South America Cruise – Part 4

Puerto Madryn and Patagonian Penguins.

After two days of sailing from the Falklands we docked at Puerto Madryn Argentina, in the heart of coastal Patagonia. Puerto Madryn is an area of Argentina that was settled by Welsh immigrants in the 19th Century. Many town names are Welsh and we were told a Welsh dialect is still spoken along with Spanish, of course.

Our excursion to the penguin colony at Punta Tombo Wildlife Reserve was eight hours long. The coach ride was two hours one-way, the last 30-minutes or so by gravel road.

Punto Tombo is a nesting site for the Magellanic Penguins, a smaller penguin species that is found in more moderate climates (not the Antarctic). It is reported that this rookery is the home for up to one million penguins during the summer when they lay their eggs, incubate and hatch chicks. By March/April the chicks are mature and the colony migrates north, returning once again the Punta Tombo in the Fall.

Magellanic Penguins mate for life and always return to the same nest. The nests here are either shallow burrows in the sand or under thick bushes. The mating pairs separate during the northerly migration and when they return in the Fall, find each other by their unique calls. The juveniles have “fluffy” feathers.

The Punta Tombo reserve has boardwalks and roped off trails that go through the nesting area. The tour guides will stop everyone if a penguin is crossing the “people path”, we don’t want to disturb or agitate these little guys, after all, we are on their turf. You do get up close to these critters and they are quite adorable (but smelly). There were thousands of them, so we finally got to see more than enough penguins.


Caution…. Penguins Crossing!


Walking with penguins…..



Cruise is winding down…

After the Puerto Madryn visit we sail for two days then dock in Montevideo Uruguay for a one day port visit. After Montevideo, we cross the Rio de La Platte to Buenos Aires and our cruise will end there on February 10th. However, we will continue our stay in South America for another nine days visiting Mendoza Argentina, back to Montevideo and Buenos Aires before heading home on February 19th. We will post more from this trip, so stay tuned.

Useful Links…

Puerto Madryn

Punta Tombo

Magellanic Penguins

South America Cruise – Part 3

Rounding the Horn… Punta Arenas & Ushuaia

We spent several days cruising the southern tip of South America with port stops in Punta Arenas Chile, Ushuaia Argentina, and then sailing around Cape Horn to enter the South Atlantic.

Punta Arenas

We spent a day in Punta Arenas and we opted for the included walking tour of the town. The ship was alongside the main dock which is in the center of town and our walking tour started right from the dock. We had an excellent local guide.

It was a bit disheartening to see the damage, graffiti and vandalism to buildings and monuments from the recent riots and unrest. The highlight of the tour was the walk up to a hilltop vista point (steep sidewalks and lots of steps) which offered a great view of the town with Magellan Strait in the background.





Ushuaia, Argentina

An overnight sail from Punta Arenas brought us back out through the Magellan Strait, then into the Beagle Channel for an early morning arrival in Ushuaia Argentina on January 31st.

Ushuaia Argentina is the worlds southern most city and it is a main departure point for Antarctic expeditions. The city is located on Tierra el Fuego and is known as the “End of the World”. It has colorful buildings and is surrounded by snow covered mountains which provide a very scenic backdrop.

We had a brief bus tour around the city and we spent the afternoon walking around the small downtown and along the waterfront. We found the Hard Rock Cafe, I suppose it would be the southern most Hard Rock Cafe in the world. At the recommendation of our tour director David, we visited the Laguna Negra chocolate shop. According to David it is one of the best chocolate shops in South America. We ended up buying a kilo of assorted chocolates and definitely agree with our tour director.

The port is very busy and the dock where we tied up was full of the smaller Antarctic Expedition cruise ships. We left late in the afternoon for the overnight sail to Cape Horn.






Rounding Cape Horn

We arrive at Cape Horn at around 8am on February 1st. Cape Horn is actually an island so after viewing the actual southern most point with the famous Cape Horn lighthouse, we sailed around the island and then headed northeast for our next destination, Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. As we sailed around Cape Horn, there were other smaller cruise ships sailing around the area. As we entered the Atlantic Ocean the winds and the seas picked up a bit so it was a bit rough for much of the day and overnight sail towards the Falklands.



Falkland Islands

We were looking forward to the visit to the Falklands. There were quite a few interesting shore excursions available and we chose two excursions that involved scenic drives and visits to penguin areas.

During the port briefing the night before our arrival we were told there was a possibility that high winds would prevent tender boat operations, thus cancelling the Falkland shore visits. The final decision would be made in the morning when we anchored, when the Captain could assess the conditions and forecasts.

In the morning, it appeared that the winds were favorable, so we were all at our departure assembly points waiting for our turn to board the tenders. The early tour groups actually got ashore but then the winds started picking up an the forecast was not good. The Captain decided to cancel all shore tours and recalled all who already made it ashore. Needless to say, there was a lot of disappointed passengers, but we totally respect the Captains decision. If several hundred passengers were ashore and could not be returned to the ship the whole remain cruise itinerary could have been jeopardized. In addition Port Stanley does not have hotel accommodations to handle that many people and they would have been housed in local school gyms or auditoriums.

So we left the Falklands for the two day sail to Puerto Madryn Argentina where we hope to see penguins.




It is the half way point of our South American Cruise. Nine more days to go as the sunsets on the first half of our voyage.


Useful Links

Punta Arenas Chile

Ushuaia Argentina

Luguna Negra Chocolates

South America Cruise – Part 2

Chilean Fjords & Glaciers

Puerto Montt

As we cruised south along the Clilean coast, our first port of call was Puerto Montt in what’s called Chile’s lakes region. Since there was no large dock facilities, we anchored in the harbor and used the ship’s tender boats to get ashore.

The lakes region is a popular hiking and adventure area of Chile and most of our cruise’s optional excursions were focused on high activity. There were demanding hiking tours, white water rafting and horseback riding. We decided to do the included excursion, a coach tour of the town and a visit to the small town of Puerto Varas on the shore of Lake Llanquihue, one of Chile’s largest lakes.

Puerto Varas is a resort town that has summer activities such as boating, hiking, and water sports. There is also a winter influx because of skiing in nearby mountains.

We had an hour of free time to wander the town. The lakefront park and walkway offered some stunning views with two volcanoes in the background. The cone shaped Mt. Osorno looks very much like Japan’s Mt. Fuji.

There was a small artisan center where local handcrafted goods could be purchased. In this part of Chile many German immigrants settled in the mid 19th Century, so many of the buildings, homes and gardens maintain a German look. The local food still retains quite a bit of German influence as well.



After a few hours ashore we returned to the ship and our ship departed late afternoon to cruise south through the inner passage and Fjords, next stop, Amalia Glacier.

Amalia Glacier and beyond

Sailing south from Puerto Montt, we left the protection of the inland channel and headed out into the open Pacific. A gale force westerly wind greeted us with its accompanying 15-20ft waves which gave us a bit of a rough ride for the rest of the afternoon and overnight, but we were treated to another beautiful Pacific sunset.

Impressive Pacific taken from our veranda with a GoPro

The next morning we entered the shelter of another inland passage as we headed to the Amalia Glacier. This area reminds us so much of Alaska waters. The waterway is surrounded by big snow covered mountains with deep U- shaped glacial valleys and the occasional mountain Glacier. As we cruised deeper into the bay, the Amalia Glacier came into view. The Captain was able to maneuver the ship within a mile of the glacier and we hovered there for about an hour giving everyone a great view.



Leaving the glacier behind, we headed for our next destinations; Magellan Strait, Punta Arenas, Ushuaia Argentina and then around Cape Horn into the Atlantic Ocean.

Useful Links

Puerto Montt

Puerto Varas

Osorno Volcano

Amalia Glacier

Brussels Christmas Market

Christmas time for me evokes many warm childhood memories. Decorating our family tree, shopping with mom in the big department stores all decked out with lights and displays, and of course, Santa Claus. I remember how excited we would get as Christmas day approach; the anticipation was palpable.

Many if not most of our Christmas traditions are deeply rooted in European culture. From the Christmas stories we read, Christmas TV shows and movies, Christmas music and Hallmark cards, all seem to depict those Dickensian or Currier & Ives themed scenes of a simpler time. What’s more traditional than the Christmas Market? These Christmas Markets date back to the Middle Ages celebrating the Advent season leading up to Christmas day.

What is it about European Christmas Markets that keeps drawing us back? When you walk the cobblestone streets of a European Christmas Market, usually located at the main Cathedral square or at centuries old town hall plazas, the past seems to come alive. Vendor chalets selling hand crafted ornaments, decorations or toys, plenty of local street food and the famous hot mulled wine (German Gluhwein or French Vin Chaud). For me this is magical, reinforcing the Christmas Spirit.

This years Christmas Market visit was to Brussels. Flying on the day after Thanksgiving, arriving for the opening weekend of Brussels’ Plaisirs D’hiver or Winter Wonders celebrations. The festivities are spread throughout the city and my hotel was in front of the main Christmas Market at Place Sainte-Catherineis.

The crowds were huge for the opening weekend with all ages; families with kids, young and older adults, lots of locals and tourists. Obviously a very popular place at Christmas time.

The Sights & Sounds of Brussels’ Christmas Markets

The main Christmas Market at Place Sainte-Catherineis with over 200 vendor chalets was located right across the street from my hotel, the Brussels Welcome Hotel. The hotel was quaint and quirky, with each room decorated in a different country decor. My room, the Cuba Room had a model of a ’57 Chevy convertible on the door (instead of a number), and the interior had cigar themed pictures and decorations plus a large wall mural of an old Havana building facade. The owners, Michel & Sophie and their staff were very friendly and helpful. They had their own chalet at the Christmas Market that featured oysters and champagne, that’s classy!

Speaking of the food, this Christmas Market had most of the typical fare; German bratwurst, pretzels, other comfort food, and of course, the Gluhwein. But there were some upscale selections as well, such as escargot, Russian caviar and vodka, along with the local favorites, fresh Mussels, Belgian chocolate and Belgian waffles. Fortunately there is a lot of walking at these Christmas Markets, so you can burn off those excess calories.

Food

There were several other Christmas Markets within walking distance. Grand Place, the main city square, with its towering 17th Century city hall surrounded by the gold trimmed Guild Halls, featured a large Christmas Tree in the center of the square. Grand Place was the site of an amazing light and sound show, presented every evening (several showings each night), with colorful lights projected against the facades of the old buildings.

Grand Place Light & Sound Show video

After a week in Brussels it was time to go home. This was the last trip for our 2019 travel season. Another Christmas Market completed and awaiting the New Year for new and exciting travel adventures.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year Everyone!

Northern Arizona Recap

Our 1-Week Northern Arizona Vacation…. Nov 2-9, 2019

The last time we visited Northern Arizona was in November of 1973. I was in the Navy stationed on a nuclear submarine out of San Diego. After a grueling 9-month WestPac deployment, I took some R&R leave when Kathie and I visited Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Lake Powell and Las Vegas.

Grand Canyon… November 1973
Kathie admiring the Grand Canyon Views, November 1973

Fast forward 46 years and Grand Canyon was part of our recent visit, which was seven days (Nov 2-9). We spent the first four nights in Flagstaff and the final three nights in Sedona.

Flagstaff Area

While in Flagstaff, we visited:

Our hotel in Flagstaff was the Residence Inn, which is a relatively new hotel located right in the historic downtown district. Walking distance to the many restaurants, cafes, pubs, micro-breweries and wine bars of Flagstaff.

Sedona Area

We spent our last three days in the Sedona area. Our hotel, the Holiday Inn Express is actually in Oak Creek which is several miles outside Sedona proper.

The drive into Sedona on state route 179 from Interstate 17 offers an amazing welcoming view of the Sedona valley. The stunning red rock buttes rise up from the desert floor and in the late Fall sun, the lighting and colors are spectacular. Any visit to Sedona must include a drive up the the airport lookout area. This vantage point offers wide panoramas of Sedona and the surrounding area. It’s best to go there at sunset.

One of the attractions not too far from Sedona is the Verde Canyon Railroad, located in Clarksdale, about 40 minutes south of Sedona. This is a sightseeing excursion train that runs along the Verde River and goes through the deep, red rock canyons offering spectacular scenery. Since this was November, the cottonwood, aspen and sycamore trees were in full Fall colors, which added to the beauty of this area.

Short video of our ride on the Verde Canyon Railroad

Beauty of the Douro Valley

Our previous blog post, “Cruising the Douro River”, had quite a bit of detail, photo’s and video clips of our Viking River Cruise along Portugal’s beautiful Douro River Valley. At the end of that long blog post was a slideshow that captured the panoramic beauty we encountered on the journey. For those who enjoy viewing the photo’s, here is that slide show………

Douro Valley Panorama

Cruising on the Douro River

The actual river cruise portion of our trip started on Saturday, October 12, 2019. Our ship, the Viking Torgil, left from city of Vila Nova de Gaia near the mouth of the Douro River at Porto and traveled about 200km to Barca d’Alva at the Spanish border (of course then returning to Porto) and along the way, some of the most beautiful scenery unfolds around each bend of the river. Due to navigation regulations, ships can only transit the river during daylight, which is perfect for sightseeing. At night the ship is docked at small riverside towns and various shore excursions are scheduled around these stops.

The river winds through miles and miles of the valley where steep man-made hillside terraced vineyards rise up from the river’s edge. These terraces were built centuries ago and grapes are still picked by hand. Wine has been produced in the area for more than 2,000 years, but it was not until 1756 that the industry became organized and internationally recognized.

As the ship moves further upstream, the true story of the area’s wine country begins to unfold. Here, in the Alto Douro Wine Region, winding roads pattern the landscape, leading up to wonderfully lush vineyards. Gleaming white quintas, or wine estates, are visible and offer a glimpse of a traditional way of life that has existed for centuries.

Sightseeing along the Douro
Sunrise on the Douro
Passing sister ship “Viking Osfrid”

Dams and Locks

The trip up to Barca d’Alva requires passing through five locks that are connected with large dams. The dams were build in the 1970’s-80’s for flood control and hydro-electric power. The lock systems allow larger vessel traffic to navigate the Douro and, of course, opened up the river cruise tourism industry. Each lock raises the vessel above the dam and the lock at Carrapatelo Lock Dam is one of the highest locks in the world at 35 meters. The ship also passes under many bridges, some are very low and there is very little clearance. The ship’s pilothouse can be hydraulically lowered, and all masts are lowered. It’s quite a thrill to be on the sundeck when passing under low bridges. At one particular bridge, the crew required everyone on the sundeck to remain seated.

Going through the Crestuma – Lever Dam/Lock, Carrapatelo Dam/Lock, low bridges and narrow, rocky passages.

Shore Excursions

Mateus Palace

A stop in the area’s largest riverside town, Regua which is an important transportation crossroads and where the steep hills and terraced vineyards begin to rise above the river. In nearby Vila Real is one of the region’s most elegant houses—Mateus Palace. This 18th-century baroque house and gardens, once belonging to local counts. The house’s interior is an extravagant display of period furnishings and decor while its gardens, among the finest in Portugal, feature a 115-foot-long tunnel carved from fragrant cedar trees. Today, the estate enjoys celebrity status: It is depicted on the labels of Mateus Rosé, though the wine is produced elsewhere.

Mateus Palace
Who remembers drinking Mateus?

Favaios

A visit and tour of the Favaios’ wine cooperative, Adega Cooperativa de Favaios, provided incite into this area’s very famous wine, Moscatel de Favaios. Our visit coincided with the end of the harvests season, where we saw lots of activity. The tour was followed by a tasting of this Moscatel variety, which is nothing like that fortified “Muscatel” wine we may remember from our youth.

After the winery visit we did a walking tour of the small town of Favaios with visit to a famous family run bakery that produces the local “four corners bread”. The baker, Dona Manuela, a grandmother, has been featured in Viking Cruise’s promotional videos.

Salamanca, Spain

When the ship docked at Barca d’Alva we had a full day excursion over to Salamanca Spain for a walking tour of that city, visiting several interesting sights along with free time for lunch. The coach ride was about 2-hours.

We started our tour with a visit to the main indoor market, Mercado Central, where Viking had arranged a tasting of the local cured hams, cheeses, olives, and of course, some wine. There were a number of carnicerías (butcher shops) with the famous Jamon Iberico hanging on display. You see many grades of Jamon Iberico (acorn fed aged black pig leg), and some were priced as much as EU499! Several fish markets featured a variety of fresh seafood, but also had lots of salted cod, the local staple of the Iberian Peninsula. Then there were plenty of fruits and vegetables, bakeries and some specialty shops featuring Spain’s famous saffron. We did buy some saffron, it was expensive, but not as much as we would pay here at home. We will need to get out our favorite paella recipe!

Our walking tour with a local guide was interesting, but the weather didn’t cooperate, with rain showers turning into more steady rain fall. This was the first bad weather day we encountered on the cruise.

A visit to the Salamanca Cathedral gave us a chance to get out of the rain. There are two cathedrals, the Old Cathedral and New Cathedral. Back in the 16th Century it was decided that the original cathedral was too small, so a new, larger cathedral was needed. Originally it was planned to demolish the Old Cathedral, but then it was decided the New Cathedral would be build adjacent to the existing one.

The Old Cathedral is Romanesque, dating from the 12th century, and is famous for its ornate Gallo Tower. Its breathtaking 15th-century altarpiece features no less than 53 panels depicting scenes from the lives of Jesus Christ and Mary, topped by a presentation of the Final Judgment.

The New Cathedral was constructed between the 16th and 18th centuries in two styles: late Gothic and Baroque. Building began in 1513 and the cathedral was consecrated in 1733.

Brief video tour of Salamanca’s Central Market, New Cathedral and rainy walk around town.

Castelo Rodrigo

This medieval hilltop town, a bastion of the country’s heritage, provides a glimpse into the Portugal of yesterday. Due to its location near the Spanish border, it has been the subject of many frontier battles over the centuries. However, the structures did little to deter the determined Spaniards and so these fortifications were constantly under assault, besieged and rebuilt. It is a testament to their strength that as many as 20 have survived as lasting reminders of a long and bloody period of dispute between the two nations. The castles’ architectural styles range from medieval to Gothic.

The region around Castelo Rorigo has many almond orchards and as we walked through the medieval streets, local vendors were offering samples of everything almond; candied almonds, savory almonds, almond liquers. We couldn’t leave with purchasing several packages of various almond treats.

Lamego

We spent a morning in the town of Lemego, starting at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remédios on a hill high above town. This is an important pilgrimage church with a staircase of 686 steps leading from the town below to the church. Landings on the stairway have statues and chapels and are adorned with beautiful blue tile mosaics. During the annual pilgrimage many penitents climb the steps on their knees. Needless to say, we didn’t walk the stairs.

With some free time in the town below we had our obligatory coffee with Pastel de Nata at a local coffee shop on the square. We also visited the Cathedral and the Lamego Museum. The museum is a must see, with an impressive collection of Portuguese and European paintings from the 16th to the late 18th centuries, plus pottery, sculptures, tapestries, and other artifacts dating back to Roman times.

What stood out on this trip was the amazingly beautiful scenery in the Douro Valley. It’s safe to say it is one of the most beautiful places we have visited so far in our world travels. Another thing that stands out is the friendliness of the Portuguese people. We have met some wonderful people and came away with new friends. This will not be our last trip to Portugal, must return!

This slide show illustrates the natural beauty of the Douro Valley, please enjoy.

Douro Valley Panorama