Monday, February 19, 2018

Must See In Amalfi Coast, Italy - Preparing For Our Mediterranean Cruise

The fifth port of our Mediterranean cruise is Amalfi Coast, Italy.   In parenthesis is Salerno as it the where the port is.  There are a so many interesting excursions to choose from at this destination that it makes it very hard to decide what we want to do.  How are we going to decide whether to explore Capri, Sorrento or Pompei or do we want to choose to enjoy the sights of the gorgeous Amalfi Coast?  How should we do that, by land or sea?  I will research every possibility and then decide.  Our choices range from seeing three destinations in 9 1/2 hours to getting transportation to one destination and exploring it at a leisurely pace.

Port 5 - Almalfi Coast

If we have time we would love to look around the port city.  There are museums, galleries, beaches and parks to explore here.  A highlight of a visit here would be going to Arechi Castle.  From this castle we can enjoy spectacular views of Amalfi Coast, Salerno and Gulf of Salerno.

Capri - The thing to see here is the Blue Grotto.  It is a sea cave where when the sunlight reflects on the water it creates brilliant blue illuminations.  It takes 5 minutes to get through the cave but half the adventure is getting to the grotto.  Another must see in Capri which is actually in Capri's second town, Anacapri is the chairlift ride up to Monte Solaro.  Once we are at the top we can enjoy views of the whole island of Capri, Bay of Naples, the Amalfi Coast and the mountains of Calabria.  We can choose to take the 40 minute hike down but will have to consider if we want to navigate uneven steps, loose rocks and few signs.

Sorrento - is a land of lemon and olive groves.  90 percent of their economy depends on tourism so almost everyone speaks English.  We will take Rick Steve's suggested leisurely walk around Sorrento if this is where we choose to go.  On this walk, we will pass Piazza Tasso, a lively town square where we can find transportation, expensive apartments and top cafes; Statue of Torquato Tasso, was a Renaissance poet and the square's namesake; Via Santa Maria della Pieta, is an old street that dates back centuries before Christ; Cathedral, where we will want to check out the interior doors on which scenes of the town are depicted;  Corso Italia & Old Town, is where we will want to find the bell tower with the ancient Roman columns at its base; Sorrento Men's Club, where we will look for the historical marker that describes this beautiful building; Via San Cesareo, is a pedestrian-only shopping street that leads back to Piazza Tasso, lots of lemon products are sold here; Statue of St. Anthony, is located back in the square and is Sorrento's town saint; Cliffside Square is a square that overlooks the harbor with views of Marina Piccola and the Bay of Naples and the Ancient Greek Gate (marks the boundary between Sorrento and Marina Grande) & Marina Grande, is where we can relax with a drink on the sundeck of Ristorante Delfino before boarding a bus back to the center of Piazza Tasso.

Pompeii - I think it would be so interesting  and fascinating to visit this city that was buried in 79 A.D. when Mt. Vesuvius erupted.  2,000 people died here and the city was abandoned until explorers rediscovered the site in 1748.  They found Pompeii preserved under the thick layers of dust and debris.  The buildings, artifacts and skeletons have revealed what life was like in the ancient world.    I think that it would be so cool to walk on the old streets of Pompeii and so much fun to learn about the people and how they lived many, many years ago.  We will take Rick Steve's self-guided tour here if we choose Pompeii as our destination to explore.
1.   Porta Marina - is where the original town gate was.  We will enter the city here.
2.   Pompeii's Streets - On these streets we will find stepping stones.  The Pompeiians would wash their streets every day by flooding them with water.  The steps were used by pedestrians so they wouldn't get their sandals wet.  When we see two rows of stones, we know we are on a two way street.  Three rows tells us we are on a major thoroughfare.
3.   Forum - stands at the intersection of the city's two main streets.  This plaza was where people would gather and business took place in the many two story buildings that surrounded the square.  There are pedestals here that held statues that are now in the museum in Naples that holds many of the treasures found in Pompeii.
4.   Basilica - was a law court.  We can see the original marble on the side walls of this building.  There are unfinished columns that show the method of construction used here many centuries ago.
5.   Via Abbondanza - is Pompeii's main street.  This was a pedestrian-only street lined with shops, bars and restaurants.  We will see large stones that were placed in the street to keep chariots from entering.
6.   Fish & Produce Market:  Plaster Casts of Victims -  We will be looking for frescoes on the wall here showing what the Pompeiians came to buy at the market.  Also here are plaster molds that were made by the archaeologists who found hollow spaces that were created by decomposed bodies.  By filling these spaces with plaster it recreated the final moments of the person caught in the disaster.
7.   Baths of the Forum -  The first room we enter here is the dressing room.  We will see pegs in the walls which were used to hang clothes.  In the next room, we will find a large tub that the Romans soaked in and on the side of the tub, a fountain that spouted water onto the hot floor creating steam.
8.   Fast-Food Joint - The Romans had tiny apartments so usually didn't cook for themselves so there were a lot of take out shops.  We can see marble counters here with large holes that held pots of food.
9.   House of the Tragic Poet - This is a typical style of Roman home.  At the entryway, I will be looking for the "Beware of Dog" sign which is a picture of a dog made of mosaic tiles.  I also want to see the dining room off the garden decorated with frescoes.
10. Aqueduct Arch - is where Pompeii's water supply was delivered.  The water tanks are hidden in the top.
11. House of the Faun - This is Pompeii's largest home.  We will be looking for the Dancing Faun bronze statue.  This statue is a replica of the original that is in the museum in Naples.
12. Original Lead Pipes - These 2,000 year old pipes supplied water to the town.  One pipe ran water to the baths, one to private homes and one to the public water fountains.  If there was a water shortage, the water was shut off to the baths, then to the homes.  The last to be shut down was to the public water fountains which the residents would use for drinking and cooking.
13. House of the Vettii - is the best preserved home but it has been blocked off for years.  There is a small chance that it could be open and we will be able to see large money boxes anchored to the floor, bronze cooking pots in the kitchen and many other well preserved household goods and decor.
14. Bakery and Mill - Every town had a bakery like this.  Here we will see a brick oven that looks just like a pizza oven and flour grinders.   The flour grinders were stone towers that grain was poured into.  Donkeys or slaves would push the wooded bars that turned the stones and ground the grain into flour.
15. Brothel - We will find beds and pillows made of stone here.
16. Temple of Isis - This small but almost intact temple was one of the first buildings discovered during the excavation in 1764.
17. Theater - This theater sat 5,000 people.  We can see part of the cheap seat section, the box seats reserved for guests of honor and the gladiator barracks.
18. Amphitheater - From the top of this amphitheater we can see Vesuvius in the background.

Amalfi Coast and Town of Amalfi - If we choose this excursion we have a couple of options of transportation to board to enjoy the coastline.  Most options will give us a chance to wander the narrow streets of the quaint town of Amalfi before heading back to our cruise ship.

I am beginning to think that our once in a lifetime Mediterranean cruise might be the first of two trips!  There is too much we want to see and do to do it all in one trip and it is really hard to choose between all these amazing adventures.  Any suggestions?  We can really use some help!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Ten Things I Don't Like About Vacations

First of all, I love vacation!  Who doesn't?  But there are some things that go along with planning, preparing, etc. of the trip that I just don't like.  Is it just me or can you relate to some of these complaints I have?

1.  Planning an itinerary.  Especially for a vacation like our trip of a lifetime to Europe.  I'm pretty  sure that we will never visit these places again.   I get excited about the trip when I'm planning it and that's fun but I also feel worried that I haven't included a great sight to see or food to eat.   To make sure we have covered all our bases in the planning process, first we talk to everyone and anyone who has ever been to the part of the world we are traveling to.   We consider and look into any suggestions of sights we must see.  Then we consult travel books, especially the travel guides recommended by friends and family.  And then the internet has lots of information that needs to be looked at..  Hopefully, after all this, we have come up with the perfect itinerary!

2.  Booking a hotel without seeing it.  Especially when we are booking with fellow travelers and they are depending on us to find somewhere to stay.  We have crossed a couple of hotel chains off our list entirely but sometimes we get disappointed by the chains we have been happy with.   Most times we do not know what we will get until we get there.  If we know someone who has stayed where we are going and they have no complaints we will stay were they did but that rarely happens.  We trusted Rick Steves, whose travel guide we are using to plan our European vacation, when we picked our hotel in Barcelona.  My sister, Sandie, and friend, Susan, planned their trips with the help of his books and say that they were not disappointed.   I feel pretty confident about this hotel selection.  Hopefully it is one that I can recommend to anyone traveling to Spain.

3.  Waiting for the travel date to arrive.  I get so anxious to put the last of my dresses into my suitcase and get to the airport.  The last couple of days before a vacation just drag by.  It used to be worse, though, when I was working.  Retirement days do go a lot faster than work days!

4.  Packing.  Especially if I'm packing for a warm weather trip in the middle of winter.  First of all I have to hunt down the summer clothes.  Secondly, I have to try everything on to make sure things still fit after all the eating festivities of winter.  Then to decide what the weather might be like at the destination of our trip.  While I am checking the weather, I often see that it got warmer where we are going so I throw an extra pair of shorts into the suitcase.  But wait, there's a cold front coming in, throw in a pair of jeans and take out the shorts!  It goes on and on like that the last week of vacation because I don't like to over pack!   I should just solve this problem by buying a bigger suitcase and packing everything.

5.  Leaving the house feeling like we forgot something.  I run the checklist I have in my head off to Soko while we are still in the driveway.  What do we need to make sure we haven't forgotten?  Passports - check, wallet - check, phones - check.  Did we shut off the...  One time, when we were going on a road trip with the kids.   I was going over the list in my head as Soko was pulling out of the driveway.  We got down the block when I started to  panic thinking that I might have left the iron on.  I needed to go back to the house to check.  With the kids moaning in the back seat, Soko headed back.  Thank goodness, because the iron was on!

6.  Getting to the airport on time.  We spend half the day at the airport because I add two hours to our drive to the airport in case of traffic.  Then I want to be there 2 1/2 hours early and add at least another hour just in case there is a problem and delay checking in.  So usually we are at the airport about 4 hours before the flight is due to take off.  The hard part is convincing Soko that we need to leave for the airport at the crack of dawn for a flight leaving late afternoon!

7.  Finding our way around an airport.  I don't know how many times we have run around the airport trying to get to a connecting flight.   The gate is always a mile away and our first flight is always late taking off.  While on flight one, I study the last page of the In Flight Magazine where the map of the gates are and formulate a plan of how to get to the next flight.  As soon as we exit the plane, I am off and running.  Only when we are sitting in front of the connecting flight gate can I breathe again!

8.  The last day of vacation.  No matter how much I tell myself that I am still on vacation and that I have a full day left, I always have it in the back of my mind that it is the last day.  I don't like the feeling I get knowing it is the last day.  I am never ready for a vacation to end.

9.  Unpacking.   I'm usually too tired to unpack the first day back from vacation and sometimes can't get to all of it by the second day and then something comes up the third day and I am still looking at the unpacked suitcases.   And where am I going to put all the souvenirs?!  Why did I buy so much?!  I remember why once I start unpacking and looking at all the things I brought back.   Because these knick knacks are wonderful and it reminds me of the great time we had!

10. Waiting for the next vacation!

Monday, February 5, 2018

Cruising: A Budget Friendly Vacation

I can't believe we have been retired for 2 1/2 years now.  I have to say that we are enjoying every minute of it.  One reason we are so happy with our new life is that our dream of traveling, when we retired, is really coming true.   Since retiring, we have made several quick road trips that brought us to Washington, DC, Charleston, SC, Columbia, SC,  Gatlinburg, TN and Cherokee, NC.  We enjoyed a vacation in Cancun, Mexico, our first all-inclusive ever.  We spent a week in Vegas with family and friends and just got back from our second cruise.  I thank my kids for gifting a couple of these trips to us and for my sister for inviting us to Gatlinburg to join her and her husband when she was offered a free hotel stay there.  We did treat ourselves to the two cruises though.  Traveling is wonderful but does cost money and being retired means not having the income we used to have.  But we have found that we can enjoy a wonderful vacation on our tighter budget by cruising.

We definitely had to tweak our budget since we retired but when we did, we made sure that we were budgeting enough for vacations.  For a look at how we've been budgeting you can read our two previous posts:  Keeping Track Of Every Penny and How We Save On Groceries To Have More For Vacations.

So how do we make cruising work for us. 

1.  When we cruise for the sake of taking a very nice vacation, we worry less about where the cruise will take us and more about the best deal.
The cruise we just came back from took us to Cozumel, Mexico and Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands.  We have been to both of  these destinations before.  We cruised to both places on our very first cruise 15 years ago.  But we found a great deal on Carnival.  The cruise cost $279.00 per person with $50 onboard credit per room.  If you have not cruised before keep in mind that there are Cruise Government Taxes and Fees, $186.50 for this cruise, and mandatory gratuities charge which we prepaid when we booked our cruise and that added another $129.50 to the price of the cruise.

2.  We are not fussy about the cruise line we choose.   
We will go with the line that is offering the biggest bang for the buck.  We look at the deals of all the cruise lines.  We have only vacationed with two cruise lines so far, Royal Caribbean and Carnival and have been very happy with both.  

3.  We cruise out of the ports we can drive to.  
We save a ton of money on not having to fly to a port.  Now that we are snowbirds and live half the year in Florida, we have 3 ports all within a 2 hour drive and Miami is 4 hours from us.  We do need to park our car for the duration of the cruise.  It cost us $75 to park for 5 days at the Tampa port.

4.  We skip the expensive excursions and get to the beach on our own.
We went to the beach in both Cozumel and Grand Cayman.  Our friends recommended that we spend the day at Mr. Sancho's Beach Club if we wanted to do the beach in Cozumel.  It cost us $40.00 round trip total by taxi to get there and we spent another $10.00 for drinks.   We paid $20.00 total round trip to get to Seven Mile Beach in Grand Cayman and $10.00 to rent two lounge chairs at Public Beach.  There was no charge to get onto either beach.  Compare that to the $69.99 per person excursion that gets you transportation to the beach and a chair at a beach in Grand Cayman.

5.  We drink the water, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, lemonade and iced tea (and juice and milk during breakfast hours) and not purchase the beverage packages.
We had a few beers from a machine where you dispensed your own.  Soko loved it!  It cost slightly less than if we got a beer from the bar.  After using the onboard credit we had, we were left with a bill of $38.00 at the end of the trip for drinks (and bingo!).  Compare that to $56.95 +15% gratuity per day per person for the beverage package.

When all was said and done, we spent a grand total of $1,057.00 for a really nice vacation.  Where can you go and spend only $212.00 per day and get a room (a really tiny room) 3 meals a day (and a midnight snack), 2-3 comedy shows a night (the comedians, Spike Davis and Kelly Terranova, were hilarious) live music (in different venues around the ship) and a stage show every night (I didn't want the Epic Rock show to end.  It was amazing!)   

Cruising gives us a chance to try new food like this eggs benedict with salmon instead of ham.  Yum!

Cruising definitely works for us as far as staying within our vacation budget and we enjoy all they have to offer!

Monday, January 29, 2018

Our Top 12 Must-See National Parks

We have planned for years to see as many national parks as we could once we retired.  The we not only includes Soko, but also my sister (with me in the picture above) and her husband John (Mini).  We have been to three and they turned out to be our most loved vacations.  Some of the most beautiful sites we have ever seen have been in these parks.  We enjoy everything about spending the day out in nature from the hiking to stopping to appreciate a gorgeous wildflower.  But there are 59 national parks.  (Number 59 - Pinnacles National Park is not on some older lists.)  That means we have 56 parks left to visit.  Although we really would like to get to all the remaining parks, we know that might be impossible, so we had to get get this number down to something more doable.   After hours of researching, we have come up with this list of  our 12 must-see national parks.

We came up with our top 12 by finding lists of best national parks around the web and by talking to friends and family.  I went to National Geographic and Fodor's Travel Guide and found their top 10 lists.  I was sure those sites would have the very best of the parks on their lists.  Travel + Leisure's website featured an article about a couple who saw all 59 parks in 52 weeks.  That couple came up with a list of parks they felt "every traveler should be sure to see."  I used their list.  I went to a website called Ranker that polled travelers, hikers, campers and sightseers to create a most beautiful park list.  It made sense to check out their list.  After looking at all these lists and more and "interviewing" family and friends, I thought we would have a list of 10 must-see national parks but couldn't get it to less than 12. 

The Top 10 parks, according to most of the websites, are listed below in order of popularity.   We have been to three of them.  This left us with the first seven entries on our must-see list.  After talking to family and friends we had four more to add to the list.  And finally, we added the one park I  always dreamed of seeing and that is how we got our Top 12 Must-See National Parks!  

1.  Yosemite National Park - California - (1)  The majority of the sites I looked at had Yosemite at the top of their lists of best parks.  Tunnel View is the "not to be missed" sight to see here.  Once we get near this vista, we simply park our car and walk over.  From here we can see Bridalveil Fall and the granite cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome.  

2.  Grand Canyon National Park - Arizona - This is one of the three parks we have been to.  It didn't surprise me to see the Grand Canyon on most of the lists and close to the top of those lists.  The pictures I had seen of this park didn't come close to the awesomeness of seeing the Grand Canyon in person.  It was truly breathtaking!  

3.  Grand Teton National Park - Wyoming - (2) is another very popular park.  My (very soon to be) daughter-in-law, Chrissy (right) and her friend, Sarah decided to take a Midwest trip "to do some hiking, see beautiful views, try new things and meet new people."  With this in mind, they landed up visiting two of America's best national parks.  The first was Grand Teton.  One highlight of Grand Teton for them was Inspiration Point in the picture below.  The elevation here is 7,200 feet Chrissy told me.  We will pose for a picture, when we get to this Point, to send to Chrissy, but I'm sure we will be right side up!  

4.  Acadia National Park - Maine - This is the second of the three national parks we have been to.  Every summer, for many years, we took the kids camping along with 5-7 other families.  We still talk about how our Maine trip was one of the best.  We spent almost the entire vacation hiking in Acadia.  The kids loved it.  I think my favorite day of this trip was when we bought some steamed lobsters and had a picnic in the park.  This park is gorgeous and the views are spectacular.  I was not surprised to see Acadia on so many lists.

5.  Glacier National Park - Montana - (3)  When I was compiling this list, I asked for suggestions from our friends, Penny and Bill.  They have been to more parks than anyone else we know, a total of 44 so far.   One of the big reasons they go to the parks is to get a glimpse of the wildlife.  Glacier National Park is the perfect park to go for that reason as they have a diverse collection of animals ranging from mountain goats to grizzly bears.  Penny and Bill told us that they visited the park in the fall when the wildlife is most active.   They saw not only the mountain goats and grizzly bears, but also moose, wolf and elk.  I hope we are that lucky when we visit although I may just be as happy not to bump into a grizzly!   

6.  Rocky Mountain National Park - Colorado - (4)  I have wanted to visit this park ever since I first heard the song Rocky Mountain High by John Denver.  (Yes, I am that old!)  He made it sound heavenly!  My daughter, Lisa, has been there and she tells me the thing I have to do there is to take a ride on the 48 mile Trail Ridge Road.   The highest elevation on this road is over 12,000 feet!  On the way up there, we can enjoy thrilling views, wildlife sightings and spectacular alpine wildflower exhibitions.

7.  Olympic National Park - Washington - (5)  The attractiveness of this park is it's diversity.  In it's million acres, you can find glacier-capped mountains, rain forests and over 70 miles of coastline.  I would love to spend the day here strolling the shores of Lake Crescent and walking along Rialto Beach watching the waves crashing onto offshore islands and, if we are lucky, spotting an eagle flying overhead. 

8.  Yellowstone National Park - Wyoming, Montana, Idaho - (6)  This was the second park Chrissy and Sarah visited on their Midwest adventure.  Chrissy, shared her pictures of one of the best known parks in America with the best known geyser anywhere, Old Faithful.   They found another geyser on one of their hikes through Yellowstone, picture 2.  Chrissy attached a warning here:  "Caution: Do not touch - extremely hot.  Do not breathe in - extremely smelly."  To get to the beautiful waterfall behind Chrissy, in her third picture, they hiked Uncle Tom's Trail which she told me included 300 stairs down to the falls.  "But also meant 300 stairs back up!"

9.  Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Tennessee, North Carolina - We first visited this park as part of a family road trip that brought us from our home in New York, through Pennysylvania and West Virginia, to Indiana to have lunch before we made our way to Dayton, Ohio for a bowling tournament that me and daughter, Lisa were competing in.  From there we were meeting our friends in South Carolina for our annual camping trip.  So we drove from Ohio to Kentucky and into Tennessee then through the Great Smoky Mountains to North Carolina and into South Carolina.  This road trip currently holds the record as being our longest.  Our second visit to this picturesque park was with my sister Sandie and her husband, Mini.  We spent a long weekend hiking a couple of the many trails throughout the park.  You can read more about the fun we had on that trip here.

10.  Zion National Park - Utah - (7)  The pictures I have seen of Zion National Park and especially the ones of the Emerald Pools makes me so excited about planning a visit here.  There are lots of hiking trails at the Emerald Pools, ranging from easy to strenuous, to choose from and they all lead to beautiful waterfalls.  Also, the massive sandstone cliffs reaching up to sky will definitely be an amazing sight to see I'm sure.

The next four parks were highly recommended by family and friends which is the reason why they made our list.  I did see them listed on the lists of some of the websites but not as often as the ten above.   

Bryce Canyon National Park - Utah - (8) - My son, Joe and daughter-in-law Nicole recommended we visit their favorite national park of the ten they have been to.  They visited the park in early March so couldn't hike the snow covered trails but enjoyed how the snow added to gorgeousness of the views.  There were many scenic outlooks for them to pull into as they drove around the park.   We will make sure to be on the lookout for Thor's Hammer (picture 1) and will also make sure we drive to the south end of the road to Rainbow Point as the view there was amazing according to Joe and Nicole.  I will definitely be looking for Natural Bridge, picture 3.  Now that's something you don't see everyday!

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks - California - (9) - are jointly listed by the National Park Service because they actually are connected and made our list because it is the favorite of our friends, Penny and Bill.  If Sequoia & Kings Canyon are their favorite of the 44 parks they have visited then we can't miss this one.  Bill loved how the giant sequoias made Penny look like "she was about the size of a mosquito" next to them.  Another highlight in these parks for them were the waterfalls.  We were told we can't miss Roaring River Falls, Mist Falls and Grizzly Falls in Kings Canyon.  Another plus that put these parks on the top of their list was that there are about 1/10th the amount of sightseers here than what some of the other parks have.  

Arches National Park - Utah - (10) and Canyonlands are also favorites of Penny and Bill and made our list once they told us the two parks are only 26 miles apart.  Arches is appropriately named as there are 2,000 natural sandstone arches throughout the park.  One we will be on the lookout for is the world famous (at least that's what I read but I have never heard of it) Delicate Arch.  Also, there is a rock formation named Balanced Rock which is a massive rock resting on a narrow pillar.  It looks amazing in the picture I saw.  I am really looking forward to seeing it one day.

Canyonlands National Park - Utah - (11) is a park in the heart of southeast Utah's high desert.  Here we will enjoy views of colorful canyons from the many overlooks we can stop at as we tour the park in our car on a paved road.  We also have our choice of hiking trails of varying length to choose from to explore more of the park.

And, last but not least...  

Redwood National Park - California - (12) - I can't believe that this park wasn't on any list I found.  It made our list because every June, for 16 years, I sang the song, This Land Is Your Land along with other teachers and about 60 four and five year olds on graduation day.  As I clapped and sang "from the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters" along with the group I would get a beautiful vision of gorgeous, giant trees and imagined that I would see them one day.   Hopefully that one day will be here very soon!

That's our National Park bucket list.  Which one will end up being our favorite?  We would love to hear about yours!

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Being Prepared For An Emergency During A Road Trip

This is a sponsored post.  All opinions are my own.

We have dreamed for years about road tripping around this great country of ours once we retired.  We finally did retire two years ago and are living our dream.  We have been on a number of road trips but haven't gotten a chance to venture too far from our home in North Carolina and snowbird home in Florida.  This year will be a very busy year for us as our first grandchild is due in April and our youngest is getting married in September.   These glorious events will keep us close to home but we are looking forward to road trips we will be taking next year.

We always prepare our car before we hit the road and you can read about how we do that in our recent post.  But a story we heard a couple of months ago about an elderly couple getting stranded in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument when their rental stalled made us think beyond just getting our car ready.

Most of our road trips will revolve around seeing as many National Parks as possible.  We have been to a few and have enjoyed each of them and look forward to enjoying a few more.  The story of this Houston couple made us think about the possibility of getting stranded in one of these parks.  We know that help is not a cell phone call away in places where there is no cell tower around for miles.  We would have only ourselves to help us out of an emergency situation.  We will have more success helping ourselves if we are prepared.

We decided that we need to arm ourselves with an emergency kit to keep in the car before we hit the road.  The couple that I mentioned above were rescued 6 days after they became stranded but were severely dehydrated.  We were thinking of what we would need to survive for a couple of days.  We have come up with this list.

Essentials- Store these items in a backpack and leave in car.
Water.  Gallons, bottles or small boxes.
Non-perishable food items.  Also, granola bars and power bars.
Blankets and ponchos

Extra Necessities - Store these items in a bin and leave in car.
First Aid kit - containing different kinds of bandages, sterile wipes, scissors, tweezers, gauze and instant cold pack.
Road flares.
Jumper cables.
Flat tire kit - including temporary tire sealant.

I think that once we secure these supplies we will be ready for any emergency on the road.  I will look on the My Patriot Supply website for everything I need.  They not only have survival supplies you would need to have on the road but My Patriot Supply has supplies for many other emergency situations.

Also, a good idea is to leave your, detailed as possible, itinerary with a loved one.  Check in on this person with a quick text from time to time when you have reception.  They will be the ones who will alert authorities if they have not heard from you after a period of time.

We were very fortunate that when we got a flat tire in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere and in the middle of winter, that it happened in front of the only house for miles around.  A very nice gentleman, still dressed in his postal uniform, came out of his house with a flashlight and helped Soko put on the spare.  So we know firsthand that things can happen and we need to be prepared when they do.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Must See In Rome, Italy - Preparing For Our Mediterranean Cruise

Visiting Rome, Italy has the number one spot on our bucket list and it's the reason why we started to think about going on this Mediterranean cruise.  I still can't believe that we have our reservations made and we will be seeing this amazing city in a few short months.  It is truly a dream come true.  Trying to see Rome in the small amount of time we will have there is going to be challenging though.   Our cruise ship is arriving in Civitavecchia, Italy at 7:00 am and leaving at 7:00 pm.  The port is miles from Rome so the first thing we had to figure out was how to get to Rome the quickest and easiest way possible.   We decided to book the Train Transfer excursion.  A shuttle bus will take us from our cruise ship to the train station where we will board a vintage train to Rome.  There will be an escort on the train who will provide us with a map of Rome and who will answer any questions we might have.  The train ride will take 50 minutes and will bring us to San Pietro Station which is a 10-15 walk from the Vatican.  We will then have 6 hours to explore on our own before taking the train back to the port.

Port 4 - Civitavecchia (Rome) Italy

The main reason for us wanting to go to Rome so badly is to visit Vatican City to see the greatest, most important Catholic Church in the world, St. Peter's Basilica with Michelangelo's Pieta and for a chance to see Michelangelo's ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.  If we think we have enough time for anything else, we would like to see the Colosseum, just the outside.   I am pretty sure we won't have time to venture inside.  We would also like to see Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and the Pantheon but we would not be disappointed if we didn't make it to these sites.  It would give us an excuse to come back!

Our plan at the moment is to buy tickets in advance to get into the Vatican museums.  If we can get them for 12:30 pm it will give us 3 hours to explore the museums and 3 hours to get to the other sites.
This is what our schedule might look like:
10:00 - Get to San Pietro Station.  Look for Bus 64 here to take us to Piazza Venezia stop.   30 minute bus ride and 12 minute walk.  
10:45 - Arrive at Colosseum - This 2000 year old building is one of those sites you dream about seeing in your lifetime.  It was a venue that saw many gladiator contests among other things.  Only 1/3 of the building remains having been destroyed by earthquakes and builders taking stones from here to build other buildings.  The exterior of the Colosseum is not impressive or beautiful as it was built by engineers and not artists.   If you go inside and look down into the arena, you will see the underground passages where prisoners and animals were held.  There are private tours you can book to avoid lines here but I couldn't find any information about getting online tickets in advance from the Colosseum itself.
11:15 - Walk 20 minutes to Trevi Fountain.  
11:35 - Arrive at Trevi Fountain - I will be looking for Neptune in his shell-shaped chariot and Triton blowing his conch shell.  I won't forget to bring a coin to throw over my shoulder to ensure that I get back to Rome one day.
Now it's time to decide if we have any time to do the 8 minute walk to get to the...
Spanish Steps - Many people have spent time hanging out on these steps, which are over 300 year old steps, including British poet John Keats.  I will be looking for the Sinking Boat Fountain at the bottom of these steps.  Then if we somehow have saved time somewhere we will walk 14 minutes to the...
Pantheon - This Roman temple was dedicated to all gods and is what the word pantheon means.  It is now a Christian church.  It was originally built in 27 B.C. but because of a few fires had to be rebuilt  around A.D. 120.  It is a great example of architecture of the Roman Empire.

I would like to have at least 1 hour to get to Vatican City from this area.  The trip back should take 30 - 45 minutes by Bus 64.

Vatican City

St. Peter's Basilica - is free to enter but costs 5 euro if you want to climb the stairs or 7 euro if you take the elevator up to the top of the dome.  We are not packing shorts and making sure all my tops cover my shoulders because of the dress code of this and most of the other churches we want to get in to explore.  We will follow Rick Steve's walking tour here.
Holy Door - is one of five doors that lead into the church.  The Holy Door is the one on the far right.  This door is only opened during Holy Years and special Jubilee years and on Christmas Eve every 25 years.   The pope will knock three times on the door with a silver hammer to open it.
Charlemagne's Coronation Site - On the floor in front of the central doorway is a round maroon colored stone.  This is the spot where Charlemagne was crowned Emperor.
St Andrew Statue and View of Dome - Near the altar, on the left hand side, is the statue of St. Andrew holding an X-shaped cross.  If you stand in front of it and look up you will find the dome 448 feet above you.  I will be looking above the windows to find Jesus, Mary, saints and angels and further up God.  He is so far up that he will look like a blur of blue and red.
St. Peter Statue - To the right of St. Andrew we will find St. Peter.  There will be a line of people waiting to kiss the big right toe of this statue as a sign of respect.  I will take the suggestion of Rick Steves and kiss my fingers, then touch the toe!
Pope John XXIII - is laid out to rest in a lighted glass tomb in the Basilica.  Some say that it is a sign of a miracle that his body was completely intact after being buried for 38 years.   Because of the amazing condition of the body, the authorities decided to put it in the church for all to enjoy.  Pope John XXIII himself performed a miracle when he cured an Italian nun who had a stomach tumor.
Main Altar - Look for the 7 story bronze canopy and you will find the main altar.  Only the pope can say Mass here, when he is in town.
BERNINI - Dove Window and Throne of St. Peter - In back of the main altar is a smaller front alter that is used for everyday services.  Here we will be looking for Bernini's dove window.  The six foot dove is used as the symbol for the Holy Spirit.  Underneath the dove is the Throne of St. Peter.  It is an oak chair that was built in medieval times for a king.  Bernini encased it in bronze and it is now a symbol of papal authority.
St. Peter's Crucifixion Site - To the left of the main altar we will look for the exact spot (according to tradition) of St. Peter's crucifixion.  When he was told he was going to be crucified like his Lord was he asked to be hung upside down because he was not worthy to be treated the same as Jesus.
RAPHAEL - Mosaic Copy of The Transfiguration is something I will be looking for near St. Andrew's statue.  The actual painting is in the Vatican museum.  Every painting in the Basilica are mosaic copies because the smoke and humidity would damage real paintings.
MICHELANGELO - Pieta is the reason why we will be in this Basilica.  To be this close to the actual pieta after knowing about it all our lives and seeing pictures of it will be more than amazing.  Seeing a mom holding her lifeless son in her arms is just too sad but it is one of the most famous works of art in the world and we can't wait to see it.  I think seeing this piece will be very emotional.
Tomb of St. Pope John Paul II is located under a painting of St. Sebastian, his favorite saint.  This Polish pope was the first non-Italian pope in four centuries. 
The Treasury Museum - is located near the altar and contains the tomb of Sixtus IV along with church ornaments, statues and various objects which are mostly gifts from kings and princes.
Blessed Sacrament Chapel - is located on the right-hand side of the church and is a peaceful place to meditate and pray. 
After you have looked around the church you can go down to the crypt where the tombs of popes and memorial chapels are.  You can also go up to the dome (there is a charge for this) to see the one of the best views in Rome.  Both areas are claustrophobic so Soko can go himself if he wants.

Vatican Museums - is a four mile complex of museums.  It takes 2 hours for a quick look around or 3 to 4 hours, if you have time, to be able to enjoy the museums more.  It is impossible to take it all in on one visit.  We will arm ourselves with a map of the museums and highlight where the must-sees on this list are.  After researching on the web, looking at travel guides and asking friends who have visited Vatican City and the museums, I have come up with this Top 5 list.
Belvedere Courtyard - is where we will find two statues that are not to be missed.  The Apollo Belvedere is a large white marble sculpture showing Apollo just after he has shot an arrow.  There are different ideas about what he has just shot at.  And Laocoon which is a marble sculpture showing Laocoon and his sons struggling with and getting overpowered by a serpent.  There are a couple of stories about who sent the serpent to kill the three and why.
Spiral Staircase - We can't miss finding this because it will be the first thing we see when we walk into the museum but I want to make sure we take it all in and take lots of pictures as it is the one of the most photographed staircases in the world.  Good to know: I read that we should not go through the doors at the bottom of this staircase as it will lead us out of museum and we will not be able to get back in. 
Raphael Rooms - are four rooms that are famous for their frescoes by Michelangelo and Raphael.  We will be on the lookout for one in particular, School of Athens, which was done by Raphael and his assistants.  This fresco gives us a preview of St. Peter's, which was under construction.  Raphael includes great thinkers, Aristotle and Plato and great painters, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo in this remarkable painting.
Sistine Chapel - is the main reason for everyone being in these museums.  I know it is for us anyway.  I will definitely have my map of the ceiling so I can understand what is going on up there.  Basically it is the story of creation with the central panel being the Creation of Adam.  This painting is what I think of when I dream of seeing the Sistine Chapel.  Especially where God's strong hand is reaching out to Adam's limp hand with their fingers almost touching.  After the ceiling, we will look for Michaelangelo's powerful Last Judgment behind the altar, with God separating the good from the evil.  If we are hurrying to get to St. Peter's Basilica  we will take the shortcut exit at the far-right corner of the chapel but if we have time we will go into the...
Pinacoteca Vaticana - where we will find Raphael's last work, Transfiguration.  If we went into St. Peter's first we would have seen the mosaic replica of this stunning painting.  After admiring this painting, we will find the souvenir shop to exit the museum.

Our itinerary looks a bit ambitious for a 6 hour day but we will try our best.  We will get a better idea of timing when we get there.  Only 8 more months until we are boarding the ship in Barcelona!

Monday, December 25, 2017

It's Christmastime In The City - Week 2

It was time to head west after checking out Wilmington, NC, Charleston, SC and Myrtle Beach, SC. on our quest to find "Christmastime in the city."  The first week of our adventure was so much fun and we were excited about Week 2.

We were offered a free room at Harrah's Cherokee in Cherokee, NC.  We take these offers even though we know it will cost us something after we visit their casino.  It definitely costs us less than if we had to pay for the room though.  We were frequent guests for many years of the Harrah's chain when my mom was around and soon got these offers.  Now that Mom has passed we don't go that often but we will take advantage of the free room as long as they keep offering them to us.  This gorgeous hotel is in a perfect location to enable us to get to Tennessee which is someplace I knew we could find some of the best holiday displays.  It takes just a little more than one hour over the Great Smoky Mountains to get there from Cherokee.

Week 2

We have been to Cherokee, NC and know that it is a touristy area, similar to Gatlinburg, TN, but on a much smaller scale.  Both cities have many shops that sell beautiful Native American created goods, the ice cream parlors and the zip line adventures.  I wasn't sure what to expect in Cherokee but was hoping for the town tree.  The city did have a few nice light displays but I couldn't find the town tree.  To tell you the truth we were so impressed with and really enjoyed the hotel's holiday displays that I decided to highlight the hotel.  (Although Cherokee didn't have enough to highlight their city, they did have my favorite light display!)

Harrah's Cherokee, NC

Harrah's Cherokee hotel is so huge that it is almost a small city in itself.  There is a bowling alley  along with the spa, hairdressers, game room for the kids, one indoor pool and one outdoor pool, many restaurants and lots of shops ranging from high-end to gift shops.  Almost every shop and restaurant decorated for the holidays and there were Christmas trees everywhere!

This huge, beautiful tree was the first one we saw when we first walked into the hotel.

We found this one on the second floor near the high-end stores.

This tree was smaller to fit into one of the many lounge areas throughout the hotel.

Many of the shops at the hotel made room to put a tree in their store.  This one decorated their tree with the ornaments they were selling.

This store had an upside-down tree.  I have seen a couple of these type of trees this year, but I really don't understand them at all!  Somebody please tell me why we want to turn our Christmas tree upside down.  Does it have anything to do with Stranger Things?

I have also been seeing lots of these, the snowman tree!  We found this one behind the hostess stand at one of the restaurants.  I love these trees...

and this display!

Which tree did these giant balls fall off of we wondered?

We really had a great time on our Christmas tree hunt at the hotel.  I think we probably counted at least 15.  Now it was time to venture out of the hotel and into the cities.

Gatlinburg, TN

Gatlinburg was the city I was the most excited about seeing this second week.  We were just there in September and the fall displays around the city were some of the best I've ever seen.  I was sure that the scarecrows, haystacks and pumpkins would be replaced by snowmen, snow and poinsettias.  

We were not disappointed.  There were displays around every corner, decorations around every storefront  and "a feeling of Christmas" everywhere.

The entranceway into each small shopping area off the main street were so festive and inviting that we had to go into each and every one of them.

The downtown shops in this very touristy area are so charming and at Christmastime they are even more so.

I just had to sit for a picture at one of the many photo ops that were scattered all over the town.  I helped an adorable family of 7 take their picture here.  

We love Gatlinburg, TN because of this fun downtown area and the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains.  We will definitely be back one day soon.  On our way out of this wonderful city, we saw their gorgeous, gigantic town tree.

Our next stop was the city of Pigeon Forge.  I had heard that their light show was not to be missed.  We had to see if all the hype was true.

Pigeon Forge, TN

The city was so lit up with more than 4 million lights that I wouldn't be surprised to hear that they could be seen by the passengers in the airplanes flying above.  This festival of lights was called Winterfest Driving Tour of Lights.  There were light displays on the sides of roads that you could enjoy as you drove by them and then there were clusters of themed light displays in outdoor malls and parks where you got out of your car to view the displays.  

We went to Patriot Park where there were light displays with an Americana theme.  We loved the armed forces displays.

Most of the buildings in the city were all decked out and covered with thousands of lights including the Smoky Mountain Opry and the Pigeon Forge Information Center.

There were many displays scattered around the city that celebrated Pigeon Forge.  This one was a tribute to their southern charm.

Something I read said to look for the critters who live in the Smoky Mountains to be wandering around the city.  We found the bear family.

And also to look out for the many pigeons around town.

Are these pigeons?  I'm not sure but they were the only birds I saw so I hope they were!

Murphy, NC

Murphy is a city we discovered in the western part of NC on one of our vacations in the area.  We were looking for a place to eat and it brought us here.  It is one of those small town, USA spots for sure.  The whole town spans about 6 blocks and you can walk from the post office to the court house, to city hall, the library and police station, church and to anywhere else you need to go in a matter of a few minutes.  We were curious to see how festive this area would be for the holidays.   

The first thing we noticed when we drove into the city of Murphy was their Christmas tree.  It was placed perfectly in the center of town.  This was a good place to park the car.  We weren't going to need it to get around this tiny, adorable city.

The church and other buildings were decorated simply but you knew they were celebrating Christmas in this city.

Every lamppost was decorated and most of the storefronts were too.


We love this small town.  Besides for being able to walk around the entire town in less than 30 minutes, there is a shop that sells the best olive oil in every flavor imaginable.  We grabbed a couple of last minute stocking stuffers there.  And the people here are so friendly.  Not only do you get a smile and nod, you also get a "How y'all doing today" as you pass them on the street!

We had lots of fun exploring all of the cities and we felt the joy of Christmas everywhere!  I mentioned that Cherokee, NC didn't have much but they did have my favorite.

The real reason for the season.

Wishing you the very merriest Christmas and a happy and healthy new year!