Feb 12, 2020

Panama City, Panama

Panama City is the “New York City” of Central America. It has become a skyscraper city. It is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas.  John and I were here in 2002 and the changes are amazing. The modern airport was extremely busy and I am impressed by the diverse nationalities I see represented here at the hotel. There are tourists from all over. Caravan Tours, which the people I talked to seemed to really like, bring in groups almost every day. A recent final Jeopardy question asked “What Central American capital is the farthest east?”  The correct answer was Panama City.  


There are three distinct parts to Panama City.  One is the old city called Panama Viejo founded in 16th century and is a World Heritage site.  There is a museum and some ruins. The city was destroyed in 1671 when it was attacked by Henry Morgan and his band of pirates. The “new” city was built in 1673 and is also a World Heritage site. 

Why am I in Panama you may wonder.  Simple.  I had frequent flyer miles on United and for only 38,000 miles I could fly round trip.  They wanted 36,000 miles to fly one way from Syracuse to Portland, Oregon.  Plus, I had points with InterContinental Hotels (think Holiday Inn) so I booked the InterContinental using points and for only $20 a day I was able to upgrade to Club Level.  I like Club Level because it is quiet with a lot of single business travelers so I don’t feel strange being alone, plus it includes breakfast, and evening cocktails with snacks.  For me it is a perfect world. One reason I picked the InterContinental is because they have a beautiful pool and are located on the water; plus. it is centrally located. 

I took a cab into the “Old Town” to visit the Cathedral and other attractions. The Old Town, called Casco Viejo, is being rejuvenated and the Cathedral is being painted. Construction on the cathedral started in 1688. There is a statue of a young boy in a glass casket, Saint Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio, who refused to
denounce his faith under torture.  Typical of many places, in the beginning the wealthy lived in the area around the Cathedral, then they moved out to the “suburbs,” and the poorer people took over, now wealthy are moving back in.  A cycle that happens in many places.

I like to go to folkloric shows when I am in a foreign country. Even though such shows have become commercialized I still like them because it helps to preserve the culture and promotes national pride. I was fortunate because on Wednesdays the InterContinental has a
Panamanian night with a Panamanian buffet and folkloric show. It started with two “devils” which comes from their European heritage and the time of the plague.  It represents the battle between good and evil.  I would like an explanation of the dances. 

I am not a fan of buffets; too many decisions, but it is fun to watch.  There are several tour groups here and the people attack the buffet like piranha that have not eaten and others circle trying to find a way to get in the circling group.   There were several interesting desserts on the buffet made from coconut, yucca, plantains, and nance, a small yellowish fruit that takes a bit of getting used to as it is rather tart.  

Feb 2, 2020

Looking for the Old Florida

Looking for the Old Florida?  The Old Florida before high rises, superhighways, and traffic jams still exists in Franklin County just an hour south of Tallahassee, Florida’s capital. Franklin County is a kickback place with something for everyone – fishing, shopping, boating, hiking, and history. The county includes Apalachicola, Carrabelle, and St. George Island. 
1. Life is a beach: With miles and miles of pristine sandy beaches most people come for the beaches that are perfect for tanning, swimming, shell hunting, or just walking and hoping to catch sight of dolphins at play. St. George Island alone has 22 miles of beach and their beaches are dog friendly.
2. On the briny foam: There are plenty of marinas so bring your own or rent a boat. Go fishing for flounder, grouper, snapper, amberjack and sea bass. Or go diving for an up close and personal look at the water life or take a leisurely trip in the Gulf. Take a relaxing one hour tour of Apalachicola’s historical waterfront and estuary with Captain Larry of Wheelhouse Tours.

3. Oystering: Gourmands generally agree that Apalachicola oysters are the best in the world. They are plump with a mellow taste that should be enjoyed raw untainted by sauces. Go oystering with Book Me a Charter to learn how to tong, cull, and harvest oysters the way fishermen have been harvesting these delicacies for over 150 years. 
4. Wild things: The area is filled with wildlife including deer, bear, and other critters but the most amazing are the sea
turtles.  From May to November the sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs for your viewing enjoyment as they have for over a thousand years but do not disturb them. Most accommodations have information on how to protect the turtles. 
5. Birding: Birds are everywhere but a hike in Tate’s Hell State Forrest, St. George Island State Park, or with birding expert Alan Knothe in the Apalachicola National Estuarine Reserve tickle the feathers of all birders. The Apalachicola National Forest is home to the world’s largest population of red-cockaded woodpeckers.
6. Camp Gordon Johnston: The World War II museum is
dedicated to the 250,000 amphibious WW II soldiers and support groups who trained at the camp. A video shows their intensive training, which included practicing for the D-Day landing. 
7. Lighthouses: In Carrabelle climb the 112-year-old fully restored Crooked River Lighthouse and tour the replica of the Crooked River Lighthouse Keeper’s House that recently opened. The historic St. George Light that was reconstructed by a dedicated group of local citizens after the original succumbed to beach erosion. 
8. Museums: A walking or Golf Cart Tour of Apalachicola with stops at John Gorrie State Museum, historic homes, and the recently renovated Dixie Theater. Over 900 historic homes and buildings are in Apalachicola’s National Historic District.
9. Shopping: Art galleries, antique shops, and boutiques make shopping a joyous adventure in Apalachicola, Carrabelle and St. George Island. The beauty of the area has inspired artists including watercolorist Linda Clark and photographer Richard Bickel’s insightful photographs.

10. Tee time: Golfers will love St. James Bay golf course an Audubon International “Certified Silver Signature Sanctuary” 18-hole, par 72 championship course with wetlands and water hazards present at every hole. Spectators include herons, egrets and even an occasional lazy alligator. 


Accommodations range from the historic Coombs Home Inn in Apalachicola to beachside villas on St. George Island to a cozy beautifully decorated Barrel House on Alligator Point. 

Jan 27, 2020

Things to do in 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” trollies 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. 
.

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.