Jan 14, 2019

Think Bruges for a Spring trip

 Thinking of visiting Europe? Consider Bruges (Brugge in Dutch) this spring; it is a fairy-tale medieval town in the northwest of Belgium often referred to as “The Venice of the North.” Wandering the cobbled streets past medieval buildings and canals is a step into the past. It is one of Europe’s best preserved cities. 

1. Getting acquainted: The best way to soak in the ambiance of the city is by walking around. The streets and laneways are well marked and there are plenty of walking maps in hotel lobbies, cafes and also from one of the three tourist offices. 
2. Canal Boat Tour: One of the easiest ways to see the city is from the water.  It is designed for picture-taking with overhanging willow trees, bridges, historic homes, and swans. The canals pass through the historic area and the ride is very romantic.
3. The Belfry: It is “only” 366 steps to the top of the 272-foot Belfry but the dazzling view of the city is worth it. The building dates back to the 13th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Originally it was built as part of the medieval town hall with a carillon with its 47 impressive bells. 
4. Basilica of the Holy Blood: Joseph of Armiathea brought the blood of Christ to Belgium from the Holy Land. At certain hours every day visitors can get in line to touch or kiss the cloth with the holy blood.  Architecturally the basilica is interesting. The treasury room has the jewel-studded reliquary which is part of Bruges’ large annual parade on Ascension Day.
5. Church of Our Lady: Only one of Michelangelo’s sculptures left Italy during his lifetime and it is in Bruges.
The sculpture is of Mary holding the infant Jesus and is different from some of his others in that it shows Mary looking lovingly at Jesus. Appropriately, it is located in the Church of Our Lady. 
6. Salvador Dali: The Museum-Gallery Xpo: Salvador Dali, located in the Cloth Halls, is home to an amazing collection of works by Dali. It is an audiovisual spectacle that highlights not only Dali’s work but his character and vision of life. It is an unforgettable as his works.
7. Lace Center: Bruges is world renowned for its lace. The Lace Center is located in an old lace school run by the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception. The multimedia displays explain the types of lace, the industry, along with demonstrations and various courses. There are plenty of lace stores displaying all types and sizes of lace for sale.
8. Chocolate: Lace isn’t the only thing the city is noted for. The
Chocolate Museum has everything you wanted to know about chocolate from its beginnings in the Americas to today.  Learn why Belgian chocolate is considered to be healthy and of high quality. The tour ends with a demonstration and tasting.  There are plenty of places to buy chocolate.
9. Beer: There is only one brewery in the center of the city – Halve Maan Brewery. The family business stretches back six generations to 1856.Try their famous Bruges Zot (Brugge Fool) named after a visit by Maximilian of Austria who declared Bruges to be “one large madhouse.”
10. And: Don’t miss the Groeninge Museum, strolling through the market, and the small commune of Beguinage.  For many the secret is already out; during the busy summer months, you'll be sharing Bruges' magic with a constant stream of tourists in the medieval core. The best time to visit is in spring.

Checking out St. Thomas

Many people don’t realize that other than the 50 United States there are territories that enjoy many of the same benefits as residents of the states. The Caribbean Island of St. Thomas is one of the three U.S. Virgin Islands. Locals often refer to St. Thomas as “Rock City”, St. Croix as “Twin City,” and St. John as “Love City.”

The U.S. Virgin Islands make a great winter destination for those who might not feel comfortable in a foreign country. Visitors will find the major language is English and the U.S. dollar is the currency but there is still the tropical atmosphere and the feeling of being in a foreign country.  On St. Thomas they drive on the left side of the road even though many of the cars are American style which has be a bit unnerving if one rents a car; however, there is not a lot of traffic. There are only about 52,000 people on the island. Also, if one’s health is an issue keep in mind that health insurance is valid in U.S. territories. 

Getting to St. Thomas is easy as there are frequent flights offered by several airlines with some flights under $400, if you shop around.  Check out Google Flights.  Right now my airline of choice is Jet Blue. Another way to arrive in St. Thomas was by boat. If you don’t have your own dozens of cruise ships arrive every week including Celebrity, The Queen Mary, and Royal Caribbean. The island suffered significant damage after Hurricane Maria.  There is still evidence of the damage but the cruise ports are ready and so are many hotels.

We stayed at Emerald Beach Resort. The hotel has a relaxed atmosphere, a nice beach and, literally, right next to the airport. There are several options to fit all pocketbooks. 

St. Thomas is the gateway isle of the in the Caribbean and is known for its beaches and snorkeling spots. The capital Charlotte Amalie, founded by the Danish in the 1600s, is a busy cruise-ship port. Historic buildings
include a 1679 watchtower called Blackbeard’s Castle, in reference to the area’s pirate history. I could see it high on the hill and wanted to visit Blackbeard’s Castle but it is not open. It was not badly damaged by the hurricane but like mainly because, like some other places, they are using this time to upgrade. 

Located on the harbor, 17th-century Fort Christian is now a local-history museum and a National Historic Site named for the named after Danish King Christian V. 

Dec 26, 2018

Ringing in the New Year

 I always felt that New Year’s Eve was amateur night. Most years we stayed home putting puzzles together. It became a tradition.  In fact, we receive a 1000-piece puzzle from Santa each year. However, there are a plethora of ways to ring in the New Year. 

If you want to see how lucky you are in 2019 both Turning Stone and Del Lago casinos have a variety of New Year’s Eve activities and entertainment and, of course, offer packages that include accommodations.  I think it is best to stay off the highways on New Year’s so, if you have to celebrate away from home, then staying at a hotel is a
great option.  Most of the Syracuse hotels offer staycations packages for New Year’s Eve including the Crowne Plaza, the Genesee Grande, and the elegantly restored Hotel Syracuse.

There have been occasions when we have ventured out of the house and area to celebrate New Year’s.  One of my favorite events was the Mummer’s Parade in Philadelphia.  It caught us by
surprise because I had heard of the mummers and knew of their traditional string bands but what really amazed us were the Fancies in their elaborate float-like costumes. The Mummers have been doing the “Mummers Strut” down Broad Street in a parade that includes more than 10,000 men, women, and children in lavish, glittering costumes and can last eight hours! Besides the String Bands there are the Comics, Wench Brigades, Fancies, and Fancy Brigades. Watching the parade is free unless you want bleacher seats.
Before the parade we visited the Mummers Fest at the Pennsylvania Convention Center where there are many activities including watching the Fancy Brigades practice for their four-minute performance held after the parade. I was blown away by the performances which were like watching lavish four-minute Broadway-quality shows.  Of course, like most major cities, Philadelphia has other events such as the Macy’s Light Show and fireworks on the Delaware River waterfront.  I would love to go again.

Another family favorite on New Year’s was when we attended the Rose Bowl. The Rose Bowl floats are more spectacular in person because, on the TV, it is hard to appreciate the size of the floats. They were infinitely larger than I thought. However, it wasn’t the parade that was the best part; it was helping to build a float.  Each year, La Canada allows people to help build their float.  There is pre-registration but they also allow walk-ins if they need people.  Volunteers first watch a demonstration video and then go to their station to work – for a few hours or the day.  When our
family participated, John and I put the flowers in vials of water – a no-brainer job. It takes a lot of flowers to create a float.  There can be 18 million flowers on the Rose Bowl parade floats. For many the major event of New Year’s must include a football game and the Rose Bowl always hosts top-seed teams. There are other bowl games; last year our family went to the Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix. 

If you are looking for an iconic celebration head to Times Square in NYC and celebrate with about one million of your friends waiting for the crystal ball to drop. Another way to ring in the New Year is to take a cruise to a sunny place.  We often book our flights to Asia on New Year’s because they tend to be more reasonable. 

Dec 17, 2018

La Ensenada, Tela, Honduras

What is a “Banana Republic?” It is a derogatory term that describes
a politically unstable country dependent on the exportation of a major product such as bananas. In most cases the company doing the exporting plays a critical role in the politics of the country – for example the United Fruit Company in Honduras exporting bananas. Bananas only became popular in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. In return for land, United Fruit (today Chiquita Brands) developed the infrastructure such as roads and ports that made exporting their bananas and other fruits easier and less expensive. 

Tela, Honduras, about an hour’s drive east of San Pedro Sula was once the home of United Fruit and its subsidiaries. What was once the residential compound for staff is now Telamar Resort with traditional wooden buildings. We have stayed there but as a special treat for successfully driving and taking care of business in Honduras we booked three nights at La Ensenada an all-inclusive nearby. 

Most of the all-inclusive resorts in Honduras are on Roatan Island
but the ones on the mainland of Honduras are less expensive. The north shore of Honduras is basically two-hundred miles of beaches just waiting to be developed.  We have stayed a La Ensenada before and loved it. The free-form pool is large and perfect for whatever one wants to do.  The beach is nice with shade trees and sport activities. On Friday and Saturday they have stage shows. Our accommodation was first rate and looked like it had just been redecorated. We had an upstairs room with a long, wide porch. 

All meals are buffet, normally. But on Sunday there were so few guests that meals were ala carte. Everyone at the resort and in all of Honduras is very helpful and accommodating.  I asked the chef to show me how to make a traditional recipe and he said, “No problem.”  The area has acres of pineapple plants mainly for the Dole Food Company and the beaches are lined with coconut trees so Chef Luis Felipe said Coconut Pineapple Seafood would be a good choice as it is representative of the area. He set everything up on a deck by the beach. I didn’t want him to go to all that trouble but it was appreciated. I think any variety of seafood could be used. 

Coconut Pineapple Seafood (Mariscada TeleƱa)
2 tsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ red onion, minced
½ green pepper, diced
2 sprigs fresh thyme 
2 oz shrimp
2 oz squid 
2 oz mussels on half shell
2 oz fish, tilipia

2 oz conch
Salt and pepper as desired
½ cup coconut milk
½ cup fish broth
2 oz (more if desired) pineapple cut in 1 inch cubes
1 tbsp cornstarch as needed
2 sprigs fresh cilantro for garnish
fried plantain  

Preheat the pan, add olive oil, when warm fry the garlic, onions and
peppers.Once it is fragrant add the thyme and shrimp, stir it for a couple of minutes until shrimp is pink. Add the squid and mussels; stir it for another couple of minutes. Add the fish; cook another couple minutes. Add conch last so it will be soft; cook for another couple minutes. Add salt and pepper, coconut milk and fish broth, cook it for several minutes. Add pineapple and cornstarch to thicken it. Plate, garnish with fresh cilantro.
Serve with fry plantains chips.

Nov 19, 2018

Aruba getaway

The small island of Aruba in the southern Caribbean Sea is only 18 miles from the north coast of Venezuela. With sandy beaches, cooling trade winds, and friendly people the island is dubbed “One Happy Island.” Aruba is considered one of the safest Caribbean destinations. Aruba is blessed with great weather year-round. It is already a favorite of Central New Yorkers. There are sometimes reasonable flights, too. 

1. Beaches: Aruba’s Arashi Beach is on the list of top beaches in the world.  Some in front of a hotel but all of Aruba’s beaches are public. Some are busy but there are also vast stretches that are virtually unvisited. They are all clean with some having chairs, lounges, and palapas that can be rented for the day. 
2. Shopping: Aruba’s capital city of Oranjestad is a popular
cruise port so shopping is assured. There are high-end shops featuring everything from watches and diamonds to a flea market with popular fun-in-the-sun garments and toys. Plus there are grocery markets offering everything you would expect to find in the United States.
3. Land tours: The best way to explore the island is on a half-day or all-day tour such as those offered by ABC Jeep Tours. Tours are available to a natural pool, the lighthouse, caves with petroglyphs and other iconic sites.  There are private tours and the fun-filled Kukoo Kunuku Bus where they also have dinner and pub crawl tours. 
4. Water tours: Water, water, water everywhere.  Go scuba diving
and snorkeling. A German freighter wreck and other wrecks are just offshore. Enjoy deep sea fishing for marlin, and wahoo. If you don’t want to get wet head 130 feet under the Caribbean Sea on the Atlantis Submarine.  Pelican Tours offers a variety of experiences including their popular Sunset Cruise.
5. Catch the wind: Every day is a day with wind making Aruba the perfect place for sailing on a catamaran with Red Sea Sports. If you bring your own sailboat, not to worry, there are several places to dock your craft for a night or more.  Aruba Active Vacation offers landsailing and windsurfing. 
6. Dining: There is every kind of dining from fast food places
like Wendy’s to romantic private dining on the beach. There are restaurants that offer a variety of food but visitors should try some of the Aruban specialties. Waka Waka is a jungle-themed restaurant that serves a variety of food including Aruban specialties, such as Cabrito Stoba.
7. Historical: Visit the Aruban Historical Museum in the capital to learn about the island’s history, political development, and the island’s unique nature. The archeological museum has Indian artifacts dating back 2500 BC.  The most visited historical site is the Alto Vista Chapel, which is included on most island tours. 
8. Festivals and more: There are a variety of events throughout the year including some that celebrate national holidays and others that promote local traditions. Events range from fireworks on New Year’s Day to Carnival in February to a music festival in May. 
9. Getting around: The bus is one of the easiest ways to get around. There are also unmetered taxis; rates are fixed and should be confirmed in advance. Aruba is so small renting a car is stress free as long as one stays on the paved roads. 

10. Accommodations:  Truly there is an accommodation to suit the need of every visitor from condo rentals to resorts to bed and breakfasts. 

Nov 13, 2018

Maximize Your Travel

My family has been fortunate to travel to so many places.  I imagine some people think we are wealthy or have a secret source of money.  Not true.  Like much in life if one wants to travel one needs to make choices. Jim, our youngest son, used to say things like, “All my friends have snowmobiles” and “I am the only one who hasn’t been to Darian Lake.” My response was usually something that annoyed him like, “Oh, well, you have been down the Nile in a felucca.”

From the very beginning we tried to take advantage of every travel opportunity.  We always volunteered to be bumped.  It happened more frequently years ago than it does now.  I was penalized if I missed the first day back to school after a vacation so sometimes I flew home alone while John and Jim stayed behind to get the reward for being bumped. 

If you have a credit card it should be rewarding you.  For years we
had one with United Airlines but I recently cancelled it.  Airlines’ rewards have changed so that the rewards are hard to accumulate and use.  We have, over the years, booked many flights for free using our points. In fact, our winter trip to Asia will be with the points we have with United.  Our new credit card is Sapphire which allows us to use the points for money, flights, and they can even be transferred.  We are using the points for our next trip. That makes two trips with free air travel. Credit cards offer bonuses for signing up and no service charge for a year.  Some people get a credit card to use the bonuses then discontinue it at the end of the year before the yearly fee is due. Never charge more than what you know you can pay at the end of the month so you don’t accumulate interest charges. For international travel it is best to have both a Visa and Master Card.  Credit Union and Discovery cards are not accepted out of the country.  Your card should not charge foreign transaction fees. 

Our second card is with InterContinental (think Holiday Inn).  We chose it because they have the most hotels worldwide.  We often use points and dollars to get a reasonable room rate. We find it is best to book directly with the hotel and always sign up for their loyalty programs. We have never found a better deal on any of the sites offering special hotel prices regardless of what they say.  Booking a B&B or a condo is also a great way to save money.  And, if you do your own cooking you will act like a local when shopping. This is the best option if you have children, however, Holiday Inn often has “children stay and eat free.” We haven’t done this but you can swap accommodations with people and even couch surf.  

If we are going to book a tour we do it with a local group.  Many

places offer free or almost free walking tours. Try Freetour.com. We have used Globalgreeters.com several times.  Meeting the locals is a big plus.  Volunteering to teach, work on a farm, or some other community service is another great way to get in touch with locals. 

Go off season or where it is the least expensive. It is sometimes less expensive to fly to Shanghai than it is to fly to California. I check google.com/flights and then decide.  It doesn’t matter where you go as long as you go.  

Nov 6, 2018

Unique places to visit

When I travel, besides seeing all the usual tourist spots, I like to see some of the off-beat things.  There are several books and websites that I found helpful.  “Roadside America” has a web site where I can bring up a map and pick out the unique things to see in the area in which I am traveling. It is easy to search by location. Some are places we’d visited without checking their web site like Boldt’s Castle but I like to check out the ones that I might miss such as the statue of the large cow with sunglasses in

I also like letterboxing which is an intriguing “treasure hunt” style outdoor activity. Letterboxers hide small, weatherproof boxes in publicly-accessible places (like parks) and post clues to finding the box online.  Many of them are in or near historic sites and/or parks where there is something unique or offers a great place to hike or just relax and enjoy nature. There are over 200 in Oswego County.  We “planted” some but got a notice from a letterboxer that it had washed away but the website is set so people can place notes to let people know the last time the letterbox was checked and any other pertinent information.  There used to be a couple letterboxes at Mexico Point Park. 

“Atlas Obscura” is my new go-to when I travel.  When I was in Ithaca I checked out their site and while I knew that most of the students at Cornell were “brainey” I didn’t know that the college is home of the Wilder Brain Collection. Burt Green Wilder, a professor of anatomy founded the Cornell Brain Society in 1889 to collect the brains of “educated and orderly” people.  There is one of Helen Hamilton Gardener, a suffragette
who wanted to prove that a woman’s brain was not inferior to a man’s and one of a murderer.  I also like that “Atlas Obscura” lists 15,000+ places from all over the world.  I have visited some of them.  I think Myanmar’s Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is one of the most amazing things I have seen.  The 611-ton golden rock defies gravity as it teeters on the brink of a 3625-foot precipice. I have seen many of the things listed but I am always on the lookout for unique things to see. I like the fact that they add new places. I just submitted Casey’s Cottage, which is one of the most unique places in Central New York.  The cottage is closed for the season but, if you haven’t seen the inside of the cottage put it on your “must-visit” list for next year.  

We will be going to Honduras again soon and we are always
looking for something new to see so I checked Atlas Obscura’s site.  They list nine places in Honduras. We have visited the Hieroglyphic Staircase, the Rosalila Temple, the fort in Ooma and Lancetilla Gardens now I want to see the Talgua Caves which are called “The Caves of the Glowing Sculls.” There are a couple of other things listed that I’d like to see. When we were in Cincinnati we took pictures of the Mushroom
House which was listed in Atlas Obscura. It is not made out of mushrooms but looks like mushrooms. Wonder what the neighbors thought?

I think it is fun to check out the larger than life things on Road Trippers. Many were done to advertise a product or something and many have outlived their original purpose but are now just fun attractions.