NEW YORK – October 2013

Please Note – I am currently editing the travel journal I started writing in 2007 and posting as I go. I welcome feedback and encourage my readers to post comments.

Next Around the Bend – Iceland

Times Square

After leaving Caribbean Princess, Huckleberry B and I spent two more delightful days in NYC.

We have already decided that New York rates very high in our list of favourite world cities. I spent half a day in the city in the mid-1980’s when still a teenager. I recall taking the ferry to Staten Island – past the Statue of Liberty – but very little else. Huck B remembers visiting New York in 1981 and staying one night.

Despite taking so long to return, the street scape seems very familiar to us. After enjoying so many television shows and movies set in New York, we half expected George Costanza to walk around the corner with his arm around Charlotte York. Perhaps Rudi Huxtable would be running in the park. Was that Michael Corleone lurking in the shadows? Perhaps it was just Mickey Blue Eyes. Don’t worry Andy Sipowicz is on the case.

There is an energy in New York, unlike any city we have previously visited. You can do anything you want and anything is possible. We both felt inspired by our short visit and are keen to return.

After unpacking at our hotel at Columbus Circle, we had the rest of a lazy Friday afternoon to ourselves. After strolling in beautiful Central Park, we headed down to Times Square and – again on a whim – purchased tickets to the 2pm matinee of Jersey Boys. We had seen the production of this musical in Sydney and enjoyed it. We would have to admit, however, that the NY production was superior. The fact that members of the audience had made the journey from New Jersey – and cheered whenever place names were mentioned in the script and laughed whenever inside ‘Jersey‘ jokes were uttered – added tremendously to the experience.

After Jersey Boys, we headed back to TKTS and purchased tickets for the evening production of Chicago. Another great performance! We have seen this musical three times in Sydney and would have to say that the actress playing Roxie Hart, Bianca Marroquin, was the most engaging and alluring we have seen. We loved her!  I did some Internet research and have discovered that Bianca was the first Mexican actress to score a lead role on Broadway. The actress playing Thelma Kelly was, however, a serious disappointment. Whenever she sang, I felt my time was better served focusing on the back-up dancers. Allow me to be parochial for just a moment, and suggest that Australia’s Carolyn O’Conner was born for Thelma’s role and nobody (not even Catherine Zeta-Jones) compares.

A Tour of New York

On Saturday afternoon, we enjoyed the afternoon and evening with our friends, Cathy and Rich. You may recall that they collected us from the airport when we first landed at JFK several weeks ago. It was Cathy who gave me the FDNY cap which caused me to inadvertently accept the thanks of a grateful nation on profoundly false pretenses.

Cath is a happy to tell you (and tell you again) that she’s a proud ‘nu yawker‘. Rich, however, is from Long Island. I infer from Cath’s derision that this is completely different to being a ‘nu yawker‘. I thought Long Island was part of New York, but what do I know!

After a tour of the lower east side in Rich’s car, we parked in the financial district and made a tour of Ground Zero. Needless to say, this was a solemn experience. Cathy grew up in this area and used to walk through the World Trade Centre on her way to work. Today was, however, her first visit to Ground Zero since the Memorial was opened. She said that despite walking that ground thousands of times in her life, it was now unrecognisable to her.

I think the concept of the memorial is very good. Rather than rebuild on the same ground, the footprint of each tower has been converted into a square water fall. Gallons of water – the nemesis of fire and the source of life – cascade down the four walls, gather at the bottom and then descend into a well at the centre. The names of each of the 9/11 victims have been etched into the side of the memorials, including the names of several of Cathy’s friends. A short distance to the north the Freedom Tower soars into the sky.

Cathy was worked in a building in the financial district on that horrible day. We listened silently as she told us of her experience. It was harrowing.

Our mood lifted after leaving Ground Zero. We chatted happily as Rich drove along the west side of Manhattan before parking near Times Square. A quick look at Fifth Avenue and the Rockefeller Centre was followed by a brief introduction to Cath’s son, who has followed Rich’s example by joining the NYPD. Cath is very thankful that he has been posted to Times Square and not the Projects. He certainly looked the part in his NYPD uniform, although we must say he is rather ‘fresh faced’ to say the least.

Then it was dinner at Virgil’s BBQ! More mountains of food, this time various selections of ribs and/or roast chicken with two choices of sides from a list including french fries, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, baked potato etc. They don’t waste time with paper serviettes at Virgil’s. No way! Every diner is given a hand towel with which to wipe their hands, face and any other area which may become immersed in sauce and animal fats.

Doubtless our friends from Texas will be homicidal when they hear we ate Southern BBQ in New York City!

Texans:                ‘C’mom y’all. If ya want real Southern BBQ, mosey on down our way.’

Nu Yawkers:       ‘Come join us in the City or GET OUT OF THE WAY!’

We had a great time in NYC with Cathy and Rich! We will long remember our time together, provided, of course, we survive the homicidal urges of our Texan friends.

Imagining a Concert in the Park

The next morning, I went for a final stroll in Central Park. Starting at the south end, I wandered over the expanse of the sheep meadow, paused at the Bethesda Fountain, gazed over the  Lake, negotiated my way through ‘the Ramble‘ – where squirrels searched for food amongst the overgrown forest – passed the Belvedere Castle and found myself on ‘the Great Lawn’.

This is what I was looking for.

Some research on Wikipedia told me that it was on the Great Lawn that Simon & Garfunkel performed their concert on 19 September 1981, producing my favourite album of all time. I had my iPod with me, so I sat on a park bench and listened to the renditions of ‘Mrs Robinson‘, ‘America‘ and the ‘the Boxer‘ performed on that famous day, over 30 years ago. For me, it was a bit of a homecoming and a perfect way to end my time in New York.

I did, however, stop on my way back to the hotel to visit Strawberry Fields, a section on the western side of Central Park, adjacent to West 72nd Street, dedicated to the memory of John Lennon, who was murdered, in December 1980, only metres away in front of the Dakota Building where he lived with Yoko Ono. A throng of people had gathered around the ‘Imagine‘ mosaic in Strawberry Fields that Sunday morning, many crouching down to have their photo taken as they pointed at the single word, so full of meaning. A busker belted out the wistful tune and the people applauded him when he finished.

Satisfied with my morning walk, I hurried back to out hotel at Columbus Circle, where Huckleberry B was preparing for our journey to Iceland, and a very different view of the world.


CANADA – October 2013


Fawlty Towers Afloat

We have been spoiled by smaller cruise ships with less passengers on their guest lists.

Our voyage in April, onboard Seabourn Odyssey, was wonderful. Just 300 guests, plus crew members who remembered your name.

By contrast, the Caribbean Princess is 12 decks in height, some 290 metres in length and home to over 3,000 passengers, plus crew who resort to calling you ‘sir’ and ‘madam’.

There’s just too many people.

Mixing with hordes of holiday-makers has exposed us to a number of ailments.

First, there is TDP, or transdeckaphobia. Getting from one place to another is a chore, requiring both agility and planning. Just when you think you may have a clear run, a group of passengers impede your path, walking three abreast, at a pace slower than snails with mobility issues. We were forced to duck and weave – mumbling apologies over our shoulder – just to get anywhere, particularly at chow time.

Second, PDSD – or Pre-Dining Stress Disorder – which manifests itself whenever one places a meal order. With so many people to feed, the waiters seem to be in a constant rush.

Once at breakfast I declined coffee trice when three different waiters asked me whether I desired a beverage. Meanwhile, I sat there, clutching my menu, waiting for somebody to take my meal order! The most aggravating part of this incident – causing an exacerbation of PDSD – was that a waiter had already taken Huckleberry B’s order, taken possession of her menu and casually strolled off to the kitchen!

My PDSD was rampant the following evening. Our breakfast maitre’d had been taking care of us since some service problems arose earlier in the cruise – the incident above being  just one – and had advised us to dine in his section of the Coral Dining Room. The problem was that he neglected to tell the maitre’d of the dining room, who gave us a stern lecture about how he should have spoken to her about the arrangement. As if we cared!

Once at the table, I gave the unhappy woman a voucher to retrieve our half consumed bottle of wine from the previous night. Despite saying she would retrieve our bottle, I saw her place the voucher on a nearby counter and say something to our waitress. Problem was the waitress wasn’t paying attention. I maintained a close watch on our voucher and what I feared came to pass; another waiter came along and casually flicked the voucher onto a tray full of dirty plates and cutlery. He would have marched off and flung it in the bin, had I not sprung to my feet, grabbed the voucher and physically placed it in the hands of our waitress: ‘This is the voucher for our wine.’


Our bout of PDSD became chronic after multiple examples of similar service shenanigans; incorrect orders, plates delivered to the wrong person, the constant rush to take and deliver the next order. Just too many people.

I had to chuckle to myself when I realized that the best executed operation of the entire cruise was getting us off the ship on the last day. They got rid of us with the utmost efficiency.

The Leaf Peepers

This cruise, along the coast of New England and north to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, in Canada, has been billed as a leaf peeper’s paradise.

Truth be told, ‘leaf peeping’ is a term Huckleberry B and I have not heard before. To us it conjures up images of some sad individual hiding in a tree and peering through the leaves into your second floor window.

The truth, however, appears to be that those who enjoy looking at the changing autumnal colours are collectively described as ‘leaf peepers‘.

If I were an avid leaf peeping enthusiast – consumed by a passion for leaves – I would be disappointed by what was on offer on this cruise.

Of our five ports, only Bar Harbor, in Maine, truly offered autumnal leaves to write home about. Admittedly the brilliant yellow and red leaves dominating that port were glorious, as were the more muted colours in the surrounding forest.

The other ports, however, represented a forlorn experience for those suffering from a fervent fever for foliage. Little to peep!

Doubtless, our leaf peepers may have been afflicted by leaf peeping envy. I would like to say they were ‘green with envy’, however, given their curious interests, they would probably prefer to be red or yellow.

Sleepy Times in Sleepy Towns

Other than the potential for some enthralling leaf peeping, this cruise does not have much to offer. That is why Huck B and I chose it. Our purpose was to rest and have others perform our housework and prepare our meals.

Our experience at each port other than Boston was similar; we embarked upon a long, often fruitless, walk.

Our first destination – Halifax in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia – offered a walk through a quaint port village to the local botanic gardens. The gardens were pleasant, as was the walk. We have, however, almost no news to report. Nothing happened except ‘the cap incident‘…

When she met us at JFK in NYC, our friend, Cathy, was bearing gifts. Mine was a Fire Department of New York (FDNY) cap. I said I would cherish my gift and wear it proudly during our trip. Once in Canada, however, several people stopped me in the street to ask me if we were from New York. When one dude shook my hand and thanked me for my service, I decided it was time to take the cap off!

Whilst in Halifax, however, we were reminded that the town had twice played an important role in events which shocked the world. In 1912, the victims of the Titanic disaster were transported to Halifax for burial, it being the closest town of note to the site of the sinking. Some 89 years later, Halifax again came to the fore on 11 September 2001. Many trans-Atlantic flights were diverted to Halifax and their passengers grounded for five days until the skies over the United States were re-opened.

After Halifax, the Caribbean Princess sailed to Saint John, New Brunswick. Huckleberry B was a touch sentimental about returning to this Canadian Province because she had completed her secondary schooling some 120 miles down the highway at Fredericton. Armed with little more than her own determination, and possessing little English at the time, my beloved had escaped the discrimination she experienced in Malaysia by securing a scholarship.

The main attraction at Saint John was the curiously named, ‘Reversing Falls‘. A local volunteer guide told us that this natural wonder lay some 3.5 kilometres walk from the cruise terminal. What he failed to volunteer was that the path was impeded – several kilometres into the journey – by an imposing chained fence and some mean looking workmen in hard hats. After consultation with a local on his morning walk, we took a detour up the hill, under the highway overpass and through a sad looking Holiday Inn, before following a barren road back down the hill towards our original path.

It must be admitted that the landscape was uninspiring. The volunteer guide had described the walk as ‘very nice‘. We are compelled to disagree. For the most part, we were traversing land put to semi-industrial use and the pillars of the highway overpass seemed to be our constant companions.

Worst still, by the time we trudged up an incline and looked down to the so-called ‘Reversing Falls‘, we were overcome by the opposite emotion to profound wonderment. The view of the water below was certainly pleasant, but hard to get excited about.

Evidently, had we looked more closely, we may have observed that the waters were moving in a whirlpool motion, but that was difficult to see from our vantage point. And so we trudged back to our ship, this time ignoring the mean looking workmen – and their hard hats – and following the shorter, original, path.

Next on our sleepy-town walking tour was Bar Harbor in the State of Maine. As already reported, this presented the leaf peepers with their best opportunity to indulge their passion for peeping. Huckleberry B and I took a long walk along along the coast. Our ambition was to see Arcadia National Park, although this would have involved ‘break and enter‘ given that the Park was federally funded and the shut down was still in effect.

We soon realized that the Park was a lot further away than it appeared on the map; so we revised our plans and  decided to continue our walk along the coast and come back through a promising sounding route along the ‘Park Loop Road‘. Unfortunately, our path home proved elusive. Despite my constant assurances that it must be just around the next bend, the Park Loop Road failed to materialize, so we decided to turn back and retrace our steps. Doubtless when that decision was made the elusive road probably was around the very next bend. Oh well.

After Boston – about which I shall report below – we visited Newport, Rhode Island. Of all our walks, this was the most memorable.

At the outset, I had to smile when I saw that the main street was named ‘Americas Cup Avenue’. Having just celebrated the 30th anniversary of Australia’s triumph in September 1983 – when Australia II ended the longest reign in sporting history – I had no difficulty conjuring up names like Lexcen, Bertrand and Bondie as I walked through Newport. It was a wonderful time in Australia when we won the Americas Cup. I even had a friend who tried to cultivate a new nickname: ‘Wing Keeled Neil’!

The highlight of our visit to Newport, however, was embarking upon the famed Cliff Walk. Lined with majestic  mansions overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the Cliff Walk was a very enjoyable experience. It’s daunting contemplating the kind of wealth required to construct the mansions we saw, particularly given the realization that these were only summer homes! Immense sums of money had been spent to construct massive homes which might be used for several months of the year at best. Oh to dream!

In any event, I am glad we walked for two or three hours each day because if I am suffering from any genuine phobia it is facing a set a bathroom scales, given the quantity of food I have consumed on this trip. It may be just as well that we have also suffered from OWD (or Obsessive Walking Disorder)!

Birthday Balloons in Boston

We returned to Boston – now onboard the Caribbean Princess – on my birthday.

Our plan was simple, head to the North End, return to ‘The Daily Catch’ and chow down. Before leaving the ship, however, Huck B sent a message to our new friend, Gary, to see whether he was available to join us. Remarkably, despite it being a work day and notwithstanding the late notice, he readily agreed.

I was sorry to see that Gino was not on duty at ‘The Catch‘ and the percussion was quieter than  when we visited the week before. But the food was still exceptional. I selected linguini with shrimp and red sauce (the other option being white) and Huckleberry chose some black pasta. Once again we were served more food than we could eat, but I valiantly kept chewing and succeeded in leaving an empty saucepan in front of me. Huck B was more circumspect (and sensible). Oh man, I enjoyed that meal!

After lunch, we headed across the road to ‘Mike’s Pastry‘ where we ordered some coffee and some tiramisu, which was delectable. We also purchased some more cannoli at ‘Mike’s‘ to enjoy onboard. When it slipped out that we were celebrating my birthday, Gary snatched the bill from us and refused to let go.

(Now that we are regulars I feel entitled to employ nicknames like ‘the Catch‘ and ‘Mikes‘!)

Gary walked back with us to our bus stop and we continued to chat as we advanced in the long queue. We were sorry when we bade each other farewell, although heartfelt promises were made to keep in touch.

Together with the food we enjoyed, the best thing about visiting Boston – both last week and during our cruise – was making a new friend in Gary.

Huckleberry B apologized, completely unnecessarily, because this year’s birthday was not as exotic as zip lining in Costa Rica or singing with Jordanian Beduins in Wadi Rum; to name but two recent birthday experiences. I think she is being silly. What would be better than a glorious pasta meal in Boston followed by a lazy evening in our spacious suite onboard a cruise ship? I had another great birthday.




BOSTON – October 2013

Boston Bumblings

Our introduction to Boston was not ideal.

The transport problems started even before we even arrived, when our train from NYC had to stop on three occasions so that the maintenance guy could jump out and re-attach the brake cable!

Once at Boston’s South Station, we were greeted by nothing but drizzle. This, coupled with being unfamiliar with the city’s layout, prompted us to hail a cab even though we knew the Boston Harbor Hotel was not far away.

The conversation proceeded thus:

Driver:                               Where you heading?

Me:                                     Boston Harbor Hotel.

Driver:                               Okay, it’ll be six dollars extra for the bags.

Us simultaneously:         Why?

Driver:                               The bags are heavy.

Me:                                     Nah, forget it.

We proceeded to set off, in the drizzle, hauling our four bags behind us. Luckily, the door to the Hotel was, indeed, only about 15 minutes hard walk away.

Once at the hotel, another truly random conversation took place between Huck B and the doorman, thus:

Doorman:                          You checking in, Miss?

B:                                        Yes.

Doorman:                          Okay, are they your bags?

B:                                        They’re in my hands aren’t they?

Doorman:                          Okay, want some help?

B:                                        Yes

Doorman:                          Want some help to bring them inside?

B:                                        Didn’t I say yes?

Doorman:                          Where you from?

B:                                        Australia

Doorman:                          Oh? I thought you were from Germany.

B:                                        Are you going to help with the bags or not?

We don’t know why they thought we were from Germany! What we did notice, however, was that the words ‘Welcome to Boston‘ were not to be heard.

We had come to Boston to attend the annual International Bar Association Conference. After checking in and getting settled, we headed back down stairs with the purpose of travelling to the Hynes Convention Centre to register and collect our materials. The doorman hailed a taxi and clearly told the (we guess) Jamaican driver where we wanted to go. There followed another surreal conversation of note:

B:                            So I hear the Red Sox are doing well?

Driver:                   Sorry? Red…?

B:                            Red Sox.

Driver:                   Oh, I hear they are okay.

P:                            Is that a stadium on our right?

Driver:                   Yes, stadium….ah, no, actually it’s a market.

P:                            Okay

Driver:                   Oh no, I’m in the wrong lane; that’s the convention centre over on the right.

B:                            I think that’s the other convention centre. Not the one we want.

Driver:                   What? He say you go to convention centre.

B:                            Yes, but there’s another one. This isn’t the one. We want to go to the Hynes Convention Centre.

Driver:                   He told me ‘convention centre’

B:                            This isn’t it. We are going to the Hynes Convention Centre.

Driver:                   Hi..nes….?

B:                            Let me find the address on my phone.

Me:                         Hey! Stop the meter! It’s not our fault you’ve taken us to the wrong place.

Driver:                   What?

Me:                        Stop the meter!

Driver:                   I will remember. Ten dollars sixty. I remember.

B:                            Okay, here’s the address. 900 Boylston.

Driver:                   Boil….? How do you spell?Let me put in satnav.

B:                            Oh my god! B-O-Y-L-S-T-O-N

P:                            Where the bombing happened.

Driver:                   Okay, okay, we go, we go.

B:                            There’s a big conference this week at Hynes. You should know where it is.

Me:                         And the Red Sox are a baseball team. You probably should know that too.

By the time we finally made it to the Hynes Convention Centre, the meter read $21.40. Our driver had the audacity to ask us to pay the full amount, plus tip, and offered to refund $2 in cash. We argued but, defeated, paid the amount on the meter but refused a tip.

Thereafter, we resolved to travel by train. On our return journey, we headed underground at Copley Square and purchased a 7 day pass each. The trains in Boston may rattle with antiquity, but they are plentiful and offer a near direct route to anywhere we wanted to go.

Eating out in Boston

Legal Seafood

Transport tribulations notwithstanding, we had a grand old time enjoying Bostonian dining opportunities.

Given the IBA Conference, some of our evening meals were catered for by local cocktail parties. It’s fair to say, however, that we ate better when dining was at our own discretion.

Our first night in Boston saw us stroll five minutes from Boston Harbor Hotel to Legal Seafood on Rowe’s Wharf. It was Sunday night in Massachusetts and the seafood restaurant was bubbling with happy families and nervous young couples. Lobster shells were cracked whilst clam chowder was slurped. We left well fed and more than content.

Neptune’s Oyster Bar

By the time Wednesday evening rolled around, we decided to abandon the IBA cocktail circuit and dine in Boston’s iconic North End.

Once dominated by poor Irish immigrants – and boasting the modest childhood home of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy – the North End now has a distinctively Italian flavor. As a tour guide remarked earlier that afternoon, this corner of Boston is extremely safe because all the crime is highly organized.

Our short culinary tour of the North End started with Neptune’s Oyster Bar on Salem Street. Neptune’s came sincerely recommended by our Bostonian friends, Robin and Peter, whom we had met onboard Seabourne Odyssey earlier in the year. Sadly, they were not able to join us in Boston because business had called them away to London.

Getting into Neptune’s was no easy task. Despite arriving at around 5.40pm – and well before rush hour – we were greeted by a blonde waitress with an attractive personality disguising a stern message. She took our names and told us to expect a 10 to 15 minute wait. We dutifully complied.

Shortly afterwards, two gentleman were given a similar message: 

‘The wait is 10 to 15 minutes.’ ‘What if we want to leave and come back?’ ‘ I’ll scratch your names from the list if you are not here when called.’ ‘Bump us down the list or scratch us?’ ‘Oh, I’ll scratch you!’

Meanwhile a group of four were told that a table would not be available for 45 minutes. They gave their names and returned to the sidewalk to commence their patient vigil; awaiting their turn to enter oyster heaven.

Soon enough our time arrived and we happily strode to a small table in the cosy restaurant. Our menu came with a small card listing some twelve varieties of oysters. Huckleberry B cleverly decided we should choose the four varieties from Massachusetts. When our two dozen oysters arrived they were, incredibly, arranged in order of saltiness. To my observation, the plumper the oyster, the less the salt content. They were all delicious little devils, to be sure!

During our meal, the two gentleman returned, their faces alive with anticipation. The comely blonde with the iron fist was, however, true to her word. Whilst absent, their names had been called thrice and, there being no response, removed from list of those permitted entry to the oyster oasis. The shameless grizzling which followed was to no avail. They oyster maiden stood firm. She did, however, allow the names of the miscreants to be added to the end of the list. This time the gentleman maintained their presence. I saw them finally offered an available table just as we were leaving.

The Daily Catch

After Neptune’s we waddled a short distance to The Daily Catch on Hanover Street, opposite Mike’s Pastry (and some truly exceptional cannoli). This tiny restaurant was also recommended by Robin and Peter. And for good reason; it was extraordinary!

The quality of the food was not, it must be said, reflected by the ambiance.

As soon as we walked in we were welcomed by a large, fresh faced Italian man, with short back and sides, a tidy beard, and curls atop his crown like the snakes of Medusa. When I say ‘welcomed‘, I should be more precise and report that he pointed first at us and bellowed (evidently in the form of a question) ‘two‘ before pointing to a table and directing: “in the corner‘. And when I say ‘table‘ it is more accurate to say that there was a platform erected over some form of enclosed shelf, with no leg room. In any event, we obeyed the commands directed at us and sat sideways in the cramped conditions.

Robin and Peter had recommended the Lobster Fra Diavolo (the `Devils Monk’), so the choice was easy.

We told the bellowing waiter that we came on the recommendation of Robin and Peter and he demonstrated immediate recognition, “Yeah, I know ’em! They always come here straight from the airport! Hey, I’m Gino! Tell ’em I said hello!”

Looking around the restaurant, it was hard to imagine a more nondescript venue. There wasn’t even room for 20 guests. A full one quarter of the limited space was occupied by an open kitchen where a short order chef was hard at work juggling saucepans, pots, tongs and plates amidst a series of gas burners which periodically engulfed the array of saucepans in a blaze of open flame.

The fact that we were being offered Italian food by a chef who was obviously Asian was a bit of a concern. But he was wearing an azzurro blue cap emblazoned with ‘Italia‘, so that clearly compensated, in full, for the absence of any direct cultural connection between chef and cuisine.

Along the back wall ran a long stainless steel sink where a young fellow with a mohawk was laboriously washing pots, pans and plates for immediate re-use as the evening wore on. As soon as one item was cleaned and dried another would arrive, upon wing, with a splash.

Meanwhile, Gino was taking drink orders by yelling across the tables from the far side of the restaurant and serving food by plonking saucepans overflowing with pasta onto the table, shortly followed by a pair of tongs tossed expertly into the saucepan without causing a splash.

After a time, the chaotic cacophony and the perverse percussion began to make sense. There was a baseline beat driving this madness!

Pot, Gino, Gino, plate,

Pot, Gino, Gino, plate,

Saucepan, tongs, Gino, tongs,

Saucepan, tongs, Gino, tongs,

Fire, water, Gino, plate, saucepan, tongs,

Fire, water, Gino, plate, saucepan, tongs,

Pot, Gino, Gino, plate,

Pot, Gino, Gino, plate.

Soon Gino was bearing down on us with an immense saucepan full to the brim with pasta, clams, prawns, red sauce and lobster. He delivered the saucepan to the centre of our table, without ceremony, and reminded us to say hello to Robin and Peter for him.

Now there was a new rhythm to out North End dining experience, superimposed upon the existing beat;

Pot, Gino, Gino, snap, slurp, Gino, Gino, clatter, chatter, Gino, Gino, snap, slurp…

The food itself was extraordinarily good. The whole experience was amazing.

We left with a wave – and more reminders to pass on Gino’s regards to our friends – and wandered back to our hotel, our bellies gorged and well satisfied.

Craigie on Main

On our last evening in Boston, we were privileged to dine with Robin’s brother, Gary.

There were, at one time, plans for Robin and Peter to join us, in person, but their business in London, regrettably, intervened.

I confess to being concerned, before I met him, whether Gary was a willing participant to dining with two strangers from Australia, the only connection being that they had befriended his sister on a cruise ship from Dubai to Rome. My fears were vanquished within minutes of meeting him. It is obvious that Gary and Robin are siblings. Beyond the facial resemblance, they share an active intellectual mind and a lively sense of humour which is so engaging that conversation and laughter flow in equal measure.

Both food and ambiance at Craigie stood in stark contrast to The Daily Catch. The decor is homely and refined, as are the wait staff. Whilst certainly pleasing in its own way, I did miss Gino bellowing like a well groomed buffalo from across the restaurant.

The food at Craigie was more refined and better crafted than the meal we enjoyed the night before. But that’s the great thing about cuisine. A hastily prepared melange of seafood and pasta can be just as satisfying as a dish of pork cooked three ways (and, doubtless, prepared in obedience to a recipe as complex as tax treatise).

As good as the food was at Craigie, the highlight of the evening was our conversation with Gary. Even after our meal was finished, cheque paid and wine consumed, we sat at our table for another half hour or so, drinking water and continuing our wide-ranging discussion.

Our ambition is to, one day, secure the attendance of Robin, Gary and Peter – ‘the artful conversationalists’ – around the same dinner table. Huckleberry B and I would be happy to travel for such a promising event.

Boston Legal

So far, I have done well to avoid mentioning the names of some prominent, world-renown, Boston legal identities.

Yes, for a week Huckleberry B and I were walking in the footsteps of Ally McBeal, John Cage, Richard Fish, Bobby Donnell, Lindsay Dole, Eleanor Frutt, Eugene Young, Jimmy Berlutti, Alan Shore and – of course – Denny Crane.

It’s probably just as relevant to note that we had the opportunity to drink in a bar once inhabited by Sam, Diane, Norm, Cliff, Frasier, the Coach, Woody and Rita.

Allusions to popular television shows aside, the annual IBA Conference was an invigorating affair as always.

Several thousand delegates – none that I met named either ‘Ally‘ or ‘Denny‘ – gathered each day at the Hynes Convention Centre, where 20 or so seminars would be running simultaneously.

Just a short stroll down Boylston Street lay the location of the Boston Marathon atrocity last April.

It’s fun to observe how lawyers from different regions behave. The Americans and the British tend to dominate question time; sometimes giving the impression that their views on jurisprudence are the only ones which matter. The Europeans are generally quieter and less theatrical; often reading their seminar papers to the audience (although I make room for the fact that they may not be comfortable speaking from memory in English).

The Africans, of which there were many, are the most amusing. When a speaker commences a presentation with ‘good morning’, African delegates actually respond with their own greetings from the audience. Should a joke be inserted, the Africans would clap their hands and erupt into raucous laughter.  If a compelling point was made, they’d turn to each other and nod vigorously and say ‘it’s true‘ or ‘of course‘.



NEW YORK – October 2013

Welcome to New York

We were waiting for our bags to appear on the carousel at JFK Airport – weary from exactly 24 hours of travel – when the doleful peace was shattered by a bash American voice shouting,“There they are! They haven’t changed a bit!

It was Cathy – whom we met on board Prisendam in 2007 – and her husband Rich.

Huckleberry B had given them advance warning of our trip to New York and Cath had insisted upon meeting us at the airport and driving us to our hotel in Manhattan.

Despite having been defeated by the rigors of a long journey, our spirits immediately rose upon seeing our old friends and we chatted merrily in the car. Cathy deploying more f-bombs in the 30 minute car drive than I recall her uttering on our whole two week cruise in 2007, but we’re okay with that. She’s such a character; as is Rich (one of NYC’s finest).

Cath and Rich will be taking us on a guided tour of their home town when we return to New York on 19 and 20 October. We’re certainly looking forward to the entertainment…and seeing the city.

A Day in NYC

After 10 years of travelling, visiting over 50 countries and seeing all six continents, Huckleberry B and I have finally made it to New York.

Fortunate to arrive in NYC at night, we climbed into our bed at the Wyndam Hotel at the first opportunity. New York may be the city that never sleeps but, not possessing super powers, we needed ours. The City would have to party without us.

When day did arrive – not long after dawn’s morning light – we crossed the road and took a seat in one of the booths at an all American diner. Truth be told, our breakfast would be rated as average. Of greater concern was our coffee, which I can only assume was brewed by some sadistic bastard with a hatred for coffee drinkers or, perhaps, an evil genius with a cunning plan to reduce the world’s caffeine consumption. I resolved to stick to hot chocolate when in doubt.

After breakfast, we quickly reached agreement that we needed more sleep and we hastily retreated once more to the comfort of our bed until early afternoon.

Once rested, we hit the streets of Manhattan.

Our hotel was located on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 45th Street, not far from Grand Central Station and Time Square. We could see the stunningly iconic art deco roof of the Chrysler Building from the window of our room.

New York – ‘concrete jungle where dreams are made of‘ – except if your dream includes visiting a federally funded museum or the Statue of Liberty; our visit being afflicted by the Federal Government’s “shut down”.

Instead, we walked straight across Manhattan, from east to west-side, pausing at Time Square, before strolling though Hell’s Kitchen, to the Hudson River.

On the way back, and on a whim, we inspected the TKTKS board at Times Square to see what last minute theatre tickets might be available. We chose to see the Phantom again. And so our first day in New York together was capped off with ‘music of the night’ sung by ‘the Angel of Music‘.

Looking for America

“And we walked off to look for America”

From the moment Huck B told me we would be travelling from New York to Boston by train – a journey occupying four and a half hours – I knew what I wanted to do.

Ever since I was born, the tunes of Simon & Garfunkel have been the soundtrack to my life. ‘Bridge of Troubled Water‘ was released in the same year that I was born and I remember my mother playing the vinyl version endlessly when I was a child. Later, as I entered my teens, ‘The Concert in Central Park’ was one of my favourite cassette tapes. This time it was my turn to insist upon endless repetitions during road trips in the family car. Even now, in times of quiet reflection, I turn to the Paul Simon’s music and lyrics for solace and inspiration. I even honored my mother, at her funeral, by choosing ‘Bridge‘ as my tribute song, inviting the audience to imagine a mother singing to her child as they listened to the CD.

So, as our train pulled out of Penn Station,  left Manhattan, and headed through the Bronx, on its way north to Boston, it was only natural that I would reach for my iPad and click on ‘Simon & Garfunkel’. It was the perfect accompaniment for an iconic train journey. Words, rhythm, clickerty-clack of the train and  scenery were all in sync; even the overcast skies seemed to have conspired to create the ‘feel’ I wanted.

In the tune, ‘The Boxer’, there is a short bridge between the second and third verses where a piccolo trumpet sounds. Though only 20 seconds or so in length, it provokes so much emotion in me that it’s hard to explain. Like a clarion call from times past, it conjures up memories of a happy childhood. This morning, on our trip to Boston, I heard that bridge as I looked out the window of our train and saw rows of working class houses flash by, punctuated by hardware stores and gas stations.

There is something about Paul Simon’s music which just speaks to me, like these words from ‘America

So I looked at the scenery,

She read her magazines,

And a moon rose over an open field

Cathy, I’m lost I said,

Though I knew she was sleeping,

I’m empty and I’m aching,

I don’t know why…

Counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike,

And they’ve all come to look for America.

I can help Paul out with explaining his emotions, because I know what he means. Even when visiting some extraordinary places, Huck B and I go through periods of emptiness. It’s a symptom of being homesick.  We know our capacity to travel is the envy of others, but we are also fortunate to have a daily life which we miss when removed from it. I know I miss my friends at work, my family.

It will come as no surprise that we also miss our dogs – the girls – terribly, particularly Bella, the darling of the band. Sad as it is, she is almost 12 and has a serious heart problem. The cocktail of medication she is taking is keeping her alive, but we only have so many more weekends together. On this trip, my beloved canine companion – my loyal shadow –  is never far from my thoughts.

Yet, despite bouts of aching homesickness, there remains excitement at the prospect of what adventures may be laying in wait, just around the bend or just over the horizon.

As our train streaked through up-state New York, through Connecticut and Rhode Island and on towards Massachusetts, the city was left far behind and the vista was dominated by weatherboard houses, leafy meadows, lazy streams and American flags in the backyard. I switched to another favourite artist – another son of America’s north-east – Bruce Springsteen.

Along with Paul Simon, as fleeting favorites come and go, I always return to Bruce. I reckon most of life’s lessons can by found in the lyrics written by Simon and Springsteen.

Here’s a trivia question; I can think of one record, which was released in the 1980’s, where Paul and Bruce both sang. It’s probably the only one. Do you know what the song might be?

By the time our train had reached the Connecticut coastline, the scenery was idyllic and serene. Lagoons on our right were lined by autumnal colours and, on our left, white yachts cruised the grey ocean. Meanwhile Springsteen sang wistful tunes about his hometown and eulogized the grandeur found in ordinary American life.

By the time our train pulled into Boston’s South Station, I was ready to enjoy our holiday in North America.


DUBAI to ROME (Part 4) – April 2013

The Suez Canal

To be frank, Huckleberry B and I found our transit of the Suez Canal a little disappointing.

Perhaps, when it comes to the canal experience, we are like two spoiled children. We had experienced the best first and naturally found the runner-up less satisfying. It’s akin to visiting New Zealand’s South Island before trying to get excited over Tasmania; or, for that matter, cruising Alaska after being overwhelmed by the majesty of Antarctica.

In 2010, Huck B and I embarked upon a journey from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal. It was a memorable day which still rates amongst our favourite cruise experiences. We will long remember how enthralled we were as we watched our immense cruise ship moving up and down locks only marginally of sufficient size to accommodate our vessel.

By contrast, the Suez Canal is a less impressive engineering feat and a less thrilling experience; it is the lesser canal.

For the most part, our voyage felt no different from cruising along a wide river. It was unusual to see the sands of the Sinai Desert sweeping right to the eastern shore, however, the western side was dominated, for the most parts, by housing and industry of little appeal.

Ultimately, when we arrived in Port Said during mid-afternoon, entered the Mediterranean and turned to the right, I could not help but sigh and ask : “So that’s the Suez? Is that all there is?

Truthfully, however, we were glad to see Egypt disappear over the southern horizon. We enjoyed Luxor and seeing the Nile. We will long remember our calamitous caravan to St Catherine’s. We will not miss the squalor, the chaos and the evident lack of pride the Egyptian people seem to have in their national treasures.

King Herod’s Wall

We entered Jerusalem’s Old City through the Jaffa Gate, strolled through the Muslim Quarter, ignoring the pleas of shopkeepers as we went, before negotiating some steps down to the Wailing Wall.

Just as in 2007, when Huckleberry B and I last ventured this way, I was moved by the fervent spiritualism of those who meekly approached the Wall spoke to God and placed small pieces of paper, upon which they wrote prayers, between the rocks of the wall King Herod built over 2,000 years ago.

Unlike our last visit, however, we were about to experience something truly extraordinary.

Our new friends, Peter and Robin – both Jews – had kindly invited us to join them on a tour of the ‘tunnels’ running adjacent to the Western Wall for a distance of 485 metres along Temple Mount. The experience was both intriguing and thrilling. I will never forget it.

First, a brief account of my understanding of history (with profound and sincere apologies should my summary include any misunderstanding or omit any important elements).

Temple Mount stands on the eastern side of Jerusalem’s old city. For those of the Jewish faith, the most sacred place – ‘the most holy of holies‘ – is a rock on Temple Mount where they believe God gathered dust to create Adam. It was here that King Solomon built the first Jewish Temple over the rock where life began.

Sadly, however, when the Babylonians invaded from the east, the temple was destroyed and the Israelites were driven from the Promised Land. Moses later freed his people from the Egyptians and, after surviving the desert, his son led the Jews back into Canaan.

In the first Century BC, King Herod vowed to rebuild the temple which the Babylonians had destroyed. But first he embarked upon creating level ground on Temple Mount by building solid retaining walls on each side and backfilling the interior.  A small section of the western side of this support structure is now known as the ‘the Wailing Wall’ or ‘Western Wall’.

Whilst Herod kept his promise to rebuild the Temple on Temple Mount, it was destroyed by the Romans. When the Muslims occupied Jerusalem during the era of the Crusades, they built the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount at the point where they believe that Mohammad ascended to Heaven. The Muslim structure was built over the same ground once occupied by Solomon’s Temple; the holiest place in Judaism.

Thus was created the impasse which persists, without resolution, to modern times; two religions with fervent demands over the same sacred ground.

To this day, Jews worship at the Wailing Wall because it represents the section of King Herod’s Wall in closest proximity to the sacred rock on Temple Mount where their ancient temples once stood.   The Jews still look forward to the day when the third – and final – temple will be built on Temple Mount.

We entered the ‘tunnels’ from a position close to the Wailing Wall. I have twice, prior to this sentence, placed the word ‘tunnels’ in inverted commas. I have done so deliberately. Whilst the path we walked was below current street level, we were actually traversing a series of arches and bridges which had been constructed during Herodian times to provide easier access to the temple. Essentially, these structures were built to fill in a valley at the south western corner of Temple Mount. Centuries later, the Muslim Quarter was built over the archways.

And so we descended into the depths; down the stairs, across the bridges, through the archways and down still more stairs – striding along pathways centuries old – before arriving at the subterranean aspect of King Herod’s Western Wall.

When we arrived, our garrulous guide introduced us to an ancient wonder. Immediately in front of us, at head height, was an enormous rectangular rock – known as ‘the Western Stone’ – measuring some 13 metres in distance and some 600 tons in weight. It was as heavy, we were told, as two fully laden jumbo jets. Nobody knows how the ancient Israelites lifted this immense rock into place.

Whilst still considering (and dismissing) various theoretical lifting methods in our minds, we four adventurers set off to walk north along the Western Wall to the far north-western corner. Along the way, we came across some women in earnest prayer. Our guide explained that whilst the Wailing Wall is the section of the exposed portion of King Herod’s wall closest to the ‘holy of holies”, the section where the ladies were praying was as near as a Jew could now tread to the sacred rock on Temple Mount.

One of the ladies was standing against the wall, her nose almost touching the rocks, whilst another sat opposite and recited prayers from a book. A third worshipper solemnly whispered to herself. None of them seemed concerned by our presence and continued in their quiet and dignified contemplation.

I do not know whether they prayed for themselves, for their families or for their people, but the deep trust they placed in God moved me, notwithstanding my own lack of faith.

Peter and Robin were keenly aware that our thoughts have been – and remain – with a dear and cherished relative at home who is battling an insidious disease. Peter suggested that if we wished to pray for her, this was the ideal place to have a discussion with God. Both Huckleberry B and I turned to the Wall and spoke in silent accord. In that moment, it was the natural thing to do.

Our walk along King Herod’s Wall ended when we climbed a modern staircase at the north- western corner of Temple Rock, emerging once more at street level in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.

(We were informed by our guide that when this exit was first constructed there were riots, resulting in dozens of fatalities, because the local Muslims believed that excavation had occurred in the sacred ground below the Dome of the Rock, although, empirically, this was not the case. An easier egress route was not possible because an ancient staircase now led to the rear wall of a Muslim shop. The shopkeeper had been offered as much as $8 million to sell his store, but remained steadfast in his refusal. Jerusalem is, indeed, a very complicated place.)

For Huckleberry B and I – two Gentiles – it was a privilege to walk along the Western Wall with our Jewish friends. We will be forever grateful for their invitation and earnestly hope that we did not intrude upon their experience of this most sacred place in Judaism.

Across the Judaean Desert to Masada

After the Western Wall Tunnels, we walked along the Via Dolorosa and had an exceptional lunch at a restaurant called Lina.

Next we piled into our guide’s sedan and headed out of Jerusalem towards the East. We had, earlier, been told that Israel boasts eight distinct climate zones. The countryside stretching from our port, at Ashdod, to Jerusalem was lush and fertile, very much in keeping with the Biblical description of ‘a land of milk and honey’.

When we drove East from Jerusalem, however, we entered a tunnel under the (beautifully named) Mount of Olives and emerged, on the other side, in a different world. Gone completely was the greenery of the western coast, to be replaced by the barren, sandy undulations of the Judaean Desert. The scenic transformation, in a matter of minutes, was truly extraordinary.

We drove downward, ever downward, as the road weaved its way around the conical shaped hills towards the Jordan Valley. From the heights of the Judaean Mountains, where thriving Jerusalem proudly stands, we descended to sea level and beyond. By the time we reached the Dead Sea, we were more than 400 metres below the level where Seabourn Odyssey bobbed on the Mediterranean Sea at Ashdod.

Once at the Dead Sea – the Jordanian escarpment clearly in view on the East Bank – we turned right and travelled South to where Masada awaited us.

Masada, too, is an extraordinary place.

Adjacent the Dead Sea, towards the South, stands a single proud, flat-topped, mountain which has stepped forward from the remainder of the escarpment running along the western side of the Jordan Valley. My tourism pamphlet tells me that the plateau sits just above sea level, but some 450 metres above the salty waters of the Dead Sea.

Atop this mountain, on the towering plateau, King Herod built the fortress of Masada. It measured 450 metres in length and 300 metres in width. During its heyday, in the first century BC, the fortress boasted a palace, synagogue and bath houses.

The Fortress of Masada was the perfect place to defend the Promised Land against enemies from the east because these warring tribes had to navigate the land bridge between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea, with Masada in their path.

Later, when the Romans came from the west and, having destroyed the Second Temple on Temple Mount, drove the Israelites from Jerusalem, a band of Jewish partisans took refuge upon Masada’s daunting heights.  According to historical accounts, the partisans only accepted defeat, after a prolonged siege, when the Romans constructed an immense ramp to allow their vast armies to overrun the fortress.

During the night before the battle, however, it was resolved that death was preferable to slavery at the hands of the Romans. The menfolk released their wives and children into death before drawing lots to decide the order by which each man would be killed by another; suicide being against Jewish law.

The climb up Masada’s daunting escarpment reputedly occupies an average of one and a quarter hours. We took the vastly easier option of riding in the modern cable car and found otherwise at the peak within minutes. The view from Masada, across the Dead Sea, to Jordan was breathtaking.

We strolled the ruins whilst listening to our guide relating stories from Herodian times. We found it an eerie place; with a similar sense of brooding foreboding as Glencoe, in Scotland. It was almost as though, if we listened carefully, as the wind swept across the ancient fortress, we could hear the ghosts of the Israelite freedom-fighters telling their stories as well.

Return to the Dead Sea

After Masada, we continued our journey – south along the coast of the Dead Sea – until we reached some hotels on the western shore. As we had done in 2011, Huckleberry B and I wanted to float in the medicinal waters.

By this stage, it was late in a very long day, and the sun was hovering above the escarpment. Shadows would soon fall across the Jordan Valley. Yet we still had some time to quickly change into our swimwear and tread gingerly into the mineral-laden waters of the inland sea.

In many ways, the timing was serendipitous. In 2011, we swam on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea and watched, in silent awe, as the first rays of morning light set ablaze the Israeli desert vista on the far side of the rippled blue water. Now we would swim in Israel and watch as the distant Jordanian escarpment, across the Dead Sea, slowly faded from bright orange, to yellow and to pink before finally accepting a soft purple hue.

It was a remarkable end to a remarkable day.

As we drove back across the Judaean Desert, through the darkness, to Ashdod, I reflected that this was the third day Huck B and I had spent in Israel and on each occasion Israel had delivered. For one, such as I, who may be prone to (mild) bouts of travel fatigue – and who has become rather difficult for foreign lands to impress – I remain intrigued and enthralled by this small nation so steeped in spirituality and history. In contrast to our experience in Egypt, the Israelis take great pride in their homeland and the society they have created.

It was privilege to listen to our guide discuss Jewish history and politics – and how one lives a Jewish life – with Peter and Robin. I found their discourse fascinating throughout the day; a day I shall not soon forget.

A Rainy Day in Sorrento

After Israel, we enjoyed three lovely days at sea as Seabourn Odyssey steamed West, across the Mediterranean, towards Italy.

We returned, without resistance, to the slothful existence we had relished earlier in our journey (although we did maintain our morning gym regime).

Remarkably, we enjoyed a morning of rare glory on the last sea day of our voyage when our trivia team – which included Peter and Robin – triumphed in the progressive team trivia challenge. We started well, early in the cruise, lost momentum during the middle section but came storming home at the end to clinch an unlikely victory. Doubtless our joyful celebrations could be heard in distant Bombay.

Meanwhile, a stowaway Egyptian fly has taken up residence in our stateroom. Our stewardess says that since we now have a pet, the least we can do is give it a name. ‘Ramesses’ seems appropriate!

All too soon, our last day on Seabourn Odyssey raced forward and slapped us collectively in the face.

We marked the day by venturing ashore, one last time, with the Bostonians. Unfortunately, we woke to brooding dark clouds and persistent rain; the first precipitation to wet our collars since leaving home. Yet we enjoyed the day nonetheless.

First our guide took us to Napoli where Huck B and I reminisced about holidays past before enjoying some exceptional coffee near the main square. Next we headed to the Amalfi Coast for a leisurely lunch at Positano.

It’s just as well Peter and Robin share our love for food and wine and are happy to banish any thoughts of tiresome touring when neither the mood nor the necessary energy are present. By contrast, our lunch of pizza, pasta and wine hit the spot.

Despite the rain, Hucleberry B and I enjoyed our first visit to Positano. We could well imagine its charm and beauty on a sunny day with blue sky. Even in the drizzle we could see some sparkle.

And so we returned to Seabourn Odyssey once more and resigned ourselves to the final packing of bags ahead of the journey home.

Moon River Across the Mediterrenean

And so a truly great holiday draws to a close.

Absent the majestic grandeur of Antarctica or the unparalleled adventure of the Galapagos Islands – two cruises which are unlikely to ever be eclipsed as our favourites – when we sit back in armchairs in our dotage and, through misty eyes, rank our most enjoyable cruise holidays from first to last, I suspect this one will compare favourably.

The journey received a kick-start on day one when we met Peter and Robin at the boat drill. Many of our most memorable moments were shared with them. As we learned more about them during our hours together, our respect and affection grew. They are exceptional people and we are so glad we found each other so far away from our respective homes. Robin is already scheming to ensure we travel together again. I believe her. She’s a woman who does nothing in half measures.

There is one memory from this cruise, however, which Huckleberry B and I enjoyed alone.

On our second last sea day, there was a formal night. After dinner, we returned to our stateroom and I decided to go out onto our balcony to enjoy the sea air. The vista which awaited me was stunning.

A full moon had risen stealthily in the night sky and was now hovering behind our vessel. Its reflection illuminated a glorious silver path – perhaps wider than a mile – which extended from the ocean below my feet all the way to the distant horizon. For the first time in my life, I understood one of our favourite songs. There was, indeed, a moon river emblazoned across the dark ocean.

I called my beloved to join me and, at her suggestion, retrieved my iPad. Moments later, we were slowly dancing – still formally dressed – as the wistful melody of “Moon River” was accompanied by the sound of the sea breeze in our hair and the lapping of waves against our vessel as it carved through the ocean. Unforgettable.




DUBAI to ROME (Part 3) – April 2013

The Body in the Bath

Once back onboard, after our night in Luxor, we found that our cabin stewardess had been up to her tricks again.

I walked into our bathroom and jumped in shock. Lying in the bath was a ‘man’ dressed in a bathrobe wearing Huck B’s slippers. Once I calmed down and I recovered full use of my legs, I saw that the ‘man’ was, in fact, a life vest.

Stepping closer still, I noticed that the bath robe wearing life vest was holding a note, which read:

“Welcome home we missed you so,

But on your tour you had to go,

I hope that you had a super time,

And also that you enjoyed my rhyme.”

Not wishing our cheeky stewardess’ efforts to go to waste, I asked Huckleberry B to join me in the bathroom because there was something she had to see. I tried to maintain a serious face lest I give away the surprise. It worked because my wife looked very co


Upon entering the bathroom, I think Huckleberry got a bigger shock than I did! Priceless!

As it happened, we had not finished our Arabic dessert at lunch time, so we requested that it be backed and presented to our stewardess with the following note:

“We are back, yet it’s true,

Back in room nine twenty two.

We saw your rhyme, which made us laugh,

But why is he wearing a robe in the bath?

Whilst in Luxor, out in the heat,

We thought of you and brought back this treat.”

It has been a fun holiday and our fun stewardess has only enhanced the enjoyment.

Sinai Shenanigans (The Calamitous Caravan to St Catherine’s)

We awoke just before 6am and the trouble started just after 7…

Our trip to St Catherine’s Monastery, on the Sinai Peninsula, will always be remembered for the world’s worst tour guide; certainly the most insipid and inept we have experienced.

Given that what follows is deliberately – and deservedly – defamatory, I shall obscure the identity of our guide by calling him ‘Ramesses the Turd”.

We told our tour operator, who sub-contracted Ramesses, that our ship would arrive at 6am. For reasons which are unlikely to ever be properly explained, Ramesses seems to have assumed that that meant we would somehow magically appear on the dock immediately and that we would be driving away from the port a couple of minutes past the hour. However, as anybody experienced with cruise ships would know, this was impossible. First the local authorities must come onboard and clear the ship’s passengers to come ashore before the tender boats start to operate. This all takes time.

We were well prepared and narrowly missed catching the first tender vessel to shore. We had invited the Bostonians to join us for the day. The four of us caught the second tender instead. By this stage it was well after 7am.

After looking for our guide, we eventually found him 200 metres away at the gates to the port area. Other tour operators had made their way down to where the tender boats arrived, but not Ramesses.

In any event – obviously keen to make a good first impression – the Ram immediately started bleating about how had had been waiting for us since 6am. We and the Bostonians just smiled and followed the guide to the waiting mini-van.

I think it’s fair to say that Ramesses immediately put Robin off-side, by addressing us as ‘guys’. Of sufficient age to be his mother, not to mention him being a complete stranger, she found this form of address overly familiar. We would have to agree.

What did pique our interest, however, was the presence of a third Egyptian in our vehicle. In addition to Ramesses and the driver, there was a man in a suit introduced to us as being from the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism. It later emerged, following direct enquiry from Robin, that the suited gentleman was armed with a semi-automatic weapon! He was more than happy to show it to us upon request. In fact, the way he waved it around with an uncomfortable degree of relish was somewhat disturbing. I remain unsure whether his presence, and his armoury, made me feel more secure or less!

It also raised the question; why was an armed escort considered necessary? Robin –always the inquisitor – asked this very question but never received any satisfactory answer.

The drive to St Catherine’s Monastery occupied some three hours. Whilst similar to the drive from Safaga to Luxor, the scenery was more dramatic. At one point, with St Catherine’s approaching, the desert of dark brown and yellow rock and stone, gave way to the light yellow sand familiar from Hollywood movies. The scenery here will long live in the memory; the graceful sand dunes swept across the rolling hills; punctuated by dramatic sandstone escarpments which rose sharply from the desert floor.

Unfortunately, we left the desert behind and we arrived at St Catherine’s. It was here that Ramesses’ true incompetence came to the fore.

There are three attractions at St Catherine’s Monastery; the church, the burning bush and the library.

We now know that only one of these attractions had an imminent closing time. Given his conduct, Ramesses was equally ignorant of the fact that the door to the library – and her priceless relics – closed firmly shut at 12 noon.

Between the Monastery gate and the Monastery proper, there is climb of some 500 metres. Ramesses could have casually glanced at his watch, noted that the library was about to close, and suggested we take one of the available taxis to save time. Indeed, we now know why follow cruise passengers were being ushered to the available vehicles with some urgency by their (better informed and more competent) guides. Rather than rush, we trudged up the hill and meandered towards the Monastery – waddling like four lazy Egyptian camels after a month in the desert – as valuable minutes flew by.

Once at the Monastery, the fog of ignorance in Ramesses’ brain thickened. The library, with its fascinating artefacts, lay to our left and the church lay directly ahead. A course to the left would have seen us enter the library with ample minutes to spare, yet we were ushered forward into the Church instead.

Further valuable time was wasted as Ramesses paused by the burning bush for photographs and reminder of tales we already knew from religious studies at school. The burning bush could have waited.  When we came back, it was still yet to burst into flame, so it’s not like we missed anything.

Finally, we strode with purpose towards the library door, only to see it moving inexorably to a closed position. All attempts to persuade the custodians to allow us entry fell on unsympathetic ears. Not even St Catherine, herself, could intervene to cause the library doors to miraculously open!

The real tragedy was soon to reveal its face. Everybody who made it into the library in time was heard to remark about how simply marvellous it was. What made the whole experience truly aggravating, however, was the way Ramesses looked so utterly baffled when we told him that we had been denied entry.

“What”, Ramesses raised a perplexed eyebrow, “They told you it was closed?”

He just had no idea.

Further aggravation was soon to follow.

Next on our tour was snorkeling at a reputedly spectacular coral reef at Dahab, on the Red Sea coastline, followed by lunch.

Despite our disappointment, we climbed back into the mini-van with renewed vigour. As the vehicle trundled down the hill, Ramesses raised the subject of the lunch menu. He offered fish and we accepted on the condition that it was fresh.

The concept of ‘fresh fish’ – like most abstract concepts – confused Ramses. Explaining to him that we only wanted to eat fish if it was caught that day and cooked no more than five minutes before it was placed on the table to be consumed was akin to demanding that he immediately part the Red Sea.

Robin resorted to saying that we wanted to see the fish before it was cooked and watch it being placed on the grill.

“Huh”, Ramesses chuckled in abject befuddlement, “you want to see the fish?”

Further discussion about the ancient mysteries of fresh fish, however, was soon swept aside as the true drama of the day began to unfold.

Our driver – probably, himself, dreaming about the lunch which awaited him – brought the mini-van to a halt at the security check-point at the exit from St Catherine’s. Suddenly, animated discussion in Arabic filled the air.

The suited gentleman from the Ministry of Egyptian Tourism – and his semi-automatic weapon – left the vehicle and stood face to face with the security guards. Those of us in the vehicle who did not speak Arabic, watched the drama unfold in hushed silence. A black cat was seen stealthily crossing the road ahead.

Our confusion, and rising tension, was not eased when the driver moved the car to the side of the road and Ramesses – in his state of perpetual baffledom – muttered that he would go and see what was going on. What he learned (if anything) remained unknown as he was next seen smoking a cigarette and fiddling with his mobile phone.

The four of us were left in the car, unsure of what was happening, for over half an hour. The gallows humour which dominated our transit of the Gulf of Aden returned.

Eventually, Huckleberry B urged me to go and request particulars from the man who called himself a guide. To date, the contents of his head had been as barren as the surrounding desert, but we figured he was as good a source of information as any.

Once I found him, Ramesses told me that we could not leave until the security convoy gathered at 1pm. Not wishing to be ostentatious in a land of professional beggars, I had left my watch on the ship, so I asked Ramesses to tell me the time. He said it was 12.43 (although I later learned that he had inflated his answer by almost one third; it was only 12.33).

I cross-examined him as to why he had not told us what was going on and he shrugged his shoulders and mumbled something about the government.

Back in the mini-van the mood had turned hostile.

Robin proposed we seize the available weaponry and take charge of the vehicle. Peter was more circumspect. Eventually, we agreed to invite Ramesses back to the mini-van to discuss the options available to us. A small band of UN peace-keepers were seen hovering nearby, to be deployed if necessary.

Truthfully, we had all had enough. We told Ramesses that when the convoy commenced we wanted to go back to the ship. It was already almost 1pm and a three hour journey lay ahead of us. Given that we had to be back onboard by 5pm, there was simply no time for either lunch or snorkeling. All it took was some further unexpected delay and we would have been compelled to spend the night in an abandoned shipping container at the bleak port of Sharm-el-Sheikh. Whilst the company would have been fine, I feared casualties by dawn’s morning light.

Given the way the day had unfolded, we may have been detained at one of the five police checkpoints which lay between us and the safety of our vessel. A militant herd of diseased Egyptian desert goats may have impeded our progress. That black cat was still lurking, threateningly, by the side of the road, inspecting us closely through the corner of her evil yellow eyes.  Who knew what dangers lay ahead?

Jokes aside, the presence of an armed escort in our vehicle and the need to travel in a convoy implied genuine security concerns. It was time to go home.

Despite the passion of our appeal and the strength of our argument, Ramesses the Turd remained bemused and befuddled.

“What”, he asked in conspicuous consternation, “You want to change the program?”

This was too much for Robin. She abandoned her shy and introspective demeanour and cut loose. Why didn’t Ramesses know about the convoy? Why weren’t we offered lunch at the Monastery whilst we waited for the convoy to gather? Did Ramesses have an IQ greater than the stray dog which just trotted by? Who the hell doesn’t know the difference between fresh fish and pre-cooked, once frozen, inedible muck?

I sense that at this point Ramesses had lost control of the conversation…

In an extremely ill-advised move, he resolved to fight back and blame us, his clients, for the calamity. He argued that if we had joined him at 6am, all of the problems which befell us could have been avoided.

Suddenly, all four of us were provoked into a less than civil rhetorical ass-kicking.

In short summary, we pointed out that unless he expected us to swim ashore it was simply impossible to arrive at the port before the tender boats started to operate after the ship had been cleared by the Egyptian authorities. We got there as soon as we could.

Peter concluded the combined verbal battery with words of profound understatement; “We are not happy.”

Incredibly, Ramesses responded by stating that he, too, was unhappy and proceeded to slam the door of the mini-van shut.

When the convoy was eventually ready to commence its treacherous journey across the Sinai Desert – and faced with the choice of either re-joining us or seizing the nearest camel to ride back – Ramesses skulked into the back of the mini-van and sat behind us. For the entire, extended journey back to Sharm-el-Sheikh, Ramesses remained mute and declined to further interact with us.

Even when safely at the Port, our host remained in the vehicle after we had climbed out. It was only after Huckleberry B enquired whether he proposed saying goodbye that Ramesses said through clenched teeth, and with lashings of sarcasm; “Bye guys”.

He would have been better off remaining silent. The use of ‘guys’ only invited Robin to deliver a further rebuke for his lack of respect and courtesy. I can only imagine what Arabic swear words filled the mini-van after we left.

Ironically, it was a memorable day.

Over six hours in a mini-van and nothing to show for it but five minutes in a church, a burning bush which looked no different from our shrubs at home, some admittedly stunning scenery and a story we will doubtless be telling for many years to come.




DUBAI to ROME (Part 2) – April 2013

A Birthday of Note

I have, so far, only hinted at the main reason we have taken this trip at this time.

Huckleberry B is celebrating a significant birthday!

Let’s just say it’s the 29th anniversary of her 21st birthday…

We began celebrating shortly after leaving Oman. Not ( just) because Oman was now behind us, but also because 6pm in Salalah equated to midnight in Sydney and the commencement of my beloved’s natal day.

The next day, celebration continued in earnest. I had managed to arranged for a classical guitarist to visit our room, mid-morning, and play two of B’s favourite tunes for her: ‘Moon River‘ and ‘The Very Thought of You‘. In some ways, this gift was payback for Huck B surprising me with a violinist on Valentine’s Day…in my office…with my colleagues present…!

After a relaxing massage in the onboard Spa, and an afternoon nap, we celebrated with a birthday dinner. In attendance were Peter and Robin, whom I mentioned earlier, and two other friends we had made, David and Ann.

With our dinner of Maine lobster salad and lamb, we enjoyed some bottles we had brought from home: Mount Mary Triolet 2006, Hensckhe Hill Of Grace 1992 and Grant Burge Mesharch Shiraz 1994. Each of our guests enjoyed the wine, including Robin who has a very good palate and has written professionally about ‘new world wines’.

When we returned to our stateroom, we found that our stateroom stewardess had decorated the room with balloons  and left a cheese platter on our table, together with a bottle of Pinot Grigio.

All in all, I think it was a nice way to celebrate a birthday of significance. I certainly enjoyed myself on my wife’s behalf!

Tragedy in Boston (Born to Run)

I was about to embark on a run in Seabourn Odyssey’s gym when I saw the news.

The TV screen set into the treadmill displayed the Sky News channel. I saw the Newsflash screaming that at least two bombs had exploded near Boston Marathon’s finish line. I read that three were dead and a vast number were injured. Some of the injured had lost their feet or suffered severe injury to their legs.

I am a distance runner.

I have enjoyed neither the stamina nor the courage to embark upon a full marathon, however, I have completed five half marathons (all whilst north of the age of 40).

I know what it feels like to have found a rhythm as you pound along. Whilst your body hurts, it’s not too bad. There’s a quiet determination in your eyes. Your heart is pumping, but your brain is singing. In those moments, I feel like I’m 18 again.

I also know what it feels like to be approaching a half marathon’s finishing line. Most of the hard miles are now behind you, as are the long hours of lonely training which you needed to even contemplate embarking on a 21.1 kilometre run. Your body is screaming in pain, but you know that if you can just keep going for a few more minutes, the pain will go and elation will flow through you aching body.

I can only dream about what it must feel like to close in on a distant 42.2 kilometre finishing line.

When I watched the images on TV, I was not surprised to see one of the marathoners (wearing an orange T-shirt), having been knocked over by the blast, get up onto his feet and continue, with iron will, towards the finish line. At the beginning of a long run you do anything from listen to music to think of loved ones to plan the rest of your week in order to distract yourself from the gruelling task ahead. As you close in on your destination, however, all you think about is how overjoyed and relieved you will feel to have seen the race through until its end. By that stage, nothing will deter you. In the case of the man with the orange T-shirt, not even a terrorist’s bomb was going to stop him from picking himself up and finishing his race.

As I write these words, what has happened is still new to me and very raw. As yet there are no answers to ‘who’ and ‘why’.

This morning I feel only outage. My mind is numbed by sorrow for those runners who were experiencing the heightened emotions I have attempted to describe above, only to have loved ones – who were there to cheer them in their quiet moment of personal glory – killed or maimed.

Huckleberry B and I also feel so sorry for all Bostonians, like our friends, Peter and Robin.

The Bumpy Road to Luxor

Following our four sea days, and having come to terms with what happened in Boston, our journey continued in Safaga, the port closest to the wonders of Luxor.

I am compelled, however, to commence with an apology. Usually when I visit a place of personal interest, my mind is like a Tim Tam dunked in a hot cappuccino; it absorbs everything.

I did my best in Luxor, I truly did. However, I found that my brain was overwhelmed with so much information about Pharaohs, dynasties, constructions methods and varieties of rock that it all began to resemble hieroglyphics in my mind’s misty eye.

Our guide, Mahmoud, was fantastic. I admired his enthusiasm and he is clearly passionate about Egyptology. However, he delivered his narrative with such breathless energy that it was hard to keep up. He might pause briefly to allow a photograph or a short video. Yet he would lie in wait and, when you were finished, he’d be in your face again, assaulting you with a further barrage of Egyptian trivia. After a period of resistance, my holidaying brain ultimately defended itself by shutting down. The fault is mine not Mahmoud’s.

I write these journals for fun. It was never meant to be a chore. So, I am sorry but if you want more information regarding the temples we visited, readers are reminded that Wikipedia and other websites lie close at hand.

Notwithstanding the failures of my waning brain, our two days in Luxor were memorable. The visit began with a two hour plus drive from the port at Safaga, across the desert, between the arid hills, along the bumpy road to Luxor. After touring during the afternoon, we spent the night away from Seabourn Odyssey at the Luxor Sheraton, on the banks of the Nile. The next morning was occupied by more touring, before the return journey across the desert, along the bumpy road, back to Safaga.

The Nile valley is extraordinary.

What strikes you about Egypt, as soon as you arrive, is that it is so very dry. As we drove across the desert, there is simply no vegetation. None. We were told that it may rain on two or three days in the year and, even then, the rain is fleeting.

However, after two hours of nothing but yellow dirt and rock, you come over a crest in the road and see, in the distance, a narrow strip of greenery, with more desert beyond. As you get closer, the majestic Nile River comes into view. It’s an extraordinary sight!

Mahmoud told us that 90% of Egyptians live in that narrow band of fertile ground on either side of the beautiful Nile.

On the first afternoon in Luxor, we visited two temples on the East Bank of the Nile. First we visited Karnak Temple and then Luxor Temple. As already canvassed, much of the details regarding these temples – whilst doubtless truly fascinating – left Mahmoud’s mouth and flew, upon outstretched wing, past my ears and off into the distance, never to be seen again. However, I did marvel at the remarkable constructions, whether they be statues, pillars or temples, particularly given that the source materials were often located vast distances away. It is extraordinary what can be achieved with an unfettered power to raise taxes and an unlimited supply of slave labour.

The next morning we visited the Valley of the Kings; another extraordinary experience. Our entrance fee only allowed us to enter three of the tombs. Mahmoud recommended the tombs of Ramesses II, Merenptah and Ramesses IV. He advised against visiting the tomb of Tutankhamen – which attracted an additional entry fee – given that all his treasures were in the Museum in Cairo.

We enjoyed visiting the tombs of the Pharaohs. Each one was carved out of the sandstone cliff faces which ran along either side of the narrow valley. Despite being cut into the side of a hill, we had to walk down (sometimes on a quite steep incline) towards the burial chamber. In each tomb, the walls were adorned with intricate hieroglyphics which recorded the history of the particular Pharaoh. It was a privilege to be able to walk into these tombs and gain some insight into how the Egyptian Kings sought to defeat death.

Incidentally, Mahmoud told us that a recently discovered tomb is likely to turn the thinking of Egyptologists, the world over, into a tail spin…

Evidently, archaeologists have found a tomb in the a Valley of the Kings which belonged, not to a Pharaoh, but to a belly dancer.  This is not a joke. I repeat: this is not a joke.

The theory is that the belly dancer was extremely rich and could afford to pay for a tomb to be constructed for her in the Valley of the Kings. This revelation has resulted in consideration being given to renaming the area as ‘The Valley of the Rich’; although I think that ‘The Valley of the Kings and their Belly Dancers’ has a better ring to it.

Okay, that last part was a joke…

After the Valley of the Kings we visited the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut.

This was an extraordinary place; the Temple having been cut into the side of a barren mountain, within viewing distance of the Nile, but just beyond its lush irrigation area.

Mahmoud told us – and this is one part of his machine gun narrative which my ailing brain was able to digest – that the storyline from the Opera, Aida, was drawn from the hieroglyphic tale depicted on the walls of the temple.

So that was Luxor, done and dusted. After lunch, we re-entered our air conditioned mini-van and headed back across the desert, through the hills, along the bumpy road to Safaga and our stateroom onboard Seabourn Odyssey.