Thursday, September 7, 2017

Hyding on Jekyll Island

In a sense, it was a sort of jekyll and hyde vacation. It had its good parts to be sure, but some aggravating circumstances in the beginning and end due to the remnants of Harvey and the presage of Irma. During the drive down, we had to pass through the remnants of hurricane Harvey. No driving winds, but rather driving rain as we went across the mountains. Waze got us around one wreck and we only lost 20 minutes taking a detour. But there was a second wreck not far from the Tennessee border and so we had stop and go  (mostly stopped) traffic for about an hour.

 When we finally got to the motel, we could see on the news that the rain was still following a circular pattern and that was why we would go through periods of a light drizzle and then a heavy downpour as the system spiraled above Kentucky and Tennessee. So much for a relaxing drive through the mountains to start our vacation, it was more of a white knuckle time. Things improved greatly our first day at the beach. Jekyll Island has mild waves - no body surfing for me, but it made it easy for Becky to get into the water. Beaches are nice, the sand packs tight, so you can take long walks as well. Now it was time for what had came for - relaxation. The place is lousy with sand dollars, it is infested with them. So we have plenty of souvenirs if we can pack them right so that they don't break.

I got to do a little fishing and caught whiting and a small stingray. Lost several that got off the hook, but finally called it quits for that day when something snapped the hook in two and tangled all the line. They have a sea turtle station on the island. It is part hospital and part learning center to find out about the sea turtles. They rescue turtles that have been struck by propellers or fishing equipment, or just in ill health. The surgery room has a huge picture window and by chance they brought in a turtle that had been hit by a propeller. Interesting to see the team spring into action. Everyone had their jobs and they efficiently went to work. We went to the recovery area and there were about a dozen turtles there and even some baby turtles. The baby turtles turned out to be terrapins whose mother had been hit by a car, but they were able to harvest and hatch the eggs. All in all a neat experience.

 We had booked a dolphin tour for the last night of the trip. But we were notified that due to the next hurricane, Irma, that they were cancelling tours at the end of the week. So we did the tour on Wednesday. The tour guide remarked that it was one of the better trips for seeing dolphins that he had done. We got to see a small pod driving fish up into shallow mud to catch them - I think he called it 'stranding'. When we got to the South end of the island we had them come up by the boat several times. As close as 10' away from the boat. So definitely a memorable trip.

 Southern hospitality is a real thing. We met several people during our visit, and they are always warm and friendly. We can be cold and distant up North at times. One couple we met at a restaurant, we talked through out the meal and they stayed an extra 15 minutes to visit with us after they paid their bill. They were a wealth of knowledge and told us of several other good restaurants in the area.

 Another time we went to an isolated part of the beach to watch the moon and stars with a bottle of wine. We met another couple who were there too - but to catch shrimp of all things. So you get a net and attach it to two lengths of PVC pipe, then you drag it along the shallow water just after high tide on the beach at night to catch the shrimp. We chatted with them for awhile while they were waiting for the tide to be just right.

Finally the tide was right and they made their first pull and went about a hundred yards. They brought the net on shore and I was amazed at the quantity of shrimp and they were of all sizes. I helped gather them up and they offered us some - but we are staying at a motel and so cooking them up was not an option. They had a 10 gallon cooler they planned to fill by 11:00pm - they were well on their way from what I could see. We thanked them for their company and went on our way.

We did spend a day on St. Simons island to check it out since we were so close.  There was a lot more traffic and more congestion. So we didn't think we missed very much by choosing Jekyll island for our vacation. We did get to watch a 3 masted wooden ship under full sails.  Sure modern ships will get you from point A to point B a lot faster. But seeing that ship brought to mind a feeling of elegance and grace. As it rounded the point, you had a feel for what sailing was like 200 years ago.

Our last day at the beach was anti-climatic.  I had hoped to fish for half a day and spend the rest hanging on the beach. Mother nature had other plans. The wind was blowing and the waves were choppy.  We thought it was from hurricane Irma, but apparently a regular storm was brewing out to sea and was approaching land. Walked a little of the beach and found some more stranded sand dollars washed up and left high and dry at high tide. But it was too windy to sit on the beach and too choppy to really fish.

We did picnic in our favorite spot.  The local squirrel population took to Becky and her pringles. On past days she had up to 8 of them in a circle around us and even taking them from her hands.  But this breezy day all but one brave soul stayed tucked away. But Becky made sure that her one customer was well fed, I grumbled that she owed me a can of pringles to a make up for all that she had given to the rodents !!! :-)

Our motel was booked full that last 2-3 days of our stay with Floridians getting away from hurricane Irma. 80% plus of the plates in the parking lot were from Florida. We had been keeping watch on the traffic and saw that it was heavy - but moving.  Our plan was to get up at 4am and get on the road early and get on a west bound highway before I95 got packed.  It sort of worked.  We had an hour stretch where we averaged about 45 mph. But the remainder of the drive to Knoxville went fairly well.

We did feel sorry folks at the rest stop at mile marker 1 at the state line for South Carolina.  It was packed with the cars of folks who apparently could not find a motel.  There must have have been a couple of thousand cars parked there.  Lot full, cars parked in the grass, under trees, and both the on and off ramps. They had even brought in extra porta-johns for all of the people. So not a good a night for the evacuees. 

Knoxville was about the half way point and we stayed a night there.  Getting too old to do 14 hour drives anymore.  When I made reservations, I tried to get the same motel I reserved on the way down - but it was fully booked. So we had to find another and it was subpar.  A noisy AC unit that wailed in pain every time it kicked on and grumbled to itself while it ran to the end of the cycle. Woke us up several times. But the motel was booked up when we checked in and with the folks leaving Florida flooding the area, we didn't have any options but to endure the slowly and loudly dying AC unit. 

We did have a nice supper at the Smokey Mountain Brewery.  It is a micro brewery set up with a bar and grill. Big screens galore and the booths each had their own screen. Most screens had the Tennessee game on of course.  We figured that they would not have the Ohio State game on so left just before game time to watch the game in our room.  As it turned out, we should have just stayed as Ohio State looked awful.  I turned off the TV after they got 3 scores behind - and wailed in pain along with the air conditioner...

All in all a good vacation and I recommend Jekyll Island to anyone wanting a quiet, peaceful time.

Here are some pics from Jekyll Island if you are not bored to tears already!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Cruisin' a tale of Cuban Rum and it's effects, Uber'ing, and dining pals - and enemies.

Well something new that we did for this vacation was use Uber for our ground transportation. It made sense as we would not need to rent a car and navigate Miami - a city that we had never been to before. So we did a test run in Dayton a few weeks before leaving to make sure it would work for us. Which it did, we simply had them drive us from the TJ chumps in Miamisburg to Fricker's in Centerville.

That short trip went well and something else that we learned - other than that we could rely upon Uber, was that every driver has a story(Excuse me for mangling the name of an old news show). One fellow was testing Uber as a means of making extra money in retirement and we found that his wife was laid off from lexis-nexis too. Seems like a lot of that has happened over the years...

In Miami, we again used Uber and again we met some interesting people. One young driver had a Dodge dart with a stick shift. We complimented him on being one of the few of his generation that can drive a stick. Turns out that he was an immigrant from Venezuela and that his grandfather had a 1970 Dart. So when he went out to buy his first car it had to be a Dodge Dart. Oh and we found that his grandfather left Italy after world war 2 to start a new life in South America.

Unbeknownst to us Becky's niece, Jessica, had booked a cruise a week ahead of us. So when we found out,we made plans to get together for a day in Miami. We had lunch at a restaurant by their hotel. Then we hung out at their roof top pool for the afternoon. Jessica and Tim went on a 'shiprock' cruise where they got to be groupies for a week and listen to rock bands every night.

At supper time, I campaigned for Cuban cuisine, but was outvoted. We did end up at a nice Mexican restaurant and ate outdoors since it was so pleasant. As we walked there a Lamborghini drove by and Tim, who is a car buff, remarked that he had never seen so many expensive cars in one place. Must be the drug money in Miami I suppose.

So when it was time to return to our motel we called for another Uber. While we were waiting we talked about all of the different ethnic backgrounds of the drivers so far - lots of folks with Latino backgrounds in Miami of course. We later discussed that if you wanted to live in Miami, you would do well to learn Spanish. But Becky then said that wait a minute - we have not had a woman driver yet! So of course who else is driving the Uber car but a woman! Found that she had came to the US from Cuba 2 years ago. She spoke English well enough, but we could tell that she was struggling at times, so we spoke amongst ourselves for most of the trip. She did make one wrong turn, and had to make a u turn on one street to get us back on track.

Well finally we began our cruise. We met up the first night with a group that we had joined on Facebook. A fellow from North Dakota probably had the longest trip - I would imagine that he was happy to escape the bitter cold. Met a building inspector from Denver who seemed to spend a lot of time at the lounge bar at the back of the ship. I think that the stool has his name on it by now. But we met folks from a variety of backgrounds and they were all friendly. Being first time cruisers we had a lot of questions for the more experienced folks.

The next day we had a group event - a slot pool in the casino. We put our money together and every person got a turn at the slot machine. It was my first time ever inside a casino. I had the idea from TV years ago that the machines were mechanical with a lever on the side. Wrong - they are electronic with touch screens and buttons. So we all took our turns and I was up. The machine was a 'Wheel of Fortune' machine. I matched three spins and that gave me a push of the 'Spin' button. The arrow at the top of the machine spun around and around and stopped on $2000!

Talk about your beginner's luck! Shared a lot of high fives, but we got to share something else - 30% went to Uncle Sam! Out international waters and still the government reaches out and puts their hand in our pocket. Well I guess someone has to pay for our middle Eastern wars. We still ended up tripling our money so we had some extra pocket change for Cozumel.

Cozumel was our first stop. There were some Mayan ruins that we wanted to see. Jose was our guide, he was born on the island and knew 3 languages: Spanish, English,and Mayan - which he learned from his grandmother. And me – I can barely use English. Since he was raised on the island he was very knowledgeable on the tour.

One of the temples was a place where young women went to be├žome fertile. There was a large stone meeting place for Mayan VIP's. Even with the cleared paths, it was rough going at times going about the complex. The rock path ways were uneven in places and tree roots were at the surface in places.

Next up was Belize where we to a place called Starfish Island. It lived up to its name there were about 6 good sized ones in a pen in the ocean. We found another that was about a foot across about 35 feet out. It was a cozy 4 acre island, about the right size to walk about and spend an afternoon in the sun. The beer was cheap and the food was good.

We met a couple from Germany with 2 sons. We saw the oldest one playing with an American football. So we asked if he played and they explained that yes some areas had football, and that was why they had brought it. The youngest really enjoyed the licorice that Becky had brought. He had never had any before.

We had signed up for anytime dining on board the ship. This way we could eat supper any time between 6 and 9. Since we were not assigned a table we are at a different table every night with new people. So we met a variety of people this way.

A retired airforce officer, nurse from Chicago, Norman - a retired IT guy from New York, a Blackhawk helicopter pilot(retired), a lawyer, etc. Most were fun to spend to spend time with , Norm in particular was a delight. He was witty and I wonder if he had owned his own company or had a high up IT position with a big company as it seemed like he was very well traveled and every time we saw him on the cruise he was well dressed. His shoes always matched his shirt. Blue, white, and when we first met him – a black and white hounds tooth shirt with matching hounds tooth pattern on the shoes. He must bring a suitcase of just shoes on every cruise!

On the other hand we met Shane from Maryland, not once but twice. He seemed to be well to do as well. But seemed more anxious and high strung. We never did find out what he did for a living, but it must have something to do with his mouth. Newly rich (Nouveau riche for those that know french) he was celebrating his 50th birthday and was in high spirits that first night. The second night we were seated at his table again by chance. It is a crowded dining hall and the wait staff was running behind. We had to wait quite awhile to get our order in. He was making comments about how “This would be a good place to open a restaurant” and “We might as well ask for the breakfast menu.” He finally called for the maitre d' and began unloading on him while flashing his platinum carnival cruise card for emphasis. Really made for an awkward table.

I much prefer the relaxed demeanor of Norm to the angst of Shane. There still exists a thing called class which Norm definitely had while Shane still had a lot of growing up to do despite his 50 years.

Next stop was Mahogany Bay, Honduras. It was the hilliest and probably the poorest of the countries that we visited. Very beautiful place to view. But the roads are a bit scary by our standards. No guard rails and in a few places a short 6 inch curb is all that stood by us and a steep clift.

This beach had the calmest waters yet, and Becky got out and had a good time. With her balance it is difficult for her to get out if the water has very many waves at all. It is true what they say about the water being clear in the Caribbean. It is pretty much like standing in a swimming pool as far as clarity. I could stand in water up to my neck and still see my feet.

There were occasional vendors that walked by on the beach. Becky bought a nice bracelet off of one and I bought 5 Honduran cigars. Later I was wondering if I would regret my decision – for all I know the old man in the straw hat that was selling them just wrapped lawn clippings in tobacco leaves! Now later in the Cayman Islands I did buy some Cuban cigars – so even if those are duds, the Cubans should make up for any shortcomings.

We did meet a crazy Cuban guy at the Cayman Islands while killing time at a bar before going back to the ship. A local was playing calypso music in a small bar (probably open when the 1st one is at capacity) that was not in use at the time. The Cuban guy is dancing to the music and when the music stops, he does a backflip off of the bar but does not ace the landing at all. We all cringed when he landed, but he hopped right back and came our direction. He must have been made of rubber – or maybe all the rum he drank really limbered up his muscles.

Turns out that we were next to his wife. “Hope his life insurance is paid in full!” I quipped. He said that he would probably feel it tomorrow, but today he felt great. He came to the US from Cuba 42 years ago. He could not wait for the liberation of Cuba from the last Castro. But he did turn us on to some Cuban rum before he left. It was very smooth. So maybe next year it will be Cuba for vacation – I can try some authentic Cuban cuisine, then sit down for a cigar and some of that Cuban rum! I would like to see some of the places where Ernest Hemingway hung out. But rest assured that I have no plans for backflips off of bars.

We enjoyed the cruise overall. Even though we had 18 foot waves on the 3rd day out. Some of crew were saying that they had not seen seas that rough ever! Becky went back to the cabin and laid down for a spell. Many people were ill.

The cruise gives you a small taste of each port of call. Myself I would rather have a deep drink of each island. There are no beaches right there at the port so you have to take a bus or taxi to get to a beach. Then the ship is only there for 8 hours. So by the time you get to the beach, then break for lunch, then go back to the port to check out stuff there – you only have like 4-5 hours tops to be in the water. So I always felt rushed and had to keep one eye on the time.

We did like the social aspect of cruising – meeting all sorts of people. We enjoyed the shows and the comedians. They have events scheduled all day and into the night. So you can keep yourself as busy as you want to be. I do regret that I did not talk Becky into letting me go watch the booty shaking contest they had at midnight ;-)

So we talked about maybe just going to a place like Cozumel (or Cuba) and staying for a week. That way you can hang at the beach all you want, maybe take a day or so for sight seeing. It would be slower paced – no watching the clock, and also person would have the time to get a little deeper into the local culture.