Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

The Thinker

Aruba

I’d be lying if I said I saw much of Aruba. I’d also be lying if I said I saw much of its capital city Oranjestad, except in panorama from the observation deck of our cruise ship. I did experience the shopping areas within a few blocks of the cruise terminal. A true encounter with Aruba will require a second and extended visit, not one that starts with a submarine ride out in a reef in mid morning, an hour or two in a mall near the cruise terminal in the WiFi hotspot, plus some time shopping to prove you were somewhere exotic. As far as marketing is concerned, the Aruba Chamber of Commerce at least is consistent. Their motto is “Aruba: One Happy Island”. It is hard to argue otherwise. Its logo adorns almost all the T-shirts, hats, trinkets and other stuff that goes home with tourists.

Submarine tour of coral reef and shipwreck, Aruba

Submarine tour of coral reef and shipwreck, Aruba

Of the three adjacent Dutch “ABC” islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) that hug the Venezuelan coast, Aruba definitely matches your mental image of what an Caribbean island should look like. It looks a lot like Miami Beach, at least in better times with its golden and sandy beaches, aquamarine water close to shore and blue water a bit further out, palm trees lining its popular beaches (probably planted there to draw tourist traffic) and a mixture of well-moneyed tourists and residents jamming its streets. For an island of about a hundred thousand people, Oranjestad itself looks like it has more residents than that. It comes across as a large city, certainly bigger than Willemstad on Curacao. Moreover it is a stylish city. It’s easy to tell the tourists from the residents. The tourists are largely Americans or Canadians, and we are in shorts and T-shirts and our bellies precede us by a significant amount. We are also largely Caucasian. The residents frankly look a whole lot better. They are stylish and for the most part slim, mostly mixed Caribbean in the darker hues. They are not just stylish but overall they are attractive and look very healthy. It must be due to the tropical fruits that they eat. I do my best not to lear at attractive women. I was having a hard time Friday. Sorry dear, if one of these slim dark brown goddesses in high heels and slit skirts gave me a come hither look, you’d be history.

If Willemstad on Curacao is the Caribbean’s nexus, Oranjestad is its Los Angeles, minus the air pollution. In fact, residents of LA sick of the pollution might want to move to Aruba instead. It’s just as dry and sunny, and it has all its fashion with fewer of its bums and winos. And frankly, the view in pretty much every direction is satisfying for lovers of the tropics. While it lacks a tropical rainforest and much in the way of rain, it makes up for in its beaches, water, general cleanliness and general prosperity.

The ABC islands do have their language in common: Papiamento. Unsurprisingly, English is widely used in the tourist areas. One difference in Aruba is that it has its own currency. The U.S. dollar is widely used too, but the official currency is the Arubian Florin. At our other ports of call, dollars were the official currency. Shops may not accept dollars, as we found out at a local Subway, but plastic seems to work instead.

Oranjestad, Aruba near port terminal

Oranjestad, Aruba near port terminal

Aruba is clearly growing, as evidenced by the new construction near the cruise port with luxury condos under construction. As in Curacao, Americans are likely to find their favorite brands here, including two Starbucks with a couple of blocks of each other. The local mall was definitely high end. Also conveniently available are port side casinos and slow traffic on roads near the cruise port.

Oranjestad, Aruba

Oranjestad, Aruba

With its dry climate, vegetation tends to be more bush-like than tree-like. There are no mountains, but there are hills that look like mountains, sometimes poking up in relatively flat areas.

I do expect to be back to Aruba someday. If you like tropical ports of call, you will feel quite at home.

 
The Thinker

Curacao

Just to the east of Bonaire is the island of Curacao (pronounced Kew-uh-so), the biggest island of these former Dutch colonies in the south Caribbean. It is about forty miles long and averages about five miles in width. It is also likely the most vibrant: populous (it has over a hundred thousand people), prosperous and probably the place to be down here. There are four languages spoken on Curacao: Dutch, English, Spanish and the native language, which is a mixture of all of the above plus Portuguese. They borrow words from each but over the course of time many have been been bastardized. That’s a lot of languages for the populace to learn, which is why people born here have to learn all of them except Portuguese. This has some great advantages. Residents are fluent in multiple languages, probably unlike any other country on the globe. Tourists can usually speak and be understood. All that linguistic fluency also facilitates commerce. A lot of commerce passes through Curacao. It makes a compelling destination not just for tourists but for anyone passing through the Caribbean. The Middle East has Dubai. Although smaller, arguably, Curacao is the Dubai of the Caribbean: it is its center of life, commerce and culture.

Willemstad, Curacao

Willemstad, Curacao

So it’s interesting to stand at a street corner in Curacao for a while and hear the various languages spoken around you. Most of the signs are in English, although many are in Dutch and some are in Spanish. English is a practical choice for most signs because it is the world’s de facto global language and also because the oversize presence of the United States in the Caribbean. As in Bonaire, the U.S. dollar is the currency in use and it is used to price everything.

American tourists will feel completely at home in Curacao. There is a Starbucks near the cruise terminal, but also McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Subway, Pizza Hut and many other American brands. And yet Curacao is still exotic. Take the Punda, a shopping district along a shipping canal in Willemstad, the chief city and the country’s capital. The canal and the area around it is just a neat place to hang out. All sorts of colorful merchant houses line the canal and the area. What makes it exotic is its waterfront and its large open air vegetable market. At the Punda, you can also walk onto boats that carry vegetables and other items from Venezuela, about sixty miles away. Need something exotic, perhaps an exotic snake? Ask one of the vendors from Venezuela and they will arrange to deliver it is a subsequent port call. This is the kind of capitalism Ayn Rand would definitely approve of.

There is a landmark of sorts in Curacao: the Queen Juliana Bridge that towers well above the canal, allowing large ships to get to the Parera, something of an inland bay but mostly the site of a huge oil refinery. The refinery is just enormous and you can’t possibly miss it. You can see its plumes of smoke from the refinery and bright gas flames from its vent stacks. These put out quite a bit of refinery smoke, most of which appears to drift out to sea. If there is a downside to Curacao, it is the refinery. It is like a bit of New Jersey was plopped down into the middle of the island. Still, the refinery is impressive to look at.

Otherwise, Curacao feels a lot like home, just very tropical. There is elegant housing here. If you are a drug lord you can make yourself a nice home on a hill around here without anyone caring. All it takes is money. While still part of a larger Dutch commonwealth, Curacao is its own independent country, so it feels free to allow drug lords and offshore banks to make its home there. It certainly doesn’t feel crime ridden. It feels safe and well managed. It also feels prosperous. It has poor residents too, but they at least they get treated decently, unlike in the United States. There is good subsidized housing available and if they stay there long enough they can buy the property for bargain rates of $6,000 to $10,000 from the government. I don’t think Ayn Rand would like this aspect of Curacao. Unlike the United States, which is just now catching up, national health insurance comes are part of being a citizen too. Any citizen of Curacao is lucky to live there.

Panera in Curacao

Punda in Curacao

One other unique aspect of Curacao impressed me: a pontoon bridge that spanned the canal. It’s a pedestrian-only bridge. Most bridges have a draw bridge to allow water traffic through. This one swings horizontally. It serves a vital purpose of connecting two banks of the Punda.

We had two activities to keep us busy and which also allowed us to see much of the eastern side of the island. In the morning we visited some caves inside limestone cliffs near the airport. We have toured many caves over the years and this one was no more impressive than the last one we toured in the Caribbean island of Jamaica. However, it was usual as you had to ascend to get into it. Curacao is the result millions of years of coral reefs compression. In short, it’s made of limestone, basically compressed coral, that was slowly pushed up over so many eons. The caves were once underwater but now are well above the water.

We also took in a sunset cruise, which involved a bus trip to Caracas Bai (Bay). That area of Curacao is where the well-moneyed people and tourists live. There are lots of opportunities to enjoy life on the water. We saw sailboats and windsurfers, restaurants along the bay and five-star resorts. It looked like a good life indeed if you can afford it and you like a tropical climate. Like Bonaire, because of the coral reefs around this island, diving opportunities exist here too. The climate is about the same as Bonaire as well: dry and hot, although brisk winds today made being outside quite pleasant, despite the heat. Perhaps I missed them on Bonaire, but on Curacao it’s hard to miss the many cacti on the island.

Sunset cruise in Curacao

Sunset cruise in Curacao

Our last stop is Aruba, just to Cucacao’s west, then a two and a half day non-stop cruise back to Fort Lauderdale, and then home where record cold and snow await our return. We might just refuse to get off the cruise ship.

 
The Thinker

Bonaire

It turned out that the island of Bonaire, relatively just a spitting distance from the northern coast of South America, is not quite the Hawaii of the Caribbean as I had heard. The Dominican Republic was definitely more tropical, in the sense that it was lusher. At least in this way Bonaire is more like Hawaii: it is more prosperous. This is probably due to it being settled by the Dutch instead of the Spaniards. The official language is Dutch, the unofficial language is English and is what most people speak and what most of the signs are in. Dollars are what are in the cash registers and listed as prices, at least among the tourist areas of the city next to the cruise port, Kralendijk. You can find modest traffic jams in Kralendijk, a factor of a surplus of yield and stop signs and a lack of traffic lights, but also due to a shortage of four lane roads. It’s just at thirteen degrees or so of northern latitude. I checked on an atlas on the cruise ship and Bonaire happens to be the furthest south I have ever been, beating out even a trip to Manila in 1987.

Kralendijk, Bonaire

Kralendijk, Bonaire

At least its port city Kralendijk (really more of a neighborhood) did not come with yet another Margaritaville. In fact, I heard no Jimmy Buffet music whatsoever from shops along the tourist district. This suggested a Caribbean island with some class. There are a few chain stores on this island like a KFC, but most of the businesses seem to be one of a kind. Its small downtown strip is mostly anchored around Kava Carlos A. Nicollas Street, and includes a modest number of restaurants and boutiques. The sun rides high in the sky here, even in winter, so for us pasty white Americans it meant putting on a heavy coat of sunscreen. (We did cackle a bit learning that the temperature at home hit seventeen today and there were three inches of new snow on the ground.) Geography keeps hurricanes and a lot of rain from falling in this part of the south Caribbean. Which means that the island is at least as brown as green and tropical trees are relatively few with scrub bushes more prevalent. There are no mountains on Bonaire, but there is a hill on the north side of the island that look mountain-like due to its jagged features and lack of deciduous vegetation. The island itself is about eighteen miles long, shaped like a boomerang, and about three miles wide on average. You would expect that such a relatively flat island would be surrounded by shallow seas, but that is not the case. The beaches quickly deepen as evidenced by the densely blue seas close to shore. Getting out of the surf, as we discovered, is a bit of a challenge unless you ascend on a relatively modestly sloped spit of beach. You must also be careful when snorkeling to avoid touching the coral reefs, unless you want lacerated skin.

So Bonaire is not Hawaii, but it is quite pretty. Perhaps due to its distance from the continental United States, it seems amazingly clean and natural. Its waters are crystal clear, aquamarine in the shallower areas and deep blue elsewhere. For divers, Bonaire is something of a paradise with many healthy coral reefs to explore, mostly on the leeward side of the island. If you like proximity to the ocean, it has much to offer.

Coral Reefs, Bonaire

Coral Reefs, Bonaire

Is there industry in Bonaire? If there was much beyond the tourist business it was not obvious. Offshore banking is a big feature of many Caribbean islands. It would not surprise me if there were a few on this island too, such as we found on Grand Turk. Overall the economy is good, as evidenced by its first world standards. But overall its population is modest. We were one of two cruise ships in port. By hosting us, we had temporarily doubled the island’s population. The only other industry I noted was its salt works on the south side of the island. Grand Turk had salt works as well but it wasn’t profitable enough to remain in business, and closed in 1967. Not so in Bonaire.

Those looking for a first world place in the Caribbean to retire to should consider Bonaire. We saw houses under construction near the airport, many with private docks for owner’s boats. Given the island’s absence of hurricanes, its tropical and generally dry climate, and the prevalence of English on the island, it would make a compelling retirement destination for many Americans who want some of the benefits of Hawaii without the long flying times and higher prices.

 
The Thinker

Wasting away again in Margaritaville: Grand Turk and Samana

Every American child learns that Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492. Most though have no idea exactly where Columbus first touched down in the New World. I had heard it was somewhere in the Bahamas. Close, but no cigar. Columbus and his sailors first landed on Grand Turk, a small island about seven miles long and three miles wide, south and east of the Bahamas. He actually came ashore on the leeward (westward) side of Grand Turk, which today is one island in a British protectorate of the Turks and Caicos Islands, which is a bit north and east of Cuba.

Columbus actually landed here (Grand Turk)

Columbus actually landed here (Grand Turk)

I happen to know this not because I had studied this obscure fact, but because we paid for a driving tour of Grand Turk on Sunday. During the driving tour you quickly learn that there is not a whole lot to do on Grand Turk, and few things that a tourist will find noteworthy. In fact, its pier where our ship the MS Noordam docked was the center of excitement on this small island.

The shops abutting its pier are apparently typical of what you will see around cruise ports in the Caribbean. There are opportunities to get plastered, opportunities to buy duty free liquor and get plastered later, opportunities to buy jewelry, watches and T-shirts, and many many opportunities to hear loud Jimmy Buffet recordings. Margaritaville is apparently something of a cruise port chain in the Caribbean. Just head toward the sound of Jimmy Buffet’s voice coming from the public address speakers and there is a good chance you are near a Margaritaville store. I figure Mr. Buffet must be obscenely rich, if only from the royalties from having his music played so often in Caribbean cruise ports. The Margaritaville store appealed to us not for Jimmy Buffet, whose music I mostly find annoying, but for its public WiFi. When you see a bunch of young adults with their smartphones in hand on the concrete outside a store in a Caribbean port, that’s a sign it’s got public WiFi. It was there that I was able to check email and put out my last blog post. (It is also possible on board, but the cost is so usury as to dissuade all but the most well moneyed passengers.)

Another Caribbean Margaritaville (Half Moon Cay, Bahamas)

Another Caribbean Margaritaville (Half Moon Cay, Bahamas)

As for our tour of Grand Turk, the highlight was definitely the beach where Columbus first landed in the Americas. The curious thing about it though is that while it should be a major tourist attraction, but isn’t. I quizzed our tour guide specifically. Was this really the first place Columbus landed? Yes, he said, but he did not point out any obvious marker. Instead he took us into St. Mary’s “cathedral” near the spot, actually the second of three churches on this small island of less that five thousand. The cathedral had some nice stained glass, but is otherwise an unimpressive and small Anglican/Episcopal church. Our tour of the island revealed a second world British protectorate, rather typical of islands in the Caribbean. Most of the roads were paved but some were not. Few houses met the construction standards common in the United States. Concrete block houses were typical instead. This should render these homes relatively hurricane-proof, but the last major hurricane that came through with two hundred plus mile an hour winds damaged ninety-eight percent of the buildings on the island. Many of these houses are still not repaired or are only partially repaired. Many others were totally destroyed. Jackasses (burros in this case, not people) wandered freely around the island, along with many mostly mangy dogs and wild horses. They were all communal property. Our tour included an unimpressively small limestone quarry, a beach at low tide, and an abandoned salt farm in an estuary. So aside from being the site where Columbus first encountered the New World, there is not much in Grand Turk to recommend a visit. By the way, it is called Grand Turk not because the Turks established a foothold in the New World. They never did. However, there is a native plant that resembles a Grand Turk’s hat, which is how it got its name.

Overnight we headed east and slipped into the Atlantic timezone. Morning found us approaching the Dominican Republic, part of two countries that make up the island of Hispaniola (the other being Haiti). Haiti’s reputation for poverty is well known, which makes the Dominican Republic the better destination for tourists. Samana (the accent is on the last syllable) is a reasonably attractive tourist destination, although its small pier requires cruise ships to use tenders to ferry passengers. The area around the pier is quite nice. Local authorities made sure there were residents in native costumes dancing by the pier as we disembarked. Yet appearances can be deceiving. You don’t have to wander more than a few blocks from the major roads to find the real Dominican Republic, which is much like Grand Turk, only lusher. Hispaniola is a mountainous tropical rainforest by nature. Paved roads are relatively few. We took a tour that included something really adventurous: zip lining much of the way down a mountain. This required our tour bus to get off the major roads and onto crazily pot-holed back roads instead.

The real Dominican Republic

The real Dominican Republic

Here is the real Dominican Republic: unpainted concrete houses within inches of the road that are small and generally have holes for windows, but no actual windows. Their roofs tend to be corrugated metal. As in Jamaica, many of the houses are long term construction projects designed to be inhabited in a few decades after their owners of modest means and inability to borrow money finish constructing them. Expect chickens in the yards, horses and ponies in backyards, stray dogs, shacks butt up against the roads peddling a variety of wares, and transportation typically via motorcycle or hoofed animal over pot-holed roads. Nonetheless the natives are friendly and usually waved to us as we passed by. The roads though were major kidney punchers, made more so when our vehicles traversed incredibly steep inclines to get us to the top of the mountain for our zip line descent.

We toured with a laid back American man named Terry, who runs a business in Samana under his name. Partnering with Terry, whose tour is not one sponsored by Holland America, turned out to be a smart move. Our tour took us into the country and showed us the real Dominican Republic. It included lunch at a native restaurant next to a beach, which meant a small shack with gaps between slats, a charcoal grill and picnic tables under tropical fronds. The restaurant was definitely not AAA approved but was next to a beautiful beach. The natives take this for granted but they should not. With bread fruit and other fruits available for free just for picking, one could lead a life of leisure for almost no money and yet not feel impoverished. And the people, overwhelmingly black and Spanish speaking, are genuinely hospitable to visiting tourists. They do want to sell you goods and services for a few extra bucks, which they really appreciate.

Samana Zipline (Dominican Republic)

Samana Zipline (Dominican Republic)

The highlight of the day was zip lining down a mountain. This involves getting into a harness and going down gentle inclines of steel cables over tropical valleys and gorges. There are times when being on heart medicines is an advantage. Monday was a such a day. My beta blocker made me largely unafraid to take the plunge. There were about a dozen stations down the Samana Zipline. We tourists got the extra protection plan where we rode two steel cables at once, just in case one were to break, which seemed unlikely as it never happened before. It was a nervy thing to do but once you do one you lose all fear of the rest, except possibly for the abrupt braking maneuver as you reach the next platform. While it lasts the view is fantastic and the air bracing. Our guides like to show off, used only one line and often hung upside down as they moved from station to station. I am someone who is naturally cautious by nature and vertigo challenged, so this activity did not come easily. Still, this was about as much fun as you can have on an excursion. It was made better when at the bottom it was just a short walk to a small pool and waterfall. I happily swam in the pool and enjoyed cool waterfall cascading over my head. Native boys hoped for a couple quick dollars escorting you down the sometimes steep path, but otherwise played over the waterfall, happily falling into the water from the swinging rope overhead.

In short, thanks to our terrific tour guide Terry and his crew, we enjoyed perhaps the best possible shore excursion. We left Samana with terrific memories but hearing rumors that our next destination, Bonaire, would have a natural beauty rivaling Hawaii. So much to look forward to in the days ahead!

 
The Thinker

Cruising for a difference

Is there really that much to distinguish cruise lines? This cruise is our fifth, and each has been on a different cruise line. In general, one won’t complain about the food on any cruise line. That certainly is not the case here on Holland America’s ship the Noordam, wending its way in a leisurely fashion toward the southern Caribbean. The staterooms on Holland America don’t look much different than staterooms on Royal Caribbean or Norwegian. They all have a promenade where those who prefer to move can stroll around the ship’s periphery, smell the salt air and get a little cardiovascular exercise. I noticed the picture gallery and theaters were in the very same spots on this cruise line as they were in the last two. Differences between cruise lines tend to be more of style than anything else. Carnival, unsurprisingly, has a reputation for partying, young adults and families with small children. Royal Caribbean is more buttoned down.

Holland America is definitely not a party ship. It is mostly a well-moneyed old people’s ship. There are a few middle aged people on the ship, by which I mean thirty or forty something, but just a few. By that criteria I no longer qualify. Still, I skew younger than the average age of a passenger on the Noordam. Sixty or seventy something is more par for the course. Expect passengers with canes, walkers and motorized carts. Holland America and the Noordam in particular is just more relaxed and quiet in general than other cruise lines we’ve experiences. There are fewer long waits at the elevators. There are fewer passengers elbowing you in the hallways. The staff doesn’t try quite so hard to ply you with booze (extra of course) or to petition you to buy overpriced art. Moreover, checking in was a breeze. We were expecting a ninety-minute process and long lines. Passengers tend to show up en masse as soon as the cruise line opens its doors. Two hours before sailing, at least for us, there was no line. It took ten minutes tops to get from our drop off point at the front of the Fort Lauderdale cruise terminal until we were walking onto the ship. Why do people show up early when for most other events people show up either on time or fashionably late? I believe it’s not the ports of call that attract most people to cruises. It’s the buffet and the promise of as much food as you can eat that really has them signing up, so the sooner you can start the mass gluttony, the better. And generally if you want to find someone that’s where they are. In the case of the Noordam, it’s Deck 9, the Lido (“Lee-doh”) deck with its mostly always-open buffet. And mostly business is hopping on Deck 9, which is also convenient to pools, hot tubs and lots of lounge chairs.

Beach at Hollywood Florida

Beach at Hollywood Florida

 

This time our cruise was out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It came with a bonus: the ability to finally see my sister Teri’s house in nearby Hollywood. She has been there for sixteen years with her husband, her dog and her boat. We avoid Florida except, apparently, as a place to catch a cruise ship. So we arrived a day early to see her and get a sense of Hollywood, Florida where she lives and the Fort Lauderdale area. My general impression was favorable. Florida has a lot of ugly beach communities, but Hollywood is not one of them. It has a long and impressive “broadwalk”, sort of like a boardwalk except it is not elevated, wider and not wooden. It has a charm to it, and tries hard to be the Florida you see in postcards, if you can ignore the condos, hotels and seaside businesses next to the ocean and broadwalk. Nearby Dania Beach to its north is also nice. We stopped at a pier for a quick lunch at a restaurant at the pier and marveled at the cool weather in the 60s and the dry and breezy winds. What soon became more interesting was a school of shark that appeared just off the pier. Everyone outside on the pier eating lunch quickly turned their attention away from their food to the sharks stalking a large school of fish nearby instead. The fish appeared to escape, but probably lost out when they went out of our range.

The Fort Lauderdale cruise terminals proved hard to get to, particularly since roads are under construction, which meant weird detours were needed. The cruise terminals are frankly in an ugly part of town, as freighters also load up there, which meant plenty of freight containers for scenery. The view was much more impressive once onboard the Noordam, particularly from the Lido deck. Fort Lauderdale looks great from that high up. It is a major city in its own right, certainly not as big as Miami to its immediate south but catching up quickly and with an impressive skyline.

Fort Lauderdale skyline from cruise ship

Fort Lauderdale skyline from cruise ship

So we quickly settled into our room on the main deck, enjoyed their four-star dining room, then went on our first of what will be many walks around its promenade. Miami was just a twinkling of light in the distant west. It seemed that nothing could interfere with this wonderful eleven day adventure. Then the lights went out.

Dead stop. Just an emergency light winked on near our cabin door. After about a minute the emergency power kicked in and the lights came on but there was nothing but silence from the engines. After a few more minutes the captain came on to announce us the obvious. There had been an electrical malfunction. Happily it didn’t last too long and was over in about ninety minutes. Eventually one engine came back online, then the next. Our arrival in the Bahamas this morning was not delayed, but no one will say or admit to a reason for the incident.

Cruise lines prove that they are major players when they buy their own private island in the Bahamas. Holland America bought theirs, and it’s called Half Moon Cay. It comes with the usual accommodations for cruise ship passengers: bands playing calypso music and singing Jimmy Buffet songs, white sandy beaches, gift shops and a huge outdoor barbecue where you can gorge yourself sick. That’s what most passengers were doing. Frankly, it made me ill to look at all that greasy food, so I opted for a short walk to the other side of the island instead. A fake shipwreck along the shoreline was actually a bar and allowed another opportunity to get plastered. Despite the sandy beaches and temperatures in the 70s, few were in the water. Empty beach chairs were in abundance. The water was an amazing shade of blue and closer to shore, colored aquamarine.

Half Moon Cay, Bahamas

Half Moon Cay, Bahamas

Next stop: Grand Turk Island.

 
The Thinker

Southern exposure

Work has been more stressful than I would like. And the winter has been colder than normal as well. It’s time for a sun break, which in our case means a cruise to and from the southern Caribbean. Tomorrow we are off. We’ll spend the night with my sister and her husband near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, then on Friday board the Holland America ship Noordam for a 10 night southern Caribbean adventure. Destinations include the Bahamas, Grand Turk Island, the Dominican Republic, Bonaire and Aruba. We plan plenty of shore excursions as well.

One way I relax while on vacation is to write, so I expect you will get trip reports. It’s possible you will get a couple of posts during the cruise when we are at a port of call, providing I have time and there is ready wireless. Otherwise posting will resume on or after January 27.

 
The Thinker

The Adirondacks and Lake Placid

Here’s a little known truth about New York State: it is all naturally beautiful. If there is ugliness, like certain parts of the Bronx, it is entirely manmade. Tourists whose idea of visiting New York State might include just the city and Niagara Falls have no idea what else they are missing elsewhere in the state. It is a lushly green state, mostly full of gentle hills, babbling brooks, wineries and bucolic lakes. It also has serious mountains, only a few of which are actually poke above the tree line. The most serious mountains are to be found in the Adirondack Mountains in the far northern parts of the state.

Curiously many New Yorkers never visit the Adirondacks. New York Governor O’Malley and New York City Mayor Bloomberg made a point of visiting the park recently to go whitewater rafting down one of its rivers, mainly to educate New Yorkers on this treasure in their own state. Until last week I had never visited the Adirondacks either and I lived in the state for the first fifteen years of my life. As a final destination for our vacation, we spent two nights in Lake Placid in the northern Adirondacks. The village was twice the host of the Winter Olympics, most recently in 1980. The sports complexes are still there and are still being used to train athletes, not just for the Olympics, but for all sorts of sporting contests, not all of them winter related. On most nights you can catch a 7 PM show at the skating arena and for a modest cost watch skaters practice on the rink, yes even in August. Unfortunately we arrived at 7:30 PM, so we gave it a pass.

Most people associate the Adirondacks with the Appalachian Mountains. This is not correct. The Adirondacks constitute the southern tip of a larger Canadian mountain range, the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec. The Adirondacks Park is actually a huge area of New York State, a total of 6.1 million acres covering much of the land between Albany and Montreal. The area is mostly natural. There certainly are scattered villages like Lake Placid in the park, but nothing in the way of a city, although there are many townships. Arguably, Lake Placid is the center of civilization within the park. Today it is a mixture of sports facilities, restaurants, boutiques and overpriced lodgings for the rich and well-moneyed. Lining the shores of Lake Placid are all sorts of “camps”, which in reality are houses with lakefront access, most of which are large and ornate. Only a few of these are accessible by road, which means effectively these estates can only be used during the summer when the lake is not iced over. Everything must be hauled in by boat, including construction equipment. Garages back out to the lake and are for boats, not cars. Even if you are independently wealthy, there are no more sites on the lake to build your camp. The best you can hope for is that someone puts their property on the market. It’s an exclusive neighborhood that includes summer homes for famous people, generally CEOs of large corporations, although a few celebrities also have had “camps” on the lake. The famous singer Kate Smith had an estate on the lake.

Getting anywhere in the Adirondacks takes a lot of time and generally requires a car. However, the park attracts athletes and outdoor enthusiasts. These people have no problem arriving by bike, even if the journey requires hundreds of miles. They are not the least bit intimidated by its many hills and mountains. The park accommodates bicyclists by putting bike lanes on the shoulders of all the major roads.

Summit of Mount Whiteface (Lake Placid in background)

Summit of Mount Whiteface (Lake Placid in background)

As you might expect, ski enthusiasts find much to love about the park. There are many mountains in the park, but Mount Whiteface northeast of Lake Placid is a principle place to go skiing, not just because it is the sixth tallest mountain (4867 feet) in the park but because it has the longest ski lift and ski slopes east of the Rockies, more than three thousand feet in total elevation. The mountain is named not because of the snow often on its slopes but for the exposed seams of white granite on its face. We took a gondola ride up the mountain. The ride up takes twenty minutes and you arrive not even near the summit. The ski slopes are severe, so don’t expect much in the way of bunny trails. Do expect on a clear day a breathtaking view, which on the summit can extend all the way up to Montreal. There is a road you can take to get to the summit, with steep inclines and a washboard surface, so ascend slowly. For the adventurous there is a path to the summit from the parking area. For the less adventurous a tunnel takes you to a twenty six story elevator.

The Adirondacks is a great natural wonderland, but it is also quite remote. Black fly season is to be avoided but you may find mosquitos any time during the growing season. Villages like Lake Placid have many of the comforts of home, but little in the way of modern conveniences like large supermarkets and Home Depot stores. It makes an excellent place to visit but to actually live there requires a lot of compromises, including long trips to cities like Plattsburgh for essentials or Albany or Montreal to catch a flight. Of course it is also snow country. Winters are long and tend to be cold. You may see snow falling in May. A snow blower is essential. I would not live there without snow tires and a set of chains. If you want to be close to nature, however, these are small tradeoffs. While there are tiny islands of civilization in the park, nature is the default and you cannot help but be imbued by it.

Mirror Lake, Lake Placid NY

Mirror Lake, Lake Placid NY

Lake Placid is mostly oriented around the well-moneyed, but those with more modest means can find accommodations. We found a lovely B&B miles from Lake Placid that came with a welcoming proprietress named Aggie (who makes excellent breakfasts; demand the lemon walnut cake) and a friendly dog named Luke. It helps to be athletic because most activities are oriented toward outdoor enthusiasts. But there are more placid activities you can enjoy, like a boat tour of Lake Placid, a serene train ride between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, window shopping in the boutiques along Main Street or ambling on a local trail. There is upscale dining in Lake Placid as well. In one restaurant we saw a string quartet playing.

Its remoteness from the rest of the country was brought home by our return trip home. It was nearly three hours of driving just to get to Albany, and more than ten altogether to get back to our house in Northern Virginia. Do not trust the eight hours and six minutes Google Maps told us it would take if we took the New Jersey Turnpike. It did not account for massive construction on the turnpike and the minor fact that I-95 is not really engineered for the volume of traffic it gets. In parts of New Jersey, it is still two lanes in each direction. Traffic delays added ninety minutes to our trip. Lesson learned. Take the serene and nearly empty I-88 between Albany and Binghamton instead, then I-81 south. Not only will you avoid a lot of traffic, but you will save yourself about thirty dollars in tolls.

So much for our 2013 vacation. I hope that you enjoyed the travelogue.

 
The Thinker

Inspecting Burlington, Vermont

We last visited Burlington, Vermont in 2008. It was practically a drive by encounter, as we spent only one night. It was also not a proper encounter as we arrived after a long day of touring and hung out in South Burlington at a hotel along a strip. This most recent visit was not long enough either, but its length was based on the assumption that the city was likely too far north as a serious candidate for our retirement. It was more of a way station on the way to Lake Placid, New York in the Adirondacks where we are at tonight and plan to finish our vacation.

Still, if we were heading that way it made sense to see the city and check out a few potential retirement areas. Unlike Northampton, Massachusetts you can find condominiums here that are actual condominiums instead of houses remodeled and subdivided into legal entities called condominiums. It took some in-depth Google searching to find them. For the most part, Burlington is like Northampton and is overrun with single family houses. Burlington is growing, however, and it is stimulating demand for something more than apartments, so you are seeing townhouse communities here and there and even the occasional condominium community.

One of these was a place called Eastwood Commons. It sits in South Burlington off a main drag, next to a senior living center and block of apartments, all obviously part of a project by the same developer. All the units looked reasonably new: a few years old at most. Unfortunately, all you could really do was look at it from the outside and watch people going in and out of the building, which included lots of families with children. You needed an access card to actually get into the building and there was no office to go to for more information, as the condominiums had all been sold. No matter, they weren’t quite what we were looking for, although you could walk to strip malls instead of drive there, which was at least different.

There are also condominiums of the sort we saw in Ithaca at the start of our vacation: basically two single family houses stuck together along one wall. What made them condominiums was they were all virtually identical right down to the same bland vinyl siding and two car garages. They looked relatively new as well. Surprisingly, these were not unacceptable, as they had a lot of space and something of a view of Lake Champlain in the distance. Presumably the condo association worried about things like mowing the grass and plowing your driveway. You can see them on Google Maps here.

The condos that interested me from afar were The Cascades in Winooski Falls. Winooski Falls sits on the north side of Burlington, and these condos, or at least seventy percent of them, have at least some view of the falls at Winooski as well, as they are right next to them. This whole area was purchased by a developer. Like the project in South Burlington, it includes a variety of tightly coupled communities. The condos sit across the street from an upscale apartment complex, and behind them was housing designed for students at the nearby University of Vermont, also by the same developer. The street level has retail that caters to local residents. If the goal is to integrate a new more urban-like community into an old one, it’s a work still in progress. In fact, a second building of condos is going up near the first building, but nearby old Winooski Falls does not seem ready to turn make itself look historic, and seems perhaps a bit shabby. Still, Winooski Falls and Burlington in general has a certain charm. In many ways it felt a lot like Ithaca, both big college towns, but Burlington is actually the larger city.

Church Street Marketplace, Burlington VT

Church Street Marketplace, Burlington VT

Downtown Burlington seemed much larger and cosmopolitan than I expected. It is no Boston, but it has aged in a good way and now contains a street mall that looks very similar to the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado. In fact, part of the mall is on Pearl Street. It’s called the Church Street Marketplace and it seems to be more of a happening a place than the nearby indoor shopping mall. Parking is problematic, as in both Northampton and Boulder, but there are plenty of restaurants and eclectic shops to enjoy if that takes your fancy. Burlington is overall quite charming, and it is not hard to find views of Lake Champlain, which acts as the bottom of a picture frame to the blue green Adirondack Mountains of New York State. The view is quite stunning compared to what we usually get in the lower forty-eight, and makes it quite unique among American cities.

Burlington itself seems to have colored up since our 2008 visit. The city is a State Department host city for refugees, so Asians and Africans are moving into this cold but lovely area of the country. The coloring up is a work in progress, but encouraging. As in Ithaca, the University of Vermont is also a large anchor, bringing in educated people that disproportionately enrich the community both financially and intellectually. Still, this is Burlington, and it is so far north that it is just ninety minutes by car from Montreal. It is in the continental United States, but just barely. It feels much further out because aside from Montreal there is no other city of appreciable size within hours of it. And it is in the Snow Belt, an asset if you are a skier, but to most of the lower forty-eight, some place to visit for a brief time but not to live. Its snow is measured in feet every winter and it can spend weeks at subzero temperatures. So the land is cheap and the cost of living is in general reasonably cheap too. Our survey of housing prices suggests overall real estate is about a third less than in Northampton. Our house in Northern Virginia could probably be purchased for about $200,000 in Burlington. One other downside for us: the state will tax my federal pension, unlike Massachusetts and New York State.

Unlike Northampton and vicinity, Burlington feels more like the rest of America in that strip malls and fast food are easier to find, open space is merely undeveloped space, and it is more commercialized in general. In my mind this makes Northampton more desirable overall. Still, we haven’t canceled Burlington off our list of possible locations to retire as a result of this visit. Burlington, like Ithaca and Northampton will require more thought and study as we weigh the pros and cons of each area.

Lake Champlain, near Charlotte VT

Lake Champlain, near Charlotte VT

One thing is clear about Burlington: it is a beautiful area to live, particularly during the summer months. The Queen Anne’s Lace surrounds the edges of highways and streets in these summer months. Healthy deciduous and coniferous trees abound, the grass is intensely green and the frame of Lake Champlain and the nearby Adirondack Mountains always makes you feel somewhere special and magical. And summer tends to be delightful, instead of something to endure like we have in Northern Virginia. Couple this with Burlington itself, a clean and modern small-scale city with a university anchor and a lively downtown and you have a largely unspoiled and inviting community. As a bonus, it is continuously infused with clean and healthy air streaming off the lake and filtered by the Adirondack Mountains.

Anyone interested in living in northern climates would be a fool to scratch the Burlington area off their list. It’s most definitely worth a visit.

 
The Thinker

King of the Hill

The hill in question would be Beacon Hill, in Boston. There aren’t many high elevations in Boston, although there are plenty of hills. If any part of Boston does not go underwater due to climate change, it will probably be the neighborhood of Beacon Hill, home of the Massachusetts state capitol, which also includes the governor’s executive offices. (Massachusetts does not believe in governors needing a mansion). Older even than the government of Massachusetts are various Unitarian churches around here that predate the revolution. We saw one in Cambridge today that was started in the 17th century. We Unitarians got an early foothold in the New World in Boston, and we got premier real estate when it was still cheap. So the Unitarian Universalist Association holds some historic digs up here on Beacon Hill, including the Eliot and Pickett House on Mount Vernon Court. The Eliot House contains offices in the basement, meeting space on the first floor and guest quarters on the upper levels. The guest quarters are sort of like a B&B. In any event they are dirt cheap for Unitarian Universalists (UUs) to rent who are visiting Boston, a mere $120 a night that includes breakfast privileges and (since it’s a UU place) all the coffee you can guzzle down in the morning. You have to make your own breakfast, but the kitchen is reasonably well stocked, and the rooms are small, clean and quite nice but don’t seem to include maid service. The Eliot House where we are staying is truly right at the top of Beacon Hill. I look out our window and fifty feet away is the state capitol, with office lights burning brightly during the night.

Beacon Hill - you can't afford to live here

Beacon Hill – you can’t afford to live here

So we are feeling a bit smug. Rooms, if you can get them in downtown Boston in the summer, typically go for twice as much, and you simply cannot get a better location in Boston, just two blocks from the Boston Common. I expected though that this UU hotel of sorts would be overrun with penny-pinching UUs, but the place is eerily empty at night. I am pretty sure we are the only official guests here these last three nights, leaving dozens of excellent guest rooms in a prime location rentable but unoccupied. We would be alone except for one caretaker who is here to 11 PM. The Unitarian Universalist Association needs to do a better job of marketing the place, because the rooms are nice and clean, the location cannot be bettered and the cardiovascular opportunities getting to the top of the hill are excellent. Its only minus is the lack of parking, requiring $26 a day at the local Boston Common garage several blocks away.

Boston is hardly unknown vacation territory to us. We have been here twice on vacation before, and my wife comes up here annually for a convention. So we have seen most of the tourist sites and are working our way through some of the less popular ones, like the Paul Revere House. Given that overall Boston is such a great city, it’s no wonder that we would like to relocate to be close to it. So yesterday we found ourselves in the Boston suburb of Watertown (in the news recently as the location where the Boston bombers lived) talking to a local realtor about the price of housing around there to see if it was affordable. The long and short of it was probably not. We probably could find something we could afford, but it would probably not be big enough for our needs and would come with other less desirable aspects. We’d probably be in a duplex, we’d likely be close to rental housing and all the hassles that brings, and we likely would not have the luxury of a garage. This was in Watertown, ten miles or so up the Charles River. Our ideal location would be Cambridge, in one of those lovely high rise condominiums that line the Charles River. The realtor suppressed a smile. For some place that met our criteria we’d have to pay close to a million dollars, and our house is worth only half that much. There is also Boston’s crazy real estate market, modeling the Washington area where we live at the moment. It’s a sellers’ market, so properties are expensive, don’t stay on the market long, and are the subject of intense bidding wars. In short, it is probably not worth the expense, tradeoffs and the hassle to live close to Boston.

Boston skyline

Boston skyline

Boston though still remains a neat city. More exposure to it only leaves me more impressed with the city. Aside from its high cost of living, it has few downsides. I complained about the lack of ethnicity in Northampton. That’s certainly not a problem in Boston, where you can find every color in the rainbow and many in between. As in Washington, you will hear about half the conversations in languages other than English. It can credibly claim to be the most educated city in the country. Harvard and MIT are the well-known universities but there are many dozens more, so the city is infused with a highly educated workforce tending toward being younger rather than older. Boston has the most attractive downtown of any major metropolis I have seen, and it is easily walkable. If it is too far to walk to your destination, while its subway and bus system may be very old, it is convenient and cheap. It has this plus all the amenities of a big city, minus most of its downsides.

Boston of course is the city but it is surrounded by other cities and towns that make up a sort of inner Boston, and all sorts of communities further out that make up the Boston metropolitan region. Many of the streets have potholes. Much of its infrastructure is either in repair or needs repair. But it’s an old city that is paying the freight of maintaining an old infrastructure. Some things are unlikely to change. While mass transit moves people around, the roads won’t get any wider, so getting around by car is going to always be a hassle. Those are some of the compromises people make to live here. Mostly they are compromises people are willing to pay for. Overall you need deep pockets to live the Boston dream. Otherwise, like our friend Sian out in Cambridge, you have to get practical. You find roommates and rent a house and split the expenses instead.

Houses and rent get cheaper further out from Boston. So a far flung suburb like Marborough is not out of the question for us. But that does raise the question of why we should move in the first place. Why trade life in the suburb around one big city for the same around another one? What we want in retirement is something different and more satisfying than what we have: either to live the urban dream or live a life closer to nature. It should offer less hassle as well. Financially, the latter option looks like the only viable one.

Perhaps there is a more modest sized city that will still accommodate our needs. We will look again at Burlington, Vermont tomorrow. It’s Vermont’s biggest city, but tiny compared to what I am used to. The entire Burlington area is about the size of Reston, Virginia near where I live. Like Ithaca, New York it is unlikely to have the urban amenities we would like, and it is probably too far north and remote to be someplace we would actually retire to. Still, when I see condos like these in Winooski Falls I think, “I could trade all the extra snow and cold weather found in Vermont for a view of those falls every day outside my window, and the community that can be found in the right kind of condo community.”

Meanwhile, we can at least enjoy Boston while we are here. Our time here has included whale watching (we had four humpback whale encounters!), museum tours, walking around the Boston Common, dining in Little Italy and riding the T to various places. The Boston Common is such a delightful place to while away the hours. It is very much Boston’s Central Park and in some ways it is better. We can imagine living here off Mount Vernon Court on Beacon Hill, in one of these tall brownstone buildings full of overpriced condos and apartments. We just cannot afford to actually do it.

We can afford to visit Boston regularly, and I expect the Eliot House will be our choice of cheap digs again when we visit.

 
The Thinker

Life in the Hampshires

Two days and two nights in the Northampton, Massachusetts area has left me with mixed feelings about the place. My feelings are mostly effusive, thankfully, but no community meets all the checkboxes for a perfect community, and Northampton has a few tiny minuses. Curiously its “minuses” reveal more about me and what make me uncomfortable than they do about the community. What makes me a tad uncomfortable about an otherwise beautiful mountainous area of Western Massachusetts? In the case of Northampton, it’s its obvious lack of ethnic diversity. People there largely look a lot like me: white, prosperous middle class just twenty or more years younger than I am. There are some Asians, and I saw some Hispanics and one Muslim woman covered except for her face. Otherwise, it was an all-White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) paradise. Maybe the protestant in WASP can be left out. There are churches in Northampton, but many of them have been converted to other uses. Six Catholic churches have collapsed into one church. The community strikes me as an overly educated lot, not surprising as Hampshire County is overrun with colleges for its relatively small population. The University of Massachusetts across the Connecticut River in Amherst is the heavyweight college, but there are also lesser known private universities such as Hampshire College (where a niece went) and Smith College. Consequently they have little need these days for traditional religion. Sundays instead are genuine days of rest, and generally far away from a church. It is a good day to commune with nature, and there is plenty of nature readily at hand. So it is a good community for those into spirituality but not so much religion. Soak in the fresh air, let the natural sound of wind rustling through leaves fill you with peace, and enjoy the smell of honeysuckle and midsummer flowers in the air instead.

Connecticut River near Northampton, MA

Connecticut River near Northampton, MA

Those darn hippies have basically taken over Hampshire County. Curiously, those darn hippies have done a great job of it, modeling the sort of society we should become everywhere. In some ways those hippies are downright conservative. One of them in a guy named Craig, who runs the B&B we stayed at. He is a passionate community activist and organizer, and passionate about Hampshire County in particular. He did not know we were looking at retirement areas until we arrived. He spent over two hours the next morning driving us around, showing us almost every housing option available, and giving us invaluable insight into the culture and values of the hippies that reinvigorated this area. They are conservative in the sense that they hate to tear down anything so up have gone the historic districts instead. They work closely with developers to restore old houses, keeping the character of a community a hundred years earlier. Their work is quite impressive. Northampton is just beautiful: a community anyone who lives there can be proud of, closely knitted, walkable, bikeable (lots of bike trails, and bike paths on the major roads), with natural areas interwoven into traditional neighborhoods.

Looking west from Mount Tom, MA toward Easthampton

Looking west from Mount Tom, MA toward Easthampton

Northampton only gets funky downtown. There it becomes Mayberry if it were overrun with flower children and their descendants. All sorts of boutique shops and excellent restaurants can be found downtown. It’s a popular place to be, and draws not just people from the immediate area but from much further out. Which takes me to one of the other things I don’t like about Northampton. It reminds me too much of Georgetown, the well-moneyed historic district in Washington, D.C. where, like Northampton, it’s impossible to find a parking space. People are just drawn to it. It is a combustible mixture of old and new, melded together somehow into something unique that Madison Avenue would like to manufacture, but cannot.

That is because real communities like this cannot be installed. They work when the people come together and decide to push their values, and do so over many decades. The mostly white teenagers hanging out downtown with pierced nostrils, the incense filled boutiques with naughty T-shirts and novelties, are a result of a community that sets standards where people can breathe a little bit, and it’s okay. While there may be a lack of ethnic diversity in and around Northampton, you can’t say the same about its cultural diversity. There are more lesbians in Northampton than in any other place of its size in the country. Your sexual orientation or lack of it, your love of pierced nostrils makes you utterly common. Everyone sort of sees past it.

An oh, the scenery! The Connecticut River winds through the county. It is a beautiful river, lined with green shores and capped with green mountains, odd only in the sense that they run east to west instead of north to south. This is the richest farmland in the country, for those who want to farm it, and there are plenty of farms in the area. Large tracks of land have been purchased so they will always be farmland. As in other communities like Boulder, Colorado, other areas have been purchased to be forever natural. Those darn hippies show their conservative side: nature is beautiful and precious and they won’t let anyone mess with it. The result in an area that is intoxicating in a good way: peaceful, natural, community-focused and healthy. In short, it is a compelling area for us to consider retiring to, made much more compelling by its relatively low real estate prices. Granted, many of the houses are a hundred years old or more, and more than a few need substantial renovation. But where else can you enjoy such unique combination of people and nature at such a low price? These houses generally sell for between $250,000 and $350,000. It’s a great value, but what make it a best value are not the affordable housing prices, but the community.

We spent our two nights in Florence, a village just to the west of Northampton. Curiously I found Florence more compelling than Northampton. I have a limited ability to appreciate boutiques and vast numbers of ethnic restaurants, although it is nice to know they are there should I want them. Florence on the other hand felt more real. It is a community with its own compelling history, including Sojourner Truth, who tried to create a utopian society in Florence. Florence, as well as Northampton, has liberal religious values that go back to the Underground Railroad, where it was a popular way station. It stitches itself together with neighboring villages through bike paths, ordinances, veterans’ hospitals, old houses with big verandas and high walkability scores. For most of life’s necessities you don’t need to get in a car. You simply walk or bike to it. This includes sublime pleasures like having breakfast at Miss Florence’s Diner, with the 60’s juke box at the table and a deliciously simple western omelet for breakfast with two pieces of multigrain toast with butter hanging off the side of the plate.

In short, Northampton and the various *hampton communities that nestle nearby, including Florence, Easthampton, Amherst and Hadley offer a compelling lure for those looking for authenticity in a community, in spite of its lack of ethnic diversity. Those babbling brooks, winding roads, old mills (many of which are being restored and repurposed) present a compelling package for those of you out there hungering for home, like quite possibly my wife and me.

 

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