September 30, 2018 – Los Angeles

L.A. Sail Away Party

Kent at the Sail Away Party

This morning we boarded a bus at 10:00am for a thirty-minute ride from the Westin hotel at LAX to the port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, where we boarded Holland America’s Amsterdam. This would be our home for the next 82 nights as we visit ports of call in Asia and across the Pacific.

By 11:30am we had boarded the ship and began settling in to our cabin. Several weeks prior, we had received a notice from Holland America stating that we could upgrade our standard outside cabin for a veranda cabin with a balcony for a fee. Having never traveled in a cabin with a balcony we decided to upgrade our cabin to a higher floor with a balcony. The cabin is very pleasant with a large sofa and coffee table, a desk with nine dresser drawers for storage and a decent sized balcony with two chairs, two ottomans and a small side table. Waiting for us in our cabin were several gifts from our travel agent including a plate of chocolate covered strawberries, a bottle of champagne and a $50 shipboard credit. The ship was in dry dock earlier this year and so most of the carpeting, drapes and upholstery had been recently replaced or refreshed. The entire ship looked fresh, clean and inviting.

Along our travels of checking in and having lunch we ran into several friends from previous cruises who were sailing on the ship. We saw Bryan, Jim and Gayle, Elaine, Heidi and Andres and some whose names we didn’t know, but recognized their faces. Always fun to catch up with old friends and get reacquainted.

From 1:30pm to 2:30pm most of the ship’s guests enjoyed complimentary welcome aboard drinks and snacks poolside. After the mandatory lifeboat drill we attended the sail away party poolside. At the sail-away party they served up unlimited drinks and endless passed trays of appetizers like lamb chops, samosa’s, empanada’s and hummus. A live band performed cover songs from years gone by.

We enjoyed a nice dinner in the dining room with a Dee and Ken from Alabama. After dinner there was a variety show on the main stage where they gave us a sampling of the entertainment available onboard like the pianist from the piano bar and the trio that plays dance music in the Ocean Bar. The cast of singers and dancers performed as did the Amsterdam band. Jorge from San Antonio, Texas, is our cruise director for the voyage. The cruise director mentioned that the ship has onboard about 870 guests from 19 countries which we found of interest.

September 29, 2018 – Los Angeles

After weeks of planning, we began our next adventure this morning by renting a car in San Diego bound for the Westin Los Angeles International Airport Hotel. There we met up with a group of folks who had booked their Holland America Grand Asia and the Pacific Cruise with a travel company called Cruise Specialists based out of Seattle. Cruise Specialists had arranged for us to join our fellow travelers for a bon voyage cocktail party and dinner at the hotel.

Cruise Specialists had about six representatives from the company to make sure we had a good time and that we all got onboard the ship with no issues.
There were about sixty fellow travelers staying at the Westin for the night who participated in the cocktail party and dinner event. At the cocktail party we exchanged pleasantries with other travelers while enjoying an open bar and a spread of grilled vegetables, cheeses and assorted thinly sliced meats like salami and prosciutto. For dinner we were served a wonderful mixed greens salad topped with fresh berries and walnuts. The main course was an enormous chicken breast breaded and baked accompanied by broccolini, carrots and a mushroom risotto. An apple strudel with raisins and whipped cream completed the meal. After dinner we went straight to bed to prepare for our voyage.

July 14-16, 2018 Porto, Portugal

Kent and Mark in Porto

Praia da Luz Restaurant

Beef and Prawns Dishes

Giant Prawns

Fish Baked in Salt

Porto

Marcelo Teases Mark about his Hair

The weekend was a time for everyone to do last minute shopping, do some sightseeing or just enjoy the city. We spent Saturday wandering the city streets checking out some of the streets we had not previously explored. Saturday evening, we met up with most of the folks in our group for drinks across the river in Gaia where they were having a Marine Festival. Kent and Christine ordered sausages, tripe, roasted peppers, beans and chicken gizzards and desserts, as well as plenty of wine and port. About 10:30pm a band started playing and the crowds began to gather to dance and enjoy the music. The band on this night was a Hip-Hop band so not much of the music was recognizable but a good time was had by all.

On Sunday afternoon we all met at a restaurant in the Foz neighborhood called Praia da Luz located right on the beach for a farewell lunch. First, we had champagne and an appetizer on the deck overlooking the beach. We were then seated at a very large oval table for 19 inside with a view over the ocean for an enormous lunch. They served us many starters, a mushroom soup, a green salad, enormous prawns that looked more like lobster, sliced beef, giant fish baked in a thick salt covering, potato gnocchi, multiple desserts, coffee and endless bottles of water and wine. It was an incredible lunch over several hours. Afterwards, several of us decided to walk the 3.6 miles along the water back to our hotel. Half way home some of the group including Kent decided to take a taxi home. After returning about 7:30 PM, we decided to call it a night and prepared for our departure.

Monday morning, we all headed to the airport for the long journey home to the states having had an educational and enjoyable time.

July 13, 2018 Porto, Portugal

Crystal Palace Park Views

Churchill Winery Tasting

Pato and Marcelo

On this day we went out in the morning with Pato, Marcelo and Sue to visit the Graham Winery. The winery is located high up on the hill overlooking the River Douro on the Gaia side of the river. The Graham brothers founded their firm in Porto trading textiles in 1820 and planted their first vineyards in the Douro Valley in 1890.

We were unable to get a tour of the local facilities because they were fully booked for the day but we were able to see the small museum, gift shop, wine sales shop and to taste a few of their port wines in the beautiful tasting room.

Our next stop was at Churchill’s Winery where we were able to take a tour of the storage facilities for the port wines and to have a tasting with our guide Pedro (we have met many “Pedros.”  We tried five of their port wines from a three-year-old white port to a twenty-year-old Ruby Port.  After the winery tours we stopped for a pork sandwich and potato chips at the Mercado which was very good.

After lunch Kent and I headed out by taxi to the Crystal Palace gardens located in the city center. The Crystal Palace inspired by London’s Crystal Palace was built to host the International Exhibition of Porto with over 4,300 exhibitors from 25 countries opened in 1865. The exhibit was intended to attract the finest European minds to Porto but that never came true. In 1952 the palace was destroyed to build a site for a World Hockey Championship. Today the site contains an extensive city park terracing down the hillside with many fountains, ponds, children’s play areas and many peacocks. The park was busy with local school kids playing, locals having picnicks, bicyclists and walkers. There is a very large green dome structure that once housed a convention hall but is currently under renovation.

We had dinner with Pato and Marcelo at a local restaurant café on the waterfront.  They have been such great assistants to Kent and Christine and we have enjoyed getting to know them.  They are from Mendosa, Argentina, but now live in Barcelona.

July 12, 2018 Fatima and Tomar, Portugal

Fatima Basilica

Fatima Basilica Interior

Tomar Convent Entrance

Tomar Convento Church Details

On this day our entire group headed out early by tour bus with a local guide, Dieogo, who took us to the town of Fatima about 2.5 hours south of Porto towards Lisbon. This small town of about 12,000 people became famous when in 1917 three local shepherd children saw an apparition or vision of Our Lady of Fatima believed to be the Virgin Mary.

Today there is a large basilica and sanctuary where pilgrims come to pay tribute to Fatima. Outside the basilica is a very large square where public services are held twice a year. Inside the basilica we saw where each of the three children who had the vision of Our Lady of Fatima are interned. Outside the basilica we saw people crawling on their knees towards the church in hopes of healing an ailment. Also outside the church there is an outdoor open air altar for services and an enormous area where people can buy and burn candles in honor of loved ones or as an offering in praise and prayer of family members and loved ones.

The basilica is simple in ornamentation in comparison to many of the churches we have seen in Portugal but very nice. It is quite large and there were many visitors on the day we were there.  We had a bite for lunch at a restaurant nearby.

After our visit to Fatima we drove about 45-minutes to the town of Tomar to explore the Convento de Cristo built by the Knights of Templar in the 12thcentury. The Templars were a Catholic military order founded in 1119 and was active until 1312. The order was among the wealthiest and most powerful in the world throughout Christendom and grew rapidly in membership and power, although they had to give their money away and give up sex, among other things.  (It might be difficult to recruit these days). They were the most skilled fighting units of the Crusades (and were partially responsible for starting them) and they developed innovative financial techniques that were an early form of banking.

The convent and castle complex was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983. We visited the incredible complex including the circular church ornately decorated with ribbed vaulted ceilings, many sculptures and paintings and colorful painted mural walls. The complex is very extensive with eight cloisters, huge hallways of dormitory rooms, a very large dining room, kitchen and more. It is in extraordinary condition given its age and was such a treat to see.

We walked along the shopping street and had some gelato before taking the bus home, arriving around 9:00 PM.

July 11, 2018 Porto, Portugal

Douro River Terraces

Douro River Lock

Regua Winery Event Center

On this day we took an eight-hour cruise from Porto on the Douro River to the town of Regua in the Douro Valley where they grow much of the wine grapes and produce the port wine for which Porto is famous. Our cruise started with a breakfast of coffee, orange juice, bread rolls with jam and pastries. We had all had breakfast in the hotel so we were not particularly hungry.

The ship was a fairly small wooden vessel with a lower deck with a kitchen, dining area and bathrooms. The next deck up featured another dining room with booth seating where we ate and a small outside area where they had a bar. The upper deck was an observation deck with plastic chairs.

The weather was gray and drizzly when we started the cruise but later cleared and by the time we reached our destination it was sunny and quite warm. At lunch time they served a lunch of roasted pork, roasted potatoes, shredded steamed cabbage and carrots, wine, coffee and a cheesecake like dessert with fresh berries.

The ship had to transit two locks to reach our destination. One of the locks is the highest lock in all of Europe and is about 100 feet tall. The scenery along the river is very beautiful with the river at the bottom of steep valleys of terraced grape vineyards. We passed many small towns and villages with scattered tiled roofed homes on the shores and nestled in the hills. By the time we reached our destination folks were growing tired of the long voyage and were happy to be disembarking.

Once we reached the town of Regua we were escorted to a winery event space where we were presented with a buffet of local delicacies, wine, water and soft drinks. Among the delicacies was the local tripe dish and another dish that included many animal body parts that we would not typically eat, like parts of the stomach, gizzards, organs and more. The taste was not bad but not particularly good.

After the late afternoon break we headed to the train station for our trip back to Porto. The train ride took about two-hours much of the trip we traveled along the Douro River banks which was quite beautiful in the evening sunlight.  Kent chatted up two young men who worked on another river cruise company.  They seemed eager to share their life experiences with us.  Upon return to town and the hotel, we collapsed into bed.

July 10, 2018 Porto, Portugal

Porto Church

Porto Architecture

Codfish Cakes Shop

Mark and Kent in Porto

We had a day of exploring Porto by taking a couple of “free” city tours. The concept of free is a little misleading. What they really mean is that you take the tour with a local guide and when the tour is over you tip the guide the amount that you feel the tour was worth. The tours lasted about three hours each.

The morning tour we took was with a very perky guide by the name of Patricia. She took us on a tour of the oldest historic portion of the city that runs between the river and the main square. We visited the train station, the cathedral square, some very narrow streets located on steep hillsides, the flower street where folks used to decorate their homes with blooming flowers, the bookstore that inspired the bookstore in the Harry Potter films and more.

The spot where the tour left us off was at a local restaurant called the Casa Portuguesa do Pastel de Bacalhau where we had our lunch. This restaurant sells codfish cakes formed in the shape of an elongated egg and filled with cheese from Serra da Estrela. The fishcakes are made with finely flaked fish, potatoes, herbs and stuffed with a brie like cheese before being deep fried. They serve them with a local white port wine from the Sandeman Winery. The restaurant is built on three floors. The first floor is where they prepare the food, the second floor is a loft of sorts with art and the third floor, where we ate, was a library room. It was an interesting experience but the codfish cakes were not especially delicious or something that I would rush back for.

After lunch we took a walk through the nearby photography museum built in an old prison. The museum shows the history of photography equipment like cameras rather than the actual photographs. They have very vintage cameras made from wooden boxes with glass plates up to present day cameras. There was a photo exhibit of Freda Kahlo’s paintings, but we passed on that.

After the visit in the photography museum we headed back to the main square for a second tour of the city with a local guide about 4:30PM. The second tour we took included the newer portions of the city built in the 20th century. This tour included some of the buildings on the shopping avenue called Santa Catarina, the hospital, the university area, the city hall and war monuments. After the tour we had a quick bite in a restaurant near the waterfront and returned to the hotel to bed.

July 9, 2018 Santiago, Spain

Santiago de Compostela

Park in Santiago, Spain

Kent and Mark at Lunch

This morning half of our group travelled by van, driven my Marcello, to the town of Santiago, Spain, located about a two hours’ drive away. The countryside along the way is mostly rolling hills covered in vineyards, eucalyptus trees, pine trees, corn and other crops. The roads we took were in excellent condition but we did have to stop multiple times to pay tolls of about twenty euros to reach our destination. The weather was very warm and a bit humid, reaching about 92 degrees Fahrenheit. While we were here in April, 2016, it was raining and cold.

Once we arrived in the town of Santiago, we made our way to the main square called Obradoiro Square. Here is a magnificent view of the Cathedral Santiago de Compostela, the Town Hall, the Palace of Saint Jerome and a 15th century Hotel of the Catholic Kings. The square itself is paved in stone with no flowers, no fountain and no ornamentation of any kind. On the other hand, the cathedral and the surrounding buildings more than make up for the lack of ornamentation.

This cathedral is a place of pilgrimage because as the story goes, St James the apostle’s remains are entombed here. The apostle was beheaded in Palestine and some of his disciples brought his body back to Spain where he had once taught the word of God. They thought this was where he wanted to be buried. Over time his remains were lost until one night a farmer found them in the light of the moon known in Spanish as the Compostela. When the Apostle’s bones were found, a small chapel was built in his honor and it was enlarged several times over the years until it became an enormous cathedral. The west face of the cathedral shows the apostle James (Santiago) as a pilgrim, as well as a representation of the urn where the remains of the Apostle appeared. This main entrance was currently undergoing restoration and was mostly hidden behind scaffolding. On the north side of the cathedral is the Plaza de Azabacheria and a neo-classical façade. To the south is the Silversmith’s Square where, during the middle ages, silversmiths had their smithies. This south side of the cathedral is decorated in Romanesque style. On the east side is the Jubilee Door on the La Quintana Square. This door is usually only used during a year when St. James’ birthday falls on a Sunday and this is where pardons are dispensed. During the summer months, many Christians make a pilgrimage to this historic site walking or biking a minimum of 100 kilometers on foot or 200 kilometers on wheels. Others have been known to make the entire journey that St James’ body took walking for up to two and a half months from France, primarily.

Inside this massive church there is a very ornate altar complete with a large bust of St James. There is a rear stairwell where you can climb up to the rear of St James bust in silver and give him a hug. Below the altar you can take another set of stairs down to a crypt where we found a large silver box containing the remains of St James. Around the perimeter of the church there are many small chapels with ornate decorative altars of all types. Most of these are locked behind iron gates to protect them. The alar itself is several stories tall with lots of gold, horses, cherubs and angels. It has so many different things going on with it, that it is hard to make sense of it when you sit and look at it. So much for the old saying that less is more.

After our visit inside the cathedral we wandered the old city and found a small café for a bite to eat. We had one of the local favorites—the clams, tuna empanada and croquets for lunch. Our next stop was at a large park located outside of the old city. The park has beautiful lush tree-lined pathways, statuary, park benches and ice cream carts. We then headed back to the Hotel of the Catholic Kings for a cooling off in the air conditioning. The hotel is a beautiful five-star hotel built during the reign of Isabella and Ferdinand with a blend of Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic styles gracing its rich interior. There is a lovely central courtyard with a fountain filled with fresh rose petals. Wide hallways surround the courtyard, lushly furnished with sofas, chairs, carpets and paintings. A regular room can run you in the neighborhood of 500 Euros or more a night during season.

On our walk, we encountered ladies passing out samples of almond cookies and cakes. We decided, after the samples, that the cookies would be a nice gift and bought a box.

We arrived back at our hotel in Porto about 7:30pm where Kent and Christine awaited our return and treated us to drinks in the hotel bar. We then headed into town for a bite to eat before heading to bed.

July 8, 2018 Porto, Portugal

Serralves Villa

Serralves Garden Sculpture

Modern Art Sculpture

Funicular Tracks

This morning we headed out about 10:00am with our friend Jan to the funicular to transport us from our hotel, along the river’s edge, to the old town at the top of the cliffs. The funicular was first built in 1891 but two years later an accident caused by excess velocity caused the line to be decommissioned. It was not until 2004 when the current funicular was installed along the same route as the original. The single-track funicular is 922 feet in length and carried us up 200 feet in a few short minutes. It was much easier than taking the uneven cobblestone steps up the steep hill.

Once at the top of the hill we headed for the Yellow hop-on, hop-off bus to make our way to the Serralves Museum. The Serralves Museum is a contemporary art museum, villa and garden. The art deco style villa was built on this large parcel of land as a private residence between 1925 and 1944. The residence had two owners until the death of its second owner in 1987 and the property was acquired by the Portuguese State as a site for a future museum of modern art. The villa was opened for temporary exhibitions until 1999 when a new museum was completed and opened on the property.

We visited the museum which had a variety of unusual exhibits ranging from photography, painting, sculpture, film and mixed media. One of the current exhibits was about the incorrigible, undesirable, unruly and what conduct does a museum repress? This exhibit about the disrespect for the rules of good taste or good behavior includes works of art from the 1960’s until today. It had very strange pieces of art including sexual related items, act of violence, political views and more. Most of our group thought that it was rather odd.

After our visit inside the museum we toured the villa residence located in the sculpture garden. The art deco villa is a two-story residence with very large rooms as the home would have looked when it was built although the residence is completely bare allowing for special exhibitions.

The Serralves gardens of the property are quite vast with about 45 acres of land and include a rose garden, a lake, a camellia garden, meadows, herb garden, vegetable garden and more. The gardens include a variety of contemporary sculptures.

After the museum we re-boarded the bus and took it further along the route to a wonderful restaurant (Boca) on the waterfront near the Foz district of town. Here the entire group met up for a Sunday afternoon meal that lasted nearly three hours. We had drinks, starters, entrees and desserts ranging from local favorites like octopus and fish to pasta and salads. It was an excellent included meal and was another wonderful day.

Mark walked back to our hotel with Karen and Kent took the Yellow hop on/off bus as he was not up to the almost 4-mile walk.

July 7, 2018 Porto, Portugal

Tiled Wall on a Church

Tajikistan Lunch

Porto Pride Event

Six Bridge Tour

This morning we started the day with a four-hour tour of the city of Porto on the Yellow Bus tour which is a hop-on, hop-off bus tour. We toured the heart of the city’s old town area, the Gaia area across the river and then out to the beach communities along the Atlantic Ocean.

After the bus tour we had a walk along a pedestrian street called Rua de Santa Catarina. When we were walking we kept seeing people wearing rainbow flags and began to think that it might be Pride weekend here in Porto. Kent asked a few folks about a parade and we found out that, indeed, there was a parade at 3:00pm starting at the Pracaa de Republic nearby. We stopped in to the food court at a local shopping center and had an unusual lunch at a new Tajikistan restaurant. Tajikistan, just in case you were wondering, is located in central Asia with 8.7 million people. It is bordered by Afghanistan to the south, Uzbekistan to the west, Kyrgyzstan to the north and China to the east. The lunch we had was a sampler plate with two dumplings, one filled with pumpkin and the second with beef. There were both chicken or beef kabobs on a stick with onions, a triangle shaped pastry filled with beef and a berry drink similar to Kool-Aid.

After lunch we headed over to the park to see what a pride parade in Portugal might look like. There were maybe a couple thousand people gathering in the park, many wearing or carrying rainbow flags and a few drag queens. About 4:00pm the police began closing off the street and allowing the gathered crowd to parade down the streets to another gathering place for a celebration. Some carried banners but there was not much organization, no sign of organized groups, floats or marching bands. We stayed to watch the group begin the march but then headed on our way.

We then took an hour-long harbor tour to see the six bridges that span the Douro River. These six bridges include a bridge designed by Gustav Eiffel to carry train traffic that is no longer in service but is a national monument now. Most of the bridges carry vehicular traffic easing congestion between the two sides of the river.

Some general observations by Kent: Toilets – they are all very clean and clearly marked. However, most of the actual toilets don’t have seats, similar to those in Southern Italy and Sicily. There, we were told that the seats break easily and are not replaced due to the expense. Perhaps that is the reason here also.

Moustaches and black dresses — in 1970 when Kent first traveled to Lisbon and environs, he noticed many older ladies in black dresses with little moustaches. So cute! However, this time in Portugal, Kent has not seen but one lady with a moustache. …and no black dresses to commemorate the loss of a loved one. It could be something new in the culture, new beauty products, or luck!

Politeness – or lack thereof. No one in Madeira or Porto ever says “Excuse me” or any other “pardon” word when they step or cross in front of you. Nor do they say it when we might say it in our regular daily life. WTF?
Smoking — lots of people smoke here. We can be in an outdoor restaurant and the person next to us is smoking. You see women and men smoking along the street and in parks…..they love to smoke. We’ve never seen any kinds of signs encouraging people not to smoke.

Streets – the streets, parks, trollies are generally clean. We don’t see “don’t litter” signs, but something is working. Great job!

Fear of falling – in Argentina Kent rolled out of bed and tore his meniscus; in Croatia he fell down the stairs on a yacht and broke his arm. Since then he has a fear of falling and hurting himself as he is not as stable walking as he once was (he’s not getting any younger). So, the first day here, we walked about 4 miles and today we walked about 4 hours on cobblestones and he still has his fingers crossed that “all will be well!” Wish him luck.