Home Again
Posted in General
Forenoon watch, 1 bell (8:36 am)

Well we made it home all right, despite being forgotten about by Lorien's parents. When we got to the Spokane airport last night around 11:30 there was nobody there to pick us up. United Airlines lost all but one piece of our luggage (we checked four) after we went through customs in Chicago. I knew it would happen when we had to drop off our luggage where there must have been 200 other pieces, and the large black lady there said to just leave our luggage and it would get on the plane. She said it would be no problem and to not worry. Whatever. The conveyor belt wasn't running, which is why the luggage was so backed up.

Anyway, we got to Spokane and my leather was the only package we had waiting for us. We tried calling Lorien's parents to find out if they were coming to pick us up, but couldn't reach anyone. We called her uncle Scott and he came to our rescue. Shortly thereafter, we got hold of her parents, they put our pickup time on the wrong date. We got home just after 1:30am and I was able to sleep until about 6:30. Better than nothing, I suppose.

It's good to be home.

Posted in Travel
Morning watch, 8 bells (8:02 am)

Today we awoke near the shores of Loch Ness and are going to sleep under the foggy blanket surrounding Edinburgh. In fact, the last two days have had a lot of fog, only burning off for a short time in the middle of the afternoon.

After a hearty breakfast of Scottish oatmeal, fried egg, toast, and haggis (yummmmmm, haggis), we sadly checked out of the Woodlands B&B (it's great and I highly recommend it if you're in the area!) and drove to Castle Urquhart, about a mile and a half away. The castle didn't open until 9:30am (we were told it opened at 9), so we waited around the visitor's center for a half hour before being able to enter. The benefit of this was that we were among the first people to visit the ruins today, and I got my favorite type of picture, the kind with nobody in it. We watched a short movie about this history of Castle Urquhart, then the screen retracted, the curtains opened, and we saw a great panorama of the castle in front of us! It was very dramatic. This has to be one of the neatest visitor's centers I've ever been to.

We walked down to the castle, saw the trebuchet they built several years ago (in 2001 I think they said, so it was new the last time I was there), and took some more pictures. We also got a small amount of sand for Lorien's mom, who collects sand from different places.

After the castle, we tried to get a picture of a heighlan coo (highland cow), but strangely couldn't find any. There were, however, tons of sheep. So we drove back up to Inverness, then down the A9 to Edinburgh. Since we got a late start, we didn't arrive in the Edinburgh area until after 2pm. The drive was really nice, though. The traffic was getting bad, and it was really nerve-racking for me. I get nervous driving in big cities back in the States in a familiar car. Here, I'm in the right side of the car driving, shifting gears with my left hand and trying to stay on the left side of the road. The secret here is to remember that left-hand turns are the trickiest. I nearly drove my wife crazy with my driving (hehe), but we finally found J. Hewit and Sons tannery. I expected a tannery to smell bad, but it wasn't bad at all. It was an old building, and we almost missed it, but Lorien spotted it just as we were passing it, so we turned around and drove down to it. I don't think they get much walk-in business—whoever runs the office was gone, and a guy from the second floor shouted down to me that he'd meet me in the blue left-hand door. I was really hoping to get some binding type and brass tools, but they don't have much of that in stock, they special order it from their supplier. But I was able to look through tons of leather, calf and goat, and pick out a few skins for my projects. I'll have to order my brass type later, apparently it takes 5-6 weeks anyway. I have to decide what font and point size I want, as well as whether I want the type on hand tools or the traditional way for use with a type holder.

After the tannery, we attempted to drive to our hotel but were thwarted by the odd roundabouts and road system they have here. The signs will say one thing when you're approaching them, but the individual signs on the roundabout exits have different labels—it was really frustrating. So we got a bit lost. When we finally got back on track we decided to head for the airport, as it should be one of the most well-labeled places around. It was. We returned our rental car and took the airport shuttle bus (it leaves Edinburgh airport every 10 minutes or so) to the Edinburgh Zoo, which is right next to the Holiday Inn where we are staying. In fact they share the same driveway. If our room was in a different direction and it wasn't so foggy, we could probably see down into the zoo. The airport shuttle bus is great, has tons of room for luggage, and costs only £3 for a one-way trip, or £5 for a round-trip. And the return journey can be on a different day!

After getting checked in, we went down to their Chinese restaurant to eat dinner. It was really good, but also really expensive. They are so swank they have their own printed fortune cookies, with their restaurant name on the back of the fortunes. My fortune cookie was somewhat burned, though. After that, we put on our hiking shoes for the last time and ventured on the city bus system to the city center. It was about a 10 minute ride to the royal gardens, right outside the castle. The castle is quite imposing sitting up on its hill the way it does, and it looked especially mysterious tonight with so much fog around. I took a ton of pictures. We walked a ways down the Royal Mile, which still had many open shops despite the lateness of the hour. It was already after 8pm. We found a music store and picked up several CDs. Lorien got some dance/techno music, they listen to it at work all the time apparently.

As it was getting darker and later, we decided to head back to the hotel and turn in. I'm off to the shower and to repack before sleeping, so I really should be going.

Here are some sights we saw around Edinburgh:

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Interesting Signs
Afternoon watch, 3 bells (1:55 pm)

I've run across some funny signs today. Here they are, in no particular order.

Twenty's Plenty, a humorous rhyme to keep people from driving too fast.

For Sale: Inverness

And my personal favorite, Disabled Drivers. Cheers.

Drumnadrochit, Scotland
Posted in Travel
Afternoon watch, 3 bells (1:50 pm)

Today I woke up in Crawley, south of London, at 2:30am. I tried to go back to sleep, and think I succeeded for a short time, but was up fitfully until I had to arise at 4am. We had a taxi pick us up at the George Hotel and deliver us to Gatwick North Terminal, where we left the bulk of our luggage for the next two days. We packed everything we need for the Scotland leg of our vacation into a carry-on and a small backpack. Our flight left at 6:30am for Edinburgh. The flight was uneventful, except for the witty Pakistani dude I sat next to that told me how he got the nickname One Crate. He was in a bar with some friends in Prague and they were taking shots from women's bras and he wasn't tall enough so he had to stand on a crate. Isn't flying fun?

Anyway, we had a quick flight on British Airways, only an hour, yet they still served us breakfast! I was pleasantly surprised, as I don't believe any airline serves any food for such a short flight back in the U'States.

So we hired (rented) a car from Alamo, it's a decent 4-door sedan with lots of room. It's got a manual transmission, which shifts on the left since the driver's seat is on the right. The pedals and gear progression on the stick are the same as a standard transmission back home, though, so it's not terribly hard to get used to. The extremely narrow roads, however, are a bit harder. Plus you have to make sure you're always driving on the left, but there are signs everywhere for that. Our B&B hostess, Liz, says the French and German tourists are the worst at not driving on the left side and are always getting in to accidents. But I digress. About our car. It's got a broken rear view mirror. It literally fell off when I tried to adjust it. They darn well better not try and blame that on me. I figured out how to get it adjusted and hooked back on so it doesn't fall off, but it's just going to happen to the next person until they get it fixed right. There was also trash in the center console, so it wasn't cleaned out very well. I have to give Alamo Car Rental a one out of five stars for this one. Get with the program, people.

Since we arrived around 8am, and it only took a little while to get our car, we were on the road to Inverness by around 8:30. It was a lovely drive, but tiring as we hadn't had much sleep last night. Just before we got to Inverness, we stopped at a tourist shop, had a bathroom break, and talked to the tourist information helpers. We decided to skip having lunch in Inverness and head down to Drumnadrochit instead. It was a wise decision. We packed a few scones we picked up in Crawley and they tided us over until we ate. But I'm getting ahead of my story.

The drive down from Inverness to Drumnadrochit is wonderfully like driving around Lake Coeur d'Alene back at home. Its twisty curves and blind corners surrounded by a lake, mountains, and lots of green trees really feels like we're home. It wasn't a long drive, either, around 15 miles or so. We arrived at the Loch Ness Center around 12:30 or so. We bought a bunch of postcards, and signed up for the sonar cruise of the Loch at 2pm, as we were just a little too late for the 1pm cruise. The shops there are a bit expensive, but they have a bunch of fun tourist stuff with Nessie, Heighlan Coos (Highland Cows), etc. They also have a heraldry section where they'll dig up your family coat of arms and print it on parchment for £30. You can get it embroidered for twice that much. I don't know if my family had a tartan pattern or not, but I'm sure they'd find me one if I asked 😉

Since One Crate mentioned it on the plane, and I'd heard about it before but never visited, I thought it would be nice to see Fort William, a little ways south of Loch Ness. So we kind of added it to our itinerary, but it didn't work out as I'll soon explain.

Then came the boat cruise, which was every bit as fun as I remembered it from 2001 (I even had the same boat captain and tour guide, and older gentleman named John). We putted around the Loch and breathed in lots of boat engine fumes. We moved into the forward cabin about halfway through the trip. Loch Ness is over 230 meters deep, and has sheer walls that drop just off the shoreline. It's quite amazing to watch the depth finder as you head toward the shore. I'll try to include a picture for you to see how sharp it really is.

After the cruise, which I believe was the fourth cruise of our vacation (those being the main Carnival cruise and our river cruises in St. Petersburg and London being the other three), we drove off toward Fort William when I was sidetracked by the infamous pottery sign.

This is going to take some explaining. When I was in Scotland in 2001, I saw a sign that said Pottery, end of the road on a small sign at the beginning of a small road in Drumnadrochit. Since I had driven out here I thought it would be nice to take a walk up the road. Which turned out to be longer than I ever thought possible. The road never ended, it just kept going on and on, and then I saw a sign that said something like Keep going for pottery. Thinking it was now just around the next bend or so, I kept going. Better I had turned back and driven, but I didn't realize it at the time. After what seemed like hours I got to the top of the road, which was also basically the top of the hill. After walking that far, I was damned if I wasn't going to leave without buying some pottery, so I bought a mug for hot cocoa. That started my buy a mug during every vacation tradition. I try to get handmade ones, but don't always get the chance.

So this time, I was determined to find out how far the walk really was. I kept telling the story to people and saying it must have been at least two miles, but I didn't want to over exaggerate. So today we drove it. It was four miles one way. I bought another mug to go with the last one. This one's a little bigger and brown and red instead of having blue tones. I will love them both forever.

After returning down the very narrow pottery road, we commenced our drive down to Fort William and stopped for some more tourist information in another Fort Something-or-other town. The tourist office was just being locked up as we approached it, it closed at 4:30 (today is Sunday), so we couldn't find out the main attractions to see at Fort William and how long they'd be open. I took this as a bad omen and figured other tourist attractions will be closing as well. So we had a late lunch/early dinner at a Scottish pub, complete with fit-throwing child and screaming mother innkeeper. We both had haggis, neeps, and tatties, a traditional Scottish meal. Neeps are turnips, tatties are potatoes. It was delicious. Lorien talked me in to splitting a strawberry milkshake, which was small, expensive, and not very good. Before dinner we had bought some water and cherry cokes, and Lorien asked the convenience store worker when Fort William closed. The worker was confused, because Fort William is a town.

I really should explain these things better to my wife so she doesn't embarass herself, but it is amusing.

We drove back to Drumnadrochit and our B&B, the Woodlands, which is a splendid place. There is wireless here, but it's password-protected and I didn't think to ask before Liz, the proprietor, had left. Our plan tomorrow is to head back to Edinburgh, going to Ennis first to visit J. Hewit and Sons tannery and book bindery. I really can't wait to see that. I'm sure in the afternoon we'll see the royal mile and Edinburgh castle. It should be a really fun day, and if the weather's anything like it is today, it'll be air conditioned all the way.

I've been very lucky on all my visits to Scotland, England, and Ireland, and have had only two rainy days out of about a month total spent in the three places. I've visited in May, July, and August now and always seem to bring nice weather with me.

Well it's time for us to finish up some postcards and take a nice evening stroll around town and mail them out. And hopefully give the midges a miss. I've been bit before, and they're mean little suckers.

By the way, did I mention I spotted Nessie?

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Crawley, UK
Posted in Travel
Morning watch, 8 bells (8:03 am)

Today we stayed in Crawley, where our hotel is. We had a nice sleep-in this morning and a lazy day walking around Crawley. First we visited ASDA, the UK's version of a Wal-Mart. In fact, I think they may be owned by Wal-Mart. We bought some snacks and food, some kinder eggs, and I even found a six-pack of root beer! We also bought a couple of small plastic storage containers to protect the kinder eggs. Hopefully we'll get them home in one piece.

Once again, the Gatwick George Hotel isn't the worst hotel I've stayed in. It certainly has some colorful history: they used to hang people outside it. The gallows are still there! A pub just down the street claims it is haunted by two ghosts—I think we're going to eat dinner there. The hotel, though, is old. There are lots of weird hallways that go up or down a couple of steps, and hallways are frequently interrupted by doors. There is no air conditioning, which is a very big downer in the hot summertime. Our window only opens up a little bit, so it's difficult to get some cool air in the room. Thankfully, though, this room doesn't smell like smoke, although there is an ashtray on the table.

Anyway, back to our walkabout. After dropping stuff off at our room, we went back out to find a post office and check the train times to Gatwick airport for our flight to Edinburgh early tomorrow. It looks like the first train leaves around 5:40 am, which is unfortunately too late for us and we'll be taking a taxi. The Indian guy at the desk (it seems they're all Indian here) said it will take about 15 minutes by taxi to get to Gatwick and should cost around £12.

We stopped at a Wimpy Burger for the novelty of it. I had a barbecue burger that was very good. The chips came with malt vinegar, too. I love the UK.

We picked up our stamps once we found our way to the post office, which was open all day today (Saturday), unlike our post offices back home. From there, we walked through a Games store that only sold Warhammer 40k miniatures. We chatted with the guys there in the shop, they were pretty cool. We were, quite probably, their first American customers ever. Except we didn't buy anything. We also walked through a Woolworth's, where Lorien bought a 3CD set of music and I got four Doctor Who books, two of them at half price. We also went in to another bookstore, where an older man was, for lack of better word, peddling his books. He is an author and was signing copies, but nobody bought any while we were there. Lorien got both of his books autographed, as he's a children's author and she loves that type of book.

After returning to our room again and dropping stuff off, we went back out, scheduled a taxi for 4:30 and a wake-up call for 4:15, then went out to find a geocache nearby. It wasn't very far from the George, although it was a microcache in a film canister. I left an Idaho potato key chain in a plastic bag underneath the container for the next finder.

Now we're back in our room and it's time to repack our stuff before the early flight out in the morning.

Here are a couple of pictures from our day. I am hoping someone can explain the open 24 hours sign to me, I'm terribly confused by it. Also, I found the American Hot Dogs amusing—I've never seen pickled hot dogs before. Also included is a picture of Lorien with David Alric, the author we met today.

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London Take Two
Posted in Travel
Afternoon watch, 4 bells (2:21 pm)

Today we ended our cruise in the same place we started—Dover. We awoke to the sights of the white cliffs out our window, and had to say goodbye. After a quick breakfast and a last run-through of the room, we disembarked into the cacophony that was the Dover docks. People were everywhere digging through luggage and it was slow going out to the buses. We finally got out and to our bus, and to our great delight, Joe, who drove the bus to Leeds and Dover at the beginning of our trip was our driver once again.

First off, we had a long drive back to old London town, which was fairly uneventful. We got off the bus at Greenwich, where we boarded another boat, this time for a cruise down the Thames. It was really hot out at first, but as we approached London, somehow the sun wasn't shining so hotly and it was much more tolerable. Lorien and I both agree that every time we come to London, we always have perfect weather. It has yet to rain on us in London. We cruised from Greenwich all the way to the London Eye. Can you guess what we did next? Yes! It was the London Eye! We also got to hear Big Ben chime off at noon.

From there, we had lunch at the Rembrandt Hotel, it was very good. After that we were off on a bus tour of the town, where we saw lots of the sights you want to see on a trip to London. Fortunately, Lorien and I have already seen them and have pictures of them, so it wasn't as exciting as the first time. In fact, while considering what to do with our second day here tomorrow, we may just stay in the Crawley area (we're staying at the George Hotel in Crawley again, our room is better this time).

We also stopped at the London Temple, which was on the way from London to Crawley, at least on a way anyway, I didn't see a map, but it was fairly close to Crawley. The traffic coming out of London was pretty crazy, and it had been a long day for Joe the driver, and he was pushing it a bit. I told my wife if I ever wanted to do something illegal in London, I would hire Joe as my wheel man. She told him as we were getting off the bus at the hotel. I think he took it as the compliment it was intended as.

London Bridge

Big Ben

The London Eye

The Parliament Building

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Posted in Travel
Afternoon watch, 3 bells (1:55 pm)

Today we saw Amsterdam. Well, not all of it. Since most of the tour bus belonged to the LDS faith, we avoided the infamous red light district and the smoke shops. We did, however have a nice tour of the city, which is really beautiful. I was impressed with the cleanliness and overall feeling of the city. Everyone we ran in to spoke very good English. After a short bus tour, we stopped to see a traditional Dutch courtyard, which was surrounded by homes that only women have lived in for a long, long time. It was quaint, with lots of pretty gardens and no naked statues like you find everywhere else in Europe. Hmm, I wonder why…

We then went to the flower market, which is what Holland is very famous for. We walked the market, which was beautiful, and full of flowers and bulbs of just about every flower imaginable. They also had "starter kits" for growing your own weed. I'm talking about the kind that's legal in Amsterdam. I'll try to include a picture at the end of this post.

From there, we drove out of Amsterdam into the countryside to visit a place where several old-world windmills are still in operation. I think there were five of them, one grinding mustard, one of them ground paint dyes, and I can't remember the rest. There was a clog maker there, and we saw a demonstration of how clogs are made that was extremely fascinating. They use fresh cut poplar and turn the shoe on a lathe with another shoe as a guide, much like the way a key is cut today. In just a few minutes, a copy of a wooden shoe was made. Bob, the young man performing the demonstration, then blew into the hole of the shoe and a lot of water seeped out the wood—that's how fresh it was!

Deciding not to buy wooden shoes (they wouldn't take wooden euros as payment anyway), we proceeded to the cheese factory. They have their job down. They give free samples. We walked out there with many pounds of Dutch cheese, it is to die for.

From the cheese factory, we returned to our ship and had to pack up our stuff. It was sad to be done with the cruise, but it's nice to get away from all the old people, too.

Jailbait starter kit

Lorien goes Dutch

I've never heard of any of this

Dutch Windmill

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Sea Days
Posted in Travel
First watch, 8 bells (12:27 am)

There hasn't been a lot to post because I've spent the last two days at sea. However, I have made several important observations.

First, given an average distribution of people gathered around a karaoke bar, one of them will sing Friends in Low Places. It's some kind of universal law or something. Drives me crazy. I heard it twice yesterday in two different places.

Second, there is some gene present in Asian people, mainly Vietnamese, that prevents them from waiting in line. By the way, have I told you how much I hate hearing the Vietnamese language? It's so nasal and ugly sounding. Give me Mandarin any day—or even Cantonese. Just not Vietnamese.

Third, you will never meet more rude old people than on a cruise ship. It's like they feel they're entitled to everything they see without care for anyone else. Old Vietnamese people are even worse.

Well, I should end this rant, it's not really going anywhere. I'm currently sliding through the locks on the way in to Amsterdam. This is the last full day of our cruise, and it's gone by all too fast. We still have several days before returning home, but the nice easy days of floating on the ocean are nearing an end. I shall endeavor to take some great pictures of Amsterdam and post them sometime tonight or tomorrow, whenever I can get to it.

Tomorrow we return to London for two more days, then two days in and around Edinburgh.

Here is a picture of us on approach to Amsterdam and the morning sunrise.

Lighthouse on approach to Amsterdam

Sailboat at sunrise outside Amsterdam

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Tallinn, Estonia
Posted in Travel
Morning watch, 5 bells (6:44 am)

Today we had a nice half-day tour of Tallinn. Now, when I think of Estonia, I think of an ex-Russian holding that eeks out (that's a joke, their currency is the EEK) a living while trying to recover from communism. Not so, Tallinn. This is a beautiful city, and their Old Town is a Unesco World Heritage site. It's full of really old buildings and cobbled streets that are murder on your feet if you've been walking everywhere for the last several days.

We left the ship at about 8:30am, shortly after it docked in Estonia. There was a short bus ride into the town, where we saw the President's house, Peter the Great's house, Catherine's something-or-other, and the parliament building. There was also this cool statue near the ocean, almost right on the beach, commemorating a Russian ship that sank off the coast in the late 1800's. The statue was built in 1902, and all around the outside of the monument are carved the names of the Russian Seamen that were lost. Most people here speak very good English, we didn't have any trouble at all talking to the shopkeepers. We saw a cathedral that wasn't very exciting, so while everyone else was still going through it, Lorien and I jumped out and bought some postcards and stamps. We ended up forgetting to bring our address labels with us, but we still got all our postcards out before the ship closed up. Right now I'm waiting for the ship to leave the port, I can feel that the engines have just started up.

Anyway, back to the travelogue. The Old Town of Tallinn was wonderful—it was clean and friendly and bright. There were an absolute ton of souvenir shops (aka tourist crap) as well as quite a few artists. We bought a watercolor for $20, painted by a man just sitting on the street selling his art. We had some time to walk around the Old Town, which was very nice. There were ladies dressed in what must be traditional Estonian dresses selling postcards and tourist books, we bought our postcards and stamps from one of them. She was very bad at math and I had to help her with the amount of change from a €20 bill when you buy €12.54 worth of stuff. I didn't think it was that difficult, but her English was good, and I'd rather her have good English than good math (as long as I still have good math skills).

We're off to do some laundry and then to dinner and a private art exhibition. Should be exciting, as there's quite a line for the laundromat today. I guess we're not the only ones to travel light and wash clothes as we go.

What you buy in Tallinn is seized by the US authorities. At least in this case…

Swiss Cannabis Iced Tea: Fantastic Natural Feeling

Here is the statue dedicated to the lost Russian lives off the coast of Tallinn.

Monument in Tallinn to a Russian vessel

This abstract little statue was defaced to make it look more like a duck.

Abstract statue, graffiti makes it look like a duck

This one looks like it's dead. I live for this kind of urban graffiti.

Abstract statue, graffiti makes it look like a dead duck

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St. Petersburg, Russia: Day Two
Posted in Travel
Morning watch, 5 bells (6:41 am)

Today was a lot easier than yesterday. Our tour left the ship a little later than most of the other ones, we didn't leave until 9:30. That worked out great, because we were able to breeze right through immigration this time and get right on board our bus. And not the janky one from yesterday morning. I'm talking about the nice one from the afternoon. We started our day off by intending to go to the Hermitage museum, but ended up driving to the Chuch of the Spilled Blood first. We stopped in the rain to take a few pictures. We returned to the Hermitage for a two-hour self-guided tour of the museum. There were too many of us to want to stick to a group and be guided around by a lady that has a really rough Russian accent and says "um" all the time (seriously, it was every other word!) Lorien and I saw the Egyptian room first. Despite being relatively small, compared to Egyptian displays in London anyway, it had some really nice tablets, sarcophagi, and even an unwrapped mummy! The Hermitage was nice, but if you've been to the Louvre in Paris the Hermitage is a far, far second.

For some reason, today but mostly yesterday there were a boatload of Russian brides all over the city. We started playing "spot the bride" after a while, then it just got too boring and easy.

We also toured many renaissance paintings, but they get old and boring after you've seen a bunch of them. Really, how many suffering Jesuses and female breasts (painted or sculpted) can you see in one day without losing touch with reality? After the palace, we went out for lunch, which ended up being in this nice little cafe, but we overwhelmed the two girls working there. Things got pretty crazy because they handed out the food, then afterwards tried to come around and collect money when they didn't even remember what they passed out. We ended up being held late because they couldn't account for a salad that nobody paid for. We're pretty sure it was the fat couple, because after receiving and opening one, they "didn't want it anymore" and handed it off somewhere. Anyway, we had some nice desserts and a coke.

We left next for a boat ride, which was spectacular. The weather had been rainy, but it ended up stopping and our ride was cloudy but there was no rain at all. We rode right by the Church of the Spilled Blood again, and saw other famous buildings as well. After the boat ride, we went back to the shop next to the cafe we had lunch at. The shop was called Red October. They sell tons of tourist crap at reasonable prices. My wife and I aren't in to knick-knacks and little souvenirs that break a few weeks after you get them home, so we didn't buy any. I did, however, purchase a t-shirt. I'll include a picture at the end of the post.

After shopping, we headed back to the ship for some much-needed rest. Unfortunately, I ended up watching us sail out of port and stood on deck for about 3 more hours as we passed by ships, submarines, and other sailing vessels. At one point, we passed a Russian destroyer off our port side. The Russians were out waving their arms, one of them without a shirt on, and taking pictures of us cruising by them. We were all waving back and taking pictures of them as well. There weren't a lot of us on deck, though. It's unfortunate that so many people missed such a site. I don't think it would have been like this 20 years ago, maybe even 10.

It was a real experience visiting Russia. I don't know if I'd do it again, there were quite a few dodgy things going on, and they're really not set up for tourism, but I'm glad I can now say I've been there and done that.

The Church of the Spilled Blood

The Church of the Spilled Blood

I have no idea what this sign means. I think it means run as fast as you can across the street because drivers don't watch out for pedestrians or something.

Weird Russian street sign of men running

Here is the destroyer we passed with the crew out on deck watching us float on by

Russian destroyer we passed out of St. Petersburg

Here are the subs I told you about.

Russian subs we passed out of St. Petersburg

Here's the t-shirt I got.

McLenin's t-shirt, awesome

The party is over

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St. Petersburg Russia, Day One
Posted in Travel
Afternoon watch, 3 bells (1:46 pm)

Yesterday we saw St. Petersburg. The shipyards here are immense. I'm told that a large percentage of the old Russian naval ships were built here, and given the amount of room, cranes, etc I believe it. We started the day off waiting to take the tour. We had conflicting information from the Russian authorities as to the debarkation process, which was not terribly confusing, but seemed to take forever. Perhaps that's because they had maybe four immigrations officers to handle a ship of over 3,000 people. But we cleared easily, they didn't even ask us any questions. We found our bus shortly thereafter, and wish we hadn't. Our real bus had broken down, and the one awaiting us was terrible. It was an old, broken-down city bus that smelled terrible, had fumes coming inside the cabin area, and a hodgpodge of seats you wouldn't believe.

We headed directly for Peterhof, the palace of Peter the Great, where we were to have our longest stop and by which time we should have our replacement bus. Peterhof was amazing, the grounds were beautiful, and the fountain with all the gold statues was nigh-unbelievable. I think they outshined the interior, although it was very posh with its giant gold-leaf picture frames, artwork, silk walls, and decorations. The lines to get in to Peterhof were terribly long, they let only a few people in at a time. You also had to wear little blue booties over our shoes. The floors were mostly inlaid wood. They also had two Chinese themed rooms that were beautiful, but you couldn't take pictures in them.

After Peterhof, we drove by the Church of the Spilled Blood, where we got stuck for about 20 minutes in traffic because about 20 couples were getting married and had left their limos and stretched hummers all over the street and cars couldn't pass by. Apparently Russians need to carry their brides over a bridge when they get married. It's probably a throwback to some ritual pillaging of villages and carrying off women or something. Anyway, everybody was getting very cranky because the janky bus had no air conditioning, just like a normal old city bus and it was hot outside. Combined with the nauseous fumes, it was a tough ride.

We got to have lunch in this cafe, which was a little expensive, but had really nice atmosphere. A group of people within our group were really cool and ordered a huge lunch, when most everyone else bailed out and left the cafe because they felt $10-12 for lunch was "way too much." In (most) of their defense, we had a rough day and it just wasn't expected. Myself, I feel that when I travel just like in regular life, I try to take things as they happen and roll with the punches. Things rarely end up being perfect.

Whatever the case, after that we saw a fortress, the name escapes me. The square outside was cobbled with stones from all over Russia by Peter something-or-other (the Great, I think). He required people to pay their entrance in stone or be taxed, and used the stones to pave the square. Nice idea, that. After that place, we had a quick run through St. Isaac's cathedral (at least that's what my wife tells me was the name). We literally walked in one end and walked out the other without stopping, because we didn't have much time. After the cathedral, our group split into two: one returning to the ship; the other heading off to see a folk dance called "Feel Yourself Russian." The singing and dancing were great, despite the fact that none of us understood the words to the songs. The performers themselves came out before and after the show and during intermission to sell DVDs, CDs, and other souvenirs from the show. We asked one man during the intermission what he did since we hadn't seen him perform yet, and he said he sang in the second part. I replied "SO they save the best for last, eh?" to which he replied, "No, I'm a tenor, you're a bass." Best, bass, same difference in Russia.

Lorien wanted to pick up the DVD of the show, which we did so we can share it with everyone back home. After the show finished around 8:30pm, we took the bus back to the ship and tried to get some dinner. The dining rooms had closed at 9pm, we were about 15 minutes too late, so we headed up to the Lido deck and had some panini goodness.

Here is a picture of the fountains at Peterhof:

Peterhof Fountains

Here is a picture of a Russian playing an accordion:

Russian accordion player

Here is a picture of a Russian playing a very small accordion:

A Russian playing a very small accordion

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Helsinki, Finland
Posted in Travel
Afternoon watch, 2 bells (1:04 pm)

We saw Helsinki yesterday, it was a lot smaller than I thought it would be. Our tour guide had the most wonderful way of rolling her Rs, she did it with everything. The weather was gorgeous despite a cool forecast. Everyone was very friendly and spoke excellent English.

We got to the open air market a little early, and the ice cream kiosks weren't open yet. Apparently, because of the late evening sunlight (or White Night) in Helsinki (it's at 60° North Latitude!), people stay out late and sleep in. I can't argue much with that, I'd do it too if I could. We had some very tasty licorice, the real black stuff, not the red American licorice.

We saw many beautiful statues and fountains, Helsinki is quaint and I think would be a wonderful place to live. Since most of our tour group belongs to the LDS faith, we also saw the new Helsinki Temple.

When we returned downtown, we were going to see a free organ recital at a church, but it ended up not being available for us to see, so we spent our time in the square watching a marching band, taking pictures, and giving money to one of those statue guys that stands really still until you drop some money in his/her hat, then they do something cool. I would much rather give money to someone this way than as a beggar homeless on the streets. At least this is honest. Anyway, the guy was all green, he looked really cool. I dropped our coins into his had, a little over €2.50, he turned, smiled, and then tore off a piece of his costume, which turned out to be paper mache! Lorien has this piece in her journal.

We bought some extra licorice and some chocolate to bring home. Here is a picture of a monument to a Finnish composer and Lorien posing at a souvenir shop. Finnish souvenirs?? Heck, we haven't even started!

Finnish Composer monument

Helsinki Souvenir shop

Berlin, Germany
Posted in Travel
First watch, 7 bells (11:38 pm)

Today we were in Berlin, Germany. Our ship docked in Warnemunde, which is about a 2.5 hour bus ride from Berlin. On our way to Berlin, the bus stopped at a McDonalds in a rest stop, where everyone got out to pay to use the bathroom, only to return to the bus and find that there is a free, albeit small, bathroom on the bus.

The road to Berlin was scenic, with lots of new windmills like we saw in Copenhagen, and one really old-fashioned windmill as well. There were lots of forests, and cars passed us going double our speed or more with regularity.

We arrived in East Berlin and picked up our guide. Our bus driver didn't speak any English, which is, nowadays, fairly odd for German people. Our guide was very knowledgeable and smart, but not the most terribly interesting person. You could tell he has a lot of architectural knowledge because of his

extensive descriptions of buildings and architects. We mostly drove around Berlin in the bus, because there were a lot of tourists at the main attractions, and also because it was raining.

Let me just say this one thing about Berlin—it's huge. There was so much we saw that I can't even remember it all. The downside about being on the bus all day is that I didn't get as many pictures as I usually do. I took 38 pictures in Berlin, as opposed to over 200 in Copenhagen. Pictures just don't come out very well when they're taken through a rainy window, so I mostly didn't bother.

Overall, I would also have to say that this wasn't my favorite shore excursion. But then again, I didn't have a lot of expectations for Berlin, either. I did get to see all the most famous bits, from the TV tower to the Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, and the holocaust memorial. Now that I've been there, I can say that I've seen them, and have no need to return.

We stopped at around 2:30 for lunch at the Sony Center. When Sony bought the land for their technology center, it came with the requirement that they preserve the facade of an old hotel that was well-loved by some important past person whose name I can't remember. So to flex their techno-muscles, Sony had it lifted hydraulically and then shifted over so they had the room to build what they wanted. The Josty Cafe/Restaurant, where we had lunch, was a nice, reasonably priced place. The service was quick and the food was delicious. Since we were in a large group, our tour guide had arranged reservations ahead of time, but he was in the back of the group. Six or seven of us entered first, and were approached by a nice waitress that coughed up a lungful of German at us and we all stood there quiet and looked at her. Without missing a beat, she said "Hello!" and we all responded with a sigh of relief that she spoke English. It was really funny.

The bus also had a funny picture about how to use the bathroom. It was a bit more graphic than it needed to be. Basically, I think it says that if you're urban and down with wearing your hat backwards, then you shouldn't pee standing up. You should put your hat on normally, then sit on the toilet and pee.

This is how you should pee

Copenhagen, Denmark
Posted in Travel
Afternoon watch, 2 bells (1:23 pm)

I'm beat, and have a lot of things to do before I hit the sack tonight and get up early for tomorrow, so I'll have to keep this as brief as possible.

Yesterday we had a day at sea as we sailed to Denmark, so there wasn't anything to blog about other than the day before, which I wrote about in the morning.

We hit the ground running in Copenhagen at 7:30am, where we immediately saw the statue of the Little Mermaid, which is somehow an iconic symbol of Copenhagen now. It was recently beheaded and has been painted every color. It was fully together, though, and you couldn't tell it had been defaced or even painted.

From there we did a driving and walking tour of Copenhagen with a great tour guide named Gordon Bayless. He even got us a good driver. Man that guy could drive a bus! He could parallel park that behemoth on a dime. It was something else.

Back to the tour, though. The weather looked chilly and rainy when we walked out on the deck, but as soon as we got out into town, it was warm and often a little too sunny. We saw their fancy library, numerous statues (it is Europe, after all), and a castle that looked more like a manor house to me. Castles need to have crenellated walls and towers to be called castles in my book. In any case, it also housed the crown jewels, which are always a sight to behold in any nation which has a collection called "the crown jewels." They had an amethyst nearly as big as my clenched fist.

We got back to the port, bought ten postcards and stamps, then proceeded to write them and send them off to our friends and family back home.

Standing on the Lido deck of the ship, looking back down to the harbor, we spied another mermaid statue which I will call The Big Mermaid and leave it to you to determine why.

The Little Mermaid:

The Little Mermaid

The Big Mermaid:

The Big Mermaid

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Day Two: Leeds Castle, Canterbury Cathedral
Posted in Travel
First watch, 7 bells (11:47 pm)

Today started off early. As you know, we had a few late nights lately, and turned in a little early last night. I woke up at 2am this morning feeling wide awake. That's jet lag for you. I could not get back to sleep no matter how long I lay there pretending I was still tired. My wife got up around 5am so I used that as an excuse to get my laptop online and finish writing yesterday's post. I was so beat I could barely type. Every couple of letters was another typo, it was terrible. And I've been typing for a few years. My brain was run down. Fortunately the seven hours of sleep I got was enough to get me through today. My M.O. when traveling has always been stay up as late as possible and never nap.

So we stayed in the Gatwick George Hotel in Crawley. It wasn't fancy, but it was a bed (albeit small), cheap, and pretty easy access from the mass transit system here in Britain, being about a 10 minute walk from Crawley train station.

Suffice to say, I was a bit surprised when we went downstairs at 6:45 am looking for breakfast and was told it didn't start until 7:30. What's this? A hotel near a major airport (Gatwick) without an early breakfast. Then I realized it was Sunday, which may explain this situation. I'm still not sure, though.

Anyway, after enjoying a fantastic breakfast (it really was good, the hotel was just a little run-down) we took our luggage outside and met with John and Kerry, our cruise buddies from last year. They were in the same hotel (we thought that may have been the case, but didn't know for sure) and had brought their daugher Jessica and Kerry's sister Molly. We waited a little while for the bus to show up, loaded our luggage, and took off for Leeds Castle.

The one or two of you that follow this blog on a regular basis may know that a few years ago (in 2005) I actually went to Leeds Castle. Yes, it's true. But this time we got to do things we didn't have time for last time, such as solving the hedge maze, and running to all the bronze rubbing stations (this was new in 2007). There was a surprise at the end of the maze, an underground grotto with cool sculptures, light effects, and a narrator reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, or parts of it, at least. I suppose that would have been a long narration for such a short grotto. Had we known about the grotto last time we'd have been very upset at not having the time to complete it, but it came as a pleasant surprise.

After Leeds Castle, we all boarded our tour bus and then waited for the three couples that decided the deadline didn't apply to them and made us all late for our next stop, Canterbury Cathedral. Lorien was "tactfully" loud about the need for dunce hats or some other signifier that says I ignored the rules and made everyone else late when you look at it.

We left for Canterbury, but due to some conference it was only open to the public for a short time, this time being the organ music and chanting time. That was cool, because everyone knows the acoustics in old cathedrals are the best. Anyway, I got a bunch more nice pictures, mostly of the beautiful stained glass windows. We had just a short time before we had to board the bus again and head straight for Dover, where our ship awaited us.

We boarded quickly this time, probably because the majority of people had already boarded the ship. Last year on our cruise it took forever to get through the line and we didn't even have any luggage with us due to the airline's mishandling of it.

So we made it on board, found our room, sought out some virgin piña coladas, and made it back to our room just in time for life vest drills. The drills were boring but required. My feet were hurting pretty bad. Despite being told to wait and not don our preservers, 95% of people were already putting them on. We waited until so instructed, but I guess that's just how we sail.

After the drills came dinner, a fabulous event where I was very good about not stuffing my face…until dessert. I really ate very light until they brought out that evil menu. I had two desserts: creme brulee and Carnival's famous widely-craved Warm Chocolate Melting Cake.

After dinner was the infamous John Heald's Welcome Aboard show. It was funny, but similar to the one he put on last year for the Freedom. I think it was funnier the first time we saw it.

Following the show, we stayed for a trivia game with maybe 15 other people. We didn't win. After that we found our meeting point for our excursions, picked up information on connecting to the Internet, and made our way back to our room, where I began writing this post after a satisfyingly cleansing shower.

Despite the need for more sleep and the large number of hours I've been up (it's approaching 22 hours now), I'm trying to hang on for a few more minutes because tomorrow is a day at sea and we don't have much planned except for sleeping in.

Leeds Castle

Macaw picking beak with its own feather

The Leeds Cast Hedge Maze

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