Friday, July 11, 2008

Silverton CO - 547 miles

Some time ago I read From Stampede to Timberline, a wonderful book about old mining towns in Colorado. There was a haunting story about a beautiful dance hall girl who was known as Silverheels by the miners in town. According to the story the town was devastated by a small pox epidemic and Silverheels tirelessly nursed ill miners without regard for her own health. Hundreds died. When it was almost over, Silverheels disappeared. People later said that they saw her ghost visiting the graves of miners she nursed with a vail over her face. The vail hid the awlful damaged done by the small pox disease to her beautiful face. My memory must be shot. I could have sworn the story took place in Silverton and Seven and I spent a good hour or so looking for Silverheel's grave in the cemetry overlooking Silverton without much luck. We even stopped in the local historical society's office and talked to a grumpy lady about it. She didn't have a copy of From Stampede to Timberland for me to check. She said there wasn't a small pox epidemic in Silverton. I looked it up on the web and found out the story took place in Buckskin Joe.

Silverton is a tourist town now. There is still a mine there. You can see mine tailings in the mountains close to town. There are a lot of gift shops and restaurants that open up when the popular Durango & Silverton narrow gauge train from Durango pulls in. Without that train showing up each day Silverton would dry up and blow away. The train ride has to be spectacular if it comes close to what we saw on our ride up US 550. There is quite a few things to do in Silverton. It is a beautiful place that sits in a valley surrounded by mountains.

We stayed at the Silver Summit RV park which is within walking distance of most of Silverton's stores and restaurants. The owner is a nice guy with a laid back attitude. The RV park was clean, well organized, and had everything. We used Passport America without problems. There was still snow on the ground in and around Silverton.

Getting in and out of Silverton is an adventure. A beautiful adventure. The road in and out of Silverton is narrow and steep. It is the definition of mountain driving. Much of the road, Highway 555, is cut out of the side of mountains. One inattentive moment and you could be testing the airworthiness of your RV. Someplaces we traveled were downright scary. Lots of 20 mph curves. It is only 50 miles from Durango to Silverton but it takes at least 2 hours to drive. I was bushed.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Mesa Verde CO - 3/18/08 - 444 miles

Mesa Verde National Park is a must see locale. We parked the RV in a parking lot just outside the front gate in a parking lot meant for trailers. The RV could have made it, but it would have taken 6 gallons of diesel to keep it with us. With diesel at $4.37 we didn't need it. Be sure to allow plenty of time to enjoy this special place. An entire day. We took about 6 hours to tour it and we did not see some things that were on my list. Far View and the Sun Palace for example.

Your first stop should be at the Visitor's Center. That is where you get tickets to tour the Cliff Palace and the Balcony House with a ranger. They cost $3 for each tour. Well worth it. Allow some time between each tour. We had about an hour which gave us time to grab some lunch and visit the museum. We didn't have time to go see the Spruce House. It is a pretty decent hike down (and back) to it. Heat wasn't an issue for us when we visited, but if the temperatures were pretty high, this one would be one to look at in the morning. Park at the end of each parking lot and walk back to the trail heads to the Cliff Palace and Balcony House. If you have severe problems with heights do not go to the Cliff Palace or Balcony House, particularly Balcony House. I have moderate fear of heights problems and was able to negotiate the ladders without to many problems.

The rangers on the tours do a masterful job of storytelling. The former residents of the dwellings left mysteriously and although we know a lot about their lives in this area, there is lot that is not known. The dwellings are spectacular to me. I could almost picture people living here.

There is a snack bar near the museum that is connected to a well-stocked gift shop. We ate in the snack bar and it wasn't too bad.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Cortez CO - 3/16/08 - 407 miles

Cortez is a nice little town. We are staying at a nice little camp ground, La Mesa RV Park, near the center of town. Not too many other people here in the camp ground. The camp ground's WiFi equipment is terrible and I had to come up and park right next to their router in order to use it. Good thing Karen is not here with me because there is at least 100 mosquitoes flying around the car. They are looking for her. She left me to do the RV hookups when we got here because she spotted a quilt shop on the main street and it would probably close at 5pm. The main street here appears to be thriving and they have a Wal-Mart.

We plan to tour Mesa Verde National Park tomorrow then go up to Silverton, CO after visiting Durango. Durango is where our kids and I took one of our best pictures ever. We were all dressed up in cowboy gear carrying or holding every weapon they had in the picture studio. It was a hoot.

Four Corners NM-AZ-UT-CO 3/16/08 - 366 miles

Happiness is having a working refrigerator. At least to us RVers.

We woke up at 3:30 am and Seven said she was ready to hit the road. LOL Mad, who is in his right mind, rolled back over and went to sleep. We did get up at 7:00am and were on the road at 7:30. We were heading up AZ 89 then US 160 towards Cortez, CO. Beside Kayenta, the Four Corners is the place to see along this beautiful stretch of highway.

We did stop at the Burger King in Kayenta for a milk shake (we shared one) and to see the Indian exhibits next to the restaurant. There were 3 examples of Indian buildings set up with clear and interesting explanations of how they were used. There was also a nice little museum filled with information about the Navajo code talkers and the Navajo culture. I did see a postcard with some Hopi crafts featured on it but was afraid to ask the clerk at the desk about it. How did it get there? Hopis and Navajos do not get along. Look at the hape of the Arizona congressional districts to see what I mean.

We pulled into the Four Corners area and were surprised to learn that we had to pay an entrance fee to get in to the monument area. The land is on the Navajo reservation. Just $3 per person. We had been here before and were amazed at the improvements not only to the monument but to all the booths (43) selling jewelry and the like.

I get really excited about things like this for some reason. I think that is called 'going nuts'. Being excited, I called my brother, sister and sister-in-law while walking from state to state to share the experience with them. Now I am in New Mexico, now in Colorado, etc. Unfortunately I was doing this while some other tourists were trying to snap unobstructed pictures of the monument. They got their pictures. They just had to wait until I scratched my itch.For this I apologize to these unknown people. I just go wild and forget to be respectful of others. I did lie down on the monument so I could get a body part in every state and Seven memorialized that. Seven just stood there on the marker for her picture. She wasn't as excited as I was apparently.

Three guys were there from North Carolina and were talking to us. They were biking across the US on their Harleys and seemed like they were having a great time. I took their pictures on the monument for them using their own cameras. I also apologized to them for what KU to them did in the Final Four.

Four Corners is a worthwhile thing to see.

We had lunch and moved on to Cortez where we will spend the night. We will go over to see Mesa Verde National Park in the morning.

Seven spent about 30 minutes of cell phone time talking to Orangewood RV managers about the shoddy repair job they did on our refrigerator. Their response to the fact that they obviously did not do the work that they billed us for was, in so many words, tough, sue us.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Flagstaff AZ 144 miles - 3/14/08

144 miles is not what I would call a good start to our 2008 Big Adventure. We made it to Flag as they affectionally call it in Arizona. Flag is where everyone in Phoenix wants to be in August. A nice little college town in the shadow of the massive Mt Humphrey, a classic cinder cone volcano.

We were suppose to start out yesterday and stop at the Camp Wally here in Flag but after we unplugged the house power we noticed that the propane for the refrigerator did not kick in. That is bad. No refrigeration no heading for Flagstaff. It was too late to get it looked into so I did what I could to repair it. Nothing. We looked up the repair shop number and called them first thing in the morning.

We got into the shop, Orangewood RV on Bell Road in Surprise, at 8:00 am and got the repair done and were on the road at 11:45am. Total cost $94 for cleaning out the flue in the refrigeration unit. Evidently it rusts and the rust falls down onto the burners, blocking them. They said that they cleaned the system and everything was working.

It is all uphill, just about, from Phoenix at 800 feet above sea level to Flag which is about 7,000 feet above sea level. We had a lot of wind blowing the RV around which really took a lot out of me physically. We took a break at Camp Verde, Arizona and checked out the Cliff Castle Casino which was just off of I-17. The casino is somewhat RV unfriendly. Their RV and truck parking lot was taken over by a car dealer's tent sale and we had to wait 20 minutes for a shuttle which stops and waits at the Discount Cigarette store where smokers could run in and replenish their supply. The casino was pretty nice but I think its customers were predominately smokers because it had that golden brown patina that casinos with poor air handling systems get after 4-5 years. Just about every other slot player had a cigartette hanging out of his/her mouth. The place reeked. Seven got a chip for her casino chip collection and we left. The shuttle was not to be seen, probably parked, waiting in front of the cigarette shop again, so we hoofed it down the hill to the RV.

Not too much later we heard the tell-tale beeping coming from the refrigerator. It stopped working again because it could not get any propane. We looked up RV refrigerator dealers in Flag and tried calling them but our list was 8 years old. Seven finally called one in Cottonwood and he recommended a friend's shop in Flag for us. We called them and got directions.

We got to the Flagstaff RV Service Center on 4316 N Highway 89 and got in line and hoped that they could get to our RV before their 5pm quitting time. Lucky us. The technician, Robert, took one quick look and told us what the problem was in about 2 minutes - dirty burners and a dirty flue. We said "how can that be, we just had them cleaned 4 hours ago?" They shrugged and said that they were dirty so we said clean them. About an hour later the shop manager, Jason, came back and said we were set to go. He said it looked like to him that the burners had not been cleaned and the propane pressure had not been adjusted. Both of those things could have caused the problem. We paid $103 and then saw Robert, who worked on our RV. We asked him if it looked like the burners had been cleaned and he said absolutely not. He said that to clean them compressed air is forced into the pipe and that shakes any debrie loose. We are going to stop payment to Orangewood RV tomorrow if they do not remove the charge.

We had a quick supper at Pizza Hut. Two personal pan pizzas with salad. Good stuff. After that we went over to Flag's big time mall for some mall walking. Walking the Flag mall didn't take more than 3 minutes at most so I did it 3 times. Seven met me in Sears where she bought some shirts. I wanted some ice cream but didn't see any stores that might have had some.

We are dry camping in an auto supply store parking lot for the night. The store closed at 6pm. Not too bad. Train tracks are near by but I won't hear them in about 15 minutes. We didn't fire up the generator and watch our soap, the Young and the Restless. They rerun all the week's episodes on Saturday and Sunday on Soapnet so we will catch up to the stories then when we will have electricity. On to Cortez or Mancos and Mesa Verde tomorrow.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Sun City West, Arizona - 5/10/08 - 0 Miles

The new awning was finally installed on the RV. Our awning spring evidently failed somewhere in Kansas last summer and the awning was nearly ripped from the RV. The awning had about a 2 foot rip in it so we had it replaced.

Our rear tires had only 43,000 miles on them but were 7 years old so we replaced those as well. We had replaced the front ones last fall after Mad hit one too many curbs. So before we put a gallon of that precious stuff called diesel fuel in our tank we were already out about $1,900.

Thursday, May 15th, we take off for Gunnison, Colorado. We are going to work as camp ground hosts for Lakeside RV Resort. Lakeside is a private campground and the owners sound like they might be sane, unlike last year's bosses. I have enjoyed chatting with them several times about what we can expect this summer and things in general like internet access. They sound like good people that we will enjoy working with. We will be doing the usual hosting activities as well as work in their little general store in exchange for minimum wage and a camp site. I was thinking about getting paid in Euros but that would probably not be possible.

So the RV is parked in front of the house. I spent a couple of sweaty hours cleaning out all the bins and fixing some drawers. After a couple of years we finally know what we need and don't need. When you first start RVing you tend to take everything under the sun 'just in case' then spend the next 6 months regretting ever doing that. Space in an RV is precious. I will do some basic wiring checks tomorrow or tonight then take it back to the storage lot tomorrow after we load some thing up.

Whale Watching - Maui, HI - 4/12/08

We all have seen the video on TV. Small boats full of people with our friends the whales everywhere. That's why I went on line and signed up for a whale watching excursion with Trilogy in Ma'aleaea. I was looking for just that experience. LOL

There are literally millions of whale watching excursions to choose from in Hawaii. Watching whales is a big business. Everyone has seen those videos. I didn't talk to people who went on other excursions with difference companies so I have nothing to compare our experience with. I picked Trilogy because it got consistently high ratings from people who used them to get to the elusive whales.

Whales are wild creatures and live in a big ocean so you never know where they are and if they are going to show up. They might have something better to do that day than show up and put on a show of some sorts for you. In other words when you go whale watching, you are taking a chance they might be somewhere else that day hanging with another group of antsy tourists.

Trilogy runs a class excursion. The boats are spacious and the number of people they take out is small enough where you aren't elbowing one another out of the way to get a look a breeching whale, if you are so lucky. The boats do not have many amenities but you really don't need them. A potty, a cooler full of cold beverages, some snacks, nice weather, a great crew, and a few cooperative whales is all you need.

The Trilogy people on our excursion (sorry, I am bad with names) were friendly, talkative, and helpful. They understood what the words customer service mean and did everything they could to make our trip fun and informational.

The sloop rigged catamaran that Trilogy uses is pretty good to whale watch from. It has a large trampoline in the front of the boat and places to sit along each side of it and in front of the cabin. There are also seats on the back of the boat I think. There was plenty of room for everyone to move around and find other seats. The only bad part is that the boat is relatively low in the water so that the viewing angle is pretty low. When you are far away from the whales that is not so much an issue but if the whales are near you then it would be better to be up in the air somewhat on a bigger boat.

We pulled out of the harbor and started looking for whale activity - spouts. No problem. Lots. Our skipper guided the boat towards what looked like a pod. As we approached the whales started raising their tails and periodically slapping the water with them. This was a pod of 3 males and they were doing some male posturing. Very exciting.

These whale watching excursions have a major problem. They want to get close to the whales but are legally prohibited from doing so. There is a protective area of 100 yards around the whales that they cannot enter. Our skipper was very mindful of the 100 yard limit although we would have loved to be in amongst them like in the videos. He told me that if the whales came to him then that is fine. He'd shut everything down and wait until they moved on. The whales didn't come our way but we really enjoyed their antics. One thing about seeing a whale, even a male whale which is smaller than the females, that hits you immediately - they are big.

It was a great day. Beautiful weather, nice people, and lots of whales. What more could you ask for?

We caught the bus back to Lahaina and got on the tender back to the ship after a long, happy day. We had wanted to go up the coast a little from Lahaina and go to the beaches there, but ran out of time. Next time we'd get off the ship earlier and rent a car. Or we could go back.........

Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii - 3/12/08 - 2,491 miles

Anchors aweigh! Now does aweigh mean putting down the anchor or pulling it up? We dropped anchor off of Lahaina at 7:09 am after a short trip from Honolulu. A beautiful day! 79 degrees and sunny. We could see Lahaina and the nearby islands of Lania and Molokai.

We were really excited. Our excitement was tempered somewhat by the the arrangements that the Zaandam makes for tendering (putting people on lifeboats and taking them ashore when there are not ports deep enough for the cruise ship to use). It was not first-come first-serve. It was whoever paid big bucks for shore excursions goes first and everyone goes whenever they get around to it. For two people who pride themselves at being Team #1 off the ship in every port, we were not happy. If we knew what we learned at the next tendering we really would have been steaming. The tendering honchos do not fill up the tenders!! They load up one tour group then another, etc. until all the tour groups have been sent ashore. It was 10 am before we were tendered in Lahaina. The thing is that there are plenty of seats on the tenders taking the tour groups in. In the next port when they called for the first tour group we went on down and got on without telling the tendering honchos.

Lahaina is essentially a tourist trap. Souvenir shops, restaurants, and various tour operators line the main streets. It is nice in the downtown area and it is easy to walk to everything in the town. Most of the commercial activity is located on Front Street which is one block from the dock where the tender drops its passengers. Just a short walk up Hotel Street by Banyan Park will get you to Front Street. That will take you in the front entrance of a nice little shopping area. I bought what I first thought was a simple original watercolor of some flowers in one of the shops there. A guy was sitting at a table working on these. I watched while he painted in the colors on one. What he was actually doing was painting a drawing that had been reproduced on a copier. On the back of the ones he had for sale (3 for $5) he did a full disclosure about how they were produced. It was pretty so I bought it irregardless of the mass-production aspect of it.

Wharf Street is lined with tour operators selling fishing, snorkeling, and whale watching tours. It looked like a busy place. Most of the ship's tours originated from this area I think.

The little shopping area houses the bus terminal. The bus system on Maui is very good. We were going to catch a bus 15 miles down Highway 30 to Ma'alaea (Pronounced MA-A-LIE-A) where we were going to go on a whale watching excursion on a sloop-rigged catamaran. Ma'alaea is a oceanside village that is centered around Ma'alaea Harbor Shops shopping center. This shopping center is was next to the Maui Ocean Center. We didn't tour the Maui Ocean Center because it seemed kinda of pricey ($21-$24) without that much to offer veteran aquarium goes like ourselves and we didn't have much time. We took a quick look around the shopping center and decided to hop the bus again to go over to Kahului to look around. Only about 8 miles away, on the other side of Maui.

We didn't have much time to really explore Kahului thanks to the incompetent tendering operation on the ship, so all we did was look around a shopping center where the bus station was. It was interesting to see the differences in product selection in Hawaii versus Arizona. We checked out a few of the local stores including one nice fabric shop called Sew Special where Seven got some more quilting fabric and I bought her a neat pineapple quilt pattern.

We got on the bus back to Ma'alaea to get to our whale watch adventure.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Honolulu Hawaii - 3/10/08 - 2,394 miles

We left Hilo at 4:54 pm to sail over to Honolulu and the island of Oahu. After watching a beautiful sunrise over Diamond Head, we docked in Hololulu at 7:44 am the next morning right next to the famous Aloha Tower in downtown Honolulu. Four hulu dancers and some musicians met us at the dock. Nice. But we didn't get leied.

We had two days in Honolulu and rented another car to use to tour the island of Oahu. Note: there is no 'W' in Oahu. We walked out of cruise terminal and down the street past the Aloha Towers Shopping Center to look for a city bus, called The Bus, that would take us to the rental car office (the rental car people have a shuttle but we did not know that). One of our big problems that I had not really solved, but was aware of, was overnight parking for our rental car. As we waited for the bus we began asking passerbys about nearby parking. Nothing but grim news. There was no reasonable parking that they knew of . And most nearby parking lots charged $50 a night to park. We were in a pickle because we were not going to pay $50 to park a car for the night.

I had looked up the Bus's schedules on the web and knew which bus to take. Honolulu has an excellent bus system and if you confine your travels to Honolulu you can use the bus rather than rent a car. Having a car means that sometime you have to park it and you might not have enough money to pay for the parking fees. We chatted with some of bus passengers and the driver trying to figure out where we would get off to get to the rental car agency. Poor research on my part. I only had an address and not the name of the building the agency was in. After some hilarious moments with a new bus driver, who took over the controls of our bus at the transportation hub, we went about a block past the address that I had for the agency. I didn't see any any signs or cars that could belong to car rental agency. Almost panic time. We had our cell phone with us, but I wasn't smart enough to call the agency for directions. Besides I am a real man and everyone knows real men don't ask for directions. Seven did though and some nice people pointed to a nondescript two story shopping area attached to a hotel about a block away. We went into the little shopping center and began looking for the well-hidden rental agency. We found it and went down in the parking garage of a hotel, I think, and got our little red car. No free upgrade this time.

The first thing we did once we got our car was drive back to the Aloha Tower Shopping Center area and look for overnight parking. We found one in a bank building after two tries for $13 a night if we arrived after 10 pm and left before 6 am. Good enough. I get up early anyways and could easily walk over and get the car.

All that done, we made our way out of Honolulu towards the Dole Pineapple Plantation, a big time tourist destination. We took H-1. It is not I-1 because it is not an interstate highway. The plantation was more like a part of Disneyland than a real live pineapple plantation. Lots of stuff to buy, clean, neat, great restrooms, and food. They had a good snackbar that sold pineapple ice cream. Not many people could pass that up including us. Where else can you buy pineapple ice cream? We got a pineapple sundae to share. $4 Delicious.

There are three things you can do at the Plantation besides eat ice cream and buy things you probably don't need. There is a maze of some kind and a train that takes you around the plantation, I guess. We decided to do take a guided tour of the gardens. It was fantastically beautiful. I cannot include all the flower pictures here that I took. After the tour we looked at the beds of pineapple plants and read about pineapple growing. It may not sound as if I was too enthused by the plantation but actually it is a pretty good place to visit, especially if you like ice cream. There is no admission to the gift shop and grounds part of it. Everything else cost to get in and to see or ride. The gift shop had quality items to buy. Lots of Dole t-shirts as you can imagine. I should have gotten one for Triathlon Girl, our daughter, because she worked for Bob Dole at one time.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Hilo Hawaii - Hilo Hatties, Mauna Loa Macadamia Nuts, Rainbow Falls & Akaka Falls - 3/9/08

So many tourist attractions and so little time. Thanks again Captain Smit.

The Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut planation is closed on Sunday. Good. I like to see workers get a day off each week. At least the factory was closed. The gift store was open. The road in from Route 11 is a typical narrow paved farm road called Macadamia Drive for some reason . It passes by some papaya orchards. We had never seen papaya growing before. Looking at aerial photographs of the orchards on Google Maps it is amazing how many trees are growing here (use coordinates 19.656940, -155.009190). It is 2.7 miles from Route 11 to the gift shop/factory.

The factory tour consisted of walking by windows that allow you to look into the factory and since we were pressed for time we skipped doing that. A factory is a factory is a factory. I would have liked to see the nut crushers in operations though. Macadamia nuts are very hard and require a lot of pressure to crack. We bought some shelled nuts and candy.

In the gift shop was one of the many pearl selling counters that we saw. These operations are somewhat of a scam in my opinion. They have prize drawings for what you think are real prizes. Everyone wins the drawing of course. The prize is 30-40-50% off a real cultured pearl. The mark, er, customer then personally selects an oyster from a plastic containers that is shaped like an oyster shell using wooden tong. The clerk, with lots of anticipatory sounds and words, sacrifices the poor oyster and lo and behold it contains a pearl or, worse, two of them. The pearl usually costs, after that big discount you 'won', about $5? What can the customer do with a genuine pearl that was in that oyster they had 'luckily' picked from the slimy pile in the bowl? Put it in a nice gold or silver setting!!! Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your outlook, they just happened to have some settings available for you. All kinds of settings, which the discount does not apply to. These settings seemed a bit over-priced to me but I am not a jeweler and don't play one on TV. Judge for yourself, before you open that oyster, whether what you are getting is anywhere close to worth it. One woman hit the 'jackpot' and found two pearls in her oysters, got super excited, and bought $500 worth of settings for those pearls while her husband looked on in what looked like disgust to me. I don't know what became of the poor mollusk that had lovingly produced those two pretty pearls.

Off to Hilo Hatties, a Hawaiian tradition, with the top down of course. Hilo Hatties is, to put it mildly, is a first class tourist trap. But you have to and will go there while in Hawaii. Pele will be mad if you don't. Besides they have a lot of nice stuff you can buy to hang in the closet or put on display on the mantel until your next garage sale. I actually enjoyed looking around in it. Hilo Hatties is getting serious competition from everyone's favorite store - Wal-Mart who have set up mini-Hilo Hatties in their Hawaiian stores. If you miss going to Hilo Hatties in Hilo, fear not, there is one or maybe two of them on every island. And in every port there are free shuttles conveniently parked right near ship's gangway as you get off the ship. The cruise line must get a kick-back from Hilo Hatties for directing customers to them. Hilo Hattie sounds like a character from South Pacific, the movie.

Inside Hilo Hatties we met up with our next door neighbors on the ship, Pat and Roy, and since they had just finished up with a ship excursion, we asked them if they wanted to ride around in our rented convertible with us to a couple of places. They couldn't say yes fast enough and so off we went, with the top down of course.

We went over to Rainbow Falls which is supposedly a big time attraction on the Big Island. It was your basic waterfall, water flowing over a lava ledge. Fairly high. Nice and semi-impressive. It is in a state park. There were a lot of teenagers hanging out in the parking lot for some reason. I got somewhat uncomfortable with the parking lot ambiance so we took some pictures and quickly moved on to Akaka Falls, with the top down.

There are two main roads on Hawaii Route 11 and Route 19 and the rental car shuttle bus driver said that if got lost, write down how we did it and give it to him because we would be the first people to do so. All the islands in Hawaii are pretty small actually. The total land mass makes it the 48th largest state. If you count ocean then it might be the largest. We drove through beautiful downtown Hilo. Hilo had been hit by two tsunamis in the past and the town now sits well back from the ocean. There is a Tsunami Museum in Hilo, but it is closed on Sunday too so we went out Route 19, looking for Akaka Falls State Park.

Route 19 is pretty cool. Ocean views, farms, and rain forest. We saw a sign for a scenic route and went down it. I love scenic routes. (The Apache Trail in Arizona is the scenic route to end all scenic routes.) The road less traveled narrowed up on us pretty fast, but it was definitely scenic. We came to one of those quintessential scenic viewpoints that had it all, Onomea Bay: height, ocean waves pounding on the rocks, beautiful non-native vegetation, blue water, clear skies, clean air, and lots of tourists sharing it all with us. It was beautiful, to tell the truth, which we always do unless talking about ducking and running from sniper fire, which we seem do in Bosnia every time we go there.

We passed, on the scenic route, the Hawaiian Tropical Botanical Gardens, another tourist must-see. We did not have the time to stop. Thanks again Captain Smit. We might have stopped since we like botanical gardens.

Finding our way back to Route 19 was interesting since there weren't any signs saying "Route 19 this way, Fool" for quite a ways. We found one finally and got back on Route 19. We also found the turn off to Akaka Falls.

Akaka Falls is one of the premier water falls on the island of Hawaii. It has it all - height, water, and surrounding beautiful trees and plants and it is so far out in the country high school kids do not go there. It is what Missourians call a 'good piece' up the mountain to the falls. We were now really pressed for time, thanks to Captain Smit, and almost turned around until we saw what looked like the park in the distance. I think all the land in this area was used to grow sugar cane at one time. That industry has been shut down for reasons I do not know and the land looked fallow to me. We could see patches of wild sugar cane growing along the road. All the sugar cane workers are now probably working in Hilo Hatties, selling Hawaiian shirts and cheap leis.

We got to the park, scoped out the long trail from the parking lot to the falls and decided we had better not take the hike and risk missing getting back on the ship. We snapped some pictures of the falls, which we could barely see through the trees and left. When we pulled up a mongoose came over to see if we had any rats with us. We didn't. Mongooses are an invasive species in Hawaii that have caused untold havoc on wildlife there. They kill birds and eat bird and turtle eggs. They were suppose to eat rats but don't.

So we headed back to the ship, with the top down. On the way down the mountain, we stopped in a little store that sold homemade pastries and ice cream. Since I had had pastries and lots of ice cream every day for the past 4 days at sea I passed on getting any. Roy, our happy passenger, loaded up with about $10 bucks worth of pastries for some reason. The pastries really looked good but not that good in my opinion (we spent 3 weeks in pastry heaven - France - last year).

This side of the Big Island was nice and interesting, but not a place I would want to spend time and treasure returning to. We will stop in Kona in a few days. It is on the opposite side of the Big Island. You can get to Kona from Hilo by taking Route 11, past the Volcanoes National Park, hopefully with the top down.

If you really like to explore the places you visit, one thing about cruising that is not good: you do not have time, even if the Captain does his job, to hike some trails or bike the roads or even walk around downtown meeting people, smelling things, and savoring the colors and textures of a new place. Getting out of the car and off the excursion buses and using the feet and legs God gave you is the best way to get away from being just another camera-toting tourist and being an adventurer. Getting off the ship takes time. Getting a car and taking it back take time. Fooling around in tourist traps like Hilo Hatties takes time. Eating takes time. It would have been great to use that time instead to hike Kilauea Iki crater or up to Akaka Falls. We could have used a good 10 hours in the Hilo area. We got around 6.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park - 3/9/03

We left the car rental location and turned south on Hawaiian state route 11 or Hawaii Belt Road and drove 30 miles to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It costs $10 per vehicle to get into the park. We used our Golden Eagle Pass to get in free. Right down the road from the entrance is the Visitor's Center. We stopped there to get maps and information. They, of course, had a gift shop where we got some post cards. We waited for the informational movie about Hawaiian volcanoes to start and eventually watched it.

It didn't hit me that we were standing on an active volcano (duh, the whole island is part of an active volcano) until we drove 2.5 miles to the Jaggar Museum and stood on the overlook looking into the mammoth Kilauea Crater. This thing could blow at any second and we would even know what hit us. Fortunately for us, Kilauea, although active, has not been an explosive volcano in the past. That is not entirely true because just a week after we were there a vent exploded, throwing some good sized pieces of material into the air. That would have been awesome to see although it would have been about as scary as encountering a herd of velociraptors (frightenly common on Hawaii) coming down a trail towards us elsewhere on the Big Island.

While we were there we could see only a bunch of vents spewing out gases, enough gases to cause the park service to close Crater Rim Drive which circles the crater. Because of the danger from toxic gases crossing the road we could not go beyond the Jaggar Museum. There are National Park websites, like this one, dedicated to the dangers in Volcanoes National Park and it would be wise to visit them to be aware of what you might, but probably won't, encounter. The Visitor's Center, of course, has notices up about potentially dangerous situations. The rangers in the center were very friendly and helpful as they are throughout the National Park system.

Kilauea has been peacefully and continuously erupting since 1983 actually. Deep down Pele, the Goddess of Fire, is probably jealous of the Goddess-in-Charge of Mount St Helens in Oregon, which put on a big show in 1980. Be careful about picking up volcanic rocks while in Hawaii and taking them home. You do not want to take a chance on angering Pele, lots of people have. Having a scientific bent I picked up a nice volcanic rock from a beach on Oahu to test the theory.

We didn't go to the Volcano House. Instead we went down the road to the Jaggar Museum, bypassing some steam vents. Since we have seen plenty, too many actually, of steam vents in Yellowstone we didn't feel the need to see another one. The Jaggar Museum is great. The overlook is its main attraction. If you aren't impressed by the sight of Kilauea Crater you need to go back to the mainland and load up on Leave It to Beaver videos. It is a jaw-dropping awesome sight. To me, it was much like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. For some reason I told myself I needed to zoom in on a particular vent and snap a picture of it. It turns out to be the one that exploded a week after we were there. The Jaggar museum is worth visiting. The seismographs are there, churning out, minute by minute, how the mountain is feeling at the moment. Something was going on seismically according to one instrument which was covered in solid blue ink. Little did we really know. To me it was ominous in a way, looking at all that activity being recorded in blue ink on that drum.

After touring the museum we went back down Crater Rim Drive and stopped at an overlook for a different view. At the overlook was what I thought was an offering to Pele. The crater's floor was a sea of molten lava at one time. We could see a couple of beautiful white Koa'e kea flying way below us.

We went past the Visitor's Center and turned right down the road to the Thurston Lava Tubes. There is another interesting overlook and trailhead at the Kilauea Iki crater. We stopped there and could see hikers way below us, crossing the crater. The Thurston Lava Tubes is accessible two ways so don't let the sight of all those stairs intimidate you if you can't get around very well. Just turn left inside of right and follow the path to the rear entrance. There are lava tubes throughout Hawaii. Going through Thurston Lava Tube is a good way to become familiar with them. A side benefit of stopping here is seeing a good example of a Hawaiian rain forest up close when you take the trail out of the tube.

From here we went back down Route 11, with the top down of course.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Hilo Hawaii - 3/9/08 - 2,187 miles

The Zaandam sailed into Hilo's harbor at about 8:00am after the long trip from San Diego. Hilo is on what is called the Big Island because the island of Hawaii is in the state of Hawaii and it is confusing somewhat to just say Hawaii because without context it can be unclear about which one is being talked about. We docked at 8:41 am, 41 minutes behind schedule. Boo, Captain Smit.

We were excited. The first port on a cruise always is the most interesting one to me. New places, people, smells, shopping, attractions, and floral and fauna are really interesting after being cooped on a ship, even one as nice as the Zaandam is.

Seven and I delight in being Team Number 1 (from one of Seven's favorite reality shows The Amazing Race) and being the first one off the ship when we first get to port. We weren't Team #1 but we were the first in the Thrifty Rental Car shuttle. I reserved the car through Priceline at a decent rate of $ 39 including taxes and fees. If you wait until you get to Hawaii they might be out of cars or gouge, yes, Virginia, car rental companies do gouge their customers, the living daylights out of you. The car rental shuttles meet the cruise boats and are easy to locate. Tip: sit near the door so you can be the first one off the shuttle because the lines at the car rental counter can get long.

We chose a car because ship shore excursions started at $55 each and usually only went to one place. The shore excursion to Hawaii Volcanos National Park cost $94 each and included lunch buffet which we really needed after four days of non-stop eating on the ship. We like the freedom to go wherever and whenever we want. We miss the tour guide's commentary but we can make up for that somewhat with diligent research. And we love adventure, controlled, planned adventure.

In planning our own shore excursions, I first use the ship's own list of shore excursions to get a list of attractions we might want to see. Then I do a basic prioritization of these attractions. I follow that with google searches on each attraction then complete an itinerary based on that research. Finally, I plug it all into a Google Map and see if it is physically doable and make a map of where we will go and what we will see.

Sometimes in doing the research you get lucky and found out that someone has done it all for you. A good Big Island guide is found at Let's Go Hawaii Travel Planner. There are lots and lots of web pages devoted to Hawaii and you can find almost anything that interests you. Half the fun of traveling is planning. It is exciting to look at pictures, say, of the Kilauea crater and think, "man, I will be standing there in xx number of weeks looking at this baby". Mental drooling is what I call what I go through when researching.

We got a big surprise at the rental location. No, they didn't lose our reservations. After a cheerful 'Aloha', I casually and politely asked the pretty older lady behind the counter if they had any free upgrades available and the lady smiled slightly, punched a few keys on her terminal, and printed out my papers without saying a word other than a pleasant mahalo. I didn't look at the papers and we went to the pick up point and there sat a shiny white Chrysler Sebring convertible!!! I almost ran back to the counter and hugged her. Mahalo, mahalo, baby!!! It took us a bit to learn how to put the top down but we were soon on our way with fresh Hawaiian vog blowing through our hair or, in my case, across my scalp where there was once hair. We felt like teenagers again.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

At sea in Pacific Ocean near Hawaii - 3/8/08

Tomorrow we will dock in Hilo, Hawaii. Hilo is on what is called the Big Island. The rest of the islands are small you see so this one is the big one. Makes sense. Tonight I saw a bird, a seagull, which means, according to ancient seafarers, that we are approaching land. We have been at sea for 4 days now. The seas have been calm for the most part. It is hard to tell sometimes because of the fins that are automatically extended when sensors detect a rolling wave motion. The water is incredibly blue almost like it has been colored like they color swamp water at Disney World.

After 4 days of experience on the Zaandam I can comment a little more authoratively about the food and service. The dining room service has not really improved. It looks like they have understaffed the ship in the dining areas. The food offered in the main dining room and the buffet does not really compare to the quality and variety offered on Oceania's Regatta. The buffet seems to be confused. The way the food is laid out and presented takes some getting used to. The same desserts appear night after night. Beef is always offered rare (raw) and you have to request that it be flopped on the grill to be cooked. I have given up on the daily lunch selections and have a hamburger from the grill next to the pool. The burgers are good and there are plenty of the proper toppings available.

I attended a lecture today that was advertised as hints and tips for shopping in Hawaii. It was nothing more than an hour long advertisement for stores that have a financial arrangements with Holland America and for unsold shore excursions. The presenter bribed the attendees into staying for the farce by giving away cheap gifts like carnival pitchmen do. Very disappointing. His idea for seeing the sights of Hawaii was to spend all your time in tourist traps like Hilo Hatties, spending money on trinkets and tee shirts. He told us to take unapproved shuttles at our own risk putting the fear of not getting back the ship on time in the minds of his audience. These, I assume, shuttles would take us to shops that are not Holland American partners.

The presentations by Olga Stravrakis on the other hand have been outstanding. Her lectures on Hawaiian history, geology, and geography have been entertaining and informative. I have learned a lot about the people and the history of Hawaii from these lectures.

The shipboard entertainment has been pretty good. A couple of decent comedians, a magician, and the young shipboard singers and dancers. The lead female singer is horrible in my opinion. She had an annoying singing style that ruined every song she sang. The dancers were very good, especially considering the size of the stage. I skipped tonight's performance because I have had enough of the female lead singer.

I played in the Table Tennis preliminaries. I won. Big deal. The matches were to 5 points and no warmup was allowed. Rules? What rules?

Seven played in a blackjack tournament. Another big deal. 7 hands. The winners after 7 hands at each table played a showdown round consisting of another 7 hands. All this wild action for a $20 entry fee. Another gambling note: there is a poker table. The rake? An incredible greedy 10%. I love playing poker and am tempted to play with what is probably a rich mix of players who do not have a clue of how to play and are dying to give me all their money. But I won't play against a 10% rake no matter how tempting.

The ship has an unwanted passenger on board. An intestinal virus. There are hand lotion disinfecting stations everywhere. The buffet personnel require that you treat your hands before letting you get in line. I am pretty careful about washing my hands and not handling door handles and the like so watching everyone disinfecting their hands made me happy. The table tennis director even wiped down the balls and paddles after each contest. Despite all this, I heard that one woman is seriously ill with stomach flu. She has been isolated in her cabin.

We went to what was touted as Game Show night in the lounge. The contestants were chosen by random drawing and Seven was chosen to play. The trivia questions were about TV shows. An 8 year old was chosen and one of staff whispered enough answers in his ear that he won. Seven got two answers right. One of the contestants got her answers from her friends and family in the audience. So it was totally ridiculous and not enjoyable at all.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Aboard the Zaandam - 3/4/08 - 3/8/08

With boarding 1300+ people boarding a cruise boat can be a mess. The cruise lines have done it so many times that they have learned how to process people efficiently. I dropped Seven at the cruise terminal at 11:30am then took our car to a parking lot a couple of miles away. The parking lot's shuttle brought me back to the terminal. Seven had already been processed and was waiting for me at the check out counter so I got through quickly. We got our ID cards that is used for everything on the ship from a room key to a debit card. We had to certify that we are germ free.

One of the few hitches in the boarding procedure is that our rooms were not going to be ready until 1:30pm and our luggage would not be taken to the cabin until later. So, to kill some time, we had lunch with a nice couple from Las Vegas who were on about their 10th cruise with Holland America. It seems that once people who like to cruise find a cruise line they like they use it almost exclusively. We had a lot to talk about and the hour or so we had to wait for our cabin passed very quickly. One of the best part of cruising is the people you meet.

The Zaandam is a beautiful ship. Since we had been on Oceania's Regatta we can compare the two since they serve similar markets. The big difference to me almost immediately was the level of service. On the Regatta the service was remarkably well done. Impeccable and immediate. On the Zaandam there have been noticeable and annoying lapses. It seems that they are somewhat shorthanded, particularly in the dining area, so things do not get done. Being run-of-the-mill people Seven and I do not have high expectations when it comes to service but being on a ship like the Regatta spoils you. For example, we finished our meal on the Lido Deck while waiting for our cabins and our dishes were never picked up. In the main dining room, the Rotterdam Dining Room, our waiter had 3-4 lapses. He was working hard and seem to be stretched thin. During another visit to the main dining room, we had to ask for coffee and water. On a ship like this the service should exceed what is found at a Denny's. The food was fine. One of our dinner mates had several complaints about his. The desert was served in a dish too small for the serving and was difficult to eat without spilling the contents. Small items I know, but we are paying for and expecting service that we are not getting.

The activities are varied and interesting, but one thing that we have noticed that a lot of the classes and lectures are just opportunties for HA to sell us something. We participate in just about every activity or contest from trivia to putting. There are more things to do than we have time for. We attend just about every presentation or lecture offered. They are very good. Since we are going to Hawaii there have been daily lectures about, so far, the geology, geography, history and the people of Hawaii. The lecturer is one of those people who is a natural story teller that weaves personal information about his Hawaiian family into the topic he is presenting. I have learned a lot. Things we have done include duplicate bridge, afternoon and morning trivia contests, putting contest, poker lessons (like we need them), 5 different lectures, food preparation demonstrations, workouts, swimming, hot tub, and read. We plan to do ball room dancing lessons, line dancing lessons, ping pong competition, 5K walk for breast cancer awareness, more food demonstrations, etc.

It is easy to find small things we can complain about but over all the ship is beautiful and clean and the crew friendly and helpful.

The gym is very well equipped and I have used it twice. Both times there were several treadmills out of order. I like to walk the treadmill and do free weights and got in two very good work outs so far. The food input levels on cruises encourages hard workouts. We also try to walk the stairs and since we are on the second deck we do a lot of stair climbing.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

San Diego CA Cruise Terminal - 3/4/08

We had hoped to tour the Marine Corps Recruit Depot but we got into San Diego a tad late and would have probably spent an hour letting them go through all of our luggage before letting us into the base. And we wanted to get on board the ship. I dropped Seven at the dock with our luggage and headed out for the San Diego Airport Parking facility just off Pacific Coast Highway a few miles from the cruise terminal. It was going to cost us $96.50 to park there for the time we were gone. SDAP had a shuttle to take me back to the terminal.

Seven had gotten her credentials to get on the ship and was waiting for me at the head of the long line. A few minutes later we were on the ship and ready to start our adventure. The Marine Corps Recruit Depot tour would have to wait.

Once on board we were told our cabin would not be ready until 2pm so we had a great, leisurely lunch on the Lido Deck with some nice people. The ship arrived at 8 am and unloaded one set of passengers in the early morning and then picks up the new passengers in the late morning and afternoon and set sail at 4:52pm. From 8 am to 4:30 pm the ship loads up fuel and enough provisions for the entire cruise.

After finding our cabin and unloading our carry-on luggage we toured the ship. The ship is in excellent condition and very clean. At 4:15 pm we participated in the mandatory life boat drill.

We pulled out of San Diego harbor and literally sailed into the sunset. The seas were calm and the skies clear. A great way to start a cruise.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Sun City West - Yuma - San Diego - Hawaii - Oceanside - 3/3/08 - 3/21/08

Seven is going to get her trip to Hawaii. We embark Holland America's Zaandam in San Diego for a 15 day cruise to the Hawaiian Islands and Ensenada, Mexico. We will stop in Hilo, Kailau-Kona, Honolulu, and Kahaina in Hawaii. We have planned so far a snorkeling adventure and a whale watching trip. We will, of course, take in the attractions in the Pearl Harbor area and Volcanoes National Park. We are renting a car in Hilo and Honolulu and relying on public transportation in Kona and Kahaina. It should be a blast.

On the way to San Diego we are stopping in Yuma to visit friends we made in Colorado last summer while work camping at Redstone Camp Ground south of Carbondale. They are from Kansas so we will be watching the Jayhawk - Texas Tech game on 3/3/08 with them. Rock Chalk Jayhawk!!!!!

In San Diego we will try to work in a tour of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (known as Hollywood when I suffered through the Marine boot camp at Parris Island 46 years ago) so Seven can get a idea of what poor little old me went through a long time ago on another planet.

When we get back from the cruise we hope to go to Sea World and the famous San Diego Zoo. Finally, we are going to a special place - Canine Companions for Independence in Oceanside,CA where they train companion dogs.

"Never miss a chance to share laughs with those you love. Life will give you enough time to share tears." Trixie Koontz, dog

To make a donation in memory of Trixie Koontz, retired CCI Service Dog and beloved 'angel' of Dean and Gerda Koontz.

We met Trixie at a Dean Koontz book signing in Tustin, CA five or six years ago. We didn't get her pawgraph but we could tell she was really special dog. A memorial to Trixie by Dean Koontz.