Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Oceania’s Nautica: Our Middle East Magic Carpet Ride

This wasn’t a strange place;
it was a new one.
         --- Paolo Coelho
Coelho’s saying so perfectly describes so many of the places we experienced as we traveled from the Far East through the Middle East aboard Oceania’s Nautica this spring. Our 34-day cruise took us across bodies of water to lands we’d been introduced to through books and movies; many places we never thought we’d see for ourselves in this life time.

Oceania's Nautica anchored in the Andaman Sea
It was such a rapid-fire array of sensory overloads that we are still wrapping our heads around it all. We sailed through pirated waters, drove through roadless desert sands, skirted war zones, and explored developing countries and areas that occasionally required escorts/armed guards. History, religion, tales of conflicts (old and new), customs, and cuisines mixed and mingled into an intoxicating potpourri of experiences.
“Dear Guests,. . .We are excited to share these interesting and unique ports with you but we would like to make sure that we set your expectations correctly at the outset in order to avoid any disappointment. 
Many of these ports that we will be visiting are ports that are not on the usual traveler’s route. The are for the most part developing nations that are making great strides forward with with varying degrees of success.”
                   --excerpt from welcome letter from the tour desk staff
Our cruise itinerary wasn’t for everybody as evidenced by the number of passengers.  There were less than 500 on this ship that accommodates nearly 700 passengers. But those who were on board were there for the same reason we were: to experience places we’d always wanted to visit.

Our Magic Carpet Ride
We were all eager to participate in the land tours – even those that came with security warnings and procedures. Like many, we alternated our shore experiences between ship’s tours and those we’d arranged on our own.  Several small group tours (for far less cost than the ship tours) had been arranged by cruisers who’d met and conversed months before the departure using CruiseCritic.com, which provides a forum base.

Tour buses await ship passengers in Safaga, Egypt
In many ports individuals set off on their own – sometimes for an overnight (or longer) stay. The couple below shared a tuk-tuk, those little open-air taxis, from the ship into Phuket, Thailand with us and in Cochin, India we each rented our own driver/tuk-tuk for the day. Some passengers left the ship in Cochin, India and met back up with us in Mumbai a few days later after they had visited the Taj Mahal.  Oceania was great in accommodating flexible travel plans.

PicMonkey Collage
Tuk-tuk on-your-own touring was our favorite
So this week we are introducing you to that floating Magic Carpet of ours. In subsequent posts we will show you the lands we visited and the people we met. I know a number of you are still wanting updates from our after-cruise stay at The Stone House on the Hill in Greece, so I am going to increase the number of posts for a few weeks from one- to at least two- so that I can answer all your requests for photos and updates. (Subscribers, please bear with me – I promise I won’t overfill you inboxes).

To start the journey, come – hop on our ‘Magic Carpet’. We were calling it ‘home’ after a couple of weeks:
Nautica, built 2000; underwent multi-million dollar renovation 2014
Lobby stairway
Guest decks: 9; Total decks: 11
Public spaces were small but elegant
Length: 593.7 feet; Beam 83.5 feet. Cruising speed 18 knots
One small pool no games or gimmicks - our kind of cruise ship
Guest capacity 684 persons (double occupancy); Staff 400
On occasion special events were held around the pool
Eating venues: The Grand Dining Room, two specialty restaurants (Polo Grill and Toscana), informal Terrace Café; Waves Grill, Afternoon Tea, Baristas, Room Service
PicMonkey Collage
Food was some of the best we've had on a cruise line
Oceania provided soft drinks and water for free (many cruise lines don’t); specialty coffee drinks were also free of charge as was dining in the specialty restaurants (many cruise lines charge extra for the coffees and charge extra for the specialty restaurants). Our cruise package included free unlimited internet for one person (a $22 – $28 per day value) which emphasizes the importance of the cruise package – not just the ticket price.

'The Scout' Scouting from our deck
We prefer cabins with balconies. In addition to the extra space it seems a shame not to experience the sunny climates when cruising through them. Although I must admit we often couldn’t use our deck because it was simply too hot.We’ve never experienced heat like that of Singapore, India and the Middle East where both temperature and humidity were often in the double-digit high 90’s!

We’ll set sail from Bangkok in our next cruise post. Hope you’ll be aboard with us. Welcome to our new subscribers who joined us in June! And thanks to all of you for your time. Happy travels~

Linking up this week with~

Travel Photo Thursday – Budget Traveler’s Sandbox 
Our World Tuesday
Travel Inspiration – Reflections En Route
Mosaic Monday – Lavender Cottage Gardening

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Greece: “Dance? Did you say, ‘dance’?”

“Dance? Did you say, ‘dance’?”
-- Zorba asked his boss in the closing scene of the 1964 movie, “Zorba, The Greek”
“Dance? Did you say, ‘dance’?”
We asked our friends who suggested we join them at a local taverna two weekends ago to watch a Greek dance troupe who’d be performing there.  It wasn’t one of those ‘tourist’ performances promoted far and wide. Here, the owner told patrons. Patrons told friends. They told us. That’s the way it works in Greek villages.
One of the benefits of staying in another country for a period of time – whether owning or renting – is that you can begin to immerse yourself in the culture ~ food ~ music ~ the rhythms of life.While we’ve certainly enjoyed the food and drink in Greece, we’d not had the opportunity to enjoy the songs and dances.
But on this particular evening all that was going to change. The sun was just setting, wine was flowing freely from pitcher to glasses, food had been ordered when the music began. . .
PicMonkey Collage

Tah-dah-dah-dah-da. . .The music brought forth the dancers. Step, raise the arms, snap the fingers. . .
Oh, Zorba would have liked this. The audience began clapping in time to the music. 

“OPA!” The dancers called out. “OPA!” the audience shouted back. Napkins twirled.

“Throw your napkins!,” our friends told us (they do that instead of flinging plates, these days).

OPA!! How I loved that word each time I called it out.  It is an expression, a joyous Greek exclamation. It downright makes you happy to yell, “OPA!” (Go ahead, try it a few times.)

PicMonkey Collage

What I didn’t realize at the time, but do now that I’ve researched the word, is that OPA!  is also an invitation to come join the dancing, circle dancing, in fact. An invitation to come join in. . .uh-oh.

The dancers twirled toward our table. . .as if they were coming for us. No, not to us. Not in a crowded restaurant.  Four of the eight at our table were tapped. It was time to throw caution to the wind – to make Zorba proud.

We did our best. We circled. Stepping right. Stepping in. Stepping back.

Move right. Arms up and intertwined. Then clasp hands. Same steps. Arms raised as we moved to the center of the circle. “OPA!” we called out. Dance back. Repeat. Repeat and repeat again.

Our friend takes center 'stage'
We untrained dancers began sweating. Hands were slippery, wet with sweat. Clothes clinging. Still we danced. Our food arrived at our table just as the song was ending. We started to return to our seats. “Another dance, Zorba! You must dance,” said the real dancers.


The sun had set and food was being consumed by our spouses back at the table – but we continued to dance. We twirled. We spinned. We sweat some more. And we laughed, oh, how we laughed. (I think I even heard Zorba laughing.)

And I know you are hoping to see evidence of this Greek dancing debut, but it wasn’t captured by any cameras at our table. (The Scout was barely able to watch the dancing – he certainly didn’t want to record it for posterity.)

So the best I can do is to add the photo of the Dance Troupe plus Two (me and my friend, Sue):


That’s it for this week.  Thanks to the dance group, me.bou.da (Melina’s bouzouki dance) for a most memorable evening and introduction to Greek dance at Kastros Taverna in Kardamyli. You can find them on Facebook at me.bou.da Katakolon or dancing their way through The Mani in the Greek Peloponnese.

Again, a big thanks for the time you’ve spent with us. And a welcome to our new subscribers! Hope you’ll come back soon – we are headed to the hills in Greece and will show you some of the off-the-beaten-path treasures along the way.

Linking this week with:
Travel Photo Thursday – Budget Traveler’s Sandbox 
Our World Tuesday
Travel Inspiration – Reflections En Route
Mosaic Monday – Lavender Cottage Gardening

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Greece: Chasing the Dream ~ Catching a Nightmare?

“What a dream, living in Greece! (But I have to wonder, with all the ‘news in the news’ about the economy are you concerned about the future of your investment/life there?)
This comment was made by a reader of our blog in response to our post about this spring’s stay at The Stone House on the Hill. I suspect that question, or similar ones, have crossed the minds of many of you who’ve been following this adventure of ours in Greece. 
Perhaps it is time I quit writing about chasing daydreams and talk a bit about catching reality. 
For those newcomers to TravelnWrite, we bought a house in Greece last December; less than a month before the country’s election resulted in new leadership and new approach to its debt agreements. It wasn’t long after the election that Greece and its European lenders entered into a boxing match of words – the type of which can send world markets on a roller coaster ride as result of a single remark by either side. The verbal sparring continues nearly six months later.
The Stone House on the Hill
But as one American media recently reminded the world: The ‘day of reckoning’ for Greece is fast approaching. June 30th is the day of reckoning. . .so it seems by the headlines.
Will the two sides work out a solution to the debt repayment that leaves both claiming a win? Or will the talks have a final breakdown? Will Greece leave the European Union? Will it return to the drachma? Will banks Greek banks close for a time? Will currency controls be put into place? (Meaning limits on how much of your money you can withdraw from your bank account, like what happened in Cyprus a few years ago). Do Greece and its lenders have a ‘Plan B’ for carrying on after June 30th – no matter the direction it goes?
So many questions; so few answers. Our guess is as good as yours.
Yet the scope of speculation seems to grow each day. Recently we’ve learned a new acronym: PIGS, (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain). It is used when contemplating the possible domino effect if Greece were to leave the euro-based world. After Greece, those other three could be the next to go. . .and that could produce some rockin’ and rollin’ in the world markets. . .
As much as we love Greece, we are ‘outsiders’ – we see a small slice of its whole as we go about our rather carefree life here in The Mani. We are aware of the vast number of scenarios that could play out because we do follow a number of media reports.
In the meantime, here we are, “The Americans” who own a home in a country that could be on the verge of economic collapse.
We’ve not spent our days fretting about what could happen as we’ve been too busy working on the house and garden. When not working, we are usually spending time with friends – other ex pat types – and then we are too busy sharing tales of our experiences in our adopted country to wring our hands and break out in a sweat over the future.
What we know is that we’ve already booked our return for this fall. We are talking about olive harvest. We know of two sets of friends planning to visit then.
That is not to say we haven’t given thought to ‘the situation’. So while I don’t have any answers for you, I do have some thoughts to share, so come, let’s take a stroll through our olive grove and chat:
* The truth is that had the sale not finalized in December, we would not have purchased our ‘daydream home’ here until later. We’d have taken a wait-and-see approach (and from what we see, we’d likely still be waiting).
* The reason is the uncertainty:  You need to pay in full the price of the home at the time of purchase. In our case, our money was converted to euros and wired from the United States and sat in our Greek bank account for several days before the scheduled closing. With the present uncertainty we wouldn’t have risked our funds having been converted to euros, arriving at the bank, and while sitting there facing the possibility of currency controls being implemented (as described above) or or risked devaluation on the off chance Greece did switch to the drachma during that short window of time.
*You’ve probably read of ex pats and Greek depositors who are withdrawing money from banks in large amounts – thus adding to the economic problems.  I can assure you that we have been among them, leaving only an amount in our account which will cover automatic utility withdrawals while we are not here. But unlike those who’ve moved their funds out of the country, we’ve spent ours here on purchases and improvements to the house.
* We didn’t ‘bet the farm’ on this purchase. If forced to walk away from this investment, you wouldn’t find us singing for donations on a street corner at Seattle’s Pike Place Market (or counting on this blog for income).
* In reality, if we weren’t following the economic reports in the world media about Greece, we’d never know that anything was amiss based on the amount of tourists who are filling the villages around us.That street in our Agios Nikolaos village (Wine and Watching) I showed you two weeks ago has been made a one-way street during the day and closes completely each evening – after that big bus I photographed lumbers through on its last trip of the day– so that cafes can fill the street with tables to accommodate the many tourists.
* On the flip side, Greek media is reporting that privately-owned tourist rentals are down 50 percent this summer because of the economic uncertainty.
* Construction cranes dot The Mani landscape with new home and hotel construction. Whether those building feel their property is safer than other investments or if they are optimistic about economy recovery is difficult to speculate.
* Greeks sipping coffee fill the tables at the hip, modern sidewalk cafes lining the pedestrian plazas in Kalamata. There is no appearance of hardship among them. However, there are a number of old and young who approach with hands outstretched asking for money (this isn’t new, they were doing so last winter).
*We’ve watched a soccer field here get a new surface and a basketball court be added. Yet,we are told that children have passed out at schools in the area because of hunger and that some families are leaving their children at churches in Athens as they are no longer able to feed them.
All are slice-of-the-pie observations or hearsay – as an old newspaper reporter, I know neither is a reliable source from which to make conclusions about Greece’s economic situation.

I chose our olive grove for this reality post for several reasons. It is a happy place for us; one of our favorite places on the property. It represents the daydream; both chased and caught. And it represents permanence – some of the trees are nearly a century old. They were here long before the house and us, The Americans. The olive tree endures through the centuries – much like we suspect Greece has and will.


You just can’t predict the future. And that’s one reason we chased the daydream.  That plane that shuttles us between Seattle and Greece could go down. . .One of us could have a health crisis that would cut this adventure short. . .Greece could leave the European Union. . .Oh so many things out there in the uncertain future. . . It is simply another good reason to enjoy today!

“Every man has his folly, but the greatest folly of all … is not to have one.”
Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek
That’s it for this week from The Stone House on the Hill.  Thanks for being with us and the interest you’ve shown in our adventure here. I know a number of ex pat and Greek friends read TravelnWrite so I am hoping they will share their thoughts and observations in the comment section below (on the blog’s homepage for you who subscribe and receive just the post).
Our time here is again too soon drawing to a close.  We’ll be heading back to the United States and I promise then I will start writing of our Far and Middle East travels and show you the changes we made to our place in Greece.
A big hello to our new followers and subscribers!  And happy travels to you all. Thanks so much for recommending us to your friends and for sharing our posts with others. Can’t tell you how nice it has been to read your comments and emails while we’ve been gone!
Linking this week with:
Travel Photo Thursday – Budget Traveler’s Sandbox 
Our World Tuesday
Travel Inspiration – Reflections En Route

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Here Comes the Bride, Wedding Guests . . . and Tourists

Just like kittens, wine glasses and sunsets, I can’t pass up a good wedding photo. Can you? It doesn’t even have to be anyone I know, as evidenced by this post. And I am seldom alone in my efforts –  other tourists seem to be as taken with the scene unfolding before them as I am.

I should have this shutter-finger reaction because I am a romantic and love weddings. But I don't. We simply enjoy watching the drama surrounding those perfectly posed wedding photos. Those images that will lock the day’s events into picture-perfect history.

Destination weddings have become big ticket tourism in the United States.  Gone are the days of the traditional church wedding with the couple jetting off alone for a honeymoon destination – nowadays the wedding, the guests and honeymoon merge into one far-away affair.

PicMonkey Collage
Undeveloped lagoon at KoOlina; the alter for a wedding in the photo on the right

Hawaii is one of the destination that attracts thousands to its sandy shores for the all-inclusive wedding and honeymoon events. A research manager for the Hawaii Tourism Authority, quoted in an on-line news article, reported that 27,000 Japanese couples married in Hawaii in 2010.


That’s not surprising based on what we’ve seen there recently. At KoOlina, the resort on O’ahu’s west coast where we spend several weeks each winter, there’s a steady stream of limousines bringing wedding parties to the small wedding chapels strategically located throughout the development. Each chapel just footsteps from one of the four lagoons that are on the property. Often times the wedding photos include backdrops of semi-naked sun-basking tourists like the one below. It was taken front of the wedding chapel located next to Disney’s Aulani Resort (that high rise building in the background is the former JW Marriott Ihilani, soon to be Four Seasons).
KoOlina Wedding
Depending on number of guests and amenities (like bridal bouquets, chairs for guests and photographers) the prices quoted on the KoOlina Weddings web site range from $5,600 to $9,000.  Not bad when compared to the average cost of a wedding alone in the United States being somewhere in the range of $28,000 to $30,000 (depending on the source of your statistics).
Oahunorthshore2013 004
KoOlina wedding
We’ve been spotting destination (and a few local) weddings almost everywhere we’ve been in recent years. Like our cruise ship stop in Catania, Italy where the wedding party dog stole the show from the bride and groom:

PicMonkey Collage
In Greece we happened upon weddings in small villages as well as the big city.

View of Kardamyli's Historic old town - Peloponnese, Greece
From our hotel room in Kardamyli a small town in the Mani region of the Peloponnese peninsula of Greece we overlooked the old town section with its newly renovated tower.  One day while admiring the view we couldn’t help but notice a flurry of activity among the historic buildings.  A closer look, showed us what was happening: wedding photos.

Kardamyli, Greece
During a stop in Athens, we  headed to the Acropolis – one of our favorite strolling places in town.

Athen's Acropolis
As we strolled its perimeter and approached the nearby Areopagus or Mars Hill, we noticed far more tourists clamoring on it than we’d seen on earlier visits.

Areopagus is the hill from which St. Paul preached about the identify of the “Unknown God” to the Athenians in 52 A.C; a time Athens was occupied by the Romans. It is named for Ares, the god of war, (known to the Romans as Mars). Ares, as the story goes, was tried on this marble hill for the murder of Poseidon’s son who had violated his daughter.

Areopagus, or Mars Hill, Athens, Greece
Zooming in on the beehive of activity, I realized we were witnessing yet another ‘destination wedding’ photo shoot – this one a stumbling, bumbling affair as groomsmen swayed back and forth trying to get a foothold on the uneven surface. Several times they rescued the bride and her dress as they jockeyed for a position in front of the camera and out of the way of other tourists.

Ooops, almost. . .

Not quite ready for that photographer (hidden behind the bush to the left) to snap some photos. . .


No, not yet. . .enough! We couldn’t watch anymore. We continued our stroll.

As interesting as it sounds, I don’t think we could have done a destination wedding, way back when we married. How about you? Destination wedding? If so, where was it? Or where would it be?

That’s it for today from us.  We’re still busy with projects at The Stone House on the Hill and will tell you more about it and our cruise in future posts. But with June being the 'wedding month' I thought I'd share some of these wedding moments with you. Thanks for your time and welcome to all of our new followers!! Happy Travels to you.

This week if the internet gods are with us, we are linking up with:
Travel Photo Thursday – Budget Traveler’s Sandbox  
Our World Tuesday
Travel Inspiration – Reflections En Route
Mosaic Monday – Lavender Cottage Gardening

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Bit of Wine and Watching in the Afternoon in the Village

We’ve been a bit preoccupied with ‘house things’ since arriving in our part of Greece’s Mani two weeks ago today. 

Inside and outside - projects. 
Errands and deliveries.
Repairmen and installers.

Yes, turning that daydream of ours into what we envisioned for The Stone House on the Hill required some focus. But we’ve seen the proverbial  ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ and are slowing our pace on projects.

IMG_20141224_045608_653 For a treat every so often after chores are done, we’ve headed to our village, Agios Nikolaos (St. Nicholas) to join the cafe culture ritual of ‘watching’.

‘Watching’ isn’t limited to people, but includes cars, buses, bikes and the like. What ever passes by is fair game for ‘watching’.

(That is ‘Ag. Nik’ in the distance - 4k away – our closer village, Ag. Dimitrios doesn’t have a cafe or taverna.

In our case, we sip a bit of wine as after all it is usually 6 p.m. or later – the time of day we consider evening, but considered by locals to be afternoon. The sun doesn’t set until about 8:45.

Main Street in Agios Nikolaos

I wanted to have you join us on one of these outings. So I picked an afternoon/evening at our newest bistro in town, Bistrot Rock Cafe. Run by a lady named Ellie (who runs a restaurant, Ellie’s, two doors down) it offers inside seating but we prefer outside seating on either side of the main road that runs along the water’s edge. A perfect spot for watching:

Settled in for 'watching'

We order our wine here by the pitcher, a miso kilo of krasi to be exact, or a half liter of wine. These are our some of our favorite Greek wines – served from a barrel or, these days, a cardboard box – and they usually cost no more than 4 euros.

Bus from Kalamata

We instinctively pull our feet back as the bus from Kalamata eases past us on the southbound run at 7:10. And if we are still there, pull back again as he returns heading north to Kalamata a half hour later.

Bus stop in Ag. Nik

The bus stop is right across the street from where we are sitting and is marked by the KTEA blue sign right under the word Gregg’s on the cafe canopy. We watch arrivals and departures.

We watch the 'watchers'

From our spot we can also watch the town locals gather in those blue chairs right at the edge of the port so that they can watch the fishermen prepare their boats and set out for a night of fishing. (In the morning, they sit in those same places and watch as the night’s catch is sold.) Now if you look closely, between the third and fourth post from the left you will see our Stone House on the Hill. Okay, so I admit, I often remark, “Can you believe that is OUR house up there?!?!?”

A quick visit
Now some of you might be rolling your eyes and thinking, “How boring could that be?” But it is a great way to get to know schedules, and people, like the little old man who rides his bike to the port every night about 7 and is called “El Capitan” by the locals. We are beginning to recognize the three boys who ‘Drag the Ave’ on this stretch of road; their bike chains clanking as they pedal past time and time again. We watch the motorcycle pull up so that the waitress can hug and kiss the wee ones riding on it (yes, they do stack them on it without helmets; just don’t think about it).

This ritual of ‘watching’ is one of the enchantments of Greece as far as we are concerned. It drew us here. And it will keep us coming back, time and time again.  Glad you could join us! Thanks for the time you spend with us – and happy travels to you and yours! Have you had similar Greek or other European village experiences?

Note: I just learned that it wasn’t our travels that knocked me off Live Writer, it was a system-wide glitch that has just been corrected by the techno whiz kids at Microsoft and Google.  So this is a test run to see if the glitch is gone. Hopefully, I’ll be able to start posting photos from the Far and Middle East ports of call we visited prior to coming here.  Please do come back soon!

Linking up this week with:
Travel Photo Thursday
Weekend Travel Inspirations


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