Un Día en A Coruña, Spain

Admittedly, I had never heard of A Coruña, Spain prior to our visit. Located in the northwest corner of Spain on the Atlantic coast in the region of Galicia, A Coruña is noteworthy as the base from which the Spanish Armada set sail to conquer England in 1588. Even more importantly to me, however, it is the home of another UNESCO World Heritage site, the Tower of Hercules.

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Morning in A Coruña, Spain

We were ready to disembark when our ship docked at 8 am. We took bus #3 to our number one sight, the Tower of Hercules, but unfortunately, found that it didn’t open until 10 am. Instead of waiting until the opening time to climb the 234 steps to the top of the tower, we contented ourselves with a tour of the grounds and the spectacular views from the base of the tower.

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Jim climbing the hill to the Tower of Hercules

The only Roman lighthouse still in existence and the oldest lighthouse in the world, the Tower of Hercules was built by the Romans in the last half of the first century, AD. Originally named Farum Brigantium by the Romans, it has served continuously as a lighthouse since its construction, marking the entrance to La Coruña Harbor. The restoration in 1789 preserved the original Roman structure resulting in its designation in 2009 as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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The Tower of Hercules

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Tower of Hercules

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View from the Tower of Hercules

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View from the Tower of Hercules

The tower is surrounded by a sculpture garden in a green space comprising 116 acres. The Doors of Hercules, on either side of the tower, are among the art pieces in the collection. The bronze doors, sculpted by Francisco Leiro, contain images representing the various myths and legends about the tower.

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The Doors of Hercules, a bronze sculpture by Francisco Leiro

Next to the tower, the Portrait of King Carlos III, by Pablo Serrano Aguilar, struck me as incongruous until I did a little research and learned that he was the monarch who authorized the restoration of the tower. I first thought he looked like an American Revolutionary soldier who wandered into the wrong historical setting.

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Portrait of King Carlos III

Legend has it the Celts, led by Breogán, founded Brigantia and built a tower on this site prior to the Romans. When his son, Ithe, spied Ireland from the top of the tower, he set sail for the island but was killed upon his arrival by locals. When his body was brought back to Brigantia, the family decided to return to Ireland to avenge his death and settled there permanently. (Per sign on-site.) The white granite sculpture, Breogán, by José Cid, commemorates this story.

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Jim, Rick, and Lori next to Breogán

The mosaic, Rosa de Los Vientos, by Javier Correa, pays tribute to the seven Celtic peoples.

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View of mosaic, Rosa de Los Vientos

Finally, the sculpture, Charon, by Ramón Conde, depicts the boatman who ferried the dead to Hades in Greek mythology. Hercules defeated him in a standoff when he faced the challenge to bring the three-headed dog, Cerebus, back from Hades.

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Charon

There was more to see including a Muslim cemetery and we could have spent lots more time at the tower but we wanted to get to the historic quarter and the castle. We set off to walk the 2 kilometers to the old city by way of the new promenade along the water.

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Promenade along the water in A Coruña

We stopped first at San Carlos Garden in the Historic Quarter where Sir John Moore is entombed. He died in the Battle of Coruña where he defeated the French. This peaceful and beautiful park is the perfect resting place for any hero.

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San Carlos Garden

Then by chance, we came upon Santa Maria del Campo Collegiate Church from the 13th century and took a peek inside.

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Santa Maria del Campo Collegiate Church, A Coruña

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Santa Maria del Campo Collegiate Church, A Coruña

Plaza de la Harina, today called Plaza de Azcárraga, was the main square in the old city where grain was sold.

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Plaza de la Harina, aka Plaza de Azcárraga

The Church of Santiago, built in the 12th century, is one of A Coruña’s oldest buildings.

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Church of Santiago

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Church of Santiago, A Coruña

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Santiago, in Church of Santiago

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Street in the old city

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Gate in the old city

The Castle of San Antón was built beginning in the 14th century as a fortress to quarantine soldiers with a disease called “the fire of San Antón.” It later served as a prison for political prisoners as well as common criminals. Today it houses the Archeological and History Museum.

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View of San Antón Castle

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Grounds of San Antón Castle

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San Antón Castle

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Cistern at San Antón Castle

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Borna, a replica, at San Antón Castle

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Museum at San Antón Castle

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Religious and funeral art at San Antón Castle

Following our visit to the Castle of San Antón, we strolled back to the modern, attractive cruise terminal. We enjoyed our first port of call in A Coruña very much with everything conveniently located near the cruise ship terminal or a short bus or tram ride away.  We didn’t take the time to see the beaches, the new city of nearly 250,000, or shopping areas but we saw the historic areas that interested us most.

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Our ship, the ms Rotterdam, at A Coruña cruise port

Based on events from April/May 2016.

 

 

 

Categories: cruise, Europe, History, Travel, Uncategorized, UNESCO | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Setting Sail on the MS Rotterdam

The European adventure that began with Keukenhof and Bruges took us next by train to Rotterdam in the Netherlands to board our ship, the ms Rotterdam, for a 14-day cruise to Spain, Portugal, and Gibraltar.

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Our ship, the ms Rotterdam

My research of ground transportation in these three countries led me to the perfect itinerary on the Holland America Line. As I’ve said before, if you want an introduction to a broad area and to sample places within it, a cruise is more efficient and affordable than arranging your own transportation, lodging, and meals. Then when you find your favorite places within the itinerary, you can always return and immerse yourself for a longer period.

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Setting sail is always exciting and this trip was no exception.

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Setting sail from Rotterdam

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Rotterdam from the ms Rotterdam

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Charming windmill in Rotterdam through a dirty window

We enjoyed scenes of Rotterdam, a city totally rebuilt following WW2, from the ship but when we reached the North Sea, the captain announced we would turn back to deliver a passenger with a medical emergency. Then a short while later, he announced a helicopter would instead evacuate the passenger. This was the first of three medical evacuations that  occurred on this cruise which caused a ship staff person to tell a friend of ours that she had worked on this ship for 10 years and had seen a total of three medical evacuations in all that time. Until now, when her experience doubled within two weeks.

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Rescue helicopter approaching

Following the excitement, we settled in for two days at sea which allowed us plenty of time to explore the ms Rotterdam.

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Jim relaxing in our cabin

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Our cabin

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Our cabin

We usually cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line and this was just our second cruise on the Holland America Line. I choose cruises by a combination of itinerary and price and this one fit both criteria. Both NCL and HAL offer good service; clean, well-maintained ships; high-quality food; and good entertainment. HAL has a bit of an edge, however, with a sofa and bathtub in their standard ocean-view cabins and pay washers and dryers where passengers can do their own laundry. For a two-week cruise, that laundry option is especially important.

The ms Rotterdam, previously the Holland America Line’s flagship, is a beautiful, elegant ship with a capacity of 1400 passengers and 600 staff.

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ms Rotterdam

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Poolside area

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Enclosed pool area with the retractable roof closed

With several sea days on this itinerary, we were able to enjoy the hot tub on the ship. None of us swam in the pool but many of the intrepid Dutch passengers seemed to enjoy it.

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Lori and I ready to visit the hot tub

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Jim, after the hot tub

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The roof retracted on the pool deck

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Art treasures on the ms Rotterdam

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More original ancient art on the ms Rotterdam

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ms Rotterdam

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Casino on the ms Rotterdam

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Entertainment in the theater

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Theater on the ms Rotterdam

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Rick, Lori, and I in the theater

A new offering in our cruise  experience, the ms Rotterdam offered bridge lessons on our days at sea. We were “game” to try it and became regulars in class. Jeff, the instructor, was very helpful and soon became a friend and we enjoyed his company off the ship while on excursions as well.

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Jim, Rick, and Lori practicing our bridge game

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Our instructor, Jeff, assisting our group at bridge

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View from the bow of the ms Rotterdam

We especially enjoyed the cooking demonstrations we attended with recipes provided for such dishes as Classic Spanish Paella, Saffron Shrimp and Stuffed Cherry Peppers, and Portuguese Mini Lemon-Orange Cakes.

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One of several cooking demonstrations we attended

I’ll devote an entire post later to the outstanding food we enjoyed onboard but meanwhile, here are a few scenes from the main dining room.

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Main Dining Room

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Main Dining Room

A favorite special touch aboard the ms Rotterdam was the rug in the elevator which was changed daily. The rug announced the day of the week to us, a helpful aid on a long cruise when you have no responsibilities but enjoyment.

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Day of the week rug in the elevator

After two days at sea, we felt very comfortable with our home away from home on the ms Rotterdam and ready for our first port of call, A Coruña, Spain. Come back next week to read about it.

 

Taken from events in April and May 2016.

 

 

 

 

Categories: cruise, Europe, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , | Leave a comment

A Day in Bruges

With just one full day to spend in Bruges, we had to be selective about what to see. We planned to begin early and see as much as possible in the short time we had.

After an early breakfast, we headed straight to the bell tower. One of the top sights in Bruges, it allows only 70 visitors inside at a time so we arrived well before the 9:30 opening to make sure we were first in line.

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Belfry of Bruges

The bell tower, or belfry, was an important institution in medieval Bruges. The 272 ft (82 m) tower served as a lookout and a means of communication. The bell rang at different times with different tones to tell the people when it was time to go to work, break for lunch, close the city gates at the end of the day, call the men to battle, sound an alarm, or issue important announcements.

We climbed 366 winding, narrow steps to the top to see the clock mechanism, the carillon with 47 bells, and the view.

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Stairwell in the Belfry of Bruges

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Carillon in the Belfry of Bruges]

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Reaching the top

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View of the square from the Belfry

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Bruges from the Belfry

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Bruges

Bruges is called the Venice of the north so our next stop was a canal boat tour. For 8 euros we enjoyed views of Bruges from the canals accompanied by lots of historical information from our gregarious and knowledgeable driver.

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Our captain was friendly and gregarious

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View from the boat

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Church of Our Lady viewed from the canal tour

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Another boat meeting us

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Canal boat tour

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I loved all the swans in the canals

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View from the boat

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Canal boat tour

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Canal boat tour

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View from the water of Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce Hotel where the hitmen in the movie, In Bruges, stayed

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Jim and I on the canal tour

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Yet another swan photo

Belgian chocolates are world-renowned and we wanted to taste some and after tasting, we wanted to take some home. We found a lovely shop, Pralinette, selling exquisite hand-made chocolates where we purchased just what we wanted. I talked with the head chocolatier, Fangio De Baets, who explained to me that the chocolates were hand-made on-site with the best quality Belgian chocolate.

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Jim in front of Pralinette

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Inside Pralinette

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Chocolatier Fangio De Baets

Fortified with chocolate, our next stop was the Church of Our Lady to view Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. Dating from the 13th century, the church has been under restoration for the last several years with a completion date in 2017.  Fortunately for us, the exterior was completed in 2011 and the scaffolding was removed so our view of the outside brickwork was impressive.

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Church of our Lady

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Inside Church of our Lady

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Tombs of Mary of Burgundy and Charles the Bold in the Church of our Lady

Our primary purpose in visiting the Church of Our Lady was to view the sculpture, Madonna and Child. Sculpted from white marble, Michelangelo completed this piece around 1504 and it was his only sculpture to leave Italy during his lifetime. You may recall this sculpture was featured in the movie, The Monuments Men, as one of the art treasures recovered from the Nazis.

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Madonna and Child by Michelangelo

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Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child

Following our visit to the Church of Our Lady, we felt the need for a little refreshment so we stopped at St Janshoeve Restaurant for a waffle, another Belgian specialty, and a coffee.

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Rick, Lori, and Jim relaxing at St Janshoeve

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Waffle and coffee at St Janshoeve

Then it was on to Brouwerij De Halve Maan (Half Moon Brewery). On the brewery tour, they told us there are 1608 Belgian beers made in numerous Belgian breweries but only De Halve Maan Brewery is located in the historic center of Bruges.

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Myself, Jim, Rick, and Lori on the brewery tour at De Halve Maan

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Our tour guide telling us about the beer-making process

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Tour at De Halve Maan Brewery

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View from the roof of De Halve Maan Brewery

A family operation since 1856, today the brewery produces 5 million liters of beer each year. Transporting the increasing volume of beer to the outskirts of town for bottling caused a traffic problem of major proportions on narrow medieval streets. Thirty-six-year-old Xavier Vanneste, the current head of the company, came up with the idea to transport the beer by pipeline beneath the medieval streets of Bruges.We heard about the project which was underway when we visited in April 2016 and I read it was completed in September. You can read more about it from NPR here.

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View of the pipeline under construction at De Halve Maan

At the end of the tour, we enjoyed our complimentary Brugse Zot beer made on-site along with a local cheese.

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Brugse Zot beer and cheese

We didn’t see everything Bruges had to offer but we saw a number of the highlights. With only a day to spend, we felt we made a substantial dent in the sights of Bruges and left enough for a return visit in the future.

 

Based on events from April 2016.

 

 

 

 

Categories: History, Travel, Uncategorized, UNESCO | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

In Bruges at Last

We first visited Belgium in January 2007 with our sons on holiday between college semesters. With an ambitious itinerary, we skipped Bruges and opted for Brussels instead.  Even though we ate mussels in Brussels (and horse), when the movie, In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell, came out in 2008, I knew missing Bruges was a big mistake. So when we booked a cruise to Spain, Portugal, and Gibralter sailing out of Rotterdam, Netherlands in April 2016, I saw an opportunity to correct my error. We decided to go early and make a side trip first to Bruges.

We arrived by train late in the afternoon. As we exited the railway station, we looked around for a taxi and after a short wait, we found a ride to our hotel, Ter Brughe. I discovered this historic hotel dating from the 13th century on the internet and I believed it was perfectly situated within walking distance of all the sights we wanted to see. We were not disappointed.

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Hotel Ter Brughe on the canal

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Lobby at Hotel Ter Brughe

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Breakfast room at Hotel Ter Brughe

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Breakfast with a canal view

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Swans in the canal outside breakfast room

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The bar at Hotel Ter Brughe

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Pre-dinner drinks at Hotel Ter Brughe

Our first priority after settling into our hotel was to locate dinner. We found Restaurant Bistro de Schilder in a nearby square, and while the waiter wasn’t especially engaging, the food was adequate. Lori and I ordered the white asparagus, a new experience for both of us and quite tasty.

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Lori and Rick perusing the menu at Restaurant Bistro de Schilder

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Chicken entree ordered by Rick and Jim

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White asparagus

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Jim and I enjoyed dinner in this charming square in Bruges

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Statue of painter Jan Van Eyck in the square where we ate dinner

This was also our first experience with famous Zot beer, made in Bruges. We toured the brewery the following day but Jim and Rick each enjoyed a preview Zot with dinner, while Lori and I stuck with our usual red wine.

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Zot beer

After dinner, we set off to find the historic central Market Place where we  began our exploration of this unique UNESCO World Heritage site. Bruges (French), or Brugge (Dutch), is a superior example of a well-preserved medieval town. An economic and commercial powerhouse during the middle ages, it retains its Gothic flavor with narrow cobblestone streets and characteristic architecture.

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Narrow street leading to the Market Square

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Central Market Place in Bruges

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Town Hall in Central Market, Bruges

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One of many charming shops in Bruges

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Central Market, Bruges

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Jim in front of the statue of local heroes, Jan Breydal and Pieter de Coninck, in Market Square, Bruges

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View from Market Square, Bruges

The best-known building in Bruges is undoubtedly the bell tower, dating from the 13th century. We enthusiastically planned to climb the 366 steps to the top the following morning for a panoramic view of this historic, captivating medieval town.

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Bell Tower in Market Square, Bruges

Based on events in April 2016.

 

 

Categories: Travel, Uncategorized, UNESCO | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

Taking the Scenic Route to Bruges

After our visit to Keukenhof in Lisse, Netherlands, I wanted to take the scenic route to Bruges, Belgium. A train ride through small towns in the bucolic Dutch countryside filled with tulips and windmills appealed to me enormously. Instead, we took the Keukenhof Express back to Schipol Amsterdam Airport and boarded the train to take the fast route to Bruges.

But first, we spent the night in Lisse at the charming Hotel De Duif .

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Lisse, Netherlands


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Lisse, Netherlands


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Lisse


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Hotel De Duif, Lisse


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Jim in the lobby at Hotel de Duif

After taking a wrong turn and lugging our bags up the stairs not once but three times, we finally located our room and discovered it occupied two floors; the sitting room and kitchen were downstairs with a bedroom above, so we lugged our bags up one more time. Exhausted by this unexpected strength training after an overnight flight and a full day exploring Keukenhof, we wanted nothing more than dinner and bed asap.

We set off on foot to the main square just a couple blocks away to find a restaurant. Notoriously indecisive when it comes to picking restaurants, we chose Restaurant Den Ouden Heere after the usual amount of hesitation. Always a fan of outdoor seating with heaters, we sat outside with a view of the square. Our friendly and helpful waitress advised us that the special for just 9.50 euros would be a tasty choice and we were pleased with her suggestion.

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Restaurant Den Ouden Heere


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Kebab, salad, and potatoes at Restaurant Den Ouden Heere

It was early to bed and early to rise for us. The following morning, we enjoyed a tasty buffet breakfast at the hotel before one final walk back to Keukenhof to catch the bus to Schipol.

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Breakfast room at Hotel De Duif


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Breakfast at Hotel De Duif


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Tulip on our breakfast table


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Bike trail to Keukenhof

We stopped at the bench below for a photo of a bulb field and farm across the road from Keukenhof.

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Scene of the crime

When I clambered onto the bench to get a view above the fence for my photo, a local curmudgeon accused me of having no respect if I would come to their country and stand on the bench. I was embarrassed and apologized profusely while I wiped the spot where I stood on the bench with my hand. Later, however, as Jim and I discussed the event, we decided that outdoor benches are built for sitting, standing, bad weather, bird droppings and a myriad of other events and this fellow was just having a bad day. Every other Dutch person we’ve met has been friendly and hospitable so this experience was unusual, to say the least. It made for a memorable story, however.

We were the only passengers on the double bus back to Schipol and when we arrived, we were astonished to see a huge crowd waiting for the bus’s return trip to Keukenhof. We appreciated the short line to board the bus on the previous day all over again.

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Bus ride from Keukenhof to Schipol Amsterdam Airport


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Line to board the bus to Keukenhof

We easily located the ticket counter in Schipol for the train to Bruges and headed straightaway to our platform. With hardly any wait at all, we boarded our train and sat back to view the countryside.

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Bulb fields from the train


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Bucolic countryside in the Netherlands from the train


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Greenhouses for bulbs in the Dutch countryside

We switched trains at Rotterdam to head to Bruges via Antwerp. We would return to Rotterdam in two days to board our cruise ship so we looked around to familiarize ourselves with this station.

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Platform at Rotterdam

At Antwerp Central Railway Station, amazingly, we encountered our friends, Lori and Rick, who arrived that morning from the U.S. and we had planned to meet that evening at our hotel in Bruges.

We could see why this station is reputed to be one of the most beautiful in Europe and we wholeheartedly agreed. Built at the turn of the 20th century, the glass vaulted ceiling allows light to bathe the stone and marble interior. The overall impression is both historic and majestic. We also felt quite safe with the Belgian military patrolling the station so soon after the March 22nd bombing of the airport in Brussels.

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Antwerp Central Railway Station

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Railway station at Antwerp with Belgian military in the foreground

When I originally checked train connections, I wanted to avoid backtracking to Schipol in Amsterdam and find connections directly from Lisse to Bruges. When I couldn’t make that work, we settled for connections from Schipol to Rotterdam, Antwerp, and finally Bruges with several stops in smaller towns along the way. In the end, surprisingly, our train journey to Bruges turned out to be the scenic route.

Next time: Bruges.

Based on events in April 2016.

 

 

 

 

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A Stroll through Keukenhof

Keukenhof, Dutch for kitchen garden, has a history dating back to the 1400’s when Jacoba van Beieren gathered fruit and vegetables in the area for Teylingen Castle. In 1641, Keukenhof Castle was built and the gardens were re-designed in 1857. Ultimately, the park was established in 1949 as a spring garden, today attracting over 1 million visitors each year to enjoy over 7 million tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, and other spring flowers during the season in March, April, and May.(http://www.keukenhof.nl/en/)

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Schipol Amsterdam Airport

Our flight from the U.S. arrived at Schipol Amsterdam Airport at 9:20 a.m. With our carry-on luggage in hand, we skipped baggage claim and headed straight for customs. After clearing customs, we stopped at an ATM to get euros then asked for directions at the information desk for the bus to Keukenhof. It’s an enormous airport but bus 858, the Keukenhof Express, stops right outside the door and goes directly to and from Keukenhof all day long. We purchased a combi-ticket for 24 euros each which covered round-trip transportation from Schipol in addition to the entrance fee.

Before 10 a.m., the lines were still short. We boarded the bus with our luggage and took the half hour ride to Keukenhof in Lisse where we arrived directly outside the main entrance. We could have stored our luggage at the park but we decided instead to walk the 2 km (1.24 mi) to our hotel and leave our bags there. We hoped for an early check-in after our overnight flight but our room wasn’t ready so we used the restroom near the lobby to freshen up, left our bags at the hotel, and headed back to the park.

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Keukenhof main entrance

As we entered the park, we picked up a map to find our way around the 32 hectares (79 acres) but we really didn’t devise a plan of attack. Instead, we just wandered in wonder at the beauty surrounding us. Staff explained that the season  was a bit delayed and, while there was a chill in the air, the sun was shining and it was truly a perfect spring day to us. We later heard there was a cold snap several days after our visit with hail and snow and the nearby annual Flower Parade was adversely affected.

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Map of Keukenhof

Also immediately inside the main entrance, we found a charming barrel organ playing folk music that set the stage for visitors.

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Jim taking a break on a walkway in Keukenhof

 

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That’s me crouching behind the tulips

 

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One of over 800 varieties of tulips onsite

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The Delft Blue Garden

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Dutch shoes at the Delft Blue Garden

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View of bulb fields from Keukenhof

Eventually, we found our way to the windmill and climbed it to check out the view.

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Windmill at Keukenhof

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View of bulb fields from the windmill at Keukenhof

Next to the windmill, I spied a ticket counter for the whisper boat canal tour of the bulb fields. We wouldn’t have enough time in Lisse to rent bikes or drive the flower route to see the bulb fields so this seemed like a good opportunity. The tickets were around 8 euros each and rather than standing in line until it was our turn, they scheduled our tour at 2:15 so we could explore further and return at the appointed time.

The whisper boat, powered by electricity, glided silently through the canals while we listened to information through headphones. Tulips originated in central Asia and Turkey and first appeared in Holland in the 16th century. Their extreme popularity resulted in a period in Dutch history called tulip mania during which speculation and soaring prices caused what may have been the first economic bubble.  Today the Netherlands are the largest producer of tulips, half of which are exported. Because the canals and the boats were at the same level as the fields, the views weren’t as good as I expected but nevertheless, we thoroughly enjoyed our tour.

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Selfie on the whisper boat at Keukenhof

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Bulb fields from whisper boat

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Bulb fields

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Bulb fields

After our 45-minute boat ride, we were recharged and ready to walk some more.

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Hyacinth

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Jim put his hand by these tulips to show how big they are

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Another selfie

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Such beauty

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Flower mosaic

The bulbs are provided to the park at no charge by the producers and planted by hand each fall in a new design every year. The theme in 2016 was The Golden Age, referring to the period in Dutch history during the 17th century when tulip mania peaked.

These gardens are arguably the most beautiful in the world. And honestly, the fragrance permeating the air captivated me nearly as much as the amazing sights. I wish I could share the scent of hyacinth with you. If you visit the Netherlands in springtime, a stroll through Keukenhof is not to be missed.

 

Based on events in April 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Siesta Key and Beyond

At the end of my four-day solo travel experiment, my long-time friend Gail joined me on Siesta Key. The slow pace quickened immediately to a flurry of activity. Morning walks, paddleboarding, dinner at different restaurants each night, boating, visits with various friends in the area, and a trip to urgent care for Gail’s bronchial infection interrupted our number 1 priority, beach time. Here are the highlights.

Siesta Beach is my clear all-time favorite with a wide beach and soft, fine, white quartz sand that stays cool under the feet. Most mornings we joined other walkers getting their exercise in this beautiful setting directly across the street from our condo.

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Siesta Beach

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Morning walkers

When our walks took us off the beach, we twice succumbed to the temptation to stop for breakfast. Sun Garden in the village and Toasted Mango Cafe on Midnight Pass Road both got high marks from us.

My daughter-in-law’s mother, Tricia, kindly invited us to Ft. Meyers for a day of boating. A sunny day on the water was irresistible. I hadn’t been to the Ft. Meyers area previously so seeing more of this part of Florida by water was fun and Tricia and Gary were excellent hosts.

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Our hosts, Tricia and Gary

 

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Tricia and me- the mothers

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Gail and me at lunch

Another day we drove north from Sarasota to Anna Maria Island, stopping at several beaches along the way.  As we drove through Sarasota, I snapped a photo of the 25-foot tall sculpture by Seward Johnson, Unconditional Surrender, based on a photo taken on V-J Day in Times Square.

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Unconditional Surrender sculpture

Following lunch at the Sand Bar on Anna Maria, we relaxed on the beach for awhile and then checked out several of the piers in the area.

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Lunch at the Sand Bar

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My beach umbrella and Gail’s beach blanket at Anna Maria Beach

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Anna Maria Beach

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Rod and Reel Pier

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Anna Maria City Pier

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View from Anna Maria Pier toward the Sunshine Skyway Bridge

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Anna Maria Pier

Ever since we discovered Dan at Siesta Key Paddleboards, we rent boards from him each year. He delivers the boards to us at Turtle Beach and we paddle through the canals to a secluded beach that only boaters frequent. Recently, a friend asked me if there are alligators in the canals. This is salt water and the gators prefer brackish water so no, we have never seen an alligator here…thankfully. We did see a dolphin in the canal, however.

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Our man, Dan, setting us up with paddleboards

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Paddleboarding fun

It’s always fun to see friends from home while we’re in Florida. We visited Gail’s friends, Jenny and Jeff, who now live full-time in Venice and my friends, Nancy and Jamie, who winter at a golf community just south of Siesta Key. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to visit our friends, Deb and Dan, in Naples this year but we hope to see them soon.

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Jenny and Jeff

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Nancy and Jamie

Finally, we had some outstanding meals during our stay.  Casey Key Fish House and Indigenous were my favorites.

 

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Gail and I have been friends for over 50 years. Check back in the next 50 for more of our adventures together on Siesta Key and beyond.

Based on events from March 2016.

 

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Solo on Siesta Key

My friend, Gail, and I have spent a week together in Florida at Sarasota or on Siesta Key in March for the past 5 years. In 2016, in order to extend my stay to two weeks, I planned to spend the first 4 days alone. Most condos in Siesta Key rent by the week from Saturday to Saturday and Gail couldn’t get there until Wednesday. I’ve never particularly aspired to solo traveling but my husband consistently declines to join us on this trip. Regarding the opportunity as a growth experience, I was willing to give it a try to get out of the winter cold in north Iowa for a little longer.

In the past, I’ve flown into Tampa, met Gail at the airport, picked up our rental car, and Gail drove the 72 miles south to Siesta Key. This time, I flew into St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport where I found a cheaper flight and picked up my rental car and faced my first challenge with trepidation: driving the Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay. As a recovering acrophobe, I knew this would be a definite test. Frankly, I was very nervous and I talked out loud to myself to calm my fears. Meanwhile, Siri was also talking out loud to give me directions on my I-phone. Safely taking a photo under those conditions  would have been totally impossible for me so the pic below was taken 2 weeks later on the way back to the airport with Gail driving. (As you can see, it was also raining so it was a good time to leave.)

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I made it! The worst part was in my head– seeing it and thinking about it. Actually doing it wasn’t nearly as bad.

After a stop at the grocery store in Sarasota, I headed out to the island to check into La Siesta Condominiums. Aah…that view. Yes, I know there’s a pool, a clubhouse, a street, and a parking lot between me and the Gulf but it’s heaven to me.

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Our view

I planned to return my rental car the following morning in Sarasota and walk back to Siesta Key. Until Gail arrived I would relax on the island, walk the beach, eat my meals on the lanai with a view, read a little and write a lot.

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Our condo

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Kitchen at the condo

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My workspace

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Siesta Key Beach

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Breakfast at the beach

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Beautiful Siesta Key Beach

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Gulf view from Siesta Key Beach

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Day’s end on Siesta Key

So how do I feel about solo traveling? It’s definitely not my preference. Although I’m perfectly capable of entertaining myself and I love to spend time alone especially in the morning, I tend to do less when I’m alone. That’s probably because I’m kind of a scaredy cat and somewhat shy. So I did the things I enjoy doing alone like walking the beach, meditating, reading, and writing, but I didn’t go out to eat or socialize. If I traveled alone more often or for longer periods, I’d have to make a greater effort to plan activities to prevent feeling isolated. Fortunately, I have several great travel partners so, at least at this stage of my life, I won’t be traveling solo too often.

 

Based on events from March 2016.

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One More Puerto Aventuras Post

It’s time to move on. But before we do, I want to share several miscellaneous recollections from Puerto Aventuras.

Super Chedraui is the supermarket located outside the gates of PA, certainly within walking distance for us although the highway is rather busy.  They stock everything we needed including great fresh produce, wine, and beer. A word of caution: our debit card was skimmed probably at the ATM outside the store so be careful! If possible, get local currency from an ATM at a bank before you arrive because there are no banks in PA.

If the supermarket isn’t your thing, check out the farmer’s market held in the heart of PA on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. The produce looked the same as the grocery store (and maybe it was) but it was a convenient location. This is cash only, however, so bring pesos.

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Farmer’s Market in Puerto Aventuras

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Lots of fresh produce

Speaking of food, the best thing I ate in Puerto Aventuras was the fresh dorado, aka mahi-mahi or dolphin fish, that we purchased at the marina directly from a fishing boat. For 350 pesos (about $18 U.S.) the three of us ate fresh fish for three meals. That’s just $2 per person per meal! The entertainment value of using my simple Spanish to talk him into selling us that fish and then watching him filet it before our eyes was worth every peso, too.

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Fileting the dorado we purchased

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Our first meal of fresh dorado

The restaurants in PA offer basic food for a decent price. If you’re a foodie, however, you may want to search further afield for that “to die for” dish. The fresh locally sourced fish is always a good choice but often under-seasoned. Ask for pico de gallo to add some flavor. That said, we discovered Restaurante Dos Aguas that served an excellent paella with an outstanding Spanish tempranillo wine. I hope it’s still open next time.

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Fresh fish at the restaurant in the Omni Hotel

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Paella at Restaurante Dos Aguas

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Picaña a la piedra at Restaurante Dos Aguas

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Tres amigos al Restaurante Dos Aguas

As we walked to the gates of PA to catch the Colectivo (bus) to Tulum for a day trip to the beach, we stopped to watch pétanque for a while. Pétanque is a French game, very similar to the Italian bocce. On our next visit, I want to find out more about opportunities to play.

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Pétanque in PA

Speaking of our day trip to Tulum, we fell in love with the beach the previous year and went back for a repeat experience. Sadly, the restaurant where we rented beach chairs for the day no longer existed. After a thorough search, we settled for a recently opened replacement.

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Beach chairs at Tulum available when you purchase food

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Fish tacos—it’s what’s for lunch

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Playa Esperanza at Tulum

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Jim and Laura at the beach at Tulum

For Jim and Gail, the perfect ending to each day in Puerto Aventuras was a visit to Jesse Gelato, where they make their own delicious products. I think they tried something different each night but they would tell you it was all good with large portions at low prices.

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As I review my recollections of Puerto Aventuras, I am reminded of the beautiful views, lovely beaches, balmy winter temperatures, and low-key atmosphere. I’m excited to return in January 2017.

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Dawn breaks on our last morning in paradise

 

Based on events of January 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sailing Fat Cat from Puerto Aventuras

If you’re looking for a fun-filled sailing experience while visiting the Riviera Maya, check out Fat Cat Catamaran and Sailing Tours. For $100 per person, we got a four-hour sailing experience that included drinks, lunch, music, snorkeling, swimming, and even the catch of a dorado.

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Our catamaran, Fat Cat Two

As we set sail at 9 am, most of the passengers were ready to party to the thumping dance music with drinks in hand–rum punch or beer. While I don’t usually succumb to sea sickness, I felt that alcohol so early in the day combined with motion might not set well on my stomach so I declined the offer and stuck with water until after lunch. My friend Gail definitely tends toward sea sickness so she abstained with me. I admit when drinks are included, there’s some pressure to imbibe, just to “get your money’s worth” but the seas were a little rough and I think it was a wise choice for both of us.

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Gail showing a Corona Mega

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Setting sail

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Jim as we set sail

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Out of the marina and into the open water

After sailing north toward Playa del Carmen for an hour or more, we anchored to snorkel. I snorkeled briefly but then returned to the boat to take photos instead. Someday I’m going to get a waterproof camera and take photos while in the water.

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Our group snorkeling

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Gail snorkeling

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Gail returns to the boat

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Jim snorkeling

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Jim returns to the boat

While in the warm, crystal-clear water, the snorkelers saw many varieties of colorful reef fish, stingrays, and sea turtles. When they were finished, everyone had worked up an appetite and it was time for lunch. The others had a typical sack lunch containing sandwiches, chips, and cookies but I requested a gluten-free lunch and I was thrilled with my offering of tuna, lettuce, tomato, and avocado.

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My lunch 

After lunch, we headed back at a leisurely pace.

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Jim enjoying the ride

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Enjoying a rum punch on the return trip

The fishing lines were trolling off the rear of the boat and we were thrilled to watch the staff land a dorado, also called mahi-mahi in Hawaii or dolphinfish in other places.  In Spanish, dorado means golden which perfectly describes this tasty fish. Everyone who cared to was offered the opportunity to pose with the fish.

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Gail with the dorado

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Jim with the dorado

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Laura (me) with dorado

We made a final stop near our marina for swimming. While there we discovered one of the other passengers onboard was a firefighter from Iowa who knows my brother through rugby. I’m always amazed by the connections we find with people as we chat.

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Swimming off the boat

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My handsome man

As we sailed into the channel to the marina, I got a photo of our condo from the water.

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View of our condo as we sail into the marina

It was a great day at sea and Jim was already talking about going again next year.

 

Based on events from January 2016.

 

 

 

 

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