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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
We made a brief stop at the one and only golf course on the island, and then continued on to the tsunami memorial.
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.
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.
After four days at sea, we arrived this morning to glorious sunshine in the tropics. We are docked in the harbor at Nuka Hiva, the largest and most-populated of the Marquesas Islands, which are part of French Polynesia. If you are noticing how behind I already am in posting about our visits, let me tell you that the first two days out of Maui, we saw incredibly turbulent seas and unremitting rain. Suffice it to say that the first kept me from blogging or editing photos, or doing much except creeping around the ship!
We are anchored in the Bay of Taiohae. The Marquesas Islands form one of the five administrative divisions of French Polynesia. Probably the best known of those groups of islands is the Society Islands, where Tahiti and Bora Bora are located. Here, however, we are still very remote, and we are about 850 miles to the northwest of the next nearest Tahitian island. The capital of the Marquesas Islands administrative subdivision is the settlement of Taiohae on the island of Nuku Hiva. The population of the Marquesas Islands was 9,346 inhabitants at the August 2017 census, and the population of Nuka Hiva itself is about 4,000 people.
Two of the more famous visitors to the island were Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson. Melville deserted his ship here in 1841, and was immediately captured by a tribe of natives in the Taipivai Valley (1 valley over from Taiohae). After three weeks of captivity, he escaped to Taiohae, and his experiences on the island served as his inspiration for his book, Typee. More recently, the island also came into the spotlight in 2001, when it served as the site for the reality TV show, Survivor Nuka Hiva.
Although we are in the tropics, the Marquesas are the most dry of the Tahitian islands, and the climate at vegetation at sea-level is pretty arid. However, in the interior of the island, large volcanic mountains rise up and are covered with lush rain forest-type vegetation. In fact, the islanders are experimenting with cattle- raising in these interior valleys.
As you might imagine, for such a remote place and small population, there are limited excursion opportunities available. In fact, there is only one, consisting of a drive over the high plateau in the center of the island called To’ovi’I to get to Taipivai. The only transportation available to accomplish this task is the personal 4WD vehicles of the villagers. Only one small drawback … most of the villagers only speak French in addition to Tahitian. The work-around for this was that we made several stops where everyone got out and took pictures, and the village spokesman, who did speak good English explained what we were seeing and the local history and culture. Our excursion took us up from the harbor on the only road up and over the ridge to the harbor in Taipivai Valley.
Our first stop was at the Hakapa look out, where we had some killer views of the harbor, and our ship, Navigator. The Survivor cast stayed up near here in 2001 while they were filming.
On the way back, we made a stop at the relatively new community center where we were served delicious fresh local fruits by some of the village ladies. As hot as it is, the highlight of the stop was the chilled, in-the-coconut juice.
We finished driving back over the pass and proceeded on to the main Catholic church, Notre Dame, which had some pretty interesting Biblical carvings rendered in Polynesian style. Our tour concluded back at the center of town near the tender pier. While we enjoyed our day, I would say that this is not our favorite Taitian island.
What a wonderful year it’s been! I thank each and every one of you for your really positive comments and support! We promise to keep your travel curiosity satisfied next year, but this is our last post for 2017 (as always, just a tad late!).
so it was with some sadness that we left our cozy mountain retreat in Zûrs on Friday, December 15th. However, the open road beckoned, and we set off after an epic snowfall (with really nicely cleared roads) for Lucerne, Switzerland. This whole detour through the Alps was necessitated by the fact that we are really cheap travelers (when it makes sense), and we had to wait until Monday to get a frequent flyer flight out of Frankfurt at the lowest points level. Hence, our journey through the Alps (and the bonus of picking up another country on the way).
What can I say … the drive through the Alps the day after yesterday’s snowstorm was just amazing! We did stop in Lichtenstein for lunch, but it literally only took about 20m minutes to drive from Austria to Switzerland.
Then we had a magical drive to our destination tonight, Lucerne. Lucerne lies on one of the plentiful alpine lakes in Switzerland, and we arrived about 4:00 in the afternoon, just as darkness was beginning to fall.
However, despite Jim’s best laid plans, our approach to the hotel did not go according to plan. He had first tried to map the entry route to our hotel, Les Balances, on Google Maps, but gave up when the app crashed with the ominous “spinning rainbow pizza of doom” (it’s an Apple thing). Failing that, Jim called the hotel to ask directions. With those in hand, he plotted our approach on the GPS. Ruh roh! It would have worked just fine except that there was a Christmas market right in the middle of the square we needed to drive through to get to our hotel! Backing out of the old town, I jumped out to ask two traffic guys how to get there. One didn’t speak English (a pretty rare thing in Switzerland) and the other guy sent us back to the other side of the river to try a different approach. After ending up in another Christmas market, we skirted the edge and got bak over the bridge to the correct side of the river. The crazy thing was that we could see our hotel from the bridge. However, all roads led away from the hotel, and we flagged down a traffic cop to ask directions, She sent us into a pedestrian walkway makes very clearly as a no driving zone. We pulled to the side of the minuscule street and called the hotel. They told us that notwithstanding the signs, guests of the hotel were allowed to drive on the pedestrian cobble-stoned streets. The sight of a few delivery vans made us feel marginally better, but JIm needed a really large martini after we had finally arrived and handed the car over to a capable valet. Whew!
We awoke the next morning to rain (instead of the predicted snow) and set off to do a bit of sightseeing and to grab a latte. For the most part, we walked along the edge of Lake Lucerne, and then turned inland to the old part of town. There was a lovely and fragrant Christmas tree market right by the lake.
Probably the most notable sight we saw was a memorial to the Swiss Guard soldiers lost in the French Revolution. As a protective force, they were pledged to guard the French King Louis XVII and Marie Antoinette. However, by the time they were called up, it was obvious that the French monarchy was going to fall, but the Swiss Guard members fulfilled their duty anyway. The memorial to their bravery is a resting lion carved into a stone wall in a lovely park.
Finally after a day of trooping around Lucerne, Jim and I returned to the room just in time to see a really beautiful snowfall with fat, fluffy flakes falling right outside our balcony. Out lovely stay in Lucerne was capped off by a fabulous meal in the old sector just across the river from our hotel called Stern.
Tomorrow, we drive on the Autobahn up to Frankfurt, where we will overnight at the airport hotel. From there, we fly home to celebrate the holidays with our family. Again, from the bottom of our hearts, thank you for your support and Happy New Year! Stay tuned for our next adventure, which is right around the corner, as we cruise down to New Zealand andAustralia from the port of Los Angeles.
Good morning and happy Feast of the Immaculate Conception Day, which is what it is in Austria today. We are docked briefly in the port of Melk, Austria. This means no shops are open, and the only thing on the agenda is a visit to the Melk Abbey-constructed in the Baroque style dating to 17th Century. True confessions time … Jim and I have been on the run for the last two weeks and it is catching up to us. I’ve managed to catch Jim’s cold, so we both decided to play hooky in Melk. Once again, it’s about freezing degrees, and grey, so it was not a hard decision to make.
We made an early departure so we would have a pretty sail through the Wachau Valley, which is a major wine growing region in Austria. Probably the most recognizable grape grown here is Grüner Veltliner, and also dry Riesling, but the area is also well-known for growing apricots, and using them to make candies, liqueurs, and schnapps.
The sail through the valley is pretty, but Jim and I can only imagine what it would like in the summer with all the vines covered in leaves and fruit. Can you sense a theme here?! This may be the last time I convince Jim to travel somewhere cold and snow for sightseeing. Still. It’s fun to sail pass countless castles and churches obviously dating back a long time.
Our tour directors make the best of the time by sharing a showcase of the regional products. I’ve decided that apricot schnapps is an excellent medicinal solution for a cold, particularly in a cup of homemade hot chocolate! Me; I’m just happy to sit in the observation lounge at the front of the ship and watch the scenery pass by as I edit my photos!
We arrived in Vienna about 6 pm this evening. Although there is an excursion planned to see the lights at the Vienna City Hall Christmas market (Rathausplatz) market, which purportedly has the prettiest lighting in Vienna, it’s raining, (and Jim and I have an issue to deal with back home) so we prudently decided to pass on this opportunity. Besides, we will get a full tour of Vienna tomorrow and we have booked an extra days’ stay in Vienna, so I am sure this is not the last opportunity we will have to see these lights.
Welcome to Austria! this morning we are docked in Linz, Austria, on the Danube. Although there are Christmas markets here, our great Tauck team has put together a day trip to Salzburg, Austria. Salzburg is in the Alps about a two hour drive from where we are moored. It was the hometown of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and also the setting for the American movie, The Sound of Music.
Although it was a grey day in Linz when we docked, by the time we got to our rest stop in the resort town of Mondsee in the Alps, it was a glorious sunny day, with little wisps of clouds still hanging on some mountaintops and in the valleys. It has also been extensively snowing here, so much of the scenery is garbed in a lovely coat of snow. There is a lake at Mondsee which is dead still and reflects the Alps ringing it. Mondsee is also home to a medieval abbey, which was used for the filming of the wedding scene from The Sound of Music. Interestingly, although the Americans and the British loved the movie and the play, Austrians were somewhat cold to both because they felt that too many liberties were taken with the facts of the von Trapp family history. Notably, it was apparently Maria von Trapp, and not the Captain, who was known as the strict disciplinarian of the family. Nonetheless, these days, even the Austrians view the movie more fondly, as it has become a tourism vehicle for Salzburg. There are even Sound of Music-themed tours you can take in Salzburg.
Despite the cold weather, flocks of tourists are still flooding into Salzburg, and our busses have to stop outside the old town to discharge us. Our first stop was in the gardens of the Mirabell Palace which was also in the Sound of Music as the place where the von Trapp children meet the Baroness. The gardens are pretty today, but I think they must be amazing in the spring time. Right across the street from an entrance to the gardens is the Mozart family residence, where Mozart’s family lived after he was born.
Mozart was born in 1756 in Salzburg. His baptized name was Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, but he called himself Wolfgang Amadé Mozart. His father, Leopold Mozart, was born in Germany, and was also a composer a violinist, who taught music. Interesting, Mozart’s older sister, Maria, who was about five years his elder, was also a very gifted musician, and their parents travelled all over Europe with them performing as child prodigies. Mozart is believed to have composed his first musical piece at age 5, and Maria also composed music from an early age. However, as she reached puberty, it was considered unseemly for women to perform publically, and her father married her off at an early age to a widower several decades older than she with several children. Her musical life seems to have largely been put on the shelf at that point. Correspondence between the two reflects a very warm relationship, and Mozart frequently praised Maria’s compositions. However, Mozart was never happy in Salzburg, and longed to leave it for more cosmopolitan cities such as Vienna and Prague. At age 21, he got his wish, and left Salzburg permanently. He later married his love, Constanze, with whom he had six children, although only two survived infancy. Mozart himself died after a short illness at age 35 in 1791.
Can I just say; Austria is gorgeous!!!!!! That might just be the sunshine talking, but Jim and I are both blown away by how scenic Salzburg is. In fact, again you can imagine how lively it would be when all the cafes and coffee shops move their tables outdoors.
We crossed the main bridge over the Salzach River (which is covered in “love locks”) to walk into the main town. From the banks of the river, you can look up to the imposing Hohensalzburg Castle, and also over to the surrounding Alps. Our guide took us on a walking tour of the old town, which, like Regensburg is filled with narrow alleyways between buildings opening up on large inner courtyards. As is the case everywhere over here it seems, all of these open spaces seem to have been converted into Christmas markets. Everything is very decorated for the seasons, and we see NO graffiti anywhere. Austria is predominantly Catholic, despite the Reformation, which means that the old town has more than its fair share of churches and cathedrals. In fact, the Bishop’s Residence here is HUGE, but you can actually take a tour of some of the apartments inside, and view the art collection housed there. We emerge into the main shopping avenue, the Getreidegasse, which is still part of a narrow medieval thoroughfare. Mozart was born at No. 9 on this street, and there is a Mozart Museum housed in that building. Charmingly, all the merchants are required by law to hang brass plaques over their doors showing the type of business established there.
We did a brief tour of the old town, and then it was time to head to lunch. Today, we have a special lunch at St. Peter’s Stiftskellar, the restaurant in the abbey of St. Peter’s Cathedral. The restaurant was first mentioned in a writing by a English cleric in 803 AD, and thus claims to be the oldest restaurant in Central Europe. We had a nice lunch in truly elaborate settings, finished by a musical group singing some of the highlights from Sound of Music. Then we were on our own for a couple of hours in the city.
Jim and I chose to pay a brief visit to the Christmas Market, but our number one goal for the afternoon was to experience a coffee and a pastry in a Viennese coffee house. We stopped first at Café Furst to buy a couple of their original Salzburg confection called a Mozartkugel which is a chocolate ball with a center of marzipan. In the case of Furst’s candy, the marzipan is made of pistachio marzipan, while the competitors tend to use almond marzipan. However, their café was really tight and crowded, so we walked across the street to another Salzburg institution, the Café Tomasina. There, we were waited on by a waiter in a black tuxedo, and we were offered a selection of really decadent pastries. In a traditional Viennese coffee house, you coffee is always served on an elegant little silver tray accompanied by a glass of water. How civilized! Jim and I enjoyed our break and then wandered back into the cold. It was almost time to leave by this time, so we were sad to have missed much of what Salzburg has to offer. However, by now, Jim and I have pretty much decided Salzburg is a town to be explored more leisurely, so I’m pretty sure we will return.
Good morning! It’s another cold morning here today, but at least no rain is predicted. On today’s schedule, we will again walk into town to meet a local guide, and wander around medieval Passau.
Passau lies in the lower southeast corner of Germany, still in the district of Bavaria. It is situated at the confluence of three rivers: The Danube, the Ilz and the Inn Rivers. Because the old town is built on an island in the center of the confluence, it is subject to pretty massive flooding, even in recent history. In fact, our guide walked us past some landmarks in the old town showing the water level in many past historical floods. The second worst flood ever was in 2013, and the water came to over the windows on the floors one floor above street level.
The narrow alleyways of the old town have been taken over somewhat with shops and galleries of artists. In fact, there are vibrantly painted cobblestones on the street pointing you in the direction of this artists’ quarter. There are also lots of little shops and cafes, and it is easy to imagine how lively this area could be in the summer time with tables and chairs lining the alleys.
Because of its felicitous location at the confluence of so many major trading rivers, Passau’s history of inhabitance dates back 4000 years (to 2,000 BC) when Celtic settlers first lived there. Naturally, such a prime river location also enticed the Romans, who were in turn overrun by Germanic tribes. However, by the mid 5th Century, a monastery had been established there, and in 739, an English monk called Boniface established a diocese there, which was the largest diocese in the German Kingdom/Holy Roman Empire.
We walked to the point in the old town where you could see both the Danube and the Inn Rivers. Sadly, the photo I took did not do it justice (so it is dead to me), but use your imagination. In this same area stands the Romanesque Monastery Nederburg, originally established in 736, which was substantially upgraded by a wealthy noblewoman, Saint Gisela from Hungary, who took her vows after her husband died. Across the River Inn, we had a pretty good view of the Pilgrim’s Church, which was built just after the last really bad plague epidemic hit Passau in the mid-17th Century. It is said that if you are really a devout pilgrim, you will climb the 321 steps to the church offering a prayer on each step. The truly zealous will make the climb on their knees.
The Pilgrims’ Church with its 321 step path leading up to it
Then we wandered up to the area surrounding St. Stephen’s Cathedral, which is a Baroque masterpiece. The Church was built beginning in 1688, and houses the largest pipe organ in Europe. In fact, I believe it is the second largest pipe organ in the world; the first purportedly is the organ in the First Congregational Church in Los Angeles. In any event, the St. Stephen’s organ has 17,774 pipes and 233 registers.
In the plaza in the back of St. Stephen’s is the Bishop’s palace and it is unbelievably grand. However, we were more interested in the huge Advent Candle Calendar which is positioned out front of the Bishop’s Residence. Legend has it that these Advent candles originated in Passau with a pastor who ran an orphanage. One year, when he was unable to give gifts to each of the children, he fashioned a Advent calendar out of a wagon wheel to help the children count off the days to Christmas with a new candle each day. These days, Advent candles are still very popular in Germany, but they only hold four candles, one of which is lit for each of the Sundays before Christmas. We have seen carved and decorated Advent candle holders in just about every German Christmas market we have visited.
The area in front of the Cathedral is a large plaza. Guess what?! It just happens to be the site of Passau’s Christmas Market! Most of the goods here looked fairly similar to other German markets. However, we have it on the good authority of our Tauck Director that Passau is known for its really great hot dogs, which are sold in quarter and half meter lengths. Naturally, I had to find some of the locals enjoying these treats to verify it for myself. Yup! They looked awesome!
We had two big treats on our agenda this morning. First, we attended a lesson in the art of gingerbread making by the resident baker at the famous bakery “Simon”. While the lesson was informative (and came with a complimentary cup of glühwein), the samples were the best part! Of note, we learned that there were three main types of gingerbread. It started with the oldest type dating back to medieval times, which was not only sweetened with honey; the dough was mixed several months in advance and the honey preserved the wet dough mixture. Then as molasses started to be available from the New World, the mixture was sweetened with molasses. Finally, the most refined recipes started using refined sugar, and that is still considered the premier type today.
Then we had the fortune to be able to attend a concert in St. Stephen’s Cathedral played entirely on the organ. It was amazing how the organist was able to project the sound from the pipes to make it seem as if the sounds were coming from different parts of the church. As much as we enjoyed the concert, it was FREEZING in the church, so Jim and I were quite happy to skip further explorations of the market in favor of a hot lunch in a cozy restaurant right on the plaza. Then it was back to the boat!
Statue of King Maximilian is called the “rain tester”
This morning we awoke in the medieval port of Regensburg. Although the snow stopped yesterday sometime, it is still cold and windy here (just slightly above freezing). The town actually dates back to Roman times where it was a garrison outpost for the Roman Empire. We’re met at the dock by our local guide who has lived in Regensburg most of her life. Just steps from where our ship is moored, we step into the twisted cobblestone streets of the old town, and see the remains of the fortress walls for the Roman garrison.
However, the town really gained true prominence during the medieval period when it was an important trading town along the Danube. The merchants in town were so wealthy for the age that instead of building half-timbered homes, they built entirely from stone, which probably explains how Regensburg has been able to escape destruction by fire. Instead, the entire medieval city core remains fairly intact, which is why the entire town is UNESCO World Heritage site. All buildings in town center are preserved inside and out, down to the color they are painted. Today, the town is home to three different universities with a total student population of about 30,000, which is pretty huge considering that the town’s total population is just 140,000 people. It also prides itself on being a cultural center for Germany and is home to numerous art collections and music celebrations throughout the year.
However, because it is such a huge university town, students are frequently housed in apartments in old town in the old medieval buildings. Here is one such building being used for student housing.
By this time, we had mostly seen the old town, so we had some free time to see the Christmas markets. However, it was pretty bitterly cold this morning, so Jim opted to go back to the ship. I made a quick reconnoiter in town, but then dashed back to the ship to pick up my computer and go grab a coffee in a WIFi friendly café and post a blog.
This afternoon, we had a special treat in store; a visit to a private Christmas market located in town at the site of the former St. Emmeram’s Abbey, now know as Schloss Thurn und Taxis-huge castle owned by Thurn and Taxis royal family-scene of private Christmas market.
Entrance to the Thurn and Taxis Palace
What was different about this market is that it is all laid out with a mindset of making your visit a really enjoyable experience. Towards that end, there were countless seating areas with firepots (and glühwein drinking stands) scattered throughout the grounds of the castle. There were also much nicer food stands than those at the majority of the markets we’ve seen, and there were local artisans demonstrating their artistry in media such as wood, blown glass, and ornamental iron. It was fun just to watch them, but there were also some higher end craft items on offer here, too. In sum, this may have been our best Christmas market yet!