to limit myself to a single scoop on a cone. It was very good; next visit to Reykjavik, I’ll plan to go to Valdis for the full experience.

Then it was back to the hotel to retrieve our luggage, a quick walk across the street to the bus stop for the trip to the bus terminal and thence to Keflavik to fly home (well, to Boston).

The route to the airport took us near Fagradalsfjall Volcano. It had been pretty quiet the last few days, but as we passed it, there was lots of steam coming out.

The commentary on one of the YouTube channels carrying live video said that there’d been a wall collapse a few minutes before we passed by, generating lots of lava. All I could do was watch the feed and wish I were there.

Now we’re on our flight to Boston – there was no chance to see the volcano when we took off, but I did enjoy the view of glaciers over Greenland.

The movies and TV offerings on this flight didn’t excite me, but I was drawn to one album, “IBM 1401, A User’s Manual” by Jóhann Jóhannsson.

The first track, “IBM 1401 Processing Unit”, was strictly musical, so I was really surprised when the second track, “IBM 1403 Printer”, included readings of parts of the manual! Diane says she wishes her father had been able to hear this album – he spent years servicing 1401 systems as an IBM Customer Engineer.

We should land in Boston in a couple of hours – we’ll have to stay awake until 10pm or so Eastern Time.

Tomorrow, we see our son!

Pandemic Journal, Day 508

It was still pretty noisy outside last night when we went to bed, but closing the windows and turning on some brown noise made a huge difference, and we slept well.

We took an early walk this morning in search of a non-buffet breakfast – not much was open, and what there was didn’t appeal to us, so we went back to our hotel for their buffet after all – it was good, though not very Icelandic, except for one beverage:

Neither of us indulged.

After breakfast, we went to Kolaportið, the weekend-only flea market held in the old customs hall. It’s mostly aimed at locals rather than tourists (in fact, their official website is only in Icelandic) with lots of semi-permanent booths selling things like reading glasses, vintage clothing, and old appliances, but almost as soon as we entered, Diane found a jewelry maker who had made a nice pendant with a preserved lupin flower inside.

After wandering through the rest of the market (which reminded me very much of a con’s huckster room, though with even fewer books), we decided we’d take the ferry to Viðey Island. There were two options, both covered by the Reykjavik Card. There was an hourly ferry from the Skarfabakki terminal, which would require a cab ride. Or there was a twice-a-day ferry from the Old Harbor, ten minutes walk away – but I couldn’t find the schedule on their webpage and they didn’t answer their phone! We gambled and walked to the Elding booth at the Old Harbor and found that the next departure was 10 minutes away.

The trip was pleasant – we saw the Þúfa, an interesting artwork, as soon as the ferry pulled out, and of course there were views of Hallgrímskirkja Church and Harpa to be had, too.

The ferry stopped next to an Icelandic Coast Guard cutter, but nobody got out – we had stopped at Skarfabakki terminal to pick up passengers.

Five minutes later, we were at Viðey Island; we had a quick lunch at Viðey House and set off to explore the island.

Our first stop was the Imagine Peace Tower, a memorial to John Lennon from Yoko Ono. It wasn’t lit, of course, but I can imagine it would be very interesting to see when it is!

We didn’t have enough time to explore the whole island, but we did visit a few of the Milestones created by Richard Serra.

Soon enough, though, we were on the ferry and waving goodbye to the island and its inhabitants.

We got off at the Old Harbor and decided to visit the Omnom Chocolate Factory and Ice Cream Shop. It was raining lightly, and we weren’t dressed for it (I’d foolishly believed the weather forecast), so we popped into the Maritime Museum to let the worst of the rain pass.

I hadn’t really researched Omnom beyond seeing the rave reviews of their chocolate and ice cream; I thought it’d be a large operation, something like the Jelly Belly Factory or the Ritter Berlin Choco-World. It wasn’t – there was only one person staffing the store, which offered a few ice cream concoctions and a wide selection of chocolate bars. Both of us got the Lakkrís Wolf, which had soft serve covered with liquorice-chocolate sauce, raspberry-liquorice-chocolate cookie crumble and a milk chocolate wolf. It was interesting, but I wouldn’t choose it again. And we had to eat it outside, where the rain had returned.

We were able to take a bus back almost all the way to our hotel instead of walking a couple of kilometers, but we still got drenched when some clown drove his car through a puddle right next to us!

After we changed our clothes, we went on a final search for souvenirs in the Laugavegur area near our hotel – it’s Pride Week here, and the streets were filled with people celebrating (or maybe that’s what every summer Saturday looks like here!).

We had dinner at Brew Dog – good beer, messy sandwiches (sadly, they had run out of lambstrami, which was our goal, but the brisket and cheese bun was good), and a skillet cookie which might not have really been necessary. Our timing was good – when we left, there was a long line of people waiting for tables.

Now to pack up – tomorrow, we fly!

Pandemic Journal, Day 507

We got up extra early today to be sure we wouldn’t miss our Covid-19 test, so of course we were ready to leave the ship 30 minutes before our target.

The ship called a taxi for us, and a few minutes later, they said it was ready. The cruise director helped us with our luggage and we left the ship for the last time. There was a taxi there – but it had passengers in it, and when they got out, it drove off.

The people in the taxi were looking for a Golden Circle tour, which didn’t seem to be anywhere nearby. Our taxi (or at least another taxi!) pulled up while they were on the phone with their tour operator and we were off to the hotel – I hope they found their tour.

It only took a few minutes to get to our home for the next two nights, the 101 Hotel. Our room wasn’t ready, unsurprisingly, so we had them store our bags and waited for our friends to arrive so we could split a taxi to and from the Covid testing place.

The test was uneventful, and our results were negative, so we’ll be able to go back to the US on Sunday.

After getting tested, we went back into Reykjavik to enjoy the day. We started at the Saga Museum, which uses dioramas like this one to bring the early years of Iceland’s history to life. There’s an audio tour included – the whole museum took about 45 minutes to explore. Fun, but not life-changing.

From there, we went to Whales of Iceland, which also uses an audio tour and whale reproductions to help you appreciate cetaceans. Again, fun, but not life-changing.

We had hoped to have lunch at Kasbah, but even though they had signs in front of the restaurant advertising their lunch specials, they were closed. I checked the web site later and found that they’re only open for dinner – and we didn’t go there for dinner, either. Since Kasbah was closed, we went across the street to Reykjavik Fish; three of us had fish and chips, while Diane held out for Arctic char. Diane and I did agree on having Boli Beer – it was the best Icelandic beer we’ve had.

We went back to the hotel and finished checking in – our room overlooks Arnarhóll. Unfortunately, that also means it overlooks Hverfisgata, a very busy street – it’s going to be interesting trying to sleep tonight.

We finished the afternoon by going to three museums, beginning with The Culture House, part of the National Museum of Iceland. Most of the space is given over to “Treasures of a Nation”, Icelandic art – there were some very nice pieces included, such as Lava Flow by Þorbjörg Þórðardóttir:

Mountain Vista by Ólöf Einarsdóttir:

Kitchen Life by Anna Líndal:

and Die of Destiny by Finnur Jónsson:

Well worth a visit.

We then went to the Reykjavik Art Museum’s Hafnarhjús location; it was devoted to a group exhibition of very modern art. The piece I liked best was called Compasses, by Anna Rún Tryggvadóttir – it was created from felled trees, mounted horizontally and motorized to rotate slowly.

The rest of the exhibit was far more challenging. I’m glad I went, but I’m also glad the price of admission was included in the Reykjavik City Card.

Our final museum for the day was the Reykjavik Museum of Photography, on the 6th floor of the City Library. It was mostly given over to photographs by Sigurhans Vignir, showing Reykjavik (and occasionally other parts of Iceland) from about 1940-1970. I was taken aback when I saw his photo of the Town Center at Siglufjörður:

and realized I’d taken a similar photo earlier in the week!

Things had changed in the intervening decades.

Pandemic Journal, Day 506

Last night was probably the longest sail of this trip; we weren’t due into Heimaey until around 9am, so we had a leisurely breakfast. I went out on deck just in time to catch the pilot boat approach and the pilot come on board.

 

 

 

Once we’d docked, I went out on deck again and was nearly overwhelmed by the smell of fish – there were local birds taking advantage of the bounty, too.

Our tour of Heimaey began at the Volcano Museum; Heimaey was nearly destroyed in 1973 by a sudden lava flow from a vent which opened without warning – the lava eventually formed a new volcanic cone, Eldfell, and added about 20% to the size of the island (so any time you hear a real estate agent tell you to “buy land because they’re not making it any more” you can ignore that advice).

After the museum, we took a drive through town, passing through the harbor (where we confirmed what our noses had already told us – fish was the core of the town’s economy!), passing by Sprangan, a cliff where young islanders learn rope swinging – it’s how they collect eggs from nesting birds.

We continued around the island, stopping at their festival grounds, which were all set up for a festival which draws about 15,000 Icelanders every year (the population of Heimaey is only about 4,000).

The festival happens the first weekend in August, the weekend which has the most domestic tourism. But it was cancelled at the last minute this year because of Covid concerns. Maybe next year….

From there, we drove to the “puffin house” to enjoy one last view of puffins before we leave Iceland.

While we were there, our guide Sindri noticed a baby kittiwake that seemed to be struggling, so he grabbed it

then he carried it down to the shore

and threw it into the air so it could fly on its own.

Our final stop was near the airport – Sindri told us about the struggle to save Heimaey after the eruption, and the use of pumps like this one to slow the advance of the lava.

At first, they used the pumps to save houses and the town, but that meant that the lava started to threaten the harbor – and without the harbor, there was no reason for the town to exist. So they concentrated on the harbor and saved it; people started moving back into town as soon as the eruption ended, six months after it started.

We didn’t get a chance to see any of Heimaey on our own – but it looked like a nice place to explore on our next trip to Iceland.

We sailed away during lunch; there was one last lecture on the schedule, from Brian Murray from Duke on the transition to a low-carbon economy. At the end of the lecture, there were announcements: macarons were available in the lounge and there were whales visible from the ship. We decided that macarons could wait and went up to the observatory lounge on Deck 6.

We were not disappointed. I’ve never seen so many whales at one time, nor for so long – they were near the ship for at least an hour. I took over 200 photos, but not all of them were worth keeping. Here are a few I like – and there are many others.

We have a Covid testing appointment tomorrow morning at 9am, so we can’t linger on the ship (which probably makes them happy – they want to clean the room for the next guests). It’s been a good trip, and there’s more to come before we’re home.

Pandemic Journal, Day 505

We’re on our way to Jökulsárlón, the glacial river lagoon – we began with a tender ride to the foggy town of Höfn, which we were assured was charming on a day when you could see it. Then it was onto a bus for an hour-long drive to Jökulsárlón. We stopped at Hotel Smyrlabjörg for a comfort stop; we were preceded by the 13 Yule Lads we’d met on Monday in Dimmuborgir, but they’d gotten much more colorful in the interim.

At the lagoon, we had a few minutes to walk around before boarding a duck for our lagoon cruise.

We had to wear masks and life jackets the whole time and sit while we were on land, but we were free to move around once we were on the water. Being out with the icebergs and glacial fragments was a lot of fun.

At one point, our guide passed around a chunk of glacial ice; it was amazingly transparent and not all that cold!

We left the duck behind and reboarded the bus for a short drive to a beach where we ate our bagged lunches. It was a delightfully warm day – 13C – but none of us had brought swimsuits. There was an art exhibit on the beach with photos of the lagoon – it seemed rather meta.

After lunch, we drove back to Höfn and made a brief comfort stop at a library(!) and then continued on to meet our ship, which had repositioned to Djúpivogur.

A short tender ride later, we were aboard and in the lounge to enjoy the drink of the day.

Drink of the day

Tonight is the Captain’s Farewell Dinner – I suspect we won’t be finished until quite late. Good thing we don’t have to pack this evening!

Pandemic Journal, Day 504

We arrived in Seyðisfjörður during breakfast; as we sailed down the fjord leading to the town, we enjoyed seeing a couple of nice waterfalls.

There was only one formal activity on the agenda for this morning, a walk to the Blue Church for a concert of mostly Icelandic music by a local duo – I’m not sure that the guitar with the electric pickup was truly authentic. They said that any cheerful songs were almost certainly borrowed from other cultures, which might explain why they followed two songs about death and ghosts with Home on the Range, even if it was in Icelandic.

After the concert, we wandered around town for a bit, then went to the Tourist Information Center at the port to take advantage of fast Internet connectivity – we managed to upload all of the photos we’ve taken in the past few days before returning to the ship for lunch.

The ship sailed at 3; the afternoon was filled with lectures (one on glaciers in Iceland and one on Historic Preservation). It’s foggy outside, but we’re in the 6th deck Observation Lounge anyway. :-)

Tomorrow, we visit Jökulsárlón (which means “glacial river lagoon”) to see what we’ve been hearing about in the lectures. It should be an interesting day.

Pandemic Journal, Day 503

We got off to another early morning start today after a late night yesterday (there was a classical piano concert after dinner, and then we just couldn’t resist staying up for sunset).

The ship docked at Húsavík just before breakfast time, and we were on the bus around 8:15 to meet our guide, Yngvar (a Norwegian who moved to Iceland with his Icelandic wife). Húsavík is an old fishing village (they have a whale museum we didn’t get to see) which now has some high-tech businesses, especially solar cell production.

But we weren’t there to see solar cells – we were off for a 120-mile drive through the countryside. Our first stop was the geothermal field of Námaskar∂, chock full of sulphurous mud springs (we could smell it well before we got to it). It reminded me of Lasson National Park, but with many fewer tourists and warning signs. The bus driver gave us blue booties to wear so that we wouldn’t track volcanic mud into the bus!

After we’d explored enough of the sulphur field, we drove a few miles (err, kilometers) to Dimmuborgir, near Lake Mývatn, to walk in an older lava field filled with giant pillars and chimneys.

We were assaulted by thousands of teeny-tiny flies at Dimmuborgir – they didn’t bite, but they certainly were annoying. We’d been warned about them by our trainer and came equipped with head nets to keep them away.

Our final stop was Go∂afoss Falls (Waterfall of the Gods), where we got to walk almost all the way down to the falls – I suspect people fall in from time to time.

Then it was back to the ship for a very late lunch. We finished about 3:45pm, so we missed the National Trust’s lecturer, but we managed to see the lecturer from Duke on energy policy.

Dinner went smoothly – the amuse bouche was beet-based, and I was shocked to enjoy it!

We’re now en route to tomorrow’s destination, Seyðisfjörður. The sky is cloudy, so we don’t have to stay up for tonight’s sunset!

Pandemic Journal, Day 502

The day started quite early with a presentation about life on Grimsey Island – it’s quite different in the summer when visitors arrive than the winter, when only the 60-odd permanent residents are there and the sun doesn’t rise. Ferry Day is a big event!

We were on the first tender from the ship and took off on the path to the Arctic Circle. We passed the monument marking the former position of the Arctic Circle after only a few minutes of walking – but because of the precession of the Earth’s axis, the marker for current position of the Circle was nearly two miles north!

According to Wikipedia, the Arctic Circle is continuing to move north, and it’s actually about 90 meters north of the monument – we walked far enough to be sure we’d crossed the current position, but there was nothing to take a photo of there!

Grimsey is also known for its puffin colonies – there were more puffins than you could shake a stick at, and they were cute beyond belief!

This afternoon, we visited the Herring Era Museum in Siglufjörður – we saw a demonstration of herring salting and got to taste a couple of varieties of herring (and another shot of Brennivín).

Pandemic Journal, Day 501

We were the last group off the ship this morning, which gave us the luxury of sleeping late and having a leisurely breakfast and time to wander around the ship before boarding the tender for Vigur Island. The island is family-owned and only a limited number of visitors are allowed on at any time.

The main attraction of Vigur Island is the wildlife – puffins, Arctic terns (which can be vicious – we had to carry sticks to avoid being attacked by them), and eider (ducks). The island produces about 50kg of eiderdown per year, of a world production of only 3500kg – the down is harvested from the nests of the ducks after they shed it.

We survived the terns and were treated to “happy marriage cake” before leaving the island.

After lunch, we sailed to Isafjörður and visited the Maritime and Folk Museum. There, we sampled some Icelandic delicacies – dried fish, preserved shark, and Black Death (Brennivín, Icelandic schnapps). The schnapps was the best of the three offerings.

After that, we stopped at a waterfall where we drank water right from the glacier that fed it – untreated!

Then we drove through a six-kilometer long tunnel to Bolungarvik for a short concert in an old church and a visit to the Fisherman’s Museum.

And now we’re back on the ship, en route to Grimsey Island and the Arctic Circle. I expect to lose connectivity soon, so I’m posting now!

Pandemic Journal, Day 500

We said farewell to the Hotel Borg this morning and boarded our bus for the Golden Circle tour.

We drove past the geothermal power plant, nearly to Selfoss, through Geysir, and on to Gullfoss where we got off the bus and walked to the end of the trail over the falls. Along the way, we took photos of a big glacier and of fishermen in a river.

Back to Geysir for a walk to Strokker geyser, which erupts every few minutes. It wasn’t easy to capture it, but I finally got some video.

Lunch was at Geysir Restaurant – salmon with Icelandic barley, potatoes, and a vegetable soup. Also South African wine (Cape Heights Cabernet Sauvignon), though Icelandic beer was on offer, and I had an Icelandic orange soda, Applesin.

Next stop: Þingvellir, the original seat of the Icelandic Parliament, and the place where the European and North American plates touch. I took many photos, but bandwidth restrictions prevent me from sharing them now.

Boarding the ship was complicated because of Covid; we are their first passengers since Before, and things are still a bit uneven.

Connectivity is very slow out here, but I’ll do what I can!

Pandemic Journal, Day 499

This morning, we began our tour with a trip to the Perlan to get a preview of the wonders of Iceland, including a trip through their Ice Cave (kept at -5C, made with more than 350 tons of snow).

The Glacier exhibits were fascinating, and more than a little scary when they used time lapse photography to show how much glaciers like the Mendenhall in Alaska have shrunk during the 21st Century; there was also an obituary for the Okjökull Glacier, which was declared dead in 2014.

I also enjoyed going outside on the fourth level to take in a 360º panorama of Reykjavik – while we were out there, the guide told us that you could get a very nice 3-bedroom apartment in a very nice part of town for about 1 million US dollars – those of us from the Bay Area wondered why it was so cheap!

From the Perlan, we took a long bus ride through the outskirts of town, eventually winding up at the National Museum of Iceland. This was the last stop of the day; the bus left 30 minutes after we got there, but several of us stayed behind to explore more of the history of Iceland (the museum was a 15-minute walk from the hotel, so planning to miss the bus wasn’t a big deal).

Lunch was at an interesting Middle Eastern restaurant, Mandi, near the hotel. The food was good, the prices reasonable, and the atmosphere non-existent. Diane and I had a “mixed plate” with lamb, chicken, and cod, plus plenty of salad. We also tried basil seed drinks which were bottled in Thailand for a company with Jordanian and Swedish phone numbers – the label, of course, was entirely in English, and the size was given in US fluid ounces first, with metric as an afterthought.

We spent the afternoon roaming around the city (if you want total honesty, it was so I could buy candy – I had to use a self-service cash register with Icelandic prompts!) and returned, one more time, to Caruso for dinner.

Tomorrow morning, we leave the hotel for a Golden Circle tour and end up on the ship – it’s already in Reykjavik, where the crew has been serving a two-week quarantine before starting to sail with passengers; I guess we’re the beta testers!

Pandemic Journal, Day 498

Our pre-tour officially began this morning when we got into a mini-bus with a dozen other travelers for our excursion to the Blue Lagoon.

The trip included a buffet breakfast (in Iceland, such things still exist!), a swim in the lagoon, a drink, and their silica mud mask – we took advantage of all four.

After the lagoon, we got onto a bigger bus for the trip into town and a visit to the Hallgrímskirkja Church – since we’d been there already, we left the group and had lunch at 101 Reykjavik Street Food. I had the plokkfiskur (traditional Icelandic fish stew) and Diane had the lamb soup. I’d go back – even if they didn’t also give us free Prince Polo bars for dessert.

The rest of the day was “at leisure”, so we wandered around town, including paying a visit to the Sun Voyager sculpture on the waterfront.

The weather was beautiful – sunny and 66 degrees – and outside restaurant seating was packed!

Tomorrow, we take a city tour in the morning – it’ll hit places we haven’t been yet, so we expect to stay with the group all day.

Pandemic Journal, Day 497

I follow a jet-lag reduction routine that I found a long time ago in Jane Brody’s column in the New York Times (if you’re a subscriber, you can read the article here; if not, most of the info is here). It seems to work well. Last night, I took my melatonin at 10pm, as directed, and was out soon thereafter, waking around 7am today and staying awake and feeling good all day – well, until I took melatonin this evening and started to feel tired again!

We visited two of the Reykjavik city museums today. This morning, we went to the Settlement Exhibition, which tells the story of the earliest days of the city, based on a 10th Century longhouse they discovered while building a hotel nearby. It was dark inside, so we didn’t take photos inside, but the outside was somewhat interesting.

We lunched at Cafe Rosenberg, where we both had lox and bagels with honeyed cream cheese.

Somehow, we had room for dessert and went to Gaeta Gelato. Fortunately, they offered “little” cones (only $6!) that were just about the right size.

This afternoon, we went back to the Old Harbor to visit the Maritime Museum.

We saw both exhibits at the Maritime Museum – one on the recovery and exploration of the Melckmeyt, a 17th Century Dutch ship that sank while trading with Iceland, and the permanent exhibit about “Fish and Folk”, how fishing shaped Iceland and Icelanders. Both were worth seeing – we spent more time with the permanent exhibit, though.

After the Maritime Museum, we wanted fish; our friends had done some research and found Messinn, less than a five-minute walk from our hotel. It was a great catch – their specialty is “fish pans”. Diane had the Atlantic Wolffish and I had the cod with curry and chili – both were excellent. And somehow, we had room for dessert and split a piece of chocolate cake with pistachio ice cream!

Tomorrow will start early; we leave the hotel at 8am to join the rest of our group for breakfast and a swim at the Blue Lagoon, followed by a tour of the Hallgrímskirkja Church (I’m hoping they include a trip to the tower, since we’ve already seen the rest of the church). The rest of the day will be “at leisure” (which means we get to figure out our own meals – I don’t think that will be much of a hardship).

Pandemic Journal, Day 496

I had hoped to post yesterday’s blog yesterday, but there was no connectivity on the plane, nor on the bus into Reykjavik, and by the time I got to the Hotel Borg, it was already today.

Other than that, the trip was pretty uneventful – Diane and I slept a little bit, but not enough! I’m not sure if the gin

and the chocolate

made it easier or harder to sleep during the flight, but they were very interesting introductions to Icelandic cuisine.

I made a strategic error when packing – instead of one heavy suitcase, we checked two light ones. And we brought a roll-aboard for those things that we didn’t want to check. All very good, until we had to get everything onto the FlyBus and from the drop point to the hotel – then I realized that it’s hard to pull two suitcases at once, no matter how light they are.

Once we got to our hotel and unpacked a little, we headed out for a walk through Reykjavik. Our first stop was the Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat, not far from Reykjavik City Hall.

From there, we walked through the Old Harbor area to Aurora Reykjavik (Northern Lights Museum), passing ships being worked on and art along the way.

The museum itself was quite interesting – lots of information about the aurora (all of it in English), with good visuals. They had a long HD loop of aurora videos taken all over Iceland; it was beautiful and fascinating, but not the best choice for sleep-deprived travelers!

Lunch was nearby at Lamb Street Food – I found it through TripAdvisor, and the guy at the Aurora said it was good. They were right – it was delicious and apparently reasonably priced for Iceland.

We split up after lunch; our friends wanted to go to Fly Over Iceland (like Soaring Over California at Disney, but in Iceland); we wanted to see more of the city, so we did Rick Steves’ introductory Reykjavik walk. We retraced some of our steps from the morning, but soon found outselves in new territory, ending up at Hallgrímskirkja Church, maybe half a mile from our hotel.

Dinner this evening was at Restaurant Caruso, a five-minute walk from our hotel; it was quite good (Diane really liked her salmon risotto, and I thought the pasta bolognese was delicious (and so was the garlic bread that came with it).

Pandemic Journal, Day 495

It’s been a long time since we’ve gotten on an airplane – a very long time. But today, we flew twice – the first flight was from SJC to PDX, and as I write this, we’re on Iceland Air flight 664 from PDX to KEF, en route to our first cruise in 16 months.

So far, everything has gone smoothly – I was debating between Lyft and a taxi for our trip to the airport and finally went with Lyft; it was a good choice, possibly the best Lyft ride I’ve taken. We took advantage of the Priority Pass membership that com aes with the Chase Sapphire Reserve card to go to the Club at SJC – it was their new location, occupying the space that was the Admiral’s Club back when American had a significant presence in San Jose.

The flight to Portland was smooth, and we were on the side with nice views of Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams.

We took advantage of Priority Pass again to have lunch for free at Capers on the C Concourse – the food was good, and the Pretty Good Brownie was better, Portland Airport is under construction, so we had to go through security again to get to the International Terminal; we were able to use the Express Line and avoid most of the wait time, but couldn’t take advantage of TSA Pre-Check. Life is rough sometimes, and yes, I know I’m complaining about a trivial inconvenience.

As I type this, we’re on Iceland Air to Reykjavik, There were more volcano views to enjoy as we left Portland.

This is a short flight, just over 7 hours, which makes it difficult to really sleep, but we’re going to try – Diane already has her eyes closed, and I’m about to join her.

Next stop, Reykjavik!

Crossing the Panama Canal

The ship sailed away from Panama City early in the morning and we were entering the Panama Canal at the Miraflores Lock by 8am.

Even though our ship was small by Canal standards, it was large enough to require being guided by a pair of locomotives, called “mules” – there was one on each side of the ship.

Fairly soon, we were near the lock gates.

They don’t like to waste water, so we were accompanied by several smaller ships, including a local sightseeing boat loaded with daytrippers

and an even smaller passenger vessel, the Sundance Sunset which we nicknamed the “S. S. PortaPotty” for obvious reasons.

The Sundance Sunset tied up to the other ship for the transit through the gates; I’m not sure why.

About 45 minutes later, we had cleared both chambers of the lock and were about 50 feet higher in elevation, on the way to the Pedro Miguel locks, just southeast of the Centennial Bridge.

The process at the Pedro Miguel locks was very similar; this time, we could see traffic coming the other way – the container ship Maersk Innoshima. It’s not quite a Panamax ship, but it dwarfed us (233 meters long versus our 131 meters).

There was traffic moving on the Canal Expansion, too, which can take even larger “New Panamax” ships like the [Mendeleev Prospect]. It’s painted green, says “Powered by Natural Gas” in large friendly letters, and carries crude oil…but it’s greenwashed crude oil!

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We spent a good part of the crossing inside, out of the sun, but we did go out from time to time for photos!

By 2:30, we were midway through the third and final lock, the Gatun Locks, which have three chambers. You can see the Atlantic Bridge in the distance.

We sailed under the Atlantic Bridge and anchored in Cristobal Bay for the evening, having made the westbound crossing from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

The passage through the Panama Canal was the raison d’etre for the trip, but once you’ve seen one lock, you’ve seen them all!

In the evening, we enjoyed a classical piano recital by the ship’s pianist, Sergey Yurchenko, and bought his CD as a souvenir of our passage through the canal.

Touring Panama City

Even before we docked at Balboa Port, we could see the ships waiting at sea for their turn to cross the Panama Canal.

Our morning tour took us to the BioMuseo and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Punta Culebra Nature Center, both located on the Amador Causeway in the former Canal Zone, just a few minutes from our docking spot. As we drove there, we passed what I thought was a parking lot – the cars and trucks there were waiting for drivers to take them across the Isthmus because it was cheaper to unload them, have someone drive them across, and put them back on a ship than to pay the freight to send them through the canal! I wonder if the odometers get reset?

BioMuseo

The BioMuseo was designed by Frank Gehry – inside, we learned about Panama’s natural history and its amazingly diverse wildlife.

Panama’s National Bird, the male Harp Eagle

The best part of the BioMuseo was spending time in the gardens outside, seeing the biodiversity in the real world.

Red Ginger
Heliconia
Lily pads
Fig Tree

And we couldn’t forget why we were in Panama – to explore connections, like the Bridge of the Americas, which connects North and South America over the Panama Canal, which connects the Atlantic and Paciifc Oceans.

Punta Culebra Nature Center (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute)

We got back on the bus and drove to the Nature Center – the Smithsonian was one of the groups on the tour, and the Director of STRI was one of the expert lecturers, so we were treated very well indeed!

We could see the remains of the old quarantine station (for yellow fever) just offshore.

When Noriega was the dictator of Panama, he used the aquarium here as a lounge – the bar is still here (but there was no beer to be had on the day we visited).

And of course, there was nature in profusion, like two-toed sloths

and a beautiful bird

and sea stars and sea cucumbers

and one BIG iguana!

Casco Viejo (San Felipe)

After lunch on the ship, we returned to the bus for a walking and shopping tour of the old city. John Meffert from the National Trust was our leader – we’ve traveled with John many times (in fact, we chose this trip because he was going to be the Trust’s leader), so we knew we were in good hands.

There’s a lot of construction going on in the old city – gentrification in some places, just maintenance in others.

John pointed out the sign offering “free entry” at the front of La Mayor – and explained that it was a brothel. Entry might be free, but….

We continued on to the Church of the Sisters of Mercy.

There’s an altar to Saint Hedwig inside – Panamaians pray for her intercession in their housing needs, and when their prayers are answered, they place a minature house on her altar. She must be good at interceding!

Gentrification and renovation are happening at a brisk pace, so you can see the new and the rather old side-by-side.

The house on the right is to be renovated sometiime

We stopped at Mosaico chocolate shop, which occupies the building which was the home of Tomás Arias, one of the founders of the Republic of Panama. The chocolate was excellent.

We wandered around the old city for a few more hours; many people, including Diane, bought Panama hats, but I didn’t need one – they’re actually made in Ecuador, and I’d bought one there in 2018.

We returned to the ship for trivia, dinner, and a show (“Frida”, about Frida Kahlo, told through dance and song). The docks stayed busy with ships making Canal transits; we would join them tomorrow.

Cébaco Island

We spent most of today onboard, enjoying delicious food and drink and attending lectures about Panama, the Smithsonian Tropical Institute (which we’ll visit tomorrow), and marine microbes.

Our only landfall was on Cébaco Island, Panama, which is far off the beaten path – we enjoyed the scenery and walked on the beach; the only wildlife we found were snails, hermit crabs, and fish.

Manuel Antonio National Park

We were the first group to leave the ship today, which meant we had to be on the tender at 6:30am. The tender took us to the town of Quépos, where we caught a bus to Manuel Antonio National Park and were met by our guide for the day, Luis.

We didn’t have to wait long to see wildlife – this three-toed sloth was waiting for us just inside the entrance.

The park was busy, even at 8am; fortunately, there were viewing platforms off the main path so we could look at wildlife without being trampled.

They have white-faced monkeys here, just like Curú — this one looked surprised to see us.

Luis didn’t carry his spotting scope in vain – we never would have seen this dragonfly without it.

We probably could have used the scope to see these baby bats better.

But this iguana was hard to miss.

Of course we took a selfie to prove we were here!

Hermit crabs enjoy having a nice beach.

There were nice flowers to look at even after we left the park on our way back to the bus, like this hibiscus.

Quépos itself is tourist-oriented, with shopping and services along the waterfront. They are also ecology-sensitive, turning thousands of plastic bottles into a sailfish sculpture.

We returned to the ship and sailed away, en route to Panama.

Curú Wildlife Refuge and Tortuga Island

We got off to an early start today for a tour of Curú Wildlife Refuge; we were in the last group, so we didn’t have to leave the ship until the comparatively civilized hour of 7:45am. We were greeted with flowers upon arrival, like this one, bravely fighting off the depredations of the leafcutter ants.

Frank, our guide throughout Costa Rica, was there to meet us, too.

He helped us understand and appreciate what we were seeing and see what we would have missed, like this termite mound in the sky.

Or this “tree chicken” (black spiky iguana).


Why did the crab-eating raccoon cross the road?

I don’t know – Frank didn’t tell us.

There were birds all over the place, but you had to look carefully to find them.

Groove-Billed Ani

And sometimes, we needed to use Frank’s spotting scope to see the bird, like this Broadwinged Hawk.

But this white-faced monkey was easy to spot with the naked eye.

Our last view of Curú was from the Zodiac.

Naturally, we had to wear life vests any time we took the Zodiacs!

The Zodiac docked at the stern of the ship; we had arrived just in time for lunch, as if it had been planned that way!

They gave out snorkeling equipment right after lunch (we’d brought our own masks and snorkels, but we’re not picky enough to want to haul fins around!) and took us to Tortuga Island for some beach time. We were advised that the water wasn’t clear, so we didn’t snorkel, but we enjoyed wandering around the beach and checking out the shop.

The Captain’s Gala Dinner capped off the evening. They took advantage of the weather and did the introductions outside, letting us enjoy the scenery and the breeze instead of being cooped up in the dining room or auditorium as has been the case on most of the cruises we’ve taken.

Cloud Forest and Ship

We left the Royal Corin Hotel about 9am for our 60-mile journey to Villa Blanca Cloud Forest for a guided walk on the El Silencio Trail. Unlike yesterday, there were no hanging bridges to worry about, so I was ready to do the whole thing!

As we were driving to Villa Blanca, I kept seeing signs for Lands in Love Resort along the roadside. The signs were mostly in English, but quite a few were in Hebrew, which surprised me. Eventually, we got to the resort itself – it looked like it would be an interesting place to go if we ever return to Costa Rica.

The Hebrew says “Guest House”

The whole trip to Villa Blanca took us through lots of lush green countryside.

We arrived at Villa Blanca, disembarked, and met our guide for the walk, Candy.

The Hummingbird Garden was the first place we stopped on the trail – they don’t want to disappoint visitors, so they lure the hummingbirds with feeders. It works!

I was impressed with how colorful the vegetation was.

Maracas (Shampoo) Ginger
Macaw Plant
Shrimp Plants
Tiny Orchid

And there was wildlife, too, like this whiptail lizard:

Eventually, the trail ended and we found ourselves at the Chapel (a popular wedding destination).

We wandered around a little bit and found another oxcart on display.

After that, we walked back to the main hotel building for lunch, returned to the bus, and drove to Puerto Caldera to embark on the Dumont D’Urville, where we met the people who hadn’t gone on the pre-tour. There were briefings, the lifeboat drill, and dinner, but somehow I took no photos!

Thus far and no farther

Breakfast was (surprise!) a buffet in the hotel restaurant – I liked it much more than the dinner buffet the night before.

My doctor had told me to try to drink a glass of apple juice every day on the trip – that was easy at the Marriott in San José, but I couldn’t find any apple juice here, so I asked the waiter. A few minutes later, he brought me a glass of very fresh apple juice!

After breakfast, we got on the bus to go to Arenal Hanging Bridges Park for a nature walk. We broke into groups based on walking speed and took off with our guides. We visited the Pollinator’s Hotel first.

Our group was going to take the full walk, crossing 16 bridges in all, 6 of which were the famous hanging bridges.

We arrived at the first bridge; I was a little nervous because I don’t like heights.

From Wikipedia, taken by Liz DeCoster, used under CC License; click image for original.

I got on the bridge and took a few steps. It started shaking. I went a little further, and I started shaking. There were five more hanging bridges ahead – I realized I couldn’t do it, turned around, and got back to solid ground. The rest of the group, including Diane, continued on the walk; I retraced my steps and enjoyed the parts of the park I could reach without hanging bridges. I still got to see flowers!

I bumped into one of the other groups and got to see birds through the guide’s scope, too.

Eventually, Diane’s group returned and we all got back on the bus for the trip into town. La Fortuna is a small town, but it had lots to look at and a wide choice of restaurants. We joined Mike and Debbie from our group at Pizzeria La Parada for a nice veggie pizza, followed by gelato (it was a hot day!).

We wandered around town until it was time for the bus to bring us back to the hotel, doing a little shopping and looking at the volcano.

We relaxed at the hotel, then got back on the bus to go to Eco Termales Hot Springs for an enjoyable dip. We had dinner poolside back at our hotel and called it a day.

¡Adiós, San José! ¡Hola, La Fortuna de San Carlos!

We packed up our belongings to be put on the bus and enjoyed a final great breakfast at the hotel (this time, inside). Then we boarded the bus for a quick tour of downtown San José, beginning at the Teatro Nacional.

The theatre opened in 1897 by demand from the wealthy families who had sent their children to Europe to study and wanted culture when they returned – the families even started to pay for it, but it wasn’t completed until the government kicked in revenues from import taxes. The theatre wasn’t quite finished for its first performance (Faust) – there weren’t any windows, doors, or seats! The capacity is 1200 people – these days, big name performers want a bigger audience, so they play in stadiums; the theatre actually gets more money from tourism than from performances.

The ceiling of the theatre lobby features “The Allegory of Coffee and Bananas”, which was on the old five-colones bill. The artist never visited Costa Rica, so there are more than a few mistakes in the paining, such as the lampposts and coffee pickers on the beach!

We dodged the street vendors outside the theatre (several of whom would have been happy to sell us the old five-colones bill!) and walked a few blocks to the National Museum, which occupies the former Bellavista Barracks of the former Costa Rican Army. You can still see bullet holes on the outside of the museum from the 1948 Civil War (the Army was abolished after the war).

Once inside, Frank gave us a quick tour of the pre-Columbian section of the museum and left us to wander around on our own.

We enjoyed a last view of San José from the roof of the museum and got back on the bus.

Our next stop was for lunch at La Finca Restaurant in Sarchi, where we enjoyed grilled sea bass.

We had a little time to walk around Sarchi and admire the public art (and do a little shopping).

Three hours later, we were at our home for the next two nights, The Royal Corin Thermal Water & Spa Resort Loto Spa, on the outskirts of the town of La Fortuna de San Carlos, very near the Arenal volcano. The town got its name in 1968 when the volcano erupted, killing 82 people, but the eruption spared the town. The hotel was beautifully-landscaped with outdoor pools fed by hot springs; dinner was a buffet.

The view from our room was quite pleasant!

Coffee and Chocolate

The hotel provided a great buffet breakfast in their open-air restaurant – we chose to sit outside in the shade to enjoy the atmosphere. After breakfast, we met our guide for the day, Frank, and got on the bus for Doka Coffee Estate on the slopes of the Poas Volcano.

We started with a cup of iced coffee with cinnamon, milk, and chocolate in their snackbar.

Jonathan from Doka took us on the tour of the plantation and processing facility. Ripe coffee cherries are red, and there are typically two beans per fruit. The pickers use the red baskets to collect the cherries; each plant is visited multiple times as beans become ripe. They are paid by weight ($2 for 13 kilos) and a good picker can pick more than 150 kilos in a day. Most of the pickers are from Nicaragua because picking doesn’t pay enough for Costa Ricans!

The processing starts in the coffee receiving station – they drop the beans in the water to separate them by weight and density. The heaviest beans are the highest quality, but nothing is wasted.

The next step is “coffee peeling” – the machines use friction to remove the pulp from the fruit and sort by size.

The beans then ferment for 32 hours and are taken outside to dry in the sun, followed by mechanical drying.

The coffee is then bagged and rests for four months.

Most of the coffee is exported unroasted, but they roast some for their own line, “Cafe Tres Generations” which is sold locally (and also available online). Low-quality beans are sold unroasted into the local market. I bought a bag of roasted beans to bring home.

We left Doka just before noon and Frank passed out some snacks to tide us over on our trip to Sibö Chocolate. I was surprised to notice that the cassava chips were Kosher, complete with the Orthodox Union’s hechsher!

The trip was uneventful, except for one hairpin turn when the bus stopped, hanging over the edge of the road. Frank had to get out and direct the driver around the bend.

We arrived at Sibö Chocolate a few minutes later; it had started raining, so we dashed inside for lunch and the “Chocolate Experience”.

Lunch was delicious, but it wasn’t the main attraction – we were there for chocolate, and the owners (Jorge and Julio) obliged with a 90-minute presentation and tasting.

We began with a fresh cacao bean (and instructions to suck on it, not bite it).

It had a slightly fruity taste and was slimy – not what I expected! As the tasting continued, they told us about the history of chocolate around the world and especially in Costa Rica. Along the way, we enjoyed a reconstructed Mayan chocolate drink (supposed to be an aphrodesiac and a cure for Montezuma’s Revenge), but the main attraction was a selection of six truffles made by Sibö.

We brought a few bars of their chocolate back to the hotel – none survived the entire trip, of course.

We finished the evening in the Executive Lounge at the hotel, talking with one of our new friends, Desi (who was the host for the Nebraska group on the main trip).

Super Bowl Sunday

We had an uneventful flight; I did think it was unnecessarily cruel of American to put the flights to San Jose CA and San Jose CR at adjacent gates, but we picked the right one.

The scenery was interesting as we approached San Jose.

We had no problems getting through Customs and rode to the hotel (Marriott Hacienda Belen) with a few of the other people we’ll be traveling with for the next couple of weeks.

Because I’ve got status with Marriott, they gave us a nice welcome platter with a couple of local beers to tide us over until dinner!

The hotel grounds are lushly landscaped – we wandered around a bit but only took one photo.

We had a nice dinner and then wanted to watch the Super Bowl, especially the ads, but even though there was an English-language broadcast on the hotel TV, the ads were all local and in Spanish. Oh, well.

Off to Dallas!

We left today for our Panama Canal cruise (with lots of additional travel in Costa Rica and Panama). There are, unsurprisingly, no non-stops between San Jose CA and San Jose CR, so we’re overnighting at DFW.

There are two Hyatt Hotels at DFW – the Grand Hyatt inside the airport and the Hyatt Regency “adjacent to Terminal C”. I had enough points for either hotel, but only the Regency was available, so we stayed there. “Adjacent to Terminal C” means that you can walk to the hotel through several parking lots or take the shuttle – we wound up doing both, taking the shuttle with our luggage but then walking back to the terminal through the parking lots to get exercise. It wasn’t a bad walk, but there were lots of stairs, so I’m glad we didn’t have to carry our luggage that way.

The view from our room wasn’t bad, but next time, I think I’ll try to stay on-airport.

Communication Matters

I recently got a Facebook message from a friend who’s about to go on a two-week trip to Ireland and Croatia and wondered if I had any advice for him on staying connected while he was there. As it happens, I got that message while sitting in Edinburgh Airport, waiting to get on the first of three flights which, with any luck, will get me home today after a sixteen-day vacation in France, Ireland, and the UK, where connectivity was a constant concern. And as I write this post, I’m sitting on BA 297, currently at 38,000 feet over Greenland, completely (and happily) disconnected. So I am more than willing to give advice about connectivity in Europe.

There are three parts to this rather long post:

I hope this helps you stay as connected as you want to be on your next trip to Europe.

My general recommendations

There is no single best answer for everyone – you have to weigh cost, convenience, and reachability. But here’s my advice anyway.

  • If you don’t need voice or text, just data, and are OK with intermittent connectivity, put your phone in Airplane Mode, turn wifi on, and use hotspots (McDonalds and Burger King are both good choices for this, if not for food). (Thanks, Lisa Strand.)
  • Using your carrier’s international bundle plan is by far the easiest way to go, both for you and for people who want to call you. Estimate your usage and buy the appropriate package – find out what will happen if you go over the package limits (you don’t want a $20/megabyte surprise). Forward your phone to a US voicemail number before you leave if you don’t want people to call you.

  • If you only plan to use your phone in an emergency, go with your carrier’s default plan. Forward your phone to a US voicemail number and turn off data roaming (or all cellular data) – you do not want to pay $20/megabyte.

  • If you are only going to one country and have an unlocked phone, a local SIM can save you money (but realize that there can be considerable hassle involved, depending on the country, and that you’ll have to give your contacts the foreign number if you want to be reached). Do the research to see how much pain is involved for the particular country you’re visiting.

  • If you’re going to more than one country, the hassle of local SIMs is multiplied, and the savings are reduced because of breakage.

Plans and Realities

Our trip this year was complicated. We started with six nights in Paris at an apartment with excellent wifi (thanks, Airbnb!), followed by eight days on a cruise ship:

  • Two days in France
  • One day at sea
  • One day in Dublin
  • One day in Wales
  • Three days on small Scottish islands

The Plan

I intended to pick up a Lebara SIM for France at the airport and a UK SIM in Wales. I expected to be disconnected at sea (the ship offered slow, pricey wifi via satellite) and was willing to take my chances in Dublin.

The Reality

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is. And there was.

In France

I didn’t see anywhere to get the SIM before I left the airport, and when I asked for Lebara SIMs at shops in my neighborhood in Paris, no one carried them.

Our apartment had great wifi, and I had a Paris tour app with a good offline map; I was also able to find wifi at various stores and restaurants in Paris. I kept looking for the Lebara SIM without success – on our fourth morning, I found a cellphone shop in Les Halles which might have had one, but they only spoke enough English to point me to the Orange shop down the hall.

Orange sold me a “mobicarte” SIM for 10 Euros plus another 10 Euros for 500MB of data which took care of my communications needs (voice, text, and data) for the rest of our time in France (including the time on the cruise ship). If I’d bought that SIM on the first day, I probably would have had to add another 10 Euros to get another 500MB of data – as it was, I used over 400 MB of data in the time I had it.

In Dublin

I found free wifi at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Guinness Storehouse, and outside a Burger King. That was all I needed that day.

In the UK

I never even looked for a UK SIM – we did have a little time in shopping districts, but looking for a SIM was much lower priority than looking for other things. I found free WiFi at the port in Holyhead, Wales, and in Tobermory, Scotland, but was basically disconnected most of the time until I got to Edinburgh Airport this morning. If someone had really needed to reach me, they could have called the French phone number – voice coverage was OK.

So it all worked out, just not as I’d expected.

The Option Game

There are many ways to stay connected while traveling out of the US. I’m going to look at several of them in some detail, and I’m sure there are even more choices.

Your Cellphone Carrier’s Default Plan

If all you need is a few minutes of voice and a few texts, your cellphone carrier’s default plan may be just fine. They charge something like $1.50/minute for calls (incoming and outgoing), and about $0.30/text (outgoing), with incoming texts probably being free. Data is prohibitively expensive, though – AT&T would have charged me over $20 per megabyte, so you’ll need some other way to get to the Internet.

Advantages

  • Your US phone number works – anyone who has it can call or text you as if you were at home. They pay nothing extra.
  • You don’t need an unlocked phone.

Disadvantages

  • Anyone can call or text you as if you were at home. This includes junk callers.
  • Callers probably won’t realize that you are many timezones away.
  • You can’t afford to use cellular data. Really. $20/megabyte is $20,000/gigabyte.

Variations on the theme

  • Forward your cellphone to your home phone (if you have one) or a Google Voice number; that way, people can leave voicemail and you can retrieve it when you have a data connection and reply at your convenience.

Conclusion

Go this route only if you don’t plan to use your phone on your trip unless there’s an emergency.

Your Cellphone Carrier’s International Bundle Plan

Your carrier probably will sell you a bundle of data (or data and calls) at a more reasonable price than the default plan. AT&T, for example, offered me 120MB for $30, 300MB for $60, or 800MB for $120, and I know they have packages which include voice and text for a bit more money. This can be a good deal if you’re going to be in more than one country.

Advantages

  • Your US phone number works (as above)
  • You can use your bundled data (and calls) in more than one country
  • You don’t need an unlocked phone

Disadvantages

  • Anyone can call you and won’t be aware of the time zone issues (as above)

Variations on the theme

  • Forward your incoming calls (as above)

Conclusion

This is probably the best choice if you want to be easily reachable from the US (if not, forward your calls to a voicemail service), especially if you’re going to be in more than one country. In hindsight, this is what I should have done.

Get a local SIM

If you have an unlocked phone, you can get a Pay-as-You-Go (PAYG) SIM from a local provider. I did this in France on this trip, and have done it in the UK on previous trips. If you’re really clever, you can get the SIM in advance (I wasn’t that clever).

Advantages

  • This is the lowest-cost route (well, other than going without a phone). I paid 20 Euros (about $27) for an Orange PAYG SIM in France, which got me a local phone number, 500 MB of data and 5 Euros of credit for calls and texts. Incoming calls and texts were free. Outgoing calls in France were about 40 cents/minute, calls to the US (if I’d needed them) about $1/minute, and outgoing texts were pretty cheap, too. If I’d run through my credit, it would have been easy to recharge the SIM, either over-the-air or at almost any grocery store or tabac.
  • I gave my French number to those who I wanted to be able to reach me. Anyone calling my US phone got voicemail.
  • I could use my phone for calls and texts in other European countries for a reasonable price (50 cents/minute for outgoing calls, 15 cents/minute incoming calls or outgoing texts, incoming texts free). Data while roaming would be expensive, but packages were available.

Disadvantages

  • I didn’t have my French phone number until I bought the SIM, and it will expire in a few weeks.
  • I had to find an Orange shop. Fortunately, there was someone there who spoke English, knew the plan I needed (mobicarte) and was able to set me up so that I had voice and data before I left the shop (hint: bring an ID – a driver’s license was fine). I had tried an SFR shop but no one there that day knew English, and my French was definitely not up to this task.
  • If you’re going to more than one country, you will have to repeat the process in each country. And it will be different in each country.
  • You need an unlocked phone.
  • Your US phone number goes dead when you swap SIMs. You can forward voice calls (as above), but I don’t think there’s any way to forward texts.
  • The local plans may have interesting wrinkles; as an example, the plan I used in France disallowed VOIP (Skype), Usenet, and POP3 access to mail (but the Gmail app worked fine).

Variations on the theme

  • In some countries, there are vendors who specialize in catering to travelers (for example, Lycamobile or Toggle in the UK, and Lebara in France). If you can get their SIM at the airport (or even order it in advance), that could be a big win.
  • If you don’t have an unlocked phone, you could buy a new PAYG phone instead of just getting a SIM.

Conclusion

  • If you’re going to spend most (or all) of your time in one country, this is a very cost-effective solution.
  • If you’re going to make repeated trips to the same country, you can probably buy enough credit to keep your local number active between trips.
  • This is much easier if you speak the local language!

International SIMs

There are companies who will sell SIMs which charge more-than-local but less-than-roaming rates all over the world; I think they’re primarily intended for voice and text, not data. I didn’t research this for my trip, since I cared more about data. If you want more information, Google is your friend.

See Ron Woan’s comment for more info on Telestial’s International SIM.

iPhoneTrip.com

If all you need is data, this company offers a variety of plans ranging from $8-$16/day for “unlimited” data (they seem to have a 500MB/day soft cap, though). The price varies depending on whether you need one country, one continent, or the whole world. I used them last year for our trip to the Netherlands and Belgium.

Advantages

  • You set the whole thing up before you leave the US.
  • You pay a fixed price per day.

Disadvantages

  • You need lead time – they send you a special SIM, and if you need it in less than a week, the shipping is expensive.
  • You need to figure out what countries/regions and dates you need because you have to set it up in advance.
  • You need an unlocked phone; last year, they supported AT&T-locked phones, but this year, such phones seem to need their “world” plan (at the highest price per day, of course).
  • They only support data, not voice (although they do allow VoIP). And when you put their SIM in your phone, your US phone number goes dead (as above).

Conclusion

I used them in 2012 and was happy. Enough had changed in 2013 to make me go elsewhere. Check their website and talk with their help desk before making a decision.

Amsterdam Dos and Don’ts

Amsterdam Dos and Don’ts

We recently spent a week in Amsterdam before taking a river cruise through the Netherlands and Belgium; I will eventually post photos from the trip, but in the meantime, I wanted to share some possibly-useful tips for others travelling to Amsterdam and environs.

Money

  • DO tell your credit/debit card companies that you will be using your card in the Netherlands and when you’ll be there.
  • DO get money from ATMs rather than buying it before you leave the US; there are ATMs at the airport and all over town and you’ll get a much better rate.
  • DO expect to find some shops which only accept cards and will not accept cash.
  • DON’T get the Travelex “Cash Passport” Chip and PIN card – the exchange rate is hideous and they demand your Social Security number.
  • DO expect to be able to use your US credit card when you are dealing with people – even though the Dutch all have Chip and PIN cards, every credit card machine I saw in a shop could also accept a US magstripe card. [1]
  • DON’T expect to use your US credit card if you’re dealing with an automated kiosk (such as the ticket machines for the railway)
  • DON’T take the option of paying in US Dollars using your credit card. The rate is probably not as good as your card company will give, and if your card has a surcharge for international transactions, you’ll have to pay that surcharge even if the transaction is in US Dollars.
  • DO carry a few Euros in change with you at all times for small purchases and toilets – many public toilets charge between 20–50 cents for access.

Getting into town from the airport

  • DO take the train unless you’re staying far from the city center.
  • DON’T wait until you’re at the airport to buy your train ticket.
  • DO buy your train ticket in advance from Belgian Rail; print it at home and bring it with you.
  • DO have Euro change in pocket if you need to buy your train ticket at the airport, or go to the ticket window if you need to use currency or a US credit card. The machines ONLY take change or PIN cards.
  • DO buy Second Class tickets for this trip unless you have a lot of luggage or can’t manage four steps up or down stairs.
  • DO know that the trains to Centraal Station leave from Schiphol platforms 1 and 2.
  • DON’T get on a “FYRA” train at Schiphol – it will cost you! You want to get on an “IC” train. The trains are marked on the sides of the cars; both use the same platforms.

Getting around town

  • DO walk if you can – the touristy part of Amsterdam is small, and everything of interest is within a 45-minute walk (mostly less). Take public transport only when you’re in a hurry.
  • DO watch out for bicycles and motorbikes, especially when crossing a bike path (and every street has bike paths). Treat them as you would any other fast-moving dangerous vehicle.
  • DON’T be surprised by motorbikes (or bicycles) on the sidewalk, either, though they are usually going slowly there.
  • DON’T worry about having exact change on trams; the conductor gives change. I don’t know about busses.

iAmsterdam card

  • DO buy the iAmsterdam card.
  • DON’T buy it at the VVV office at Centraal Station – there are long lines. If you must buy it there, use Line 6, not the “full-service” lines.
  • DON’T pre-purchase the card over the Internet, which means picking up the card in person at the VVV office – in that same long line, of course.
  • DO buy it at one of the other locations; if you plan to start with a canal tour, buy it at their counter (you’ll have to go there anyway to get the ticket that’s part of the pass).
  • DO be strategic about the time of day that you activate the pass. It is valid for 24/48/72 hours, not 1/2/3 days. If you activate a 24-hour pass at 11am on Wednesday, you can use it all the rest of that day and then enter a museum before 11am on Thursday and stay there the whole day. This works best for major museums, like the Maritime Museum or the Van Gogh, of course. If you’re really hardcore, you could go to the Maritime Museum at 10am on the last day of your pass and get a ticket, immediately go to another nearby museum and see it, then return to the Maritime Museum because your ticket is good for the entire day.
  • DO realize that the museum pass and the travel pass are completely separate after you buy them; you need not activate them at the same time (or even on the same day).
  • DO realize that the discount offers in the booklet are valid even after your card expires (I think they go to the end of the year); you just need to bring the card and the booklet.
  • DON’T plan to go to the Rijksmuseum or the Anne Frank House on the iAmsterdam card.

Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll

  • DON’T be afraid of walking through the Red Light District (of course, be aware of your surroundings, just as you would anywhere else).
  • DON’T take photos of “red rooms” or the women working in them.
  • DON’T go to a coffeeshop for coffee.

Eating and drinking

  • DO expect the inside of restaurants to be non-smoking (both kinds of smoke).
  • DO expect a lot of [tobacco] smokers just outside of a restaurant.
  • DON’T expect free refills on coffee.
  • DON’T expect free tap water.
  • DO expect service charges to be included in your bill; round up to the next Euro or two if you’re especially pleased. I ran into one restaurant where service was marked as “Not Included” on the bill and tipped about 10% – I have no idea if that was right or not.

Staying connected

  • DON’T use your US cell carrier’s international data plan, even by accident. AT&T’s price is $20/megabyte; other carriers are similarly exorbitant.
  • DO consider using iPhoneTrip.com if you have an unlocked device or are on AT&T. I paid $17/day for unlimited data anywhere in Europe and used about 50 megabytes/day, which would have cost $1000 on AT&T.
  • DO look for “Free Wi-Fi” hotspots; many small restaurants offer free Wi-Fi. One near our hotel gave us the password when we stopped to look at their menu and told us the service was available 24/7. We wound up having breakfast there four times!
  • DO look for free Wi-Fi from free-hotspot.com if you’re near a fast-food chain like McDonalds, Burger King, or Subway.

    Language

  • DON’T expect to need to know much (if any) Dutch. All tourist-oriented businesses are completely English-friendly, and almost everyone in the Netherlands seems to speak and understand English.
  • DO try to sound-out written Dutch if you need to figure out a sign; it looks unlike English, but I found it fairly easy.
  • DO say “Dank U Well” (“thank you”).

  1. I did find one ice cream shop which said it would only take PIN cards or change (no bills) – I don’t know if their machine would have taken a US card or not.

     ↩

Credit where credit is due

We just got back from a wonderful Alaska cruise on Silversea’s Silver Shadow. I wasn’t sure that my 16GB memory card would hold the photos and video I’d be taking during the cruise, so one of the last things I did before leaving was visit Fry’s to pick up a spare.

As it turns out, 16GB was plenty (especially since I took my computer along and unloaded the camera nightly), and so I never even opened the package for the new memory card. Fry’s has a 15-day return policy for memory, and I decided I’d exercise it while running post-cruise errands today. Diane came with me, armed with a book to keep her busy while waiting, and a smile to make me feel better.

But Fry’s surprised us. We were in and out of the store in well under 5 minutes; I’m not sure she even opened her book!

Oh, and the pictures? I’ve posted some on a public album on Facebook, with more to come. Most of the ones that I’ve posted so far were posted live from my iPhone during the trip (AT&T’s 3G service in Juneau was nothing short of amazing — I wish it were half as fast here), but I’ll be adding more soon.

A trip to Banff National Park (the final day)

We knew we’d have to get up fairly early on Monday to make our flight home, so we decided to practice by setting an alarm clock for Sunday morning, too. It wasn’t too painful.

Since Yelpers had praised Melissa’s breakfast, we decided to go there — our timing was great (maybe the clock was a good idea after all), since we didn’t have to wait at all, but by the time we finished, there were at least a dozen people waiting for tables. The food was OK (next time, I go for the waffle with blueberries), and the coffee was very good.

On our way back to the hotel, it started to rain — just a couple of drops, but as soon as we got to our room, the skies opened up. So we packed and checked out, borrowing an umbrella from the hotel for the rest of our time in Banff (and it worked wonderfully — we didn’t see another raindrop when we were outside…of course, we spend most of the time inside). We wandered around and did some shopping (not much buying, though); then we had lunch at Evelyn’s Coffee Bar. I thought about having dessert there, but I’d had my eyes on Cows the entire time we’d been in Banff; they had reviews in their window calling them out as equal or even better than Bertillion in Paris, and I was ready to put them to the test. They didn’t come close to living up to the reviews, but the ice cream was perfectly acceptable; nonetheless, I’m going to go elsewhere next time I’m in Banff.

And with lunch and dessert finished, we decided it was time to hit the road. Our rental car, a Toyota Matrix, didn’t have a cargo cover, so I was reluctant to go anywhere busy, but we weren’t quite ready to go to the airport, either. We decided to drive the Minnewanka Loop, which turned out to be a nice way to cap off our visit. We drove to Lake Minnewanka. We didn’t have the time (or the cargo cover) for the lake cruise, but just walking around the section of the lake near the parking was very enjoyable and scenic.

When we left, we decided to finish the loop instead of driving right back to the highway; we didn’t get very far before running into a goatjam on the road, so we parked and took a few photos, too.

We made one more stop on the loop, near mountains whose name I don’t know.

And then it was time to return to civilization. Soon enough, we were back at Calgary Airport and ensconced in our room at the Delta Calgary Airport Hotel, which was pleasant enough, though the views left everything to be desired after three nights in Banff. We’d returned our car, so we were limited in our dining options; the airport didn’t entice, so we ate dinner at the Compass Restaurant in the hotel, which was somewhat overpriced and too noisy (thanks to the TV in the YYC Lounge, adjacent), but tasty enough.

And that was basically the end of the trip; Monday morning, we walked across the road to the terminal, checked in, cleared customs, and flew back to SFO, picked up our car, had lunch, and drove home. No excitement, no photos.

A trip to Banff National Park (day 3)

Saturday dawned early, I think; we didn’t.

We decided to try somewhere else for breakfast, and, based on the bartender’s suggestion on Thursday (and some Yelp and Frommer’s research), we settled on Coyote’s. The place was nearly full when we got there, but there were spaces at the counter, so we squeezed ourselves in and enjoyed a tasty meal. I had, and can recommend, the Smoked Salmon Scrambled Eggs; Diane went for the Vegetarian Frittata, and she seemed happy about her choice, too. By the time we left, there were a few people waiting to get in — go early (in our case, that meant 9am).

After Friday’s excursion, the last thing we wanted to do was take a long drive, so we chose a target closer to hand — Tunnel Mountain. We parked at the lower trailhead and climbed to the upper one; that was probably the steepest part of the climb (and the least attractive, too).

Once we’d gotten to the “real” trail, the views improved.

The single biggest human-created artifact that we could see was the Banff Springs Hotel.

But, of course, there were much larger and more majestic objects visible!

After a while, we climbed high enough that the trail took us to the back side of the mountain, and we could see the other half of the Bow Valley, including the Fairmont’s golf course, which looked awfully appealing (and I don’t golf)!

Eventually, we made it to the top of the mountain.

And, a bit later, and after more nice views of Mount Rundle

we eventually found ourselves back at our car, in search of lunch. We drove back to the hotel and walked into town, unsure of what we wanted, but hungry. We wound up at Balkan, drawn in by the lunch specials on the blackboards outside. The food was OK, but not outstanding — but the prices were very appealing!

We decided not to have dessert in town; instead, we walked to the Fairmont to look around, especially in the terrace garden

and enjoy afternoon tea, which more than made up for any calories or money we might have saved at lunch. It’s not something I’d want to do every day, but it was fun!

We’d picked up a Banff trail map while we were downtown, and decided that rather than walk back on streets, we’d explore the Bow Falls Trail. We walked down to Bow Falls

and then retraced our steps towards downtown.

We weren’t quite ready to go back to the hotel, and the map showed that if we followed the Bow Falls Trail through downtown, we could walk all the way to the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, which sounded interesting (our hotel had a pool modeled after the Cave and Basin).

But we didn’t get there. We had just left the Banff Recreation Grounds and turned onto the trail to the site when we encountered an elk.

We decided he had the right-of-way and headed back into town, and trekked back to our hotel…and then back into town again for dinner, along with thousands of other tourists. We looked at a few places, but the lines were long, and eventually settled for Tommy’s Neighbourhood Pub, immediately beneath Balkan. The food was simple (I had a buffaloburger; Diane had elk (I think she wanted revenge!)), the beer was decent, and the service reasonably quick. I’d go back.

One final trip back to the hotel, and we were ready to call it a night. The pedometer read over 34,000 steps for the day — that seemed like enough!

A trip to Banff National Park (day 2)

Friday, we enjoyed not setting an alarm clock, but still woke in plenty of time for the hotel’s continental breakfast, which was OK but no more. The weather looked promising, so we took off for a full day of exploring, with the Columbia Icefield as our goal.

We left Banff on the Trans-Canada Highway and made excellent time until we hit the construction zone — they are “twinning” the highway through the rest of Banff National Park, and there’s construction between Banff and Lake Louise. But it wasn’t too bad, and soon we were at the Parks Canada information station in Lake Louise. The view from the parking lot wasn’t too bad, either.

A few minutes later, we were on the way again, turning onto the Icefields Parkway, which would take us the rest of the way. Even though it was a two-lane road, it was easy driving (I’d hate to try it in a storm, though!), and the scenery was nothing short of spectacular.

Eventually, we pulled into the Icefields Center, our goal for the afternoon. The Athabasca Glacier was just across the road.

We had a quick, overpriced, mediocre lunch at the Icefields Cafeteria, then purchased our tickets for the tour to the glacier itself. After a brief bus ride, we boarded our Ice Explorer.

The warning sign on the vehicle reminded me of Star Tours, but this was not a simulation. And we did jounce a lot on our way to the glacier itself, where we disembarked and frolicked in the cold and rain for a few minutes.

As advertised, the glacier itself seemed blue at times, and there was some melting.

There was even more melting outside the graded area where we were let off, and some people drank the meltwater — I might have, but I didn’t feel like freezing my lips!

Outside the graded area, you could really see the contours left by weathering.

And you could also see the moraine left by the glacier.

But soon, we were back in the car and heading south. This time, we were in even less of a hurry, and so we made more stops to enjoy the scenery, including one at the “Weeping Wall”.

And another stop near Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, where we had a good view of Crowfoot Glacier.

If you search the web, you’ll find thousands of photos of Lake Louise. Here are four more.

From Lake Louise, we took the Bow Valley Parkway back to Banff. It, too, was beautiful, but we didn’t take any pictures (or stop, for that matter) — and the only wildlife we saw was a couple of birds.

After a brief stop at the hotel, we hoofed it to Melissa’s Missteak for dinner, which was definitely the best meal we’d had all day, though ordering dessert wasn’t the best choice we could have made. Finally, we walked back to the hotel (via downtown Banff), and called it a night.

A trip to Banff National Park (day 1)

About three years ago, I participated in a workshop at CSCW on “Revisiting Online Trust.” When the workshop ended, we left with plans to work on a special edition of a journal, but that didn’t happen. What did happen, though, was that I was thoroughly impressed with the venue, the Fairmont Banff Springs, and its setting, Banff, and thought it would be great to come back some day, with my family.

Time passed.

This year, we discovered that the IBM Silicon Valley Lab, where Diane works, would be closed for an extra day to do some major power work, so that she had a four-day weekend. And IBM Yorktown, where I get my VPN connection for the Mac, would also be closed for the long weekend, while they did major power work, too. We tossed around a few ideas, and eventually settled on a trip to Banff, which had the extra advantage of renewing our United miles for another 18 months.

We left on Thursday, arriving at SFO with plenty of time for a leisurely lunch and trip through the
Wright at Home: Modern Lifestyle Design” exhibit before boarding our Air Canada flight to Calgary. Calgary was suffering from very strong winds, but we had a pretty smooth flight — however, flights had stacked up and we had to wait about 45 minutes in the line at the Canada Border Services Agency. On the other hand, our luggage was waiting for us as soon as we’d been cleared, and Customs itself took the usual 12 seconds.

Hertz slowed us down again — the first car they gave us was almost too filthy to drive (those strong winds had brought a dust storm), and then it turned out that it had been smoked in, so I swapped it for a Toyota Matrix (nice car, but I wish Hertz had sprung for the cargo cover so we would have been able to stop without all of our stuff being exposed) and we set out for Banff.

Most of the Trans-Canada Highway in Alberta is a four-lane divided highway — except, of course, for the section in Calgary, which is a busy urban street with badly synchronized traffic lights (it reminded me of Stevens Creek Boulevard, in fact). But eventually, we left Calgary behind and headed to Banff at 110 km/h (or so).

We’d chosen The Fox Hotel & Suites based on reviews from Frommer’s and TripAdvisor; it was pricey (but everything in Banff is pricey), but very comfortable, especially after we moved to a room that didn’t face Banff Avenue. The hotel is about a 10-minute walk from the central business district; they offer complimentary bus passes, but we didn’t feel the need to take them up on that. The hotel’s restaurant was a Chili’s — we don’t eat there at home, and didn’t see any reason to do it in Banff, either, so we set forth for dinner, planning to go downtown. But we didn’t get there; instead, we stopped at The Meatball and had a pleasant dinner (and a very pleasant bottle of wine) — then we walked the rest of the way into town, looked around, and headed back to the hotel.

A blast from the past (or something like it)

A long, long time ago, I put my first personal website on GeoCities, for the simple reason that it existed, it didn’t get in my way, and it was free. Over time, the second of those reasons became less true, and I switched to blogging, first at editthispage.com, and then to here. I never bothered moving the GeoCities pages, because that would have been something like work.

But now that Yahoo is going to turn off the lights on GeoCities sometime this year, I decided I didn’t want to lose my earliest web efforts (or at least not the travel stuff), and so I copied all of the actual content to this site.

The only pieces that might be of interest to anyone outside my family are my 1998 trip reports: Australia (mostly for WWW9) and the beginning of a never-completed trip report from Hursley and Paris. I wonder what I was going to write about rugby?

Eating our way through New York

Tonight is our last night in Manhattan, at least for this trip. I’m not ready to go home, but circumstances (like the need to earn a living) leave me no choice.

The original plan for the trip started when the National Trust for Historic Preservation sent Diane a flyer for a Hudson River Leaf-Viewing Cruise, optionally preceded by a five-day trip to “New York City: A Work in Progress”. Diane’s been a member for a few years, and we normally toss the travel brochures, but this one caught our eyes — and we realized that:

  1. I had to be in Orlando for the IBM Academy of Technology meeting the week after the New York City tour, so the travel made some sense, and
  2. We could go, because Jeff was going to be away at school.

So we sent our deposit in and waited for more information.

The deadline for final payment passed with no word, so I called the travel coordinator, who said that they were having a hard time getting enough people together for the trip, and asked us to be patient. It’s fairly easy to be patient keeping money in my hands instead of sending it away.

Finally, they called while we were in Denver for Worldcon — the trip was almost certainly on. So we did some research on flight options and when we got home, they confirmed the trip and I booked Diane’s flights both ways and my flight to New York — I had to wait for the Academy travel information to book the rest of my trip, though. Eventually, that came in, and we were all set.

Then the credit crunch hit, and the Academy meeting got cancelled. So I had to scramble to book my flight home to match Diane’s (if I’d been thinking, I would have tried to move to a later flight home, but at least our flight is at 9:45am and not a really early flight). All was well.

Until Diane got an infected toe the week before we were to leave. Her doctor put her on antibiotics and wanted her to come back in a week — when she told the doctor about the trip, the doctor was dubious. And two days later, Diane returned, because her foot was looking worse, not better. But the doctor doubled the dose of antibiotics, and Diane improved, so we flew out last Sunday.

Sunday

Since we had to leave a day early to meet the first activity on the trip, we decided to take advantage and go visit Diane’s mom’s grave at Calverton National Cemetery, out in Suffolk County. And the smart thing seemed to be to stay at the Marriott Long Island in Uniondale; Marriott hotels are always reliable.

Not this time. We had to change rooms at 3am due to noise and a bad bed, after arguing with the night supervisor who wanted us to repack so we’d only have one room. I finally won that argument, and eventually, we got to sleep, but I am not a happy customer, and have a letter of complaint to write when I get home.

Monday

The trip to Calverton was uneventful, fortunately, and we even got a cache in after the visit. That ate into our time, though, so we didn’t make the other pilgrimages I’d planned, to Ralph’s or to Diane’s old house (though I have to admit that I was slightly worried about the latter, given the difficulty the buyers had had in getting a mortgage — I didn’t want to see the house vacant). We did manage a diner for lunch Baldwin Coach Diner, but it wasn’t anything special. A quick dash to JFK to return our car and a quick taxi ride later, and we were at our home for the next week, the Roosevelt Hotel.

And a short time later, we met our group in the lobby for our first activity, a walk to and tour of Grand Central Terminal and the surrounding area.

Then back to the hotel for a welcome reception — the wine and cheese were tasty, but insufficiently filling, so we took one of our companions’ recommendation for a quick, cheap, fairly tasty dinner at Curry in a Hurry; naturally, we walked both ways.

Tuesday

Tuesday dawned early, and we had our first of many breakfast buffets at the Roosevelt. I’m glad I didn’t have to think about the bill (it was included in the cost of the trip), but the food was good, and there were many choices — in fact, I never did try everything I wanted (the lox and bagel were just too good to pass up). Then it was into our “private motorcoach” for the longest day of the trip.

We started with a failure — we were supposed to have a tour of Masonic Hall, but the volunteer guide never showed up, so about all we saw was a waiting room, the restrooms, and this plaque.

Our guide never showed up so this was all we saw!

We couldn’t wait, because we had an appointment with another volunteer guide, this time for a tour of City Hall and the Tweed Courthouse. Fortunately, this guide volunteers for the city, so she showed up. But first, we wandered around City Hall Park, where I saw the day’s first reminder of 9/11:

City Hall Park was very pleasant; I especially enjoyed the fountain.

City Hall and Tweed Courthouse were interesting, but not terribly picturesque. Then we walked down into the financial district and had lunch at Les Halles. This was the first of our group meals, most of which had semi-set menus in the interest of speeding the meal along (not really rushing us, but keeping on schedule). I’d go back happily.

Lunch was well-timed, because it had started to rain just before we got to the restaurant, but the storm was over by the time we left for Federal Hall, Trinity Churchyard, St. Paul’s Chapel (where we saw the 9/11 exhibits), and finally a tour of the area around Ground Zero with volunteers from the 9/11 Tribute Center. One of the volunteers had worked on the 102nd floor of the South Tower but had changed jobs a few weeks before 9/11; he still lived in the area, and suffers from respiratory problems as a result. Of course, that wasn’t the most moving part of his story, but it’s all I can relate without distortion.

By the time we’d finished, it was 6pm, and our “private motorcoach” had a lot of traffic to fight on our return visit — I’m not sure but that the subway would have been a better choice. We got back to the hotel far too late to go to a show, so we went to dinner instead, at Angelo’s Pizza on Second Avenue, choosing the place by its four-star Yelp reviews. I wasn’t terribly impressed, and added my own review to help others in the future — there was nothing wrong with the pizza, but I was sure we could have done better.

Wednesday

We started Wednesday with a tour of the Tenement Museum, which included an interactive interpretive session; I got to play the role of the paterfamilias of a turn-of-the-20th-Century Ashkenazi Jewish immigrant family, asking questions of a teenaged Sephardic Jew who’d been in the country for a couple of years. It helped me appreciate what my grandfather had gone through when he came to America.

Then we walked down Rivington Street to Schiller’s Liquor Bar for a “light lunch” (only two courses); the neighborhood was a bit on the quiet side because it was Simchas Torah (Ashkenazi spelling deliberate, given the area), so some of the stores were closed. Schiller’s was fun and filling, but not so filling that I wasn’t interested in making a stop at Economy Candy, where I bought more than I should have but not as much as I wanted to.

Back on the bus for a trip up the East Side to Gracie Mansion for tea (and dessert) and a tour. We just missed the Mayor, who’d been there for a reception for the Consular Corps. Gracie Mansion is worth the trip; in previous years, the tour omitted the upstairs private quarters, but since Mayor Bloomberg decided to live in his own home instead of at the Mansion, the whole house is shown. And now that New York has lifted term limits, the odds are good that there will be four more years where you can see the whole place.

We returned to the hotel with plenty of time to visit TKTS and score tickets for Spamalot. They’d announced that they were closing in January earlier that day, so I’m glad we went when we did (I hadn’t known about the closing until I saw it printed on our ticket). On the other hand, I have to say that comparing the play with the movie shows the value of a limited budget — I far preferred the movie.

We tried to go to Akdeniz Turkish Cuisine before the show, but they were full, so we went next door to McAnn’s, which was a perfectly serviceable bar, with decent food and beer.

Thursday

Thursday was downright chilly and windy, which was a shame, because our first stop was outside, at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens.

Micheal Berens gave us a great tour of the exhibit (EAF08: 2008 Emerging Artist Fellowship Exhibition) there until March 1, 2009); his comments and energy added a lot to my appreciation of the exhibit and kept me out in the wind until we were dragged away to join the vast majority of the tour, who were waiting patiently on the bus for us.

We made a quick stop in Astoria Park to admire the underside of the Triborough Bridge.

We then continued on to the Noguchi Museum, where we had a low-energy tour.

Lunch was at Taverna Kyclades in Astoria. It gets rave reviews on Yelp and in Zagat, but I thought they were only average; being in a group didn’t help, I’m sure, but the salmon was overcooked, and that didn’t jibe with their reputation. I might try them again, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to do so.

And that ended the organized portion of the day; we had decided to go see The 39 Steps if we could get tickets at a decent price. The lines at TKTS were long, but we’d found a half-price flyer on the way over, so we hiked the extra three blocks to the box office and took care of our business that way. Then we took advantage of IBM’s corporate membership in MoMA and went in for a short visit (because two museums just aren’t enough for a day in New York). After that, we cast about for dinner and ended up following a Twitterpal’s recommendation for Bukhara Grill, which was quite tasty but more expensive than I expected (note to self: if the menu in the window has opaqued prices, beware). I wish we could have brought our leftovers back, because they were too good to abandon — but without a refrigerator, abandonment was the only option.

The 39 Steps was great fun, though a bit hard to follow at times; I guess it would have helped to have seen the movie or read the book first.

Friday

Friday was the northern day of the tour. We started at Van Courtlandt House in the Bronx, not far from where the subway ends; then we visited Poe Cottage, which is about to undergo significant restoration, and then the Bronx Museum of the Arts where we had a well-guided, but too short, tour of the “Street Art/Street Life” exhibit.

After that, we journeyed to Harlem for lunch at Londel’s. They failed badly on the service side (Diane didn’t get her meal until 20 minutes after the rest of us were served, which was about an hour after we’d sat down), as well as not having the sweet potato pie that had been prearranged. And the food wasn’t very exciting anyway. I did enjoy the “local” Sugar Hill Beer while I waited for my food!

The slow service cost us the chance to walk around Striders’ Row, but we finished the afternoon at a high point, the Morris-Jumel Mansion, including an interesting ghost story.

Then it was back to the hotel to rest for a bit before the grand finale, a trip to Top of the Rock and a farewell dinner at the Sea Grill in Rockefeller Center.

Saturday

We had our last “tour” breakfast at the hotel and said goodbye to a number of folks who we saw there, then set out for a day of touring Manhattan on our own. There was much geocaching in the morning, not all of which was successful.

Lunch was at an old haunt of mine from my 1980 trip to the late, lamented IBM Systems Research Institute. Well, almost. In 1980, it was known as the Electra Coffee Shop; now, it’s the Morning Star Cafe, but it’s still a great New York diner.

After lunch, we walked up to Central Park for more geocaching, and then to the Metropolitan Museum (thanks, IBM!) to admire some European paintings and the current Chinese landscape exhibit, along with some quick trips through the Egyptian collection, the “New York, N. Why” exhibit, and some shopping.

Then we walked over to Beyoglu for another shot at a Turkish dinner; this time, we had no deadline, so, of course, they seated us immediately. This was another Yelp pick, and it was a winner — the vegetarian meze plate was great, as was the doner kabob. I’d go back cheerfully.

We decided against baklava for dessert in favor of Pinkberry for Diane and Sedutto for me — that was probably a mistake, because it had started raining while we were at dinner, and the rain really picked up while we were at Pinkberry. It eased up by the time we left, and wasn’t too bad on the way to Sedutto — but then the wind hit. My umbrella didn’t survive, and I wound up throwing it away before we got back to the hotel (sure, we could have taken a taxi — there were plenty available, despite the rain — but what fun would that have been?), and we were quite soaked. But it was fun anyway, and I felt virtuous, having walked over 30,000 steps for the day (which probably didn’t make up for the caloric intake).

Sunday

Today, we decided against the hotel breakfast; instead, we walked a block to Smiler’s, where Diane and I had breakfast for under $10. Total.

We had another reason for eating at Smiler’s instead of the hotel; we were having brunch with an old friend at Noho Star. After Saturday, we didn’t want to walk quite as much, so we picked up a MetroCard Fun Pass for the day and took the subway to NoHo, arriving early enough to do more geocaching (again, not all successful).

Brunch was very pleasant, as was catching up; Ed said that if the day was clear, we could do worse than to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, and so that’s what we did (with a not-so-quick detour to the hotel to pick up my jacket).

I took a ton of photos on the bridge and in DUMBO, posting many of them on Twitter as they happened; Ed saw my tweets and arranged to meet us again, giving us some very useful tips on the local area, including the suggestion of having pastries at Almondine.

After that, we made a brief visit to Bloomingdale’s, and finished the evening with stops at two pizza places, Portofino on Second Avenue and Two Boots in Grand Central. Portofino was much closer to “real” New York pizza, at least given my choices (mushroom slice at Portofino, “Earth Mother with cheese” at Two Boots). And then a little Ciao Bello sorbetto to top off the evening.

Tomorrow, we get to see JetBlue’s new Terminal 5 — it’s going to be the first Monday the facility has been open. I hope security there works better on a Monday morning than it does at San Jose.