Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

The Thinker

Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard

Sorry for the delay in posting. It takes time to travel places when on vacation, time to visit them, time to drive back home, time to unpack and time to reestablish some normalcy at home. The latter won’t happen until Tuesday when our refrigerator will be repaired. It died on us during our 12-day vacation.

In 2009, I got a free business trip to Cape Cod, more specifically to Woods Hole on the cape’s south end. I liked what I saw of Woods Hole and Falmouth to its north. My wife had never been to the cape, so it seemed like a good way station on our way back home. We drove from the Acadia National Park in Maine to Falmouth on Tuesday, a rather monotonous drive mostly along I-95. The most direct way to the cape for us was through Boston. The Big Dig under Boston Harbor was supposedly to relieve the traffic congestion. Considering what we endured about 3 PM on a Tuesday, it must have been even more hellish before the Big Dig. Congestion in downtown Boston added about an hour to our trip.

Falmouth though remains charming, just less so in the height of tourist season. Parking downtown is hard to find this time of year but we managed to find some parking not too far from The Quarterdeck, a restaurant like most in the area specializing in seafood. The Quarterdeck is built to look a bit like an old sailing ship, although you won’t mistake it for a real quarterdeck. Some of the wood used in construction though reputedly came from ships constructed in the 16th century. So in that sense it’s historic, and the food was as good and pricey as I remembered it. What were missing were the regulars at the bar. I guess there were too many tourists this time of year for them to bother. So perhaps Falmouth is best enjoyed outside the tourist season.

Our Wednesday destination was Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts known as the playground for the rich and famous. In fact, it was very much in the news on Wednesday because President Obama was vacationing on the island. In addition, Hillary Clinton was visiting. This plus frequent squalls and high winds kept the skies cloudy, the winds brisk and the pavement mostly dancing with raindrops. It was the only mostly rainy day of our vacation, so we didn’t complain much.

Getting to the island though is a hassle. You can’t just drive to Woods Hole and catch a ferry. There is virtually no place to park there, so you park in lots near and around Falmouth instead, and pay $13 a day for the privilege, plus you purchase ferry tickets modestly priced at $8 a trip. It is technically possible to take your car to the island, but this time of year it requires making reservations months in advance. It didn’t bother us too much because the bus system is decent and it costs only $7 for a day pass anywhere on the island.

What did bother us were the weather and the traffic congestion it caused. Ferries normally dock at three different ports, but due to high seas from the rain and wind they all went into Vineyard Haven instead, which clogged the roads as people had to redirect to it. Having the president and former secretary of state on the island probably didn’t help either. So we spent much of the afternoon in the rain on a bus stuck in traffic, or waiting at a bus shelter in Edgartown. We needed our stiff umbrellas but there was not much we could do or see in Edgartown. Buses were not arriving on time. It looked like we should just head back to Vineyard Haven and go back to our hotel.

For a change though my wife was the one with more wanderlust, so she persuaded me to wait for the series of buses that took us to the far western side of the island, known as Aquinnah. Near the tip is Gay Head and its “painted” cliffs which were breathtaking. We also got a break from the rain by the time we arrived around 4 PM. It was more than the cliffs that was invigorating: it was also the stiff, moist breeze and the shimmer of a partially obscured sun on the water.

Gay Head, Martha's Vineyard

Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard

As for the Vineyard itself, if you go through the hassle of getting there you can understand its appeal. First, it is viney. I did not see any grape vines, but it is a lushly green island with many bumps in elevation that don’t quite qualify as hills. Second, it’s an island so it is not easily accessible, thus it feels both cut off and safe. Third, it’s obvious that mostly those with money live on the island. Towns like Edgartown are full of Gingerbread houses, most of which look rented out, surrounded by downtowns full of mostly one of a kind stores and curiosity shops. And of course there are pricey houses, many on bluffs with huge yards that resemble plantations, and President Obama and family were likely on one of them. Prices were roughly fifty percent higher than on the mainland as well. We didn’t even try to rent a hotel room there. We might have been able to rent one if we had $300 or more a night to drop there. It was less than half of that for our hotel on Falmouth. The island also has beaches, but also lakes, seawalls and an airport. So in spite of the weather, it was worth going to. Simply the view of the sea from Gay Head justified the time and expense.

And that was pretty much our vacation, sans a very long, traffic-clogged trip home on Thursday and the discovery that someone had broken into our house while we were gone, someone who clearly had a house key, which made the burglary more curious as only three people we trust have a house key. No doors were busted in. Only some jewelry was taken which had more sentimental than monetary value, but it was a loss nonetheless. It must have happened in the late evening after my daughter had done to work (she works nights). Police were called, dust prints from a hand were found on our comforter and our dresser drawers were ruffled through. We’ve never had an incident like this before, and it’s more than a little creepy. The locks will be changed on Monday.

Now my retirement starts in earnest. On Friday morning, I had to go to the store to pick up a few essentials for breakfast. I watched a long parade of cars go by our street, likely mostly working people off to a 9 to 5 job. Not me. Now I am just a guy with a busted refrigerator, a looted house and a lot of bills to pay. But hey, I’m retired!

 
The Thinker

New Brunswick and Maine

As in Nova Scotia, the weather in the province of New Brunswick kept us guessing. Approaching Halifax, Nova Scotia we were caught in torrential rains and the same thing happened as we approached St. John, New Brunswick’s capital. Nature’s fury was followed by periods of bright sunshine, then another round would arrive. We happened to read the Canadian news on Sunday, only to learn that a tornado touched down in the northern province of Newfoundland of all places. Such an event is virtually unheard of.

Otherwise New Brunswick looked a lot like Nova Scotia, at least its eastern parts as we wended our way south to St. John: gently rolling hills with mixtures of coniferous and deciduous trees with many picturesque lakes to enjoy. New Brunswick must have a sizeable French community because sign were typically in both English and French, not too surprising as it sits east of the French province of Quebec.

Caves on Fundy Bay (low tide), St. Martins, New Brunswick

Caves on Fundy Bay (low tide), St. Martins, New Brunswick

Fundy Bay sits between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. It’s likely its shape which gives it extraordinary tides. We saw these for ourselves when we ventured off the major road to a back road, that took us into the city of St. Martin. It sits about thirty miles north of St. John. Aside from the variety of small businesses mostly oriented around the tourist trade, its principal attraction is the Fundy Trail, where the effects of tidal forces are quite spectacular. There we found a tidal beach at low tide. Tourists walked over the rocks into enormously tall caves in the cliffs. Six hours later these cliffs would mostly filled with water and be accessible only by adventurous kayakers. Tides along Fundy Bay can be up to forty feet. We also found a lighthouse on a back road that was approachable. The coasts of New Brunswick are quite spectacular for the many dramatic cliffs and the effects of tides on these surfaces. There water and coastline meet in spectacular and timeless drama.

The capital city of St. John proved itself as interesting and ethnically diverse as Halifax, just somewhat smaller. One impressive feature of the city is its hills, not so much for their height as for their steepness. Having seen the hills of cities like Seattle, Tacoma and San Francisco, St. John was at least a peer. Otherwise St. John was mostly a place to spend a night before venturing back into the United States through Maine. We wished we had scheduled more time for a proper visit.

We reentered the United States through the border crossing at St. Stephen then drove west passing through Bangor before arriving at Waterville, to spend some hours with friends. Our final destination for the night was Ellsworth along the southeast coast, something of a gateway city to Bar Harbor and the Acadia National Park. We did our best to endure a musty smelling but otherwise clean room at the local Ramada Inn.

This is our third trip to Maine, but our first to this premier national park. It’s hard to get to, but it is a treasure once you arrive. Arguably the park has more diversity than any other national park, not in its citizenry, but in the variety of geological and natural formations at the park in what is a fairly small space. It’s unique in other ways too. Land for the park was largely ceded by landowners to the federal government, principally to ensure that its natural treasures would always be available. This leaves half of the island still in private hands, including the city of Bar Harbor, and lots of townships on the island with all sorts of small businesses, hotels and B&Bs for tourists to enjoy. Mostly the island is a natural wonderland.

View from Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park, Maine

View from Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park, Maine

We did our best to see everything, but there was no way to do it in one day. Cadillac Mountain, its highest point, provided a full vista of the island. It is one of eleven mountains on this island, and the mountain’s 1500 feet turns out to be the highest mountain on the east coast. The view at 1500 feet though is spectacular, with the mainland, the Atlantic, Bar Harbor and other nearby islands easily visible. We were fortunate to tour the island on a picture perfect day, with temperatures in the low 70s. Every few miles down the road brought a new spectacular wonder: a rare sandy beach on the Maine coast, a thunderhole driven by the relentless sea on rocks, picturesque marshes, a clear lake with its own sandy beach, multiple picturesque marinas, and a natural seawall. We saw perhaps thirty percent of the prominent features on the island, and wished we had scheduled a couple of extra days to see the rest.

Our vacation though is wending toward its end. Only one destination remains before returning home: Cape Cod. A report is forthcoming.

 
The Thinker

Hello Nova Scotia

It’s still sometimes startling to go to Canada and realize it’s its own country and not part of the United States. You wonder why you have to go through this tedious customs process when our nations are so alike. Well, maybe not that alike. Canada is hardly a perfect country, since it is ripping up its west to extract oil from tar sands, and arguably it treats its native Americans about as shabbily as we do ours. For all the success of Obamacare, their national health insurance system wraps rings around ours, and for a lot less of their GDP. Still, they do have the dollar (although it is not green) and except for in Quebec they speak English. Canada is far more a white country than the USA. Overall, it seems much more civilized and less partisan. It’s a comfortable place to visit once you make a few mental changes. In particular, you need to think of distance in kilometers, volume in liters and have to excuse the national and regional value added taxes. Their socialism does not come cheap, but it has many advantages.

Nova Scotia sits northeast of Maine and is basically an island as well as a province. It’s not quite the furthest part of Canada to the east, but it is the most accessible to us in the United States. Most Americans never get to Nova Scotia, but fewer journey to Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, places more remote yet still accessible. What I knew of Nova Scotia was minimal: great and dramatic seascapes, hub of a lot of maritime commerce, short winter days with dramatic snowfalls and long summer days. I assume I can throw in moose too, although I did not see any.

Arriving by ferry to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia

Arriving by ferry to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia

I still don’t know much about the place, having arrived via ferry from Portland, Maine this morning. Perhaps the reason it is bypassed by Americans is that it is hard to get to. You can in theory drive to it, but it’s a major hassle. Flying to it is the ideal way to get here. There is also this new option: take Nova Star Cruiselines out of Portland for an overnight passage. Your car goes in the hold either on Decks 3 or 5. Deck 7 acts as something of a traditional cruise ship with lounges and gambling. And you sleep in tiny cabins (assuming you rent a cabin) on Deck 8. Only it’s not quite a cruise. For one thing, it lasts about twelve hours. And although the ship is new and quite attractive, it’s obviously not Royal Caribbean. And there is no lounging around when you get to Yarmouth. You are woken before 7 AM Eastern Time. There is time for breakfast in their cafeteria ($12 a person) but soon you and your car are being hustled off the ship, only to wait in long lines to get through customs.

We were hardly outside of Yarmouth heading along the island’s southeast coast when civilization quickly receded. Our destination was Anapolis Royal, where AAA had listed the Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens there as a diamond attraction. And the gardens are quite nice, spread out over fifteen acres, even with a sky that constantly shifted from pelting rain to sunshine. Still, as impressive as it was, it was no Longwood Gardens, something of the gold standard for gardens in North America. For the mostly unpopulated province of Nova Scotia, however, it was quite impressive. Getting there though meant two hours of driving over gentle hills, wholly undeveloped with mostly coniferous pine trees to look at. There are no services along these roads, but they were well maintained and lightly traveled. Occasionally you would get a glimpse of the Bay of Fundy to the west, or an estuary or river, but mostly it was vistas of fields and pine trees to enjoy.

Historic Gardens, Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia

Historic Gardens, Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia

It was much the same on the two plus hour trip from the gardens to Halifax. There is the occasional small town, but little in the way of civilization. Nova Scotia’s hills can be impressive at times while not quite qualifying as mountains. Of course there are towns and cities other than Halifax in Nova Scotia, they are just generally small and remote from one another. Halifax is the island’s metropolis, and while not quite Montreal it won’t disappoint. It is quite ethnically diverse with plenty to do.

As we are just zipping through Nova Scotia, and will be moving on to New Brunswick tomorrow, we had time for only one attraction in Halifax: the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic along the wharf. It’s too bad. We need to spend a week or more hear to really appreciate this province. I particularly wish we had time to see the northern half of the island, where arguably its most spendid natural treasures await.

I can say that this taste of Nova Scotia has left me yearning for a proper vacation here. Next time I hope it will be a leisurely tour of the island, lasting at least a week. And I’ll make sure we fly in.

 
The Thinker

Scouting neighborhoods

When you haven’t moved in 21 years, moving becomes a big deal. It becomes a bigger deal when you are selling a house, moving out of state, moving into a new home and moving for pleasure all at the same time.

Essentially my wife and I have been planning to move for about a decade now. That’s how long we’ve been examining communities we’ve traveled to for retirement potential. It turns out that the more communities you look at, the larger the possibilities and permutations become. There are plenty of communities that would suit us, plenty even when we considered that we could not afford to live in all of them. There were plenty that she liked and that I did not, and visa versa. Eventually we either had to choose something or stay where we were at for the rest of our lives.

We chose the western Massachusetts area last year, sort of tentatively. This week we are back in the Northampton area of western Massachusetts, this time for scouting neighborhoods. Last year we checked out four candidates sites including Watertown MA, Ithaca NY and Burlington VT, and the Northampton area won. Deciding to spend four nights here by the banks of the Connecticut River shows our intent and seriousness. Our base of operations is a place called the D. Hotel, close to the River, technically in nearby Holyoke but essentially in Northampton. It’s a great hotel, and probably the nicest in this area, with two quality restaurants literally next door.

Among our first investments now that we are here is a street map. Yes, it’s also available in Google Maps, but a street map is still essential for this sort of analysis. It takes a lot of work to find candidate neighborhoods and study how it all connects into a larger infrastructure. Finding housing that we were interested in was facilitated principally by zillow.com, the real estate web site, which showed us potential neighborhoods that had what we were looking for: essentially very large condominiums. Most of these are marketed for people our age: 55+.

We have more than two decades caring for a single-family house, and we’re sick of it. Sick of cutting grass, repairing roofs and shoveling snow. With a condominium, a condominium fee handles all the exterior maintenance. Interior changes would still be our responsibility, but that is more manageable. Here in snowy western Massachusetts, these sorts of houses can be found, but they are a tiny share of the total market. The ideal condo though should have some extras. I wanted a mancave, or more specifically a man room, something with a window and that was reasonably private where I could concentrate on writing and programming. The ideal condo would also have all the essentials on one level, anticipating the day when age would make it difficult to traverse stairs. It would also come with bathrooms accessible to us if we ended up in wheelchairs. These units are out there, even in this area. We are not the only seniors tapping into this market. It’s just not a huge market, but a profitable enough market to attract some developers.

The ideal community is more than a bunch of aging adults sitting in condos, but would be connected to a larger and vibrant community. There would be things to do nearby, interesting restaurants reasonably close and various cultural events to enjoy as well as feel close to nature. The Northampton area seemed to have all of these: five colleges nearby, more ethnic restaurants than you could ever want, and a good local arts scene not to mention artists all over the place with studio space. They are often found in refurbished buildings with brick exteriors that used to hum with machinery of an earlier industrial age.

And so we focused on communities. Northampton itself was an obvious choice, except for its downtown, where it has become a victim of its own success. There is not quite the housing we were looking for there, and parking is problematic given all the trendy stores and restaurants downtown. There are possibilities further out from the center of town, but it looked like we would have to trade walkability for space, green space and quiet.

The Oxbow, Easthampton, MA

The Oxbow, Easthampton, MA

Easthampton though is now calling us. This small city, south rather than east of Northampton, called me from afar as I studied it. Now it is calling me strongly as I spent a good part of the day in the city. It seems to be calling my wife as well. First, we found two condominium complexes in Easthampton that seem to meet most if not all of our needs in a condo. Second, Easthampton is a city, and thus a coherent place. We have spent our lives in largely unincorporated suburbs, with some basic services like police and fire controlled by the county, but much of the rest effectively controlled by the homeowner’s association.

A city, even a small one like Easthampton, is a contiguous area that is centrally managed. That means something to us at this stage in our lives. It means you can drive for a couple of miles and the zoning does not change. It means that you pay taxes to an entity that manages all this. It means the city is responsible for the water, sewage, trash pickup, parks and should you choose to use it, a burial site for your remains. When done right, and Easthampton seems to be doing it right, it offers a consistent experience as well as a set of implicit shared values tailored for the area you live. And if you don’t like the way the management is running the place, you can try to elect people who will do a better job, or run for office yourself.

Easthampton though is also connected to the rest of Hampshire County, not just through roads but also through common biking trails, as well as much in the way of a shared values. Throughout Hampshire County, there is an appreciation for the environment and for preserving the past. Historic districts maintain the look from a hundred years ago. Common space and community gardens with deeds ensuring they will never be developed, along with many nature sanctuaries, preserve natural space. It is also politically liberal. Rachel Maddow cut her broadcasting teeth in Northampton, and clusters of same sex couples are as common as rain out here. No one thinks this is the least bit weird, which is as it should be.

Beyond Hampshire County is more concentrated civilization. Springfield turns out to be a major city, definitely the largest in western Massachusetts and not as run down as I feared. Holyoke too looks much better than I thought it would, with beautiful estates in the northern part of the city. We still need to check out Chicopee to its south. We traveled through Hartford, Connecticut on our way up, about an hour away. Hartford is substantially bigger than Springfield, and is quite modern. More importantly, it has a major airport and a Southwest Airlines hub. New York City is two and a half hours away by car. Boston is ninety minutes away. And trains can take us both places with reasonable ease while we enjoy a home very much in the midst of nature.

The result is that we are finding not just the neighborhoods, but the towns and small cities that align with this phase of our lives. We won’t find the perfect community. There is not the time or the resources to find such a place, if it exists. You can however be pragmatic. Hampshire County and Easthampton in particular is coming together into a frame, and under the frame is its title: our new home.

 

 
The Thinker

Retirement options

No gold watch upon my retirement, but likely an early afternoon party at work with sheet cake and punch in a conference room. This is sort of expected and it is nice. There is a lot of paperwork when you retire from the federal government, but perhaps the most onerous part of it is sifting through all the choices. Our retirement system has evolved over many years into a complex labyrinth. You almost need a degree in retirement management to handle the complexity of it all.

The hardest retirement decision is figuring out whether you can really afford to retire. That took many years of work with a financial adviser. Some part of the decision was made for me. Stocks did great last year, lessening my need to hang around. In any event, on August 1st I should be officially a retiree and a private citizen again, free to run for public office should I choose, and with no need to worry about accidentally investing in energy stocks.

Gone also will be certain benefits that come with being employed, like a health savings account. It allows you to pay for medical expenses with pre-tax dollars. It’s not so much the tax savings that I’ll miss, but having some system automatically paying most of our voluminous deductibles. A lot of this will now have to be done personally, involving time and hassle. Well, I guess being retired I should have more of it.

Except like most retirees, I won’t be quite retired. To start, I’ll teach two courses at the local community college, and likely two more the following semester. Something work-like but not full time work will be good to feel engaged and part of the world. But I don’t just want to teach again. I also want to learn. On my list of things to do is take a couple of courses, including one on how to write apps. I don’t know what kind of apps I will write in retirement. With luck they will bring in some income. I’m hoping to find an underserved and specialty market. If you only sell a thousand copies of your app, does it matter if you can get a hundred dollars each? The popular apps have been pretty much been written, along with dozens of variants of each. In any event with a pension and investment income, I’ll have a roof over my head and food on the table, so whether I succeed or fail writing apps doesn’t matter much.

This blog has satisfied my itch for writing. I am trying to decide if retirement will be the excuse I need to write something more creative and enduring, i.e. a book. We all have a novel in us. I probably have a lot of them. I just hate to write something that won’t be marketed. Since my daughter has an agent, perhaps I could shamelessly use her connection with her agent to get my novel read.

For me, retirement probably won’t be a lot of leisure. Rather it will provide a financial floor to explore pursuits that time, energy and the grinding business of maintaining a standard of living largely did not allow me to pursue. So, yes, there will be work but I am hoping it will be more part time work. I hope it won’t be something I get too passionate about. Passionate work can become wholly consuming, which might mean sixteen hour days happily sitting in front of my computer banging out code. I will need more time outdoors instead. I will want to have the leisure to take daily walks, perhaps with a dog on the end of a leash. I will want companionship.

For the next year or so a lot of my time will be consumed by the business of relocation. I’ve run the numbers and not only does relocation agree with me in midlife in general, but it’s a financially savvy move as well. This is true if you end up somewhere with an overall lower cost of living and with enough things to do to feel engaged and part of the community. I feel the need to be closer to nature again, as I was in my youth. I imagine something I haven’t done regularly in forty years: walking outside my house, looking at the night sky and seeing the Milky Way visible and splayed across the sky.

We’ve been studying western Massachusetts for a year now and the Pioneer Valley (Amherst/Northampton area) in particular. It looks like it has all we are looking for, although finding the right house will be a challenge. It helps to have zillow.com as a resource and when surveying potential communities to use Google Street Maps to get a reality check. Right now the city of Easthampton, Massachusetts looks particularly inviting. It is close enough to Northampton to be close to its amenities, but it is not overrun with students. There are five colleges in the Pioneer Valley, and some like the University of Massachusetts in Amherst have a reputation for problems with boisterous and drunken students. Choose your neighborhood with care, we’ve been warned. In general though crime is not a problem. The crime index for the area is incredibly low.

Easthampton is a very small city. Some would characterize it as a town or even a village. It has around 16,000 residents. It sits next door to Mt. Tom which offers convenient nature trails and scenic views from about a thousand feet above sea level. Easthampton is picturesque, just not as snooty or expensive as nearby Northampton.

We’ll go back this summer to focus on specific neighborhoods, but our brief tour of Easthampton last year was encouraging. It’s an old fashioned city with a small but real downtown full of local businesses. It comes with beautiful parks and even city managed cemeteries. After I pass this world, I think my ashes would be happy at Brookside Cemetery (assuming there are any remaining plots), overlooking White Brook and Nashawannuk Pond.

Easthampton is big enough to be a distinctive community with its own character, but not big enough to have be overrun by national chains. The are no Applebees in Easthampton that I can find, although there is a nice little breakfast place, locally owned and managed called The Silver Spoon that looks inviting based on reviews. You actually have to go to Northampton if you want to shop at Wal-Mart. Should I take an interest in local politics, it would be easy enough. The area’s less attractive areas, the cities of Holyoke, Springfield and Chicopee, are conveniently on the other side of Mt. Tom.

As for homes built for us retirees, there are a couple of condo communities, but only a couple. One in particular on the south side of the city looks very upscale. These condos are basically single family houses with a common wall. The condo fee takes care of pesky chores like shoveling snow and mowing grass. 55+ communities typically come with a master bedroom on the main level and accessible facilities built in. They anticipate the day when you will need to live on one level. It’s called aging in place, which sounds much better than aging in a nursing home. But they often have other levels as well, where guests can sleep and where my office will be located. As for nature, it is literally in the backyard. A bike trail is just blocks away.

The logistics of buying and selling our house are pretty daunting, as I have not moved a household such distances before. It will have to be done professionally. Fortunately our house is largely in shape to market and I’ll have time to work on it being “retired”. It’s clear that we can buy with cash from the sale of our house pretty much any house on the market in Western Massachusetts. So we’ll pocket a lot of equity, add it to our portfolio and hopefully use it to do more traveling.

The grandparent joke is, “If I had known how much fun it was to be a grandparent, I would have started as one.” I suspect retirement will be a lot like this. If you are fortunate to retire, you may be able to do it right. We’ll find out.

 
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 west 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 their homes 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.

 

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