Death Valley

This post is being written in February long after the events described below which took place in October 2020

For those of you expecting a post about Las Vegas, my apologies. When I closed out the Yosemite entry, I forgot that we went through Death Valley to get to Vegas. So that will be the next post…I promise!

As with our other visits to parks, we stayed at one edge of the park (this time barely inside at Panamit Springs) and after our day in the park on the other side-in this case Pahrump Oasis (poor man’s Vegas!).

On the drive from Oakhurst California where we spent the night of our Yosemite day, we drove through the California green belt-mile after mile of irrigated fruit trees and we even saw the anti Devin Nunes sign that his cow had told me about on Twitter!

Shortly thereafter we noticed a lot of planes parked at an airport and thought perhaps we had found all the 737 Max planes that had been taken out of service. Turns out some of them were there but also lots of other planes in the graveyard and parked here for maintenance.

We then drive cross country through what was about a ghost town which he once served as the processing center for all the borax mined in Death Valley. We also watched our odometer turn over from 9999.9 miles hoping to see 10,000 miles…imagine our disappointment when it flipped to 0.1! So after 161 days, we had driven 10,000 miles

We soon reached Panamit Springs which had some camp sites as well as small cabins. While small and rustic, it was a nice stop for the night and the stars after dark were just incredible. The title picture of this post was taken as the sunset behind us and turned our view of the mountain to a beautiful pink.

We were up early the next morning and started our drive through America’s desert. What a desolate landscape!

We stopped at what is left of one of the Borax mines. Interesting that something that was once such an important commodity is now difficult to find and hardly ever used.

Our next stop was Badwater Basin, Death Valley’s salt flats. This was the first place we first felt real heat. It got up into the 90s, I can’t imagine what it is like in the middle of summer! I guess that is part of what packs the salt so hard.

Badwater Basin is located 282 feet (855 meters) below sea level. The white circle below is around a sign up the mountains marking sea level.

On our way from the salt flats we took a couple of mile (roundtrip) hike to see Death Valley’s natural bridge. Amazing to see the path water created.

Our last stop inside Death Valley was to see Artists Palette-a scientifically explainable phenomenon which creates colored terrain along this drive near the bottom of the mountains.

After leaving the park, we drove to Pahrump Oasis where we stayed at our cheapest hotel accommodations to date-$35 at a Casino Hotel. We even ate their buffet. It was nothing special (and certainly not a feast!) but after a long day in the car and the tiring hike in the heat, we enjoyed the cheap evening and went to bed early. Next post will be about our four day stay in Las Vegas-our first! Will it be our last?


Cathay Pacific

This post is being written in February about our flight from Hong Kong to Seattle last October.

After our naps and showers, we walked back to the airport and relatively quickly found ourselves in the Priority Pass Lounge (courtesy of my Chase Sapphire card). The airport was pretty empty but the lounge was packed. So after eating a small snack we ended up going on to the gate where the chairs were more comfortable than the bar stools in the lounge.

About 11 pm, we joined the queue to board which of course didn’t move until at least 11:15!

As you know, I’m very tall and neither of us is particularly svelte so we try everything we can to not fly long haul in economy. That’s one big reason we try to use repositioning cruises to get to Europe or like in September to Asia. But the almighty budget meant we took Viking up on their offer of “free” airfare. So for the first time since 2010 we would be flying in the back of the bus.

We tried to make it as comfortable as possible by bringing along our thin self inflating seat cushions, purchasing exit row seats ($200) and being mentally prepared to be miserable. A few weeks before we left Portland, Cathay had offered us the opportunity to bid on upgrades to their Premium Economy product. After some research, we bid $1,400 for both of us. This was what a single Premium Economy seat would cost after deducting what we calculated Viking had paid for our economy seats-so we figured half price was a good bid. After Viking offered us the cabin upgrade, we lowered our bid to Cathay to just over $1,000 reflective of the amount we had paid for the ship upgrade.

After we were aboard Orion, I checked on Cathay’s site and there were only a few seats unassigned in Premium Economy. It appeared highly unlikely that our bid would be accepted but if it was, we figured we would end up in middle seats. So we decided that our side by side window seats with infinite legroom were better than being in middle slightly wider seats with less legroom. What a good decision that was! The Premium Economy cabin was completely full and due to its small size felt a little claustrophobic when we walked through on the way to our seats in the half full economy cabin.

The decision to pull the bid was even more confirmed when we sat down in our seats.

Anytime I can fully extend my legs and not reach a wall, I am happy. I got even happier when we realized that the center section of three seats beside us had only one person in the row. Mike moved to the aisle seat. So I ended up with two seats (or one huge one after takeoff when I lifted the armrest) and Mike had one and half for himself! We won the seat lottery!

Our flight was on an almost brand new A350 so we enjoyed flying on a new airline type-especially the tail and belly cameras during takeoff.

Shortly after takeoff, we were served a tasty meal- no really. I had the stir fried beef-my final Chinese meal for awhile.

And anytime I get served ice cream on a plane I think it’s a miracle!

Because we took off at almost midnight and were scheduled to land about 9 pm in Seattle (that damn dateline giving us back the day we lost on the way to Japan), we didn’t want to sleep on the plane. So we had both loaded our iPads with movies. Between them & books on the pad and the inflight entertainment provided by the airline, it wasn’t as awful as we had feared. About two hours in I used the cushion we had brought to augment my seat and an hour or two later moved it to my back. Just changing things seemed to help alot. It wasn’t long until they announced breakfast and an early arrival. Rather than the scheduled 12 hour flight it was “only” 11! Breakfast was fine (that yellow mass is an “omelet”) but since by my watch it was 6pm (I changed it at takeoff to Seattle time in an attempt to jumpstart the time correction), it was a little strange. It’s too bad they don’t offer an either/or selection.

Anyway, we soon were on the ground back in cloudy Seattle after being gone for 43 days. Our friend Andy (who had been garaging our car) picked us up and it was too long til we were at his house where we quickly fell asleep! By my calculations, with the exception of our hotel nap, we had been up for about 32 hours.

Hong Kong

This post is being written in Raleigh in February 2020 about our stay in Hong Kong back in October 2019.

We awoke to our final full day aboard Viking Orion while sailing into Hong Kong. This massive city is very vertical, both architecturally and geographically.

That’s Victoria (as in Queen) that you can see in the background of the picture above. It was our first stop on our included tour here.

To reach the peak, we took a bus to the funicular and then rode up. The ride under the river and to the base took about an hour. Traffic was crazy. Once there we had a short wait to get on the tram. I felt good that they had a line for locals and another (linger!) for us tourists.

After the short but very steep ride to the peak, our guide pointed out the various sights to be seen and we had a few minutes of free time to enjoy the view including that of the new building housing the tram shop, shopping mall, and roof top viewing platform. We elected to not pay the crazy price to use the roof.

From Victoria Peak we headed back to sea level on our bus which was waiting for us at the top. Viking (or their hires tour company?) did a great job here of splitting up the routes of the buses so we weren’t all at the same place at the same time. We rode the tram up and bussed down while others had done our stops in reverse and therefore rode the bus up and trammed down.

Our next stop was the harbor to take a “junk” on a quick harbor tour. While not a historic junk, it was a fun ride.

In addition to a number of houseboat “villages” and racks of dragon boats, we passed by China’s (maybe the world’s?) largest floating restaurant-Jumbo! We discussed coming back and having dinner here mostly to see it all lit up, but decided that will have to be on our next trip. The night picture is from my friend Mr. Google.

Once back ashore, we went to the seaside neighborhood of Stanley. This area has a market which covers two blocks or so as well as a nice waterside walkway. We spent our last Chinese money and then headed back to the ship.

In Stanley, I was also able to get a picture of the bamboo scaffolding I had seen throughout China and Japan. Amazing I wonder if they engineer it or just put it together and cross their fingers it doesn’t fall down?!

For our last dinner, we returned to the Chef’s Table and enjoyed the Lotus Menu. We had loved it when it was first introduced on our transatlantic on Sea with Mike’s Mom. It was still tasty but the Thai lamb chops (no picture sorry) weren’t quite as good-maybe different supplier? Anyway, if you have the opportunity to have this Asian fusion menu, be sure and do so. The lamb chops are quite good as is the Singapore Spicy Softshell Crab.

As Vanna is pointing out, Hong Kong’s buildings also light themselves up at night. And at 8 pm, they do a synchronized show to music. Viking made an event is this and served bubbly on the open decks. We attended but frankly while fun, the show was nothing compared to Shanghai!

After the “show” was over, we returned to our cabin and put our remaining clothes in our luggage and set it outside the door for pickup. I always find the picture below the saddest one we take-it means the cruise is over. 😢

You’ll note what appears to be a new bag in the pile. That duffel is our folding bag which we always carry (it takes no room) “just in case”. Because we are flying economy (HORRORS) each bag has a maximum 50 pound limit and the big suitcase was a little overweight. Perhaps even alot since it broke somewhere between Bejing and when it got to our stateroom in Tianjin-luckily Viking without us even asking, called and offered to fix the handles! There is that incredible service again. Anyway, to get below the limit we had to pull out the folding duffel. We have sworn we will never ever travel with this much again- from now on we are back to rollaboards only!

You may remember that one of the big reasons we changed our plans and decided to take this Viking cruise was that they threw in air. Unfortunately, their rules only allowed it to/from a North American gateway so we had to buy our own from Japan to China. This was disappointing since we know it would have been cheaper than the flight from the state but those were their rules. Anywho, they booked us on a nonstop from Hong Kong to Seattle on Cathay Pacific which according to our research was about twice the cost of other nondirect flights. So we can’t complain too much.

Part of the air was transfers to the airport and since our flight wasn’t leaving until close to midnight, Viking booked us a day room at the hotel connected to the airport. Those who had flights before six pm, were provided a meeting room with coffee, tea, water and some packaged snacks & cookies in the hotel’s conference center. While better than sitting at a gate, we were much happier with our room.

After a late breakfast (yes lamb chops!) we joined other late departing folks in the Living Room to wait for our bus to the airport to be called. This happened about 9:30. After some minor confusion we were soon aboard our bus and headed to the airport after one last selfie with Orion-I guess since we are smiling we weren’t in too bad a mood.

The ride to the airport told us over a huge suspension bridge. I was amazed at the size of the supporting columns.

Soon we were at the airport, given our room keys by a Viking representative and in our room by 10:45.

Unfortunately our view was only of a parking garage, I had hoped to watch some planes. 😢

After settling into the room, we walked over to the airport. It was a short 5 minute walk through the air conditioned corridor which connected the parking lot to the airport. We were in Hong Kong during the height of the protests so the airport only had two entrances working. Luckily, this was one of them. After a short delay to show our passport and ticket and to go through a security scanner we were inside the terminal. We had some great Chow Fun (wide Chinese noodles) for lunch) and then went back to the rooms and attempted to nap.

We woke up around eight pm and took a shower and left the hotel about 9 and walked back to the terminal and after security at the door and then again after immigration, we headed to the lounge to await our flight.

I’ll cover that in my next post.

Oops-a little more Xiamen

This post is being written in February 2020 well after the events described below.

Sorry for not including this information with my post about Xiamen yesterday. I have sorted my pictures by locale and accidentally put these of our sailaway and final afternoon tea in the Hong Kong album.

As I noted, we only spent a day and a half in Xiamen, we sailed away around lunchtime. The sail down the river to the sea was interesting in that we got to see quite a few modern buildings across the inlet.

Since we slept in and had a leisurely breakfast we skipped lunch and enjoyed our final tea. As I believe I related previously, I had been disappointed at having whipped rather than “proper” clotted cream for my scone and had mentioned it in an Instagram post. Apparently, Ricky, the waiter in charge of tea saw that post and stopped me one day to let me know he had a stash of clotted cream and to come to tea again.

When our scones were first delivered we got the dreaded whipped cream but soon Ricky brought us the real stuff! 😊 Just another example of the incredible service aboard Viking Ocean.

You will note that we didn’t have sandwiches and pastries, only scones. That’s because dinner that night was Mike’s favorite lobster. So we ate small at tea and went to dinner relatively late. As usual, the lobster was delish.

Next up, overnight in Hong Kong.

Xiamen Overnight

This post is being written months after the visit described below.

While our iteniary showed a two day stop in Xiamen it actually was only a day and a half. Which turned out to be just fine as this city of 5 million had the typical shrines and temples but frankly just as tends to happen in Europe with cathedrals, we were about templed out! As our friend Peggy says, it’s an ABC tour-another bloody church. In this case, an ABT tour! 😂

The included tour here was another panoramic tour with stops at a beautiful park with a lake and the aforementioned Buddhist temple.

The park is focused on the lake which includes their version of the the little mermaid.

The park itself was lovely and I’m sure even more so when all the flowers were in bloom.

At the entrance to the park was a sculpture of a Dragon Boat. The lake is used for races and practice. The carving style reminded me of the modern facade of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. When we lived in Houston, one of my coworkers was on a dragon boat team, it was great fun to watch their races. I wish one had been taking place while we were in Xiamen.

From the park we headed to the temple. Our guide was new (it was her first day) so while knowledgeable she was very timid. When one couple didn’t return at the appointed time, she spent at least 30 minutes trying to locate them even though she had no idea who she was looking for. Turns out they had decided to leave the temple early on another. Tour bus without telling anyone. When they reboarded our bus at our last stop they got some nasty looks from those who stood and waited while our guide looked for them. Oh well, it was the only instance of that sort of rude behavior so I guess we should count ourselves lucky.

The temple compels was beautiful but crowded-this was the last day of the holiday as I recall.

I was particularly impressed with the ancient carved and painted details of the buildings. Especially in contrast to the very modern buildings of the city in the distance – see the title shot of this post.

From the temple we were driven to Xiamen’s pedestrian only shopping street where we had free time. We walked down it but enjoyed our time on the back streets more.

On the small backstreets we saw the local food shops where the dishes were washed in tubs on the street and we watched a woman making dumplings? Spaetzle?

From there we returned to the ship and had a relaxing afternoon, evening and morning before departing for our last port of Hong Kong. As I recall, rather than go ashore the last morning, we did laundry and packed up all but our Hong Kong clothes.

Okinawa & Ishigaki Island Japan and the last Sea Day

This post is being written in February 2020 well after our visit to Okinawa last October.

We arrived at the port of Naha which was our first stop in Southern Japan. During the included excursion we visited the Peace Park which is adjacent to the cliff seen in the photo above.

This cliff was the scene of mass suicides during the last days of WWII. Japanese has retreated to caves on these cliffs and when it was apparent that they were going to not withstand the American invasion, many chose to jump rather than be captured.

The nearby park serves as a memorial to both Japanese and allied soldiers who died during the invasion. There are large tablets with the names of the dead in alphabetical order with each country having a section. Like all such places it was beautiful, peaceful, somber and sad. At the center is a plaza overlooking the sea with a fountain that has both water and on certain days, flame all in a map of the area.

From the park, we drove along the coast and were dropped in the downtown.

We wandered up the shopping street enjoying the unusual items and people watching including the ladies in uniform offering tourist information-flight attendants in another life? We also had some purple yam ice cream. Very tasty!

Apparently the chef on the ship thought it was tasty too-look what was one of the desserts that evening!

The next day we stopped on Ishigaki Island just a little further south. This is mostly a resort community where northern Japanese come to get away from the cold..or retire to for the same reason.

Our included tour this day took us up to an overlook where the picture above and the two below were taken.

From there we headed to a cove where black pearls are cultivated and sold-very expensive-that’s a $1200 necklace and was among the cheapest on offer! We had a nice walk along the beach before returning to the bus.

Our final stop was at a weaver which was really a shopping place. This was the one tour that got pretty low marks from us on our review. Glad we hadn’t paid for it!

We did use up the last of the yen we had been carrying since we left Kyoto on some KitKat bars. KitKats are a favorite snack in Japan and they come in hundreds of flavors-we couldn’t decide between apple pie and yam but ended up with the yam. These (like the ice cream) were delish.

As in our previous port, we returned to the ship along with many other buses and found a long wait. This time is couldn’t be blamed on customs, it was purely having all 930 passengers arriving back to the ship about the same time.

I went and sat in the shade on one of the ginormous cleats that they use to tie up the ship while others waited in the hot sun. About the time Mike was on the gangway, the line was down to just a few and I was aboard five minutes after him cook and comfortable whether than hot and sweaty!

Our final sea day was the next day. I don’t know what we did but I suspect it was mostly be lazy. I do know we had a big breakfast and no lunch so we had room for Afternoon Tea. We really enjoy this complimentary affair on Viking. It is held in the Winter Garden each afternoon from 4-5 pm. Typically one of the musicians plays appropriate music, you select your tea from a huge menu (gunpowder? Green? Oolong? You have about 20 to choose from) and with your pot they bring a tray of sandwiches (menu changes daily) and pasteries. Then they pass warm scones. Usually these are accompanied by clotted cream and jam. However, we were served whipped cream instead of the clotted variety. Our Scottish friend Lady McGrath (we met she and Sir Brian aboard our first Viking transatlantic) complained about this and had been pleased when we reported that on our second transatlantic we were served “proper” clottted cream. I instagrammed some of these same pictures and was stopped the next day by the assistant waiter in charge of tea (that’s him in white chatting with the ship’s manager in charge of all the food venues) to invite me back. He said they had trouble provisioning clotted cream in Asia but had a small amount for those who asked. I guess we will have to come back!

As you can see, in honour of Lady McGrath we took the bottle of bubbly that was one of the perks for the upgraded cabin and made it a “Champagne Tea”. We can’t have tea everyday as it makes it impossible to enjoy the sushi and crab legs at Happy Hour! #FirstWorldProblems

We attended the show this evening as the whole cast was performing a show they put together, it was quite good.

We returned to our room to a beautiful moon lit night. Tomorrow we arrive in Xiamen for two days.

Shanghai Overnight and Sea Day

This post about our two days in Shanghai (and the following sea day last October) is being in Raleigh in early February.

After the relaxing day at sea, we arrived at the ocean entrance to the river that leads up to Shanghai before breakfast.

It was an interesting morning making the slow sail up river past industrial as well as commercial areas.

After a couple of hours we arrived at our pier just a few blocks from The Bund – the riverside walk that is near the center of the city. The view from our balcony was amazing!

After lunch we took the included tour. It started with a bus tour of the city with stops at the People’s Square (I guess it’s a law that every city have one) and in a historic area that has been redone for shopping and restaurants. I guess what works for developers in the US also works for them in China. Anyway, not a terribly enlightening tour but we did see some nice parts of the city and at least one adorable Chinese girl.

As with all the other cities in China, the National Day decorations were over the top.

Vanna points out another building apparently designed by that same architect we have seen previously. Here, it looked like their ought to be a laser shooting out of its top.

Adjacent to the square is the Shanghai City Museum unfortunately we didn’t have time to go inside.

Their were a bunch of pigeons and doves (aren’t they just fancy pigeons?) in a portion of the park. Lots of kids were feeding them including this cutie!

From the square we headed to the shopping stop. The older neighborhood had been beautifully rehabbed.

After a stroll around (we aren’t shoppers), we headed back towards the ship. The final stop was The Bund. From there, you could either ride the bus back or walk the four blocks. We elected to stay at the Bund as the light show was coming alive and it was also a great people watching place. Shanghai Fashion Week was getting started so we aren’t sure how may of the folks posing were models and how many were just getting their engagement pictures made…but boy did they go out!

We walked back to the ship and after dinner sat on our balcony and watched the boat and light show.

It was interesting at 11 pm to watch all the buildings go dark as they shut down their light shows.

The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast, Mike and I walked downtown towards the metro station which was located on what our guide had described as the Rodeo Drive of Shanghai. We did pop into the Apple Store to see the new iPhone 11 but otherwise we didn’t stop. Along the way, we passed the Fairmont Peace Hotel which was originally the Sassoon House. Our friend Jane stayed here when she visited China after it first opened to foreigners. It’s a beautiful building but quite different than the modern Apple store.

The metro we were seeking was below the Apple store but unfortunately in order to take the train, we needed to break a larger bill so Mike ordered him a green tea with grapefruit drink. It was tasty and HUGE. Of course, after buying it we learned you couldn’t go through the subway gate with food or drink! So we found a bench while he tried to drink it all down.

It was funny to see the handles (with advertising!) which hung low-I really felt like a giant on the subway car.

The train ride was quick as we only were going two stops but it was under the river. We soon popped up right below the iconic Shanghai Television Tower.

While it had an observation deck, that wasn’t our destination. We were headed for the tallest building in China-the Shanghai Tower and the second-tallest in the World. Interestingly, in the same complex are the twelfth and thirty four tallest buildings.

At 128 stories tall, it’s certainly the tallest thing I’ve ever seen. Walking around the complex (probably a four block square area) left is both with sore necks.

Shanghai Tower’s exterior skin is a layer of transparent glass that twists around the circular (and vertical) interior. The double layer of glass provide heat and solar protection without the need to have reflective glass. The twisting is designed to help with wind and the seam down the side acts as a stop to keep winds from swirling around and around the building.

The building is divided into nine vertical neighborhoods-you can sorts see them in the picture above. At the base of each neighborhood is a two story sky lobby where dedicated double decked elevators take you when you visit that particular neighborhood. There are a total of 109 elevators in the building. We tried to get up to one of the upper sky lobbies but didn’t get further than the ground level lobby. It’s pretty swanky though.

To reach the observation deck on the 118th floor, we had to go down two stories and then we took the world’s second fastest elevator up. LBut of course first we got to go through a small museum about other tall buildings, the history of the Shanghai Tower, and models of it. All is this space is obviously used during busy tourist times as queuing space. Luckily that wasn’t an issue for us so we didn’t have to pay extra to “cut the line”.

Soon we were aboard the elevator and took the quick ride up.

It wasn’t quite as fast as that time lapse made it but at 18 meters per second (over 54 feet a second) it took under a minute to reach the top. There was minimal feeling of movement though the ears definitely popped!

The view from the top was pretty amazing including our ship!

But it was the idea that we were looking down on two of the world’s other tallest buildings that really made you realize just how high we were.

Of course there was a gift shop at the top (and another on the way out at the bottom)

The elevator ride down was not quite as fast, “only” 10 meters per second! It took about a minute. Pretty amazing. Here it is in normal time:

After reaching these heights we wandered through the underground mall that connects the three super tall high rises to the metro station and headed back to the other side of the river. Once we got there. We walked back to the ship along a less developed street. During the walk, we again saw lots of folks having their pictures especially the closer we got to the Bund. We could also see the tower we had just descended.

We got back to the ship and after a rest headed to the Chef’s Table for dinner. This is one of two alternative (but still complimentary) dining rooms on Viking. Here they have a menu that changes every three days. We have enjoyed our meals here before and were excited to try a new menu of a California cuisine. We were also excited when we entered to see Walter who had been a waiter aboard Sea when we sailed with Mike’s Mom last spring.

Everything was delicious though we found it odd that the dishes weren’t paired with California wines.

We had some onboard credit so I had the premium selections ($25 charge) while Mike had the included. Some (but not all) of the included were better to our palates than the premium.

We finished dinner and strolled around the upper deck taking in the light show once again before we set sail around midnight.

The next day was a sea day and we spent most of the morning on the balcony. It was wonderful to sit and read and enjoy the sound and sight of the ocean.

We went up to the pool deck for our favorite lunch (or at least one of them!) it was a beautiful day and they had the roof fully open. The pool grill prepares burgers, tuna, hot dogs, and wings to order. So we ordered a burger, dog and ohsotasty onion rings and split them half and half.

After lunch we had our first visit to Orion’s planetarium. This 26 seat theatre is only on two Viking ships. They show 3D movies about the solar system and occasionally use it as a real planetarium. While enjoyable, it is quite expensive to run and takes away a good bit of lounge space from the upper level of the Observation Lounge. It is my understanding that Viking is not putting one on it newest ship.

For dinner this evening, Viking set up the pool deck with various street foods and has a special cocktail. It was a fun evening and after our big lunch having a few (well some) small bites was just right-especially the fresh fruit including one of my favorites-Lychees!

It was a great way to end a relaxing sea day. Tomorrow we are back in Japan on Okinawa.