Saturday, July 5, 2014

Flashback: An American Princess in England - Lumley Castle

Once upon a time...well, we all know where that leads. Every little girl wants to be a princess.  It's like a rule.  Even the best tomboys secretly want to be at least one of the Disney princesses. I won't lie; I did too, although my princesses didn't come out until recently (Merida from "Brave" and Anna from "Frozen" are the two most like me). Especially American girls because we grew up on Disney...what did everyone think would happen? 

When I was a 28-year-old, former Marine, corrections sergeant, princess in combat boots, making excellent money and doing a LOT of overtime (which translated to lots of COMP time), I decided to take some time off and go on my first major adventure abroad. Alone.  1999 - England, Scotland and Ireland (north and south) over about 5-6 week period.  I had a car (and learned to drive on the 'wrong' side at rush hour coming out of the airport in London!), a few maps, a tight itinerary and my vouchers. I had put together my vacation by buying pieces through British Airways.  I have no idea if they still do it, but it was a brilliant idea. What I did was to buy "pieces" for each part of the trip out of catalogs provided by the airline's travel company, and you chose where you wanted to stay. I especially liked the B&B section because you knew exactly where you were staying and if it looked safe and convenient. I bought one voucher for each B&B I stayed at, 2 hotels in London, ticket to "Phantom of the Opera", tours in the bigger cities and "Big Red Bus" tickets (hop on/off so I could park my car and not have to drive in the cities), all of my flights, both of my cars (one in Great Britain and one in Ireland) name it!  It really was a clever way of doing it. And the stress of trying to do everything on the fly was taken off my shoulders and when the time came, I had everything I could possibly need. Don't forget in 1999, the Internet was still growing and it wasn't as easy to buy and see everything you wanted to. We still used Foder's and Frommer's Travel books! And with my OCD mom and I doing the 'everything you can possibly see, and probably won't itinerary' (I swear, if I was going to see everything she had listed, I'd have to be up at 5am and on the road, but most of them didn't open until much later)', I was definitely NOT going to the normal tourist sites. I'll discuss the priest, the dolmen and the herd of cows in a later post. 

Since it was my first trip out of the US (Mexico & Bahamas excluded), and since I was being fairly frugal, I promised myself one night in an actual, real life castle. After quite a bit of research and looking at my maps and schedule, I chose Lumley Castle.  A beautiful old place on a golf course (No, I don't golf), they serve multiple course dinners, have a large wine selection and basically it was everything I wanted and more. The only thing was, because of cost, I had to get a room in the newer 'courtyard' area. Whatever!  I just want to stay in a freakin' castle, people!  I still had access to all the castle's facilities, I just wasn't staying in a real 'princess room'. I just figured it was out of reach so I would enjoy what I could get.

When I pulled up to the castle, I just knew I wouldn't be disappointed!  I parked and went into the reservation desk, which looked as if it should be where the old wine cellar (or dungeon?) used to be. It was definitely dark and felt like you were going underground. I got goosebumps! THAT is what I'm talking about! 

The people at the desk were so nice and friendly. However, they were doing construction on my
part of the castle so they couldn't put me in my reserved courtyard room. I was so bummed. But, have I mentioned I have a stellar gift of being in the right place, at the right time? You'll notice as you read more posts...the 'free- upgrades' God really likes me! The girl told me they were going to upgrade me to a TOWER ROOM for free.  Really?!?  Could I get more excited?  I think I was jumping from one foot to the other, like, "Oh. my god, this is too cool to be real! Oh, my god!" And other geeky-American touristy things to say. Or I might have looked like I was doing the pee-pee dance, now that I think about it. No further discussion on that issue, thank you. 

There was an older gentleman porter who came to help me with my luggage (if I was there 6 weeks, and only did laundry once, you can imagine how big my luggage was!). Plus I was a little prissy then, so a few dressier items took up my whole garment bag. He was asking me if it was my first time staying in a castle and I was like, it's my first time in England!  I think he must have taken me on the scenic tour because we went up some steps and down some and through some tight squeezes, maybe a tunnel and a well where an owner killed his wife (I'm not sure why this is, but in every castle I've toured, they talk about how one of the prior nobles killed their wife by dumping her in the well. I'm really quite sure they could have come up with something a bit more imaginative without spoiling the castle's drinking water, but whatever!).  Update: From Wikipedia: The castle is believed to one of the most haunted places in County DurhamLegend has it that the castle is haunted by the ghost of Lily Lumley, Ralph's wife, who was thrown down a well in the castle grounds by two priests for rejecting the Catholic faith. Knowing they would be in trouble, the priests told Sir Ralph that she left him to become a nun. Her ghost is said to float up from the well and haunts the castle.

When we finally arrived from the maze of hallways, I could look down to a central courtyard where a suit of armor was standing. At about that point, the gentleman opens the door for me and shows me into the room. I went from OMG to OMFG! in that one spilt second.  There is just no other way to describe it...OMFG. I was giggling!  I don't giggle!  Giggling is beneath me!  

The room was huge by American standards but in England, it's a penthouse! Every place I've stayed at in Europe (and this includes the major cities like London and Paris), you get a teeny-tiny room where you can barely fit a twin bed and your luggage. I have literally stayed at B&B's (Plymouth, for one) where a closet has been turned into a room. Really.  So anyway, back to my super-awesome-amazing castle room. There was a 400-year-old, canopied oak bed up on a dais with all the appropriate drapery. There was a writing desk, a sitting area under the windows for tea (yes I had tea in my complimentary robe...just because I could.), and a large wardrobe against one wall.  This whole time, I was just so excited, I don't remember anything I said (probably complete gibberish and possibly a new language altogether...or, I suppose, it could have been Klingon), but he knew I was having a blast.  It can sometimes be difficult to make the staunch English man smile, but he did, so that was just a bonus. I was seriously like dancing around with excitement at this point. I was just waiting for him to leave so I could break into every Disney princess song in the collection! Then the man says, "Do you notice anything missing?"  I looked around again and I'm like, "What could possibly be missing?" He said, "We apologize but there's no bathroom here, you'll have to share down the hall."  I was not about to let that burst my joy-bubble! I told him I'd been staying in B&B's for 3 weeks, so sharing a bathroom was not a problem. He gave me a smile and said, "Then I'll just hang your (garment) bag  in the wardrobe." Just when I was about to soar across the room and bounce on my 400 year old bed like a five-year-old, the porter said, "Oh my goodness! What's this?" Curiosity won out and I went to look inside the wardrobe. I didn't see anything until he reached through and grabbed a long bell-pull.  The light came on and it took me a minute to realize, there was a BATHROOM back there!  Through the wardrobe!! All mine! With a sink, and a sea-shell tub (complete with complimentary bubble bath, of course) and a old-style water closet. All in a secret room behind my wardrobe.  

Oh I was too excited for words!  I hugged him and screeched (another first!) with excitement and he was laughing. I think I was his entertainment for the day. I tipped him extremely well, and tried to decide: bed, bath or tea? Well, bath won out!  I don't even like baths but by god, I had one in my closet so I would take one that night! And the wardrobe door was closed so no one even knew I was there!  AWESOME. I took pictures from outside the wardrobe but it just didn't do it justice.

After my bubble bath, and my tea in a bathrobe, and maybe just a little more rolling around on my bed, I pulled out a short cocktail dress and decided I would live it up that night. I had an awesome, multi-course dinner in the restaurant, and a nice bottle of wine. OK, two. I wish I could remember what was on the menu, but just trust me that it was wonderful. Oh, how I killed the diet that night but I really just don't care. Yum.

At that time of my life, I occasionally had a cigar here or there (my then boyfriend and I liked to dress up and go out on Vegas date-nights to nice restaurants and Jazz clubs), and I had purchased a nice 'ladies' cigar earlier on the trip and thought it would be a great way to end the evening. So, after dinner, I took my bottle of wine and went to the library/lounge/bar. I sat in front of the fire, cigar and wine in hand, a book I was sort of reading, but mostly I just listened to what was going on around me. An amusing thing to do, just people-watch and people-listen. In this case, at the table behind me, there was a debate between four Englishmen and one American about the American death penalty. Now I love a good debate, and the death penalty is one I firmly believe in (that's the cop in me, I guess). But at one comment from team England and I snorted and chuckled. The boys turned and said, "Excuse me, are you laughing at US?" Uh, yeah!  That opened the door and they invited me to join in. Team America was looking pretty beat down at that point.  So, we debated back.  I explained my stance, that I'm from the South, where I worked, and that it should be used more. We must have sat there for 3 hours, and there were many more drinks flowing and that of course brought out the competitive men, and while I wanted to stay and win this debate, I didn't want to lose anymore time away from my room!

I slept great and it broke my heart to leave after only one night. The castle also does various events, like weddings of course, but also medieval role-playing murder mysteries. I could have easily spent another couple of days there. I never even got to see the grounds!  

All and all, this is one of the things I remember most about my long vacation in the UK. When I'm helping friends traveling abroad with their itineraries, Lumley is one I suggest to everyone. The people are friendly, there's great food and company and it's just a gorgeous place to stay if you want to really treat yourself. Again, I was there in 1999, so things might have changed a bit, but the website looks like they're still keeping it in great shape.  I wish I could remember the name of the room I was in, but I'm sure "Bathroom through the wardrobe," would get it done.  

I would consider this a five-star travel experience. After all, how many girls of all ages have really stayed in a castle and had a bubble bath through the wardrobe? They also do weddings, Elizabethan dinners, murder mysteries, and they also offer specials as well. The only possible way this could have been a more enjoyable stay, was if there was a huge hedge-maze in the back or a sighting of Lily Lumley's ghost. So, I am forced to only give it a 9 1/2 stars. Do enjoy!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

4 Days Bahamas Cruise - Nassau (June 2014)

After the disappointment of Freeport yesterday, Nassau was wonderful! The cruise ships still dock across the water from the Club Med, Paradise Island village I visited several time when I lived down in San Salvador. Sadly, Club Med is no longer there as super-power Atlantis not only gobbled up all the business but all the land as well. I understand there is only one building left standing there but we decided not to go to Paradise Island. Having just moved from Vegas, we noted the similarities and ran in the other direction. We couldn't see the village because of all the trees, but I showed mom where it used to be, none the less.  Then I discovered that out of all the Caribbean Club Med resorts, Columbus Isle (San Salvador, where I lived) is the only one remaining. Club Med was the original "All Inclusive" resort and has been around well over 50 years, but they just couldn't battle Atlantis and the American copy-cat resorts (Beaches and Sandals). People say they go on vacation to see the sights and meet the people... usually that really means people as wealthy as I am and as American I am. Obviously, this subject pisses me off, so I'm off that particular soapbox for now!)

First word of advice: do NOT get your hair braided at the port entrance area!  They are a rip off! I told mom she would be so much cooler because she sweats so bad in humidity. I wore them all the time when I lived in the Bahamas and I didn't take them out until 3 months after I got to Las Vegas; and yes it was washed daily! My mom paid a fortune for her hair to be braided (and she only wanted a few braids like mine...I got four) and the girl braided the entire front of her head. They charge $3.oo for each braid (that was the discount cost), and they did hers so small that they got 42 braids done.  Do the math.  Then she threw in a French braid in the back (again she didn't ask for that) and she had to pay quite a bit extra for that. Let's just say she had to make a run to the ATM.  So, if you want to get your hair braided in Nassau, you'll see signs all over the tourist areas for WAY more reasonable prices and be ABSOLUTELY clear that both you and the braider knows what you want.  We had this exact same difficulty in Dominca, only the girls there did crappy braids on both of us, again for a "discount" cost of $2 (we only got a few that time), but said 'discount' was given IF I would run across the street to the Duty-Free shop and buy some rum-based punch thing that they were out of anyway. But she still gave us the "discount" rate. 

(I am a Starbucks addict, so a while back, mom and I decided to take a pick of me & Starbucks when we travel)

We had decent weather, but sunny and humid. Mom was certainly NOT regretting her new up-do while we were walking all over town and up and down hills! In the afternoon we got a brief sprinkling of rain as a break from the sun but the storm never hit so our travel luck remained good!  I am pretty sure mom is going to have her new 'do at least until summer in Florida is over! LOL

 Other than the obligatory geocaches and Starbucks picture, we didn't have a set plan.  But, even though I'd visited Nassau a couple of times before when I lived in the islands, I never saw as much as I did this trip.  And I had my favorite Train-Wreck next to me, so always adventures ahead! Speaking of train wrecks, I almost fell THREE times while on the island. First a 3-foot pot hole nearly took me out (it might have been a little smaller), second a bad curb and the third one because mom jinxed me by telling me I was just convincing myself.  No major injuries though!  I was wearing my "Tommie Copper" ankle support while walking around which is probably what saved me from another sprain, at the least. It also was the worst place to fall because oncoming traffic was on a blind curb and traffic was coming fast.  And I don't care if mom believes it or not, I'm ready to scream the benefits of Tommie Copper from the top of the nearest mountain!  She, of course, would never stoop to wearing any kind of support. It makes her look stronger, I guess.  I'm not sure why she cares on a vacation when she only knows ONE other person, but whatever. I don't care if I look strong or weak, but either way, it feels like it's working! 

(I normally like to get photos of the direction pointer signs. Well, this is the biggest one I've seen!)

We started our day pretty early. The island was beautiful! There were trees with red flowers (mom said they're wild poinsetta). They were everywhere! I took a picture of our cruise ship from the top of the hill and it looked like it was floating on the flowers.  And they were just so striking against the huge forests of 6' grass. As usual, mom told me to get in front for a picture. You can't REALLY get bit by a snake on vacation, right? She wouldn't do it. That makes her a coward but me an idiot.

(ships in the harbor)

While we were looking for geocaches, we went to Parliament, first. Now, almost all government buildings in Nassau are the same shade of pink. Now, I love all the bright colors in all the Bahamian islands, but not of THAT color.  Firstly, it's not a bright color. secondly, in fact, it looks like they haven't painted it once since my last visit in 1993! Mom was saying what a pretty color it was and I was thinking what a hideous shade of Pepto Bismol that was. Ew.  Then onto the Queen's Stairs (reminded me a lot of the Coit Tower stairs in San Francisco) up to a historic water tower (virtual geocache!), Fort Charlotte, and then we walked down the hill (SO much better than the climb up).  We were sort of looking forward to seeing Christ Church "Cathedral", but it was disappointing. It looked much bigger in pictures. Mom didn't even go inside (she was outside already looking for the geocache there...priorities!), I poked my head inside and it looked just like any other Gothic English churches in the colonies, but I wouldn't call it a cathedral. And updates have taken away some of the gothic character. The original arches have been removed so central air conditioning could be installed and with the exception of the main stain glass window behind the alter area, I would say skip it unless you're REALLY into gothic churches, or geocaches (yes, we found that one). 


 (L: The Queen's Stairs and ancient water fountain.   Rt: me goofing off in the flowers and grass as tall as me.)

We were seriously hot, sweaty and weary at this point (How did I ever live in this? Oh, yeah. Less 'personal padding' (fat) back then and beach only 100' from the door!), so I told mom she needed to have at least one Bahamian beer before we left. Now, wasn't it convenient that right across the street from that gothic church was the Pirate Store and Pub? It was a sign! We were meant to drink beer right then!  Right THERE!  Can I get a "HELL YEAH"?! And, wouldn't you know, "half-pint" was up at the bar before I was even into the shop! 

 (Background story)  I call her "Half-pint" because when I went to England the second time, mom was with me as we went to her first pub. I warned her that the alcohol content was quite a bit higher than at home, but I also told her you have to at least drink a pint. The Irish thing, you know.  Mom did pretty good. Until about half-way through her pint. Then she got all goofy, and in the end, one pint was too much. I cut her off, finished her beer, and I just can't let her live it down, although recent attempts to make amends are pretty impressive!

Back to Nassau - It was very similar to the pirate store in St. Augustine so I didn't buy anything, but the pub attached was awesome and so was our Kiwi bartender. We were sharing stories while we drank ice cold bottles of Sand.  You heard that right, SAND.  That's the name of the beer which, apparently, is the only decent thing to come out of Freeport. I had hoped that she had the Bahamian beer that was forever in my hand when I lived in San Salvador and beer was hard to come by. They had to ship it in, and since the Riding Rock bar was the closest place near the Club, every other Wednesday night, they knew all the G.O.'s (employees in Club Med terms), would be there, so they ordered extra cases of beer and the reggae band ready to groove on the dock out back for da dancing, mon. Good times. From what I remember, anyway! They didn't carry the beer I was familiar with and I'd never heard of this 'Sand' beer, but despite it's name, it was smooth and I liked it!  Apparently, mom did, too, because the first one went down fast and the second round was on the bar while I'm still on my first. She was like, DRINK!  What the hell?!  Peer pressure from my own mother?!

After that, we were going to hit the straw market and go back to the ship. I'd been to the straw market before and it was much like I remembered, but they're so aggressive about buy this and look at my booth and I'll give you a discount, anything to get you to buy. Mom doesn't like close places with lots of people and I've discovered lately that I don't either.  Neither one of us wanted to haggle with them, so after one row of 'shops' we took the back gate and decided we'd seen everything they offered in the straw market a dozen other places.  Once out of the market, we were back in tourist-ville again. All the high-price jewelry, clothing, etc. that they sell on every ship and in every single cruise port in the world.  We did manage to find a shop that had a lot of stuff and all of it reasonably priced. We bought our last minute souvenirs and talked each other out of another swim suit cover dress that we both already own and then we were done. Back to the boat and I think I took a nap at some point, but I may have been too tired to even remember.  At the end of the day, my step-tracker said we walked just under 5 miles.  Nice.  We needed it too, especially since we went straight to the buffet when we got back on the ship!! Tomorrow is a day at sea, which is usually the cruise days I hate because if you're under 100, there's really not that much to do.  Maybe I'll blog again. Or get into movie trivia. Or go to an Art Auction introduction.  Ooh, ooh! That's the one! 

On a side note, I just had share this photo. Partially, because I was a cop and am trying to figure out just how much they would have to pay me to direct traffic from a phone-booth rolled into the center of the busiest intersection, and also because the Bahamians almost killed me within 10 minutes of walking through their traffic! Dude is taking his life in his hands. No pun intended there, really.

Monday, June 23, 2014

4 Days Bahamas Cruise - Freeport (June 2014)

Day 1 - Freeport, Grand Bahamas

I was actually really excited when mom and I got a deal on a last minute cruise. If you keep your eyes posted, and subscribe to some of those annoying emails we all delete immediately (guilty!), you might just get a deal. Now that mom and I are living in Florida (near FIVE cruise ports!), we can spend the money we would have used on airfare for another cruise or some cool excursions. This deal we got last week... Carnival cruise for four nights and 2 ports in the Bahamas leaving out of Port Canaveral (which is closest for us) for $189 a person!  And we got a nice stateroom with a window.  You can't stay 2 nights in a choice hotel for that much!  And ours includes food and entertainment. We did see the Disney Dream in port near our ship and mom and I daydreamed about being able to afford a Disney cruise.  Pretty sure it just ain't gonna happen!

(The Disney Dream (or keep dreaming, in my case.)

I had two dilemmas on this cruise.  First, I've always wanted to go on a Carnival cruise because It's got the reputation of being the "party" ships. Well, that was when I was still young and still in one piece. The Carnival ship we're on (Sensation), is a nice ship, but there are a LOT of kids (there's a giant water slide on the top deck that I never managed to get up to), and the daily itinerary is just as boring as it was on all the other cruises, although at least they're not cramming artwork and jewelry down our throats (so far). Probably because the clientele was clearly unable to afford or use it as much. There are a lot of couples and big families on the ship, too, but not a lot of single people and not a lot of activities for single people. It would appear that as I've matured, so has Carnival. Our party days are behind us both. There aren't as many older people as I've seen on other cruises, but, again, the customers are not as ritzy as other cruises either and my generation will be coming up as the next generation of old and we'll want exorbitant cloths and jewels to wear to in my small redneck little town.

(mom and I at exciting (not!) Freeport!)

My second dilemma is this:  As I may have mentioned in a previous blog, when I was 21, I was working for Club Med. The last resort I worked at was Columbus Isle (San Salvador) here in the Bahamas and I've waited a long time to come back. I won't get to see MY island, but any island in the Bahamas is good, mon! As part of my job, I had to fly to Nassau a couple of times. Our ports on this cruise are Freeport and Nassau. Well, I'm at the end of our first port (Freeport), and I"m already typing a blog about it. Sitting on the ship, with a cocktail and my computer. Does that tell you something about this port?  First thing, as SOON as we got off the ship, the sky opened up and poured on us for at least an hour.  Unless you're taking a tour to some other point of interest on the island, you will be bored out of your mind 15 minutes after you arrive and if you're on a really cool excursion on the other side of the island, you'll get drenched and bored! Everything tourist-y is within a couple of blocks, mostly locals all selling the same things we saw in the South Caribbean and Hawaii: T-shirts, handmade jewelry, Bahamian-themed items (all made in China) and we were done about an hour after the rain. Looking at the port from the ship, you can literally make out where the tourist section ends and industry begins. I cannot tell you about the other parts of the island since mom and I decided to hold off on excursions because we both haven't been moving around very well, and since we just got back from the Southern Caribbean cruise, we figured we could do without. Mom has cruised to Nassau a couple of times, so between the two of us, we were disappointed in Freeport and excited about Nassau.
(Freeport natives helping me blog)

Part of my problem is that I'm exhausted and in quite a lot of pain on this cruise. Usually I don't do too badly when we're cruising but this time, it's horrible. I had a rough first night, and for once I was glad we didn't have an excursion. My back was bothering me and the arthritis in my hips as well. The slightest movement in my sleep and I'm wide awake. And I have to get up about 5 times a night to pace before I can lay back down, so I was little sleep deprived and cranky this morning. Mom slept like a freakin' log. Grrrrrr. However, I do want to pitch a product. I bought it as a last ditch effort to help me until my medical insurance figures out what the hell it's doing. The foot that I had surgery on and multiple sprains, fractures, etc. has been causing me a lot of pain when I put any weight on it. So someone told me about Tommie Copper. It promised super-thin support by material infused with copper). What the hell. Nothing else is working!  I had to return the one for the back because I accidentally ordered a man's, but I kept the ankle support just to see if it would do anything. I absolutely shit you not, it's unfreaking believable!  I don't normally go for any of that new age, snake oil, or any of that stuff. Like I said, this was done in desperation.  But I literally notice the difference the minute I put it on or take it off.  And it's so thin and comfortable, I sometimes forget it's there, and fall asleep with it on. I'm definitely ordering the back brace and the open finger glove for the arthritis in my left hand. At this rate, I'll be completely covered in Tommie Copper wear. A walking billboard!  Think I'll get a discount? Hmmmm. I now return you to this blog entry already in progress....

After we shopped the tourist area (I swear, more than a block in any direction gets you into the industrial area!) and the most colorful thing at the whole port was the Senor Frog's!  Don't get me wrong, I LOVE Senor Frog's. Great fun and love all the signs on the ceiling! It just seemed weird to go to a Mexican bar in the Bahamas! Anyway, mom asked what we wanted to do next.  I was wet, in pain and unhappy. And she refused to tell me if she wanted to go or do anything else. We talked about taking a taxi to a beach somewhere else on the island to pick up a geocache, but decided not to.  In the end, I went back to the room and apparently fell into a coma. I took a muscle relaxer and woke up over 2 hours later drooling into the pillow. I had just sat up from my nap when mom came in.  Then the whole, "what do you want to do now?" conversation started up all over again. I grabbed my computer and headed to the topside of the boat to listen to the reggae music (at least we had that), but decided I'd go down to Senor Frog's instead. About halfway between the gangway and the point of entry at the other end of the sidewalk, was a young girl sitting on a towel. Some people from our boat yelled from their balcony that they had called medical to have a wheelchair sent to her. I asked her if she was alright, and she told me she has severe back problems and I was like, "Honey, let me tell you about it!" Poor thing. She's 33 which was just about the age all my trouble started. I stayed and talked to her for a while, a little pissed off, because I happen to know that the medical department is at the top of the gangway, on the same level, and no one came with a wheel chair. After a while, I sort of helped her to her feet and an elderly gentleman offered to support her until they got on the ship. Chivalry isn't quite dead yet, it seems! 

After that, I went through the gate in an attempt to get some Wi-Fi (always look where the teenagers are all hanging out with their smart phones in hand), but I couldn't get it, so I came back to the ship and here I sit, typing away and drinking a really awesome drink called a "Twilight Zone".  Yummy.  One lady at the bar was like, "Ooooh!  How did you get a drink that matched your outfit?" Oh, yeah, it did!  Ha, ha. She took a picture.

Tomorrow we head to Nassau and there will be a lot more to see and do there. Especially because there's a lot of historical stuff. I didn't really get to see much while I stayed on Paradise Island (Club Med), but I did get to go to the straw market and a couple of outdoor night clubs. I'm pretty sure my night club days are over, but I can still get excited about everything else! Stay tuned...

Sunday, June 8, 2014

So, what's this "GEOCACHING" thing I'm always talking about?


The outdoor sport/game/hobby of searching for hidden objects by using Global Positioning System(GPS) coordinates posted on the Internet.

When I tell people I'm into geocaching, I usually get one of two reactions:  1) People look at me like I've grown a second head and then ask me what it is.  2) The more common answer, people will nod and say, "Ah." And try to bluff like they know what I'm talking about. Not getting off that easy gang. I say, "Do you know what that is?" And THEN they say, "I have no idea."  Well, OK then. Let me enlighten you.

First, and most importantly, it is geoCACHE, not geoCASH. Aside from an occasional quarter or a soggy dollar bill, there is almost never any monetary gain, so if that's what you're looking for, get yourself a metal-detector and head for the beach.

Second, I have yet to meet more than five people that have actually tried geocaching and NOT liked it. Most of us were completely addicted within the first few caches. So, if you don't have a lot of time, you may not want to even start. BUT, here are a few pros to this hobby:

a)  It is free. You sign up on GEOCACHING.COM and get started. However, like most free websites, there are upgrades and items that you CAN spend money on, but it's not necessary. I would suggest you try it for about a month and see how committed you are. If you're as committed as we are (i.e. these two train wrecks don't leave the house for an appointment without looking to see what caches are in or around that area), then I recommend upgrading to the 'premium' membership, which is $30 a year. The benefit of this are twofold: There are lots of caches that are hidden from those who aren't premium members, and your geocaching map is way more accurate.

b)  You don't need a bunch of fancy and expensive tools to play. I had about a 3 month head start on mom, but since she was driving with me to most of the caches, I finally got her out of the car to hunt with me. Because a lot of areas in Las Vegas don't get cell reception, mom and I bought a Garmin hand-held for about $300 and we've probably only used it five times and now it's in the closet. There are two FREE phone apps that work way better, and one is directly connected to so all your stats and logs can be done as soon as you find the cache, instead of having to do it all later at home. You can also run cache queries to be used if you have to go somewhere with no cell service.  Our favorite by far is C:Geo (this is the one that works with the official website) and I use GPS Essentials because I like the compass tool better and you can use them both for difficult caches that have coordinates bouncing all over the place.

c)  It is an awesome family activity. In a point of history where your kids stare at their phones or game consoles more than they look at you, this is a way to get some quality family time in the outdoors. What a concept! They can still stare at their phones but their doing it for a healthier reason. As a member or members, you can have your own private account or you can create a team. Some families have both, in case they cache alone and together. For smaller children, there is an easy option just for them in a hand-held GPS unit that is pre-loaded with cache coordinates (I believe it's called Geomate, Jr.).

d)  There are always social events to meet new people. It's not just you out chasing down caches. There are events constantly going on and a lot of them are really cool with really cool people. There's an event list on the website for all over the world.  Any member can create and host an event, but there are also BIG worldwide events like 31-Days of Geocaching, Worldwide Flash Mob Day, Geocaching in Space, etc. For simple local events, attendance counts as a cache. For worldwide events, it also counts as a cache but you also earn souvenirs on your statistics (more on that later). Here is a link to one of my events as a example.

(Two buddies I met at my first event (Gordon Biersch Meet & Greet in Las Vegas), brothers Jimmy and Dean. Together we made "Team 3 Stooges". LOL)

How do you get started?  Well, for me, my mom bought me "Geocaching for Dummies" on the .25 table at the library. She knew what it was about, but I didn't and basically just put on the bookshelf to collect dust. Then, while in Arizona, I accidentally stumbled onto a cache. I was like, WTH? But the little light bulb went off over mom's head and she was like, "Hey! That's the geocaching thingie I was telling you about!" OK, well, having now scene one in action, I decided to delve into it a bit. I literally read the first two chapters of the forgotten book and with the Introduction to Geocaching videos on the website, it's easy to jump right in!

Geocaching can sometimes be a bit competitive. One look at any of our profile statistics, and you can see that. For some of us (mom and I), our priority is our maps and souvenirs. So when we travel (example: We recently went to five islands in the Southern Caribbean), our maps get shaded and we get souvenirs. Thus, we ALWAYS prioritize getting at least one geocache when we travel, before any sightseeing. You can also get souvenirs for worldwide events. For some people, it's all about the numbers. This seems to be more prolific in male geocachers. It's basically a pissing contest. These are the folks that do the "power trails" where you just roll down the road and pick up a cache every tenth of a mile (there must be at least 1/10th of a mile between caches). Mom and I tried this on the Extraterrestrial Highway and were bored after about 30 caches. It wasn't even a challenge. But I've seen guys stay awake for DAYS to finish all 2,000+ caches out there. 

One of the most sought after claims to fame is a "First to Find". I've had four. They even have huge First to Find events. Again, this is mostly the male cachers. They will even have an alarm on their email to go off when a new cache is posted, and they'll get up in the middle of the night to go after it. The thing that baffles mom and I is that there are no statistics maintained for FTFs. So there's nothing on your profile that says you have all these finds, yet I've seen people arguing about who was there first. They even argue on the cache logs. 

(May not look like much, but these are some pretty important milestones to a new cacher! Left: #500 at the FTF event in Ocala April 2013. Rt: #1,000 Feb. 2014, yes it was deliberately planned to be at UF stadium!)

There are many different types of caches. There are almost 2 and 1/2 MILLION caches hidden around the world, and over 5 million cachers. There are traditional caches, stage caches, puzzle caches, Earth caches and virtual caches, and even underwater caches. A cache can be as small as a pencil eraser and as large as a 5 gallon paint bucket. All of these caches are explained on the website, but I will tell you that the single most common caches are "micros". Most prominent in the city, but sometimes out in the boonies, too. They are very small and usually only big enough for a log to sign (you sign the log and log it on the website and then that cache turns into a smiley face), so always take a pen. There is no room for swag in these caches. But beware the EVIL geocaches! To see what I mean by that, visit my "Evil Geocaches" board on Pinterest.

Members are the people who create the caches, although I would say wait until you're comfortable with the hunt, and be sure to read the requirements. Some of the volunteers who approve the hides can be really OCD about it, while others are a bit more cooperative. I've got about 50 hidden in Las Vegas and Arizona. I prefer to make larger caches (regular size), and I have been praised on the goodies I leave in them, although you may have to hike a bit to get to them! The reward is better when you have to work for it, right? 

Swag is what we call any goodies placed in a cache for trade. There's a one-for-one trade rule... so don't take it out if you don't have something of equal or better value to put in (exception is trackables). Swag examples are Mardi Gras beads, little toys, etc. We usually don't even take swag...we're just after the log and credit.

I think that just leaves trackables. There are basically two kinds of trackables: Travel bugs (dog tags you can attach to any little thing you want) and geocoins. Both have numbers and when activated, you set up a home page for it and give it a mission. Then you can see how far it travels. I have several, but I will give a word of advice, if you have geocoins that are hard to acquire (like coins I've bought on Ebay that are no longer made), I suggest making a duplicate coin (take a picture of the front and back of the coin and put cardboard between it) to send out, but keep the original coins. Here is a link to my trackables just as an example. Then I can take the original coins with me to events to show off. Oh and almost anything can be a trackable if you have trackable number associated to it. Geo-dogs can have their own trackable. Your car can be trackable. I've even seen tattooed trackables on one members arm. Now that's commitment! LOL

And now a word about muggles. Yes, we totally stole that from Harry Potter! A muggle is someone who might see you retrieve a cache. Here's the thing that kind of confuses me: You're suppose to be super-stealthy when retrieving an returning a cache to it's hiding place. BUT, we kind of want to get more people interested in geocaching, so how do we choose?  I tend to try to be stealthy, but I've had people asking me what I'm doing and so I tell them. I actually carry 'muggle cards' to pass out when I get busted or just to give to people who might enjoy it.

So, I wish there were a shorter way to explain all of this. It's really not as complicated as I've probably made it seem, but again, there are several SHORT videos on the website that might do it better than me. 

And with that, this concludes Geocaching 101. I have to go out and find a few now!  Good luck and happy hunting!

Friday, June 6, 2014

South Caribbean Cruise Day 5: St. Martin / St. Maarten

Somehow, we seemed to get our excursions mixed up.  On this last island of our South Caribbean cruise, we found ourselves on another full-day catamaran cruise. This was a cruise excursion, and we SUSPECT that our desired excursion was booked up and they just kind of pushed us into the most similar excursion they still had room on, because we both KNEW we wouldn't be able to handle two sailing tours in two days and so we wouldn't have booked it. I was still banged up and bruised from the day before! At any rate, I noticed what was on our agenda the night before and mom sent me to the excursions desk to change it. We really wanted to see both sides of the island, not for any particular sites, but because St. Martin is a French province, and St. Maarten is a Dutch province (officially known as the Kingdom of the Netherlands).  For those not familiar with geocaching, if we find at least one geocache on each side, that gives us credit for two more countries. It's actually nothing more than impressive statistics on our profiles and bragging rights at geocache events to come, but we all try to do it anyway!

(I really didn't dress to match the welcome sign!)

Not surprisingly, there weren't very many options left to change to at the last minute. However, there was one half-day, "Best Of  Both Sides" tour (oh, how I loathe those!) with a stop at a butterfly farm, so we figured that was fine. Surprisingly though, when we got our final ship bill, they did refund the difference between the tours. We figured since we only gave about 12 hours notice of the change, we would have to forfeit the difference. Kudos and thank you Norwegian Cruise Line!

In our worldwide travels, both of us have been to countless 'butterfly farms' (including Tinkerbell's Butterfly Farm at EPCOT during their flower festival last year...unimpressive) and usually you see a few butterflies fluttering about and you're basically left looking at the pretty flowers. So when our huge tour bus (also a "Best Of" pet peeve!) pulled up to this little tiny building and unloaded, I figured I could at least get a stretch and see some St. Martin flora. Man, were we wrong! This Butterfly Farm was awesome! I've never seen so many butterflies in such as small area. And apparently the farm was completely destroyed when Hurricane Luis hit in 1995 and had to be rebuilt from scratch. Starting with a moth bigger than my hand and so many different colors and shapes of butterflies, it was awesome. The farm itself is not huge so the only problem I had was that we couldn't always get close enough to see what our guide was showing us, and with mom being almost deaf, she didn't get to hear any of it. So, I would take her by when the group moved along and try to remember the cool details. Two train wrecks - one can barely hear, the other has short-term memory loss! What a team!

(Left: a male moth the size of my hand. Females are bigger!  Rt: a Monarch stopped long enough for a photo)

Before boarding our tour bus again (BTW...our tour group was with Diamonds International), the now expected, complementary rum punch was indeed flowing!  LOL  I think we came home as alcoholics. There really wasn't any other stops before crossing the border into French territory. Our tour guide on the bus was knowledgeable and gave us steady chatter as we stared out the bus window. There were a couple of scenic views and the water was beautiful. I was beginning to regret not taking that sail excursion so I could get in the water, and other than the butterfly farm and scenic overlook (on the fly, there wasn't a stop at any), it was a pretty boring ride.

(An abandoned tanker destroyed near shore during the 1995 Hurricane Luis)

When we reached the small town of Marigot, we were given a half-hour to walk around. Of course, the guide took us to his favorite shop and told us to check that one out for a little discount. This irritates me because the tour guides get kick-backs for bringing their buses close to these stores and sending business to them. The prices are no better, and are sometimes higher. We went off in search of a couple of close-by geocaches, and then walked through garment market areas and mom got a cute swimsuit cover-up. And then we were back on the bus and headed back to the cruise port in Phillipsburg.

(At a smoothie break in Marigot after finding our geocaches. Mom and the parrot are making the same face!)

The ONE thing that I would have absolutely loved to have seen, we didn't go anywhere near. SO bummed! Maho Beach is home to one of the most famous airports in the world: Princess Juliana International Airport. If you don't know why it's famous, watch the short video at the link above. Basically, the airplanes fly extremely low over the beach adjacent to the airport. I REALLY wanted to lay on the beach and get a photo of one of the planes coming in above. Some people will also hold onto the fence and "fly" when the planes take off. For whatever reason (because she's probably right), mom just knew I'd try to do that so she was glad to NOT go there.

(a plan lands at the famous Princess Juliana International Airport just a few feet above Maho Beach)

Back in Phillipsburg on the Dutch side, we had several hours to kill before our ship left, so we walked into town. It was a bit further from port than we thought, but the stretch was good after the bus. But hot and muggy. Really the worst so far of all the islands. We were after those geocaches for the Dutch credit and saw a couple of cool, older buildings, like the courthouse. I was also looking for a couple of pirate-related souvenirs for some friends, although there were very few considering the area is well-known for It's pirate days.

(Left: mom gets the geocache at the old courthouse. Rt: a direction sign (I love these!) But where's the bird?)

On the main road, hawkers were trying to get us into their shops and of course taxi drivers were lined up as well.  This is one of our biggest hates when traveling by cruise line. Every activity on board revolves around jewelry and art auctions and high-end fashion and at every single port they're selling the same damn things! Who is buying all this crap and what are they doing with it?!  I can barely imagine much of that keeping the shops on the ship in business, let alone all the ones in every port.

After finding a little shop with a few goodies, we were really hot and tired and ready to go back to the ship, and would you believe for the first time on five islands, there's wasn't a freakin' taxi driver ANYWHERE!  Where did they all go?!  By the time we found one, we were half-way back to the ship so we just kept going. St. Martin is definitely pulling up the rear on the five islands. But overall, we really enjoyed this vacation.  Not the sea days...I nearly died of boredom on the two days out and two days back, although after five islands in five days, at least the two back was good for recuperation!

(Our departing view as we leave the last island of our Southern Caribbean cruise)

Thursday, June 5, 2014

South Caribbean Cruise Day 4: Soufriere, St. Lucia

     We kind of had a rough start on Day 4. Firstly, the only part of Castries that we saw, was the welcome building on the pier. Taxi drivers down in the islands are pushy at best and downright aggressive at worst. By far, Castries has the others beat. We actually had to push our way through the throng of them at the doors to leave the shops. They're not allowed in the building but they will get as close as possible. I could barely get the door open, there were so many! Then we had to push our way back through when we figured out we needed to go back the way we came. 

We didn't realize our guide was waiting by the ship (dressed like all the other excursion people) since the excursion instructions said to meet a blue and white boat at the other end of the pier, and we thought we had a few minutes to grab some coffee and jump on the Internet in a cafe just above the meeting place. Apparently, they were early. When we saw them boarding, we panicked and ran downstairs but no one was there. Poof!  People and boat vanished!  Like, Twilight Zone kind of vanished. The instructions said they weren't allowed to tie up to the pier so I guess everyone just jumped and they were off. So, the catamaran left without us, and after asking several dock workers, we finally found our tour guide who was looking for us back down by our ship. Nice. But, once we met up with our guide, Dee Dee, things started to fall into place. She called the boat back and actually said they were changing to a bigger boat anyway, so no worries.  This was another tour (The Soufriere Sail Excursion), and I believe our tour company was CelebrityTours in conjunction with Carnival Sailing Cruises (no affiliation with either cruise line). By far on this vacation, and other than the mandatory surcharge on the ship, this was the highest 'tip' day of the cruise. What I mean is, if you follow the rules of etiquette regarding tipping (and we Las Vegas folk are the biggest tippers in the world because most jobs in Vegas rely on tips...remember that the next time you go!), we tipped the tour guide at the botanical gardens, we tipped the girls at lunch, we tipped the van driver, I refused to tip the guide at the was one flight of stairs, smelly and a plaque would have covered it; and a big tip for the crew on our boat. 

(our catamaran from the snorkel viewpoint)

      I've always been curious as to what St. Lucia would look like. Back when I was working for Club Med, St. Lucia was one of the few resorts they had which had horses. I was raised on horses, but a contract just didn't open up for me there. Frankly, I wasn't that impressed.

      Back to the trip, now. When we finally got on the catamaran, I was impressed because it was a pretty good size boat for the fairly small group on the tour (about 40). It reminded me of our dive boats when I lived in the Bahamas, although those were not sailing boats. It's kind of like a modified pontoon boat.       This was a full day excursion, and about the first hour or hour-and-a-half was going along the western coastline of the island. Once we got out to a good spot, our captain killed the engines and hoisted the sails. There was an area inside the boat with benches, walls and the bar (for later!). Out on the front of the boat was where I sat on a bench trying not to get knocked over when the ship tacked. The front of the boat for the most part was the "trampoline", which is where the sunbathers staked their claim (it's actually brilliant because they have the breeze above the boat and the breeze under the tramp to keep them cool). It was really awesome when a school of about 7 dolphins came up on us and a couple went right under our boat while the others passed on the sides. If the girls on the tramp were paying attention, they could have reached down to touch them. After that, the Pitons came into view and one of the tour guides was taking pictures of us in front of them. Of course, that would be when we hit a really big wave. The boat went up!  I went up a half-second later but we seemed to crash back down at the same time. Ouch. That literally did leave a mark. Quite a few actually. So there it was! The minimum one fall per vacation was out of the way! I could have broken something or I could have fallen the other way and gone right into the water, so there are the positives to that.

(Welcome to Soufriere)

     Our cruise went to the small village of Soufriere. It was a large group of people so we had to contend with several vans and buses. Our first stop was the Diamond Falls Botanical Gardens.  Not the biggest or best botanical gardens I've been through, but our tour guide was a walking encyclopedia on every plant there! I actually mistook him as a homeless person until he introduced himself. The group division did not work, however. There were probably 25 people being herded like cattle on a little tiny path and it was difficult to see or hear what he's describing, particularly with his accent. The big claim to fame for this little garden is the small waterfall in the back. It was featured in "Romancing the Stone". 

     After the gardens, we were taken to the Fond Doux Holiday Plantation (cheesy spelling, I know) for a buffet lunch. It was not bad but not great. We were told it was local creole food, but I always thought creole was spicier. This was just bland and blah. But I thought the bathroom was cool!

                                                            (Inside the volcano crater. )

    Right after lunch (and this was ill-timed), we went to the Soufriere Sulphur volcano which is touted as "The world's only drive-thru volcano". The smell of it is overwhelming, and right after lunch it's positively nauseating. The only reason I got as close as I did is because there was a virtual geocache there which would give us credit for the island. The excursion allows you to take the 'tour' of the crater or visit the mud-baths. It wasn't suppose to be both, however some rude people did it anyway. The volcano tour was up some stairs and there was yet another tour guide and it took about 10 minutes. The problem is, these people go to the mud baths and fart around and then have to get cleaned off and it's a minimum of 20 minutes. It irritated the hell out of me because looking at my watch, they were cutting into what was beginning to look like a short snorkel before we had to get back to our ship for departure.

(Dory!  If that's you, JUST KEEP SWIMMING!!)

    And that's exactly what happened.  We wound up with only 1/2 hour to snorkel and we barely left the immediate area of of the town to do so. Not to mention, the snorkeling was in choppy water and a bit too close to the cliffs. It reminded me of the snorkeling in Maui... Lots of rocks and lots of silt. Nothing too exciting. But I was so proud of Train Wreck 2!  While she didn't actually go snorkeling, mom did actually get off the boat and in the water!  That was a new experience for her! But because of the chop in the water, she was feeling a little anxious, not wanting to get too far from the boat, but not wanting to get a concussion being knocked into the boat.  Baby steps, but we're getting there!

(Leaving Soufriere behind)

    But what happened next made the entire excursion and brought St. Lucia into the number two island position behind Dominica, and I think we can lay that entirely on our excursion crew. Once everyone was back on the boat from snorkeling and we began the 1.5 hour cruise back to port, the music got started and the rum punch started flowing. One of our guys (aka: "Energy Man") was insane!  He was trying so hard to get people up to dance. While I was enjoying my rum punch, my mom was trying to find a quieter place on the boat. I got her settled into a corner with some punch. And then a little more punch. And then I lost track of the punch either of us had. I went above deck for a few minutes, and when I came back down, my jaw dropped and I was just gaping. Dee Dee serving punch said my face was just classic.  My mom was out there shaking it up with Energy Man on the 'dance' floor. You really need to understand the historical relevance of this. I have NEVER seen my mother dance. Oh, she's told stories of how crazy she was in her youth, but I never witnessed it! She's usually the one in the back of the library trying not to be seen or heard. I fortunately whipped out my cell phone and started recording. I figured I got video of dad doing a hula dance in grass skirt and coconuts in Hawaii for blackmail, now I've got mom, too. Muwah, ha, ha.  Then when she turned around and saw me filming, and HER face was classic!  But she broke the ice, which means my social skills do come from some repressed gene in her, only to be witnessed with rum!

(The Train Wrecks and the Energy Man - doesn't that sound like a 70's band gone wrong?)

    Pretty soon, classics like "The Electric Slide" brought almost everyone else down to dance as well. I did that one, but risked no further injury afterwards. Then Energy Man (we discovered how he earned his name...I was exhausted just watching him!) was leading folks in fun 'copy me' kinds of dances and by the time we got back to our ships, everyone was tipsy and laughing and agreed that we had an awesome time. Celebrity Excursions...Great job! 

(Everyone up and dancing!)