American Gothic Visited

Tiny Eldon, Iowa (population 916) is home to the backdrop of one of America’s most famous paintings. The artist, Grant Wood, visited the town in 1930 and sketched the Dibble farmhouse which would later appear in the painting, American Gothic. Today the original painting resides at the Art Institute of Chicago but Eldon is worth a visit to see the inspiration that led Grant Wood to create this iconic piece.

We’ve passed nearby many times on our way to and from St. Louis via Des Moines. Eldon is just 6 miles off highway 34 between Ottumwa and Fairfield. Once you reach Eldon, signs direct you quite easily to the American Gothic House.

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The center contains an informative collection of exhibits about the house, Grant Wood, and Art Regionalism. Charles and Catherine Dibble built the house in 1881-1882. The style, called Carpenter Gothic, used somewhat incongruous fancy details on a plain farmhouse. The gothic windows in the gables of the house would normally be used in a church but were chosen from the Sears catalog to grace the Dibble home. Incidentally, my husband’s mother’s maiden name was Dibble and the Dibbles came from New York state as did my mother-in-law’s relatives. That, however, is a subject for future research and possibly another blog post.



American Gothic House


According to information at the center, the couple never posed together for the painting and didn’t actually meet until 12 years later when the photograph below was taken. The woman was Grant Wood’s sister, Nan Wood Graham, and the man was his dentist, Dr. B.H. McKeeby. The artist assured them they wouldn’t be recognized in his painting but that turned out to be incorrect and caused some hard feelings especially with his dentist.

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Photograph of Nan Wood Graham and Dr. B.H. McKeeby at the American Gothic House Center



This is our dour look


Grant Wood was an Iowa native, born in 1891 on a farm outside Anamosa where he lived until his father died when he was 10. His mother then moved the family to Cedar Rapids where he won third place in his first art contest at the age of 14. Following graduation, he spent a short time studying art in Minneapolis but returned to the Cedar Rapids area to teach school and lived in that area most of his short life. During a trip to Munich, he came to the realization that he needed to paint from his own experience. In 1929, he painted a portrait of his mother called Woman with Plants, launching his new style and taking his place in the Regionalist movement. The following year he painted American Gothic and, as they say, the rest is history.


Except for one more interesting side note: Grant Wood spent the summer of 1941 painting in Clear Lake, Iowa (which is 8 miles west of our home). I found this article in our local paper written in 2008 about the artist’s stay in Clear Lake.

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Information at American Gothic House Center

Grant Wood died the following February of cancer at the age of 50.





References: All information was found in displays at the American Gothic House Center.

Based on events from July 2017.

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

Cruising the Tasman Sea

I know this post is long overdue. Honestly, I’ve had a hard time writing about this trip because it was so traumatic. My husband counseled me to skip it and just move on but I felt a need to finish writing about it for closure. If you just wandered into my blog, my mother died early into this cruise and you can read about it here. Anyway, here’s my feeble attempt to wrap things up.

We’ve always enjoyed days at sea while on a cruise. In fact, Jim has been keen to book a repositioning cruise because they include more days at sea than in port but we haven’t found one yet that fits our schedule. We departed from the Bay of Islands in New Zealand at the end of day-2 of our 19-day cruise to sail 1300 mi (2100 km) across the Tasman Sea to Sydney, Australia. We would spend three nights and two full days at sea before our arrival in Sydney, where we left the cruise early to fly home.

The first evening we went to dinner at Cagney’s, one of the specialty restaurants which charge extra. We wouldn’t normally pay extra for a restaurant but we’ve attained platinum status on Norwegian which provides some perqs like waiving the cover charge at specialty restaurants. The food was very good but I’m not enough of a foodie to tell you whether it would be worth the extra cost. The young couple seated at the next table, Derek and Emma from Australia, were delightful company, too.


While I may not have the most discriminating palate, I definitely knew our experience another evening at Moderno Churrascaria was a cut above. This specialty restaurant, modeled after a traditional Brazilian steakhouse, showcases meat. Diners are given a card with a red side and a green side. If your card is green side up, the waiter will continue to bring more meat, including beef, pork, lamb, and chicken, until you change it to red. Incidentally, the buffet of cheeses, salads, and vegetables was equally impressive.


Cheese and vegetable buffet


My selection from the buffet


The star of the show


Green side up

It’s always fun to meet people when traveling and this trip was no exception. One evening we had dinner with the two couples we met while working through the visa debacle which occurred when we boarded the ship. I love the fact that we’ve since connected on Facebook and can keep up with one another’s travels.


Jim and me with Dale, Michelle, Debbie, and Jerry

And in case you haven’t yet figured out that food plays a central role in any cruise, you can even watch the food as it’s prepared on deck. I especially enjoyed watching the preparation of this seafood dish for lunch poolside.



My share–Yum!

I tried to walk off some of the abundant food each morning on the promenade deck and encountered many others doing the same. Admittedly, we didn’t use the fitness center this time but on most cruises we do.


Promenade deck

Lots of activities keep cruisers busy during a day at sea. Fitness and dance classes attract many of the women and cooking demonstrations are popular, too. Or relaxation is also an option, whether reading or simply sunning on the deck.


Jim reading on deck

If you forgot to bring a book, you can find one in the library. And if sunshine and warmth on deck don’t suit you, you can find a seat in the library, too.


The library

I’m not a much of a swimmer but the hot tub beckons to me every time. Soothing away all that stress, the hot tub is almost as good as therapy.


The Norwegian Star is an attractive ship and it’s a pleasure to explore the public areas. While I didn’t take as many photos on this trip, here are a couple of the atrium to give you an idea.



And since this post is titled “Cruising the Tasman Sea,” a photo of the sea is required.


Tasman Sea

We arrived in Sydney, Australia early on day-5 of our cruise. We were packed and ready to disembark so we watched our arrival on deck beginning at dawn. The views were outstanding.


Sydney Harbour at dawn


Sydney, Australia at dawn


Sydney Opera House with a cruise ship behind


Sydney Opera House


Our last view of the Sydney Opera House as we disembarked from the Norwegian Star

Although this trip ended in tragedy, we are travelers at heart. We will return to Australia and one day visit the other ports we missed on this itinerary.  Life is short; travel like you mean it.



Based on events from February 2017.






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Bay of Islands, New Zealand

Named Bay of Islands by Captain Cook in 1769 for its 144 islands, this archipelago was previously discovered in the 10th century by the Polynesian explorer, Kupe, who named it Aotearoa.  Inhabited by the Maori when Europeans arrived, today the area is known as the birthplace of the nation for the treaty signed by Maori chiefs and the British.

When our cruise ship, the Norwegian Star, anchored around 8 a.m., we were on the first tender boat to Waitangi Pier. We were especially keen to see the town of Russell, so we immediately took the complimentary shuttle from Waitangi Pier to Paihia Wharf where we caught the ferry to Russell. The map below shows where cruise ships anchor, Waitangi Pier, and the towns of Paihia and Russell.


Map of Waitangi, Paihia, and Russell


Paihia Wharf


View of Paihia from the wharf


View from the ferry to Russell


Norwegian Star from the ferry

Once called the ‘hell hole of the Pacific,” it’s hard to imagine the drinking, brawling, and prostitution which were commonplace in historic Russell, the largest whaling port in the southern hemisphere and the first capital of New Zealand. Today, little of its wicked past is evident in this charming seaside town.


Approach to Russell


Russell, NZ


Because it’s flightless, the national bird is threatened especially by dogs


Russell Wharf from the Strand

The Duke of Marlborough Hotel was the first licensed bar in New Zealand. I’m sure the old Victorian has many stories to tell.


Jim at the Duke of Marlborough Hotel

Next to the hotel is the former Customs House and Police Station, today a private home.


This majestic Morton Bay Fig Tree was planted by E.B. Laing, the first customs collector who served from 1870 to 1886.


The oldest remaining church in New Zealand, Christ Church, built in 1836, still holds services every Sunday and since we arrived just as services began, we attended.



Interior of Christ Church

A bullet hole from the Maori Wars is still evident on the exterior of the church.



Remnant of Maori Wars


We strolled around town; I shopped for a Christmas ornament as a souvenir; and we stopped at Sally’s for coffee.






Cannon at Russell


When we headed back to catch the return ferry to Paihia, I spied these two fishing from the pier. We also watched young people jumping off the pier into the water for a swim causing me to wonder whether they scared away all the fish. I guess that’s why they call it fishing rather than catching.




Ferry that runs from Paihia to Russell


On the short ride back to Paihia, we enjoyed more beautiful views of the islands dotting the turquoise waters.


Back in Paihia, we wandered around a bit. A local art and craft show briefly attracted my attention but Jim, not much of a shopper, stayed seated while people watching…and bird watching. A sign announced the red-billed gull as the most photographed bird in the sea bird capital of the world (New Zealand) so of course, I had to take several photos. Normally a prolific species, the gull has suffered a decline of over 50% in recent years. The sign admonished, “Love them. Protect them.” Okay.



Red-billed gull


Sculpture at Paihia


Water view from Paihia

We hopped on the complimentary shuttle back to Waitangi for a stop at the treaty grounds. It was here the Maori chiefs and the British signed the Treaty of Waitangi establishing New Zealand as a British colony in 1840. Interestingly, the Maori version and the English version contain different language. The English text gives Britain sovereignty but the Maori text translates to governance which the Maori interpreted to allow self-determination. Both texts are currently used to make present-day decisions.


Waitangi Treaty Grounds


Copy of the treaty which is now housed in Wellington


Waitangi Treaty Grounds

As we walked back to the pier to catch a tender boat back to our ship, I took a few more photos of this incredible paradise.


View from Waitangi


View from Waitangi


Photo from our tender boat, Bay of Islands, NZ


Based on events from February 2017.





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The Great American Eclipse

I first heard about the eclipse from my 11-year-old niece while we were visiting my brother’s family in May of this year. She told me a full solar eclipse would occur in August, it could be seen from her town, and her school was giving all the kids special glasses to view it. That sounded pretty cool to me.

As the date, August 21, approached, more and more information appeared about this eclipse and before I knew it, I had eclipse fever. And since my brother lives in the zone of totality, I had a destination in mind to view the event. Once he confirmed we were welcome, I began to plan in earnest. I found viewing glasses online at Amazon and ordered a dozen just to be sure I had a sufficient supply for family and friends.

But as the event drew closer, warnings began to appear. I’m pretty much a scaredy cat, never much of a risk taker, so the warnings got me worried. “Don’t look at the sun without proper eye protection or you’ll go blind.” Amazon issued a recall on unsafe glasses–not the ones I had purchased but that got me more worried. I read compulsively all the safety tips and forwarded everything I read to my adult children cautioning them to be careful and not to go blind. In response to my Facebook post with cautionary information from an optometrist, a friend of mine wrote, “I remember the eclipse of my childhood (July 20, 1963, central Illinois). My grandmother kept me safely in the house while yelling “you’re going to go blind! You’re going to go blind!” at my grandfather who was in the yard with black glass looking at the eclipse.” Honestly, I have plenty in common with her grandmother.

I took my eclipse glasses to my eye doctor’s office seeking reassurance about their safety. My glasses contained the proper ISO numbers and were issued by American Paper Optics, one of the approved companies but I wanted an expert to calm my fears. They were fairly noncommittal at the clinic, probably not wanting to be liable for my safety. One of the optometrists told me not to look continuously at the sun even with the glasses so at least I felt better armed with more information. I passed this information to my adult children as well.  One of them told me the warnings were similar to dentists saying if you don’t floss, your teeth will fall out. The other told me he would close one eye so his blindness would be limited to the other eye. See what I put up with?

The news informing us all the hotels in the zone of totality would be full and the traffic was expected to be horrible, added another element of worry. We left for my brother’s in the St. Louis area on the 20th and the traffic on the Avenue of the Saints looked like this. My first concern was thus alleviated.


Eclipse Day -1: Avenue of the Saints on August 20, 2017

My friend, Lori, who accompanied us worried about the weather. My worry plate was already full so that one didn’t affect me but the next morning luckily dawned clear but HOT. In fact by 11:48, when the partial eclipse began, it was over 90 degrees.


My nephew and niece before school on Eclipse Day

My sister-in-law, Sarah, asked where we wanted to view the eclipse and offered their yard, the golf course where they live, or the school the kids attend. My brother couldn’t join us since he was headed to Milwaukee. We decided we’d volunteer to help at the school and we all later agreed it was a good decision. We enjoyed the excitement of the kids and appreciated the information shared by the teachers.


Armed and ready


Our ride to the school on Eclipse Day


Outside the school ready for the eclipse

What did we see? My photos certainly don’t capture well what we viewed which was truly amazing. The first sliver disappeared from the upper right corner of the sun at 11:48. Through our glasses, the sun appeared orange against a black sky. With the glasses held up to cover the lens on my phone, this is what I got, but no sliver is missing.


Partial Eclipse


Jim and Lori with the kids at the school

One of the third-grade teachers showed us how to see the eclipse shadow on white paper by making a waffle with our fingers.


Shadow of the eclipse

I’d read shadows were darker and more distinct during the eclipse and that seemed true to me. Look at the shadows of the trees below.



By this time, it was 92 degrees. I was a hot mess.


My sister-in-law’s photo of my niece with her friends


Another of Sarah’s photos


Sarah’s photo of Jim, Lori, and me with my nephew


Sarah’s photo of me, my s-i-l and nephew


My best effort at the partial eclipse

I can’t tell you whether the cicadas went silent at totality because the kids didn’t. Their noisy excitement grew as totality approached and continued while we viewed it. It didn’t get as dark as I expected but the street lights did come on. We saw Venus, a rainbow, and the diamond ring. The experience of seeing the corona is unforgettable.


Jim looking at the sun at total eclipse


The sun with Venus


Total eclipse


Total eclipse


Total eclipse

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My total eclipse photo enlarged

As totality ended, the kids went quiet and I again noticed the sound of the cicadas.

Several times in the night I woke up and was grateful my vision was still intact. The next morning I said to my 9-year-old nephew, “How’s your sight this morning, Buddy?” “Fine”, he responded, “but my hearing’s kind of messed up.”



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Auckland War Memorial Museum

The Auckland Museum was founded in 1852 as the first museum in New Zealand,. After several moves through the years to increase space for exhibits, the new and renamed Auckland War Memorial Museum opened in 1929 on the highest point in Auckland’s oldest park, the Auckland Domain.



Auckland Domain


View of Sky Tower from Auckland War Memorial Museum

We set off on foot with umbrellas in our backpack in case of rain.  Fortunately, we arrived dry at the museum in spite of the dark clouds that dogged us for most of our stay in Auckland. After a brief discussion, we decided to purchase the Moa package for NZ$55 (US$40) which included museum entry, highlights tour, and Maori cultural performance.

The highlights tour, while short, oriented us to the best exhibits in the museum. Without it, we may have missed important highlights simply due to the size of the museum. After the tour, we went back to spend more time in areas that interested us most.

We began on level 2 with New Zealand’s War Stories including exhibits from WWI, WWII, New Zealand civil wars, and other conflicts of the 19th and 20th centuries. The WWI Hall of Memories was especially moving to me. New Zealand sent more troops per capita to fight in WWI than any other country which meant every family in the country was personally affected by the war. Nearly all of the 18,166 who died were buried overseas and almost one-third of them are buried in unknown graves.


WWI Hall of Memories with Roll of Honour listing those who died in service from Auckland Province


WWI Sanctuary with bronze wreath of kawakawa leaves, a symbol of mourning


Stained glass ceiling with coats of arms of all British dominions serving in WWI

The Pacific Lifeways gallery contained exhibits with information about island groups in the Pacific. Of particular interest to me was our guide’s explanation of the spread of plants and animals throughout the Pacific which indicated the migration patterns of the people in the area. New Zealand was the last area discovered and settled, probably as late as 1300 A.D. by Polynesians from Southeast Asia who became the indigenous Maori people.


Migration routes in the Pacific

A carved statue of Kave, an evil goddess from the island of Nukuoro, greeted us at the entrance to the gallery. She was brought to New Zealand in the 1870s by a trader.


Carved statue of Kave

An outrigger canoe in the Pacific Masterpieces gallery came from the Solomon Islands as a gift from the Melanesian Mission.


The Red Feather Cloak from Hawaii was worn only by the highest chief for religious ceremonies or in war. The nearby sign explained a cloak similar to this belonging to King Kamehameha in Hawaii contained a half million feathers from as many as 80,000 birds.


Red Feather Cloak

All of level 1 in the museum is devoted to natural history. The highlights on this floor for me were the moa and the kiwi. The tallest known bird, this 1913 reconstruction of the extinct moa is from the South Island.


Reconstructed moa

The kiwi is the unofficial national symbol for New Zealand and the nickname for New Zealanders. They are unique to New Zealand but how they arrived is unclear since they can’t fly.  Because they can’t fly, the kiwi is under constant threat especially by predators such as dogs and the population has shrunk to around 68,000.


You can listen to the kiwi here.

The most surprising exhibit to me was the axe used by Sir Edmund Hillary in his 1953 ascent of Mt. Everest. The famous Aucklander died here in 2008.


Mountain axe and painting of Sir Edmund Hillary

I especially wanted to learn more about the indigenous people of New Zealand, the Maori, in our visit to this museum and our desire was satisfied. There are over 1000 artifacts original to the Maori. The gateway Kaitaia carving at the entrance to the Maori Court dates from the 14th to 16th century and is the oldest Maori carving still in existence.


Kaitaia gateway


I was fascinated by the Hotunui Preservation Project, a collaboration of museum staff, local experts, and descendants to restore a meeting house built in 1878.


Entrance to Hotunui Meeting House


Restoration in progress


Painted and woven restoration

But by far, for me, the high point of this museum was the Maori Cultural Performance. Lasting about 30 minutes, the performance ended with the haka, the traditional war dance.


It was an educational day orienting us to the natural and political history of New Zealand. With this background, we felt better prepared for our visit the following day to the Bay of Islands.

As we strolled back to our hotel, we found Solo Kitchen, a Turkish and Mediterranean restaurant, and stopped in for a late lunch/early dinner. The lamb kofta with salad and three dips (sun-dried tomato, cacik, and baba ghanoush) was delicious.


Solo Kitchen


And the music added beautifully to an authentic ethnic experience.


Come back next week for my post about Bay of Islands.


Based on events from February 2017.





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Waitomo Glowworm Caves

The Waitomo Glowworm Caves were at the top of my list of things to see near Auckland. I looked at various tour companies and frankly, the coach tours were considerably more expensive than I thought they’d be. A group day tour to Waitomo and the Hobbiton movie set cost about $250 per person and if we added Rotorua to see the Maori cultural show, we were looking at $300 each. We considered renting a car to drive ourselves but we’ve driven on the left in the UK and Ireland and that didn’t especially appeal to me. With a distance of 193 km (119 mi) each way, we’d spend half the day driving ourselves with the attendant stress. In the end, we decided to eliminate Hobbiton and Rotorua since the reviews of Hobbiton weren’t that good and we could see a Maori cultural show in Auckland. Most companies charged around $180 for the tour to Waitomo alone but I found a no frills deal through InterCity for just $105 per person that I jumped on. When I found out later the entrance tickets to Waitomo were $50, that deal looked even better.

We definitely made the right choice by not driving ourselves. Auckland is in the midst of a transportation crisis caused by a combination of rapid city growth and poor planning. Our bus driver told us 40 years ago politicians refused to implement a comprehensive mass transit plan and the city has been paying the price ever since. Getting out of Auckland was extremely slow with frequent stops on the Southern Motorway. The only thing worse was the traffic into the city which was backed up for more than 30 miles.

A rainy day was perfect for a drive and cave tour since we wouldn’t be outside in the elements for either. My photos from the bus suffered a bit from the rain but the countryside was beautiful nonetheless.


Rainy countryside


Countryside outside Auckland


New Zealand countryside


Countryside outside Auckland


Pastoral scene in New Zealand


North Island, New Zealand


Near Waitomo, New Zealand


Drive near Waitomo, New Zealand


Scene from the bus on North Island


Flax growing next to the roadway in New Zealand

According to our tour guide, Waitomo Glowworm Caves were discovered by the local Maori Chief, Tanetinorau, on his own land and explored by him and a surveyor, Fred Mace, in 1887 on a raft made of flax stalks. Two years later the caves opened for tours led by local Maori guides but in 1904 the government took over the administration. They were finally returned to the family of Tanetinorau in 1989.


Entrance to Waitomo Glowworm Caves with flax growing in the foreground

The glowworm, Arachnocampa luminosa, is unique to New Zealand. They are actually the larvae of a fungus gnat whose bioluminescence attracts insects. The glowworms produce a long sticky thread which hangs from the roof of the cave and ensnares passing insects, thus providing a meal for the glowworm.

The 45-minute guided tour through the cave included views of stalactites, stalagmites, glowworms, and ended with a boat-ride through the Glowworm Grotto.


Walking to the entrance of the caves


Entrance to the caves


Disembarking from the boats through Glowworm Grotto


Selfie after our boat ride


Photography isn’t allowed inside the caves so I found this National Geographic YouTube video for your enjoyment.

We also bought the photos taken at the caves. Although they are just our photo superimposed over a background picture, they remind us of the amazing sights we enjoyed at Waitomo.


Inside the entrance


Sticky threads to catch a meal


Surrounded by glowworms

This was definitely a heavily visited tourist attraction, but nevertheless, we are glad we went. The glowworms are a unique natural attraction in New Zealand and as such, should not be missed.


Based on events from February 2017.

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Nau mai ki Tāmaki (Welcome to Auckland)

When I first began planning our trip to New Zealand, I wanted to arrive several weeks before our cruise to have enough time to properly see both the North Island and South Island. After I studied the cost and the transportation challenges, however, we scaled back our plans considerably. After 3 days transit from the U.S., a 19-day cruise, 2 extra days in Singapore, and the trip home, our trip already totaled 25 days. Our cruise departed from Auckland and included another stop in New Zealand at the Bay of Islands. We decided to focus on the area around Auckland for three days and return to New Zealand in the future to see the South Island.

With too many sights to possibly see everything in three days before our cruise departure, we had to prioritize. We definitely wanted to learn about the Maori culture and see the glowworm caves that are unique to New Zealand. We also wanted to learn more about the history of New Zealand and see a little of the countryside. After we booked our flights, our cruise itinerary changed eliminating Bay of Islands which we were keen to see. We were informed our ship, the Norwegian Star would instead spend the night in Auckland which would allow us time for a bus tour to Bay of Islands.

Our planned itinerary prior to the ship’s departure was:   Day 1: Check into our hotel around 5 pm and explore our neighborhood. Day 2: Bus tour to Waitomo Glowworm Caves. Day 3: See as much as possible around the city of Auckland. Day 4: (Added due to cruise itinerary change) Bus tour to Bay of Islands.

As it turned out, on our return trip from Waitomo, we were informed by email the cruise itinerary changed again to restore Bay of Islands. We were fortunate our scheduled bus tour allowed us to cancel the tour AND refunded our money.

I booked the Quality Inn Parnell for 3 nights in Auckland which looked adequate for our needs. The neighborhood of Parnell was a little further from downtown and the cruise port at Queen’s Wharf but the price was right at $165 per night. We were pleased to discover we had a suite with a living room/kitchen combination and a separate bedroom. Since none of the hotels I looked at in Auckland included breakfast, the kitchen facilities came in handy–especially the French press for coffee. Admittedly, I put the coffee on top rather than below the plunger the first time which was a real mess but now I’m an expert at French press coffee.

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Parnell is outlined in red and the yellow star marks our hotel

Parnell is the oldest suburb in Auckland dating from early European settlement beginning in 1841. We were charmed by the 19th-century architecture which gave a historic feel to the neighborhood.


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The original Anglican St. Mary’s Cathedral was built in 1886 but it was replaced by Holy Trinity Cathedral, the modern structure below, in 1973. St. Mary’s was subsequently moved across Parnell Road to occupy the space next to Holy Trinity in 1982.


Holy Trinity Cathedral


Mountain Fountain, sculpture at Holy Trinity


Interior of Holy Trinity Cathedral

A short walk from our hotel, we found plenty of shops and restaurants.


Parnell Road


Shops and restaurants on Parnell Rd

With lots of ethnic foods to choose from, we decided to try Thai Friends our first night. It was excellent and although we shared two dishes, we had more than enough to fill us up.


Jim enjoying outside dining at Thai Friends


Tom Yum Goong (Hot and spicy prawn soup with fresh herbs, mushroom, and coriander)

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Hot green curry with eggplant, broccoli, bamboo shoots, and peas

After dinner, we strolled back to our hotel for an early night. After two full days of travel, we wanted to get a good night’s sleep before our bus tour to Waitomo Glowworm Caves the next morning. Stop back next week and check it out.


Based on events from February 2017.


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How My Dream Trip Became a Nightmare

I first saw the itinerary for this cruise online while I was in Mexico in January 2016. It was everything I ever dreamed of in a trip to Australia and New Zealand including 5 ports all along the eastern and northern coast of Australia with an excursion to the Great Barrier Reef. That alone would have sold me but in addition, this itinerary included Bali and Komodo Island in Indonesia, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and Singapore, places that hadn’t been on my list previously but immediately attracted me.

Screen Shot 2017-07-21 at 6.29.37 AM 2Scheduled to set sail from Auckland, New Zealand the following year on February 18, 2017, it looked like the perfect winter getaway from Iowa and the website showed the starting price for the 19-day cruise was only $2009 per person. I was so excited I called Norwegian Cruise Line right then to book it. This was my dream trip.

The price for the two of us including taxes and fees for an ocean-view cabin was just under $5000 which I thought was a bargain. When you book a cruise over a year in advance on NCL, you pay a deposit and pay the balance three months before the sail date. Until you pay the full cost, you can cancel the trip with no penalty. Our final payment was due in mid-November of 2016.

Normally, when I book a trip I’m so excited I start planning immediately but this time, it seemed like events conspired to keep me from doing much advance planning. I booked in January 2016 and had other trips already scheduled for March, April, May, August, and October. I thought I’d do more research following those trips but then in September, I spotted an affordable Viking River Cruise for the end of October which distracted me again.

I did call the cruise line in September just to confirm my price and found an even better deal which saved me a couple hundred dollars and included pre-paid gratuities, a substantial savings of $12.50 per person per day.

Anyway, when I called in mid-November to make my final payment, I had only done a little advance planning so I got busy and booked our flights to Auckland and back from Singapore for $1755 each. We would depart from Minneapolis on February 13 and arrive on February 15 allowing us 3 days to see Auckland and environs before our cruise departure. Our return flight on March 11 allowed an extra day to tour Singapore. I also reserved pre and post-trip hotels in Auckland and Singapore. And most importantly, I reserved the excursion to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef.

Over the following 4-6 weeks, I researched our ports in earnest to determine which excursions we should book and which we could do better on our own, starting with Auckland, New Zealand. In January, I ran across an article on the internet about the mechanical problems experienced by our ship, the Norwegian Star, in December while cruising an itinerary in Asia. The problems resulted in an altered itinerary and angry passengers who gathered in the atrium to protest the captain’s refusal to meet with them. I called NCL, not because I thought they could tell me anything, but more to register my concern. They assured me the ship was fixed and our cruise would not be affected. As it turned out, that wasn’t the case.

Meanwhile, we spent two weeks in Mexico in January and returned to learn my mother had been ill with the flu while we were gone. When I talked to her, she warned me not to come over to avoid getting sick before our next trip. I continued to check in with her and she didn’t seem to be improving but I knew her husband was taking good care of her. Finally, after a trip to the emergency room, she was diagnosed with pneumonia and prescribed antibiotics. I went over to see her and was deeply concerned by how ill she was. She assured me the antibiotics would put her on the road to recovery soon.

During this time, we received a revised itinerary from the cruise line because the ship continued to have problems. I was disappointed to learn the Bay of Islands in New Zealand; Brisbane, Australia; and Bali were canceled but fortunately, Arlie, Australia, the port for the Great Barrier Reef was still included.

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The day before our scheduled departure we went to Des Moines to visit our two sons and daughter-in-law and returned that night to learn my mother was in the hospital. The following morning, I raced to the hospital to see her. She was sitting up in the chair and looked much better but she was still wracked with coughing spells during our visit. We left for the airport, however, feeling comforted she was in the hospital where she would receive good care. My brother, Paul, promised to check on her daily by phone and keep me informed by email.

I called my mother from our first stop at LAX before our 2-day flight to Auckland. She told me they had withdrawn fluid from her lungs, she felt 100% better, and she expected to go home the next day. I was enormously relieved.

Our flight was uneventful. We departed from Minneapolis on February 13 with stops in Los Angeles and Sydney, Australia and arrived in Aukland, New Zealand on February 15. We crossed the international date line losing an entire day which happened to be Valentine’s Day. (How memorable is that?)

The morning of February 16 (the 15th at home), I woke up to an email from my son, Brian, telling me to Face Time my brother. Paul told me the fluid from my mother’s lungs had been tested and indicated stage 4 lung cancer. They assured us, however, she had about 6-9 months and they would devise a treatment plan. Meanwhile, we would Face Time with my mother every day while we were gone. With this bad news on my mind constantly, we continued with our plans to see New Zealand before our cruise. (More on what we saw in future posts.)

We arrived at the cruise port to board the ship on February 18 (17th at home) where we experienced near disaster. When we finally reached the front of the line to check in, we were asked for our visas for Australia. VISAS???? We didn’t know we needed a visa to get into Australia! We had just stopped in Sydney on our way to New Zealand and didn’t need a visa. How had I missed this requirement? The cruise line accepted no responsibility to inform passengers in advance and I had missed it. Well, we moved to another line with several hundred new friends to apply online for an Australian visa. We were toward the front of the line but it wasn’t moving at all due to a variety of factors including but not limited to a slow internet connection, too few computers, and operator inexperience (aka elderly cruisers with few computer skills). At one point, two new friends, Michelle and Debbie, and I left the cruise terminal in search of internet access, found it, but still couldn’t get the program to work and approve our visas. So back to the line we went where we stood in line for hours. We finally did get the requisite visa and checked in.

While all this went on, my stress level increased due to a text from Brian.


While I was worried, I wasn’t totally panicked… yet. When we finally boarded the ship we went straightaway to the internet people on board to get my account set up. (I had 250 minutes to use during the cruise to check in by Face Time with my mother.) As we set sail, Brian told us that my mother’s cancer was even worse than initially thought.

The next morning we arrived in Bay of Islands (which had been restored to our cruise itinerary) and had an email telling us they were discontinuing all treatment and my mother had just 7-10 days to live. I was in total shock. By happenstance, we arrived at a historic church just as the service was beginning. After crying copiously throughout the service, I knew I needed to talk to my mother and find out her wishes. If she wanted me to come home, that’s what we would do. When I talked to her, she said, “Come home.”

That was easier said than done when you’re on a ship on the Tasman Sea three days from port. I checked flights from Sydney to Minneapolis and found they would cost around $1200 each. We went to customer-service on the ship, explained our situation, and told them we would disembark in Sydney. I asked about calling Delta Airlines and, as they put the call through, I told Jim I forgot my credit card in our cabin. As he ran to get the card, I explained my situation to Rakennya with Delta in Atlanta. She was able to credit our flight from Singapore and book a flight from Sydney for an additional $224 each. Jim returned to the service desk to tell us the key card wouldn’t work in our cabin door. They rekeyed it and off he went again down one floor and about a block down the hall. I tearfully explained the problem to Rakennya and she soothed me by saying, “It’s ok, I’ll stay here as long as necessary. I’m not hanging up.” Jim came back again, still not able to open the door. This time they told him housekeeping would meet him there. When housekeeping finally arrived and couldn’t get in either, they had to call security. The problem turned out to be a dead battery in the door. (Who knew they had batteries?) When Jim finally returned with the credit card, I’d been on the phone with Rakennya for over 45 minutes. That woman was a saint.

We had three nights on board before we would reach Sydney and get our flight home. We Face Timed with my mother when we got up each morning which was noon of the previous day at home. All my family was with her, both her children and grandchildren, none of whom live in the same town but they all managed to get there in time to say their goodbyes. We talked to them, too, and they would ask, “How’s the trip?” and we would respond everything was beautiful but we just wanted to get home. During that time we also met several people on the ship who were lovely and understanding. I was, frankly, a mess and my dream trip had become a nightmare.

We thought we still had plenty of time to get home and say our goodbyes in person until an email from our son, Michael, told us on February 21 (the 20th at home) she was comfortable but no longer awake. When we called, he told us it was time to let her go. She died at home later that day, surrounded by her loving family. It was just one week after we left home and two days before we returned.

Today, over five months later, I can still hardly believe it. I often think, “Oh, I need to call my mother about…” Then I realize she’s gone. I miss hearing her soft southern drawl and the way she said my name. I even miss how she would say the most outrageous things and then look at my husband and say, “Isn’t that right, Jim?” I miss her every single day.












Categories: cruise, Family, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 10 Comments

Hasta la Vista PA

Before I move on to our ill-fated trip down under, I have a few more memories to share from January 2017 in Puerto Aventuras, Mexico.

Food is an important component of any trip. Since this was our third stay in Puerto Aventuras, we have several favorite restaurants but Cafe Olé tops the list. (It’s also the top rated restaurant on Trip Advisor.) Jim loves the all-you-can-eat fall-off-the-bone ribs with potato salad, coleslaw, and beans offered on Sundays and Tuesdays and I can always find fresh local fish.


Ribs with potato salad, coleslaw, and beans at Cafe Olé


Fish (which I started eating then remembered to photograph) with grapefruit, rice, and fresh veggies at Cafe Olé

The number 1 dessert place is Jessie Gelato where Jim and Gail can be found every evening getting their home-made gelato fix. They didn’t have to twist Chuck’s arm either.


Jim, Chuck, and Gail at Jessie Gelato

Every year we walk across the highway to the local village to find authentic Mexican food but each time we retreat fearing Montezuma’s revenge from the local water. This time we finally stood our ground and ate at A Tu Parador which means “at your roadside inn.” That makes sense since this place is just next to the highway.



Jim, Chuck, Gail, and me

The various condiments for the tortilla chips were tasty with some heat and the beers on tap were big and cheap.


Condiments for chips

I ordered a fish taco and while it was a no frills, basic taco, it hit the spot. This was probably the least expensive meal we had the entire two weeks and we didn’t get sick either. I’m sure we’ll be back.


Fish taco

One advantage of staying in the condo at Chac Hal Al is the ability to cook some of our own meals. The walk to the large super market, Chedraui, is 2.9 km (1.8 mi) each way but twice a week we can buy fresh produce at the farmer’s market just a couple of blocks from our condo.


Farmer’s Market in Puerto Aventuras

Each day we checked at the marina for fresh fish that charter boats sometimes sell if the customer doesn’t want it. Chuck got lucky one day and bought some yellow fin tuna that is usually eaten raw after marinating but we grilled it to perfection with a little olive oil and onion.



Chuck also got a lesson on harvesting and opening coconuts from Miguel, one of the grounds keepers at Chac Hal Al.

Chuck engaging the grounds keepers

Miguel picking a coconut

Opening the coconut

Jim tasting coconut milk

Coconut meat

This year we enjoyed a special treat when the Green Bay Packers played in the NFC Championship. One of the restaurants, Palapas, offered a package for an all-you-can-eat buffet including margaritas, piña coladas, rum punch, and beer during the game for just $12. Although the game was a blowout and the Packers played like high schoolers, the food was good, we had live music before the game, and we drowned our sorrows in margaritas.




Breakfast at Palapas


Live music at Palapas

A few more random memories:

Gail and I especially enjoy a drink at the bar at the Omni Hotel next door where we can sit in the jetted pool with a view of the water. We dragged the guys along for the fun. Gail was wearing an itty bitty bikini and I didn’t think she’d appreciate me posting that photo so I’ll leave it to your imagination.

One night while sitting at a restaurant on the marina, we saw fireworks over the water to the south of PA, probably at Barceló Resort. Sometimes if the wind is right, we can even hear music from major artists like Luke Bryan playing at Barceló.

One morning I planned to hike out to the lighthouse but the terrain was so challenging I made it just part way and took photos instead.

The grounds at Chac Hal Al are always well-maintained and I never tire of the beautiful views.

The little pool at Chac Hal Al

Iguana and Jim sunning themselves

Panorama view of our view from our balcony

Gail and me after a swim

We’ve already booked our two-week stay at Chac Hal Al in Puerto Aventuras, Mexico for next January. Until then, hasta la vista.

Riviera Maya from the air


Based on events from January 2017.


Categories: Food, Mexico, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Puerto Aventuras 2017 Continued

Each year we look for new things to do while we’re in Puerto Aventuras, Mexico. This year we found the Original Snorkeling Adventure to Puerto Morelos Reef National Park. The national park is part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef which is the largest coral reef in the Americas and the second largest in the world. Only the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is larger.

We booked this tour at one of the local tour agencies in Puerto Aventuras. For $89 per person, they picked us up in Puerto Aventuras, transported us 34 miles (55 km) to the park by mini bus, took us out in small groups to snorkel at three different locations, fed us a buffet lunch with an open bar, and returned us to PA after a seven hour day. It was loads of fun at a reasonable price.




The grounds at the Original Snorkeling Adventure



When we arrived at the park, we learned we had to pay an additional park entrance fee of $4, cash only. We’d brought very little cash with us but managed to scrape together the fee for the four of us. Some people didn’t have any cash with them and I don’t know what they did. We were also informed that only biodegradable sunscreen was allowed but fortunately I brought a credit card and could pay the $15 for it. We were directed to use the lockers available free of charge for valuables and used the bathrooms before boarding the boat.

I was surprised when I saw how small the boats were. It made sense, however, after the short ride to the reef. The reef is protected and snorkelers must be accompanied by a certified guide. Snorkelers are required to wear a life vest and are prohibited from standing on the coral. More than 14 snorkelers would be difficult for the guides to manage and keep watch over.



One of the boats headed to the coral reef




Chuck applying biodegradable sunscreen, Gail, and Jim on the boat

I’m not a strong snorkeler and in spite of the life vest, I floated low in the water which made me nervous. One of the guides gave me the life preserver ring which I laid on top of with my face in the water and I finally relaxed enough to enjoy the experience. In spite of my unorthodox approach, I managed to see the coral and lots of colorful fish but I was unable to take underwater photos with the camera attached to my wrist. I’m sure I was an odd sight and I wish I had a photo to share. After the first stop, I happily stayed on the boat taking photos and video of the others. Jim, Gail, and Chuck offered rave reviews of the second stop as well as their entire experience.






Jim snorkeling

I took a short video of Jim snorkeling which you can see below.


After the first two snorkel sites, we had a break onshore before the final site. Gail, Chuck, and I decided to forgo the third site and elected to have a margarita instead. Jim forged on without us and ended up with blisters and raw toes where the flippers rubbed the skin off. Next time he’ll bring socks to wear under the flippers.



Chuck, Jim, and Gail at lunch


The buffet lunch was tasty including salad, rice, beans, shredded pork, chicken, tortillas, and the open bar with beer and margaritas. They probably served soda, too, but I don’t remember since I didn’t consume any.



My lunch

Bellies full, we adjourned to the beach to relax and soak up a little sun.




Gail and me


I also checked out the hammocks which are perfect for a siesta.



This is the life




Goodbye to the Original Snorkeling Adventure


I’ve seen some negative reviews online of the Original Snorkeling Adventure but I respectfully disagree. Some of the complaints address the length of time it takes to pick up people from resorts all over the Riviera Maya. If you don’t have the time to spend doing that, you’ll want to pay the price for a private tour. We were on Mexican time and enjoyed the price, the experience, and the open bar.


Based on events in January 2017.


Categories: Mexico, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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