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Markus' Travel and International Living Blog

Markus is an enthusiastic traveler, who lives in Houston, TX (USA) most of the time, but also spends some time in Saalfelden, near Salzburg (Austria). He is fascinated by travel and also by his experiences gathered by living in two different countries and continents.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Watching the L.A. Kings vs. Detroit Red Wings in L.A.

We are in L.A. this week for Microsoft PDC 2008. As luck would have it, this conference is at the L.A. Convention Center, which is practically one big complex with the Staples Center. This is where the L.A. Kings play (and also the L.A. Lakers…). So I took a few minutes and walked over to the stadium (after checking on the web first) to see what games were on, and – even more luck – it turned out the Kings played the Detroit Red Wings (current NHL champions) that very night. And – most lucky of all – tickets were still available, since L.A. is not really a “hockey town”. (Try getting into an NHL game with the Stanley Cup Champions playing in Canada for instance…).

So we got some very good tickets (12th row behind the L.A. goalie) for $76 each, which isn’t bad all things considered. And it was worth every penny! I expected the Kings to be overrun by the Red Wings, but the game was very close and exciting. (At one point, a Kings player was taken into the boards so hard the glass broke!). The Kings even lead up to less than 2 minutes before the end, when a defensive error allowed the equalizer and sent the game to overtime. There was lots of action in overtime as well, but no goals were scored, so the game had to go to a shoot-out. It doesn’t get much better than that! :-)

In the end, the Red Wings won the shoot-out. I am sure they were glad (you could really imagine the locker room talk: “c’mon guys… we can’t loose against the Kings!…”) and the Kings wasted a great opportunity. But at least they were rewarded with a point.



Posted @ 2:25 AM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
Comments (91)


Sunday, October 19, 2008
Splash, Dash, and a Wedding, at the Sandals Resort in Jamaica

This year, we decided to skip the usual July 4th celebrations and instead head down to Jamaica for a long weekend and to get my good friend, fellow speaker, and partner of many late night crimes in Las Vegas and Orlando, Nick Landry (a.k.a. “ActiveNick”) married off. We were joined by Alan Griver and Beth Massi, who had a layover in Houston on their way from Seattle/San Francisco, so they decided to hang out with us for a night and celebrate the occasion with a fabulous dinner at Guri do Sul, the new Brazilian steakhouse we have nearby.

Going to Jamaica from Houston is pretty straightforward. It’s a 3 hour direct flight into Montego Bay at a somewhat reasonable (although not cheap) price. The one thing you need to be aware of is that you need a passport that is valid for at least 6 more months. I got lucky, because I made it in with about 5 days to spare (and getting another passport from the Austrian embassy would have taken forever… I since had mine renewed back home with took only 10 days… although in the past you could do it on the spot). Anyway: Entry is fairly painless although somewhat time consuming.

We stayed at the Sandals Resort in Dunn’s River, which is one of Jamaica’s nicest resorts. It is a beautiful resort and I would recommend it to anyone willing to spend the money. The resort itself is nice and offers all sorts of entertainment. It is an all-inclusive resort, meaning that you do not need any cash at all while you are at the resort, and in fact, you are not even allowed to tip. No matter what you want, you just walk up to a bar or restaurant and get it. And contrary to what you may often hear about all inclusive resorts, the service was good and reasonably fast for Caribbean standards. In other words: I don’t think it would have been any faster if it was a cash-bar system.


The beach at the Sandals Resort is quite nice, and generally not all too busy…


…because most people like to stay at the pool, which is sometimes so packed, you can hardly see the water.

The resort can get pretty busy, but most people seem to stay at the pool (or, more accurately: in the pool chairs). This is great if you like the sandy beach better than the concrete slab around the pool, since you will always be able to find a few empty chairs.

The only real downside with this resort (besides the hefty price tag) is that it is pretty far from the Montego Bay airport (about a 90 minute ride in a hot and smelly bus). Add up the ride to the airport, flight, immigration procedures, wait for the bus, and bus ride to the hotel, and you end up with a wasted day. The same goes for the way back, especially since you have entry in the US as well as a lengthy border procedure when you leave Jamaica (which is pretty unusual and the only other time leaving a country has taken me that long was on a trip to Israel). That is a bummer, because it means if you have 4 days for a short trip, then half that time is wasted with travel, which means there are many better destinations than the Dunn’s River Sandals.

What makes this even more of a bummer is that this destination would otherwise be perfect for a 4-day getaway. You can be pampered and relax and be entertained, and simply forget everything that is going on outside the resort. And I mean that quite literal! Because right outside the resort, the world’s a different place. Everything I saw of Jamaica (which admittedly was limited to the 90 minute stretch on the north side) seems to be relatively barren and not a tropical jungle by any stretch of the imagination. The resort itself is fenced in, and if you venture outside, you immediately end up amongst shacks that are built up right to the resort walls. People will try to sell you drugs and all kinds of other things you have little interest in buying, and they do it in a way that scares you away, even if you might have been interested. It is quite puzzling actually, how pushy they are, to a point where it just has to hurt their business.

In general, I found that staying inside the resort was the better choice, which is odd for me, because normally, I hat that sort of thing and want to see the native stuff/people over the fakery. But here, that just wasn’t that appealing. Locals for instance are nice in a “Ya mon! No problem in Jamaica, mon” sort of way, but it always also seems to be a “you and I, we have a good time… but my good time is different from yours, you rich bastard” deal. (Note that this was different inside the resort, where the locals seemed to genuinely like the guests). So at no point did I feel that Jamaica was a cool place where I could settle down and be comfortable and free of worries. Maybe I am just spoiled, but compared to Costa Rica or even Egypt, I didn’t feel comfortable or welcome. Or maybe it is because I don’t smoke dope. Who knows?

But don’t get me wrong: We liked this experience very much for what it was. We leaned back and relaxed, ate, and we were probably were more active than most people at the resort. We went out to the reef to go snorkeling (which was OK, but not truly awe inspiring… but if you have never been to a good diving/snorkeling destination, you should do it, especially since it is free), we swam a lot, we kayaked all about, we sailed on a hobby cat, and I even rented a jet ski on several occasions (which is not provided by the resort, but tolerated… I paid 30 or 35 U$ for half an hour, which is less than half of what they asked for, and I am sure I could have gotten it down further if I wanted, but what the heck, let them make a living too…), and we even played some par-3 golf.

The resort also has a number of different restaurants, which are decent. (You have to try the “Jerk Chicken” or “Jerk Pork” while you are there, since it is the local specialty… you will like it if you like BBQ). There is something there for every taste and almost every dress-code. (Although I have to say that “do me a favor and hand that plate down to the other end of the table, mon” and “here is your expensive bottle of wine… I will bring you the opener in a moment, mon” is not the kind of service that goes at all with an upscale restaurant. They need to do a lot better than that, especially if they hassle you about wearing a collar-less designer shirt).

So how would I rate this experience overall? Well, it was a fun thing to do, in an “I am on vacation with non-vacationers” sort of way. The people at the resort were almost exclusively American, and the resort clearly caters to them. Most people like to hang out at the pool so they do not have to face the “dangers of the oceans” and they float around on air mattresses so they do not have to face the “exhaustion of swimming”. I got the impression that most people could have a similar experience if the hotel and pool where somewhere in Wyoming (no offense to… um… “wyommingers?”… “wyommingnites”… ah… “people from Wyoming” :-)…). The resort allows no children, but for some reason, most of the adults there are not into staying out late and partying at the bar very much, which I would have expected from people who are without their kids for a few days. (The resort also organizes an evening trip to “Cheeseburger in Paradise”, which they try to sell you as a local Reggae Club… we didn’t go but it seemed odd…). People eat a lot, and they add a little activity here and there. The resort has sailboats and kayaks you can borrow for free, but on a schedule that is a little odd (“it’s a quarter to 4pm now… come back tomorrow…”).

I was a great place for Nick and Ishani to have their wedding. (But that is the topic of a separate post).

All of it adds up to a lot of mindless fun and a few fun days if you take it for what it is, but don’t expect to have any adventures or experience the native culture. I would do it again, but it probably ranks at the bottom of my list of trips this year (with only the Mexican Cruise rivaling it for bottom spot). But that probably tells you more about what an awesome traveling year this was for us…



Posted @ 4:53 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
Comments (165)


Saturday, October 18, 2008
Alaska Cruise – The Conclusion

So now that I blogged in detail about our experiences at our Alaskan cruise (here, here, here, here, and here), how would I rate it all, what would I do different, and what would I do again?

Princess Cruises and the Chosen Route

First of all, let me say that I was very happy with Princess Cruises in general, and our ship (the Diamond Princess) in particular. The ship was large (2,600 passengers and 1,200 crew) and I had previously thought larger ships aren't as desirable. "Too many people... can't go close to shore..." is what I thought. But I was completely wrong! The size of the ship meant that it never seemed like it was packed. Not once did I wait in line for a meal or for getting on and off the ship. Checking in took about as long as it does in a hotel. At most. Getting off the ship in Vancouver took about 15 or 20 minutes, including customs. (Compare that to the mess Carnival Cruises and US Immigration had on our last cruise!). We often had a hot-tub or the pool to ourselves. It was quite amazing, actually. Also, the deep water of the glacier-carved fjords means that we often sailed within less than 200 feet of the shoreline. At times it felt like you could reach over and touch a tree!

The route worked out perfectly. We went up to Anchorage (Whittier) because we wanted to see Glacier Bay, and it was well worth it. I wouldn't do it any other way. The inside passage also meant that the sailing was always smooth. Not once did I feel the ship move. So that may be an important aspect for those who are prone to getting sea sick. The route also means that with the exception of a few hours the second day, you always see land, mostly close enough to provide a good view. (This may also be comforting to those passengers who are uncomfortable not seeing land).

The only thing I didn't like about Princess Cruises was the food. The buffet selection was disappointing. Quality was OK but not great. I liked the "anytime dining" option better than scheduled seating at the same table all the time. You can make reservations for the anytime dining restaurants, but we didn't find it necessary. We never had to wait for a table. What I didn't like however, was that the 5 different dining rooms on the ship all served the same food. Does the slightly different decor really make the experience different enough to keep things interesting? Not to me. I would have rather had different food selections. Why have a "Santa Fe" dining room when it doesn't serve Mexican food, and the only different to other dining room is that they serve tortilla chips instead of bread? And frankly, the food there just didn't taste better than average.

All in all however, I was very impressed with Princess Cruises, and I would probably go out of my way to sail with them again, probably even with the same ship if I had the option. And hey, considering the average cruise passenger gains 8 pounds in a week, having slightly disappointing food options may not be all bad... ;-)

Glaciers, Scenery, and Wildlife

This is one of the main reasons to come to Alaska of course. At least it was for me, and I wasn't disappointed. I saw glaciers calve, and I saw ice bergs float by (not the huge ones that sank the Titanic... those are in the Atlantic). I saw oodles of Eagles. I saw probably 50 Humpback whales doing anything from just swimming around to raising their tail flipper into the air, to breaching the water big time. Another couple we met saw a school of Orcas. We saw dolphins, sea otters, sea lions, and seals. We saw bears in the distance. I missed the moose, but that was my fault. In short: I was surprised by how much we got to see.

We met quite a few people who had done a week of inland Alaska before the cruise, including Denali national park and other areas. All of them said the same thing: "We didn't see a thing!". Pretty odd, but that is exactly what happened to Ellen when she did that a dozen years ago. I guess I would recommend to save your money and not do that part. Just go for the cruise instead.

The Tours

I liked all the tours we did, and I am glad we picked the more active ones. The helicopter trip to the dog musher's camp up on a glacier was just out of this world. If you get the chance and can afford the extra 500 bucks, go for it! I can now totally see why dog sledding is Alaska's national sport. If I lived there, I could easily see myself getting sucked into it. (Of course, it is quite a commitment to make, once you get your own dogs). 

The whale watching tour was OK for what it was. I am glad we did it, and at any other trip, it might have been the highlight of the trip. Here, it ended up at the low end of the scale, but nevertheless, I would recommend it. We saw whales relatively close, and we were lucky enough to see them splash around and be quite impressive.

Kayaking was absolutely breathtaking. We got lucky with the weather in Ketchikan, I realize that. But it certainly was the best we did in terms of an "activity". It's another thing that I could easily envision as a hobby of mine, and since it isn't nearly as much of a commitment as becoming a musher, I might actually pick it up.

Bottom line: I like the more adventurous and outdoorsy things. Do the things you can only do in Alaska. Spend the money and fly on a plane or helicopter. Go dog sledding and kayaking. My personal preference is to stay away from the towns.

The Ports of Call

Whittier is unique, there is no question about it. I thought it was a pretty depressing little town, but when I heard that all people live in a single building, that added just enough weirdness to make it interesting. I am not sure Whittier is really considered a "port of call". You just hop off the train there, get on the ship, relax and eat a little, and off you sail.

Glacier Bay (and also College Fjord) are not real ports, but they are “destinations”, so I include them here. Seeing glaciers “calve” was probably the original main reason for me to go. After having seen Glacier Bay, I knew the trip had been worth it, no matter of what was to come next. If you want to go on an Alaskan cruise, I would recommend you pick an itinerary that includes Glacier Bay. I know I certainly wouldn’t do anything without it.

Skagway was interesting in its own way. I generally do not like towns that are set up for tourists only, and this def. falls in that category. But some of the stuff you can see, and some of the stories you hear can be entertaining for a few hours.

Juneau was disappointing. Period. It may be the capitol of Alaska, but it seems to be a depressing dump. Not much there has charm. It has all the tourist stuff but it lacks the attractions. There are probably a few interesting things like the State Museum or the Mendenhall glacier, but I would be surprised if one couldn't see more impressive things in other Alaskan towns. I have no desire to go back, and it def. was my least favorite place we visited. (Whittier might be able to give it a run for its money, but we didn't really spend any time there, and it at least has the uniqueness factor going for itself...).

Ketchikan was a mixture between Skagway and a nicer version of Juneau. A real town with real people, many of which would probably be there even without cruise ships. At the same time, Ketchikan has a certain charm that makes it attractive. Overall, I would say this was my favorite Alaskan town. However, we saw Ketchikan on a beautiful day, and apparently, that is extremely unusual. People call it the "rain capitol of the world". So that could put a damper on things...

BTW: Why is it called "port of call"? Nobody seems to know the answer to that. If it is because those are the ports that are calling to you, then strike Juneau off this list. If it is calling to anyone, it certainly ain't me.

Time of Year

I had wanted to cruise in late June to experience some really long day (spring equinox is June 21st, making it the longest day of the year). That worked out very well, and if I ever went on an Alaskan cruise, I would probably aim for the same time of year again.

However, be aware that things can be pretty chilly still. Most of the time the temperature was in the 50s and 60s. The first 2 days way up north, probably colder. And the wind chill on the ship makes everything worse. I would also consider it somewhat likely to you will encounter some rainy or at least misty days. So bring some sweaters and your winter jacket. Don't forget your gloves and hats.

Don't do what I did and catch yourself pneumonia at the beginning of the trip! In this climate, you will have a very hard time shaking even a cold, and it does put a damper on the trip, no matter how good you are at ignoring it.

Going Back

We had decided to go on a cruise first and not do a land trip through Alaska at this point. That has worked out extremely well. While I have no desire to move to Alaska, I will definitely go back to do various things. Some of them I had intended to do before (like go above the Arctic Circle, fly on a water/pontoon plane, see the midnight sun,...) and others I will now add to my list of things to do before I die. (Such seems to be the nature of bucket lists: You manage to cross of 3 things, but you find yourself 6 new ones to add in the process). I would love to go on a multi-day kayak and camping trip. I would even consider going on a multi-day dog sled trip, although I realize I'd have a lot to learn for that. I would even like to return to Skagway to hike up the Dead Horse Trail myself to get a little bit of an impression of what the stampeders had to go through. However, I wouldn't do it in the winter. What do you think I am? Crazy?

Conclusion of the Conclusion

This was an amazing trip, no question about it. One of the most interesting ones I have had in a long time. It is always interesting when you live through an experience, and as you do it, you realize you will never forget it. Cruises in general aren't cheap, but all things considered, the trip probably cost us around $1,700 a person. Not bad for a once-in-a-lifetime trip. And as readers of this blog know, it isn't often that I have this much to write about for a 7 day trip. Right there, it tells you how exciting this trip was.

All in all, this was one of those journeys you come back from with a slightly different outlook on life...



This post belongs to a series of posts describing our cruise in Alaska (June 2008). The following is a list of all 6 posts in this series:



Posted @ 4:07 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
Comments (80)


Friday, October 17, 2008
Kayaking in Ketchikan

After an OK, but somewhat lower key day in Juneau, our next stop on the Alaska cruise was Ketchikan, the supposed rain capitol of the world. To everyone’s surprise, it was a cloudless day and reasonably warm. The locals told us they hadn’t had such a nice day in 6 months. Awesome!

Unfortunately, we didn’t see much of Ketchikan since we went off on a bus to get to our kayaking adventure. From what I saw about it, I think it is probably the nicest town we went to. A little less touristy, and it seems to have a nice character. On a future trip, I would def. make a point in stopping and making sure I’d have some time in town.

As things were however, kayaking was one of the main things we wanted to do on our trip, and I am glad we did, since this turned out to have been one of my favorite things. After riding the bus, we went on a boat that took us off-shore to an island. There would have been other options as well where one would kayak from the main land or even out of the port, but I am glad we went on the longer tour, because ending up out in the middle of nowhere was one of the things I liked best.

But first things first: The boat trip to the island was a pretty exciting mixture of a fast-thrill-ride and looking at wildlife and nature. We saw tons of eagles and some marine mammals. The water was crystal-clear and just looking down from the boat, we were able to see lots of marine life, such as starfish.

Once we arrived at the island, it became pretty clear how isolated the place was. It is pretty rare these days to be somewhere where one can’t see or hear anything man made. There was just nature, wilderness, and awesome blue skies as far as the eye could see. In short: It was incredible.

Kayaking at these excursions is mostly done in 2-person kayaks. (For experienced kayakers, singles are available as well). It is pretty easy to do, and – in case you worry – it is almost impossible to flip them over. (Although if you did, the water is cold and it wouldn’t be fun. Apparently the typical demographic for people who flip their kayaks is "brothers"… :-)).

Pictures probably say more than words in this case, and it is really hard to describe the experience of actually doing this. We were paddling along this awesome scenery, with eagles soaring overhead, and seals swimming along. If you are lucky, you might even see a whale. All I can say: If you ever have the chance to do this, then you absolutely must! We are now considering going back to Alaska just to kayak.

So here are a few photos:


The group of kayakers in the distance…


The author paddling hard… :-) 

This was one of those things that ended all too quickly and we had to head back to the cruise ship, while some of the guides actually decided to spend the night on the island, just for fun. Pretty cool, and apparently the bears around the costal regions like to eat fish better than people… :-)



This post belongs to a series of posts describing our cruise in Alaska (June 2008). The following is a list of all 6 posts in this series:



Posted @ 12:00 AM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
Comments (143)


Thursday, October 16, 2008
Whale Watching in Juneau

This continues a series of posts around our trip to Alaska in June of 2008. For earlier posts, click here, here, and here

The fourth day of our voyage brought us into Juneau, the capitol of Alaska. That's right, the capitol! When asked, most people would probably name either Anchorage or Fairbanks as the capitol, but as is the case with many US states, the capitol is a smaller, lesser known city. In this case however, things are a step odder yet, because Juneau is not connected to the rest of Alaska by road. You can only get there by plane or ship! While there certainly are cars in Juneau, they only are used locally on their 20 (or so) miles of road in and around town.

Personally, I didn't really like Juneau. Most of the town seems to be run down and crappy. The main street leading away from the cruise ship dock is a bit on the cute side at first, but it's literally just jewelry stores and smoked salmon places. We had gone off our ship relatively early thinking we could have breakfast somewhere in town, but couldn't find a single restaurant other than seafood places. There is a Red Dog Saloon in town, which is apparently a rip-off on the Red Onion Saloon in Skagway, except it's just cheesy and obviously done up as a cheap tourist attraction. Sawdust on the floor and beers being served bright and early. Not exactly what we were looking for at 8:30am. Instead, we tried to find a half-way decent restaurant to have breakfast, and couldn’t find anything.

On the whole, Juneau really gave me a somewhat depressed feeling. The town is close to Canada and also closer to the US than most of Alaska, but it gave me a feeling of being in Russia. (Maybe that is what Governor Palin meant when she said “I know Russia… you can see it from Alaska”. After all, she lives in Juneau).


A view of “lovely” Juneau

Anyway: I recommend you do something else when you are in Juneau. We went on a whale watching tour, but there is tons of other stuff to do. For instance, you could hike on the Mendenhall Glacier, which is close to town and probably one of the easiest glaciers to get to. I am told the hike is relatively easy. If you want a little less exhaustion, you could always just take pictures of it from a little ways away. They even have special picture taking tours and expeditions they offer.

We took a bus-ride to the whale watching boat dock (with the obligatory cheesy teenage bus-driver jokes). The boat ride itself was fun although pretty cold. Admittedly, it was overall probably my least favorite thing we did on the cruise, but on any other trip it might still have made for the highlight. We saw numerous humpback whales, and lots of other wildlife such as eagles and sea lions. Apparently they have never had a tour without seeing whales, and I believe it. We had a number of different sightings. Of course most of the time you just see a bit of the hump and sometimes you see a tail fin. If you are lucky, you may even see a whale “breach” the water (jump out of it as far as it can, basically). We did see that in the distance, and even though we weren’t close, it was a sight to behold.

Whale watching is an odd thing to do. You really end up not seeing much of the animal, and still, it is awesome and probably much better than it sounds here.


One of the whale watching boats.


In whale watching, what you are looking for is spray, humps, and – if you are lucky – a tail fin up in the air like this.


A whale breaching the water in the distance (waaaay zoomed in… sorry about the poor quality…)

So that’s it for Juneau. Next stop: Ketchikan, the (supposed) rain capitol of the the world!



This post belongs to a series of posts describing our cruise in Alaska (June 2008). The following is a list of all 6 posts in this series:



Posted @ 12:00 AM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
Comments (29)


Sunday, October 05, 2008
Hurricanes and Travel

What is going on here? Why is this web site down, and why am I not posting to my blog?

Well, there was this hurricane, you see. Ike slammed into Houston, which caused us to shut down our data center, "just in case". And that was a good idea as it turned out. Our area, although not hit quite as hard as some areas south of Houston, had no power for a long time. In fact, we were among the last to get power back. Apparently a transformer blew and they didn't have spare parts for it (they had to be made, actually). Why they would have a setup where a single transformer takes out hundreds of thousands of people as a single point of failure, with no backup plan, is beyond me, but there you have it.

So that is why I have not posted. Luckily, we didn't take any other damage. The house is OK, and the office is OK, and as far as I can tell, most people at EPS got away without any major damage. Personally, I was in Greece while it all happened, sailing with the family. Good timing, I guess :-)

Now I will be in Houston for a while, which should give me ample chance to catch up with my blogging. There is lots to talk about, after all. I still have some posts from the Alaska trip that are already written but have yet to be posted. Then we went to Jamaica. Afterwards to Egypt, and now to Greece. We also spent some time in Austria. In addition, there is some general "international living stuff" I want to post about. So this should be a fun few months coming up blog-wise :-).



Posted @ 9:47 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
Comments (38)


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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