Malta – Who knew they do Regency here?


Let’s be even more specific – who knew that Napoleon had been to Malta? I mean Malta is all about the Knights of Malta – wealthy beyond measure, guardians of the pilgrims to the Holy Land, heroes of the Crusades. But Napoleon – in Malta?

Well – he was definitely here. There seems to be some debate about just how long he was here ( I was told 3 days, and just passed a sign that said 7 days) – but there is little question that he came, he said ‘give up’, and the Knights simply said – ‘Ok’. No guns were fired, the French simply occupied Malta and that was that. It only lasted about two years however – and then it went back into British control – which continued until Maltese Independence in 1964.

But that’s .hardly the point. The point is that we are here in Malta as Regency re-enactors. Our goal is to have fun, and show off our best Regency dresses, suits and uniforms of course.

I’m staying in the very fancy Phoenicia Hotel, just at the main entrance to old town Valletta. The hotel is very nice – and fairly expensive. But we have a lovely room and a large bathroom that features Grohe faucets. I must say I like the size and the towel warming rack – but I’m not a fan of the shower. They have taken a tub, removed the faucet part that fills the tub, and added a dual function shower. So there’s a wand and a standard shower head, no tub filling faucet. It’s ok, but not like the EB Hotel. And the water pressure is definitely lacking. I’ve been told that there is precious little fresh water on Malta – perhaps that explains the wimpy shower.

Our Weekend activities are to include a wine tasting lecture, a promenade thru town, a Garden visit, a tour of a Regency period home, a private tour of a local monastery, a dance workshop, a ball, and an afternoon tea dance. Sounds like fun to me! And of course all of this is to be done in period clothes.

Packing to come here was a nightmare, as I’m sure you can imagine. I need at least 2 dresses for Saturday (one for the ball, one for the day time activities), plus a day dress for Friday and a different day dress for Sunday. I need shoes, fans, gloves, head decor, my re-enacting glasses, and for cold weather wear – a Spenser and a shawl. Men, particularly men in uniform, have it so much easier. Which is why Victor is opting to come as a civilian – that way he can change clothes 4 times as well!

Our goal is get all of our re-enacting clothes into one big suitcase – using our carry-on suitcases for non-re-enacting clothes. And surprise, surprise – we actually manage to do this. Victor’s jackets, pants, vests and shirts take up most of the room, I use stuff bags to hold my rolled up gowns. I’ll just put them in the bathroom with the shower on hot and full blast to steam the wrinkles out.

And my plan totally works. I manage to get 4 dresses, 3 head ornaments, 1 black turban style hat, my dancing shoes, 4 reticules (small bags a lady carried to hold necessities during Regency times), and 4 pairs of white gloves into 3 stuff bags. And we manage to get those stuff bags into the one suitcase!

My dress on Friday is rather simple. A plain blue dress with my brand new and very beautiful green and gold Spenser (a short jacket with long sleeves) over it. I’m warm and comfortable, and I look good. Perfect. The wine tasting and lecture was interestingly done – but I can’t say that the wine blew me away. Malta is too dry and too warm year round to allow for really good grapes to grow here. And the winery we visited insisted on using only grapes grown on Malta for their wines. I’ll pass. And their ‘cellar’ is up a spiral staircase. That is definitely odd.

After the wine tasting, we have ‘free’ time – which I choose to spend visiting the Co-Cathedral of St. John – headquarters of the Knights of Malta. And it is wonderful. My senior price includes an audio guide – and I patiently listen to every thing it has to say. The Church is magnificent – but the highlight is the Chapel of the Novices – where hang the art work of one of those novices – the famous artist Caravaggio. After killing a man in a dual in Italy, Caravaggio fled to Malta and became a Knight of St. John. While a novice, he painted two massive paintings, both of which now hang in the Chapel. He was later expelled from the order – apparently he killed another man in a dual – he had a very bad temper – but the order kept the paintings.

And they are stunners. Gloriously beautiful and well worth the price of admission to the Church. I loved them – and spent almost 20 minutes admiring them. He was such a master of light and dark, of the theatre of painting. Sigh.

But I must return to the Regency world – so I leave the church and head back to the hotel.

Later in the day we have a dance practice that doesn’t go that well. It’s in the under-Croft of another church in Valletta, and it’s hard floor, hard walls, and arches make it impossible to hear the caller. She tried to use a sound system, but the feedback was very annoying. But we solider on, and do almost 30 short dances – just enough of each one to gain at least a tiny bit of motor memory.

I’m surprised that she doesn’t think to demonstrate the dance before calling it. We’re mostly experienced dancers – and watching folks do the dance one is just about to do is often enough to enable us to do the dance for ourselves. After two very terrible teaching efforts – she realizes that with this many people (we’re easily over 60) speaking so many different languages (I counted Italian, French, Russian, Maltese, Accented English (British/American/Canadian), and Spanish for sure), showing is faster than talking. So she smartly switches to demonstration mode, and the teaching goes much faster.

Unlike our practice sessions at home, we are learning a lot of dances – and then ‘dancing’ them for a fairly short time before starting the next one. I thought it was great fun – Victor found the feedback pretty annoying.

There’s a break in the middle for some much needed lemonade and biscuits, then back to the grind stone to learn the last dances before we head out for dinner.

The Weekend Price is all included (except breakfast), so as a group of around 60 we walk to our dinner restaurant. It’s on the top floor of an old old building, well located overlooking the Grand Harbour of Valletta.

Like traditional hotels everywhere – there’s an elevator – sort of. But it’s slow and small. And there are 60 of us. I quickly do the math and decide that walking up 5 floors is going to be a lot faster than waiting for that elevator. And so it proves. I arrive in time to grab a table – outside but away from the wind – and Victor and I are quickly jointed by the Canadian Contingent – Sebastian and Elena, Peter and Miyoko. Several other dancers join us – and we make a jolly, if a bit cold, party! Bottles of wine later, we retire to our separate dwellings in Valletta, tired but happy. Tomorrow is going to be a very full, very busy day.

Signing off to prepare for a day of dancing, sight-seeing, and Regency fun – The Soup Lady

EB Hotel – Now that’s a shower…


This blog post is a continuation of the one about my almost aborted trip home from St. Croix in March. In case you’ve forgotten – our plane ran into a bird on it’s landing approach in St. Croix, and American had to ground the plane until a very expensive piece of equipment could be flown in from New York City. But there was no where for American to put the 200+ passengers in St. Croix – FEMA has taken almost all the housing. So they found a plane in Puerto Rico and flew it down to Miami. Clearly most/all of us will have missed our connecting flights!

I land in Miami, and no surprise here, join a long long line of my fellow travellers waiting for the American agents to re-book us. It’s not as if they didn’t KNOW we were coming – that they didn’t KNOW we’d missed our flights. You’d have thought, foolishly as it turns out, that there would be some kind of triage.

You already rebooked – so all you need is printed boarding passes and a hotel voucher. Oh – you haven’t rebooked yet – ok that will take more time.

Nope – didn’t happen. So instead we all stand in one LONG line, waiting our turn. At first (given that it’s after 11:00 PM), there are only two poor agents at the re-booking center. But as the line grows and grows, the number of agents dedicated to getting us taken care of increases. By my turn, there are 7 agents working, so the line is moving.

Since I already re-booked – it’s a print and ‘have a nice night’ meeting. The hotel voucher says EB Hotel – and I question the agent – EB? Never heard of it. He reassures me – it’s a nice one. And sends me on my way.

I leave the airport security area, and cross over to the ‘hotel’ shuttle waiting area. Standing with me are several of my fellow passengers – all of us slated to go to the same hotel. One guy smartly calls the hotel to check on the shuttle – to be told – it’s on it’s way.

Shuttle arrives – not large enough for everyone, but I’m lucky enough to score a seat, which I’m not giving up. I need to be back at the airport at 5:00 AM – and it’s now almost midnight. I don’t want to lose any more of my precious sleep.

My room at the EB is amazing. Seriously – I’ve stayed in some pretty high end places in my life, but this is probably the fanciest hotel shower system I have ever seen. I set my alarm for 4:00 AM – it’s too late now to shower – but I’m willing to wake up early to take advantage of it tomorrow.

About my shower. It’s a hoot! There are 4 different kinds of shower heads. A rain shower in the middle of the space – partly over the large stone ‘sitting’ area, a more standard shower head, 4 body jets that are serious about giving you a massage, and a handheld shower head. It’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys – and I’m having a blast turning every shower possibility on and off – playing with temperature, pressure, and position.

I’m having so much fun – I’m almost (but not quite) late to my 4:30 AM Shuttle back to the Miami airport.

After the excitement of the bird hitting the nose cone, the jet being flown in to St. Croix from San Juan to get us off the island, and the over-the-top fancy hotel shower – the trip on to Louisville, KY is just long and boring. Ah well – can’t have too much adventure at my age – probably bad for the digestion.

Signing off to sip her Illy Coffee – paid for by American Airlines – The Soup Lady

Gatlinburg – Honky Tonk Heaven


My travels find me in Gatlinburg, Tennessee to play bridge The largest regional bridge tournament in the US – 4100 tables, 16,400 bridge obsessed folks show up to play bridge for a week here every April – and I, my partner Judy, Fern – my friend from the bridge cruise – and her partner Judy (yes – two Judy’s) are 4 of the lucky travellers.

I must say that it sounded like a great idea to go to Gatlinburg until I discovered that there is no airport in Gatlinburg! None – nada – it’s walk, bike or rent a car to get from point A to point B in this part of the US. There is no airport. The nearest airport is in Knoxville – so my Brigde partner (Judy) and I have taken separate flights to end up in Knoxville. Our original plan had us heading out to Gatlinburg right after my flight arrived. Ah the best laid plans … and all that.

Weather was not my friend on Sunday – and my flight from Montreal was delayed just a bit. The major problem happened in Philly. Bad weather (hey folks – it’s just RAIN) delayed or canceled flights all over the Eastern Coast of the US, and my flight from Philly to Knoxville was definitely impacted.

Much phone calling and texting later – we agreed that I’d spend that night in her hotel room in Knoxville (cancel one night in Gatlinburg – and we’d head out the next morning. And this plan worked perfectly. The Historic Gatlinburg Inn, our choosen spot for bedding down, was very gracious. They agreed to cancel the one extra night without penalty (nice folks, eh?). So Sunday night found me knocking on the door of a perfect stranger and asking to sleep with her!

Fortunately, we’d swapped pictures, and Judy is not a serial rapist. We managed to meet, pick beds, and get to sleep. Tomorrow will be aa big, big day!

We get up, enjoy a rather blah breakfast (the hotel breakfast food can definitely not be called fine dining), and head out. Using Google maps, we original choose the shorter, more scenic route, but a bit of miss direction, and we’re driving mostly on highway until close to the turn off to Pigeon Forge.

Does that sound familiar? It should – it’s the home of Dolly Parton and DollyWood. We’re quickly skip past this bit of Americana and are on the main drag of Gatlinburg.

Honky Tonk doesn’t even begin to describe this place. I never even heard of Shoot’m up 7D – but here it is. And it features a horse singing country songs and ‘riding’ an old miner. Seriously – what’s with that. Opposite this ‘attraction’ is a festival of Ripley Entertainments that demonstrates exactly how far out of the loop we in Canada have become. There’s a Ripley’s Haunted Adventure – which sports multiple signs warning those faint of heart or with ‘medicinal issues’ to enter with caution. There’s also a Ripley’s Hollywood Stars – that apparently is all about cars and the Advengers. There are bits and pieces of cars (all labeled ‘do not touch’) adorning the towering edifice. I’m not sure of the point really – but I think I recognize ‘The New Advengers’, although maybe not. There’s also an ‘activity’ center that features a mirror maze, and as it’s ‘marketing tool’, has a guy swinging on a trapeze high above the main floor of the building. These are only 5D – the 7D activity seems to be only the shooting gallery.

There’s an escape room Adventure, a Sky Lift – fancy name for a chair lift, a towering Sky tower that doesn’t appear to be functional, and a huge – seriously huge – convention center. It’s way way too large for the town, so clearly the idea is have a space to bring in tons of visitors.

There are two – count’m two – Moonshine distilleries, a Paula Deen store, a Starbucks, and here’s a surprise – a Walgreens.

All of these are squished into the spaces between hotels, motels, and other ‘sleeping’ establishments. Most are deliberately designed to be cute – faux log cabins, faux castles, and our lodging – the Historical Gatlinburg Inn.

There are plenty of food options as well – a Bubba Gump Shrimp (can you say – everything fried), several sports bars that serve fried everything as well, BBQ places, Pizza places, and two Sweet Shops where you can buy candy by the very very expensive ounce. I wouldn’t suggest shopping for something practical (like – say – fruit or underwear) but if you need a statue of a bear labeled ‘faith’ – they have you covered.

And that’s just in the 5 minute (max) walk from where we are sleeping to the Convention Center. I’m both amused and stunned. But I should have been warned when our warm welcome is marred by my distraction at the size of our hostess. She is simply the largest person I’ve ever seen. And the maintenance man is equally her size. Clearly weight inflation is real and happening in Gatlinburg.

A little about our lodging. The Historic Gatlinburg Inn is just that – Historic. And in desperate need of a serious renovation. I’m reminded of the ‘before’ section of a reality TV show I used to love – Hotel Impossible. This guy would go in and explain how the owners could inexpensively update their hotel – and then proceed to do it to a single room. The Historic Gatlinburg Inn could really, seriously use help.

The good news here is that the staff is unbelievable nice (if perhaps a tad overweight). They couldn’t have been nicer to us. The breakfast buffet was quite nice – and featured a different type of sausage every morning, as well as unlimited scrambled eggs, 2 waffle machines. There were biscuits, Cereal in those little boxes, wrapped apples (why wrap the apples?), yogurt and coffee. There wasn’t a fridge in our room, but we could put food in a small fridge located behind the bar in the rarely used ‘party room’. And they had a pool. Our room even had a view over the river that runs parallel to the Main Street.

My issues with the Historic Inn were in the decor. I’ve never really appreciate exposed pipes, and the retro-fitted sprinkler system meant that there were pipes everywhere. I know it’s hard to hang ceilings to hide those pipes – but honestly, why hang the pipes a foot or more below the ceiling line? It’s so ugly. But the really depressing thing, aside from the seriously outdated old couches in the room (we had two..) were the bathrooms. I’m not a fan of extra doors in bathrooms – although folks seem to love to wall off the toilet – but I really don’t like horrid tub/showers. They are dangerous to get in and out off, and those cheap plastic sliding doors just say – old and gross to me. Put in a laminate counter and a low sink – you are not going to impress me. Tiny old washed to death white towels complete the picture. This is not a luxury bathroom.

I’m also not fond of odd lighting arrangements. Our room was a huge U shaped thing, with an entrance hall that had a wooden bench (handy) for putting our suitcases, the bathroom in the center of the U, and two double beds on the other side. So the distance from the bed to the toilet was as far as it could be, the lighting was several lamps placed randomly in the room, and two wall/ceiling fixtures. One was a chandelier looking object – placed near the beds, but controlled from a switch near the door on the other side of the U, and the other was a long thin bar that extended over both beds. That rather handily had a switch near the bed to turn it on and off.

The problem = we couldn’t find the switches to turn lights on and off for the first 2 days. It just wasn’t obvious enough.

But I was feeling ok about this until I walked down the stairs instead of taking the elevator (an obvious add on tower probably built when they added the sprinkler system). Old couches could be found all through the hallways – I’m guessing that the owners couldn’t decide if these were to be thrown or kept – so they got put here and there in various hallways. The end effect was a rather unfortunate Bordello look – lacking only the ladies in waiting.

I don’t think I’m coming back to the Historic Gatlinburg Inn the next time I come to this competition.

On the drive back to Knoxville, we opt to take the scenic route through the National Park. It’s a lovely, albeit winding, 2 lane road that fortunately was effectively empty around 2:00 on a Friday afternoon. It criss-crosses the river that runs thru Gatlinburg – and alternated between lovely vistas and narrow passes thru rock walls. Had there been crowds of ‘leaf peepers’ – this road would have been a disaster. But we breezed thru, and arrived in Knoxville in plenty of time to catch my flight home.

Signing off to unwind and eat some fruit…

The Soup Lady

Regional at Sea – or Bridge till you drop!


18 months ago I decided to learn to play proper duplicate bridge – and I’ve been chasing that goal almost daily. Not easy.

When I was in Charlotte several months ago, a gal had her partner for a bridge cruise cancel on her, and she went looking for someone who took playing bridge seriously, didn’t have too many master points, and had the money and ability to travel.

Hmm? Did some one call my name? I’m not the best player in the world, not even close. But I’m serious about getting better – and apparently being able to afford to travel to Charlotte marks me with the money and ability to travel.

Leaving her motives aside – she asked, I thought about it, and then accepted when I found out that Larry Cohen, who I think is the best bridge teacher in the world, would be giving talks every morning.

Fast forward 3 months – and here I am. Sitting in the Harmony of the Seas, participating in a regional bridge tournament. And having a blast. It’s not for everyone. I’m not even sure it’s for most folks. But for me it’s perfect. Bridge with a reasonable (and arguably much better than me) partner morning, noon and night! Perfect!

Let’s call her The Bridge Keener – and we’ve got my partner in a nutshell. Crazily enough – the deal including sharing a room – with effectively a perfect stranger, and of course playing bridge with her in all the games on offer. It’s a bit scary to share a room with someone you never really met – particularly for an entire week. So many things can go so wrong. And my sisters would tell you- I’m not the easiest room mate in the world. But The Bridge Keener has been able to cope with my outrageous behaviour, to ignore my bad roomie habits – and basically make this experience a delight.

We get up every morning with the sun – and a phone call from room service to tell us breakfast is on the way! Why they need to call me to tell me that the waiter will be knocking on my door is beyond me – but they do. So setting an alarm seems redundant. But being a tad anal, we do it anyway. Have yet to be woken by the alarm though!

Anyway – cute guy, hot coffee – and a fruit platter. What’s not to love.

After we get the day started by admiring the view from our balcony while we enjoy our coffee – we head up stairs (or down stairs – there are restaurants in all directions) for breakfast. We have consistently opted for one of the buffet places – I’m not fond of their coffee (room service coffee is better), but I do like to have a bowl of cereal and some fruit. One day I blew it by trying the grits – what possessed me? Cold and yucky. Oh well. Stick to tried and true and hard to mess up I say.

Then it’s bridge, lunch, bridge, dinner, and more bridge.

I know – sounds dull. But trust me – it’s never dull. Lots of things happen. Folks fight, Partners do double revokes (not a good idea), and you get lost in the bidding. I’m pretty decent on play – but if I’m in an un-makable contract – I tend to crash and burn. So instead of down 2, I’m down 4. Oh well, something to work on I guess.

More excitement – Larry Cohn’s lectures, Unlimited cookies, the possibility of placing first, and checking out the slogan wearing fellow bridge players. My favourites – Bling laden hats with “I Heart Larry Cohn” and T-Shirt slogans like “Double Trouble”, or “No one knows the Doubles I’ve seen”.

The Bridge Keener and I have been working hard at communicating with each other with mixed results. We came in first or second several times – and washed out several times. Which pretty much put us in the middle of the pack in terms of Master Points earned. Of the 236 people who participated (a totally booked out bridge cruise), we placed in the upper middle. I’d be short sighted and kinda silly not to be pretty proud of our results.

But it’s not all bridge. We spend a significant amount of our on-board time eating dinner with various members of the bridge group.

Our first night’s dinner was an unmitigated disaster. No, probably worse than that to be truthful. I wanted off the ship – and was thinking of opting out of dinner completely. 3/4 of our table mates were friends from Boca Raton – and I’m not a fan of the ladies of Boca in general – and definitely not of these ladies in particular. They carefully excluded us from their conversation – which as far as I could tell was gossip about what was happening at home. That left my partner, a 90 year old woman player with bad eyesight and bad hearing, and myself isolated on ‘our’ side of the table.

Add to this misery a terrible waitress who hadn’t smiled in about 3 years – and yup – it was bad.

So the second night the Bridge Keener and I decided to bail on that table and find a table with some empty spaces. Much, much better! But the third night we totally lucked out. The Bridge Keener recognized a gal from a previous cruise – and she invited us to join her table. And it was a hoot! There were 8 of us. The self-sacrificing friend who had agreed to partner a gal with a solid 11 Master Points. (That’s a beginner folks – and her playing got worse and worse over the course of the week), her sister, a diminutive older woman who had come on her own and spent the trip picking up partners. Her success was varied. There was a male – our token guy – who was a computer geek and lawyer and seemed a solid player. Our 6th table companion was a lady who announced she was allergic to noise – particularly my noise. So I got to try to whisper (or better plan – keep my back to her). She was a bit of a stiff neck, but apparently enjoyed our table – she dutifully came and joined us every night. My favourites of our group (aside from the self-sacrificing friend and the older woman) were a mother and daughter team. The last night I found out the daughter was 62 – (a surprise – she looked younger) – which makes her mom an unbelievable 85. They were a hoot. Not doing well at bridge unfortunately – they announced the last night that they need to find regionals with more folks at their level… – but so nice! And funny! We spent every dinner laughing, joking, and basically being silly. Our charming waiter was thrilled with us – and got in the habit of bring extra food when ever he could.

So that goes a long way to explaining my 5 services of Lobster, and my 3 servings of Rack of Lamb!

Bit more on the bridge. One of the goals of most of the players was to get their life masters. And often it’s Gold Master Points that have proven elusive and hard to get. So not surprisingly – at least 3 folks got their life masters on board this trip. One of them was part of our Knock-out exam (unfortunately we got knocked out in the 2nd round) and Swiss Teams. Charming couple, super nice, decent players – and easy to be around.

When she got the points she needed for Life Masters – the organizers made a big fuss – and on the last night they even presented her with a trophy. Man – I want to make life master on a ship and have them recognize me! It’s exciting.

This was the first time I’ve gone to a tournament with a partner – the same partner – for every game. This is a good/bad thing actually. The Bridge Keener and I are decent partners – but we need work. So as reported earlier – our results varied. With PUP (Pick up Partners) you can always pretend to yourself that it was the other guy that was wrong. With a regular partner – you have to take responsibility for your mistakes. And in my case – there were a lot of them. But you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs (except on the cruise ship – I don’t think an actual egg got cracked the entire trip).

So – great fun (albeit sometimes frustrating) was had. And I’m definitely doing it again. And I’m doing it with the Bridge Keener.

Signing off to study her bridge defence book – The Soup Lady

Harmony of the Seas – The good, the bad, the interesting


Ever wanted to know exactly what it’s like to be on-board a truly massive Cruise Ship? Me too! And I just spent a week on board the Harmony of the Seas – and I’m ready to report the good, the bad, the dreadful, the interesting, the weird, the over-the-top about Royal Caribbean’s largest – and many might argue the fanciest – Ship.

First off – a disclaimer – I’m here as part of a Regional at Sea Bridge Tournament organized by Alice Travel and hosted by Larry Cohen – so I carefully have avoided visiting any of the islands we’ve stopped it. They simply aren’t that interesting in truth. And secondly – in most cases – I’ve been there – really toured that. So spending the time to go thru the formalities to dis-embark, spend an hour queuing in what can only be tourist traps, and then queuing again to get back on board is frankly unappealing.

And I’m not a casino buff. Don’t understand gambling and gamblers – and never will. So that’s pretty much a waste of space on the ship as far as I’m concerned.

But with those disclaimers out of the way – here’s my report.

First the Bad: The ship is huge – 6000+ guests, 2000+ crew. And while RC (Royal Caribbean) makes every effort to break things down so you aren’t aware of the simply massive numbers of people sharing this space with you, it still remains that they are here. And sometimes, it’s crowded. There are 4 banks of 8 elevators to ‘whisk’ folks from floor to floor – and yet it is often faster and more pleasant to just walk up and down the stairs. And we’re talking 16 floors here – not a short hop. But standing in an elevator box, even with a glassed in wall quickly grows dull when there are hoards of other folks crammed into the space with you. And these are not small elevators – the sign says max 24 people! I once counted 12 – and thought we doing a sardine impression…

Another bad thing – well, at least weird thing. The food is what can best be described as interesting. Occasionally they pull off a stunner – the rack of lamb last night was delicious. But generally it’s banquet cuisine – served to appear like it’s not a banquet. But I’m sure and certain that behind the scenes you’d find a bunch of tables, each pre-plated with the different meals. If you want to challenge your waiter – try asking for something – even something as simple as iceberg lettuce – that’s not on the menu. To fill that requirement, a chef (food preparer) has to leave his station and find a head of lettuce. They did it – but they let me know I was asking a lot…

Most of the restaurants that are ‘complimentary’ – ie: included in your fare – serve very similar food. And all but the massively huge dining room that stretches over 3 floors – and I’m thinking is capable of seating all 6000 guests in 2 seatings – are buffets. The idea from the cruise ship folks is to divide and conquer. And from the guest perspective – that works. We’ve taken to grabbing breakfast at the restaurant in the ‘Solarium’ – a sunny space at the bow of the ship. Crowded during the lunch break – but for breakfast, this place has generally smaller crowds and shorter lines. And while the food is rather basic, it works for me. Those eggs that come in a pouch and end up looking a bit like scrambled eggs (my travel buddy thinks they are from a powder.. I hope not), mounds of bacon, whole hams sliced to grab, Lox, boxes of cereals, and lots and lots of fruit. I will admit that the amount of fried things has been reduced from my last Ship experience – over 40 years ago.

Generally the food, while plentiful, is also fairly healthy. It’s not really fresh fruit – ie: no one is cutting up fruit for us to enjoy – it’s all that processed fruit pieces – but there is lots of it. And there’s lots of very delicious salad options.

The menu in the dinning room (white table cloth – pretend service) varies by day and I suspect repeats weekly. If you did this cruise over and over again – you’d die of menu boredom, but for one week – it works well. I already mentioned the Rack of Lamb (yum), but I do think having 5 services of Lobster tails on Lobster night might have been pushing the envelope. But they were good.

Not gourmet by any stretch of the imagination, but filling and wholesome.

The Interesting: Because of the sheer size, there is actually a fairly diverse crowd. There are kids, there are seniors on their scooters, there are teens, there are gals wearing bikinis that make me stare, and there are lots and lots of couples. There is also a fair slice of handicapped. One large group on our voyage is clearly deaf and dumb – and they are also clearly loving being on board. As for cultural diversity – it’s a fairly white bread kinda place – but there’s a goodly slice of folks from other cultures as well. Ladies in Kimonos walk the Promenade, Island folks can be seen here and there, and the number of different languages is pretty impressive.

The Best: Our room. My roomie had opted for a balcony Sea View room – and it’s awesome. Two twin beds, a nice size toilet with a fine shower, plenty of her/her storage space, and our balcony. You slide open the ‘window’, and there are two chaise lounges and a coffee table. And the most wonderful view. I spent almost every spare minute sitting on my chaise using my computer, and watching the ocean and sky slide by. One negative – you can not see the stars. The ship is so well lit – and we’re talking till well after midnight – that the night sky is a haze. Oh well. Not the biggest negative in the world.

The ok – actually – I’ll admit – the pretty good are the options for amusement. This ship has everything. Nightly theatre, a Nightly water show, comedy shows, swimming pools, Water slides, Surfing pools, More hot tubs than I can count, a kiddie splash area, a more adult splash area, an arcade, a casino, a boardwalk, Central Park, a promenade, shopping options, relaxing options, a jogging track that I love (a lap is a kilometre, .6 of a mile for you US folks), a full spa and exercise facility, a card room with computers and some books, endless options for kids including a giant spider web thingy. I mean – it’s surprisingly easy to forget you are on a ship there’s so many things to do that don’t even say ‘ship’ to me. And I’m on a bridge cruise – so we’re playing bridge 3 times a day. Colour me very very happy.

And on the daily news bulletin are more scheduled activities than you can do in a week – and that’s each day. Talks, lectures, games, you name it.

It’s amazing.

The best part – or the worst depending on your perspective – is the Promenade. This is a totally fake (think Disney without even the pretence at realism and a lot less polish) shopping/gathering area. It’s too clean, it’s too organized, it’s too fake for me, And unlike Disney where everything is perfect, things are just a bit shaky. Not everyone in the parade knows all the moves for instance. But folks love it. It’s safe, it’s protected, kids can run free – grannie won’t get trampled – and it’s fun. So while I have issues when I compare it to the ‘reality’ of St. Croix – most folks seem to be totally at peace with the complete artificiality of it. You aren’t going to see anything that’s going to upset you – no homeless, nothing uncomfortable. And the crew is going to be absolutely sure you have a wonderful time.

So – Good: Promenade, Activities, Our Room. Weird: The food. Bad: The size.

Did I have a good time? You bet. Will I do it again? Absolutely. I’ll have to watch my diet, avoid the too fat, too sweet options, dodge the crowds – and enjoy the positive aspects.

Bottom line – It’s a Hoot!

The Legacy of Apartheid- Founder’s Dinner at the Founder’s Lodge, Shamwari Game Reserve


The 6 of us gather for drinks before dinner in the lounge, and Freddie arrives to escort us into the ‘den’. It’s been reset as a dining room for the occasion, fireplace lit, candles on the table, lovely place settings.

We decide to seat women closer to the fire with me in the middle seat, and the men opposite – Victor facing me across the table. To my right are a former Policeman and his wife, to my left a Lawyer and his wife. I’m identifying their jobs because later on in the evening, our conversation will get very interesting – their jobs have given them very different perspectives on the issues facing South Africa.

But dinner begins politely enough with a menu of options to choose from, including a soup or goat cheese salad, a choice of main course, and a choice of dessert. I opt for the soup, a stuffed chicken dish, and a sweet cake for dessert. I’ve discovered that folks here love their sweet cakes – and I’m quite the fan of their work.

Over the course of dinner, and following several bottles of wine, conversation turns to the current state of affairs in South Africa. Since our dinner companions are all from Port Elizabeth, although from quite different walks of life, their opinions are very intriguing.

They agree that the current government is completely corrupt – an opinion I’ve heard over and over again from the folks who will talk politics with me. I’m not sure that this is a majority opinion however, since none of the folks who are of a darker skin color seem as willing to admit that there is a problem. After all – the party in power is the ANC – Mandela’s group – so calling them corrupt is perhaps not acceptable. I’m not sure.

One thing I am sure about however is that calling the government corrupt seems a somewhat universal theme – folks in the US call parts of their government corrupt, we in Quebec are certain that there is corruption at the higher levels, although pinning it on a specific individual is a challenge. So South Africans are not unique in feeling this way – it does seem however that in some cases the accusation is accompanied by accounts of house buying, major home renovations and trip taking on the government dime.

There is agreement as well on some of the statistics – 20% of folks unemployed, apx 37% living below the poverty line (related stats I’m sure), a frightening amount of crime, along with a looming water crisis in the ‘food basket’ areas of the Eastern and Western Cape. In the 25 days that we have been here there have been reports of several mass murders, including one where gang members gunned down 18 members of the ‘unofficial’ community protection group in one of the informal settlements (Philippi) near Cape Town. And there are some interesting laws that have been enacted – I’m told that farms are forbidden from using machinery to do most jobs – instead they must hire manual labor – a way to keep folks employed. And I’ve personally seen numerous restaurants where the number of staff clearly out-number the clients. This is redundancy mascaraing as employment, but I’m not sure that anyone is fooled.

I ask my dinner companions how they feel about the towering electric or barb wire/razor wire fences that surround almost everything, everywhere in South Africa – and they confess that they are fenced in as well as fenced out. The folks to my right loudly state that the fences are essential – and cite recent incidences of violent crime against older folks living in gated compounds that still aren’t gated enough. The folks to my left on the other hand mourn the lack of open access that they remember from their youth – when kids could play in the streets safely.

Today they explain life in the middle and upper classes is lived inside enclosures. You get in your car inside your compound, and only open the gate long enough to allow the car to drive out – and that after checking the cameras to be sure no one is lurking nearby. You drive to your destination, another gate is opened (after making sure of your identity), and only after the gate is secure behind you do you get out of the car. Play dates have 6 members – 2 Moms, 2 Kids, 2 Body Guards.

If you work in an office building or hotel or factory, the process is the similar – enter your car, open the gate, drive to the ‘office’, open that gate, close the gate – get out of the car. No one light skinned wanders the streets, walks to work, lives without gates and guards and security.

There are of course exceptions – in the townships and informal settlements – life is very different. There are fences – but they surround the township, and as a legacy of Apartheid have few entrances so that the police can close off the township quickly if need be. Within the township, as we witnessed when we were traveling with Mr. Podbrey, there are few fences. But still even these buildings have wrought iron gates at the doors that can be locked closed for the security of those within. No matter our status – we all apparently have things we must protect.

The former policeman and his wife to my right seem to feel that all this security is beyond necessary, it is essential. There is too much crime for the police to deal with, and taking security into your own hands – or the hands of your community is just, proper and expected. (Later I will chat with a lady who lives in Jo-burg. She tells me that the cost of this security in her neighbourhood is 2,500 Rand a month – a huge amount to folks who consider paying 20,000 Rand a month for food for a family of 5 outrageous).

The lawyer and his wife disagree – they think that all this excess security only builds up the need for more and more security. It’s a self-fulling prophesy. You expect the worst, and that’s what you will get. I must agree with them when I think of Canada, the US, Britian, Europe, Thailand, South Korea – most of the other places where I’ve spent time. In all these places, fences are mental, not physical. My stuff is this side of a line, yours is the other side – and we’ve both agreed that this is the case. No fence is needed. And surely not 6’ high stone fences topped with razor wire and huge mechanized wrought iron gates. How have all these places managed to convince folks that you should respect what is mine – not feel you can/should just take it? Where and when did South Africa go this other route? Folks who have never left South Africa (Africa?) are unlikely to appreciate the huge difference in mental state that exists

The lawyer’s wife argues that supporting all the various charities and foundations that are working to make things better is a valid road to improvement. The couple to our right thinks these things are a waste of money. Putting the money into more and better police is the way to improve safety in South Africa.

On the other hand, I think back to our conversations with the young folks in the Khayelitsha Township outside of Cape Town. They were much more positive about the future – planning on getting an eduction and perhaps working in IT if Soccer doesn’t pan out as a career. Meanwhile our dinner companions tonight are thinking of sending their kids – and grand kids – abroad to ensure their future.

We are physically and mentally stuck in the middle. We come from a place where there are few if any fences, and if they exist, they exist to keep pets from roaming the neighbourhood, or to keep young kids out of swimming pools, not to create compounds. In fact, in my community, building a fence completely around my yard would be against the law. I’m not allowed to do this – but then neither is anyone else in my neighbourhood. I’m wondering if one would have to start by tearing down all the fences. You certainly can’t tear down a few – it would make those few a target.

Here’s another frightening fact about South Africa – this one gleamed from local newspapers. In Cape Town, only 12 of the 35 public pools will be open this summer because of the water crisis. But while this seems reasonable, it is worrisome. How will black and coloured city dwellers cool off during the hot hot summer months ahead. Granted public pools are only one way – but they are an accepted place for young people to play, to exercise, to be. Close them and you rob young folks of an acceptable option, and kids are not going to sit at home. That’s not going to happen. My expectation – there will be a dramatic increase in crime by young folks in Cape Town during the summer – from frustration and boredom, not from malicious intent. I’m sure there is a water shortage – but I’m also sure that there are other ways of dealing with it that will not just make a bad situation worse.

In a breakdown report of unemployment stats in the same newspaper (quoting a report just released but with data from 2015) it was stated that 30% of Africans (blacks?) are unemployed, compared to 19.6% of coloured and 6.4% of whites. And women outnumber men of course. To have a basis for comparison, I looked up unemployment records during the Great Depression in the US in the 1930’s. The highest rate of unemployment then was 17%. So we are talking about almost double the amount of unemployment among the largest groups in South Africa.

In the Western Cape alone there are 628,000 unemployed individuals in the second quarter of 2017. This in an area filled with wineries, farms, lots of tourism, and several huge employers. Again to put things into perspective – that’s 1/3rd of the population of Montreal, and more than the entire population of Vermont.

In the end, we all agree to agree that there are huge problems in South Africa, problems that aren’t helped by a government seen by many as hopelessly corrupt, and made worse by unequal applications of primary facilities – large police presence in upper class areas, single police cars patrolling the huge and unruly informal settlements.

And we can all agree that all groups are being forced into paying for protection that the government can’t or won’t provide. The fees that folks in the enclaves pay monthly for ‘protection’ are by their standards out of line – perhaps 1/4 of their food bill to use something meaningful as a source of comparison. In the informal settlements – the cost is even higher. It might cost a mother her son in Philippi, a price no one should have to pay.

The serving of dessert changes the tone of the conversation, and we all focus on what will happen tomorrow. The first game drive starts at 6:30 AM – so it’s time to head off to bed.

We can’t solve South Africa’s problems over coffee.

Signing off – The Soup Lady.

Founder’s Lodge in the Shamwari Game Reserve


A frequent question on the ‘net’ is which Game Reserve near Port Elizabeth is the best – and while I can’t vouch for any of the others, I can tell you that the Shamwari Reserve was amazing.

But I’m ahead of my tail – which is not an unusual position.

We start the day in the absolute lap of luxury that is the Conrad Pezula. For the first time in our trip – I’d rather not leave. In fact – I’m even thinking of buying real estate. It’s only the discomfort of the South African reality that keeps me from chatting up a real estate agent. I just can’t get my head around the constant locked access points, focus on security, and the fences. There is a very obvious lack of respect and even comfort between colours and classes that just makes my skin itch. But that’s the topic of another blog.

Today we must drive to Founder’s Lodge in the Shamwari Game Reserve, and we’ve done the GPS thing to find out how long it will take to drive to Port Elizabeth and counted backwards. We must leave by 9:00 to make it there in time for lunch and the afternoon game drive.

Breakfast turns out to be more of an adventure than I’d planned on. I wanted to eat on our balcony – sitting in the sun and enjoying the stunning view. To do that – I must make coffee. And there’s a single serve coffee machine in the room. Perfect. Until I try to figure out how it works.

I’m old, but not stupid – and the thing stumps me. It just won’t turn on. Yes, I checked that it was plugged in, and yes I checked that the plug was on. No action. So I call the front desk. They tell me there’s a switch on the machine, hidden in the back. I try that – nope. It isn’t going to turn on. And worse – out of the 4 coffee packets they have given me – I’ve used up two. One in the first attempt – a second in the next attempt.

They will send someone. Who within seconds is there – with another machine. He checks our machine, agrees that it is not turning on, and plugs in the newer machine. It turns on – (green light on the front), and we thank him.

Try 3. I put in the coffee thingy – put the mug under the spout, and push the green light. The machine gurgles and burps and starts producing coffee. And doesn’t Stop! I fill my mug, and I’m on the 2nd mug when I turn the machine off and give up. I’m calling the office – again.

Seconds later another young man appears at our door – who shows us that to stop the machine from producing coffee you must push the button on the front when the light turns red… It offers you options you see – the first time it turns red, that’s a single espresso. The 2nd time – espresso Double, and the third time – Americano!

Problem – in learning how to use the machine – I’ve used up all the little single serve coffee things they have given us. So another trip from the front desk to give us a few more pouches of coffee.

I’m sure there is someone at the Conrad Pezula who is giving up on making any money on our stay! We have definitely kept their staff occupied.

Breakfast done (whew) – we call the front desk (yet again) for luggage pickup, Victor hikes up to the office while I continue to drink my lovely coffee enjoying my fabulous view and try to work up the courage to actually leave. But I have no choice – the bellman with the golf cart arrives, takes our luggage out to the cart and offers me a drive up the hill. We absolutely must leave.

When I come back to South Africa – perhaps in another life time – this is the place I want to stay!

We drive down the Head, and head East along the N2. This is a ‘major’ road that winds along all the Garden Route – but in this section it is just one lane in each direction, with large shoulders they use to create space for cars to pass on the right. Remember – drive on the left! At the sides of the road at first are what I’d call middle class housing, but it quickly becomes either township or informal settlements with the corresponding piles of garbage. Question to self – why is everything so clean except the areas near the townships and informal settlements?

Eventually even that bit of housing disappears and we are driving thru fields of grain, some irrigated, some not. There are also herds of cows and sheep to see, and the occasional horse farm. It’s not the most exciting driving – although the view of Plettenberg Bay is stunning. These are some of the finest beaches in South Africa, but we are on a mission – we must get to Port Elizabeth.

The road is often actually 3 lanes – achieved not by widening the road, but by changing the location of the paint. So imagine two lanes with large shoulders. To get three lanes – you get rid of the shoulders on each side – and either make the no passing line on the far right of the 2nd lane (we have two lanes heading east), or to the far left of the 2nd lane (we have one very narrow lane heading east – they have two lanes heading west). It’s actually pretty neat, although my husband thinks they should make the passing lanes appear only on the uphill sections – he can’t pass the heavy trucks on the down hill portions, they gain too much speed.

Speaking of speed – the limit here is 120 km/hr. And no one goes 120, except us and the occasional truck. So we are pretty consistently the passed, not the passer.

After about 2 hours of this, we decide to enter into the GPS the actual address of our destination – and discover to our alarm that it isn’t in Port Elizabeth – it’s an hour NORTH! Oh, no. We’d calculated our trip based on getting to the reserve in time for lunch – and now we are definitely going to be an hour off.

Mad checking of paper work later – we realize that lunch doesn’t even start till 2:00 PM – and the game drive is at 3:30. We should just make it – but there’s no time to waddle. Not like we’ve been going slowly – but we try to pick up the pace a bit.

The outskirts of Port Elizabeth appear – first informal settlements, then townships, then middle class housing and finally the city itself. It’s a huge port – I count over a dozen giant container ships at anchor in the bay – and I would imagine there are some actually in the port, but it’s not visible from the N2. Which has become a 4 lane highway at this point – and the roadway switches from concrete to asphalt. My husband says that the driving is easier on asphalt – I don’t know or care – I just want this road trip to end.

As we steam pass a gas station – I say – there’s a gas station – but my husband is focused – we are getting to the reserve on time.

Suddenly I see an Elephant on my left! Wow – it’s an Elephant!. We are driving past the Addo National Elephant Park – and the next stop will be the Shamwari Reserve. I’m getting excited.

Meanwhile the N2 is down to 1 lane in each direction again, and the side roads are not all paved. We’ve left Port Elizabeth (and what passes as civilization) far behind.

It is at this moment that my husband checks the gas gauge. We are at 1/4 tank – and we need to find a gas station. I keep my eyes peeled – but we are far from anything that even looks like a town. Hopefully there will be a gas station near the lodge.

The instructions say – take the unpaved road at Sidbery and follow the signs. We do as told, and find our selves facing a formidable wrought iron gate. Oh dear – what did we do wrong? We stop to try to figure things out when a guard appears to ask us – where are you heading? We tell him Founder’s Lodge – and he’s immediately reassuring. You are fine, you are right, this is the right place. You have arrived!

Whew.

It turns out that the Founder’s Lodge is inside the reserve, and we’ve arrived at a back door. The gate is there to keep the animals in – and given the number of Elephants, Rinos, Lions, etc that we will see – I totally get it.

Our welcome at the Lodge is lovely – Susie, the manager, greets us with cold towels and a drink of our choice, and quickly ushers us into lunch. We ask about gas – and are assured that they will get a spare tank with 10 gallons or so for us tomorrow. Meanwhile, they will park the car – we need to go into lunch.

There are only 6 rooms in the lodge, a total of 12 guests. We are divided into two groups, each with our own Ranger who will take care of our every need from dawn to bed time. One group are 3 couples who came together from the Cape Town area, our group is composed of two couples from Port Elizabeth, and us.

Our Ranger is Freddie – and he’s a charmer. He joins us at lunch to explain that the game drive will start at 3:30 – right outside the front door of the lodge, and we should dress warmly – we won’t be back till after sunset. He also asks what drinks we’d prefer for ‘Sundowners’ – I opt for water. I’m just not that big a party kinda gal!

Our quick tour of the Lodge is, as the welcome made us expect, impressive. Our room has a wall of glass facing out onto the private reserve of the Founder – independent of but adjacent to the Shamwari Reserve. Using the concept of an infinity pool, the garden appears to continue smoothly to the watering hole for the animals of the Reserve about 150 meters away. But actually there’s a wall with electric fencing separating us from the animals – at least the animals who would be daunted by a wall. Fortunately, there are no predators in our private reserve – so while the baboons and monkeys might be an issue – the larger vegetarians are happy to stay on their side of the fence.

Onto our quick tour of the Lodge (it’s lovely), and then onto our ‘Safari’ vehicles to start our first game drive.

These are very upscale vehicles indeed. Modified Toyota Land Cruisers – there three rows of two leather seats, so each person has an unimpeded view to the side and because the seats are raised one above the other, to the front as well. There is room for a driver and a spotter – but Freddie will be serving as both for us.

Turns out that all vehicles in the park are exactly the same design, color and style. That makes it very easy to spot any unauthorized vehicles – and Freddie starts our tour by telling us that the Shamwari Reserve has had no poaching incidents in the past 15 years. They have 24/7 anti-poaching teams – and they are armed and serious. You do not touch our animals. Kruger Park, on the other hand has had over 300 incidents this year – and while the numbers are down from 2016, any Rino poaching is bad. Folks involved with the animals are working hard to educate people on the absolute uselessness of killing Rino’s for their horns – they are made of exactly the same material as our fingernails – but folks seems to love to ignore the truth. It’s sad.

He also warns us to keep our hands inside the vehicle – the shape of the vehicle is known to the animals and they won’t bother us, but if you break the shape by sticking an arm out – you will alarm the animals. He also warns us to not make loud noises – or to call to the animals. They will in fact turn away if we do that – so we’ll get the opposite of what we’d like as far as pictures go.

And we head off. For our first drive, Freddie decides to head North – into the wilder, less traveled part of the Park. There are tracks carved thru the bush that keep the vehicles off the slow growing vegetation, yet allow access to almost all parts of the huge park. The rules for the drivers are simple – stay out of sight of other vehicles, but stay in contact by radio in case someone spots something exciting. And stay on the cleared tracks. There are parts of the park where you can drive off road, but generally that’s done either to go around a wash-out, to allow another vehicle to pass, or to get closer to a Cat. All other game is to be observed from the already tracked ‘trails’ in order to avoid disturbing them – or killing vegetation.

As we drive along, I’m impressed by the beauty of the place – despite knowing that there is a fence all around us – the place feels wild and free, and a lot greener than I remember either the parks in Kenya or Botswana. There are fairly large trees growing in the sections where the Bushman’s River winds thru the park, and the open ‘grass lands’ seem to go on forever. And game abounds. Zebras with colts, Springbok’s, Kudu, etc are everywhere to be seen. Freddie spots an Elephant across a valley from us, and heads in that direction. He’s a solitary Bull – and he is huge. Mildly chomping away at the tops of Acacia Trees, he ambles along, at times ahead of us, at times in back. He takes a quick right and heads up a steep hill – and Freddie tries to follow on the trail. Suddenly the Elephant is in front of us – right in the road. We can’t pass him, and he’s headed straight into the sun. Lousy photos – cool view! Finally Freddie takes a chance and at a widening in the trail, drives carefully behind the Elephant to put us ahead of him with the sun at our back. We take lots of very good photos – and then the radio bursts into life – they have spotted a Cheetah. So we leave our elephant to head in that direction.

The Cheetah is just sitting on the ground behind a bush – casually watching us watching him. So beautiful, and so peaceful. We also spotted a sleeping lion – there is little as boring of course. Well satisfied with our game drive, we stop at the top of a look out for a much needed ‘pee’ break and Sundowners. What an amazing landscape.

There are about 10 Lodges in the Shamwari Game reserve, most much larger than ours – and we have driven past several. I think ours is just perfect – but it’s nice to know there are options if we want to return.

I’m thinking that what really matters is the quality of your guide and his (her) ability to position the vehicle so that picture taking opportunities are the best. That often means knowing not only where the animals are – but to guess where they will be going – and keeping track of where the sun is since we can’t shoot into it. And since you are supposed to stay on the tracks – being on the right track at the right position at the right moment is an art!

Back at the Lodge, the vehicle circles around to the Boma – a raised area with a fire lit to welcome us home. The staff is lined up to greet us – and hand us warm drinks.

Sigh – I’ve gone to heaven and it’s in South Africa.

Signing off to ready myself for ”The Founder’s Dinner” – The Soup Lady

Whales – By George – I found Whales!


We wake to another beautiful day in South Africa – blue sky, blue sea, cool breezes. I’m finding it a bit cold, and since today we are going out on a Whale Boat Excursion – I choose to over-dress. I’m wearing almost everything I brought that’s warm – and thinking I wish I had more!

Yesterday I forgot to mention the odd thing. When we drove back from JJ’s Grill, we were stopped just below the entrance to the Conrad Pezula. There was a swing barrier and a guard checking your reason for going past his post. The odd thing – I didn’t see a guard gate when we drove up in the afternoon – nor when we drove back down for dinner. It’s a pop-up guard gate – only visible at night. Different, right?

Back to today – We enjoy the elaborate buffet breakfast provided by the hotel, and then wind our way back down to Knysna. This time we look – nope, no guard gate. But onto our adventure. Whale Odyssey takes small boats out into the ocean to see the whales 4 times a day – and it leaves from Thesen Island, a paradise of lovely shops, cute restaurants, and adorable housing located across a causeway from the main town of Knysna. The folks at the hotel have recommended a restaurant for lunch – the Ile de Pain – I’m guessing French influence here? The sparkling cleanness of Thesen Island is very impressive – it’s a lovely enclave, without a guard gate. First one I’ve seen in all our travels. But based on the ‘odd’ thing last night, I’m guessing that a gate appears on the cross way after dark. And access to the ‘residential’ part of the island is barricaded by a huge metal gate and a swing bridge. So sure you can get on the island – but don’t get near our houses…

Our Whaling trip starts at the Odyssey Shop where we join up with our fellow whale boaters – there are 12 of us, and we are given life preservers and basic instructions – primarily follow the Captain’s Instructions.

Our Captain takes us to our boat – it’s tiny, but with super powerful outboard engines. We’ll find out soon enough how necessary those are. We take our seats in rows of 3 or 4 – and soon cast off. Because we’re old, slow, and polite – we’re last to board. So I’m sitting on the end seat on one row, Victor on the end seat of a different row. Turns out to be great seats though!

The Captain tells us that when he stops the boat – we are free to move around as we wish – and there are plenty of grab rails to make sure we don’t have a problem going over board. But when he says – SIT Down Now – we are to take the first available seat and SIT. That means he’s going to be doing something that will rock the boat – or he sees something that will rock the boat.

He makes sure we are all clear on this point, that no one is feeling ill from being on a boat – and with a “Yes Sir” – we are all ready to go.

Our trip takes us thru the Lagoon, and between the Heads and out to sea. The trip thru the Heads is truly neat. The Captain slows the boat to a crawl and watches the waves coming in thru the narrow neck. When he sees several smooth rollers in a row – he guns the engine and off we go. We shoot thru the neck and up and over the rollers. These waves are so large that often at the top, the engines are out of the water completely!

There is a Whale Spotter positioned high up on the Eastern Head – and he’s radioing instructions to the Captain. He manoeuvres the boat away from land and towards the East – moving towards the position described by the spotter. All of a sudden he says – this is too good to miss – and turns the boat sharply towards the South. We are quickly among a pod of around 200 Normal Dolphins – who think the arrival of a boat is great fun. They jump and splash and swim around and in front of us – around and around we go among the Dolphins – snapping away madly. The Captain says they are fishing, and rounding up a bait ball – but they still take time to play with us. You just know this will be the highlight – how often have you ever seen a pod of 200 dolphins at play?

The spotter radios down that he has seen a whale – and off we go among the huge waves towards the designated location. And when I say huge – I mean these are large waves. They tower over the boat – but since they aren’t breaking this far away from shore, we just roll. Up and over – or along a trough, the ride is actually fairly smooth given the size of the waves and boat. Lucky I guess – I spoke to other folks who took a boat out on Tuesday, the day we got blown off the Penguin tour, and the boat just made it out from the neck before the Captain announced – this is too rough, and they headed right back into the harbour.

We find the whales that the spotter had seen – and it’s underwhelming. I’m sorry – yes, they are huge – yes, there are 4 of them – but all we can see from our low vantage point 50 meters away is a broad back floating inches above the surface of the water. They aren’t even really blowing – I was expecting towering heights of water, but no – little puffs – and that’s it.

The first pair opt to dive – and they are gone. A second pair appear a bit further off – we move towards them, but like the first pair, they are busy doing their thing, and not really showing off for the tourists. Did someone forget to send the fax?

We piddle around in this area hoping for something more thrilling, and then head back. Whale ride over.

As I said – the Dolphins were definitely the highlight – and they were amazing. So I’m pleased – and I buy a sweatshirt to prove that I was here at 34 degrees South Latitude! Bonus, it’s warm and cozy. And as stated many times this trip – it’s been a lot cooler than I’d thought it would be (90 degree days dropping to 70 degree days… seriously confusing to this old body).

We eat lunch as planned at the Ile de Pain – and it’s wonderful. I opt for a flat bread with olives (they grow olives in this area) and it is delightful. A bit overly generous with the olive oil, but that’s been a theme here in South Africa – if you’ve got it in abundance – flaunt it! And apparently Olive Oil is on that list.

It’s back to the Palace for a Spa Treatment. I know – totally outrageously extravagant – but oh so relaxing. My husband has a hot stone massage which he rates as one of the two best he’s ever had. I had a lovely Swedish massage – and enjoy every minute. After the massages, they put us on massaging water beds for 15 minutes of ‘cool’ down. Totally extravagant and completely delightful.

Dinner is at the Anchorage – a tiny (6-7 tables, tops) sea food restaurant in downtown (can you call part of a 7 block city – downtown) that boast super high ratings and great reviews. And it totally deserves them both. Our waiter – Benjamin – is a riot. He clearly loves his job, his restaurant, and his food – and delights in making sure we pick the best options of the bunch. He and my husband get into a bit of a discussion on the subject of dessert – and not surprisingly, Benjamin wins. His suggestion of a milky chocolate concoction that is unique to the Anchorage is a clear winner. For the main course – I try the Prawns. Everyone has been raving about the Prawns here on the Whale Coast – and I’m finally convinced to give them a chance. It’s a bit like eating tiny lobsters – lots of finger work involved, and your reward is really just the sweet tail parts! Prawns, by the by, are what we would call Shrimp – but these are the giant size versions. Almost 5” long, they are about 50% head and legs – just 50% tail.

Victor gets Angel fish. This is surely not the same fish we call Angel Fish in the Caribbean – it’s a fairly large filet of a very delicious white fish. So good food and delightful service. Perfect.

Back to the Conrad Pezula and yes – the gate has re-appeared. Our fire is lit, and after enjoying the view, the stars, the absolutely giant full moon, we settle in for the night.

Tomorrow is a long driving day. I do look forward to those. (Not). But it can’t be helped. We must get to Port Elizabeth for the last few days of our trip along the Garden Route.

Signing off – The Soup Lady

Knysna is perfect! (What a relief!)


We wake in Mossel Bay to a perfect day. Cool and crisp, the sun is shining, the sky is blue – and the ocean is blue. And completely empty of whales.

This is getting a bit tough to take. Where are those whales? Folks who live and work around this area are constantly talking about seeing the whales – so the lack of whale is getting me a bit down. But I shall soldier on – the ocean has plenty of fish, and whales. Some are bound to turn up, Right?

We opt for the grocery store breakfast – bread and a bit of coffee. I’m not willing to pay $20 each for a buffet breakfast of more food than I could possibly eat. Makes no sense to me.

After our quick, and not very satisfying breakfast, we head over to the Dias Museum. It’s right next to the hotel – and houses something very special. A touch over 500 years ago, Bartolomeu Dias and 32 crew members sailed a Caravel from Lisbon to Africa on a voyage of discovery. 6 months after leaving Europe, while searching for fresh water, he made land literally 100 feet from where I slept last night. 500 years later, it was decided to build an exact replica of his ship, and sail it with a crew of 17 from Lisbon to Mossel Bay. After the 3 month voyage, the ship was towed by hand power up from the beach and into the museum. Once safely inside, the rear wall of the museum was constructed.

On the outside, the boat is an exact copy, right to the steering mechanism (no wheel – they used a rod tiller). And by today’s standards – it is small. In fact it is so small that it is hard to imagine 17 people working and sleeping and eating on board – let alone the original crew of 33! Inside some modifications had to be made – partly to make her sea-worthy by today’s standards – and partly to make her livable by today’s standards! They added a kitchen, 3 toilets, and bunk bed! The original crew slept on the decks, cooked on the decks, and well – I guess – did you know what on the decks. The cargo hold was filled with ballast to keep the boat steady in the water.

Definitely worth seeing! I was so impressed by the tiny size, and extremely durable construction. Naturally, when they made land, they did it in period clothing – so they have samples of that in the museum as well.

The rest of the Dias Museum complex is kinda silly – a shell museum, the original watering hole, and the Post Tree. Apparently, again 500 years ago, someone hung a message on the tree, and another captain from another boat months later retrieved the message. Hence the name, and the proper post box underneath for visitors to continue the tradition.

Have been there – seen the Museum, we motor on past beaches, houses, townships and informal settlements (their name for clusters of corrugated metal shacks that house folks not really ‘legal’ in South Africa. Our next stop is Knysna (don’t pronounce the K), and we are even going to stay 2 nights.

I’m really looking forward to this – my poor body isn’t built for one night stands – I need to get used to a bed before I can get a good night’s rest.

The drive into Knysna is actually ok – the town had a huge fire in June, so we were a bit worried – but apparently the damage was done to areas around the town, not the actually town. We stop into a hotel to ask directions – and are told that the Conrad Pezula is on the Eastern Headland.

Means nothing to me of course – but I follow the directions and find my self leaving Knysna and heading along the Knysna Lagoon towards the ocean. It turns out that Knysna occupies the far side of a lagoon – part of which is deep enough for proper boats, and the entrance to the lagoon is protected by two Headlands – East and West. These huge out-croppings of rock kept the harbour safe – but they are perilously close to each other. And directly facing South. The British navy named it one of the 3 most dangerous harbours in the world.

And justifiably it turns out. The waves outside the harbour mouth are huge – and if you attempt to enter as the tide is going in – you will be rushed in like no tomorrow. And if you are fool enough to try to bring in a sail boat when the tide is going out. Well – you aren’t going to make it.

In the days before motor – this must have be a entrance to challenge the brave and foolish. Even with the help of a motor – it’s not easy to navigate – you must still time your run in with the tides and waves.

Needless to say – all this nature makes for a spectacular setting for the Conrad Pezula. It’s perched high up on the Head – and the views to both the South and North are stunning. The hotel isn’t slum housing either. We drive up to the huge Portico entrance and are greeted by 3 bellman. One to take the luggage, One to take the car away (the only option is valet parking), and one to escort us in to registration. We are welcomed, offered our choice of refreshments – and assigned our room.

To get to our room, we must ride in a golf cart down and around to our 4-plex – 2 suites up, 2 suites down. Our suite is on the upper right, and features an entrance hall, a bar set-up with coffee machine, tea, etc, and then our room itself with it’s fireplace, sofa, bed and glass window wall open to the stunning view. And then of course there’s the bathroom – walk in glass shower, a toilet room, a double soaking tub, and two sinks. It’s a wow. I’m particularly impressed with the walk in closet (oh, I do like a walk in closet) – all wood, all black, and the doors are barn door style opening. Very very nice.

We love our lunch overlooking the pool, and opt to spend the afternoon relaxing in our room. We have dinner reservations at JJ’s Grill back in Knysna, so eventually we have to climb back up to the main lodge (we could have called for a golf cart – but that seemed overkill – it was only one stair case). Dinner is interesting – with a menu that features things like Ostrich, Kudu, and Crocodile. Victor opts for the Crocodile – looks a bit like chicken – I enjoy a nicely cooked T-Bone steak. The trim is different from what we do in Canada – more fat is left on during the cooking – resulting in a richer mouth feel, if also producing a lot of ‘steak’ you can’t eat.

Back to our palace with a view for bed – but first – can you please lite the fireplace? Of course – we’ll be right there. And they do! It’s lovely going to bed to a roaring fire. We will sleep well.

Signing off for yet another day – The Soup Lady

A Bad Day – a very bad day


We wake in the luxury of the glorious suite in Le Quartier Francaise – and eat a marvellous breakfast. So how could a day that started so well end so poorly. Bad communication would be my fast answer – but it was a slow process.

Our start is delayed by the hotel who has assigned one of the gardeners to wash our car. He’s in the middle of a slow, careful job when we arrive, ready to go. Nothing to do but wait till he is done – and of course give him a nice tip. He did do a wonderful job.

Our plan for today includes going back and checking on the Antique store we’d seen in Stellenbosch, my husband is looking for those things you hang on decanters that describe what is inside – and this looked like just the right place. No problems there. And I need to buy some socks – it’s been a lot cooler here in South Africa then I’d expected – and my light weight summer socks just aren’t up to keeping my feet warm. Again – no problem. So after breakfast and saying good-bye to the staff at the hotel, we head back to Stellenbosch.

It is a bit of a challenge finding a parking spot, but eventually we do – and go into the local department store. This is the first time I’ve seen mixed races shopping at the same store – and it was a surprise. But Stellenbosch is a much smaller town, and I’m guessing that there are no other department stores. In any case – it was great to see. We found my socks – in the men’s department – and then checked out the Antique store. No luck there.

Now is when things went a bit south. My husband, I thought, had told me no deadlines today except a 6:00 dinner reservation – and the distance from Stellenbosch to Hermanus wasn’t huge. So I figured – todays the day for finding whales. There’s is a curvy road that hugs the coastline – offering stellar views of False Bay and later the Indian Ocean – and lots of turn-off sections where you can stop to scan the water for whales. It’s labeled on all the maps as “The Whale Route”. Sounds promising, eh?

And all the marketing for Hermanus virtually guarantees whale sightings from June to November – particularly in October when the males arrive to mate with the females.

I’m so psyched to finally see whales! Free Whales, up close and personal. The photos on the web are amazing – and I’ve totally bought into the marketing. I shall see whales.

Meanwhile, unknown to me, my husband has spotted info on a winery that is just outside of Hermanus and offers some of the best wines in Africa. I suppose if I’d said – oh by the way – I’m expecting to stop at all the overlooks, we’d have been ok. If my husband had said – I want to go to this winery and I don’t want to arrive around 4:00, it’s too close to closing time – we’d have been ok.

But we’ve been married 47 years – and still manage to get it wrong.

I spend the drive thinking – this time my husband will take the overlook – he knows I want to see whales. At one point dozens of cars are pulled over – with folks obviously seeing something below them – and I totally expect him to stop. But no – he keeps on driving – eyes straight ahead, clearly hating the curving road and keen to get off it. Finally he pulls over at an overlook where there are no other cars – and naturally – not a whale in sight. “See – no whales”.

Back in the car… drive on. Looking at the map, I can see what seems to be a village called Pringle’s at the end of a bay that juts out into the Indian Ocean. That would be a nice place for lunch. We stop in – but the only shopping we see is a mini-mart – so it’s Pringles and an ice cream for lunch. Then back on the road. A bad food choice never makes my husband happy.

At this point, my husband has let me know that he really wants to go to this winery – so I sadly forget about seeing whales and we motor on. We pass a sign at a village called Betsy’s Bay that advertises whales and penguins – which I read out loud. “Do you want to stop?” At this point my husband’s body language, which he has refused over the years to admit he has, is saying “No – Don’t stop”. So I go, no – let’s get to the winery. About 30 minutes later he admits that it’s taken too long – that he doesn’t want to go to the winery too close to closing time – they won’t open the better bottles for him.

At this point, it’s too late to go back, so we continue forward. I haven’t seen whales or penguins – he won’t get to go to his winery. I try to convince him that we can go tomorrow on our way to Mossel Bay – but I’m not sure it’s working. The drive to Mossel Bay will be a long one, and a good winery tour can’t really be rushed.

The Whale Route eventually ends at Hermanus, and we arrive at our hotel a bit before 4:00 PM. It looks great on the outside – beautiful windows overlooking the bay – which in theory should be brimming with whales. Not a one in sight right now – but maybe later. We are taken to our room – which is outside of the main hotel, across a barren parking lot, past an iron grate, thru a narrow passage between high walls, and eventually up a flight of stairs.

We are in the ‘beggar’s quarters’! It’s been a hot day – maybe 30 (90 to those in the West), and our room is amazingly stuffy. There’s no A/C, a very basic bathroom, and the windows overlook the green metal roofs of the next houses. It’s not the worst place I’ve ever been – but it is certainly the worst place I’ve even been that cost what this one does! There’s a single fan under a table, no chair, a bed, and two end tables. No room for anything else. The decor are cheap whale posters that are faded with age, the curtains are dusty, and the window in the bathroom leads out into the hallway – perfect for strangers to get a listen to you doing your business.

To add insult to injury – there are folks fighting – loudly – in the room 2 doors down. I expect the doorman to say something, but he doesn’t. Just accepts his tip and leaves.

We take out our essentials – not much choice, and walk back down the stairs, thru the alley, past the gate, across the parking lot and into the hotel proper. It’s at least 20 degrees cooler in the hotel – heavy stone and proper fans makes a difference. I ask at the desk if there’s an option to change rooms – but I’m told no – the hotel is full.

We carry on the best we can – we take a walk along the ‘whale watching’ path (still no whales), get to the whale museum too late to go in, check out the shops (kinda yucky), and eventually find a big grocery store – Pick and Pay. This is the highlight of our walk – a grocery store.

Slowly we wander back to our room, freshen up a bit, and head out to dinner. Because we rushed so much driving the ‘Whale Route”, we are actually too early.

The restaurant – called “Harbour Rock” overlooks the Old Harbour of Hermanus – and it is famous for it’s sushi, it’s seafood and it’s whale watching. But no whales show up – and I foolishly as my husband reminds me – order Pork Belly.

It’s horrid.

But I’m not ashamed to complain – and let’s give the restaurant full credit, they immediately suggest that I take the fish and chips. Perfect choice – totally yummy.

Dinner done – we head back to our stuffy bedroom to settle down for the night. We leave the windows open to capture any fresh air that might wander in, although that means enjoying the sounds of the local teenagers showing off their cars up and down the Main Street. You can’t see them – but you can surely hear them. And that couple is still fighting two doors down. Wow – they have stamina.

We finally get to sleep – only to be awoken by gale force winds blowing madly thru Hermanus. The room is actually shaking! Victor gets up and closes the windows – leaving us with only the fresh air from the corridor to enjoy.

Finally – it’s time for breakfast and we discover why the hotel is full. There’s a huge school group of Primary Age (10-13) staying here. They are incredibly polite – but have been assigned all the better rooms. And of course gobbled down most of the food set out for breakfast. Teen age boys can really eat!

I’ve had it up to here! And let the resort know about it. The manager, who makes no attempt to make me feel better, explains that they have three kinds of rooms – Ocean front, Not ocean front and budget. Months and months ago, when my husband made the reservation, he picked Budget. And this is what we got. And when you asked for a room change, the front desk clerk didn’t realize that you’d be willing to pay more – and those rooms in the back with no AC and no ventilation are our budget rooms.

My comment – if you want to go that route – make it clear on Booking.com that you are getting no AC, no cross ventilation. Don’t expect guests to figure that out for themselves. She does admit that she’s been trying to convince the owners of the hotel that they need to be more careful. Nice – now it’s the owner’s fault!

I’m not happy – but I’m not sure if my major angst is related to the distinct lack of whales, the lack of communication between my husband and myself, or the ‘budget’ rooms in the hotel.

To make me feel better, my husband kindly agrees to drive me back to where we saw the sign for penguins and whales yesterday. So we make the attempt. But the wind has picked up to gale force overnight – our little car is getting blown all over the road – and some of the gusts threaten to take us into the gutters. Once we get to the penguin park, I attempt to walk out to the viewing platforms, but the wind is so strong, I can’t make forward progress. Victor gives up before I do – the blowing dust is hard on the skin and eyes. He takes shelter in a cafe near the car park, and when I give up on the penguins, I join him.

The cafe is housed on the site of a whaling factory in the early 1800’s – brought on two ships from Norway. Photographs of the workings of the factory, and of the folks man-handling the whales up onto the ‘plate’ in front of the factory are very cool.

I feel a bit better about the entire thing – and slightly modified, we head off on the long drive on N2 to Mossel Bay.

Despite N2 being a major highway – it’s one lane in either direction for almost all of it’s length in this section.

Driving the N2 turns out to be quite the adventure. Don’t forget that we are still getting those wind gusts – although they are easier to deal with further inland. As we drive, we learn a lot about the driving rules in South Africa, most of which aren’t in any book I’ve ever seen.

First off – there are shoulders on the sides of the road. In Canada – those shoulders are only for stopping, not for driving. But in SA – that’s not the case. IF you are overtaken by a faster car – and you manage to spot them trying to pass, the polite driver pulls over onto the shoulder. He doesn’t slow down, or heaven’s forbid – stop. Nope – he continues driving at his normal speed, but on the shoulder. We don’t quite get that rule – and the first few cars that pass us – pulling into the on-coming line and then pulling back into our lane – seem to try to clip us by pulling in as tightly as possible to our right front bumper. This is pretty scary – and we don’t know what it is we’re doing wrong. It is only when I notice how other cars that we attempt to pass are pulling over that we get the hint.

Following that rule – the overtaking cars just pass us – sometimes blinking their lights to say ‘thanks’. Whew – one lesson learned.

Another lesson – cross walks are few and far between, so if folks want to cross the road – they just run. So slow down when you see folks on the side of the road. They could well be in the middle of your lane by the time you get near.

And a third lesson – N2 is boring. You pass herd after herd of sheep, the occasional herd of cows, and ever more occasionally – horses. We did spot an Ostrich farm – but Victor was in the drive till we arrive mode – so no stopping. Once I even saw a single Oryx watching the traffic fly by and a herd of Springbok in amongst a herd of sheep. Interesting, eh?

We eventually pull into Mossel Bay – and find our hotel. When the doorman carrying our bags exits the main hotel and heads for the back section, both Victor and I involuntarily go – Oh NO! But we shouldn’t have worried. He’s taking us to a lovely room – with AC and windows on two sides – that overlooks the harbour of Mossel Bay. Lovely. And again – the huge bathroom. Boy folks in SA love huge bathrooms.

A bit of a wander before dinner lets us discover a place that employs folks from the Townships to make and paint traditional African Animals like Elephants and Giraffes made of layer upon layer of paper and glue. They are lovely – and they have a warthog – aka Pig! Of course I buy it. They also have hand made construction paintings on match boxes with magnets. The logic, explained to me by the very adorable artist is that folks always know where the refrigerator is when the power goes out. So putting the matches on the fridge just make sense. Making the boxes look nice – and they look very nice – was an after thought.

Well – I like it – and buy several to give as gifts to my family.

For dinner we go to Kaai4 – a braai (BBQ place to you) that is extremely casual, extremely fun, and right on the water. We relax, have a beer, and thank goodness that tomorrow isn’t a long driving day!

We do a slow wander back home, a quick look at the stars (I’d really like to see the Southern Cross), and it’s bed time.

Tomorrow we are off to Knysna- another of the towns on the Whale Route. And I’m foolishly hoping to see whales…Signing off – The Soup Lady