Monday, March 28, 2011

BEIJING – HONG KONG 3/20 – 3/28/11

Olympic Bird Nest Stadium Beijing

 China’s population is now at 1.4 billion people – 20% of the earth’s population.  Cities, high rises and the economy are also growing at a staggering rate.  In most parts of the world, developers design and build high rises, resorts, shopping malls, sports complexes.  In China, they create cities from the ground up.  Actually, I should say from the sea up.  On March 20th, our ship docked in Tianjin, China.  As we drove out of the port, we rode over reclaimed land in the process of developing into a city that will sustain 48 million of people.  However, due to the one child per couple policy, China’s population may soon begin to decline.   Consequently, a new a new policy allowing 2 children per couple will soon be implemented.  The irony is that China’s quickly emerging middle class cannot afford 2 children!  One guide told us he is spending thousands of dollars a year to send his son to kindergarten in addition to music lessons and special classes to learn English.  Outside the cities, many people still live in abject poverty. 

Ron at the Great Wall of China
 Courtesy of Regent, in-transit guests were bused to Beijing and treated to tours of Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and a night at the beautiful China World Hotel.  Having been to those sites in the past, we skipped the Forbidden City to spend a few hours at the Beijing Silk Market.  In spite of the name, it is a 6 story building that sells everything imaginable: luggage, purses, clothes, shoes, jewelry, watches, electronics and more.  When you tire of shopping, you can get a manicure, pedicure or massage on almost every floor.  If you can tolerate the hard sell of the Chinese merchants, it’s great fun and you can find great bargains.   

City of Shanghai
From Beijing, we sailed to Shanghai.  What began as a fishing village has emerged into the “Paris of the east.”  It is difficult to describe.  Looking out over the city from one of the new super tall high rises, the city appears to go on forever.  In just 15 years, 8,000 high rises have been built and 2,000 more are in the planning or building stages.  That is why the “crane” is said to be the national bird of China.  At 23 million, Shanghai has 3 million more people than the capital Beijing.  Two highlights of our time in Shanghai were a visit to the Acrobatic Show and a ride on the high speed train.  It runs from downtown to the airport in just 7 minutes, and reaches a speed of 431 kilometers, about 260 miles per hour.   
Shanghai at night

We enjoyed a sea day after Shanghai and then arrived in Xiamen, China.  With a population of 2.5 million, the Chinese consider this a small city.
Xiamen was one of 5 ports opened to the British by the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing following the First Opium War.  Hong Kong, where we are now headed, was actually ceded to the British in perpetuity.  But, as you may recall, it was returned to China in 1997. 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

BALI - BEIJING 3/8 – 3/20/11

Manila: American Cemetery surrounded by high rise condos
This was our first time in the Philippines which consist of over 7,000 islands.  We were there for 2 days, so we were able to take 2 different tours.  One showed us modern Manila and the other Old Manila.  The Philippines are highly populated with 5 babies born every minute.  Salaries are low, and billions come into the country from the 10 million Philippinos who work abroad.  Slums were anticipated; what I was not expecting to see were so many modern high rise condos selling for one million dollars and more.  It is indeed a city of contrasts: the very rich and the very poor.  

The horrific earthquake and tsunami hit Japan 
Chang Kai-Shek Memorial Taiwan
while we were in Manila.  Though our departure was slightly delayed, we suffered no effects and soon continued on to Taiwan.  Though the shipboard lecturer suggested that mainland China and Taiwan are living in peaceful harmony, our tour guide for the day in Taipei had no hesitation in saying the two are enemies.  Actually, both perspectives seem to be true at the moment.  Taiwan is very proud of its independence and seems to be thriving, in part due to trade with China that is benefitting both.  Nevertheless, the mainland has 21 missiles pointed at Taiwan.   We visited their museum, famous for holding precious artifacts Chang Kai-shek brought to Taiwan when and he and his followers fled the mainland and Communist forces.  His memorial is a breathtaking structure.  The religious practices of the Taiwanese people are influenced by  Tao, Confucius, Buddhism and Christianity.  The temples are colorful structures overflowing with offerings of fruits and flowers to various gods.  We were overwhelmed with the variety of food offered at the buffet lunch at the Grand Hotel.  Fish, chicken, pork, dim sum, noodles, sushi and more.  Much as everyone enjoyed sampling the many dishes, the biggest line was at the Haagen Das ice cream freezer.   
Folk Village depicting 19th century life in Korea
Cooler weather does not quite describe the drastic change in climate that greeted us in Inchon, South Korea the morning of March 18th.   The temperature reached freezing in the early hours but the sun was out and the day warmed up progressively during our 8 hour tour. We visited a Folk Village that depicted life in 19th century Korea.  It was very well done and included a traditional Korean lunch.  Then we stopped at the massive street market in Seoul, a bustling city of 12 million people.  

For all the wonderful sights and experiences of travel, the most fulfilling aspect of it is meeting interesting people, making new friends.  We have been so fortunate on this trip.  The staff and crew of the Voyager are like family.  Of the
Captain Mario and his adorable wife Mariana
approximately 100 world cruisers, many are successful entrepreneurs who are making the most of early retirement.  10 world cruise couples -- at least half of each being Irish -- had a cocktail party in one couple’s suite on St. Patrick’s Day.  Everyone had to share something Irish.  The hit of the evening was from our host.  He had put the faces of the girls (and I use the term lightly) on a video clip of women dancing the Irish jig.  The laughter and great conversation continued at dinner in the dining room where the 5 men sat together at one table and the 5 'girls' at another.  It was great fun.  Now it is on to Beijing and more cold weather. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

SYDNEY - BALI 2/23 - 3/8/11

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of world travel is cruising into the port of Sydney, Australia.  As we sailed in on the morning of February 23rd, the Queen Mary 2 and the new Queen Elizabeth were showcased in Sydney Harbor along with the unique and majestic Opera House.  Having been to this city several times, we took a ride into the country to visit a wildlife park filled with 2,200 animals native to Australia including koalas, dingoes, reptiles, birds, free roaming kangaroos, and the ugliest animal you ever saw – the Tasmanian Devil.    

Next stop was Brisbane, one of the cities in Australia that recently suffered extensive flooding.  Fortunately, we had a bright, sunny day to see the city and ride into the countryside where we followed a skywalk into the rainforest.  After a delicious luncheon served under a tent top overlooking valleys and mountains, we wandered through an arts and crafts town that could have been transplanted from North Carolina.  

Townsville, Australia is home to the Reef Headquarters and largest living coral reef aquarium in the world.  It was a good place to visit the day before our trip to Cairns where we boarded boats to the Great Barrier Reef.  After about 90 minutes, we disembarked onto a huge pontoon filled with aluminum picnic tables, diving and snorkeling equipment.  We took a ride in a glass bottom boat while most people went directly into the water.  We waited until after lunch when hardly anyone was in the designated swimming area.  We never saw so many fish of every shape and color imaginable or so much living coral in our lives.  It was truly an unforgettable experience. 

In Darwin, the northernmost city in Australia, we encountered some of the fierce rains that have been pummeling much of Australia this year.  Fortunately, the weather cleared by the time we arrived at the Adelaide River for the Jumping Crocodile cruise.  Fresh meat is dangled over the edge of the boat luring the crocs out.  Just as they are about to clamp their massive jaws on the meat, the crew lifts up the bait so that the croc has to jump to reach it.  They propel off their tails which are all muscle and some can jump almost their full body length. It really is something to see.  Then it was G’day Australia and on to Bali.

Bali is one of 17,000 islands making up the archipelago of Indonesia.  Unlike the other islands which are largely Muslim, Bali is predominantly Hindu.  The people are warm and welcoming, the countryside is covered with rich, green foliage and dotted with temples.   Having been here before, we opted for the opportunity to visit a beach resort with a beautiful pool and spa.  Ron enjoyed 3 hours of massage for less than one hour would cost in the States. 

Monday, March 7, 2011

AUCKLAND - SYDNEY 2/8 - 2/23

On the morning of February 8, we docked in Auckland, New Zealand, the country’s largest city.   Out of 4 million total population, 1.4 million people live here including the largest Polynesian population of any city in the world.  Auckland is a beautiful city and a delight to visit.  It ranks #4 out of 50 major cities in quality of life.  On the first of 2 days here, we did a tour entitled Taste of New Zealand wherein we got to sample local wines, beers, cheeses, honey and other foods. 

On the 2nd day, we toured city highlights.  Upon leaving Mount Eden where we had a superb view overlooking the city, a group of Maori college boys asked our bus driver for a ride back down into the city.  The Maoris are the native peoples of New Zealand.  Today they consist of only 5% of the entire population.  Our bus driver, Maori himself, urged the boys to do a native dance for us which they quickly and enthusiastically performed.  Then the young men boarded the bus, stood in the aisle and sang beautiful Maori songs to us all the way down.  It was the highlight of our day.

The next day we docked in Tauranga and took a bus trip through the beautiful countryside to the Wai-o-tapu thermal wonderland where we followed a boardwalk through collapsed craters, boiling pools of mud and steaming fumaroles the result of volcanic activity dating back 160,000 years.  From Tauranga we sailed to Wellington passing the White Island Volcano where you can see steam rising continuously from New Zealand’s only active marine volcano. 

Wellington is New Zealand’s capital and located on the south island.  Here we drove out of the city along the harbors and bays known as the Storm Coast.  Eventually we followed an unpaved road through a remote area that delivered us to a sheep farm where we enjoyed a traditional morning tea followed by a sheep dog demonstration.  One dog had been trained to be silent as it ran behind the flock of sheep herding them toward their master.  This was the dog preferred by sheep thieves – for obvious reasons.  The other dog barked continuously as it ran behind the sheep driving them across the range.  

In Christchurch, we visited the International Antarctica Center where those on expedition to Antarctica train and are outfitted.  If a visit to the sub-zero blizzard room doesn’t deter you from spending months in Antarctica, I think the 10 minute ride in the Hagglund all terrain snowmobile over an adventure course would.  (We were in Christchurch NZ 9 days before the earthquake.)

The following day we got to enjoy the beautiful inland scenery of New Zealand during a six hour train ride across the plains, cliffs, rivers and gorges outside Dunedin.  We spent a day cruising the fjords of southern New Zealand and then 2 sea days crossing to Hobart, Tasmania.  There we did what will surely be one of the most unforgettable excursions of our whole journey – a bike ride from the top of Mount Wellington down 4,000 feet into the town of Hobart.  Fortunately, the rode was paved but so steep and curving that we had to hold the brakes almost the entire time.  But it was a real thrill.  That afternoon we enjoyed a city tour after visiting an oyster farm and winery. 
On February 20, we arrived in Melbourne, Australia.  This is the first time we have been to this beautiful city so we marveled at the parks, gardens, old historic buildings and towering new condo and corporate buildings throughout the city.  Now it is on to Sydney and the end of the Segment 2 of our world cruise. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

MAUI - AUCKLAND 1/23 - 2/8/1

January 27 was Ron’s birthday and a wonderful one it was.  We had lunch with Frank and Julia (our new friends from Fort Collins, Colorado) and Kevin Spirtas, the singer I mentioned in my last letter.  Dinner was in one of the specialty restaurants with our dear friends from Florida, entertainers Rodi and Mark.  We were also thrilled to have the cruise director and his wife with us.  We have known Jamie & Dana since our first Regent world cruise in 2002 and it’s wonderful to be with them again.  (See attached pictures)

Kevin was the headline entertainer that night and had Ron stand up while he and the entire audience sang Happy Birthday.  When we got back to our room, we had another surprise.  Deepak, our darling cabin boy from India, had decorated the room with a huge HAPPY BIRTHDAY banner, balloons on the ceiling and an adorable monkey made from a towel hanging from a hanger.  Truly a birthday Ron won’t forget. 

5 beautiful, sunny days at sea delivered us to Moorea, our first stop in the Society Islands.  It is only 12 miles from Tahiti but 1/8 the size.  We rode an open air, 4 wheel drive truck up and over and around the majestic volcanic peaks.  The land is lush and bountiful with pineapples, mangoes, bananas and avocados and much more.  Then it was on to Tahiti and a tour entitled “In The Footsteps of Paul Gaugin.”  Ron had to go alone as I was suffering from a cold circulating around the ship.  We have been to Tahiti before and frankly, it is dirty and poor so I didn’t feel I was missing anything.

Fortunately, I was up for visiting the Lagoonarium on Bora Bora the next day.  The weather was picture perfect.  We circled the island in an open boat stopping at an out island where part of the ocean has been fenced in.  We were able to swim with stingrays, sand sharks and gorgeous tropical fish.  The stingrays feel like velvet as they slide past your arms and legs. 

On February 1, we crossed the International Date Line and went directly into February 3.  On February 4, we stopped at the island of Tonga and spent the day at a beach where a luau type luncheon was served followed by local music and dancing.  2 more sea days and we arrived at the Bay of Islands in New Zealand.  This is a series of 144 islands dotting the northern tip of New Zealand.  Absolutely beautiful.  Very reminiscent of the lush greens and hills of Ireland and England.  We visited Keri Keri, where the very first house in New Zealand was built.  It is made entirely of Kauri wood and looks as sturdy today as when it was built in 1822.  Kauri wood comes from the Kauri tree, the 2nd largest tree in the world.  We saw them up close in the Puketi Forest.  What remains of these towering trees that once covered the islands is carefully protected.  We enjoyed following a curving boardwalk through the forest where we saw Kauris of all ages.  Some live for over 1,000 years old. 

Now we are on our way to Auckland where passengers from this first segment will disembark and we will pick up about 500 new passengers for circling New Zealand and crossing to Australia.  By the way, Jamie our cruise director has a terrific blog wherein you can see pictures and read about everything that happens onboard.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO - MAUI 1/13/11 – 1/23/11


We are 10 days into our World Cruise and it is already going too fast!   The weather was not great on the 4 day crossing from San Francisco to Hawaii.  Cool and overcast, but we needed that time to settle in and relax (more like collapse) after the hectic 9 days that led up to our condo closing and departure. 

Our ship, the Regent Seven Seas Voyager, has been refurbished since we were on it last and it is beautiful.  There are less than 150 total world cruisers and about 530 passengers altogether –  a bit short of the 700 the ship is capable of carrying.  Many passengers will be getting off in Auckland or Sidney, and new groups getting on.  We have met many lovely people.  A bonus for us is that our good friends from Florida are guest entertainers and will be on until Tahiti.  Mark Friedman is an incredible musician/arranger and his wife Rodi Alexander is a dynamic singer and dancer.  We get to spend more time together on ships than at home where we live only an hour apart.   Through Mark & Rodi, we have become friends with the other guest entertainers.  Comedian Sal Richards just got off and Kevin Spirtas got on.  He is a terrific singer but probably best known for playing the handsome doctor on Days of Our Lives for 7½ years.  Terry Waite is one of the enrichment lecturers.  He hasn’t done a talk yet but I am very much looking forward to that.  He is rather a giant of a man, makes Ron look petite.  (Okay, a bit of an exaggeration.)  

On Jan. 19 we arrived in Hilo on the Big island of Hawaii.  A unique and wonderful perk of cruising with Regent is that port excursions are included.  The one we chose that day included a visit to a macadamia nut factory, a tram ride through botanical gardens and a walk  to the highest unbroken waterfall in the state.  It plunges 442 feet over a volcanic cliff into a gorge. 

We cruised overnight to Honolulu, the 12th largest city in the US.  On our first day in port
we did the Waterfall Hiking Adventure, trekking up and down over narrow, muddy trails
through the rainforest of the Pali Cliffs to a waterfall. One of those things you were happy you 
did but glad when it was over!  That night a reception for World Cruisers was held at the Iolani
Palace.  Built in 1882, it is the only royal residence in the USA.  Adorable Hawaiian children were
lined up to greet us with leis and dance for us.  It was a lovely evening with cocktails, hors
d’ouevres and  entertainment.  Best of all a chance to meet fellow world cruisers.  I am thrilled
that there is a great variation in ages.

The next day we took a Panoramic Honolulu tour which included Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head, The Pali Lookout and the Punchbowl.  We got to see a few things we had not seen before.  That evening we had our first deck party, then set sail for Lahaina on Maui where we visited the Iao Valley State Park, site of the battle that determined the unification of the Hawaiian Islands. Next we spent some time at the Maui Ocean Center, the western hemisphere’s largest tropical aquarium.  It has the largest live coral display in America.
The next 5 days will be spent at sea.  It sounds like a long time but the days fly by filled with fine
food, trips to the gym,  lectures, entertainment and various activities.  Plus we will now be able
to relax on deck and get some sun!