Jan 13, 2020

Family Beach Vacation in Nicaragua

Hotels are too expensive, to my way of thinking, if a family of more than four wants to get away together.  My sons and their families, eight of us, rented an entire house with a pool on the beach on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast.  Granted the airfare can be expensive but once in Nicaragua things are less expensive.  At first glance the house rental for two weeks may seem expensive but not when divided by eight. 

I have been to Nicaragua several times in the last 25 years.  Interestingly, the first time I was there the Sandinistas, headed by Daniel Ortega, were being ousted and they destroyed many places in the process.  Guess who is back in power – Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas.  The roads are the best one will find in Central America and the traffic rules are religiously obeyed. Incredible.  The airport is new and efficient.  I arrived a day early and stayed at the Best Western Las Mercedes across the street from the airport… it is walkable.

The owner of the house where we stayed suggested a van and
driver so for $100 he picked up all of us and drove us from the airport to the house in Pochomil, a 90-minute drive.  We also used him for our day trip to Granada and to return to the airport.  Not a bad deal. 

The house was beautiful and roomy with three bedrooms with a/c and full baths, one also had an outdoor shower. The pool
was my favorite.  It had an awesome view of the Pacific. It was a few steps down to the beach level where there was a large gazebo with hammocks, couches, and a wet bar.  While I liked wallowing in a shady part of the pool with a book, my daughter-in-law preferred the hammock in the gazebo.  My sons went boogie boarding several times.  They went out fishing and my grandson caught the first fish – a tuna.  Instead of a pole they had a board with the fishing line wrapped around it.  For me it was a flashback to my days on Raquette Lake, for them it was a new experience. 

It was New Year’s so they were able to watch all the bowl games
– sometimes in Spanish. Roger, the caretaker’s son spoke excellent English but he worked in Managua so he wasn’t always there but thanks to Google Translate communicating was not an issue when our limited Spanish failed us. 

What really made it a relaxing vacation was the caretaker’s wife.  For $400 she cooked, cleaned, and did our laundry for two weeks. We asked her to make Nicaraguan food not American.  We had some incredible meals and she created some delicious sauces.  I am not a fish lover but her ceviche was awesome. 

Every day was filled with sunshine and every evening we gathered
to watch the sunset together.  We looked for the green flash (which some thought was a figment of my imagination) but never saw it.  The green flash is a meteorological optical phenomenon that sometimes occurs around the moment of sunset or sunrise. When the conditions are right, a distinct green spot is briefly visible above the upper rim of the Sun's disk; the green appearance usually lasts for no more than two seconds. I have only seen it once when I was in Palau but I keep looking. 

Jan 7, 2020

Visiting Granada, Nicaragua

I have been to Granada, Nicaragua, several times in the last 25 years and impressed with how it has improved over the years.  I didn’t stay in Granada this year but took a day trip to Granada with stops along the way.  Our first stop was at an overlook in Caterina, one of the highest hills surrounding the Apoyo Lagoon, and the view was superb. We could see the whole lagoon as well as Lake Nicaragua behind it and Mombacho Volcano which borders the lake,

In Granada we took a boat tour of  Las Isletas. Years ago John and I wanted to take the tour but it was a troubled time and we couldn’t find a boat to take us. The islets are a group of 365 small islands of volcanic origin formed when the Mombacho Volcano erupted thousands of years ago. We stopped by an island to feed the spider monkeys, saw a herd of cattle swimming
from one island to another, plenty of birds, and some high-end getaway homes of the wealthy of Nicaragua including former presidents.  One had a heliport.  If we had known we would have had brunch on at the restaurant on the one of the islets but instead we ate in Granada where our Nicaraguan waiter had lived in Brooklyn for ten years.  

The city of Granada is well-preserved with the beautiful cathedral on the main square.  The interior was being painted with impressive ceiling murals.  There were plenty of places to eat and shop but on the way to the Masaya Volcano we stopped in Masaya to shop at the
Mercado del las Artesanias, aka craft market, bright with the colorful crafts of Nicaragua. My days of collecting souvenirs is over so I sat and chatted with the friendly people who stopped by, mostly Nicaraguans who had returned to spend the Christmas holidays with family.  

Since I last visited the Masaya Volcano it has erupted or stirred a couple of times but the major eruption was in 4550 BC. It was one of largest eruptions in the last 10,000 years. There is now a good access road with a museum on the way.  It is a national park so there is an entry fee, per person, more for foreigner and more if you want to go at night when it is

easier to see the red magma.  While at the museum, which is being remodeled, there were two large Mennonite families. The young boy I talked to spoke excellent English but had never been to the States.  His grandparents moved to Nicaragua.  We have seen several Mennonite families in Latin America. 

There is high viewing area where it is possible to see the red-hot magma at the bottom.  It wasn’t like that when I visited 25 years ago when it was hard to see into the volcano and it was mainly gray rocks along the side.  Nicaragua is on the Ring of Fire as is the entire West Coast of the Americas.  In fact, a few days later we felt a few shakes from the 5.5 earthquake that was about 35 miles south of us in Costa Rica.  I called it a “tourist earthquake” – just a couple tremors and then nothing.  It was a great day trip.  For our day trip we hired a driver and van for $160 – great value – there were eight of us and it lasted from 6 a. m. to 10 p.m. because we went grocery shopping and stopped for dinner on the way home. 

Dec 28, 2019

Palau is awesome...

Imagine a group of islands that look like they have been untouched by the hand of man, and yet has resorts and services that are top notch. Palau, in the western Pacific Ocean and part of Micronesia, only has a population of 20,000 but offers wonderful adventures.
1.     Early history: The Belau National Museum, the oldest museum in the Micronesian region, is the perfect place to learn about Palau from the authentic full-sized men's meeting hall (bai) to displays connecting the culture of Palau to other Pacific Island nations.
2.     Mysterious past: At the northern end of the island of Babeldaob are ancient monoliths left by the early Palauans. The locals believe the monoliths may have supported a huge bai. Besides the 37 stone monoliths Palau is home to other mysterious stonework.

3.     The war: It is hard to imagine the horror that took place on the serene islands of Palau during World War II. The Peleliu WWII Memorial Museum recalls the Battle of Peleliu, called “The Bloodiest Battle of the Pacific.” Peleliu is a memorial site for both American and Japanese troops. Many of the military installations, such as the airstrip, are still intact.
4.     Riverboating:  A short and informative jungle trail lined with fern trees, wild orchids, gorilla arm trees, and canon ball trees leads to Ngerdorch River and the riverboat.  On the walk learn about the Noni Tree, which can “cure anything.” On the river cruise through a mangrove forest catch site of a Palau Fruit Dove, Bush Warbler, Rusty Capped Kingfisher, and even a crocodile.
5.     The reefs: Learn about the reefs and its denizens at the Palau International Coral Reef Center. Their aquarium features a series of both outdoor pools and marine tanks, which showcase the variety of habitats and marine life found in Palau. It gives an intimate firsthand look into the diverse world of the coral reef.
6.     Jellyfish ballet: Join one of Sam’s Tours to Jellyfish Lake, one of the Underwater Wonders of the World. In a landlocked saltwater lake, snorkel with thousands of delicate pink stingless jellyfish that seem to be performing an underwater ballet. Getting to Jellyfish Lake requires a short but steep hike up then down a rocky path, but it is worth it.
7.     Dive in: Palau is all about diving. The Rock Islands, a collection of beautiful foliage-covered isles are surrounded with waters that are home to a diverse Technicolor paradise of fabulous drop-offs, blue holes, breathtaking reefs, and an amazing variety of fish. Few places in the world can compare to the variety and density of underwater life found in the waters around Palau.
8.     Go fish: Fish ‘n Fins offers fishing trips daily with local fishermen who know the right time and place for fishing. Trolling, casting, bone fishing, bottom fishing and spear fishing trips are available. Catch the great prizes of the ocean such as Blue Marlin, Yellow Fin Tuna, sailfish, barracuda, and wahoo.
9.     Sense of Wonder: The eco tour starts with sipping an energizing tea that prevents heat stroke then slathering the soft white part of a sprouted coconut on exposed body parts as sun and bug protection. Kayak through the amazing mangrove stopping at a mystifying site created by the Taro Goddess. End with a lunch of locally inspired specialties.
10.            Giant money: Carp Island Resort is a sanctuary to frigate birds, white egrets and a variety of additional birds, After kayaking, hike a jungle trail to see Yap stone money, the world largest money. 

Dec 16, 2019

Visit Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo, the capital and largest city in the Dominican
Republic, is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the Americas and the first seat of Spanish colonial rule in the New World. The city’s Colonial Zone is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Many people go to resorts in the Dominican Republic but I think every trip to the DR should include a few days in the historic area of the city. 

1. Alcazar de Colon: The home, one of the oldest in the Americas, was built under the direction of Diego Colon, son of Christopher Columbus, in 1510. The beautifully restored building is now a museum with a fascinating collection of European Late Medieval and Renaissance art. Although many of the furniture items are reproductions, they give visitors an idea of what life was like in Colonial Santo Domingo.
2. Museo de las Casas Reales: The building dates back to the
sixteenth century and has a comprehensive display of cultural artifacts from the earliest days of the Spanish conquest to the formation of the Dominican Republic. It was home to the treasury, governor’s office, and courts. 
3. History in Motion: Hop on one of the “Chu Chu” trolleys for a city tour called “500 years of History in 45 Minutes.” During the tour the narrator provides insight into local history with stories about the people who once lived there. A must-do. There are also horse-drawn carriages available for a private tour.
4. Chocolate Museum: Learn about chocolate from the cacao
bean to the chocolate bar.  The museum depicts the process from start to finish.  Plan to participate in one of their workshops and make your own chocolate. If you don’t have time for a workshop you can always buy chocolate items including Cacao Liqueur and chocolate bars.

5. El Conde: Stroll down the eight block pedestrian walkway lined with Art Deco buildings that house a variety of small shops. It extends from Parque Colon to Parque Independencia and is one of the city’s oldest streets. It is the place to buy locally made souvenirs and other “treasures.”
6. Cathedral Primada de America: The first cathedral, consecrated in 1540, was built in the Gothic style. The Cathedral is home to a treasury of art, painting, monuments and tombs of archbishops from the colonial era. It is a favorite place for weddings. There are many other churches in the city.
7. Parque Colon: The park is the hub of all the activity in the
historical zone.  It is centered by a statue of Christopher Columbus. Interestingly Columbus’ back is to the Cathedral and he faces the Hard Rock Café  - two faces of the city. Sit on one of the benches to soak in the local ambiance.
8. The Lighthouse: Where is Columbus buried? According to one version his remains are entombed in a newer part of the city in the towering Lighthouse which was built to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas.  It was built in the shape of a cross and the powerful beam of light is said to be seen in neighboring Puerto Rico.  
9. Los Tres Ojos: While not in the historic district the
limestone cave called The Three Eyes in English is a series of three lakes one of which has a Garden of Eden look and is reached by a unique guide-propelled raft.  The lakes are connected by a series of walkways and steps. 
10. And more: There are a plethora of museums some deal with amber, larimar and rum. Stroll the Calle de Damas, the oldest paved street in the Americas. Take note of the many buildings with traditional balconies. 

Dec 10, 2019

Castles on the Rhine

The Rhine River is one of Europe’s busiest rivers and for tourists one of the main Rhine attractions is the castles.  There are over 40 castles on the Rhine many of which are now hotels, restaurants, and museums. There are lots of castles for sale some of which are around $300,000 USD. There are some that cost even less but most of the costs start after it is purchased. It's not cheap to maintain a castle. Consider additional expenses like gardening, personnel, structural maintenance and heating, and air-conditioning. As a ballpark estimate, assume these costs will run at least $5,000 to $10,000 a month. Consequently, most castle owners go to Plan B and offer tours, home stays, and a setting for events.  

A Rhine cruise offer the opportunity to visit many castle and travelers can also relax and enjoy the view of the castles as they slowly cruise by. Many of the towns and cities grew around the castles. The peasants who worked at the castle were often given a strip of land on the manor to farm which led to small towns some of which grew into cities. The peasants were expected to do the farming, road building, clear the forests, and any other work determined by the lord of the land. They planted the many vineyards along the way.

Heidelberg Castle is a ruin in Germany and the icon of Heidelberg.
The castle ruins are among the most important Renaissance structures north of the Alps. The castle has only been partially rebuilt since its destruction in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was destroyed by lightning in 1764 leaving it permanently uninhabitable and the citizens of Heidelberg had used the castle stones to build their houses. The castle is a combination of several buildings surrounding an inner courtyard. Each building highlights a different period of German architecture.

Each castle has its own story.  Katz (cats) Castle was built in the second half of the 14th century as bastion and military base to protect the Rheinfels Castle.  Together they formed a fortified bulwark with a barrier for levying of the Rhine toll. Due to the location on the mountain ridge Katz Castle could not be conquered from the valley. But, like all castles it went through several seizes including one in 1806 when Napoleon blew up Katz Castle. Katz Castle is now the privately owned Hotel Katz Castle.

Schönburg Castle was first mentioned in history between the years
911 and 1166. It was one of the very few medieval castles in which, after a duke’s death, all of the sons became heirs to the castle and not just the eldest which was customary at that time. Schönburg Castle was destroyed and in ruins for two centuries until, in the late 19th century, an American of German ancestry, Mr. Rhinelander, bought the castle from the town of Oberwesel and invested two million Gold Marks into the restoration. The town council of Oberwesel acquired the castle back from Mr. Rhinelander’s son in 1950. Since 1957 the Hüttl family lives at the castle on a long-term lease and established a hotel and restaurant.

Stolzenfels Castle is another castle within the UNESCO World Heritage "Upper Middle Rhine Valley.” In contrast to many other castles it was not designed to collect tolls or as a fortress. It is an outstanding example of Rhine Romanticism and has been used as a summer residence. Each castle is different with its own unique back story. 

Dec 2, 2019

Visiting Paraguay

Paraguay is a landlocked country between Argentina, Brazil, and Bolivia in the heart of the South American continent. The little-visited, little-known country is too often passed over by travelers who wrongly assume that a lack of mega-attractions means there's nothing to see. However, it's ideal for those keen to get off the gringo trail for a truly authentic South American experience.
John and I spent several interesting days there a couple years ago. The only other landlocked South American country is Bolivia but I read recently that an international company that has a mining business in Bolivia has built a road to the Pacific Coast but I don’t know how accessible it is. 
We were lucky because one day the weather was mild – it can be
very hot in Asuncion – so we did a walking tour of the capital. The capital on the banks of the Paraguay River is home to the Government Palace and several museums. The city has more trees and parks than most of the South American capitals.  We went to the Museum of Independence and
wandered down to the Paraguay River to see the cruise boat.  It was elegant with all wood interior and even a swimming pool.  Wish I had known about it sooner because I would have worked it into our tour itinerary.  

      We stopped at the tourist office and booked a half-day tour to San Bernardino. San Bernardino is considered the elite
escape for the privileged of Asunción, Tranquil 'San Ber' is a trendy place with pubs, discos, upmarket hotels and restaurants that line the shady cobbled streets of Lago Ypacaraí's eastern shore. We looked at the Hotel del Lago, just in case.  Very quaint; liked it.  Before we left we drove up to the Mirador for a look at the lake.  All very scenic.
      Luckily we were told about a steam-driven tourist train that only runs on Sunday.  The cab took us to the wrong station – the central station, but we were able to catch a cab to the station in the Botanical Garden.  Luckily we were just in time as the train was wonderful…very interactive and unique.   
I forgot the steam engines using wood means ashes flying around
every once in a while.  The actors on the train were so active and incredible with people crawling in the train windows for free ride and policemen to apprehend them along with a begging urchin and his pickpocketing mom.  When we got to Aregua we wondered what to do for a
couple hours while the train turned around.  Not to worry they had a tour of the city of Aregua for one dollar.  We went to a church, watched a man make pottery, and got back in time for a dance performance by the Guarani dancers. The Guaraní live mainly in Paraguay and more Paraguayans speak and understand Guaraní than Spanish.

Making a short trip to Paraguay is a great option for people
traveling in South America.  It is now possible to get a VOA, visa on arrival, at the airport in Asuncion but it is pricey - $160 for a multiple entry visa good for 10 years. They don’t take credit cards and the bills must be pristine and CB and D series are not accepted.  I don’t think countries understand the ramifications of charging so much for entry or exit fees but, we Americans, also charge a lot for a visa and many of the countries consider their fees similar to what the USA charges for their nationals to visit our country.

Nov 25, 2019

Cruising with Tauck on the Rhine

The Lorelei (there are several variations of the spelling) is a famous German myth. It was popularized by Heinrich Heine in his poem, "Legend of the Loreley;" a story about a lovesick maiden who lured unwary sailors to dangerous currents and reefs with her bewitching song sung from high atop the cliff.  The stretch spelled disaster for many a sailor
who piloted this treacherous stretch of the river only to have his ship fall prey to the jagged reefs below the surface. Captains and crews need no longer fear this stretch of the river because the reefs have been removed; however  it is said that the siren's song can still be heard echoing in the valley below. Lorelei originates from the words "ley" or rock, and "Lore" from lure. There is a statue of Lorelei atop the 433-foot massive rock cliff at the bend of the river.

I did some research before I booked my Rhine River cruise.  Tauck was a cruise company that had been recommended by some
English friends we met in Asia. I had never heard of them.  Everyone I know who took similar cruises booked with Viking. I was surprised to find out Tauck was the first company in the United States to be granted a tour operators license. I picked Tauck mainly because they had single rooms with no supplement, and it was truly all inclusive: all tours, all
libations (which flowed freely) and included all gratuities.  I was surprised that there was a lady who had been on 23 of their cruises!  When we arrived in Basel I had booked my own hotel for three nights and Tauck arranged for Mercedes cab to transport to the hotel and to take me to the airport – gratis.  The only bill I had when I disembarked was for a massage and for
the hairdresser. The meals were gourmet and so were the pre-dinner hors d'oeuvres. The cruise was truly luxurious.  On one of the shore tours they actually gave everyone 20 euros spending money!!! 

Tauck has its own buses and
tour guides.  I love their narrations as we sailed the Rhine.  Did you ever want to me mayor of a town?  One of the smallest towns on the Rhine has a restaurant/bar attached to a church.  In fact one has to have to enter the church through the bar. I understand it is for sale and when you buy it you become the town mayor, vicar of the church plus a restaurant/bar owner! 

There are a lot of vineyards along the way and even though the
tours were free there were often choices one of which was to Alsatian Wine Route with a stop at Chateau Haut-Koenigsbourg built in the 1200s.  Cycling and a visit to Caracalla Spa in Baden-Baden were also included options. I love going through locks.  There are 14 of them on the Rhine trip.  On the way to Utrecht we went through the first lock. 
It was impressive.  After our cruise ship pulled in so did another huge ship. There was less than a foot between us, then a smaller one pulled in behind us. Amazing. Utrecht has been awarded the title of most beautiful canal town in Europe multiple times. I loved
sitting in the Compass Lounge and watching the countryside dotted with numerous castles and picturesque towns slide by. The Rhine has been traversed by many groups for 1000s of years, all of whom left their mark.