Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014 25th Anniversary Trip Part 8: Colon & Panama City

Welcome to part 8 of this series, getting very close to the whole purpose of this cruise, the Panama Canal. Today our ship docked on the Caribbean side of the canal at Colon.

The Monarch
Our ship arrived at Colon first thing the morning. We got to see a former RCI ship, the Monarch of the Seas, now simply call The Monarch and owned by Pullmur. It is a smaller ship than the Legend that RCI let got a couple of years prior.

We had booked a non-cruise ship shore excursion, which is considered risky by most, and believe me I was concerned. The name of the tour group is My Friend Mario, or Almiza Tours. We were given very detailed directions on where to meet the tour guide with a warning that other folks may try to say they our tour guide, but in reality, they may not be. When we walked off the ship we headed straight to the meeting point, and we were accosted by several other tour operators along the way. But we found our Tour Guide right at the bottom of the escalator just as promised. Apparently this was Mario # 3, and we were to be with Mario # 2 (there are at least 4 Marios that work for this company). He said we had to wait since they were waiting for others to come off the cruise ship as well, and directed us to the gift shops nearby to wait.

Balboa Statue
About 20 minutes later we were all lead down to waiting mini-buses. But Cyn and I were told to wait as they were loading up 2 other tours first. We then found out that Cyn and I were the only 2 people who signed up for the Panama City and Canal tour. So we were going to ride in the back of Mario #2's taxi for a personal tour. This had me a little more nervous, as I figured the rates we to pay I would have guessed would require more people.

We got into the car and Mario started driving first to a gas station to fill up. Colon is a very run down and in fact very scary city. Very dirty and just felt very uncomfortable, and this from an ex-New Yorker. Luckily our tour had nothing to do with Colon... Soon enough we were on our way. First Mario started heading to the Gatun locks, but decided against it as all the cruise ship buses were heading that way, so change of plan and we headed straight to Panama City.  

Church at the main square in San Felipe
Mario, while driving, gave us a great history of Panama, including what fruits grow there and the weather. He very much stressed the importance of the Canal and Balboa in the development of Panama. The only scary part is he was pointing out features on laminated maps to us while driving at 60mph... Balboa is such an influence in Panama, that many roads in Panama City are called Balboa, the port is called Balboa, there is Balboa Statue, and the currency is called Balboa's. The US Dollar is directly interchangeable with Balboas in a 1:1 ratio and both are widely accepted  in Panama.

Modern Panama City from Ancon Hill
Soon enough we were in Panama City which is a traffic nightmare. We drove by an elevated station of the Panama Metro, which was not quite opened yet (it should have been open the month before, but did not open until May). We went by the ruins of the original Panama City, comparing it to the modern Panama City, then headed to the old town (San Felipe) for lunch. We ate a nice cafe/hotel. We picked up lunch for Mario, as thus far he was doing a great job of giving us a personal tour. We then walked around the old town. I got to see tracks in the streets of the old streetcar line in town. He pointed out the differences between French and Spanish influenced homes and old churches. We saw cruise ship tour groups walking around, and Cyn and I felt confident we were getting a much better tour.We walked along the sea wall and stopped inside an air conditioned church.
Panama City from Ancon Hill

Our next stop was going to the top of Ancon hill, which was part of the old American military base. We got a beautiful view of Panama City and the Canal. I then checked to see fi a cache was nearby, and yes there was about 250 ft from where I was. So while my wife walked around the hill with Mario, I quickly side-tracked to find the cache. It was a quick find. Caches hides here have to be weather proofed due to all the rain they get. The cache was double bagged, as well as the log...
Miraflores Locks

After Ancon hill, Mario took us to the Miraflores Locks visitor center. We spent a good hour at the center. Mario got us brochures that the cruise ship groups were giving out, which was cool. We watched sail boats as well as a large freighter go thru the locks.

It was starting to get dark, so we headed back to Colon. Again seeing Colon, I have no interest and touring that city, but Panama City was wonderful! We got back in plenty time to do some shopping at the port. We paid Mario for the tour (Which was less then half the cost of the Cruise ship tour to Panama City), plus a pretty hefty tip for the great job he did. I would recommend My Friend Mario tour anytime!

On board ship we ate in the main dining room and saw the evening entertainment, Glenn Smith, pianist/entertainer who was fun to watch...

Next stop: Transit the Panama Canal!! 
Sail boats going thru MiraFlores Locks
Old Streetcar tracks in San Felipe
San Felipe
San Felipe

San Felipe
Americas Bridge
San Felipe

Sunday, December 28, 2014

2014 25th Anniversary Trip Part 7: Cartegena, Columbia

Welcome to Part 7 of our anniversary trip. Today was our first Port-of-Call on the ship, Cartegena, Columbia.

We booked a city tour which included some entertainment and a beverage. We boarded our mini-bus on the dock right by the ship. Our driver was missing some fingers, but seemed to be able to drive around okay. Cartegena maybe a historic city, but it is not a very pretty one. Very pushy hawkers would flood the bus doors every time we got out to look around. Cyn and I avoided them like the plague. We did go up tot he old church on top of the hill overlooking the city which was quite nice. We saw the ruins of an old Spanish fort. We went into the market place, with pushy vendors.

Our break was at a small cafe along the waterfront. Local dancers did a nice routine for the the cruise ship tourist. I got to try the local Columbia beer, which wasn't bad. We then went on a walking tour thru the old city whcih was pretty neat before be shuffled onto the mini-bus to head back (A bit rushed). 

I did get to see the makings of what is to be a Bus Rapid Transit System. There were stations in the middle of some streets. In doing some
Columbian Beer
research, that BRT has been under on/off construction for some time. The traffic in the city is horrendous, and filled with Jitney buses. A full fledged transit system is needed, but who knows if it will ever get finished. 

Once back at the dock, I went out to grab one geocache that was right by the cruise ships. The coords on the GC page were way off, but reading the logs made finding this cache easy, and my first, and only cache in Columbia.

I believe we skipped the evening show that evening and just ate in the main dining room.

Spanish fort

Old Church courtyard

City view
Cruise Ship Mini-buses everywhere

Cruise Ship Port

Future (maybe?) BRT Station

This guy wanted money for photos to be taken, I got him while on the bus...

Old Town, reminds me of New Orleans

Old Town
New Cartegena

Old Tpow

2014 25th Anniversary Trip Part 6: Boarding the Cruise Ship & 2 days at Sea

Welcome to Part 6 of our 25th Anniversary trip. Here we are embarking on out next leg of our trip by boarding on our Cruise Ship...

Tri-Rail at Dania Beach Station
We woke up that Monday morning with a lot of excitement, as today we were boarding our Cruise Ship to head to the Panama Canal. First though, I needed to get a couple of geocaches and do some rail photography. We were staying at the Marriott Courtyard near Ft. Lauderdale Airport. It just so happened to be across the street from the Ft. Lauderdale Airport Tri-Rail Station. Tri-Rail is a Commuter rail line that runs to Miami with trains running pretty frequently, especially on a weekday. I found the geocaches quick enough (one was specifically for Tri-Rail), and got several images of the trains coming in.

Our home for the next 15 days
After breakfast we brought our luggage down as the hotel offered a free shuttle to the cruise port. There were 3 ships at the cruise terminal, so our mini-bus was full, and everyone's luggage was put in a trailer behind the bus. Soon enough we were at the cruise port and dropping off our luggage to be delivered to our stateroom later. We got through check-in pretty quick (I forgot to bring one check-in document, but they found us quick enough). We were able to go straight on-board, but were not allowed in out stateroom for another 30 minutes.

Our ship was Royal Caribbean's Legend of the Seas. It is one of RCI's smallest cruise ships. There were to be about 1700 passengers on board. Our stateroom was on deck 6, an interior room. Our only other cruise was also in interior room. The room was pretty good size and were were just a short walk to the Centrum and a quaint coffee shop. I'll cover that more in a later post. Our luggage arrived several hours later. 

We went up on deck when it was time to leave port which is always fun to watch us head out to sea and wave to the folks on shore.

We had opted for my time dining, but I had already made our dinner reservation times for every night, but I varied the times. We ere very happy with this approach as we got to seat with different people every night. Our dinner the first night was at the same time as the welcome entertainment show was going on. But from what we understand we did not miss much..

The next two days were spent at sea. For a portion of these 2 days the seas were a bit rough, but we got used to it. We did some of the activities on board. One of the more fun ones was attending a gathering by Cruise Critic. I had did research for this cruise using Cruise Critic and had entered the Roll Call forum for this specific cruise. As such, we were invited to a small reception in the Viking Crown Lounge. We got small gifts from RCI and met fellow cruisers. We were able to join a group to do a room crawl. Some of the CC members opened up their room for tours, this way we go see other types of rooms. We saw everything from an interior room like our to a mini-suite. We really enjoyed seeing what the options were.
Flaming dessert at Chops Grill

The main show on day 2 was by a group called Horizon who sang Motown hits, and were enjoyable. For dinner on Day 2, it was our actual 25th wedding anniversary. It was also formal night. We ate at Chops, 1 of 2 specialty dining restaurants on-board. We really enjoyed a great dinner with steak. The staff did a great job of ensuring we had a great time for our anniversary!

On day 3 we watched a sushi making demonstration, and I attended a beer tasting which was fun. The evening show was called "Let's Dance" which was a great show performed by the Legend of the Seas singers and dancers. Dinner we ate in the main dining room. 

Our next stop was our first port of call, that will be in Part 7......

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

2014 25th Anniversary Trip Part 5: Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, Ft. Lauderdale

Fingering 25 Years under the Mickey
hat at Hollywood Studios
Welcome to Part 5 of our Anniversary Journey. It covers 2 more days of our trip. A half-day at Hollywood Studios, Half Day at Animal Kingdom, then our departure from the World heading down to Ft. Lauderdale via Cocoa Beach.

Cyn woke up still feeling pretty awful from her infection from yesterday. So I let her rest in the morning while I did laundry since we still had a huge chunk of vacation in front of us and laundry on Royal Caribbean is not self service, and thus a bit expensive. Laundry at the Pop Century was not far from our room and it was a nice facility.

Ranglan Road
By lunch time Cyn was feeling a little better and we had a date with her Sister Cara at Ranglan Road Irish Restaurant in Downtown Disney. We hopped on the bus to Downtown Disney as we had heard parking is a nightmare. Although the bus ride was a little long in itself. We met up with Cara and enjoyed a great lunch. Cara had driven down for the day from her home in Jacksonville just to meet with us. We sat in-between the stages to had to watch our heads when the dancers were going. We had a great time and enjoyed a stroll thru Downtown Disney. Soon though Cara had to go. Cyn and I went back to the hotel by bus then hopped in our car.

The best attaction in WDW,
Tower of Terror
Our first stop was Epcot Guest Services as Cyn had left her Credit Card at the Beirgarten the night before by accident. Once we got her card we drove over to Hollywood Studios.

The Studios was packed with teenagers as a Cheerleading competition was going on. This made a huge wait times everywhere. We had dinner at the Brown Derby which got us two fastpasses to see Fantasmic. We did get great seats for Fantasmic... We ended the night with myself getting one ride on the most excellent Tower of Terror. Once thru and the park was closing, so we made our way to the exit for the evening.

Mark & Cyn at the Animal Kingdom
The next morning was spent finish packing and loading up the rental car. We headed to Animal Kingdom as soon as we could. We had only been to Animal Kingdom once before soon after it had opened. The park is much bigger and better now. We walked around the taking in all the e-ticket attractions. Our favorite ride was Expedition Everest. The first time we had fastpasses with only a 10 minute wait vs. 30 min for standby. We loved it and wanted to to it again. Now the Standby was nearing 1 hr. So we decided to to the single rider line with 10 minute wait. We lamented that we probably wouldn't get to sit together, but that was okay. I got called first as a single-rider. Then the person who was to be with me disappeared. Next thing I know, Cyn is walking up behind me to join me. How awesome is that in random chance. So we got to ride our now favorite roller coaster twice together! 
Doug from UP! signing autographs

From there we went to the Yak and Yeti for a nice lunch. Soon it was getting close to our next fastpass for Dinosaur. I'm not a big fan of it. I think the Indian Jones ride in Disneyland is a better experience even though the ride systems are identical. Before heading out we saw the Doug (dog) and the Wilderness Explorer from the Pixar movie Up!, We love Doug. Sadly, the line was long and we were running short on time, but at least we got to see him.

We then got to our rental car to start the next leg of our journey. We drove over the Cocoa Beach to meet up with my Aunt Helen and Uncle Harry for a nice dinner at their place. It was great to chat and visit with them. But we had to head south for our final stop of the day was a hotel in Ft. Lauderdale. Along the way Mark stopped a couple of geocaches to drop off a Travel Bug with a specific mission. But due to cache sizes and one spook experience (night caching in Florida is very spooky with creatures all over the place), the mission was overshot by about 40 miles. But at least got him near to his goal. 
Mark's Uncle Harry and Aunt Helen

We got to the hotel around 10:00pm. I then dropped off the rental car at the nearby airport and had the hotel shuttle take me back. Ft Lauderdale airport was a zoo at 11:00pm at night... But we soon got some sleep in preparation for the next exciting portion of our trip, boarding a cruise ship. That will be covered in Part 6....

2014 25th Anniversary Trip Part 4: Magic Kingdom & Epcot

Welcome to Part 4 of the series on our wonderful 25th Anniversary trip. Here we focus on two days at Walt Disney World. We spent on full day at the Magic Kingdom, and a half day at Epcot plus lot of other fun stuff.. 

On March 13th we woke up to head to the Magic Kingdom for the Extra Magic Hour which we could do as a park resort guest. We decided to use the bus system today from our resort. The Disney Busses do accept the motorized scooters, although there is some driving skill needed to park them on the bus. The bus was very full heading to the Magic Kingdom. The advantage of the bus is it ran non-stop to the bus center right by the main gate to the MK. No need to park at the TTC and transfer to the Monorail or Ferry. The bad part was the bus was SRO. 

We arrived at the park in time to see the pre-opening show in front of the train station before rope drop. The entrance plaza was very crowded. From Rope drop we headed to Space Mountain with a 10 minute wait. From there we just leisurely walked around the park hopping on all the popular rides. In the early afternoon we took the bus back to our hotel to rest for a while. We then walked over to the art of Animation Resort to east dinner there before heading back to the park via the bus. 

We did more walking around the park and hitting our favorite rides like Pirates and the Haunted Mansion. Then we headed back to the hotel for the evening.

First Monorail of the day
On the morning of 3/14 we had to get up really early as we had booked a Behind the Magic Steam Train Tour which we needed to be there at around 7am. We drove to the TTC, as the busses were not running yet. We got the very first and closest parking spot as the parking lot was empty! We then boarded the very first resort monorail train of the day (the express monorail did not open until later). We got to the main gate at the MK with 20 minutes to spare before our tour started.
Empty Main Street

The tour involved hopping on a tour only steam train before the park opened. It was odd to see a very empty Main Street. The train then took us to the Steam Train/Monorail maintenance facility (it had to back into the single track spur. There is even a public RR crossing, which Mark took note of for a future visit. We were not allowed into the actual Maintenance building but photography was encouraged. It was neat to be underneath the beams for the Monorail yard above and the old steam train below. A great history of the train fleet was explained and how a steam engine works. They even took us by couples into the cab of one of the engines to show us the layout and take our photo. I wish they would do the same for the monorails. 

Inside the cab of a WDW Steam Engine
Soon the train took us back into the park to complete the circle back to the Main St. Station with no-stops. We had a 15 minute break before heading into the station again for more history about the Walt Disney's fascination of Railroads and why they were at the parks. At the end of the tour we were given special collectible pins to remember the tour by. We both very much enjoyed the tour, as a history fan and a railfan!

Flower and Garden Show

After a short stroll in the park, we then hopped on the monorail to head for lunch at the Grand Floridian Resort. We had  great laid back lunch there. After we felt full, we hopped back on the monorail to the TTC, there we transferred to the Epcot Monorail.

Mary Poppins
At Epcot we rode Mission Space and the revised Test Track before heading into World Showcase. I tried Agent P's adventure game, which was fun for a little while (in Mexico), but the phone soon died. I later got another phone to try in Germany, but it went bad as well. We enjoyed a stroll around the "World". We had photos taken with Pooh and Tigger as well as Mary Poppins. We also enjoyed the Topiary as it was the Flower and Garden show. For dinner we ate at the Biergarten in Germany. We did see the Illuminations before we left, but Cyn was getting very sick. We jumped on the monorail to head back to the TTC to get back to our car. From there we wound up going to a local Urgent Care Clinic. We spent about 2 more hours there. Cyn wound up with a urinary track infection. We got a prescription for it then headed back to the hotel after a very long day.

Stay tuned for Part 5: Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom and to Ft Lauderdale

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

2014 25th Anniversary Trip Part 3: Universal Studios

Mark at the "fake" Hogwarts Express
Welcome to Part 3 on our 25th Wedding Anniversary journey. Here we focus on our day at Universal Studios Resort in Orlando.

We drove to the park first thing tin the morning so we would be at Isles of Adventure at rope drop. We had one goal in mind, to ride Harry Potter's Forbidden Journey. We had been to Universal about 2 years prior, and at the time Cyn tried to ride it, but the latch would not close so they would not her her continue. I rode alone and actually got quite sick on it at the time. But decided it was time to try it again.

We joined the line quickly, but the wait time was about 50 minutes already. Cyn had parked her scooter and was using her cane. When we came up to a junction in the queue, Team-members had us take a different route that did not involve stairs. It did involve 2 elevator rides and a bit of a maze. We were in a special handicap loading area that was separate from the main loading area. It took a while before we were loaded. Cyn was so happy that the restraint more then fit this time. But even after we were loaded we had to wait for a break to join the main track system.
Hogwarts Castle
 This time I fared a bit better, except for the spider scene, I am not a fan of spiders. We had the same reverse maze back. We decided to ride again, but this time the single rider line. This involved stairs, but not too bad. We loaded int he normal loading area this time. Because we did tow non-standard queues we did not the full queue of Forbidden Journey, but that was okay. We rode the Hippogryph and the Dueling roller coasters before having an early lunch at the Three Broomsticks.

After lunch we walked around the park and only rode on Spider-man as it is an awesome trackless ride. Since we had a park hopper ride I really wanted to head over the the Studios to see what we could see of the yet to be open Diagon Alley.

Cyn with a Minion!
We went into the Studios and first stopped and the Minions Ride as Cyn really enjoys those cute yellow guys! Then we were off to Springfield where we stopped at Moe's Tavern for a snack and a brew. We were able to see Diagon Alley, London Waterfront from across the lake, and even the Hogwarts Express Train. But temporary walls prevented us from getting closer. We did ride MIB and slowly walked around the rest of the park before calling it a day at Universal.

That evening we had dinner reservations for Raglan Road, the Irish pub/restaurant in Downtown Disney. It was a bit crazy as the St. Patrick's Day Festival was in full swing. But they did seat us with great view of the dancers and singers. We had a great time before calling it a day back to the hotel.

London Waterfront
So ends part 3 of the trip, with much more to come!!
Howarts Express