No France For You!

The next port of call on our trans-Atlantic was Le Havre, France; or so we thought.  We had been excited to go see the beaches of Normandy.  We even watched a documentary a week before the cruise in anticipation!  Unfortunately, the port workers in France had other designs.  They were on strike, as were the pilot boat operators, and so we could not dock there.  Instead, we went to Dover, England – home of the famous White Cliffs of Dover.

119 The White Cliffs of Dover

The White Cliffs of Dover

120 I can see why they're famous

I can see why they’re famous

Dover turned out to be a charming little town.  After spending a few hours in the library using their WiFi, I dragged Stephanie off for that most important of British traditions: fish and chips.  The way to find the best food anywhere you go is to ask the locals, so we did, and we were pointed to a little take-away joint that apparently wins awards for its fish and chips.  This was one of those food experiences where I was tempted to go back for more despite being full – simply because it tasted amazing.

We tooled around the town exploring shops and parks and admiring the quaint architecture and how the streets all seem to curve in that oh-so-British way.  We walked up a huge hill to Dover Castle, but at more than £20 person just to get in, we decided that our photos and memories of Blarney Castle would serve us just fine.

There was only one logical thing to do. It was time to hike up the White Cliffs and check out the views.  We had seen the cliffs before on our crossing of the English Channel from London to Paris, but this time we could get up close and personal. It was only about a half hour by foot from the center of town to the visitor’s center up on the cliffs.  As the land dropped away behind us, the views just got better and better.  The cliffs themselves are white because they are made largely of calcium carbonate (aka chalk).  Considering how soft and soluble chalk is, it’s amazing that the cliffs have stood for so long.  They reminded me of The Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride.

Next stop was Bruges in Belgium.  We spent about five days here before and completely loved it.  We were still in touch with our couch surfing hosts, so we had arranged to meet them. Unfortunately a communications snafu led to delayed transportation.  Once we realized we had to make the short run into Bruges on our own, the shuttle was sold out.  We took a different shuttle to the town of Blankenberge, only to find that we had *just* missed the train to Bruges, and the next one was in an hour.  That was fine with us!  We explored Blankenberge a bit, and checked out the seaside promenade.

By the time we got from the port in Zeebrugge to Bruges itself, we only had about two hours to spend there, so we had to be efficient.  This is Belgium, and in terms of edibles, it’s known for four things: chocolate, waffles, beer and French fries.  Guess which one was most important to Stephanie.  We wasted no time at all in heading to local chocolate shops.  Stephanie’s favorite of all the Belgian chocolates is Leonidas, where she hand selected a whole pile of assorted truffles to sample.  My favorite is Neuhaus – more expensive, but seriously yummy.

Elliott's favorite Belgian chocolate

Elliott’s favorite Belgian chocolate

As a result of our quick turnaround, our friend Pascal wasn’t able to make it, but Yannick met up with us, and took us through more of Belgium’s culinary delights.  We went to Chez Vincent’s, for what Yannick said were the best fries in Belgium.  Remember what we said about trusting the locals when it comes to food?  Well, the line out the door backed up Yannick’s claim, and we were not disappointed.  French fries were actually invented in Belgium, and I believe they truly are the best in the world.  They have a double frying technique that renders them crispy on the outside, yet soft on the inside.  By the way, the trivia buff in me wants you to know that the word “French” refers to the way the potatoes are sliced, and not the country of origin.

Elliott, Yannick and the best frites in Bruges

Elliott, Yannick and the best frites in Bruges

Lastly, we stopped for a Belgian waffle. Again, it was amazing.

174 Finally - a Belgian waffle

Finally – a Belgian waffle

Suddenly, it was time to go.  Yannick, sweetheart that she is, walked with us (and her bike) back to the train station, and waited with us on the platform until we pulled away.

Back in Blankenberge, we stocked up on Belgium chocolate to bring home with us.  The Belgians take their chcocolate VERY seriously.  As a result, the stuff in the supermarkets is held to the same high standards as the artisan chocolate houses.  We took it easy, and only bought about €30 worth to take home.  With our case of chocolate in hand, we felt our quick return trip to Belgium was a complete success!

177 Our Belgian candy haul_cr

Our Belgian candy haul

Blarney…Tastes Like Chicken

After sailing across the Atlantic, and spending nine glorious days at sea, we finally reached the Emerald Isle.  Okay, I’m jumping ahead a bit.  Let me back up…

We had this amazing Royal Caribbean cruise booked that sailed out of Copenhagen and covered seven Baltic countries.  (Look for details in future posts.) While Stephanie was diligently researching the best airfare, I happened to discover that the sailing right before ours was a transatlantic crossing.  What better way to arrive in Copenhagen than having spent 16 days already at sea?  Finally, Stephanie cracked under my relentless hinting and we booked our first ever back-to-back sailing.

The transatlantic leg began with six days in a row at sea.  Now, for those of you who have never cruised before, you should know that sea days can be even better than port days.  There are so many activities, shows, and of course, opportunities to eat.  We always tell people “If you’re bored on a cruise ship, it’s because you’re trying to be bored on a cruise ship.”  We spent our time relaxing by the pool, reading magazines, cross stitching, ballroom dancing, winning trivia contests, going to the gym, making friends, watching movies in the ship’s cinema, playing miniature golf, climbing the rock wall, and of course, eating.  As you devoted followers of this blog know, we usually travel pretty hard, so having a week of forced relaxation was heaven.

We did actually call in another port before Cork, Ireland, but if I had started with Ponta Delgada in the Azores, the opening for this post wouldn’t have had the same “gotcha” factor.  In truth, we had been to Ponta Delgada before when we were traveling around the world in 2012.  The Azores are beautiful islands belonging to Portugal, and located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  The only reason Ponta Delgada was less notable this time is simply that it rained all day, and so we didn’t do much on shore.  Stephanie and I did manage to wander around the town for a bit, and of course, we found the obligatory free Wi-Fi so we could catch up on the important goings-on at home.  In the end, however, we were glad we didn’t have big elaborate plans for the day.  We tried some local hot chocolate to stay warm, and looked in the local stores to see what types of treats and candies they had.

Ponta Delgada was just as we remembered it with interesting patterns in the sidewalks made out of black basalt and white limestone.  No two are alike.

Another two days at sea saw us to the port of Cobh, Ireland.  Cobh (pronounced “cove”) is just a quick 25-minute train ride away from downtown Cork, which in turn is only a 25-minute bus ride from famed Blarney Castle – home of the famed Blarney Stone.

The castle itself is exactly how one pictures an old castle: equal parts ominous and charming.  We climbed the narrow, spiral stairs to the top where we hung upside down over a 40 foot drop and planted our lips where thousands of other people planted theirs before.  It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s one of those bucket list things, so we did it anyway.  See….

The grounds of Blarney Castle are huge and varied.  Our first stop was the poison garden where they grow toxic plants including hemlock, belladonna, and nightshade.  Stephanie was delighted to find that Harry Potter favorites mandrake and wolfsbane are actually real, live plants and not just made up for the series.  The garden even had cannabis.  I never thought of marijuana as poisonous, per se, but just in case, it was safe in a cage where no one could accidentally lay their hands on such a toxic danger.

The Poison Garden

The Poison Garden

We strolled through glades and glens, saw waterfalls and caves, and even found a swing for Stephanie to play on.  There is a rock staircase called the wishing steps where if you walk up and down it backwards with your eyes closed, the Blarney Witch is said to grant your wish.  (Stay tuned for confirmation.)  We also strolled through the Pinetum which I’m sure is pronounced “pine-ee-tum,” but we had fun calling it the “pine-tum.”

Rock Close Waterfall

Rock Close Waterfall

Back in Cork, we discovered Dealz.  Dealz is to Ireland what Poundland is to England or a dollar store in the U.S.   Now, having British parents, I know a thing or two about candy from the U.K., and Dealz had great prices on two of my all-time favorites: Fry’s Turkish Delight, and jelly babies.  I know I went into detail about jelly babies once before on this blog, but they’re worth mentioning again.  So much better than jelly beans!  I may have gone a wee bit crazy stocking up on British candy. (A note to the jelly baby purists:  I looked for Bassetts, but couldn’t find them anywhere.  Crilly’s taste exactly the same.)

The UK candy stash

The UK candy stash!

What we saw of Cork was nice, but between the trek to Blarney Castle and the candy, we didn’t really get to see the town itself.  So, as with many places we’ve been on our travels, we resolved to come back again someday.

The Perfect Cruise

Almost 18 months prior, I had booked an exciting 16-night Royal Caribbean cruise from Venice to Dubai via the Suez Canal.  At $22pp/night plus taxes, who could resist?  But as the departure time grew close, we realized the cruise itself was the only thing that was going to be a good deal.  The one-way airfares were going to cost a fortune – even with my travel miles and expertise!  We had a heart-to-heart and came to the conclusion that after all of travel we had done in 2016, our primary goal in December was simply some major relaxation.

And so it came to pass that we found ourselves on a 12-night Royal Caribbean cruise on the Grandeur of the Seas, round-trip, out of Baltimore.  Maybe not quite as exciting as the original plan, but it fit the budget, didn’t require airfare, and had plenty of R-E-L-A-X-A-T-I-O-N written all over it.  Elliott was thrilled that he could pack a million pairs of cufflinks and shoes, throw all of the luggage in the car, and not have to worry about airline baggage restrictions.

01 car full of luggage

Leaving Philly with all of Elliott’s shoes, cufflinks, and dress shirts.

We really didn’t have any expectations; we simply relished the idea of warm weather, calm blue seas, and not having to cook for a while.  We started out with three days at sea, as we left the cold North and headed down to the Caribbean.

 

It only took about a day and a half to get to the warm weather, which really surprised and pleased us!  I was out swimming in the pool before I knew it.

01a Relaxing in the pool

It’s my favorite place to be.

That wasn’t the only surprise, however; the entire cruise turned out to be one, big, happy surprise.  In those first three sea days, we went to Ballroom and Latin dance lessons, and found there were many more dancers onboard than we are used to.  What a treat!  We got to know many of the other dancers, and traded moves and inspiration night after night.  In addition, the onboard dance instructor loved dance so much, she offered free private lessons to anyone who wanted them.  What?!!  Unheard of!  We took her up on her offer more than once and added a few new beautiful moves to our Waltz and Foxtrot.

I had sadly assumed that since we were on a cruise, any holiday spirit would be totally forgotten for 12 days; it was, after all, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas!  I was wrong and couldn’t have been more pleased.  In the beginning of the cruise, there wasn’t much to remind us of the holidays other than the decorations a few passengers had hung on their cabin doors (which were really cute).  As the days passed, we’d hear a Christmas song here and there, then a Christmas tree was put up in the atrium… then at the end of the cruise some of the crew wore Santa hats!  We found it was the perfect amount of holiday spirit without being in-your-face or overwhelming.

 

There were a lot of fun activities onboard.  One night I joined in the fun for a rendition of an old favorite, Family Feud.  My team was terrible, but somehow made a comeback in the last minute (perhaps due to the fact that the last question was worth 3x the points?!).

 

Another night, we celebrated the ship’s 20th birthday with a big celebration and ship-shaped cake in the atrium.

 

Watch the balloons fall!

The itinerary was a fabulous one, and at the same time, an itinerary about which we felt very relaxed.  We had been to all of the ports before, so we didn’t feel pressured to do a lot on each one.  On our first port of St. Thomas, we walked around a bit and went shopping.  For those of you who don’t know, St. Thomas has many jewelry bargains; and it’s one place where I feel very lucky to have a husband who likes to shop!

04 More jewels from St. Thomas

Happy with my St. Thomas souvenir.

On Dominica, we didn’t even get off the ship, preferring to have a relaxing day of our own “at sea” and having the ship mostly to ourselves.  We did see a gorgeous rainbow from our ship:)

08 Rainbow over Dominica

Rainbow over Dominica.

In Bridgetown, Barbados, to the shock of the locals we walked a whole half hour to a local beach.  We spent a blissful afternoon relaxing under a poisonous(!) tree and swimming.

 

In Castries, St. Lucia, we got off the ship and walked around the town for a few minutes.  We didn’t feel the need to do much more, as we honeymooned there, and had a 10th anniversary trip there a few years ago.  Plus, we were on the wrong end of the island, in our opinion!

 

The most fun and adventure we had on land came the next day, on Saint Martin.  We made our way by local transportation (always fun) to Maho Beach, which is next to the Princess Juliana International Airport.  Maho Beach is directly under the flight path of the planes, so you can stand under them as they come in for a landing.  Pretty cool!

 

See a plane come in for landing yourself!

It is so close to the runway that you can stand on it and feel the jet blast of the planes taking off.  Should you though?  Well, I guess each person has to make that determination for him/herself…

 

Elliott was smart like most of the people standing there and ran to the side when the blast got to strong; unfortunately I simply tried to run away from the blast, going further onto the beach and into the ocean.  Warning: don’t do what I did!  Not only did the bare skin on my back get totally sandblasted, every time I popped up out of the water to see if it was over yet, more sand got pelted into my head and hair.  Not a fun experience!

60 Sandblast

Run, Forrest, run!

Sandblasting and all, we had a fabulous time on this cruise.  So much so, that we did something we’ve never done before; we booked the same exact cruise for 2017, while still on the 2016 sailing!  I’m not saying it would be perfect for everyone, but this appeared to be the perfect cruise for us.  And we’re really looking forward to this year’s version:)

Cruising, Hawaiian Style, Part II

When last we left our heroes, they were on a boat rounding the Big Island of Hawaii after departing from Hilo. Kona was our next stop, but knowing we would be back on this side of the Big Island soon for a whole week, we decided to stay within the town of Kona itself before relaxing on board. (Relaxing is very big with me.) We walked through town, checking out some jewelry shops, a Del Sol (where everything they sell changes colors in the sun), and the local Kona Market.  The market was full of crafts and souvenirs but also extraordinarily hot.  After a quick run-through, I introduced Barry and Ann to the local chocolate-and-macadamia chain, Donkey Balls, where I graciously bought us all some balls.

158-barry-tried-his-first-donkey-balls

Barry and Ann try their first Donkey Balls

Since it was hot and we still had plenty of time before heading back to the ship, we all indulged in another local food item, shave ice (kinda like a snow cone).  We had ours with a snow-cap which is condensed milk on top. Super delish!  Afterwards Barry and Ann headed back to the ship, while Stephanie and I snorkeled just next to the pier.  There were a surprising number of pretty fish for such a small, crowded cove.

160-mango-shave-ice-with-a-snow-cap-condensed-milk

Mango shave ice with a snow cap

We had a long afternoon onboard, so we went to a couple activities in and around our pool time.  We made cheesy origami Humuhumunukunukuapua’as (Hawaiian State Fish), and later made Lauhala Ribbon Weave Leis in another class.  They actually came out pretty cool, and we brought ours home.  For a change in pace, the family tried the ship’s 50’s style diner for dinner.

Our ship cruised over to Kauai that night.  The next morning we tried the free cardio boxing class on board, a first for me.  I realized I could get into that.  Then we drove to Waimea Canyon, which is considered a “mini Grand Canyon” of Hawaii.  We climbed in our cars up Waimea Canyon Drive, and took in some of the best views with the whole gang.  The edge of Waimea Canyon overlooks the back of the beautiful Na Pali coast.  It can be a bit cloudy there, but the views are still fabulous.

171-looking-out-over-the-na-pali-coast

Looking out over the Na Pali Coast

The evening was dominated by one major event: Wendy and Linda’s wedding. They had had a civil union performed many years ago, but thanks in part to recent legislation, they were having an honest-to-goodness wedding.  What better spot than a cozy nook on a beautiful Hawaiian beach, and who better to officiate than the Honorable Reverend Elliott Segelbaum of the Universal Life Church (courtesy of the Internet)?  We ended up choosing Kalapaki beach close to the ship for easy sunset access. The view was so nice you would never know there was a giant Marriott only steps away.  We found a little tent in which they give beachside massages during the day, and we managed to magically transform it into a wedding tent.  The ceremony was short but sweet, and all the kids had a part, be it a reading or handling the unity candles or providing the music.  Wendy and Linda even had matching outfits.  Afterwards, we had a mini-dance reception in the tent, and that night at dinner on the ship, we had the wait staff bring a cake and sing to the “newlyweds.”

After such a busy day, we opted to spend our second day on Kauai relaxing while the New Jersey Contingent went touring.  We slept in and then headed to morning trivia where I totally won one of those insulated can holder thingies that we will never use.  Then it was back to Kalapaki beach for a swim. Stephanie and I got so into our conversation that we didn’t notice the current taking us waaaaay out.  We swam the 47 miles back to shore against the current, after which I crawled onto the sand to rest while Stephanie actually swam some more.  (The girl is part fish, I tell ya!)

Back on board, we spent the afternoon sailing around the Western side of Kauai – The Na Pali coast.  This coast is touted as the most beautiful coast of all the Hawaiian Islands, and it lives up to its reputation.  The sharp angles of the Na Pali Coast were carved by water eroding the volcanic island when it was newly formed.  Stephanie and I had been here before on a Zodiac, but it was just as amazing when seen from deck 12 of the cruise ship.

250-the-girls-of-the-na-pali-coast

Girls of the Na Pali Coast

And just like that, our cruise wrapped up.  We had our last family dinner together and watched a few of the shows that night around packing.  The next morning we ate breakfast and said farewell to the New Jersey Contingent, then enjoyed spending a surprise shipboard credit in the gift shop.  We disembarked and set off for Week III of our Hawaiian adventure.

999-off-to-get-married

Just Married

In De-Nile

The morning our cruise was to depart, we had one more activity in Aswan – a ride on a traditional felucca. These boats with their triangular sail would traditionally ply the Nile trading fishing and transporting goods and people. Now they’re largely a tourist activity. Our time in Aswan was pretty much windless, so for our morning tour we drifted more than sailed. Our local captain tried nobly to make it a fun trip but we were at the mercy of the current. He tried paddling using the gangplank (to our amusement), and even let us each take a turn. It was harder than it looked.


In the end we compensated for the lack of wind and felucca movement by jumping into the Nile for a swim. It was surprising how cold the water was considering the air temperature was over 100 degrees. It was a blast to be floating and swimming in the Nile River though; so much so that we jumped in a second time! I guess at this point we were thankful there were no crocodiles in the Nile after all.

103 We're in de Nile

We’re in De-Nile

As we drifted back on our felucca to our ship, the captain had some trinkets for sale. We negotiated him way down, to prove we weren’t your usual sucker/tourists, and then tipped him heavily anyway for trying so hard to make the felucca ride fun for us.

That afternoon was the moment we had been waiting for – sail away. There’s something just cool about sailing up the Nile. It feels like generations of people are sailing with you in spirit. We were enthralled watching the river go by as we sailed to our first stop. (The Love Boat even did a two-part special on it by the way. Wouldn’t ya know, they hit every single spot in Egypt that we did.)

Our afternoon stop was the temple of Kom Ombo. This temple was dedicated to the crocodile god, Sobek, in the hopes of getting on his good side and having favorable farming conditions. It was here that we discovered that the Egyptians knew quite a few things about surgery as evidenced by the hieroglyphics. There was also a Nileometer which was a well that measured the height of the Nile. Based on the measurements, the king could determine how bountiful the harvests would be, and tax the farmers accordingly.

153 Ancient Surgical tools

Ancient Surgical tools

At Kom Ombo there is also a crocodile museum. The god, Sobek, would be seen to inhabit the body of a crocodile while on earth. That particular crocodile would then be cared for by the priests of the temple, and then mummified after it died. (Sobek’s spirit would move to another one at that point.) In addition, worshipers would leave crocodile-themed donations and even mummified crocodiles as offerings.

179 Mummified crocs still in their original packaging

Mummified crocs, still in their original packaging

Back on the boat, we whiled away the afternoon swimming and watching Egypt pass by before our evening stop at Edfu.

For our night visit to the temple, we took a horse and carriage ride from the boat. Since we were visiting at night, we got to see another sound and light show, but this one didn’t compare to the one at the Pyramids and Sphinx. The town of Edfu was so dusty that in many of our photos it looks like it’s raining.

The temple at Edfu was built around 200BC, and is dedicated to the god Horus. From here they would take him in statue form on his sacred boat halfway to Dendera where he would meet his wife Hathor coming from her temple. The two of them would then be taken back to one of the temples together for a week to consummate their marriage before one would return to their own temple.

197 The inner sanctum

The inner sanctum where Horus’s sacred boat is kept

On the way home, we found our carriage blocked by traffic. There was a wedding going on, and it sounded like a great time. We didn’t get to see the happy couple, but we did see their getaway…er…honeymoon car.

214 Turns out its a wedding

All ready for the happy couple

We opted for our third early-morning wake up in a row to watch our ship sail through the locks. They gave us a rough time estimate, and so we set an alarm. We were early, and they told us another 45 minutes. 30 minutes later, we were jolted out of a deep sleep when the boat bumped something on its way out of the locks. We ran up to the top deck again only to see our boat was on its way *out* of the locks.  We went back down to bed, feeling very disappointed, and sometime after that I woke up when the engines stopped. I don’t know how that woke me, but I’m glad it did because we were approaching a second set of locks. For the third time, we got up, got dressed and headed out on deck. Third time’s a charm!  We were the only ones there at 2:30 am, much to the surprise of the guys working the locks.

That morning we actually slept in a little before arriving in Luxor for more sightseeing.

Aswan-derful Sites in Upper Egypt

3:30 am! That’s the time we had to leave our hotel to catch our morning flight to Aswan. We got there around 9:00 am and met our new guide, Mohammed. (It seems everyone in Egypt is named Achmed, Khaled or Mohammed. 😉 ) Mohammed turned out to be an incredibly knowledgeable guide, but we were too sleepy and hot (it was 105°) to appreciate him at first.

Upon landing in Aswan, we didn’t even drop off our bags; we started touring right away. Our first stop was the famous Aswan High Dam. The dam was built to regulate the annual flooding of the Nile which is so critical to farming all throughout Egypt. The damming of the river created Lake Nasser – one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. The lake is 340 miles long, and extends all the way into the Sudan.

There were a few downsides to creating Lake Nasser. First, over 17 ancient temples stood in the floodplain and needed to be painstakingly moved to higher ground. The second downside (for us) is that no Nile Crocodiles now live north of the Dam. Since that was the way our cruise was headed, it meant we wouldn’t get to see any of the huge reptiles in the wild. We did see what we thought was a jackal, but Mohammed told us they rarely come out during the day, and don’t live in the area anymore. Bummer!

08 Lake Nasser extends 340 miles and into the Sudan

Lake Nasser extends 340 miles into the Sudan

After the dam we took a boat to the Temple of Isis at Philae. (There go the Greeks renaming things again. This was known to the ancient Egyptians as Pilak.) This island temple in the Nile is where all that is ancient Egypt came ramming home to us. The entrance to the inner courtyards of an Egyptian temple is through a large gate called a pylon – two large, tapered towers with a covered entrance between them.  There were walls and walls and walls of hieroglyphics. It’s one thing to see them in books and movies. It’s quite another to see every wall, column and slab of rock covered with detailed carvings that tell whole stories. We learned the story of Isis and Osiris and Seth, and I learned about my new favorite goddess, Hathor.

15 Motoring to Philae temple

Motoring to Philae Temple

 


At Philae one discovered an unfortunate, yet pervasive truth about all these Egyptian sites. Throughout history, Coptic Christians would often hide from persecution in these temples. In order to prevent a resurgence of idol worship, the Copts would chisel away the images of the kings and gods that were carved on the walls. Too bad we humans have a track record of overlooking historical significance when it gets in the way of personal religious preferences (remember the Sphinx’s nose?).

Back in Aswan, we checked out the Unfinished Obelisk. Obelisks were very popular in ancient Egypt. They look like a four-sided tower with a pyramid at the top. It’s where America got the idea for the Washington Monument. To create one, the Egyptians would carve a “lying down” obelisk out of a suitable granite deposit.  They would then drill holes along the border and fill them with wood. They would soak the wood which would swell and crack the rock right out of its foundations. As this Unfinished Obelisk was being carved out, it developed a crack on its surface that rendered it useless. The ancients just abandoned it where it lay which gives us some insight today in the Obelisk creation process.

That night, we stayed on board our cruise ship, The MS Royal Lily, even though we weren’t sailing for another day. This was a welcome treat because now it meant that our meals were covered for us. Yay!

It also meant we were on board for a Nubian show. The ancient kingdom of Nubia spans the area of Southern Egypt into the Sudan. This part of Egypt is called Upper Egypt, and the North where Cairo is located is Lower Egypt. This seems a bit counter-intuitive at first until you remember that the Nile flows from South to North, descending as it flows.

The next morning was a tour to Abu Simbel. Or was it that night?  It was another 3am wake-up call.  Abu Simbel is a temple complex about three hours from Aswan. In order to conserve and protect it, the only way to get there is via a convoy escorted by armed police. This convoy leaves once a day from Aswan at 4:00 in the morning, and returns by noon. We were near the end of the convoy, but somehow, by the time we got there, we had left the entire convoy behind and arrived first before the crowds. Did I mention that Mohammed was awesome?

71 The 4am morning convoy to Abu Simbel is in motion

The 4am convoy to Abu Simbel is in motion

Abu Simbel is a complex of two temples both carved out of mountains way down near the Sudanese border. The first is a temple to Ramses II, and the second is to his favorite wife, Nefertari (not to be confused with Nefertiti). Abu Simbel was one of the areas that would have been underwater after the damming of the Nile, so in 1964, UNESCO sent a team over to literally move mountains, and relocate Abu Simbel to higher ground. We watched a great documentary about it, until it inexplicably shut off in the middle, and that was the end of that. Basically, they cut the whole thing to pieces, built reinforced mountains in a safer place, reassembled the whole thing, and then touched it up so you couldn’t tell where it had been cut apart.  And believe you me when I say you couldn’t tell!!

We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, so we did what we could from outside. The flash from thousands of tourists damages the ancient color. They once used to allow flashless photos, but so many people would use the flash anyway that they eventually outlawed photos altogether.

78 Temple of Ramses at Abu Simbel

Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel

That gave us the afternoon to relax on our cruise ship, catch a swim, and maybe a nap. Tomorrow, we would sail!

130 Pool on the Royal Lily

The pool on the Royal Lily

Quick Stop in Picton

Picton wasn’t on our original itinerary, so we didn’t know too much about it. We had watched the port lecture and decided to look for some of the hiking trails mentioned. We opted not to rush off the ship, but when we were ready to leave at about 10:30, there was still a 45 minute wait for the shuttles. Since we were docked at a functioning timber port, passengers were not allowed to walk through, but were required to take a shuttle bus through the port area and into town. We arrived in Picton, then found the tourist information center to find out about the local hikes.

Our first hike was on the beautiful Tirohanga Track, which led up through forest to the Hilltop View Point. (“Track” is Australian for “path.”) It was a really nice hike, but I was really dragging with my cold. Luckily Elliott’s injured neck and shoulder were feeling well enough to carry the pack for the first time in a while, but he was tired easily too. It was later in the day than our hike the day before, and much hotter! We pushed onward.

There were lots of pretty views on the way up, and the view at the top was gorgeous. There was a bench and we met a sweet couple from Germany who took some photos of us. We hiked down the other side of the mountain, and we were doing great until the very end, where there was a stream. The sign said to cross on the stepping stones, but the water level was so high that all the rocks were under water! There was no choice but to take our shoes off and cross barefoot. Wow, that was some cooooold water! I tried to get across in time to take Elliott’s photo but he was too fast for me, and when he realized how bummed I was, he offered to go back across. Crazy (but sweet) boy. He was so frigid from the first time, and he did it again!!! The photos were great. Once across the river we put our shoes back on and headed into town.

For our second hike, we headed to the beach to Bob’s Bay Track – another shorter hike that had lots of beach views. It starts out on the beach, but when the beach goes away, the track goes up and you hike just above the water. Eventually you come to Bob’s Bay where you can once again get down on a beach and to the water. We found some cool shells there – I loved all the purple shells we were finding, and Elliott found some other nice ones. We didn’t have much time to spend there since we had to be back on board by 3:30 pm, or at least get the last shuttle bus by then.

We hiked back to town and split up so Elliott could stop at the grocery store while I uploaded a blog post at the library. By the time we got to the shuttle bus stop, a local couple said the last shuttle had left! Ack! They offered to drive us to the ship, and we were thrilled. How amazingly kind of them. Elliott was worrying the whole way, but it was only 3:32 when we got in their car, and I was convinced the ship would not leave without us. Still, it was adrenaline-raising! After all the fretting about getting back on board (well, Elliott’s fretting, that is!), the irony is that we didn’t sail anywhere close to the time we were scheduled to sail. There was a problem getting one of the lifeboats back up onto the ship, and the captain announced it would take about a half hour and then we would sail. Ha!! It was many hours. Eventually we headed out of Picton with the lifeboat attached to the ship, but not attached properly. They said we had extra lifeboats, and didn’t need this one anyway!