A girl juggling a job, a camera and an extreme case of wanderlust...
Travel junkie, ex-shippie, photog, reader, writer, video editor & yummy brownie baker. Workflow: Canon/Kindle/Mac/FCP/AE/PS/Bowl/Oven. Countries: 46 //LDS
No visit to San Francisco would be complete without a tour of Alcatraz. I highly recommend taking the night tour. Be sure to book your tickets in advance via Alcatraz Cruises) as they sell out weeks in advance. They are the only official ticket provider and any tickets purchased elsewhere are merely AC tickets repackaged.
Photos of friend Jesika, who came to visit for the weekend and let me test out my new 50mm 1.4 lens on her
How about THAT sunset!
Explored Pier 39. ✔ W alked to Pier 45. ✔ Found a WWII Submarine. ✔ That's right. I said A World War II SUBMARINE.
A friend and I recently ventured into my local metropolitan center, aka San Francisco, and did some exploring. The weekend is best summarized by said friend's phone call to her husband: "Hey babe, I just saw the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, toured a WWII Submarine and now I'm going on a night tour of Alcatraz. Tomorrow I'm going to see a Tuscan Castle!"
Her husband's hilariously sarcastic response: "Great. Let me know when you fly a fighter jet!"
There is a really cool path up/down to/from Coit Tower, which wanders by an amazing neighborhood and some very cool, unexpected gardens in the middle of the city. If you're lucky, you'll see the famous parrots.
The minute someone announces that they'll be moving abroad or taking an extended trip, people who want to "visit you" appear out of the woodwork! Friends and family and even nearly-perfect strangers all want to share in the excitement, intrigue, romance of travel and exploration! I've heard cries of "I'm soooooooo coming!" from my sister, mother, countless friends and even my hair dresser!
While I'm excited to go and travel solo, I'm also excited to have visitors! I've hosted numerous people, at sea, on land, et cetera; I've had enough experience with playing the host to have formed solid, reasonable expectations for a guest. Here are my tips for being a proper guest:
Do your own research before you arrive. There is nothing more frustrating for a host than a guest who doesn't know what they want to do, and sloughs off every expectation for "having a good time" on their host. Keep in mind: Your host lives in the city you are visiting. He/she will know of some great things to do there, but he/she will not know what it is you are truly interested in. You may think that saying "I'll do whatever" means you're being flexible and trying to work with your hosts schedule, but it's actually quite stressful for the host. Spend a few minutes on TripAdvisor researching things to do in the place you're visiting and let your host know ahead of time so the proper arrangements can be made.
Keep in mind that your host lives where you're visiting. While you may be on vacation and are feeling care free and out for non-stop fun, your host is probably not on vacation. (That's why he/she is still at home.) Sure the host may be able to get a day or two off from work to tour you around the region, but at the end of that time the host will have to return to work. Be respectful of your host's time.
I once hosted a guyfriend's girlfriend for the weekend. It. Was. Awful. I asked only that they text me to let me know when she would be dropped off each night, so I could let her into the house (I wasn't comfortable giving her a key). They would text me at half ten pm and not show up for four more hours. Really, really frustrating.
I'm not going to be working while I'm in Rome, but I will have personal projects going on -– reading, writing, learning the language, so don't expect that I can or will want to devote every waking hour to doting on you. I'm not a babysitter. I like my independence. You should, too.
You may have just scored a free place to stay, but you are not staying in a hotel and there is no maid!! Clean up after yourself. Make your bed. If you're sleeping on a couch in a public room, fold up your blankets and sheets and pack away your suitcase during the day. Remember: You're in someone else's home.
Most hosts will provide breakfast for you, and sometimes feed you every single meal. (Personally, my lifestyle is not such that I can offer that to a guest, but I've had the good fortune of experiencing it before.) If your host offers to feed you, please let him/her know in advance if you have any food allergies or special dietary needs.
A couple of friends came to stay in my house for a few nights – I asked if there were any allergies or preferences for food before they arrived and the answer came back, "No." However on arrival (at 11:00 at night, I might add) I found out that one of the guests had a milk allergy and was just expecting a piece of toast in the morning. I don't usually keep bread in my house and had nothing to feed her in the morning, despite my efforts.
I am not independently wealthy. Sure, I have a good job, but I live relatively modestly. Don't expect me -- or any host -- to spend hard-earned resources on your vacation. Yes, I want to go and play with you and I can pay for my own tickets and meals, but I'm not going to pay for yours. This is especially true for the time I'll be abroad. My resources will be limited. You'll be expected to pay for your share of what you do.
I live in a duplex house and know the girls who live next door to me fairly well. They somehow ended up hosting a guest for several weeks. Every few days I'd hear horror stories about how awfully this guest was behaving. The guest, an RN (that's a nurse, if you didn't know) with a great job in the area, had her lease run out on her without the option to renew (the house was being sold). She knew it was happening but failed to actually go out and find a new place to live. Instead, she invited herself to stay with my neighbors because it was free. My poor, unsuspecting neighbors!! While the nurse was there, she also (without permission) ate their food. She ran up their utilities. She used their laundry soap. She used their shampoo and toiletries. She monopolized their living room, leaving her clothing and belongings strewn everywhere. She invited her boyfriend over to make out in the living room until the wee hours of the morning, and played movies very loudly. Then she took all the money she saved on rent, utilities, food and toiletries and went to Thailand for several months. To this day, she doesn't think she's done anything wrong.
I'm not sure why there is such a sense of entitlement among so many people these days, and so little willingness to work for what one does have. Mooches are not welcome.
Now that that's all out of the way, we'll get along grandly, so let the good times roll!! (And no, sorry readers, this is not an invitation to perfect strangers or quasi-acquaintances to come and stay with me.)
There are a few ways to leave an island. Airplanes and ferries are the most readily available means of transportation. But, if you can swing it, I highly recommend leaving islands the way I left the Greek isle of Kos: By sailboat.
You can charter your own sailboat most anyplace in the Med and sail yourself around if you're an experienced sailor. If you aren't and still want to sail, you can either hire a boat with a skipper, or do what I did - join a G Adventures tour. (G Adventures in no way sponsored this post or this blog, wouldn't it be nice if they had?)
I have to say, sailing around the Greek Isles on a sailboat is THE way to see Greece. Think about it - Greece is a land of seafaring people, so what better way to see those ancient islands than from the sea?
G Adventures did NOT disappoint. I'm actually thinking of going on their sailing tours in the Maldives and in Indonesia... eventually, because seriously, this sailing tour was THE BEST thing I've ever done while traveling. EVER.
Before our tour left Kos, we spent one night in the harbor there. It gave everyone on the tour a chance to get acquainted, do a bit of grocery shopping and explore the main port area. That night, in stark contrast to the previous three nights I spent on Kos, I didn't sleep cooled by air conditioning in a lush bed in a room overlooking the sea. My last night on Kos, I slept in a teeny-tiny 2-person v-berth on a 50ft sailboat (I had it all to myself because my charter, meant for ten people, only ended up with four- including skipper). No air conditioning, (so it was BAKING hot) No screens on the hatches, (so the swarms of mozzies on the island of Kos all feasted on me all night long) No hot water in the standing head (bathroom/shower) because the engine hadn't been run that evening (cold shower, which really wasn't bad in the heat).
And it was no big deal.
All night long, between mosquito bites, I lay in my v-berth, happy as a clam, being rocked to sleep by the sea.
I'm a boat person. And always will be. And I felt as though, at long last, I'd come home.
Tour the boat with me, in pictures:
One of the two bunk rooms... (NOT where I slept... thankfully!)
My own, private head. Yup. This little cupboard of convenience is both a toilet and shower...
My V-berth. Cozy!
My fellow adventurers.
Skipper Robin Kersten (Fantastic Skipper. He runs his own charter company out of the Azores called Similie Sailing. Look him up!)
Ekavi - my home away from home while sailing the Greek Isles. (She's a Bavaria 50.)
As I walked up to the entrance of Antimachia Castle, I heard a voice call out:
"Sprechen Sie Deutsch?"
The little man was a character straight from the pages of history. Part court jester, part musician, all personality. He was dressed in a native, medieval costume to match his surroundings, this guy was the official greeting party for the Fourteenth century Antimachia Castle.
"English? I speak all language! Tell me, where you are from?"
I laughed at his persistence as I walked up the stairs to enter the Castle.
"American! Ah, U-S-A. Not very many Am-reekans visit Kos. Welcome!" He extended one leg in front of him and bowed from the waist with a flourish of his outstretched hand, then up he went, spry as a mouse and did a little jig, picked up a weird little triangle-shaped guitar and strummed a little tune.
The man must have been pushing 65.
"Thank you." I smiled, snapped a photo of him and dropped a few Euro into the tip basket on the ground next to the main entrance of the Castle before continuing inside.
As far as medieval castles go, Antimachia was pretty darned cool. It was in fairly good shape, having been excavated and somewhat restored. The size of the castle is deceptive. It's huge, but it doesn't look quite so large from the outside:
I blame the optical illusion on the goats. You see, the only thing around the castle for miles and miles is goat pastureland. If there were something (another building) standing nearby, one might actually get a better idea at the scale of the place.
Inside of the castle you'll find quite a variety of things to see: a jailhouse, some very cool ruins, a chapel (that is actually still in use to this day!) And one of the most striking viewpoints of the entire island.
Great castle. But all in all, it may have been the little man who was the highlight of my day.
-You'll need a vehicle to get to the Castle from anywhere on the island.
-Cost: Free (but feel free to tip the awesome old man)
-Take: Sunscreen. Water. A Hat. (Seriously. Brutal sun.)
-Don't: Hit the freerange goats in the road on the way to the Castle.
There is so very much to do in California's Wine Country! And surprisingly, not all of it revolves around wine. Head to charming downtown Sonoma, California. Just next door to the old Armory, which is part of the San Francisco Sonoma Mission, The Toscana Hotel is a fascinating little step back into the "old west."
I've been on more than my fair share of cruises. I'm actually not certain how many I've been on. More than 100. To be fair, I worked on cruise ships. And yes, some days it actually was work. Really, the amount of time you spend working depends on your job. The first three years I worked quite a bit. I was a youth counselor.
The last two years I spent on ships were as a "Computer Lecturer." I taught computer classes to passengers. I was technically a crew member with "Passenger Status." It was the best of all worlds. It meant that when I wasn't working, I was playing. I got to use the pools and hot tubs, fitness facilities and eat in the dining rooms. I got to play in the ports and explore fantastic new places. Things that normal crew members aren't allowed to do. Also I was able to have a guest sail with me for free nearly every cruise. It was the perfect job. Truly.
Over five years I worked on ten different ships for two different cruise lines. It was life-changing. And eye-opening. So if you're planning a cruise, take advantage of my industry insider experience to help streamline your process.
Cruising has become a huge vacation industry. And by huge, I mean just look at the sheer tonnage afloat these days. Before airplanes, one had to sail across the seas to travel. Inter-continental traveling was a lengthy and difficult affair. One group of my ancestors immigrated from Sweden to the US in 1866. They traveled from Stockholm to Hamburg and then from Hamburg to New York. The journey from Hamburg took nearly nine weeks to complete. The ship had only provisioned for three to four weeks at sea. It was a harrowing journey to say the least. These days you can hop on a plane in New York and be in London in six hours. Current Cruise liners make the journey using massive propulsion systems in five days, laden with enough food to feed their passengers and crew for nearly double that time and stocked with amenities enough to keep even the most finicky traveler happy.
(Titanic Image from the deep, dark recesses of the interweb....)
The Titanic was said to have been the largest ship afloat in her day, a "modern marvel." Titanic and her sister ship, the Olympic weighed in at 46,328 tons. In 2010, Royal Caribbean line launched their new ship Oasis of the Seas, which is the largest ship built to date. It weighs in at 225,282 tons, more than five times the Titanic!
The Oasis of the Seas boasts living luxury at sea with it's Spa & Fitness center, four pools, ten hot tubs, surf machines, sport courts, mini-golf, zip line, casino, theatres, nightclub, and youth and teen centers. And don’t forget the FOOD, FOOD, FOOD. Aside from the traditional dining rooms and buffets there are also cafes and fine-dining restaurants galore.
There are more cruise ships sailing today than ever before and that translates to price drops for passengers. The most expensive suite on Titanic cost around $4500 per person, given inflation, in 2008 that would have been the equivalent of $95,860 USD! Today, depending on the cruise line you sail, you can sail a transatlantic cruise in a luxury suite (but keep in mind, a standard room isn't exactly steerage these days either!) for between $2500-$5000/person or only $500-$1000 for a basic, inside cabin.
With the huge number of cruise ships sailing the seas these days, it is safe to say that just about anyone can find a cruise they will love. To help streamline the confusing process of finding your perfect cruise, let's walk through a few things:
1. Is This Your First Cruise? First-time cruisers could potentially set sail in a bucket and love it. As you go on more cruises you become much pickier. It's just a fact of cruising. So if you've never been and don't know what to expect, I'd recommend sailing a less expensive itinerary/ship to get your sea legs. Also, go on a shorter cruise -- a two or three-day itinerary, just to see if you like it.
2. Luxury Vs Budget Cruise (Is budget a large factor?) If so, stick to larger cruise lines and larger ships. Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian are good bets for finding great deals. But keep in mind, with the larger, budget cruise lines you will have more passengers per square foot than on other lines.
When you book will play a big part in determining the price of your cruise. If you plan your cruise a year in advance you'll be able to ensure you get the room you want and the itinerary you want, but you'll pay full listing price. If you can wait until 60-90 days within sailing, the prices drop, sometimes a drastic 50-70% below list price.
A resource I use to help find cruise deals for friends is vacationstogo.com. Sign up for their newsletter and they'll send you weekly updates on all of the great deals happening at sea. (Again, no sponsorship on their part. And no animals were harmed in the making of this guide.)
Lastly, don't forget to figure in your airfare. If budget is a determining factor, stick to a homeport near you. If you live in Seattle, you can find cruises to Vancouver/Victoria and even Alaska that sail out of your home city. Omit airfare entirely, if possible, to help push your hard-earned cash further. If you have to fly to meet a ship, find a ship that departs from an airline hub city like LA, Miami, Fort Lauderdale or New York. Flights to those places will be immensely less expensive than flying to a small island in the South Pacific to meet a ship.
If flight price isn't really a big deal to you, try flying into San Juan, Puerto Rico or Bridgetown, Barbados to catch a Southern Caribbean cruise. They're my absolute favorite Caribbean cruises. If you're able, spend a few days in the city you're sailing out of before or after your cruise and explore.
If money is no object, try a very small luxury ship or yacht. Seabourn, Crystal and Windstar cruises are all very highly rated small luxury lines. Some of these lines include alcohol in the price of your cruise. FYI: These lines often have strict dress codes.
3. Large Ship vs Small Ship (And Age Group) Size does matter. If you're looking for a cheap, spring break cruise go for a larger ship in a region that is ship-dense (ie: Caribbean or Alaska in the summer). But if you want to go to places a bit off the beaten path, smaller ships are often the only ships that will take you there (because the big ones don't fit into port!)
Large ships offer more stuff. More pools. Ice Skating rinks. Rock Climbing walls. More stuff to do on those days at sea. If you're sailing with children/teens, you want a ship that has a diverse offering of things to do. Disney cruises are ALWAYS a great idea for children, but you will pay a premium to sail with Disney. Other cruise lines offer phenomenal childrens' centers and activity programs to keep your kids occupied and having fun the whole cruise. Generally the larger (and newer) the ship, the better the kids facilities.
Small ships are great for a quieter, more intimate cruise. Less people, less crowding = more relaxation time and less regiment. Smaller ships will offer more traditional cruise activities like quoits and shuffleboard and group games to keep you entertained.
Age Specific Cruise lines cater to specific age groups. Carnival and Royal Caribbean go for the younger crowd. Celebrity and Princess cater best to the 25-50 crowd. Holland America is generally known for retirement cruising. No matter what the age target for the cruise line, every ship will offer something for all age groups.
4. Do Ship Amenities Matter? Some people simply like to spend their vacations reading or sitting by the pool. If this is you, you'll want to ensure you find a ship with a larger passenger to square footage ratio. Less passengers = less crowding = less crowding in ports and easier access to ammenities. Generally you can look to smaller ships on cruise lines like Holland America, Princess or Cunard for great passenger to space ratios. These are your best bet to finding a quiet hideaway.
Enjoying a nearly empty ship whilst anchored in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii
5. Cruise Length It's up to you, really. For that quick getaway you can find cruises that run 2-3 days. If you've got time on your hands, try an around-the-world itinerary (90-120 days). If seven days isn't enough you can sail two seven-day cruises on the same ship in the same cabin back to back. Personally I like 10-day cruises. In my time working on ships I met several elderly passengers who were full-time cruisers. Basically, instead of going into retirement homes, they lived on ships. Pretty great idea. And fairly cost-effective. For about the same price as a retirement home they received a luxury home with extremely attentive service.
6. Destination & Timing Where you want to go will often limit when you can go. Ships are generally assigned to a specific region for a season, but some can be assigned a region indefinitely. For instance, the Oasis of the Seas is currently dedicated to cruising the Caribbean. It offers several itineraries in the Caribbean. On the other hand, in 2010, the Splendour of the Seas will sail South America, Transatlantic, Europe, Transatlantic and back to South America.
Generally in the winter ships move to warm places; in the summer they sail Alaska, Europe and the Baltic. Spring is the season for Hawaii and Mexico, and in the fall you can find cruises to Canada and New England. When the seasons change, the ships reposition. Repositioning cruises are generally a bit longer and have more sea-days.
Regardless of where or when you cruise, I always recommend cruising a newer ship, or an older ship that has been dry-docked recently (within the last year). Ships are taken out of service every few years and put into dry dock. Dry docks usually mean a ship will be gutted and redone. Sometimes the ships in drydock will have major structural work done – enlargements or complete renovations to certain areas. When dry dock is over, ships return to service good as new, sometimes better.
I'm rather embarrassed to write this account of shame, deception and *gasp* getting taken for a ride. Really. Embarrassed.
Dare I say my pride is wounded because of the following experience? Yes, yes I dare say it is. Because I consider myself to be somewhat travel savvy. I mean, traveling to 44 countries has to mean you've gathered some travel know-how, right?
That's what I thought before. That infamous day I set off down the streets of Cairo (yes, nervously) on foot and I had no intention of falling into any tourist traps or spending money on stupid souvenirs. It was the furthest thing from my mind. (Perhaps therein lies the problem.) Shopping-wise, there was one item I wanted to attain: a tiny miniature pyramid. (Which I never did get, by the way.) Anything else was completely uninteresting to me. Or so I thought.
And at one point in my Cairo walkabout I found myself on the wrong side of a very busy Egyptian street. Having lived on a verrrrrry busy street (complete with railroad tracks next door) at one point in my young life, and also having crossed that verrrrry busy street regularly, you know, to get to the other side (my little friends lived over yonder) I would cross that street without any problems. So with the confidence instilled by my childhood in tow, I crossed 1/2 of the crazy street (barely, and getting yelled at in Egyptian in the process - all words that I'm sure were just lovely and fuzzy warm good words) and came to rest on a median in the middle of the six-lane roadway. And I stayed there in the middle for quite a while... because the second half, it turns out, was the hardest half to cross. Every time I thought about setting out for the other side, another mad, speed-demon auto-macchina would come barreling at me out of nowhere, shouting at me and making lovely hand gestures.
And then, just as I was finally going to cross the street in a mad dash, I was distracted by a tall, thin Egyptian man running across the street towards me, from the direction I wanted to go.
He sidled right up to me and say "Hello there! I think you do not know how to cross our Egyptian streets, come I will show you." And with that, he dashed back the way he came, with me following closely behind. There was something shady about him, and being that I had been about to self-rescue myself from my predicament, I tried to quickly thank him and made to keep walking to my destination (the spa-hotel that was now just yards away).
But he kept talking to me. "Whereareyooofrom, yoooarewelcomed, dooyouvork? Wheredooyouvork? Ahhh, theeeseeseaverrrygudcompany." And so on, and so forth. Finally, I found myself a block to the left of my destination, following a few steps behind the fellow, prepared at any moment to make a mad-dash for my life. But as we entered a small store, and he disappeared I realized that he was a schill. His job was to get me into the store to buy stuff. The store was filled with seriously overpriced Egyptian art and perfumes. And when I left the store with a small vial of perfume and a Papyrus with my name written on it in ancient Egyptian (actually it doesn't have my name on it because I wouldn't write my real name down as they'd requested - I made one up, having violent daydreams of credit-card and identity theft) for an exorbitant price. (In dollars!)
Inside the store: The guy's "Sister" who supposedly was getting married
the next day, painting a Papyrus with my name on it in "ancient Egyptian."
Nestled smack dab in the center of idyllic downtown Sonoma (which is nestled smack dab in the middle of the Napa Valley/Wine Country) you'll find a smattering of mom and pop stores, original restaurants, high-end homeware shoppes and cute clothing sellers. You'll also find a piece of California's history - Mission San Francisco Solano.
Wikipedia says this about Sonoma's mission:
The mission was built by the Mexican authorities as a barrier to Russia's attempts to extend control to the federal territory of Alta California. During the years the Mission was active, General Mariano Vallejo resided in town. He was tasked with monitoring the activities of Russia at their nearby settlement of Fort Ross (krepost' rus'), and with establishing peaceful relations with the Native Americans of the region. Vallejo helped to build the town of Sonoma and even paid for the rebuilding of the small Mission chapel. There were always soldiers and settlers in the town of Sonoma during the Mexican period. The Franciscan Fathers grew grapes and produced sacramental wine from the first vineyard in the Sonoma Valley, which was first planted in 1825. By 1834, Vallejo had the Rancho Petaluma Adobe built a few miles to the west, which became a large agricultural operation to support the Spanish military here. By 1839, the Mission was in ruins and unoccupied. Through the years the Mission saw many different uses, among these a blacksmith's shop, a barn, and even a storeroom. In 1846, white American settlers took over the town in what has come to be known as the "Bear Flag Revolt." It was during this time that the Mission was sold to a man who used the chapel entrance as a saloon and stored his liquor and hay in the chapel. The Mission eventually became a parish church serving the Pueblo and Sonoma Valley until it was sold to a private interest in 1882. In 1903, the California Historic Landmarks League bought the remains of Mission San Francisco Solano. Restoration was completed in 1913. The restored chapel burned in 1970. Today, the Mission is part of the Sonoma State Historic Park.
Photo and history blurb from:
If you were to visit dowtown Sonoma and Mission San Francisco Solano today (and I highly recommend you do!) it would look a little something like this:
Entrance fee to view the mission and garrison = $3.00 US. Cost of Admission also includes admission to Lachryma Montis, the historic home of General Mariano Vallejo.