Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Changes to Tourist Sites in France

If you visited the Eiffel Towers several years ago, you won't recognize it now. A bulletproof glass wall is working its way around the base, meaning you can't just wander under the tower anymore. And add at least 30 minutes to your visiting time, just to get through security. If you want to get to the summit, buy the tickets online. They are no longer available for purchase on the second level.

La Grande Arche de La Defense is open again and an elevator is available to take people to the top. It is pricey, and better views are available elsewhere, but the La Defense district is a fascinating piece of Paris that a lot of tourists miss.

The Grotte de Font-de-Gaume cave in Dordogne is one of the only caves in France where you can still see original drawings. But it is now almost impossible to get in because the site is no longer taking reservations. Tickets are available to local guides and your best chance of getting in is contacting a local guide at least 6 months in advance of our visit.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Some Hints For Visiting Lisbon

Monastery of Jeronimos: There is sometimes a crowd problem here. If you buy a combo ticket at Belem's Archeology Museum, you can avoid the line at the monastery.

Classic Trolley Cars: Riding the trolleys is a very Portuguese experience. But they can be crowded with pickpockets targeting tourists. A less crowded option for the trolley experience is the line number 24E, back in service after not running for decades. The route doesn't pass any tourist sites but it will give you a view of everyday Lisbon.

Alfama Quarter: Not the wonderful tourist experience it once was. Instead, head to Mouraria, a new colorful zone located on the back side of the castle. This is where the Moors lived after the Christians took the city back from the Muslims. It is a colorful and gritty district of immigrants. And don't wait to see it before it becomes gentrified like the Alfama.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Book Ahead For Sightseeing in Barcelona

If you are going to Barcelona this summer and expect to visit many of the sights it is famous for, be sure to book ahead.

Tickets for the Sagrada Familia sell out fast. You could arrive at Park Guell and find out the next entrance tickets require a 2-hour wait, if available for that day at all.

Other sites that you should consider pre-purchasing tickets are the Picasso Museum, La Pedrera, and Casa Batllo.

Some sites require a guided tour, such as Casa Amatlier and Palace of Catalan Music and those should also be booked in advance.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Travelers Get Ready For New Tourist Taxes

Countries continue to find ways to increase revenue by hitting up the hapless tourist. I know there have been times I've checked out of a hotel to find, in addition to sales tax, a tourist tax added to my bill. I've been to countries that require a departure tax. Sometimes it is built into your airfare. Sometimes you have to pay it in cash, in US dollars!!, even though that might not be the currency of the country you are in.

Several new countries have added tourist taxes. Japan now has a departure tax of 1,000 yen, charge to any traveler leaving the country by air or sea. (Is there any other way to leave the country????)

New Zealand is charging a tax of NZD35 to any traveler arriving from any other country other than Australia.

And cities are now getting on the bandwagon. Amsterdam is charging Euro 6 to any passenger arriving on a cruise ship for a one day visit and Euro 8 per day for an overnight stay, even if it is on the cruise ship. For cruise passengers, the specifics of this will be invisible because it will be added to their taxes and port charges part of their cruise fare. Because of this new tax, two cruise lines have actually changed their itinerary to dock in Rotterdam instead of Amsterdam.

Venice has the approval of the Italian government to tax each visitor a city-entry fee. While the specific amount has not been determined yet, it is possible that it will vary based on the season. 

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Around Australia - Sea Princess - Last day in Sydney

Even though we were spending an extra day in Sydney post-cruise, we were up early to watch our ship sail into Sydney Harbour.

Then we took our time preparing to get off. This time our hotel was in the CBD. I had booked at Meriton Suites on Campbell Street. Unlike our first hotel, where we squeezed into the room, this time we had a full one bedroom apartment.

The weather today was not the brilliant sunshine we had before. Cloudy and a bit cool but no rain in the forecast so headed out to take some more ferries and buses and use up the balance on our Opal card.

We took the train to Circular Quay and got our first ferry, this one to Watson's bay.

Enjoyed the ride and rode the same ferry back.

Then we took the ferry again to Manly but got off this time to walk across the small isthmus to Manly Beach.

We wandered a bit, including on the beach. There was a Sunday crafts market we spent some time at. Then found a place for lunch and afterwards we made our way back to the ferry. 

Based on previous research, I knew there was a bus right by the Quay which would take us to Bondi Beach ( and also perfectly stop at a bus stop near our hotel for the return). So off we went again, getting a scenic tour of the outskirts of Sydney from a public bus, mainly small shops and apartment buildings.

Plenty of people at Bondi Beach in spite of the weather. We wandered a bit, again :) including on the beach, and then headed back to our hotel.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Around Australia - Sea Princess - Brisbane

We were docked at the commercial port located about 45 minutes out of the central business district (CBD). Our original plan was to take the Princess shuttle into Brisbane, take advantage of the free bus transportation in the CBD, visit the botanical garden, and then head back to the ship. I did some asking on the Cruise Critic forum about the cost of the shuttle and got varying answers but most people agreed it was about AUD$25 per person. Princess had an excursion that did essentially what we wanted to do for AUD$65. At this point, having caught the same cold about 3/4 of the passengers had, and not having slept well for several days, I decided for the bit of extra $ to make it easier on us and we'd take the excursion.

(As it turns out, there was no cost for the shuttle. Brisbane was the first port of call after an international port and EVERYONE had to exit the ship to go through immigration. For those that had no plans, it meant sitting around the terminal for 2 to 3 hrs. Princess made it an easy decision for those that wanted to get into Brisbane for a couple of hours.)

Our excursion was to be a drive-by in the CBD and then a visit to an overlook and the botanical gardens. This is a city on steroids that doesn't know what it wants to be when it grows up. There is construction everywhere. And some of the strangest building designs I've ever seen. And then stuck in between these towering buildings are small/medium 100+-year-old buildings from early Brisbane. Touring the CBD was quite an eye-opener.

Traffic was awful. And I'm sitting on the bus thinking that we made the right decision not to do it ourselves.

Our next stop was the Cliffs Boardwalk, where we stopped for pictures.

And then the Mt. Coot-Tha Summit.

What I didn't know was that Brisbane has two botanical gardens, one in the city and one well out of the city, on Mt. Coot-Tha. And what the tour description didn't do was specify which gardens we would be going to.

In the end, it really made no difference which gardens we went to. The one on Mt. Coot-Tha was lovely but it would have been nice to know .....

And with the temperature much higher than we expected, we were very happy we did not have a lot of walking to do, with the excursion bus delivering us door to door.

Around Australia - Sea Princess - Alotau, Papua New Guinea

This will be a very short post because we were off the ship all of about 45 minutes. Our least favorite port. (We were told that the ship stops here so the itinerary can be called 'international' and the ship could sell bottles of liquor dutyfree. A couple of days before the stop, a sheet was in everyone's mailbox listing liquor and pricing. Apparently, the pricing is very good because a lot of people said they'd be putting in their orders.)

Hearing that the town was a short walk from the pier we headed out. NOT! After about 20 minutes of walking (at our slow pace) I don't think we got even halfway.

Alotau is hot and poor, both we expected. I really wanted to get into town and spend some money. Didn't happen. There is garbage all along the road and ... well ... it was more than I could handle. We turned back.

The pleasant surprise when we returned to the pier was a youth dance group doing some traditional dances in traditional costumes. We stayed and watched that for a while then went back on board, thinking we'd have a quiet day on the ship.

Wrong! It turns out that the ship uses this port of call for all kinds of required testing and emergency drills. Admit it was interesting to listen to the announcements "for exercise, for exercise" all kinds of medical, fire and evacuation emergencies. But quiet it wasn't.

A recommendation for this port is to take a ship's tour. Those that we spoke to that did one enjoyed it.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Around Australia - Sea Princess - Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef

Finally! The day for my excursion to the Great Barrier Reef had arrived. I've been wanting to snorkel here for years and my chance has finally arrived. (Jerry stayed on board the Sea Princess. Snorkeling is not his 'thing' and, enjoying a quiet ship like he does, just relaxed on board.)

For this excursion, I booked the one offered by Princess. Two reasons for this. One is that the timing of our port hours made it very difficult, if not impossible, to book with another company. And second, being 1 1/2 hrs away by water, wanted to know Princess was in charge in case something happened ... like an engine on our boat quitting.
Looking from our boat across the reef to another excursion boat.

Well, the day couldn't have been more perfect. The weather was clear with bright sunshine. Minimal wind. Unbelievably calm seas. Lots of coral. Lots of fish.

The excursion started at 10 am and 100 people left the Sea Princess in a long line to walk to the boat. Although it can hold 300 people, Princess limits the excursion to 100 so there was plenty of room to move around and spread out gear. The boat was Reef Magic and the crew was friendly and helpful.

No shortage of food for the guests: morning pastries, buffet lunch, afternoon pastries and fresh fruit, tea, coffee, water. There were optional things to buy, like if you wanted to do a dive or if you wanted the picture taken of you while snorkeling. 

I had my own snorkel and mask. I used the fins and life jacket provided by the boat company. The anchorage was set up very nicely, with two lines off the back corners of the boat at an outward angle. This was the safe area to swim in. Staff acted as lifeguards on the top and lower decks.

My lunch plate
Once I was geared up, I was off the back and into the water. I snorkeled for about an hour and then took part in a very nice lunch buffet. Then I was back in the water for about another 1/2 hour.

At this point, the tide had changed and I found that if I just floated while watching the fish, I was getting pushed away from the boat. I'm an OK swimmer but decided to play it smart and return to the boat.

But once I got back to the boat I decided to do something I've wanted to do for a long time. I stripped off my gear and just slipped into the water, unencumbered, to just swim. It was great!  A little bit of the crawl, breaststroke, backstroke, and floating. With actively moving, the tide wasn't a problem. I loved it and looking back, should have stayed in the water longer.

Glass bottom boat
For those that didn't want to (or couldn't) snorkel, there was a glass bottom boat. As a last minute decision on my part, I decided to go for a ride. Pretty cool!

We left the reef area about 4:00 pm, heading back to the Sea Princess. The day couldn't have been better. 

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Around Australia - Sea Princess - Darwin

Our next stop was Darwin and it was probably our second least favorite port of call. As predicted and warned, it was hot and humid. Our plan was to visit the George Brown Darwin Botanical Gardens and then wander in the city center a bit.

There was a bus from the ship that took passengers to the Visitor's Center. From there a couple of buses were running loops, one of which stopped at the Botanical Gardens. We hopped on that and were dropped off in the garden's main parking lot after driving through the central business district filled with uninteresting architecture. When we got to the gardens, we found out that only the early buses were doing the garden route. For the return bus, we would have to walk to the casino, a bit over 1/2 mile. Shouldn't be too bad but we turned the wrong way coming out of the gardens making the hike longer. And our pace was a crawl in the heat and humidity.

After the beautiful gardens in Perth, the Darwin garden was a disappointment. Yes, there were some beautiful trees and blooming shrubs.

But that I felt it was unkempt. I had no problem with dead leaves and branches on the landscaping. That's natural. But no attempt was made to hide unnatural things like the black hoses used for watering the plants. At one point, a small bridge we came to was closed because of rotten planks. If the gulley under the bridge hadn't been dry, which we scrambled across, we would have been looking at a long walk back the way we had come. It would have so nice, and so easy, for someone to put up a sign at the beginning of the path that said "no outlet."

Sailing out of Darwin
By the time we got back to the city center, we were done. While there was a pedestrian mall nearby for shopping (we talked to one lady later who had gotten a pedicure .. wish I had thought of that), we were done. Even the idea of stopping for something cold like ice cream didn't appeal to us. We were ready to go back to the ship.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Around Australia - Sea Princess - Cruising the Kimberly Coast

Broome is part of the Kimberly Coast. The following day, we sailed along the majestic cliffs that make up part of this pristine area, with the timing approaching sunset to set the cliffs aflame. Not much else to say here. Just some pictures of the stunning scenery.