Near midnight after sailing out of Pago Pago on Jan. 29th, we crossed the International Dateline, which made Jan. 30th disappear. Woe to the poor passenger aboard whose birthday was Jan. 30th! No cake for her!
We sailed into our next port of call; Suva, Fiji; on Feb. 1, 2018. We are on the big island of Viti Levu, which is home to both the major towns of Suva and Lautoka. We had a fairly late arrival in port this morning (about 10:00), but we were able to put together a dive excursion for after our arrival with several other passengers. The dive operator, Aquatrek, took us about a half hour up the coast to an area known as Pacific Harbor, which is where several of the resorts are located. Their dive operation is run out of one of those resorts, which has open water access from a kind of bayou area. There were six of us from the ship, and the pick up at the harbor went fairly smoothly.
Our dives today are going to take place just off the coast near a small island called Beqa. Many of the dive operators in Fiji are located on the outlying islands, or operate from live-aboard dive boats. In fact, this was the only dive operator I could find close to Suva on the mainland. However, what I didn’t know was that the currents come up pretty strong on this side of the island in the afternoon. This made for a couple of very strenuous dives, and resulted in a lot of particles in the water. However, we saw some great things (even if the photos don’t do them justice).
This area of Fiji is known for two things: brilliantly colored soft corals and plentiful shark life. The dive we selected was the coral dive, and I was really looking forward to trying to continue improving my camera skills underwater. We were also excited to learn that there were tons of varieties of reef fishes that we had never seen before. I didn’t even have a “fish finder” to tell us what we had seen! The corals were every bit as spectacular as advertised. We even saw a sea turtle! This is definitely an area to which we must return.
After another day at sea (where it just poured down rain most of the day), we pulled into a lovely village on the island of Rangiroa, Tahiti. Jim and I have been anticipating this day since we left Los Angeles, as this is the first real opportunity we will have to go scuba diving. Although Regent does not offer scuba diving excursions through the ship, Jim found a 5 star dive operator through the PADI organization, and booked us on two dives with them. Fair warning: the next three posts will be short on text, but hopefully, my dive photos will make up for it. I say hopefully, because today is my first chance to try out the new dive camera setup that Santa brought me. Keep your fingers crossed!
Our dive operator today is Rangiroa Plongée, and our dive master is Rapha Ferreira. Although French and Tahitian are the dominant languages here, everyone at the dive shop and in the tiny town seem to speak excellent English. After a very thorough dive briefing, we set off on our first dive just through the break in the island only a short boat ride away. The main purpose of this dive was to see the big fish and sharks and turtles, which gather at the pass to feed. However, there are also some bottlenose dolphins in this area, so it should be a great dive.
After the first dive, we broke for lunch at a very simple snack shop called Snack Puna, which sits right off the main pier in “town”. We had the local specialty, Poisson Cru, which is the Tahitian version of ceviche, made with coconut milk in addition to the lime juice. As good as the meal was, though, the seaside views were outstanding, and from our seats, we could see all sorts of reef fish and some reef sharks swimming right below us!
After lunch, we went back to the same area, but the tidal pull was much greater, leading to a lot more particles in the water and reduced visibility. Nonetheless, the dolphins did come back to play (although not close enough to photograph), and we saw a couple of huge barracudas. All in all, an awesome day!
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!
We arrived again this morning in the port of Nawiliwili, Kaua’i, as the sun was rising. We’re booked on a helicopter fly over of the island, followed by a tour up the coast to the Princeville area. As this is the first time Jim and I have visited this island, we wanted to try to see as much of it as we could in the one day we have here.
The airport is very close to the cruise port, so it was a short drive to the helicopter base. However, we were a little daunted by the fact that this helicopter tour company was not as professionally run as our flight yesterday with Blue Hawaii. Nonetheless, into the copter we go! The topography on Kaua’i is extremely varied, going from dry, almost arid desert-like conditions on the coast near Poipu, to deep towering rain forest canyons carved by steep waterfalls. There are also miles of pristine beach, inaccessible except by sea or helicopter.
Our helicopter ride took us over some fabulous scenery, as you can see. The only bummer was the the helicopter was not as well outfitted for photos as our trip yesterday. I’ve also learned something new about myself … if my photos are crappy, I am much less disciplined about posting the blog for that day. Hence, the lateness of this post
Then, we returned to town, and drove north along to coast. We stopped at a couple of beaches for scenic sightseeing. At the first stop, near Lihue, we were fortunate enough to see another Hawaiian monk seal, but sadly, this guide couldn’t give us a name for it.
Ultimately, we drove up past Princeville to a really nice beach community called Hanalei (as in, “Puff, the Magic Dragon”), where we had a picnic lunch out on the pier, and watched the surfers coming in.
Finally, we drove back towards town, making a brief stop to see the Kilauea Lighthouse and National Wildlife Refuge. There is some great bird-spotting here, including Great Frigates, Wedge-Tailed Shearwaters, Red-Footed Boobies, White and Red-Tailed Tropic Birds, and Albatrosses. Lord only knows what I managed to capture with my camera!
Finally, we sailed away for our next port, Kahalui, Maui, tomorrow. Not only did we have another great sunset, but on our way out of port, we were fortunate to see some humpback whales breaching.
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.
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.
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.
Our 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
OK; Wow! We packed a lot into our brief visit to Vienna! Friday was our last day on the Tauck tour, so we had scheduled activities in town through midafternoon. This is another one of those great moorings where you are actually parked in the town you are visiting so you do not have a super long bus ride to get to the action. Alas, we are not close enough to walk to the major attractions. The area where we are docked is in the more modern part of town, and about a 15-20 minute bus ride to the center of town.
Vienna calls itself the City of Music, and with good cause. IN addition to the very productive years Mozart spent here composing for the Hapsburg Court, the city is home to Johann Strauss, Senior, and Junior (composer of the Blue Danube waltz), Franz Schubert, and the one-hit wonder, Falco (“Rock Me, Amadeus”). However, the city also supported the musical creations of many other musicians who briefly lived here, including Beethoven, Hayden, Salieri, Liszt, Brahms, and Mahler. We have been advised by various friends who have lived in and visited Vienna that the one “must do” thing as a tourist is to attend a concert here; preferably in one of the churches, which reputedly have near perfect acoustics. I am happy to report that we have tickets tomorrow night for an Advent concert at the biggest cathedral in Vienna, St. Stephen’s. But more on that later …
Today’s agenda involves a driving tour around the inner city, a visit to Schōnbrunn Palace and its impressive Christkindelsmarkt, followed by lunch at an Italian palazzo overlooking the Albertinaplatz. Then we have some free time in town before we go back to the ship.
Vienna dates back to Celtic and Roman times, but for nearly 600 years, it was the center of the Hapsburgs seat of the Austro Hungarian Empire. It prospered through medieval and Baroque times, and today is home to about 1.8 million inhabitants. It is the second largest German-speaking city in the world, and has remained very prosperous. Although nearly 95% of the city was destroyed in World War II, the city was liberated by Russian soldiers, and it took until 1965 before it was fully rebuilt. Today, it is an international city, world-recognized for its culture and innovation. It is a pre-eminent city for conferences and business gatherings, and attracts over 6.8 million tourists per year. Both the UN and OPEC regular host meetings here, and several organizations list it as one of the most-livable cities in the world.
The city is laid out in a very practical fashion. Beginning with Emperor Franz Joseph, the old city fortifications were removed, leading to massive redevelopment around the city center. It is usually recognized as a marvel of modern city planning, and there is a ring road around the entire city center called the Ringstrasse, accessed via a great tram system. We know; we used it! Interestingly, in District 1, which encompasses the old town, 12% of the area is taken up with the Hofburg Palace, which began construction in about 1200, and every Emperor thereafter just added on to it.
In our bus tour, we also ventured through the Swartzenburg district, which is the center of the Viennese cafe culture. Interestingly, in 1913, Vienna was home to Adolph Hitler, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Tito, Sigmund Freud and Joseph Stalin. In fact, for a while, it was known as “Red Vienna”.
On the drive around the Ringstrasse, we admired the St. Charles Church, considered the gretest Baroque church in Austria. It was commissioned in 1713, one year after the city survived a huge plague outbreak, with construction starting in 1716, and being completed in 1737.
Another completely impressive edifice is the State Opera House, which opened in 1869, and it hosts the longest opera season in world, with the Vienna Philharmonic as its resident orchestra. Our tour took us past the Parliament building and the Rathausplatz, where the town hall is a masterpiece of Neo-Gothic architecture. As noted earlier. There is a huge Christmas market located here; one of 27 located in the city of Vienna.
Vienna is also home to a huge number of buildings constructed in the Art Nouveau style. In Vienna, it is called the Secession style of architecture, and the multi-story buildings are very light and lovely. Everywhere we go, the city is pretty, and orderly and majestic, with little to no graffiti anywhere. The inhabitants appear prosperous and busy.
Finally, we moved outside the City center to see the Schönbrunn Palace, which is like Vienna’s own smaller version of Versailles. We had a guided tour at the palace, and then we were free to visit the palace grounds and the Christmas market located there. Again, Jim and I are somewhat amazed at the vast numbers of locals who come to visit there markets along with their children in tow. Today is a really cold, blustery day just above freezing, although the sun is shining, but I still can’t imagine bring a baby out in this weather. I will say the baby carriages look to be extremely well-padded (as are the babies themselves), but I just can’t fathom it! But in point of fact, the Christmas market and Schonnbrunn Palace are mobbed.
Finally, we packed up and left the palace on our way to lunch. We had lunch back in the city center right off the Ringstrasse, at Palazzo Palladvini. The highlight of the meal was a performance by young choral group singing Christmas carols in German. As these songsters age, they will be eligible to join the Vienna Boys Choir (at least the boys will). Then we had a little time on our own, but Jim and I were cold and wanting to pack, so we headed back to the ship, full of ideas for what to do tomorrow after we left the ship.
Dec. 10, 2017:
After bidding the MS Joy and her friendly crew behind, Jim and I were transferred to our hotel in Vienna, the Grand Hotel Wien. The Viennese call themselves “Wieners” meaning those who come from Wien, which is the true name of Vienna. We’ve arisen to an absolutely gorgeous sunny day, even if it is only about freezing, and somewhat windy. We understand wind is common in Wien.
After dropping our stuff at the hotel to wait for us until our room became available, Jim and I headed out to wander along the Ringstrasse and experience life in this beautiful city!
From our hotel, we walked back to the area where we had lunch yesterday because we were on a mission (at least Jim was). We knew there was a Starbuck’s close to the Spanish Riding School (where the Lipizzaners perform), and we were hoping to at least catch a glimpse of the horses since we had not figured out we needed to get tickets in advance (at least 2-3 months in advance). No such luck, but we did score the desired Starbuck’s mug.
Then we proceeded to walk around the Ringstrasse. Being as we were in Vienna (and the temperature was hovering at freezing), we popped into a café about half way around for a coffee and a strudel. Along the way, we saw the Opera House, the Parliament Building, and the Rathausplatz. We also walked down into the area surrounding St. Stephen’s Cathedral along the main shopping street, Kantnerstrasse. The plaza around St. Stephen’s hosts yet another Christmas market, but we were more interested to find out that we could pick up our tickets for tonight’s concert. Then we wrapped up our walk by strolling down the Kantnerstrasse, which was decorated with these reflective bits of glass, which caught the afternoon sun just beautifully!
Jim and I kicked our feet up at the hotel for a couple of hours, and then headed out on the public tram to go over to the Rathausplatz so I could photograph the Christmas market all lit up. It really was magical, and then we headed off to dinner. We capped this special day by attending the Advent concert at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The concert featured the music of Mozart, Bach, Schubert and Hayden, and was simply magical! Tomorrow, we take a train to Innsbruck to embark on our skiing adventure in the Austrian Alps. Stay tuned!