Sunday, December 23, 2012

Riding Lake Whatcom Railway's Santa Train

Yesterday we went for a ride on Lake Whatcom Railway's Santa Train with Riley, Blane, Jace, and their parents. It's about an hour's drive from our house. The day was wet (we were envious of Riley's rubber boots as we trudged through the muddy parking area) but it was good fun.

Before the ride...

Once on the train, we sat for a half hour waiting for delayed customers to show up (don't think they ever made it). Jace generally enjoyed himself with Grandma and others to entertain him...

John applauds Blane's strategy to build up antibodies in his immune system...

Santa arrives and he is indeed a Jolly Old Elf...

At the end of the line, the engine rumbles past us on a siding to hook up to the other end of our three-car train for the return trip.

On the ride back we stop for 10 minutes to look at a waterfall. Grandma stays on the train with Jace and Grandpa wimpishly protects his running shoes by pretending to avoid the muddy path to the falls so he can take a couple of more photos...

The train creeps along and the roughly two-hour round trip doesn't cover many miles. Surprisingly, our grandkids enjoy the scenery and the trip, showing great patience during the 30-minute delay.

As a reward, Grandpa buys everybody hot chocolate, cider, or coffee, and the excursion proves to be a success, despite the delays and the rainy weather.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Here And There

Taegan and Jake in the "Holiday Concert" at Watson Elementary School, Chilliwack...

Jake is the elf in the middle...

Riley at the Lutheran pre-school, Mt. Vernon...

Jace and Grandma...

Thursday, December 20, 2012

British Columbia's New Port Mann Bridge: Oops!

We crossed the Fraser River on the old Port Mann Bridge on our way to Vancouver hundreds of times.

The new Port Mann Bridge opened just a few weeks ago. It's the second longest bridge in North America and will be the widest bridge in the world once all 10 lanes are in operation.

It's a toll bridge with automated payment through license plate readers We've already signed up online for a windshield decal and automatic payment.

We're looking forward to our first trip over the new bridge and were intrigued to hear yesterday that the entire bridge had been closed in both directions for four hours, causing a monumental traffic jam during a Lower Mainland rush hour. Why?

Whether resulting from a design flaw or some less obvious reason, ice built up on the suspension cables and started dropping in large chunks on cars. The most recent radio reports state that at least two people were injured and upwards of 100 motorists have filed insurance claims.

The politicians are screaming and the contractor is promising to take steps to fix it. Apparently some other cable-stayed bridges around the world, as close as the Tacoma-Narrows Bridge (built by the same contractor) have had "ice issues."

Not exactly a grand opening...

Buying Airline Elite Status

We've earned 1K status on United Airlines for quite a few years simply by flying a lot.

The Wall Street Journal's airline writer, Scott McCartney, points out in a typically interesting View From The Wing column that on at least one airline you can attain top tier status by forking over $4000.

It's worth a read here.

The Short Path to First Class

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Birch Bay Sunrise

Snow is predicted today and it could be an interesting day to drive down I-5 to Mt. Vernon. This is the view from our front porch.

Red sky at morning, sailors take warning;
Red sky at night, sailors delight.

Do orange skies count?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Weather Outside Is Frightful

Let it snow, as Frank Sinatra and a bunch of other singers have sung.

We left fairly early this morning to drive down to Issaquah to visit with three of our favorite grandchildren.

The drive down was fine - I-5 is quiet at 7:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning - and we enjoyed ourselves immensely with Avery, Peyton, and Lily. Our activities included play, lunch at Red Robin, and ice-cream at Baskin-Robbins.

Driving home included wind and a hard driving rain from Issaquah to Everett, and more wind and snow from Bellingham onward that started sticking to the road on our drive back to Birch Bay.

It's nice to be home.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Our 2012 Travel Stats - But Who's Counting?

We didn't fly as many miles as the whopping (for us) 130,000 miles we flew in our 2011 wanderings, but we still covered some ground by air, land, and sea with paid flights totaling just over 100,000 miles on United and Air Canada, plus a couple of thousand miles on Jet Airways in India.

We feel very modest about our flying record in comparison to some of our FlyerTalk friends. Consider, for example, Tom Stuker, who this year alone flew more than one million miles.

We also flew on points (airline miles) one-way from Seattle to Frankurt in Lufthansa First Class. Our schedule of major trips by the month looks like this...

India with Tom, Ellyn, and Haley
Switzerland, Austria and Slovak Republic
Amtrak to New Orleans with Greg, June, Tom and Ellyn
Oz Fest in Canberra Australia via London
Venice and Mediterranean cruise on Oceania's new Riviera
Labor Day with our seven grandchildren
Welcoming Jace Brian Hildenbrand, Grandchild Number Eight
Amtrak with Tom and Ellyn from Seattle to Albuquerque
Road trip home via Farmington, Durango, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Reno
Transatlantic on Riviera: Barcelona to Miami
Road trip to Westbank BC to visit Dennis and Maureen

It was a much quieter travel year than some of our previous ones, but we managed another major house renovation too, converting a large multi-purpose room into a lovely bedroom and a well-organized laundry room.

We're among those who feel betrayed by United Airlines when they reduced the lifetime benefits of Million Mile Flyers like us and we've even let our United Club membership lapse. We're rooting for the success of the class action suit that was filed earlier this year. As paid lifetime members of UA's now defunct Silver Wings Plus program who have been unable to book the fares since the program shut down, we're hoping the class action suit filed on behalf of lifetime members is also successful.

We're also annoyed by the invasive custodial-style searches we endure at the hands of the TSA when we opt out of the X-ray scanners. That takes some of the fun out of air travel.

Despite all of the above, we've enjoyed our year of travel and look forward to more in the New Year.

Along the way in 2012 we added India, Croatia and Ionian Islands (Corfu) to our list of countries, based on the Century Travelers' Club list of 321 entities, a total of 87 "countries" to date. You'll notice the list includes a lot of places that aren't sovereign countries, but it's one harmless way to keep tabs.

Pacific Ocean
French Polynesia (Tahiti,Tuamotu, Austral, Gambier)
Hawaiian Islands
New Zealand
North America
U.S. (continental)
Central America
Belize (British Honduras)
Costa Rica
South America
Antigua & Deps. (Barbuda, Redonda)
Cayman Islands
Dominican Republic
Leeward Islands, French (St. Martin)
Puerto Rico
St. Barts
St. Kitts
St. Lucia
St. Maarten (formerly Netherlands Antilles)
Turks and Caicos Islands
Virgin Islands, U.S. (St. Croix, St. John, St. Thomas)
Virgin Islands, British (Tortola, etc.)
Atlantic Ocean
Azores Islands
Canary Islands
Cape Verde Islands
Europe and Mediterranean
Balearic Islands (Mallorca, Minorca)
Czech Republic
Ionian Islands (Corfu, etc.)
Ireland (Eire)
Ireland, Northern (Ulster)
Turkey in Europe (Istanbul)
Vatican City
Senegal (plane refueling)
South Africa
Middle East
Indian Ocean
China, People's Rep.
Hong Kong
Korea, North (DMZ)
Korea, South
Turkey in Asia

We managed to qualify again for top-tier status both with Hilton and Starwood. Believe it or not, the only flight already on our 2013 itinerary is one on points to New Zealand and Australia in May. We suspect there will be other travels in the coming year.

B.C. Okanagan: Westbank To Peachland

Dennis and Maureen treat us to a drive along Okanagan Lake as far south as the small town of Peachland. At Peachland's annual Fall Fair Maureen has won tons of prizes for her crafts over the years.

Are we exaggerating? See for yourself here who won the trophies for highest aggregate points both for needlework and handicrafts
in 2012. Their granddaughter Paige has inherited Maureen's talent and also won the highest aggregate award in the 9- to 11-year-old girls' category. It looks as if the fair has had to set up exclusive categories reserved for "Peachland residents" so that Westbankers don't walk away with all of the hardware.

Today, however, our itinerary includes a breezy and surprisingly chilly walk along the lakefront (why are we surprised to at a coolish temperature in the Okanagan in mid-December?), with the reward of hot soup at a quaint German restaurant in Peachland proper. As Brian has joked before, it's the kind of place offering all the charm of Europe without crowds of Europeans to get in the way.

In this neighborhood, if your budget permits it you can park your own seaplane at your dock (see foreground below).

The timing is perfect after a chilly stroll for an early lunch at Gasthaus on the Lake.
We briefly wander through what must be the world's smallest German Christmas market before entering the restaurant itself.

This joint gets good reviews - we'll have to try it again. It was great to see Dennis and Maureen.

From there it's back over the Coquihalla on one of the easiest drives ever, a stop in Chilliwack to visit with Jake and Taegan (and their parents), followed by dinner at Boston Pizza. The service is horribly slow (it's "Pasta Tuesday") and the food isn't all that good, but the company is excellent.

Then we make a quick but rainy drive home and relax
with a good night's sleep after our 500-mile round trip.

Bonus - the weather report claims it won't rain today. We'll see.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Westbank British Columbia: Amerigo's Nuraghe Restaurant

We enjoyed our drive up the Coquihalla Highway and the Coquihalla Connector to Westbank, or West Kelowna as it's now officially known.

We're visiting Dennis and Maureen and all went to dinner at a great little Italian restaurant not far from their house that's tucked away in the corner of a strip mall, Amerigo's Nuraghe Caffe.

Signor Amerigo is the owner, waiter, and chef, and for most of our Monday evening dinner we were the only diners. Just before we left, another small group entered.

Amerigo is from Sardinia, which explains the word "Nuraghe" in the restaurant's name.

What a fine little independent restaurant it is - we ordered a variety of pasta dishes and all thoroughly enjoyed our meals.

Little Cat Feet?

Carl Sandburg wrote "The fog comes on little cat feet."

No need for a room with a view today... we could barely see anything through a fog that must have galloped in this morning.

It's starting to lift somewhat as we write this around 10:00 a.m.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

B.C. Road Trip: First Stop Surrey

We're on the road again and planning three days in Beautiful British Columbia with visits to family along the way.

We're staying at the Sheraton Vancouver Guildford Hotel on the same floor and maybe even in the same room as we did last year. One difference: it's foggy and dark and even from our window we can't see the flag.

Just today we read a complaint on Trip Advisor about a recent break-in a guest suffered to his car parked in the underground garage. The desk clerk sadly confirmed that, and said they're now closing the gate at 10:00 p.m., which would at least make the thieves work an earlier shift. With memories of a similar break-in to our car in Seattle about 15 Christmases ago, in which a side window was broken and over a thousand dollars worth of presents from relatives and personal belongings were stolen, we've brought just about everything up to our room.

A decade ago Surrey held the dubious honor of being the car theft capital of North America, but apparently that's changed for the better.

Still, forewarned is forearmed - besides, we've heard too many "Surrey jokes" over the years not to be cautious.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Docking At Santa Cruz de La Palma, Canary Islands

The Canary Islands, a semi-autonomous part of Spain, are an island chain located off the northwestern coast of Africa, with Arrecife in the East only about 60 miles from Morocco.

Incidentally, the history of the name "canary" is even more interesting than we realized. Most of us have heard that Islas Canarias were named because wild dogs - Latin Canariae - were found there. The Wikipedia entry provides some fascinating (to us) and exhaustive detail about the various theories of the etymology:

Contrary to its name, the islands have little to nothing to do with the canary bird. Rather, it is the bird that is named after the islands, not the converse. The name Islas Canarias is likely derived from the Latin name Canariae Insulae, meaning "Island of the Dogs", a name applied originally only to Gran Canaria. According to the historian Pliny the Elder, the Mauritanian king Juba II named the island Canaria because it contained "vast multitudes of dogs of very large size".

Another speculation is that the so-called dogs were actually a species of Monk Seals (canis marinus or "sea dog" was a Latin term for 'seal'), critically endangered and no longer present in the Canary Islands. The dense population of seals may have been the characteristic that most struck the few ancient Romans who established contact with these islands by sea.

Alternatively, it is said that the original inhabitants of the island, Guanches, used to worship dogs, mummified them and treated dogs generally as holy animals. The ancient Greeks also knew about a people, living far to the west, who are the "dog-headed ones", who worshipped dogs on an island. Some hypothesize that the Canary Islands dog-worship and the ancient Egyptian cult of the dog-headed god, are closely connected but there is no explanation given as to which one was first.

Other theories speculate that the name comes from a reported Berber tribe living in the Moroccan Atlas, named in Roman sources as Canarii. Though Pliny again mentions the relation of this term with dogs.

The connection to dogs is retained in their depiction on the islands' coat-of-arms...
We stop in at Santa Cruz de La Palma, our final port before crossing the Atlantic to Miami. Two small military ships dock about the same time and the crew expends a considerable amount of energy marching up and down and around the dock. Whether the ceremony represents a change of command, some other significant occasion, or simply an opportunity for organized exercise we'll never know.

We wonder if they're Spanish Coast Guard cutters, but a little post-trip research reveals they're probably Spanish Navy corvettes, given that Las Palmas de Gran Canaria is the headquarters of one of the navy's four command zones.

We hop on the free shuttle and find the old town near the port pleasant to wander around for a couple of hours before returning.

We reboard Riviera in time to watch some marching from our balcony. First the sailors line up for inspection.

Then they march in our general direction.

Then they march back.

After that, they line up again and circle the entire parking area, but we figure we've already snapped enough marching photos. In fairness, it's clear there's not much marching room and only so many variations to the route.

After all that excitement we gaze a final time at the colorful buildings and ready ourselves with another dose of Meclizine (generic Bonine) to sail across the Atlantic.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Boats of Arrecife Spain

As we described at the time, we didn't find all that much to see in Arrecife, and were content to wander around a pleasant promenade for awhile and to snap a few photos of boats and more boats at low tide.

Spain's economy is very bad at the moment. We saw a lot of vacant buildings and again noticed men of working age just sitting around in small groups. There are probably some good real estate deals to be had but this one is already se vende (sold) according to the sign posted near the left. Darn!

We catch the shuttle bus back to Riviera see a sea of orange as most of the crew are on the dock participating in a major training drill. We've never seen such a sight in all of our cruising and we gather this was yet another task to be completed on Riviera's maiden voyage into U.S. waters. Luckily for the employees, it was neither too hot nor pouring rain.