Category Archives: Logistics

Osprey Reef

Feb. 16, 2018:

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As dawn broke over the Great Barrier Reef, we were awaked by the crew for breakfast, and then another exciting day of diving. As we finished up “Brekkie No. 1” (first breakfast), we got our dive briefing for our first dive of the day at the aptly named Around the Bend dive spot.

As a general note, we found the captain and crew to be incredibly knowledgeable about each of the areas we visited, and happy to share that knowledge. In fact, I’m going to use their charts from the dive briefings to show what we did for each dive, and that is at least going to be the starting place for these blogs. The dive briefings were very detailed, and the crew was hyper-aware of the potential for changing conditions.

In this case, the dive is essentially a drift dive along the outer reef face or a sea mount, with a stop mid-dive to watch out for sharks and other large predator fish that gather at a break in the reef wall to hunt. Then a swim across the opening, gradually ascending to a shallow area called the Grotto where you can do your safety stop and gaze at a coral reef while you do it. At least, that was the plan …

There are some big challenges about this dive spot. First and foremost is the current, which is very strong. Also, because the current is so strong, you must descend very quickly in order not to miss the place you hang out and watch for the big fish. Next, also because of the current, it was really tricky to latch onto the opening in the reef where prior dive companies have erected a rope into the reef face for you to latch onto. Finally, making the ascent across the reef opening with its increased current made for a tiring end to the dive. In short, this turned out to be the most challenging dive of the whole trip! Jim and I didn’t have any trouble making the descent and doing the drift dive, but that whole latching-on-to-rope-thing was fraught with peril. Jim and I got separated by the current. By the time I had made it back to the reef wall and latched on to (literally) one of the dive masters, I had pretty much missed the opportunity to see any of the hunters in action. Then came the hard swim to our ascent location. What can I say?! Another eff’g opportunity to learn! Our takeaway: if the dive plan goes to shit, you can always latch onto something long enough to make your safety stop and then ascend. If you’re too far away from the boat, that’s what those inflatable safety sausages are for!

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Two-banded Anemone fish
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Blue-spotted grouper

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Daisy coral
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Dot and Dash Butterflyfish
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Various Squirrelfish

After a really hearty “second brekkie” while the captain moved the boat (and we recovered from our harrowing first dive), Jim and I were ready for the main event of the day; a shark feeding at North Horn.  This is a totally cool area which features a natural amphitheater at about 40 feet which looks down at the top of a seamount about 15 feet below it. The crew has filled a metal cage with pieces of frozen tuna heads threaded through a metal cable and attached to some buoys.  as we took our places on the ledge of the amphitheater, the cage is slowly lowered onto the top of the seamount and tied off.  Then the sharks and other predators began to gather.  When we had amassed a sizable crowd of sharks, the crew member with the short straw had to latch the metal cage and then a food fight broke out.  The best pictures from this came from our onboard photographer, Vili, who took up a position right on the edge of the seamount about three feet from the cage.  My photos are the definitely less interesting (but safer) ones looking down on the scene.

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Me filming the spectacle-Credits to @ViliPhotography, Vili Maitaiwai

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Credits to @ViliPhotography, Vili Maitaiwai

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Credits to @ViliPhotography, Vili Maitaiwai
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Credits to @ViliPhotography, Vili Maitaiwai
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Credits to @ViliPhotography, Vili Maitaiwai

Great Barrier Reef Day Two-22Great Barrier Reef Day Two-30Great Barrier Reef Day Two-41We stayed in place for our third dive of the day, which gave us an opportunity to do more diving along the reef wall of North Horn. This was a very cool experience, because there are all sorts of nooks and crannies to look for fish, and we saw types of fish I have never seen before. Now the challenge is to try to identify them from the pictures I took! Tomorrow, we’ll be diving further south off Bouganville Reef.

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The dining room of the Spirit of Freedom-Credits to @ViliPhotography, Vili Maitaiwai
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brand X cod or bass
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Giant Clam
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Orange Lined Triggerfish
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Orange Spot Surgeonfish
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Moon wrasses
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Moorish Idol

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Saddled Butterflyfish
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Best guess-some kind of damselfish
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Palette Surgeonfish
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Credits to @ViliPhotography, Vili Maitaiwai
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Credits to @ViliPhotography, Vili Maitaiwai

Coral Princess Palace and Challenger Reef

Feb. 15, 2018:

Jim and I set off this morning on a four day trip to the outer Great Barrier Reef and the Coral Sea aboard the Sprit of Freedom, and it was a fabulous experience! The ship is fairly modern, with some very nice amenities, like a huge dive deck, and a dedicated indoor area for camera and computer use. The cabins are fairly small, but serviceable, and always spotlessly clean. However, there are plentiful public areas indoors and out, and the ship is very comfortable.

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Our Intended Journey

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On the Cessna Caravan flying to the GBR
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Leaving Cairns

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Cairns Bay
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First view of the Great Barrier Reef

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Approaching Lizard Island

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First views of the Spirit of Freedom

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Credits to @ViliPhotography, Vili Maitaiwai
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Credits to @ViliPhotography, Vili Maitaiwai
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Credits to @ViliPhotography, Vili Maitaiwai

Because this trip goes to the outer Great Barrier Reef, the reefs are in deeper water, and thus influenced by slightly cooler ocean waters, which means sea life is very plentiful. In fact, all the reefs we visited were very healthy and we saw no evidence of reef bleaching at all. The coral colors were just amazing, and the fish variety was mind-boggling! Add to that average visibility ranges of 100-150 feet, and you can see why this is a diver’s paradise. Once aboard, you are given 4-5 opportunities to dive each day. The food was yummy, and the chef always had a fresh offering ready each time we came out of the water. Therefore, our life for the next four days will consist of “Eat, dive, eat, dive, eat, dive, eat, dive and sleep”. Let’s get started with a dive on the Coral Princess Palace!

 

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Dive Briefing for Coral Princess Palace

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Best guess–some kind of wrasse or hogfish
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Elephant Ear Sponge on left

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Soft corals and Royal Gramma
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Parrotfish upside down
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Bicolored Angelfish
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Moray Eel
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Giant Clam

Then we moved the boat to Ribbon Reef No. 9 in order to dive at Challenger Bay. We actually did two dives here: one in the late afternoon, and the second at night.

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More Elephant Ear sponge and dwarf stag horn coral; Bi-color angel and golden damselfish, five line cardinalfish
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Jim perfectly “trimmed out”
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Lionfish

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Fiveline cardinalfish, golden damsels, and checkerboard wrasse
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Shaded Batfish
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Goby
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Giant Moray Eel

Then came the night dive …!  This night dive is all about seeing the big predator fish (and sharks) which come out at night to feed.  Because the boat stops weekly in this spot, the local fish have adapted somewhat to the divers.  Our first clue about this is when the boat turned on her floodlights aimed down at the ocean to help guide divers back, and HUGE Trevellys started jumping out of the water. Think hunger big tuna and you’ll begin to get the feel.  Another way the predators have adapted is that they have learned that our dive lights are a helpful way to locate their prey. Accordingly, our dive leader instructed us not to shine the lights directly on the fish you are viewing lest they get eaten.  He cautioned us “only 1 kill per diver”, and not to cause any of the “pretty” fish to get eaten; only the ugly ones.

The thought of getting into the water with all these hungry fish was a little daunting!  Then you get into the water, and these fish and the sharks are so thick you can hardly see anything else.  However, the dive was really cool, and many things were active that you never see in the day.

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White-tipped reef shark

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Big-eyed Trevelly

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From left: some kind of Hawkfish? , a Half and Half Puller, &  Scalefin Anthias
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Sailfin Surgeonfish, aka Sail-fin Tang
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Soft coral feeding
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Paddletail snapper?
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Some kind of branched murex moving very slowly across the seafloor

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Purple Coral and Giant Clam
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Golden Damsel on a plate coral

Poking Around Pago Pago

Jan. 29, 2018:

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After a couple more days at sea, we pulled in this morning to a hot a steamy day in Pago Pago (pronounced “Pango Pango”), American Samoa. It rains an incredible amount here, so everything is lush and green, but also amazingly humid! Given that it rained tons yesterday and is supposed to rain again later today, stepping outside our cabin is like stepping into a sauna.

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We don’t have a very arduous day today of excursions; just a bus trip up the coast a bit to visit some local viewpoints, a memorial to the victims of the 2009 tsunami, and a Samoan cultural show featuring a “kava” ceremony.

Notwithstanding the fact that Pago Pago is an American outpost, and fairly developed by the US military, things are decidedly laid back here. A prime example are the busses. Each “bus” is built on a car or truck chassis, and then an open-air wooden box with bench seats is built on top. Each bus is lovingly painted (and frequently named). In our honor, many of the busses have been decorated with fresh palm fronds and ginger blossoms.

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American Samoa features tall volcanic cliffs and valleys, which wind up almost immediately from the coastal area, and those hills are all heavily forested with tropical rain forest vegetation. The tree canopy is lovely, and there are some trees blooming in bright colors. Many Samoans make or supplement their living by farming in villages up in the hillside areas, and the ground looks so fertile, I imagine you have only to stick something in the ground to make it grow.

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Our entire group of busses set off up the coast for our first stop; a tiny islet lying just a few feet off the shore known as the “Flowerpot”. You have only to look at it to see why.

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The Flowerpot

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Further on, we stopped at a park for some awesome views of the coastline and the hills surrounding it. There is actually a US National Park located here (the 59th), and it takes up about half the island, and two outlying islands. It encompasses all sorts of terrain, including some awesome beaches and rainforest areas, but we couldn’t find anyone offering a guided tour (or a dive excursion, either).

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We made a brief stop at the one and only golf course on the island, and then continued on to the tsunami memorial.

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The Golf Course Clubhouse
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The golf course

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The Tsunami Memorial

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Shelly: Another one for you!

Finally, we went to the Samoan cultural show. Tribal life is still a very important and ever-present part of daily life here, and the local civil police authorities and courst system share jurisdiction with the tribal chiefs. The Kava ceremony we saw was a demonstration of an old custom where the special kava drink is prepared according to ritual and then shared with important guests. For those of us that didn’t want to sample the bitter brew, there were chilled coconuts to drink, followed by a dancing exhibition. Two of the more elderly men in the group were named honorary chiefs for the day, which required them to strip off their shirts and don the traditional tapa cloth skirts.

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The honorary “chiefs”

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Preparing the Kava

 

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Chief drinking kava

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Then it was time to go back to the ship. As Jim and I headed up to the top deck to enjoy sailing out of harbor, we all clustered at the rails to watch our poor seamen try to get our gangway unstuck so it could be brought aboard.  We all took turns coming up with expressions to match the looks on the captain’s face. Finally, disaster averted; we sailed out of port for New Zealand.

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The stuck gangway
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The Captain overseeing the “snafu”

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Maui, More or Less

Jan. 17, 2018:

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Entering Kahului Harbor

Today we docked in Kahului, Maui. Jim and I opted to go excursion-less today, as we weren’t able to schedule an easy snorkeling or dive excursion for the day out of this side of the island, and we needed to do a little shopping for items we forgot or needed to supplement. Thus, I have virtually nothing else to say except that the Costco here is awesome

Oh, and once we were done shopping, it started dumping rain, so we decided to go back to the ship. Until Nuka Hiva …farewell!

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Kahului

Hawaii From On High

Jan. 15, 2018:

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This morning, we again had an awesome approach at sunrise; this time to the island of Hawaii. On our way in, the rising sun illuminated both Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes. Our port today is in Hilo, a town neither of us has visited since our honeymoon. I’m kind of looking forward to seeing how it might have changed since that time. However, we are both most excited for our excursion today, which is a helicopter tour of the volcanoes and waterfalls of the island.

As many of you may know, Kilauea Volcano, here on the big island, has been erupting continuously since 1983. In that time, it has created about 500 new acres of Hawaiian coastline, but has also destroyed many structures in its rush to the sea. In fact, it narrowly missed wiping out a whole town less than a year ago, but the lava flow stopped just short of the town. Today, the lava is no longer hitting the ocean, but both the crater and the Puʻu ʻŌʻō Vent remain very active. Our flight will go from Hilo over the lava flow plain to the sea, then along the coastline and back up over the Puʻu ʻŌʻō Vent, before turning to the northeast to see some of the waterfalls that drain into Hilo.

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Our tour provider is Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, and they seem to be a very professionally-run operation. In addition to weighing each of us and seating us according to our weight, we received a very thorough safety briefing, and they even handed out dark shirts to anyone wearing a light colored shirt to minimize glare on the glass of the copter.

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After taking off, we headed to the volcanic plain area. It was really amazing how the lava made such a stark path, and yet just narrowly missed some towns and structures. The coastline area was particularly striking, because the cooled lava, with nothing growing on it, just dead-ended into the sea.

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Hilo-41Hilo-43Our pilot took us inland to see the Puʻu ʻŌʻō Vent, but before we even got there, we saw a fresh lava outbreak oozing down the slopes. Our pilot, Patrick, told us that the lava trails we were seeing hadn’t even ben there 20 minutes before on his last flight. Then we came in closer for multiple fly-overs of the vent itself. What was really cool about this was that underneath the rising plumes of smoke, you could see the lava hot spots within the vent. Our pilot did a masterful job of wheeling the helicopter around so we all got great views of the vent. However, I am sure glad I took those Bonine (anti-motion sickness pills) before we took off!

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Brand new lava outbreaks on the side of  Puʻu ʻŌʻō Vent

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Puʻu ʻŌʻō Vent on the horizon

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In the distance, you could see the snow-capped peak of Mauna Kea. Then we flew to the foothills above Hilo to see the waterfalls. It was a pristine, clear morning, and there were already people swimming in the pools beneath the falls. Sadly, our flight time was about over by then. But Patrick had one more gift to give us – a fly over of our ship on the way back to the airport.

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Mauna Loa

Jim and I didn’t have any other touring plans for the day, so we just walked through downtown Hilo by the ocean. Nope. It hadn’t changed much in 35 years! Then, it was back to the ship for us. Tomorrow, we arrive in Kauai, where we will again take a helicopter over some of the more remote parts of the island.

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Zoom, Zoom, Zürs!

 

Dec. 12-14, 2017:

 

As you know, when we last left you, we had arrived in Innsbruck, where we picked up a car for our drive into the Arlberg Ski area about an hour and a half up in the Alps from Innsbruck. This ski area is HUGE, as this map shows.

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We are staying in a very nice family-run hotel called Arlberghaus in the tiny town of Zürs, Austria. How, you might ask, did we decide to stay here? Well, it just so happens that for those of us who annually buy the Epic ski pass from Vail Resorts, they have a deal with several European ski resorts which generally allow you to ski free for 3 days if you book with one of several participating hotels. For Austria, the hotels were all in the Arlberg ski area, which encompasses several towns. I corresponded with several of them, and was most impressed with the response from the team at Arlberghaus, headed up by David Eggler, who is the fourth generation of this hoteling family.

Upon arrival in Zürs, we were happy to learn that our ski rental place was literally, just steps away, and the proprietors were extremely accommodating. Rentals secured (and stored overnight in the Arlberghaus’ ski room with heated boot racks), we enjoyed a fabulous 5 course Austrian meal, which was part of our lodging costs. Our room was very modern, but comfortable in an Alpine style, with a spacious modern bathroom and very comfortable bedding. We chose the “half board” meal option, which means that the hotel provides breakfast and dinner daily, in addition to a snack aprés ski. The meals are unbelievable! Fresh local ingredients excellently prepared made us never even consider venturing outside the hotel for a meal elsewhere. The dining room staff, like the other hotel staff, is superb, and always anticipates your every need. As icing on the cake, as we enjoyed dinner, huge fluffy snowflakes started to fall, and our waiter, Philip, presented Jim with a birthday cake.

We awoke the next morning to a very snowy landscape, but we were pleased to learn that the ski lifts in Austria not only have Plexiglass covers to keep the snow off of you, but also heated seats! The skiing could not be more accessible. We walked out of the hotel, down to buildings and walked right onto the ski lift. There’s also a gondola accessed from the same building, but as we could barely see the top of the ski lift in the snow, we weren’t about to venture onto the gondola! As you can see from the map, the Ahlberg terrain is vast and varied (although really not for beginners unless you enroll yourself in the ski school). However, the visibility was really bad, so Jim and I just skied a few runs, and then went indoors to change and go explore Zürs and the nearby town of Lech.

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View from our hotel room
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Covered, heated ski lift

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The cold I had picked up had turned into a sinus infection, so our first objective was to find a doctor who could provide me with some antibiotics. Although there is a doctor in Zürs, his office is closed in the afternoons (presumably so he can ski). Instead, we took the free bus to Lech (it runs every 20 minutes and is only about a ten minute drive). There I was able to walk into a clinic and see a doctor within a half hour and he was able to provide the antibiotics right away. Total cost: about $95.

Back at the hotel, Jim and I enjoyed the après ski scene in the cozy bar at the Arlberghaus, and then enjoyed another great meal.

Wednesday morning dawned clear and cold, and the views just from our hotel room were amazing. Jim and I dressed quickly in our ski clothes and then returned to the lifts. The whole mountain area is unbelievablely scenic when it is not snowing! Here they do some grooming, but many areas are left “off piste, and some hardier skiers were tackling them. Jim and I mainly skied in the area around Zürs, but there are some great ski routes that link the whole Arlberg ski area together, but they are all over 20 kilometers of combined skiing, so a little too much to attempt on our first real ski day of the season.

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Much better hotel room view
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Outside Arlberhaus
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The gondola station at the top

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Ski lift view
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Arlberg Ski Area
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Views from the top of the gondola

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Finally, Jim and I were ready for lunch, so we ventured up the gondola to its second station, which is now a restaurant with fabulous views over the whole valley. As we warmed up and filled out tummies, we watched the next storm clouds sailing in. Given that I was still fighting my sinus infection, I decided to call it a day, and we went back to the vinstube in the Arlberg, to curl up by the fire. Shortly after that, it began snowing, and later that night, we enjoyed a traditional meat fondue in court bouillon in the hotel restaurant.

Our last day in Arlberg was a really fierce blowing snowstorm, so we didn’t dress to go out. I kept hoping that the weather (and visibility) would improve enough that I could go skiing again, but finally even I gave up. The nice thing was that the Arlberghaus has a lovely “quiet room” with a fireplace, so Jim and I just settled in there and watched the snow fall while editing photographs and blogging. I tell you that it was hard to leave come Friday morning, but our drive through the Alps awaited us. Next stop, Lichtenstein!

 

 

Into the Alps by Train

Dec. 11, 2017:

 

Happy birthday to Jim! This morning, we left Vienna on the high-speed train for Innsbruck, where we will pick up a car for the drive up into Zürs, Austria, where we will stay for the next 4 days. We had originally planned to fly home from Vienna, but a lack of frequent flyer award tickets caused us to re-evaluate that idea. Instead, after we leave, Zürs, we will drive through Lichtenstein (check another country off the list) to Lucerne, Switzerland for a couple of nights, and then driving on to Frankfurt for our flight home.

My observations about the Austrian Rail system: it’s WAY better than the Germans’! Why? Beautiful big terminal with elevators! A first class lounge with ample seating in a temperature controlled place. Trains that stop at least 10 minutes in each station so it’s not a mad scrum to get on/off the train. Announcements in English and German so you can actually understand what might be important information. Best of all, luggage areas in each car of the train! In addition; some nice perks including train attendants who will take your order and bring you hot or cold food and drinks from a large menu at reasonable prices. Jim and I had Hungarian goulash stew and a warm toasty roll, and both were really good!

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In turns out that the train trip was almost exact reverse of our river trip on the ship: we left Vienna, and then made stops at Melk, Linz, and Salzburg on way to Innsbruck. It has snowed in the last couple of days, and there is lots of snow in the Alps and the fields beside the train. All of which made for a lovely trip to Innsbruck. We’re really looking forward to seeing what life is like in the Alps in winter, so stay tuned!

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