Posts Tagged With: Holland America

Day Trip to Sevilla, Spain

Many cruise passengers take an excursion to Sevilla, Spain from the port of Cádiz and we were no exception. Obviously, history nerds like Jim and me wanted to see the Real Alcázar, and yes, you guessed it, it’s another UNESCO World Heritage site and so is the cathedral and the bell tower that was once a minaret. If you’re new to UNESCO World Heritage, these are places deemed to be of universal importance which you can read more about here.

Holland America offered an all-day excursion to Sevilla that included the Alcázar for almost $200 per person. Our experience with cruise ship excursions isn’t terrible but they’re nearly always more expensive, there’s often a stop somewhere to sell us something we don’t need or want, and we’re usually fed a mediocre meal. Instead, we opted for an all-day tour through Spain Day Tours, which cost a mere 69 euros ($75) with no meal or stop to shop although we had free time to do both on our own.

The bus picked us up at the cruise port and our guide provided lots of commentary during the hour and a half ride to Sevilla. We learned that Spain is the second largest producer of almonds in the world behind the U.S., and Andalusia is one of the major locations for that crop. Even more interestingly, cork oak trees grow in this area, and incidentally, they also grow in Portugal (but no one told us about it while we were there). Harvested every nine years without harming the tree, the cork comes from the bark. I took a poor photo of cork oak trees out the bus window but I want to share it nevertheless.


I also found a photo in the public domain that shows a tree after the cork was harvested. The white area is the bark and the red is where it’s been removed.  cork-oak-505260_1920

Upon our arrival in Sevilla, our first stop was the Plaza de España, built for the Ibero-American Exhibition of 1929. Plaza de España refers to both the plaza and the magnificent,  semi-circular structure anchored by towers at either end connected by porticos. The building is constructed of brick decorated with azulejos (colored ceramic tiles).


Plaza de España showing one of the towers


Plaza de España with the other tower


Portico at Plaza de España


Columns on portico with azulejo decoration

Along the front of the building are 48 alcoves representing the provinces of Spain with benches and murals made of azulejos. Our guide showed us the alcove for Huelva, the province where Cristopher Columbus set sail for the New World.


Alcoves for the provinces along the front of the building


Alcove for the province of Huelva with mural

A canal, with four bridges representing the four ancients kingdoms of Spain, follows the curve of the building.


The canal at Plaza de España


Azulejo (ceramic tile) decoration on a bridge at Plaza de España

Following this impressive introduction to Sevilla, we walked through the old Jewish Quarter, today called Barrio Santa Cruz, to experience the charming and historic atmosphere of the old city.


Walk through the old Jewish Quarter, today called Barrio Santa Cruz


Barrio Santa Cruz, Sevilla


Barrio Santa Cruz


Barrio Santa Cruz

American author, Washington Irving, spent eight years in Spain and wrote several books about the country including Tales from the Alhambra, published in 1832This plaque commemorates his time in Sevilla and his love of Spain.


Plaque honoring Washington Irving, Sevilla

Seeing the abundant orange trees lining the squares in this neighborhood as we had seen them in Cádiz, we inquired whether they were good to eat. Our guide explained that the bitter orange is not good to eat as is, but the bitter or Sevilla orange is used to make marmalade. You can tell if it’s a bitter orange by the leaf. If the leaf has a little bump at the base, it’s bitter.


Sevilla orange


Bitter Sevilla orange with bump at the base

Before a tour of the Real Alcázar, some historical context may be helpful. The Romans ruled the area of Sevilla from the second century, followed by the Vandals and then the Visigoths. The Moors, or Muslims, conquered the area in 711 and ruled Sevilla until 1248 when the Christians under Ferdinand III drove them out. The historical period called the Reconquista, in which Islam was expelled and Christian domination restored, wasn’t finally completed throughout Spain until 1492.

The Alcázar was originally built in Islamic style during the 10th century to house the Moorish governor.  Over the years, however, the palace was rebuilt, restored, and expanded combining both  Islamic and Christian elements to create an architectural style called Mudéjar.

Today, the Spanish royal family stays here when they are in Sevilla. Luckily for us, they were not in residence because the palace is closed to the public when they are present. The palace also served as a film location for several episodes in the fifth season of the HBO series, Game of Thrones. Maybe some of my photos will look familiar to enthusiasts.


Entrance to Real Alcázar


Patio del León, Alcázar


Patio de la Monteria, Real Alcázar


Real Alcázar


Real Alcázar














Sala de la Justicia, part of the original palace







Baños Doña Maria de Padilla, actually a water tank at Alcázar




Gardens at Real Alcázar


Gardens at Real Alcázar


Gardens at Real Alcázar

Following our tour of Real Alcázar, we had free time to tour the cathedral, shop, or get a bite to eat. We chose to find some tapas.


Another stop for Tapas

We planned to see the Santa Maria de la Sene Cathedral of Sevilla, the burial site for Christopher Columbus. When we saw the lines, however, we didn’t want to spend our precious time standing in line so we contented ourselves with viewing the outside.


The Giralda, originally a minaret for an Islamic mosque, today it is the bell tower for the cathedral


Santa Maria de la Sede Cathedral in Sevilla


Santa Maria de la Sede Cathedral, Sevilla


Santa Maria de la Sede Cathedral, Sevilla


El Giraldillo Weathervane outside Santa Maria de la Sene Cathedral, Sevilla


Santa Maria de la Sene Cathedral


Santa Maria de la Sene Cathedral

I’m sure there’s plenty more to see in Sevilla but our day trip was a satisfying introduction.

Based on events from April 2016.


Categories: cruise, Europe, Spain, Uncategorized, UNESCO | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Wrap Up in Anchorage

We wrapped up our epic journey to Alaska in Anchorage, the largest city in the state.  With a population exceeding 300,000, nearly half the state’s residents call Anchorage home. Our hotel, the Westmark, included in our cruise package and owned by Holland America, was well-located downtown. We arrived early in the evening before an afternoon flight out of Anchorage the following day allowing us time for just a brief look around.


Panoramic view from our balcony at the Westmark Hotel, Anchorage

Dinner at Humpy’s came with outside seating made more enjoyable after the brief shower ended. Jim especially liked his caribou sausage but I had seafood again. Thankfully, salmon and halibut would soon be delivered to our door so it wasn’t my last meal of Alaskan seafood.


Jim and Sheryl outside Humpy’s

The following morning we got an early start to make the best use of our time. Anchorage plants more than 80,000 flowers in 270 flower beds throughout the city and we were happy to encounter more than a few on our walkabout.


One of the many flower beds planted around Anchorage each year

Our visit coincided with the Slam’n Salm’n Derby on Ship Creek, an annual fundraiser for the Downtown Soup Kitchen. I was intent on seeing this event so we headed straight for the creek. We overshot the mark, however, and ended up further upstream and found ourselves in a seedier neighborhood than we intended. In retrospect, if we had simply walked directly to the Information Center, we could have explored the area from there. The upside of getting off the beaten path, however, was seeing the Streambank Restoration Project to protect salmon habitat.


Ship Creek Trail


Fishing for salmon on the bank of Ship Creek for the Slam’n Salm’n Derby


More derby fishers at the Bridge at Ship Creek


Derby fisher weighs his catch

I later read the Derby winner for 2015 was a woman who caught a 37.55 lb king salmon early in the 10-day event.

We visited the nearby Ulu Factory and watched a craftsman work on a traditional ulu knife. With a history over 3000 years old, this tool was fashioned and used by native Alaskans and is still used today. We bought one for ourselves and one for a gift. I especially like it for chopping herbs since I don’t skin many seals.


Craftsman working at the Ulu Factory


My Ulu with cutting bowl


The Ulu Factory and Store


Jim with a dogsled displayed outside the Ulu Factory

A quick stop at the Visitor’s Center told us there was plenty more than we had time to see, and we would have to be content with the briefest of tours.


Anchorage Visitor Information Center


Downtown Anchorage

We decided to spend some of our precious time on an exhibit and video presentation of Dave Parkhurst’s photographs of the aurora borealis.  Photography of his work in the exhibit wasn’t allowed but you can check out his images on his website, The Alaska Collection. We once viewed the northern lights in northern Wisconsin and Jim saw them another time while driving in Iowa on I-35 but this show was phenomenal. As a result, I now want to see the aurora borealis in either Alaska or Iceland.


Video presentation of images of the Aurora Borealis by Alaskan photographer Dave Parkhurst

Then it was back to the hotel to grab our luggage and catch a taxi to the airport. As we said goodbye to Alaska, we were treated once again to views of Mt. Denali. What could possibly provide a more lasting impression of Alaska?


Mt. Denali


Mt. Denali




Based on events of June 2015.



Categories: cruise, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

McKinley Explorer

If you’ve followed my posts about Alaska, you’re aware that the name of Mt. McKinley officially changed back to Mt. Denali in September 2015. One of the few remaining references to President McKinley is the McKinley Explorer, the dome railway which we rode from Denali National Park and Preserve to Anchorage, Alaska. I wonder how long it will be until they change the name of the train?


The McKinley Explorer



Our Conductor and his assistant



Selfie and view of the dome car

It was a comfortable ride through the wilderness of Alaska with endless spectacular views and majestic scenery with wildlife sightings of moose, black bear, and beaver. The train crew was more like bartenders hawking specialty drinks and Holland America merchandise but we enjoyed their friendly banter and tour commentary.


View from McKinley Explorer


View from McKinley Explorer


View from McKinley Explorer

And then, we experienced day 3 of Mt. Denali Revealed. Despite a surfeit of superlative scenery, I believe we all continued to feel awe and reverence at every sight of this majestic mountain. I know I did.


Mt Denali peaking through the trees


Mt Denali from the McKinley Explorer


Mt. Denali


Mt. Denali

Our continued sightings of Mt. Denali were all the more remarkable considering the ongoing smoke from the Sockeye Fire north of Willow. As we approached the area of the wildfire, we saw many acres of burned trees and ground cover, continued smoke in the air, and fire-retardant along the tracks.


Effects of Sockeye Fire near Willow, Alaska


View from the train of the Sockeye Fire


Sockeye Fire effects


Sockeye Fire, Willow, Alaska


Firefighter as seen from the McKinley Explorer

At one point, our train stopped and we weren’t sure we’d be able to continue. There were firefighters on either side of the tracks and the fire had jumped the tracks. No announcements were made so it was purely speculation on our part but we suspected danger. We heard that the day before they had to turn off the air conditioning through the fire area and the train cars got unbearably hot. Sheryl later met a woman who told her while traveling on the train the day before us, they were transferred to buses, then transferred back to the train again because the road wasn’t safe. They saw blazing fires and lots of smoke along the way. As I wrote in my previous post, Scenes from the Bus to Denali, the Sockeye Fire, caused by negligence, destroyed 7220 acres and 55 homes at a cost of $8 million.

We finally arrived unharmed in Anchorage but our luggage was not as fortunate. Some of the bags were dirty and seriously damaged. The luggage was transported separately by truck and HAL staff explained that they had to take gravel roads to avoid fire areas. This was an adventure we’d all just as soon have missed but I hope everyone learned the lesson. Do not leave fires unattended.

Based on events of June 2015.







Categories: cruise, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Leaving Vancouver

Before leaving Vancouver, I’d like to share just a couple more places that we found worthwhile.

We walked through Gastown, which has been restored and today is a popular neighborhood frequented by tourists. You may recall from an earlier post about Vancouver that Gastown was the original town that preceded and was replaced by Vancouver. I read about the Gastown Steam Clock and mistakenly thought it was original to Victorian Gastown. It was actually built and installed in 1977 by Raymond L. Saunders as part of the revival of the neighborhood. In reality, the clock isn’t totally steam-powered; it also employs gravity and electricity to operate the weights. The sign on-site explains that “the live steam winds the weights and blows the whistles.” It is nevertheless, a favorite among tourists and one of those “can’t miss” attractions.

Gastown Steam Clock, Vancouver

Gastown Steam Clock, Vancouver

In nearby Chinatown, we visited the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, a tranquil oasis in the middle of this large, bustling, cosmopolitan city. The garden consists of a free park and the garden that charges admission. We visited the free park.

Chinatown, Vancouver

Chinatown, Vancouver

The entrance to the garden that charges $12 admission is located next to the sign shown in the picture below.

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden

Entrance to Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden

Continue past the first entrance to find the entrance to the free park behind the statue of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen in the plaza.

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen

The entrance to Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park is behind this statue

The park provided us with a lovely serene respite with lots of bamboo plants and ponds with koi and turtles.

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden

The signs of the Chinese zodiac were embedded in the surface of the plaza and we each found our sign based on our birth year. I was born in the year of the snake. Those born in the year of the snake are (supposedly): intelligent and wise, good communicators, deep thinkers, easily stressed by a noisy environment, needing lots of time and vacation for relaxation. Hmmm, good to know.

Chinese Zodiac at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden

Chinese Zodiac at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden

Food is such an important and memorable aspect of any trip for me that I have to share our dining experiences and a few food recommendations. First of all, let me say that our breakfasts at the Barclay House were lovely and they were so kind to accommodate my gluten free diet.

Breakfast at Barclay House

Breakfast at Barclay House

While exploring the waterfront near the convention center, we discovered hapa izakaya. (They use lower case letters so I did, too.) The sushi and the torched hamachi and scallops were in a word, outstanding. Our server explained that patrons generally share plates so we followed suit, getting to taste and enjoy more dishes.

Dinner at hapa izakaya

hapa izakaya

Over breakfast at our B&B, one of the other guests told us about a nearby Greek restaurant, Stepho’s Souvlaki Greek Taverna. We thought we’d check it out and, as luck would have it, we happened to spot the restaurant by chance when we were beginning to feel a bit peckish.

Stepho's Souvlaki and Greek Taverna

Stepho’s Souvlaki and Greek Taverna

Restaurants in a city are usually quite expensive, but the prices at Stepho’s were reasonable and the portions were generous. We started with a favorite of mine, saganaki, a Greek appetizer of fried cheese.

Saganaki at Stepho's

Saganaki at Stepho’s

Sheryl and I each ordered the two skewer option of souvlaki so that we could trade and try both the lamb and the prawns.  Jim got the house specialty which was the roast lamb that came with an extra side of vegetables in tomato sauce. We all agreed our food and the house wine were good. When I return to Vancouver, I will definitely return to Stepho’s.

Prawn Souvlaki

Prawn Souvlaki with Greek salad, rice pilaf, and roast potato

Lamb Souvlaki

Lamb Souvlaki with Greek salad, rice pilaf, and roast potato

Roast Lamb

Roast Lamb, Greek salad, rice pilaf, roast potato, vege briami

Japadog is a Vancouver original and an institution in the city. Started by immigrants from Japan, this couple began with an idea for a hotdog stand with a distinctively Japanese flair, hence they named it Japadog. I read about it online and we were determined to find it and give it a try. Although we were looking for a food cart along the street, it turned out they’ve expanded several times and while there are still food carts in various places, there is now an actual storefront at 530 Robson Street.


Jim and Sheryl at Japadog

You can see on the sign below several of the best sellers were sold out so we had fewer choices. At first, I resisted the original best seller, Terimayo, because it contained seaweed but in the end, I wanted an authentic experience so I ordered it. (Well, I requested no bun since I’m gluten free which caused raised eyebrows and may have also affected the “authenticity.”) While I heartily dislike seaweed alone, the taste of the seaweed strips on top of the hotdog combined with the teriyaki mayo was actually very yummy.

Menu at Japadog

Menu at Japadog

Terimayo Japadog, no bun

My Terimayo Japadog, no bun


Japadog combo with fries and drink

I’m sure there are many more interesting places to go, things to see, and food to eat in Vancouver, but I think we covered a good bit of ground in less than two days. It’s a great city.

Based on events of June 2015

Categories: Canada | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

North to Alaska 2015

I’ve known since 2012 it was time to go to Alaska. That was the year Jim and I went to Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine bringing to 49 our total states visited. Prior to that, my state total was 46 and Jim’s was 43. Honestly, Alaska was never really on my short list but when it’s the only state in the U.S. you haven’t visited, it’s time to make a plan.

I sent for the Alaska Official State Vacation Planner at to begin my research. The sample itineraries in the planner were invaluable for narrowing the options. Many friends cited their Alaskan cruise as their best trip ever so I began exploring cruises. Most itineraries depart from Seattle or Vancouver and typically include the inside passage. A cruise seemed like a pretty efficient way to start to see our largest state but frankly, it looked like we’d barely scratch the surface of this vast area. That realization caused me to look at a combination cruise and land tour. The cruise tour would add a land trip by coach and train to Denali National Park with possible views of Mt. Denali, aka McKinley, the highest peak in North America.

Recommendations and research led me to Holland America, the largest tour operator in Alaska. I knew I wanted to go in June and I wanted to get the best price for a stateroom with a verandah on the starboard side, hoping to spot wildlife as we cruised north. I didn’t have a preference for a particular ship or whether the land portion was before or after the cruise, but I did prefer a cruise starting or ending in Vancouver. We’ve never cruised Holland America before but Norwegian, my usual cruise operator, couldn’t beat their price so I booked with HAL.

Holland America

Holland America Cruise Line Logo

Our original price was just short of $2500 per person but then a friend, Sheryl, decided to go with us so with three in the cabin the price went down to $2035 each.  Then the closer we got to our departure date, the more emails HAL sent us offering upgrades and the lower the cost was for the upgrade. With three in our cabin, we decided to spring for the suite upgrade for an additional $100 each which gave us considerable extra space both in the cabin and on our verandah plus two sinks and a whirlpool tub in the biggest bathroom I’ve ever seen on a cruise ship. The total for the three of us for the 11 Day Double Denali which included the 7 day cruise, coach to Denali, 2 nights lodging in Denali, tour of Denali, domed rail trip to Anchorage, and one night of lodging in Anchorage was $6400 or about $194 per person per day. I tell you this for reference purposes in case you want to go to Alaska. I do believe I got the best deal available at the time.

Here’s our itinerary from HAL’s website:

Day/ Port
1 Vancouver
Sail from Vancouver, glide under Lion’s Gate Bridge, and enter the scenic wonders of the Inside Passage
2 At Sea
Relax and enjoy a full day of scenic Inside Passage cruising and immerse yourself in Holland America Line elegance
3 Ketchikan
Explore this uniquely Alaskan port, famous for its rich native culture, salmon fishing, and scenic Misty Fjords
4 Juneau
Enjoy a full day of exploring Alaska’s capital-choose from exciting shore excursions and still have time to shop
5 Skagway
Step back to the days of the last great gold rush-choose from exciting shore excursions and still have time to shop
6 Glacier Bay
Cruise the ice-studded fjords of this national treasure for a full eight hours as a Park Service Ranger narrates
7 At Sea (Gulf of Alaska)
Enjoy a leisurely day of cruising
8 Denali National Park
Disembark and enjoy deluxe motorcoach sightseeing to Denali National Park for a two-night stay at this majestic national treasure (lunch included)
9 Denali National Park
Venture deep into Denali on the Tundra Wilderness Tour (snack included), the best way to see wildlife and hopefully Mt. McKinley too
10 Anchorage
This morning, board the luxurious domed rail cars of the McKinley Explorer bound for Anchorage
11 Anchorage
Your Land + Sea Journey concludes this morning in Anchorage.

Map View

Itinerary Map View

The cruise began in Vancouver, B.C, and ended in Anchorage, so after booking the cruise, my next goal was to find and book reasonable “open jaw” airfare. (Open jaw means your roundtrip is from different airports, e.g., the departure is DesMoines to Vancouver and the return is Anchorage to DesMoines. I searched on Kayak but I’ve since learned about ITA Matrix and I’ll try that, too, next time. As long as we were going to be in Vancouver, we wanted to explore the city a bit but the less expensive flights were mostly red-eye or arrived late in the day. I found two one-way tickets actually offered the best times and rates in this instance. Orbitz offered a one way from DesMoines to Vancouver on Air Canada for $291.59 and Delta had a return from Anchorage to DesMoines for $404, bringing the roundtrip total to $695.59. It seemed high but summer flights to Alaska are expensive so I booked it.

Finally, we needed two nights accommodations in Vancouver to allow plenty of time before the cruise in case we had flight delays and to properly see the city. Hotels there are very expensive, as I soon found out. I found a Hampton Inn at $260 a night and booked it but canceled it when I found a darling bed and breakfast, the Barclay House, in a great walkable neighborhood for $230. That rate changed when we added Sheryl to our room, but it was still lower than the hotel would have been if we added a third person.

Barclay House

Barclay House

So, with all the arrangements made, we were ready to set sail to visit our 50th state in June 2015.

Next time I’ll show and tell you all about our departure port, Vancouver, B.C.

Based on events from June 2015

Categories: Canada, cruise, USA | Tags: , | 10 Comments

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