Jim and I arose with the dawn on this, our last day in Greenland. And what a grand day it was! We bundled up to survive the cold wind off the glaciers, and rushed up on deck. At 7 this morning, we began our 7 hour passage through Prinz Kristian Sund (Prince Christian Sound), named for the late Prince, and later King of Denmark.
As Wikipedia says: “The Prince Christian Sound connects the Labrador Sea with the Irminger Sea. It is around 100 km (60 miles) long and it is narrow, sometimes only 500 m (1500 ft) wide. There is only one settlement along this sound, Aappilattoq.
The long fjord system is mostly surrounded by steep mountains reaching over 1200 m height. Many glaciers going straight into its waters calving icebergs.”
Once again, we have been blessed with a glorious day for this passage. In fact, until last night, we were not even sure we were going to be able to do this part of our trip, as all the calving glaciers can create so much sea ice and glaciers that the passage can become unsafe, which happened to another ship just three weeks ago. While there is a possibility of seeing marine life, and animals on the surrounding slopes, the real show of the day is the topography itself. The steep walls of the main fjords and those that branch off from them are crowned with numerous glaciers, both hanging, and some reaching the sea. The water itself is a mix of saltwater overlaid with fresh water laying on top from the melting glaciers. Jim and I watched awestruck as we glided through this incredible fjord.
Jim and I have been fortunate enough to see both the Alaskan glaciers in the Bay of Glaciers and the Patagonian glaciers in Chile and Argentina. However, this is really a contender for the most awe-inspiring glacier cruise! To cap matters, the whole 100 kilometer channel is incredibly remote, with much of the passage blocked by ice most of the year. The only settlement of any size is the tiny town of Aappilattoq, which we passed about two hours into the transit. Waving goodbye to Aappilattoq, we allowed ourselves to go downstairs for breakfast. It was such a beautiful day, we actually ate outside with a prime view of the glaciers behind us.
In addition to the incredible views of the glaciers, there were also countless icebergs, and a constant wash of “sea brash” (the smaller iceberg pieces that litter the surface of the water. At one point, we all became very excited because we thought we saw a large seal sunning itself on an iceberg. However, it was just a bit of dirty ice caused by the terminal moraine at as the iceberg relentlessly ground itself down to the water and calved from its glacier. Darn! However, in my opinion, by far and away the best feature we saw was a glimpse into the massive Greenland ice sheet.
Finally, about 1:30, we exited fjord, and sailed out into the Irminger Sea. Our naturalist aboard, Dr. Michael Scott, had told us that this stretch to Iceland is some of the best whale watching area in the world, so we didn’t want to miss a minute. Jim and I took a break about 1:45 for a belated lunch. While we were eating on the stern veranda, sure enough, at least 25 whales passed by, spouting off like a calliope, but no photos as they were too far away (and my camera equipment was having a well-deserved nap).
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!
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.
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!
The beach at Inch Strand
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.
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!
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.
From there, we drove back to Dingle and enjoyed lunch in town.
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!
Here is the poem Chuck penned to commemorate the experience:
Ode to a Golf Ball in Ireland
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.
Today’s itinerary takes us south from Kilkenny into County Cork, with an ultimate destination of the Old Head golf course outside the town of Kinsale.
However, on the way, we stopped first at the Rock of Cashel, which is famous as the site of a fortified medieval abbey sitting on a limestone outcrop. There used to be a huge stone Celtic cross outside the abbey, but a bolt of lightning string down its cross arms. The Rock of Cashel is located in County Tipperary, which drew the obvious comments from all of us about how far we had driven to get here!
As we stopped in Cashel, we saw a couple of the few remaining Gypsy caravans in Ireland. Most of the Gypsy people have since moved into homes or mobile homes, but these caravans were a throwback to olden times.
In the town of Kinsale, we stopped first at the entrance of Kinsale harbor, and visited George Fort, which is one of the few remaining 5-sided star forts in Ireland. It was built in the 1670s to ward off foreign invaders, but fell to the British in 1690, and remained a British fort until 1922, when the Irish returned to home rule.
There is another fort on the west side of the harbor called James Fort, but we did not visit it. Instead, we drove through Kinsale, and then out onto the Old Head of Kinsale.
It is a lovely drive onto the headland which is the site of one of the 80 signal lighthouses built by the British to warn against potential attacks by the French.
It is also the site of the Old Head Golf Course, one of the toughest courses in the world! Having seen how extreme some of the shots were (translate: many of the fairways aren’t even visible from the tee boxes). The guys all congratulated themselves on their intelligence for haven chosen NOT to play this course!
We enjoyed a great lunch at the club, and enjoyed the views out to sea. Then, it was time to head back to Kilkenny. On the way, we stopped to visit the Garden of Remembrance, which is a tree arbor planted by a retired nurse from Ireland, Cait Murphy, who had worked in New York for 30 years. She planted the garden in remembrance of her friend, Father Michael Judge (chaplain to the firemen of New York) and the 343 other firemen who lost their lives on 9/11.
We then stopped briefly in the town of Kinsale to walk around the port, and take some photos.
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.
For dinner this evening, we ate at a local restaurant and bar, Matt the Miller’s, where we enjoyed a couple of bands playing traditional music, as we ate not so traditional barbecues ribs, which were pretty darn good. Happy and exhausted, we went to bed.
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.
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.
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.
From there we drove through the newer financial center of downtown, and gained an appreciation of the really horrendous traffic challenges in this city!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
Finally, 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!
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!
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.
Today was an early start, as we had lots of antiquities to cover, and many tourists to dodge. Our first stop of the day was at the temple of Ta Prohm, best known from scenes in the movie, Tomb Raider. This is the ancient temple covered by tree vines. Why, you might ask, is this temple falling down and covered by vines and roots, when the temple we visited yesterday, appears to be lovingly cared-for?!
Although the capital of Cambodia (also known as Kampuchea) is now located in Phnom Penh, for six centuries (between about 800 and 1400 A.D.), the ancient Khmer people called Angkor Wat the capital. The original temple complex, which we saw yesterday, is the largest temple complex in the world. There are a total of about 70 temples, tombs and other ruins making up the former Khmer Empire center in the area around Siem Reap. However, after the last self-styled god-king of that empire lost power, the temple complexes and the whole center of the Empire fell into ruin, and were re-captured by the jungle. It remained undiscovered until the 19th century, when European explorers rediscovered it, and set about restoring it. Cambodia was claimed as a French protectorate in 1863. The French archeologists who worked on the restoration decided that Ta Prohm should remain more or less as it was found to demonstrate the extent of decay that had fallen upon the ruins.
The site of Ta Prohm used to be a very powerful monastery, and it was attended by over 80,000 attendants. Today, it is just a very cool site with trees growing over the temple walls. It is a very moody and mysterious site, and we were fortunate to reach it very early in the morning before it was too overrun with visitors.
Leaving Ta Prohm, I am struck again by what a flower rich country Cambodia is! Not only are there gorgeous plumeria trees everywhere, including the lovely pink ones, but growing wild outside the public bathroom were these lovelies.
We then entered through the east gate of Angkor Thom, which was the last great temple complex, constructed by King Jayavarman VII in 1181. The entry gates alone are stunning.
Then we visited the Terrace of the Elephants which is a raised viewing complex from which the king and his nobles used to watch exhibitions. The elephant carvings are magnificent!
Finally, we entered the temple complex for Angkor Thom (“Great City”), which is considered the most evolved of the Khmer temple architectural styles, incorporating many of the best of the earlier styles. Even here i this revered site, gibbons frolic with abandon.
One of the most immediately noticeable architectural features is the multitude of towers, with four sided faces of Buddha. These top the 54 towers in the central complex, which is called the Bayon. Each side faces \the four cardinal points. You might think all these faces are the same, but it is not so. Some are joyful, others are serene, and still others appear mischievous.
Also of note at this complex are the complex bas-relief carvings of all facets of Khmer life from those depicting childbirth to a whole series showing the Khmer military campaigns (and defeat of) the Champa people. The level of detail still showing 800 years later is stunning!
Our final activity of the day (after lunch) was a jaunt out to Tonle Sap, which is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. The lake is rimmed by houses built on stilts which are moved frequently when the water rises. Candidly, there is not much to see here, and some of the smells were hard to take, so I was just as happy to return to the relative luxury of our quarters at Raffles.
Tomorrow, we move on to Thailand, and start our visit in the northern town of Chiang Mai.
For a day that featured time mostly spent traveling, we sure packed a heck of a lot into our first day exploring Angkor Wat!
We were able to fly directly from Saigon to Siem Reap, the center of ancient culture in Cambodia. Angkor Wat was the center of the ancient Khmer kingdom, built into a jungle on the flat plains of Cambodia. There is a somewhat elaborate process to get your pass for the various temples in the Siem Reap area, but once that was done, we went to see the actual temple of Angkor Wat. The temples of Angkor Wat were built between 800 and 1200 A.D.. Although they were originally built as Hindu temples, over time they converted to Buddhist temples, in keeping with the majority population of Cambodia, which is about 94% Buddhist.
As we approached the site, it looked like a carnival, with vendors and Tuk Tuk drivers and tour busses everywhere! Our first order of business was taking a group photo of our tour group. Our tour director had arranged to have a local photographer (“Loving”) shoot that image, but there was an enterprising young man who dashed in and shot his own photo of the group, the better to sell those photos as we left the temple.
The temple of Angkor Wat is laid out on a grid pattern, surrounded by a moat, with an outer wall with pagodas, and an inner center with pagodas of ascending size. You cross a causeway over the moat, and then enter an inner yard, where gibbons scamper across the grass. The design is based on the mythical celestial city of Mount Meru, with the highest inner pagodas forming the mount. One of the most beautiful parts of these temples is the relief carvings on the walls. For this temple, many of the carvings are of the apsaras, or sacred temple dancers.
We then had an option of walking the temple with Loving, going on a strenuous hike of the entire temple site (with its many steep stairs), or meandering through the temple while getting more of a historical tour. I opted to walk with Loving, and it was really a fabulous opportunity to see some of the temple highlights through his photographer’s eye. In particular, I loved the chance to snap loads of pictures of the Buddhist monks in their bright orange robes as they walked through the grey stones of the various temple buildings.
We visited this wonderful site late in the day in order, hopefully, to be able to take advantage of the sunset (golden hour) lighting. However, storm clouds had boiled up and were threatening rain, so that was not to be. However, we were still able to snap some moody pictures as we left for the evening. Plus another gibbon or two.
But wait, there’s more! We are staying at the lovely old colonial-era Raffles Hotel. In addition to the beautiful grounds, there is a large outdoors dining and entertainment space. This evening’s meal is a vast buffet of Khmer style food (which is somewhat spicier than the food we’ve been sampling in Vietnam). Also, we get to experience a local troupe of traditional Khmer dancers. Having seen the stone reliefs of the apsaras on the Angkor Wat walls, it is uncanny how much these modern day dancers resemble their ancient ancestors!
This city is amazing! In addition to the gob-smacking traffic, there are modern skyscrapers towering to the sky, and vendors still riding bicycles laden with their wares.
Our first visit of the day was to the Binh Tay Market, which is the largest daily market in HCMC. As you know, Jim and I regularly visit foreign markets in our travels, but this market has something for everyone! of particular interest were all the strange and exotic fruits, including the loved /hated durian, which locals say “smells like hell; tastes like heaven”. So strong is its odor that there are signs in the lobby of our hotel instructing that durian fruits are forbidden in the hotel. We also toured the fresh seafood stalls, and marveled at the variety of fresh (and some still living) seafood.
Then we visited the Hall of Reunification, which used to be the former Presidential Palace. The meeting and living rooms of the former President and his family have been preserved like a flashback to the 1960s, and the two of the tanks which took the Palace in 1975 are still parked on the grounds signaling an attack on the palace. The Presidential helicopter is also still parked on the roof. Jim was very taken with the architecture which featured very clean and open public spaces.
By this time is was raining fairly heavily, so we dashed between the raindrops to snap pictures of the beautiful colonial era Post Office (designed by Gustav Eiffel), and the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Then it was back to the hotel for an outrageously sumptuous spread for Sunday brunch at the Sheraton, featuring items from a dozen different cultures. As we drove through the streets of this Communist city, block after block featured huge designer stores from some of the world’s top fashion houses.
After lunch, we had time on our own, and Jim and I opted to walk to counteract some of the effects of lunch. The Communist Party headquarters near our hotel is lodged in another former French colonial building, which is lovely. Then we wandered over to the Rex Hotel, which was a favorite hang out of American and other foreign journalists during the Vietnam War because of its beautiful rooftop bar, which overlooks most of the old part of town. Naturally, we stopped and had a beverage while we waited for the rain to stop. In particular, the view to the old Opera House was great, and you could also see the giant excavations for Saigon’s first subway line.
As we resumed our walk, we noticed an interesting phenomenon: many, many young women, dressed in their traditional ao dai, had traveled to the main boulevard to be photographed among the flower-bedecked trees there. What a colorful and joyous scene! After photographing my fill, we had dinner in a very good restaurant, and prepared to experience the amazing temples of Angkor Wat tomorrow.