Category Archives: Flora & Fauna

From Belfast to the Boyne Valley

June 8, 2017:

This morning we beat feet to the south, with an ultimate destination of the K Club in Kildare, just south of Dublin.  However, our first stop for the day in just outside of Drogheda, to see the Unesco World Heritage Site of Newgrange–the location of a trio of immense Neolithic passage tombs. This historical site is known as Brú na Bóinne in the local Gaelic, and is located back in the Irish Republic along the Boyne River in County Meath. It is comprised of three different historical ruins, which are called Knowth, Dowth, and Newgrange.

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Newgrange is the oldest site and was constructed about in about 3200 B.C. (5200 years ago). The Knowth and Dowth sites are a little newer, but all of them were constructed before the Great Pyramid in Egypt, and before Stonehenge in England.  The passage tombs are large domed circular structures with an earthen roof built over internal stones lined up to create a passage to an internal chamber in which the cremated remains of ancestors could be laid until sunlight from the winter solstice crept down the 21 yard passage and lighted stone bowls in which the cremated remains were kept. In this way, the Neolithic people believed the souls of the dead were transported to the afterlife. Around the outside of each tomb is a collar of “kerb stones”, which are decorated with patterned carvings. Even now, over 5,000 years later, the sun still reaches the inner chamber at dawn on the winter solstice, and over 30,000 people sign up for a lottery each year which determines the lucky few able to witness this phenomenon in person. It being Ireland, though, and her highly fickle weather; even if you win the lottery, you might not see the sun that day!

All of the sites are accessed from the Visitors’ Center via small busses, but you have to buy a ticket to each site. Since access is controlled, you are given a timed ticket to access each site. Sadly, the tickets for Newgrange were sold out until 1:00 this afternoon (it was only about 10:00 when we arrived), so we elected to go to the Knowth site instead. But first, we learned more about these Neolithic people in the Visitors’ Center, which has exhibits based on their food, dress, and village structures, as well as two replica inner chambers: the one at Newgrange, and the entrance to Knowth.

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Relief map of the Newgrange site
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Re-creation of Neolithic villagers’ lives

As we went out to the Knowth site, we were fortunate to meet up with a docent who was just beginning a lecture about the Knowth site. As I mentioned earlier, it was built later than Newgrange, having been constructed between about 2500-2000 B.C., so it is still older than The Great Pyramid at Giza.  However, unlike the Newgrange site, this passage tomb was constructed with an east and west entrance which allowed the sun to enter on the equinoxes in spring and summer. Sadly, because the Knowth site was later used for settlement through the Middle Ages, and the later inhabitants constructed a hill fort and subterranean structures which may have been used as passages or for storage, the two passages no longer align for sunlight to enter on the equinoxes.

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The topography of the Boyne River Valley
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The Boyne River as it flows by the Visitors’ Center
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The Knowth Passage Tomb and smaller surrounding tombs

The Knowth passage tomb site is the largest of the three tombs, and is surrounded by 17 satellite tombs.  It also has the largest collection of kerb stones encircling it, although some are missing and others damaged.  However, outside the eastern entrance is a timber circle (think Stonehenge in wood), which is believed to have been constructed in the late Neolithic or early Iron Age (starting bout 2200-2000 B.C.), and the central tomb was believed to have already been in disuse by that time.  As mentioned above, the site was abandoned and repurposed for human habitation beginning in the late Iron Age/early Christian period.

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The timber circle
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Smaller satellite tomb, probably repurposed as a dwelling

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Excavated smaller tomb

The kerb stones have really simple, but pretty carvings on them, and are more varied than those at Newgrange. Interestingly, one of the most common patterns is that of a spiral, which we have seen in other cultures (notably the Incan and Mayan), as well as some other cultures where it depicts the Earth Mother, and fertility or the circle of Life. One other interesting fact about these stones is that they were originally installed with the carving facing inward, in a style known as “hidden art”. Upon closer inspection, we could also see numerous “sand martins” (we call them bank sparrows in America), who had built nests in the grass edge right above the kerb stones.

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Sand martins built nests all along the domed top of the tomb knoll which was given a concrete lintel to stabilize it after excavation and reconstruction starting in the 1960s

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We also climbed to the top of the tomb, from which you could see all over the Boyne Valley. You could also see the Newgrange site in the distance, as well as the ruins of Mellifont Abbey, which was established by the Cistercians. Weren’t they just the busy little religious order?!!!!

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The top of the Knowth tomb

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View out over the Boyne Valley toward the Newgrange site
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Long distance view of Newgrange 

We then decided to beat feet directly to the K Club in Kildare, as our lodgings have been upgraded, so we will be staying in the mansion known as Straffan House, located on the property.  Sadly, we will also be bidding farewell to Dermott, but after nearly two weeks with all of us, I imagine he’ll be glad to sleep in his own bed and reacquaint himself with his wife!

We were treated like royalty upon arrival and driven to the remote property where Straffan House is located. The house is the private resident of Sir Smurfit, and was designed to look like the original Straffan House, which became the Kildare Hotel, now known as the K Club. The Smurfits were among the original founders of the K Club, and now own it outright. The new Straffan House is now available for lease to large groups at an astronomical cost, but I guess when it wasn’t rented (or being used by the Smurfit family), it serves as a kind of overflow accommodations.This is what greeted us as we arrived.

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I had stayed at the K Club about 10 years ago on a business trip to meet with my company’s London and Irish insurance brokers, and I had treasured my memories of this grand old place.  As you can see, Straffan House is a complete luxury showcase, complete with its own butler (named Patrick), movie theatre, gym, spa and pool, and golf carts provided for getting around the property.  However, this is when reality set in.

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Views over the 10th hole of the Smurfit course at the K Club

I will preface these comments by saying that I am about to whine about what are clearly “FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS”, and I recognize that (and gave some thought to not mentioning any of this, but decided to leave you readers with an accurate account of our good stroke of fortune turned bad).   After Patrick showed us to our rooms,  we noticed that the rooms themselves, although nice, were certainly nothing to write home about, and ours was about as modest as my nephew’s room back home. More importantly, some of the rooms had no ensuite bathroom, and none of the bedrooms had air-conditioning. The whole house was about as hot as a sauna when we arrived, and although the pool room and gym downstairs apparently had air conditioning;  since it was not working, those amenities were unusable. We had been told that whatever we wished in terms of food or drink could be provided at the house by merely letting Patrick know. The problem was that management had not authorized Patrick to do this and had not provisioned the house. Since the main hotel property is about 7-9 minutes away by car (and about 10 minutes directly across one of the golf courses by golf cart), that left us having to drive the carts to get anything we wanted or waiting forever for someone to come from the main hotel to drive us.

Since Jim and I wanted a cocktail after we settled in to celebrate the last night of the trip, we took 1 of the carts over to the main hotel. While that we cool (and we even saw a bunny playing on the greens), when we were ready to back to house to join our group for dinner, we got trapped at the main hotel by a huge thunderstorm deluge, and then had to wait some time to get back to Straffan House, and the vans had to make two trips to ferry us all to dinner.

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The Clubhouse at the K Club (we ate dinner here)
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The grounds of the main hotel
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The main hotel

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The crowning blow came the next morning, though. After arising early (after having sweated my way through the night because of no air conditioning and humidity outside) so we could eat breakfast  and then leave for the airport, the chef who was supposed to show up and bring provisions and cook breakfast never arrived. Calls by Patrick to the main hotel didn’t produce any results, so Patrick found us a couple of tubs of yogurt and some fruit (probably his), and we had to leave. The conclusion was inescapable: we would have been better off staying in the main hotel.

While this was a less than stellar end to a great trip, Jim and I will still look back on our trip to Ireland as a wonderful exposure to a great company, and especially, its warm and welcoming people.  Stay tuned, as our next adventure (starting in August) all take us through the Canadian Maritime provinces and on to, Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Thanks for reading along!

 

Living the Castle Life

June 4, 2017:

Today we opted to spend all day just enjoying the amenities at Ashford Castle.  Accordingly, we slept in late (to sleep off the effects of our feast at the George V restaurant last night) before we tackled the legendary breakfast spread at Ashford Castle. OMG!  If you can dream it, you can have it; from hand carved fresh baked ham leg to smoked salmon, all the way to Irish whiskey to add to your oatmeal, and the best scones we have eaten on this trip!

On the way back to our room, we got to see the Castle dogs, two gorgeous Irish wolfhounds who were visiting the lobby after their daily walk through the grounds.  Gosh, these dogs are huge!

After breakfast, we walked around the Castle grounds a bit, and then headed off for our first activity of the day; a “Hawk Walk” at Ireland’s School of Falconry, located on the grounds of Ashford Castle.

We met our falconer, Joe, at the school, and he introduced us to two of the Harris Hawks we would be flying today. Their names are Geimhreadh (which sounds something like Giffer) and Airic (Eiric?).  In any event, the birds are gorgeous, but a little smaller than I had imagined.

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Our falconer, Joe

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There are a total of about 38 birds at the Falconry school, but they are carefully paired because, just like in junior high, some won’t fly with other, and some attack others, and still others have problems with raging hormones.  While most of the hawks are Harris hawks, there was also a peregrine falcon, an owl, and a set of 4 baby hawks.

Joe told us about the basic signals for how to control the hawks, gave big leather gauntlets to Jeff & Chuck as the first ones to fly the hawks, and we set off into the parkland. First off the bat, we gave the hawks a little “test flight” to make sure they would return to Chuck & Jeff. Mission accomplished. Then they let them fly a little further afield. The hawks fly so fast, you can barely track them with your eyes, much less the camera!

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When the hawks return to you, they get a little treat of raw hamburger, and Heaven help you if you don’t have the treat ready for them every time they return!  Jim quickly mastered the art of flying the hawks, and looked like a real natural. So much so that he started talking about getting a pet hawk to take care of our squirrel problem!

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Finally, it was my turn, and words can’t describe how absolutely cool this was!  The hawks are such fierce little predators, and yet, when one is on your hand, you feel like a team.

We all took turns flying the hawks in the open, and then it was time for something a little more difficult: flying them in the surrounding forest!  Because the forest is so much more crowded, it is hard to follow them visually, and I think they had some problems, too!  One ran into Faye, and somehow, Jim ended up with two of them on his arm at once.

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Sadly, the hour went all too fast, and then we had to return to the school.  We got to go into hawk enclosure with Joe as he put Geimhreadh away.  Geimhreadh celebrated by immediately taking a bath in his water bowl.  All of the hawks are really beautiful, and it was nice to be able to photograph them more closely.  We also got to see the Peregrine Falcon, and the four new hawk chicks.  Even though our trip is far from over, I think this experience will likely rank as one of the best of this trip!

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Peregrine Falcon
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Baby Hawks

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For a day of “rest”, we have quite a few things on our agenda today.  After walking back to the main castle, we walked through the Ashford grounds, on our way to the nearby town of Cong.  In addition to all the sites used in the Quiet man movie (including a statue of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara replicating a scene from the movie), there are the ruins of a royal abbey,  with grave stones dating back to 1200, and at the edge of the river, the ruins of a “monk’s fishing house”.  This weekend, there is also a regional food fair in town, so we spent a few minutes checking in on that.

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The Monks’ Fishing House
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Ruins of the Royal Abbey

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Walking the streets of Cong

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Statue of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara
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Cong Food Festival
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The judging of the cabbages
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Fishing on the Cong Canal
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A family of swans

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Shortly, however, it was time to walk back to Ashford Castle to catch a boat ride out onto Lough Corrib, with a visit to Inchagoill Island, which for a time, was the home to exiled St. Patrick (when he was just a priest).  There is a fabulous old church called St. Patrick’s church (“Teampull Phadraig”) built about the 6th or 7th century, as well as the remains of a later church (The Temple of the Saints) on the island.  Between the two churches is an ancient graveyard, with a stone pillar called the Lugnaedon Stone, which says it marks the burial place of St. Patrick’s nephew.  There are also the remains of some simple stone houses where the last of the island’s residents’ lived.  Overall, the island is very peaceful, and it was nice just to walk among the ruins.

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View of Ashford Castle from the Cong Canal
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Shelly, Mark, Steve, Paula & Dermott sending us off on our “three hour tour”

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Ashford Castle from Lough Corrib
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Landing at Inchagoill IslandEnter a caption

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Wild orchids?

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St. Patrick’s Temple

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Jim in front of the Temple of the Saints

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the Lugnaedon Stone
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Islanders’ homesteads

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On the way back, we were serenaded by Irish music, courtesy of the talented accordion player, Martin Noone, who was an extra in The Quiet Man.  People even got up and danced! Of course, it helped that there was a bar on board.

We finished up our incredible day with a great dinner at another restaurant on the Ashford Castle property, called Cullen’s at the Cottage. This was much more casual than our dinner last night, but the cottage is very cozy, and we all really enjoyed our dinner.

Tomorrow, it’s off to the further north, to the city of Donegal.

Wandering the Wild Atlantic Way

June 2, 2017:

This morning, we arose to glorious sunshine, just in time for our drive to the Atlantic coast. Ireland is blessed with the world’s longest defined coastal touring route, which is known as the Wild Atlantic Way. It begins just outside Kinsale, and then meanders its way to the northwest, and ends in the town of Muff (right outside Derry) on Lough Foyle, some 1500 miles away. Yesterday, we saw the beginning of the Way, along Old Head, but today, we are going drive along the Dingle Peninsula.

But first, on the way out of Killarney, we stopped in the small town of Aghadoe, which overlooks the town of Killarney and the lakes and forests of Killarney National Park. I think you will agree that it was a gorgeous view!

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In advance, I’ll apologize for the huge number of photos in this post, but the views are simply breathtaking on a day like today.  I can make you feel better by letting you know that Dermott let me have the co-pilot seat in the bus today, so I actually shot several hundred more pictures that I am sharing here! Everywhere we looked, the grass was emerald green, the wildflowers were in bloom and sheep and cattle (including their lambs and calves) were in almost every field. Not so amazing when you consider the Republic of Ireland is a country of about 4 1/2 million people,but there are 5 million sheep here, and over 8 million cattle.

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We first saw the  ocean (or at least the estuary to the ocean at a small town called Inch. where the Strand creates a beautiful beach. Dermott told us that people regularly surf here, but I couldn’t even imagine how cold it must be!

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The Wild Atlantic Way

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The beach at Inch Strand

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Shortly thereafter, we passed the town of Dingle, which is a picturesque small harbor town. For several years (since 1984), Dingle Harbor has been the home of a very friendly dolphin named Fungie.

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A few miles on, we passed some Iron Age stone forts.  I love the countryside here! The wild yellow irises were splendid, and fuschias which are not native, but really like it here!

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The Iron Age fort is the small grassy knoll behind the sheep

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The best part of the drive, though, was along Slea Head!  It was such a clear day that were could see not only out to the Blasket Islands offshore, but all to the Skellig Islands, where the most recent Star Wars movies were filmed.Dingle Penisula-58

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Blasket Islands
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Skellig Islands

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From there, we drove back to Dingle and enjoyed lunch in town.

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Three of our group (Mark, Jeff and Chuck) bravely decided to play golf at Tralee Golf Course. Our driver, Dermott, has told us that this is the hardest back 9 holes in all of Ireland. Just watching the wind blow across the course was enough to make your blood run cold. Jim wisely opted to return to Killarney with us and explore the town!

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Tralee Golf Clubhouse
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Jeff preparing to meet the whims of the Golf Gods
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View of Tralee Golfcourse from the Clubhouse
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Jim, thinking: “Thank God I’m not playing”

Here is the poem Chuck penned to commemorate the experience:

Ode to a Golf Ball in Ireland
By
Chuck Cascio

You were good to me
This is true
We played together elsewhere.
You landed on flat grounds
I found you in the woods
You buried yourself in sand
You wound your way home
I bathed you clean and watched you gleam.
But now, my trusted friend,
As I place you on your throne
Ireland’s cruel winds howl
The ocean laughs
And tiny raindrops splatter my face
Though the sun shines and
A canyon looms below,
Housing creatures that mock our effort,
And countless traps of sand surround our hoped-for destination,
We know the cruel fate that does await…
I will swing
You will fly
I will curse
You will curve
I will sigh
You will disappear
Drowned
Eaten
Lost
So I say to you, dear friend,
Thank you for your service
Your friendship
Your dimpled presence.
You will be missed
And now, go meet your destiny
One shared by thousands of other balls
Buried in the cemeteries Ireland calls golf courses.

Kissing the Blarney Stone

June 1, 2017:

We awoke this morning to pretty hard rain as we boarded our coach and set out for Blarney Castle down in County Cork. For most of the day, our route was the same as we had taken yesterday.

Sadly, when we arrived in Blarney, it was still raining steadily. Nonetheless, we suited up in our rain gear and set out.  Blarney Castle was built in 1446 as a typical medieval tower house by Dermott McCarthy. Today, the interior of the Castle is mostly in ruins but for the outer walls and the winding stone staircase.

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The Blarney Stone is set into the arch of one of the outer battlement walls of the Castle. To kiss it, you first have to brave the long lines of tourists, then climb up a stone tower (about 130 steps), but that is so narrow, about half of those who had braved the line bailed out. Once you get to the top (which was open and blowing rain), you lie down on your back and a burly guy helps slide you backwards so you can bend down and kiss the Stone. For achieving this contortionist feat, you are supposedly granted the gift of magical eloquence.  If you don’t notice any increase in our eloquence, these pictures will at least prove we did the deed!

After a lunch in the tourist center of Blarney, we headed to our new home in Killarney, in the southwestern part of Ireland.  On our way home, we stopped briefly in Cahir.  There we viewed Cahir Castle, where you can still see a cannon ball imbedded in the wall of the castle. The castle was built in the 13th Century as a Norman fortress,  It then came under the control of the powerful Butler family, was expanded during the Renaissance period and stayed in their family until 1964.  The site of the Castle is lovely, sitting on an island in the middle of the River Suir.

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Cannonball embedded in wall

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We checked into our very comfortable hotel (the Killarney Park) in the town, and left immediately for dinner at a local restaurant in the High Street called Gaby’s.  The need for speed was dictated by the fact that Dermott had gotten tickets for us at tonight’s performance of Celtic Steps, so we had to finish dinner in time for the show. In my opinion, this might have been the best thing we did all day! The music was fabulous, and the dancers were extraordinary!Celtic Steps-2Celtic Steps-6Celtic Steps-8Celtic Steps-12Celtic Steps-15Celtic Steps-16Celtic Steps-21Celtic Steps-23Celtic Steps-27Celtic Steps-29

Curious about Curaçao

April 14, 2017:

Happy Good Friday to you, Dear Readers!

Ever since I have been a young girl, I have been curious about Curaçao, which is one of the constituent countries of the Netherlands.  The islands of Curaçao, Sint Martin and Aruba are actually separate countries, but part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.  My dad and his buddy, Bill Morley went diving here, and it always sounded like a little European outpost in the Caribbean.  From them, we learned that the diving was world-class.  Friends of mine in more recent years have confirmed that analysis!

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View from our mooring at the Queen Juliana Bridge, which spans Curaçao Harbor

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We had no planned activities in the morning, which turned out to be a good thing, as the town was deader than dead on this religious holiday!  Nonetheless, we did a walk around the town and admired the charming Dutch colonial architecture of the buildings, and stopped to watch the swinging “Queen Emma” bridge. We also visited the “Floating Village”, which is actually a small fleet of boats that sails over from Venezuela regularly to sell fresh fish and produce. Having seen the quality of the produce, I think I might live off frozen vegetables if I had to depend on this market!

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Main Waterfront
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View of the mouth of the harbor at Willemstad guarded by two ancient forts
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Queen Emma bridge swinging open
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… to let a tiny boat through

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Empty streets of Willemstad

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The fleet of the Floating Market

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Government building
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Island phrase meaning “sweetheart”

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After lunch on the ship, Jim booked us on an afternoon dive excursion through Ocean Encounters. This company enjoys excellent Trip Advisor ratings, and was one of the few which could accommodate divers and snorkelers in the same trip. This was important as Shawn scuba dives, but Sylvia prefers to snorkel.  There are a whole slew of all inclusive resorts about 20 minutes outside of town which cater to divers and snorkelers.  Our dive provider is located at one of those resorts, Lion Beach Dive Resort, but it also picks up divers from the Sunscape Resort, which used to be known as Breezes.  We would all definitely consider returning to these resorts for an extended stay after we saw how nice the facilities are!

Our dive boat went to Tugboat Bay, where we dived first on a a wall, with some really cool sea life, and then we ended up diving on the wreck of a tugboat.  While we were diving the wall, the snorkelers went to see the wreck of the tug, which is easily viewable as it only lies in about 15-20 feet of water.  Rumor has it that the tug sank when a boat it was guiding dropped its anchor on top of it. Who knows, but it makes a good story!

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Shawn diving
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Basket sponge
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Puffer fish

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Jim

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I got these shots of our dive with a little waterproof camera we picked up a few years ago, but about thirty shots in, it stopped working, so I missed some of the best photos. However, we all still enjoyed the incredibly clear warm waters of Curaçao, and saw some beautifully colored corals and basket sponges, although these photos do not reflect the brilliant colors.  The fish life was also very diverse, and I saw some beautiful triggerfish, angels, and even a mosaic cowfish!  Then we headed back to the resort and the ship.

We had a beautiful sunset sail away from the harbor, but I don’t believe this is the last time we’ll be visiting Curaçao.

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A Walk on the Wild Side (Semi-Wild Maybe) of Santa Marta

April 12, 2017:

OK, once again, we had a wildlife disappointment day today.  Shawn and Sylvia are beginning to suspect I may be cursed! Our scheduled activity for the morning was a visit to Tayrona National Park, about 30 miles outside the town of Santa Marta.  Reportedly, this national park is home to countless varieties of birds, several monkey, some lizards and caimans (smallish alligators).  Reportedly …

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Sailing into the port of Santa Marta

We docked again about dawn this morning in the port of Santa Marta, which is much further to the east of Colombia, almost to the Venezuelan border.  The terrain here is much more noticeably arid, with cactus and scrubby trees instead of jungle surrounding the town. However, as we drove further east, we entered a much more verdant landscape, albeit not the tropical rainforests to which we have become accustomed.

Our excursion to Tayrona had two main parts: a hike through the forested areas along the seaside, and then a visit to a seaside eco-resort with an opportunity to swim at the beach there.  As you can see from the pictures, the coastline is striking, but the animals were lacking. In fact, the only wildlife I captured after lugging my heavy telephoto lens through the bush in the extreme heat was a pair of turkey buzzards. Even that would have probably been OK with Shawn and Sylvia, except the the tour guides promised sandwiches at our beach stop, and they were sadly, missing. Suffice it to say, the issue of the missing sandwiches in Santa Marta has been a daily discussion point.

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Trail Marker from the Tayrona people
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Riverine area where caimans reportedly live. Reportedly …
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Eco lodge in the national park
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Turkey buzzards
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Not turkey buzzards.
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Santa Marta coastline

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Crab holes

The opportunity to swim in the warm Caribbean waters made the whole day, though.  After slathering on some more sunscreen (and bug repellant) we headed for the waves and enjoyed our interlude on the beach!

Next stop: Curaçao, one of the constituent countries of the Netherlands!

Checking Out Casco Viejo and the Panama Canal

April 7, 2017:

Wednesday night (April 5th) we arrived in Panama City, Panama, with our good friends, Shawn and Sylvia Ashley.  We are staying in the old colonial part of the city, which is known as Casco Viejo.  This is the third time Jim and I have visited here in the last 5 years. Each time we return, I am astounded at how much has changed (I.e., has been restored) here!  The first time we came, about 1/3 of the old town was restored, 1/3 was in the process of restoration, and the remaining third was inhabited by squatters in totally decaying colonial buildings.

Now, however, the restored portion occupies almost twice as many blocks, there are very few squatters left, and restoration construction is going on like crazy al oust everywhere. There are now quite a few options of places to stay, and many more restaurants, bars and nicer shops. We found our lodgings through Airbnb this time, and are staying in what is kind of a mini hotel called La Isabella Suites.  It is only four apartments, complete with kitchen, 2 bedrooms and baths (with modern facilities) and great air conditioning!  It also has a really nice communal interior courtyard where we have enjoyed drinking Cuba Libres with Shawn and Sylvia!

Our first night we got in just before 10, which gave us just enough time to grab some groceries for the morning, and then we had dinner at a great local restaurant just around the corner from us called Tantalo.

Yesterday, we allowed ourselves to sleep in, and then we gave Shawn and Sylvia a brief walking tour of Casco Viejo, which was built in 1673, after captain Henry Morgan sacked the original old city of Panama  (called Panama Vieja) in 1671, which is located about11 miles away. The old city was established after the Spanish explorer, Balboa, discovered the Pacific Ocean there in 1519.

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Since our first visit, the Panamanians have built a huge elevated causeway that encircles Casco Viejo. From the point at the end of Casco Viejo, you can see the entire skyline of Panama City which encircles two bays with gleaming, modern skyscrapers. It is very impressive, and quite the contrast to the colonial era architecture. You can also see the Amador Causeway which goes out to three local islands. In effect, the Amador Causeway creates a breakwater for the entrance to the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. On the Causeway, you can also see the brightly colored eclectic roofline of the Biomuseo, which was designed by Frank Gehry.

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Biomuseo

For our first day here, we scheduled a tour guide to show us the high points of old and new Panama City. Our first stop was at the Amador Causeway.  Although we didn’t have time to see the Biomuseo, we were able to see the Bridge of the Americas over the entrance to the Canal.

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Bridge of the Americas

From there we drove through the newer financial center of downtown, and gained an appreciation of the really horrendous traffic challenges in this city!

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Our final stop was at the museum complex housing covering Panama Vieja. Our guide, Mayra (from Easy Travel Panama), did a great job of highlighting the key inflection points in Panamá’s history. Then we walked over to the ruins of Panamá Vieja. The museum had some pretty good reproductions od old maps, showing the layout of the city. Interestingly, although the city was a very key commercial center, providing for the transshipment of gold and silver from South America, it was also a very vibrant religious center, with monasteries and convents for virtually all of the major Catholic orders.

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We climbed to the top of the bell tower for the ruins of the cathedral. The views are great from here, offering the whole modern skyline and also, of Casco Viejo.  We walked a bit further among the ruins, and admired the bright red blooming poinciana trees. Then it was time to challenge the traffic back across town.

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We enjoyed happy hour out in our courtyard and then it was time for a real treat! We had scored reservations for dinner at Dondejose, which is currently the No. 1 ranked restaurant in Panamá City. It also happened to be just 2 blocks from our apartment! Dondejose features a 12 course tasting menu which showcases the best of Panamanian cuisine, modernized to fully use all the local and fresh ingredients. We all agreed that it had earned its super-star status!

This morning, our guide Mayra ocicked us up early so we could go explore the Panama Canal and the Canal Zone. When the U.S. finished the Canal in 1914, they were granted a five mile wide swath of land on either side of the canal for its entire length to use for canal administration purposes. The U.S. built housing, military bases, office buildings, shops, schools and many other facilities to serve their forces stationed in Panamá. When the U.S. turned over ownership of the canal back to Panamá back in 1999, they also turned over all the land and buildings in the Canal Zone. The Panamanian government auctioned off many of the homes and land to Panamanians and U.S. citizens who decided to stay in Panama. Our tour started off with a meandering drive through some of the residential areas, where the homes are lovely examples of colonial architecture which have been lovingly restored and maintained.

Our next stop was at the Miraflores Locks Visitor’s Center, which is located at the first set of locks on the Pacific side of the Canal.  We were very fortunate that just as we arrived, a huge cruise ship entered the locks, and we were able to go directly to the viewing area to watch the ship pass through the locks.

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You might think that a canal which was completed over 100 years ago had lost some of its interest to newer engineering marvels, but this is not the case. The Miraflores Visitors’ Center is crammed full every day, and many of the visitors appeared to be Panamanian families viewing this marvel!  Once again, Mayra was able to significantly add to the impact of the museum after we watched the cruise ship pass.  Jim and Had visited this museum once before, but it appeared that the Canal authority has continued to invest in the educational mission of the Visitors’ Center, because many of the exhibits appeared new, and covered topics not covered in our previous visit. Shawn and Sylvia seemed as impressed as we are by this world-class operation.

After we left the Visitors’ Center, we took a turn onto what is known as the Pipeline Road, which takes you immediately into the rain forest which flanks both side of the canal.  We proceeded to hike into the jungle in hopes of seeing some of the amazing flora and fauna which continues to exist right here next to civilization.  Although we saw some interesting bird species, I had hoped to see some of the other wildlife such as sloths and monkeys which are also plentiful here. We could hear some monkeys i the trees nearby (particularly, howler monkeys which kind of sound like leopards roaring). However, it was midday by this time, and Mayra told us we’d have better luck next time if we planned to visit either at dawn or dusk when the animals are feeding. Note to self: remember this!

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We did go to the Discovery Center in the park and hiked up to the top of an observation tower there, as we hoped to have some views of  Gatún Lake. Although there was a view, I think there is a better view offered from the observation tower at Soberania Park nearby.  Nonetheless, the highlight of the Discovery Center is that there are many different breeds of hummingbirds present at a viewing station where food for them is kept. Oh, wow! What beautiful birds!

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Panama City-168Panama City-170Finally, we stopped at the Gamboa Rainforest Hotel to take a boat tour out onto Gatún Lake to visit Monkey Island and hopefully see some monkeys. After our hike in the forest and climb up the observation tower, we were very happy to be out on the lake letting the breeze dry us off!

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Once again, we saw numerous interesting bird species, a small caiman (like an alligator), and a turtle, but the monkey laughed at us from the underbrush and refused to come out.  We also heard some toucans, but were not able to get a clear view of them. It was a little disappointing, but as happy hour was near, we were eager to return to Casco Viejo!

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Our last night there was celebrated at yet another restaurant within a couple of blocks of our home base. This one was a Peruvian restaurant called Nazca 21, and it offered some really excellent ceviche, as well as other dishes. Then we enjoyed cocktails on the rooftop bar at Tantalo, and watched the weekend come alive in Casco Viejo. Stay tuned, because tomorrow our cruise begins as we sail out of Colón on the Caribbean side of the Panamá Canal.