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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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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 (37)


Saturday, August 30, 2008
Canceled Trip to New Orleans due to Hurricane Gustav

Dang it. We had planned to go to New Orleans this weekend with a friend, but we just had to cancel our trip due to Hurricane Gustav. Bummer!

Oh well. At least we got all our money back from the hotel. They had some special cancelation policies in this case. Normally we would have owed them one night's worth.

BTW: Did you know that when I was little, I used to tell people my name was "Gustav" so they would feel sorry for me and give me candy? True story...

 



Posted @ 10:50 AM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
Comments (15)


Saturday, August 09, 2008
Skagway, the Klondike Gold Rush, Helicopters, and Dog Sledding

The first true port of call of our Alaska cruise - not counting the departure port of Whittier, and not counting any of the stops and "fly-buys" at various glaciers - was the tiny town of Skagway. Skagway is situated at the northernmost tip of the inner passage in south-east Alaska. (It took me a while to get used to the term "south-east Alaska"... after all, going on this cruise brings most folks about as far north and west as they have ever been, and then they end up in a place called "south-east").

The Klondike Gold Rush

Skagway's main claim to fame is having been the "gateway to the Klondike gold rush", and practically everything in Skagway that isn't a jewelry store is somehow related to those few years way back when. When gold was discovered in the Klondike area (which is actually in Canada, hundreds of miles from Skagway), news about it spread quickly (that is, within a year or so... we are talking about the 1800s here...) to places like Seattle and beyond. The overall financial and economic climate in the country at the time was such that just about anyone was immediately fascinated by this sole and unique opportunity to strike it rich, and thus was easily persuaded into risking just about everything for a chance to dig the precious metal out of heaps of mud. Apparently even Seattle's mayor resigned and ventured north.

Things weren't really easy though. Getting to the Klondike fields was difficult. The Canadian government proposed two alternate routes. One involved a lengthy trip by sea, all the way around western Alaska and into Anchorage, followed by a lengthy trip on land. Only a handful of men who attempted that approach ever made it through. The other option was to travel up the inner passage all the way to the end, which meant that you ended up either in Skagway or Dyea. From these places, you could then venture on by foot over some treacherous mountain passes to Lake Bennett. Depending on whether you started out in Skagway or Dyea, you would attempt one of two routes: The White Pass, a slightly longer track from Skagway later named Dead Horse Trail (so named due to the many pack animals that died up that path), or the slightly shorter, but incredibly steep Chilkoot Trail. Most people attempted this in the middle of the Alaskan winter in order to be ready to move towards the Klondike fields as soon as spring would set in. This would allow miners to arrive as early as possible and also at a time of year when the snow melt tended to wash down the most gold from the mountains.

 
This picture gives you an idea why it is called the "Dead Horse Trail".

Now as if this wasn't though enough already, it gets a bit worse: The Canadian (North West) Mounted Police ("Mounties") had seen such mad dashes for riches before and had realized, that it left most men unable to support themselves. Therefore, stampeders (which is what the men rushing in to dig for gold were called) had to bring enough food and supplies to support themselves for an entire year, or else they wouldn't be allowed to cross the border. This meant that each men had to bring about 1,500 pounds (some even say 1 metric ton) of goods, which meant that not only did they have to cross the mountains once, but most had to make around 40 round trips to get all their stuff moved, resulting in about a thousand miles those guys had to walk before they were allowed to cross the border into Canada. (All this may seem pretty harsh, but it apparently did prevent major starvation problems). One might think that this would have deterred most, but quite the contrary is the case. The line of men attempting the trek was such that one is tempted to call it a "3 month traffic jam".


That black line going up the mountain is a queue of people trying to cross the Chilkoot Pass with all their gear.

Even for those that made it this far, things didn't improve much. After all, several hundred miles of journey were still between the stampeders and the Klondike. The rest was on the Yukon river to the Klondike gold fields near Dawson City. That of course required a boat, which the men had to construct, starting by cutting down some trees for the wood. Few of them had ever built any boats before, so the typical "boat" must have been quite the contraption, with which they attempted to brave some serious rapids. Most of the stampeders that made it this far made it to the gold fields. But guess what: By now, a year and a half (or more) had gone by, and all the gold fields were already claimed, leaving most of the men with little opportunity. The Klondike gold fields were extremely rich, but only a very few struck it rich. Most of the men simply ended up earning a wage by working for those that had manage to make their claim early, or could afford to buy out another man's claim.

Skagway Then and Now

Skagway's role in the gold rush was simply that it was the point furthest north in the inner passage (together with Dyea), accessible by steam boat, making it an ideal starting point as far as the stampeders were concerned. This allowed Skagway to grow from a simple tent camp into a tent-town with fake wooden fronts to make the tents appear more like houses, to a town of real buildings with fake facades to make the buildings appear bigger. In fact, the town grew so fast that it soon was the biggest town in Alaska.

As you can imagine, Skagway didn't just attract gold miners, but there were merchants and dance hall girls and outlaws. The most successful con-man was an individual by the name of Jeff "Soapy" Smith, who ran all kinds of scams, from fake telegraph offices to fixed gambling and apparently quite violent stuff. He had apparently made such an impression on the town (before he was shot dead) that even today, a lot of the stuff you will hear around Skagway will include "Soapy".

We arrived in Skagway very early in the morning. We decided at the very beginning of our cruise (which is pretty much the latest possible point in time for such a decision, if you want a good chance at tours not being booked out) that we wanted to do a helicopter tour up to a glacier, to visit a dug musher's camp ("musher" is what you call a dog sled "operator"). However, that tour wasn't until 2pm, so we had plenty of time for a slow start and a hearty breakfast before we strolled into town with plenty of time to explore before our tour started.

Skagway today is a tourist attraction entirely based on the few years of the gold rush. You will see old buildings and saloons, which is all very entertaining in a way. I recommend you take a free tour operated by rangers, and generally stroll around the town. It is quite easy to do so, since most of the buildings have been rearranged (moved) to be in one general area that even Johnny Geezer can walk comfortably. Looking at most of the buildings is quite fun. I recommend you at least poke your head into the Red Onion Saloon and (former) brothel. (You can take a tour there. "$5 for 15 minutes... just like in the days of the gold rush", they say...).


The Red Onion Saloon.

However, be aware that what you are seeing is there for only one reason: Cruise ship tourists. You might get an entertaining glimpse of a condensed and glorified version of Skagway from back then, but you are not visiting an Alaskan town the way it is. If it wasn't for cruise ship tourists, Skagway would not exist today at all. (In fact, Dyea is not a town anymore today, since the fjord that used to be its port is to shallow for cruise ships to enter). It is a collection of jewelry and souvenir stores that have nothing to do with Alaska or Skagway, unless someone neglected to tell me that Soapy Smith was the founder of "Diamonds International". What you are seeing is an extension of the cruise ships and not something that is Alaskan. While I found myself somewhat amused by it all, I am also quite appalled by it all. Go to Skagway and have some fun, but be aware that what you are seeing is no more genuine Alaska, than a visit to Disney's Animal Kingdom provides a glimpse into Florida's wildlife.


The streets of Skagway today.

So we found ourselves strolling around the streets of Skagway (mainly "Broadway", actually). You can find tons of jewelry and souvenirs here. What is strangely missing are places to eat. I guess Johnny Geezer doesn't like to spend money on dining experience since that would mean missing out on the food provided on the cruise ship. So pretty much your only options are the Red Onion Saloon, which is always overrun and you have to wait forever, or a bar and grille (the name of which I forgot) which is pretty much a modern sports bar and seems strangely out of place. We ate there, and the food was terrible. So all in all, while it was fun for a few hours, I was glad when the time had come to go on our tour.

Helicopters and Dog Sleds

We had booked a tour that was a little more expensive than I had originally allocated for a single-day tour ($500), but in hindsight, going on this tour was one of the best decisions we ever made. We took off in a helicopter pretty much right from down town Skagway. There were 6 helicopters that took off all at once, but only ours and one other took the same route (with 6 passengers each).


Skagway helicopter port.

Our helicopter was just behind the other one, which gave us a great view of the other helicopter flying ahead of us, which to me, made things almost more impressive. Of course, just flying in a helicopter was an incredible experience (and a first for me, believe it or not). Flying over the fjord and passed the cruise ships, up into the forested mountains and then on to the snow covered mountains and glaciers, past an enormous ice fall. Seeing the other helicopter in front of us provided an intense sense of scale and made this one of the most impressive things I have experienced. (And being from Austria, it isn't all that easy to impress me with mountains, mind you).


Can you spot the leading helicopter flying across the ice fall?

After about 20 minutes in the air, we landed on top of a glacier at the dog musher's camp on Denver Glacier. There, a number of musher's (some with Iditarod experience) camp out with 290 dogs for several months. Flying into the camp and landing on the glacier (which had a good snow covering, hiding most of the crevasses) was a sight to behold.


Flying into the dog musher's camp.

Timing had worked out perfect for us. A somewhat foggy day in the morning had turned into a beautifully sunny afternoon. It couldn't have been better. We were greeted by "our musher" Olaf, who claimed he was from Fairbanks but was originally from Europe as we found out later. He had brought 30 of his dogs who we all met. They were incredibly friendly and the 10 of them we took out on a run were just incredibly excited to get to run. Before we took the sleds for a spin however, we aquatinted ourselves with the dogs who all had quite different personalities.


The dogs are very friendly and used to being handled.

We then sledded off, 2 sleds tied together, with Olaf steering the first one, and me pretend-steering the second one. Olaf was really in full control of both sleds, but just standing on the back of the sleds was a thrilling experience. And it wasn't hard at all, since all the hard work was done for us. Even Ellen gave it a go and was afterwards happy she had done it. We went around on the sled for maybe 20 minutes. Maybe more, but it sure seemed way too short when it ended. I found myself fascinated by dog sledding ("big surprise" some would say, since I always say I would like to own a dog if I had a different life style) and could easily envision myself picking it up as a hobby, if I lived in Alaska.


The sled in action with Olaf, our musher.

The visit to the musher's camp ended with a tour of the camp, and the most important part: A quick visit to the camp's puppies. Sled dogs are bred to be friendly, and the mushers apparently like it when people handle them to get the dogs accustomed to people. Here is one of the two puppies we spent some time with:


How's that for a puppy dog face?

The tour ended with a 10-15 minute helicopter flight back to Skagway, making for an interesting transition from one of Alaska's most traditional ways of travel, to one of the most modern. Once again, just the helicopter ride over the Alaskan wilderness would have made for a thrilling tour all by itself.

Conclusion

All in all, the day we spent in Skagway was fantastic. In terms of a once-in-a-life experience, it was probably one of my favorite things I have ever done. It was certainly well worth the $500, and possibly even quite a bit more. I would be hard-pressed to say whether I liked Glacier Bay or our dog sledding tour better. (And the same is true for our kayaking adventure, which I have yet to blog about). I guess all these things were awesome for different reasons and stand on their own as incredible things I will never forget. I even enjoyed the town of Skagway for what it was, despite being put off by the touristy fakeness of it all. Maybe once in a while, you can just be a tourist, can't you? Maybe.



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 @ 4:28 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
Comments (118)


Friday, August 08, 2008
Sailing the Fjords and Glaciers of Alaska

Now that I have blogged about the overall experience (and setup) of our cruise in Alaska, let's talk a bit more about some of the specific trips we made. Our cruise left from Whittier and sailed south-east, starting out with 2 days at sea, visiting some great glaciers, before we sailed down the "inside passage", all the way to Vancouver:

For me, this first part of the cruise was the main attraction. I simply wanted to see some of those gigantic tidewater glaciers "calve". Those are glaciers who reach all the way down from the mountain to the ocean. The face of the glacier is often 10,000 year old ice that got pushed down from all the way up the top of a mountain. As glaciers flow down slowly, the face gets pushed into the ocean where the ice mixes with salt water, causing it to break of bits and pieces. Often, these "bits" are quite large. As they break off, they form ice bergs (or "bergy-bits", which are the smaller variation of ice bergs that occur in the Pacific ocean). The process is loud and spectacular.

However, glaciers are also retreating, and there are fewer and fewer tide water glaciers left. Whether this is caused by global warming or not is a different story (my money is on "yes"), but either way, they are retreating no matter the reason. So seeing this was very high on my list.

Our cruise left from Whittier at around 9:30pm the first night (at bright daylight, I might add) and sailed to our first destination: College Fjord. College Fjord has a number of different glaciers, some tide water, some further up. And you guessed it, they are all named after universities. College Fjord is not very far from Whittier, so we arrived there at 6am. Not my preferred time, but it really didn't matter so much. We got up and watched in awe. The glaciers are spectacular, and sailing through waters full of small floating ice bergs (yes, they are really called "bergy-bits") isn't something you see every day. The most spectacular glacier here is Harvard Glacier:


A look at Harvard Glacier from the ship on an early morning of a gloomy day.

You do not see any glaciers calving here. There also is a limit as to how close the ship can get to the glacier itself. Nevertheless, it was well worth getting up early (and after all, we could go back to sleep at around 9am). We saw amazing scenery, several glaciers, and even quite a bit of wildlife on shore. We counted at least 2 or 3 bears. However, they were admittedly quite far in the distance.

The rest of day 1 was spent at sea. This was also the only day, where, for a brief period of time, we were out of the sight of land. Amazingly, the ocean was completely calm with maximum wave heights of less than 1 foot. Quite unusual, from what I understand.

The next day, we arrived in Glacier Bay. This was the part of the trip I looked forward to the most, and in hindsight, I can only recommend a cruise that includes Glacier Bay. We entered the bay at around 9am, and right away, we were rewarded with the sighting of several Humpback whales. Some even quite close to the ship (which at that point had to sail very slowly to protect the many whales in that area). Seeing your first Humpback whale relatively close is a sight you won't forget. I just stood there for at least an hour watching for whales and seals.

At around 1:30pm, after sailing past awesome scenery and several glaciers, we arrived at the main attraction: Margerie Glacier. This is about as amazing a tide water glacier you will ever see, and the ship stops right in front of it for about an hour (quite close too). The size of the glacier is just amazing. Its face is about a mile wide and reaches 250feet (almost 100 meters at the tallest parts) out of the water (another 100 feet are below the ocean's surface). The whole glacier is about 21 miles long (34km). The amazing aspect here is that you can just wait for the glacier to calve. Every few minutes, a piece will break off with a thunderous roar and a big splash. It is a peculiar experience. Most of the time is spent waiting for something to happen (camera at the ready), and then each "event" is over in just a few seconds, followed by half the ship saying "dang... I missed the photo opportunity!". But it is one of the most amazing natural sights I have ever seen. Right there, the whole trip would have been worth it!


At Glacier Bay, even very large ships like the Diamond Princess can get very very close to the calving glaciers. Is is a very very impressive sight that you surely won't forget.


Glacier ice is blue due to its compression over tens of thousands of years. In the middle of the picture, with the sun shining through, it is most apparent.


Looking back at Glacier Bay as we are sailing away on a gorgeous day.

The ship we were on (Diamond Princess) was a great vessel to see this from. Despite there being 2,600 passengers on board, we had no trouble finding a spot on deck that allowed us to witness everything comfortably. The captain did a great job at giving us enough time to enjoy the spectacle, and he turned the boat around, so absolutely everyone had the chance to see it. (And yes, there even was enough room for everyone to walk over to the other side once the ship turned and watch some more).

Of course, standing by the railing wasn't the only way to see the glacier. Some people used one of the ships many hot-tubs to watch everything in their bathing suits, with a cocktail in their hands. What a trip!

However, a word of warning is in order: Glaciers are frozen because temperatures are low! I had expected temperatures in the 50s, but with the wind chill, things can get very cold, and I ended up buying a hat, scarf, and gloves. Luckily, I had brought enough sweaters and a winter jacket. Nevertheless, it was rather cold (and having caught myself a serious cold the week before in Seattle didn't help either [Update: 6 weeks later it turned out that I actually had pneumonia... but hey! Can't let little details ruin a great trip, right? :-)]).

The rest of the day we spent traveling back out from Glacier Bay towards our first real stop. We watched tons of great scenery and saw quite a bit of wildlife. Bears, seals, whales, and eagles. You can expect to see them while you watch for them on deck, or you can see them from one of the ship's bars, or the dining rooms, or... well, you see them practically all the time! And that didn't change as we sailed on towards Skagway. That however shall be the story of my next post...



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 @ 1:07 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
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Thursday, August 07, 2008
Cruising in Alaska

I have always wanted to go to Alaska. I have also always known how I wanted to do it: Go for at least 2 weeks, cruise for 1 week, and travel around some interesting places the other. (And thanks to my Alaskan friend Don Kiely, I have a pretty good list of great stuff to do as well!). I have always wanted to go in late June, since the spring equinox is on June 21st, which makes for the longest day in the year. The problem has always been that I am usually extremely busy in the spring, with all the conferences and trade shows we go to, and even if the conferences are over by late June, we are so busy catching up with everything, we just don't have time to go.

The same thing happened again this year. However, we decided we didn't care. We have been talking about going to Alaska for 9 years now, and it never worked out, because we were just too busy that year. But you know what? That will probably be true for every year to come in the near future, so we decided we would see if we could make it work this year. And besides, we already hat to visit with Microsoft in June this year anyway, so we were already in Seattle. How much more convenient could it possibly get? Maybe, we reasoned, we could even find a cruise that left and arrived in Seattle.

We did however decided that we could only get away for a week. After all, we have also just been to Costa Rica. So the plan was to do the cruise this year, and then at some point in the (hopefully near) future, we would go back to Alaska and do some hiking and other adventures. Maybe the cruise would give us a way to see what kinds of things we liked the most, which would give us an extra chance to plan the second trip better anyway.

So it all became about finding the best possible cruise. I had a few things on my list that I really wanted to do. After all (as you know if you read some of my previous posts), I am not really a cruise fan. However, in Alaska, there are some things you can do on a cruise ship that would be very very difficult otherwise. For one, I wanted to see the glaciers "calve" (that is when pieces break off and fall into the ocean). That was probably the biggest selling point for me. After all, how much longer will we be able to see tide-water glaciers from ships the way things are going now? We soon realized that cruises that leave from Seattle or Vancouver spend a lot of time sailing up (and later down) the Canadian coast, but they barely reach the southernmost tip of Alaska. And they don't really go anywhere near the massive glaciers. No, that wasn't going to do it! I wanted a cruise that went to a major glacier, preferably Glacier Bay. With that in mind, we realized we had to either start or end the cruise at one of the ports near Anchorage, which left the ports of Whittier and Seaward as the obvious choices.

We finally settled on a cruise from Whittier with Princess Cruises. We booked it about 10 days before the cruise actually started, which is kinda crazy in a way. However, it worked out really well for us! We got an inside state room (no windows) for $589 per person! We considered getting a room with a balcony. This really appealed to me, because there is a ton of stuff to see on an Alaskan cruise, and I didn't want to spend all the time standing up on deck. However, a balcony cabin would have been close to $2,000 a person, and that just wasn't worth it to us. In hindsight, that was a good decision. While a balcony certainly would have been nice (our ship - the Diamond Princess - had very nice setups for balcony cabins), in the end, I really didn't see myself spending all that much time in the room anyway. If I did the same cruise again, I might be spend an extra $400-500 for a cabin with a balcony, at most. But I wouldn't have wanted to spend 3 times the regular price.

Of course, going out of Whittier also meant that we had to fly to Anchorage. An extra expense, you might think, but this wasn't really true in our case. We already had to fly from Houston to Eugene to Seattle and back (for business), which (as most 3-legged trips are) was a relatively pricey ticket already. Adding a 4th leg to Anchorage really didn't make any difference price-wise. So the core cruise cost us less than $600, for a 7-day cruise with all meals included. Drinks are extra, but I purchased a $29 all-you-can-drink soft drink promotion, which also was good for all the sit-down restaurants. (Sometimes, when you buy these promotions at cruises, they are good for bars and the swimming pool area and such, but not for the real meals, which is a rip-off!). So that all worked out very well. Of course, you will end up spending more for tours you take from the ship (I will blog separately about those), and you just gotta take those! What is the point of an Alaskan cruise, if you do not go to the glaciers, whales, or other wildlife? Still, all in all, the cruise wasn't very expensive for us. We met some other people on board that spend as much as $4,000 a person (not counting tours). I don't think I would have been very happy paying that. But for what we paid, this was an absolute bargain!

I was also very happy with the cruise we ended up picking. The Diamond Princess is an absolutely marvelous ship! Much more impressive and modern than the cruise to Mexico we did earlier this year. The ship holds over 2,600 guests and it was completely full, but to my surprise, most of the time, it felt like the ship was half empty. No lines for food or restaurants. Getting on and off the ship was as easy as walking in and out of a building with no wait whatsoever. Most of the time, we had one of the many hot-tubs to ourselves. When there were things to see outside, there was always enough room at the railings. The ship was just so darn big that you couldn't tell how many people were on board.

Of course, you have to be aware that if you do this type of cruise, you will be cruising with Johnny Geezer here. Not that there is anything wrong with it (and I apologize to all the old geezers reading this... but if you read my blog, you are, by definition, not an old geezer anyway), but it means that the nightclub (which would have otherwise been awesome) is going to be empty and deserted at 10pm (more than an hour before the sun goes down, mind you!) and the casino isn't faring much better. Johnny Geezer just doesn't like to party. Johnny also likes to eat early, which you can use to your advantage if you just eat a little later and you will get the bet tables right by the windows. It also means that most of the more adventurous tours will be available even if you book a bit later. So there are pros and cons to this. It's just something to be aware of.

And it's a bummer too, that young people do not go on these cruises more. After all, they are not all that expensive, comparatively speaking. And there is tons of stuff to do for young people. Probably more than for our friend Johnny. In fact, most of the tours are operated by college kids, because they are the ones that are into the more adventurous stuff. Plus, the ship would be great to party the (5-hour) night away! But nope. You will be playing bingo and watch song & dance shows, because that is what Johnny Geezer likes to do. Unless you bring your own friends and your own fun, that is.

So with all that in mind, we flew up to Anchorage, which was an experience in itself. We left Seattle Friday night at 9pm. Maybe even a bit later, because it was already completely dark when we left. As we flew north however, it got lighter and lighter, and as we arrived in Anchorage around midnight (1 hour time difference), it was light enough to read a book without a light. We spent that night in Anchorage. I was not very impressed by Anchorage overall. I have to admit that I didn't spend nearly enough time there to make a real statement, but everything I saw was run down and dirty. That includes the hotel we stayed in, which was pretty expensive at the same time (Best Western, I believe).

The next day, we traveled on a train down to Whittier. This was a somewhat scenic ride and we saw Eagles and other wildlife. Some people say they saw moose, but I missed that. Overall, the train ride was interesting and entertaining, and even though I normally hate trains, I would do this again and I would recommend it. After about 2 hours, we arrived in Whittier. We had originally looked for flights to Whittier but couldn't find an airport. As we arrived, it became pretty obvious why that was the case. Whittier is a small town. Very small. In fact, all the people in Whittier live in a single (!!) building! Think about this one for a moment. I mean, how would anyone meet anyone new? "I met someone really interesting on the 5th floor today..." just doesn't seem right.


The "town" of Whittier, as seen from the ship. 

Anyway: We got off the train in Whittier and just walked across the street and straight onto the ship. We were among the first people on board. The boarding process was extremely straightforward. There was no line at all, so getting to our cabin was about as simple as checking into a hotel. We were off to the buffet and had gained 2 pounds before most of the people even arrived.


Our first glimpse of the "Diamond Princess" as we arrived with the train. 

Talking about the buffet: The food on the ship was reasonably good, but it wasn't anywhere near as good as it was on the Carnival cruise. Buffet selection was limited (I thought), and also the sit-down meals were just OK. We had opted for the "any time dining" rather than the set times, which I really liked. However, the food quality was not what I had expected. Also, food-related service was not all that great. Waiters were reasonably nice, but not really outgoing. You always had to ask for a refill, and it always seemed to take forever for them to come around. I finished many a meal before I got my drink.

However, that is the only bad thing I have to say about the whole cruise. We left from Whittier and went straight into College Fjord. We then went on to Glacier Bay where we saw what we had to see: Glaciers calving. We also stopped in Skagway where we flew to a dog musher's camp in a helicopter. We went whale watching in Juneau, and we went kayaking in Ketchikan. Each and every one of those things would have made the trip worthwhile, and I would be hard pressed to tell you what my favorite thing was.

But all that, I will leave for other blog posts :-).

For now, let me just say, this this was an incredible trip. Definitely one of those "I want to do this once before I die" type of trips (and - as one of the comedians on board remarked - a lot of people on this trip barely made it in time, by the looks of it). I came away hugely impressed. I managed to check off several items from my bucket list, but I also added several new ones (resulting in a net-loss, some would argue, but that's OK). I am definitely planning to return to Alaska in the future, and I am now much more prepared to plan those trips. So in that regard, the trip has worked out exactly how I expected. In a lot of other ways, it way succeeded expectations...



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 @ 11:29 AM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
Comments (42)


Saturday, August 02, 2008
Adventure in Costa Rica: Quepos and a Hurricane Alma

Previously on "Adventure in Costa Rica": After an adventurous trip to, and jungle-hike in Corcovado National Park, and a great day of hiking and snorkeling on Caño Island, we took a much delayed jungle-flight from Palma Sur to Quepos for a more leaned back experience. (Click the following links for the first 3 posts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3)

Corcovado National Park had been great and certainly a highlight of the trip. It is a great adventure for those who like to take active trips and have "experiences". For the next part of our trip, we had planned for a more relaxed stop in Quepos, one of the resort towns of Costa Rica. Bars, restaurants, and resort hotels dominate Quepos, although still in a fashion that is more environmentally friendly than I have seen anywhere else. The lush tropical rain forest overgrows just about everything unless it is actively cut away, and even then, most hotels and other buildings are built into the green mountainside at Quepos in a way that masks most man-made buildings, with lots of trees on all properties. Just about anywhere, you might end up with a monkey swinging overhead, or some tropical bird flying by.

We stayed at the "Si Como No" resort (loosely translated "Sure, why not?"). I haven't stayed at any other resorts in town, so I can't truly compare, but it seems that this is one of the nicer places to stay. We certainly enjoyed our stay. The rooms were nice, the food was good, and the view was excellent.


The view from the reception of the Si Como No resort.

Quepos may be more of a "standard" tourist resort, but it still has some eco-tourism to offer. In particular, the Manuel Antonio National Park is a must-see for everyone who comes to Quepos. Granted, after having seen Corcovado National Park, this seemed to be a more artificial affair. Expect wide and well worn paths with handrails and concrete stepping stones. So this isn't a true jungle experience, but nevertheless, it is worth seeing. You have to pay an entry fee to get in, but it is worth it, especially if you allow enough time to hike around the park. You could easily make this an all-day excursion. (You can pay for a local guide, but you probably won't need one). We saw various kinds of monkeys, lizards, mammals, birds, and (most entertaining of all), sloths. The later may be a little hard to spot at first (at least with monkeys, you can look for movement, but with sloths...) but with a little bit of patience, you will surely run into a fellow visitor who has spotted one and points it out to everyone else. Our first sighting of a sloth occurred after we sat under a tree on the beach for about 30 minutes. I laid back on my towel and looked up into the tree, and there it was! Sleeping right above our heads without us even noticing.


One of the beaches at Manuel Antonio National Park during a brief rain-break.

Unfortunately for us, this was also where the weather took a decided turn for the worse. Earlier in the day, we had tons of clouds and a slight drizzle, and that turned into a real downpour while we hiked through the park. We tried to find shelter under some trees at the beach, and it was easily warm enough to go swimming even. But still, it just wasn't quite the same as a nice, sunny day. Which was a real bummer, because some of the beaches in the park are plain awesome. Nice sandy bays with no rocks or corals in the water, lined by rugged coast lines at both ends of the bays. Palm trees grow out over the surf. Very picturesque, and well worth coming back to the park, even if you have no interest in hiking. (The beaches are also easy to get to without a long hike).


A sloth hanging upside-down in a tree, moving along at a pace that was quite out of this world. One would think a creature that comes down from the trees only once every 40 days for a "bio break" would be more in a hurry at that point...

The next day was even worse weather-wise. The word "downpour" does not do it justice. "Monsoon" is more like it. We still went down to the beach in Quepos, and I decided to hire one of the local surf-guides to take advantage of what seemed to be pretty nice (although not huge) waves. As it turned out however, the waves really packed a punch. They were extremely short and powerful, much beyond what I have seen in places like Oahu, Maui, or California. Unless you timed diving through the waves really carefully, waves might break into your back with enough force to make you fear you could snap your spine. Luckily, things weren't quite that bad, but about 20 minutes into my surf-adventure, my guide got mangled by a wave and was pushed to the bottom (which luckily was sandy rather than a coral reef) and dislocated his shoulder. I ended up having to help him out to the beach. I went back to surf a little more on my own, but the weather was so decidedly nasty at this point that is simply was no fun.

Ellen was waiting at the beach under a huge umbrella, but soaked nevertheless. At this point, most of the little merchant tents had closed down since nobody else was around anyway. We ended up eating at one of the few restaurants that were still open before we returned to the hotel.

While the hotel was really nice, it also was not made for indoor activities. As almost everything in Costa Rica, all the restaurants are basically outdoors. Some have roofs, but none have walls. The rooms were also nice, but made for relaxing rather than spending time in the room. The hotel's indoor entertainment offerings were sparse (there was a movie theater, I believe). The weather was so dreadful that we could hardly leave the room, which made for a really boring stay. The only thing we did that day was go out for dinner to the "Airplane Restaurant", a fancy place just down the street, built around an old American military cargo plane that was somehow involved in the "Iran-Contra Affair". It ended up being left at an Airport somewhere in Central America, before the owner of the restaurant bought it, brought it to Quepos, and build an entire restaurant around it from scratch. It makes for a pretty cool and nicely done place. The food was also good (which is true for almost every place we went to in Costa Rica... another place in Quepos I can recommend is "Ronny's Place". Have the fish-platter...).

As it turned out, the rain was not a matter of the rainy season anymore. We had actually gotten ourselves into a hurricane. The first named hurricane of the season in fact. Nice to meet you, "Alma". Luckily, Alma was more wet than wild, so wind-speed was not a major factor (at least where we were), but it rained so hard, that nearby areas flooded, including several bridges we needed to cross on our way to our next stop (lake Arenal, which features an active volcano as well as awesome windsurfing... I was really looking forward to this stop). We waited for a day, but things didn't seem to improve, so we had little choice but to end our Costa Rica trip early and cancel the third leg of our trip.

All that was left to do at this point was to get a ride back to San Jose as soon as the roads were passable. However, "passable" is a somewhat flexible term as we came to discover. On our way to San Jose, we saw not just flood damage from the 2 days before, but some severe actual flooding caused by some broken damns.


Even once the roads were "passable" again, after hurricane Alma, the trip was still somewhat of an adventure.


Large areas we had to pass through on the way to San Jose were flooded.


Many of the houses and neighborhoods we saw on our way out suffered a similar fate.

Needless to say that this must have been cause for some incredible human tragedies and suffering, as we saw many a home being flooded or covered in mud up to the windows. But to make matters worse, not only did we see neighborhoods flooded, but on top of it, there were 12 foot crocodiles swimming in the waters. Talk about a double-whammy!


When your house floods, and you think it couldn't possibly get any worse... you realize that there is more in the water than just bacteria...

So our trip to Costa Rica had ended on a somewhat sour note. Nevertheless, the trip was awesome, and we have seen many things and lived through many experiences we will never forgot. We certainly plan to return to Costa Rica. The country is incredibly rich in things that just need to be seen and experienced. The people there were among the most genuinely nice I have ever met. And the overall vibe of the place is very much to my liking. But next time, I will come a bit earlier in the year (March or April perhaps) to avoid the dreaded rainy season...



This post belongs to a series of posts describing our trip to Costa Rica (May 2008). The following is a list of all 4 posts in this series:



Posted @ 3:57 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
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Saturday, July 12, 2008
Adventure in Costa Rica: Caño Island, Snorkeling in Paradise, and more Wildlife

Previously on "Adventure in Costa Rica": We traveled by air and boat to get to Corcovado National Park and had some amazing experiences in the jungle. To catch up on that, click here (part 1) and here (part 2).

After a somewhat exhausting day of hiking and adventuring, we were ready for a somewhat more relaxed day at a small island (Caño Island) about an hour off the coast from Casa Corcovado (our hotel). This called for another boat ride, which only Ellen and I opted to take, since the rest of our party was concerned it might be too bumpy. (This proved to be true since the weather wasn't overly great, which made for choppy waters and a bumpy ride. People prone to sea-sickness would probably not be overly happy, but it also wasn't like there were huge scary waves either).


A typical view of Caño Island: Turquoise water, lush vegetation in the background, and a white sandy beach with palm trees.

Caño Island is a picturesque tropical island that features some of the best beaches I have ever seen. It provides great snorkeling and some nice hiking. It is also an ancient Indian burial ground and has some minor archeological artifacts anyone can hike to even without a guide. We did the hike and enjoyed it for the scenery, the jungle, and the wildlife. The island apparently has no venomous or otherwise dangerous animals, making it a much easier venture than the hike we did the previous day. We saw a snake or two, we saw thousands of Jesus Christ Lizards. We also saw a few Iguana and some Basilisks. The vegetation was lush and it was generally a cool place to be.


A Basilisk relaxing just off the narrow path through the jungle.

The "archeological site" turned out to be a bit disappointing. We saw a few smallish stone spheres (the local Tiki tribes created perfectly round spheres and nobody really knows how they did it), but that was about it. I imagine a guide could have made it an interesting experience, but just hiking there by yourself doesn't make it all that exciting. Come for the jungle and take the archeological aspect as a bonus.


Not a bad place to sit down for your lunch...

After our hike we returned to the white-sanded beach where Danny (our guide who had taken us there by boat) had prepared lunch with about enough food for 3 times as many people. So we invited a few of the other people around (there were a few other boat captains and guides, but generally, there weren't all that many people on the island) and talked about football (soccer) and had a genuinely enjoyable time.

We also went snorkeling at Caño Island. The choppy sea made it a bit of a murky day, so it wasn't quite the experience it could have been. However, we did see quite a few tropical fish and we also saw a giant sea turtle, which was very cool. On clearer (calmer) days with better visibility, I would expect snorkeling to be quite good there. Other people told us they had seen Barracudas and rays and all kinds of fish. At the same time, there are no crocodiles and reportedly no sharks to worry about, which makes the island a much better place to snorkel at than the beach at the lodge.

In the afternoon we headed back to the lodge and enjoyed the rest of the day at the jungle-pool. We went to bed pretty early that day since our journey went on to Quepos pretty early the next morning. Or so we though anyway. As it turned out, the weather took a turn for the worse the next day, so while we made it back to Palma Sur without much difficulty, the airport had bad news for us: Most of the flights had been canceled that day since the weather was so bad inland, that no flights came out of San Jose. So it looked like we were about to get stuck in the middle of nowhere, when all of a sudden a plane appeared out of seemingly nowhere and landed at the otherwise closed airport. It was our Nature Air flight and we went on to Quepos with just a few hours of delay.

Quepos is quite different from what we had seen on Corcovado. It is a much more tourist-oriented place with more of a relaxed party atmosphere and not as much of an eco-spin. However, Quepos has Manuel Antonio National Park which is also quite interesting. I will tell you about that in my next post...



This post belongs to a series of posts describing our trip to Costa Rica (May 2008). The following is a list of all 4 posts in this series:



Posted @ 4:45 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
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Wednesday, July 02, 2008
Adventure in Costa Rica - Corcovado National Park

Previously on "Adventure in Costa Rica": We traveled by air and river boat to reach the amazing Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge. To catch up, read this post.

Our first day in the Corcovado National Park (see previous post) was spent hiking through the jungle. We started with an early breakfast that day, before 7am. Very early for a night-owl like myself, but since it gets dark around 6pm this close to the equator, I had no problem going to sleep early, and I really didn't mind getting up earlier either. Half an hour later we were on our way into the jungle, which basically meant stepping away from the hotel buildings and there you are!

Casa Corcovado features a few hiking trails guests can use on their own, but for most of the trails it is recommended to have a guide. Our guide (Danny) was excellent. I clearly loved just job, nature, and all the wild life. He prepared us well for the task ahead and told us what to look for, and what not to touch. (In fact, if I ever return to Casa Corcovado, I would probably check to see if Danny still works there and request him specifically).

The Corcovado National Park is an amazing place to see, with tons of wildlife and lots of different types of jungle. And of course, this is not a zoo. So everything is natural and people are just visitors in this amazing part of the world. This means that there aren't any handrails and what you will encounter is a complete matter of luck. You are likely to see monkeys, sloths, frogs, snakes, ants, spiders, bats, iguanas, birds, macaws (parrots, basically), crocodiles, and all kinds of other animals. Some cute and funny, some not to be messed with. Nothing too scary, but you want to follow the instructions of your guide. Casa Corcovado has never had an animal-related accident, we were told, but you wouldn't want to be the first to sit down on a Fer De Lance. If this scares you, then Corcovado isn't the place for you. You are probably better off with a trip to San Diego.

But we are the adventurous kind, and we love the outdoors. And that day, we didn't have to go far that. Perhaps 50 yards into the jungle, after having seen a few lizards and some leaf-cutter-ants, we heard the trees move overhead and discovered a family of Spider Monkeys. It was quite thrilling to see the little buggers jump from tree to tree, clearly aware that we were there, but not too worried about us.


A spider monkey, just hanging out.

The same sight would repeat several more times as we hiked on. One family of Spider Monkeys we had a particularly good view of, and after a little while, the monkeys must have grown tired of us. While Danny was trying to get us in position for a good view of the primates while explaining about their behavior, some suspicious liquid started to drip down from one of the trees.

I brought it to Danny's attention: "Danny, what is happen up there?".
"Oh, the monkeys are drinking water", he replied.
"I don't think so. Looks like he is trying to pee on us...".
"No, I think he is drinking water", Danny insisted.
"I really don't think so. I can see him holding his weenie...".
"No, no. He is drinking water", Danny wasn't ready to concede.
"Danny, he is aiming for us!!!".
"OK, let's move on..."

What can I say? One just hasn't lived unless one has been peed on by a monkey. "Pura Vida!", I guess. Luckily he didn't seem to have had enough pressure build-up.


Another spider monkey, just before his well aimed attack. Maybe he didn't like getting his picture taken...

So we continued on our hike through amazing scenery. Trees as high as you could see. Green everywhere. Leaf-cutter ants creating highways that make Houston's Galleria area seem like a small trickle (although on quite a different scale). We saw a hollow tree with sleeping bats. The tree must have been 50 yards tall, yet you could see it its hollow top from inside. We saw a few snakes, although nothing venomous. We saw Jesus Christ lizards (the kind that can walk on the water), Basilisks, and Iguanas. We also saw a highly venomous Golden Orb spider who had spun a three-dimensional golden web.


A bat mama with her baby inside a huge hollow tree.


A golden orb spider. Probably close to 4 inches in length and also quite venomous. Spins a golden, three dimensional web.

We took a lunch break at a ranger station. We spent some time relaxing while watching a pair of macaws (the red parrots) flying overhead, while Danny whipped up some fish, some cold cuts, and a salad. Nothing too fancy, but very fitting for the location.


A pair of macaws flying overhead.

Before we headed back, we aimed for one more special treat: Taking a bath below a jungle waterfall, Tarzan-style. (No, not naked... just in the jungle and all...). The hike was a bit more difficult and not everyone was up for it, but Ellen, Danny, and I made it after about a half an hour. It was quite a cool sight. Unfortunately, "Poncho" denied us our well deserved batch. "Who is Poncho?", you ask. Well, Poncho is the local crocodile who "owns" the stretch of creek there. And if Poncho is in the wrong place, only Steve Irwin in his best age would have fancied a dip.


"Poncho" may still be small at 6 or 7 feet, but we didn't feel like swimming with him.

But it was all worth it in the end. We didn't get to swim, but we got to see Poncho, which was thrilling all in itself. (After all, crocs are known to be more aggressive than alligators, so you want to be a bit more careful). The hike back continued much in the same manner. We saw more monkeys and other animals. We also saw quite a few frogs. "Frogs?" you may wonder. "What's so cool about frogs?". But these aren't your average frogs. We are talking about poison-arrow-frogs here! At some point during the hike, Danny heard something and dove into the bushes. A few minutes later he had found the poison-arrow-frog. I tried to take a good picture, which caused us to chase it around a bit. It still wasn't easy, since the little fellow was hardly an inch long, so I ended up holding my camera just a few inches from the frog.


A one inch poison arrow frog. Don't make him nervous...

After we moved on, Danny and I talked about the frog some more: "So Danny, how poisonous was this particular frog exactly?".
"Very poisonous", he replied.
"What does that mean exactly?".
"For this particular species, it means that one drop can kill about 10 adult humans".
"10 humans?!?"
"Si".
"Like how exactly? On touch?!?".
"Si".
"So this frog could have killed all of us?"
"Yes, but it only produces poison when it is nervous".
"But wouldn't it be nervous after we chased it around for 10 minutes?"
"Si".

Well, that settled that. I guess I can one day tell my grandchildren that I survived an encounter with a one inch frog...

At this point, the weather was startign to take a turn for the worse (that rainy season kicking in again) and it was time for us to head home. Part of the hike took us along the beautiful pacific coast line that is a mixture of ruggedly rocky stretches and picture perfect sandy coves with palm trees.


The author on top of a rock, trying to get a GPS reading.

The ocean in this area is mostly deep blue with a few stretches of turquoise mixed in. It seems threatening yet oddly inviting at the same time. I was extremely tempted to dive in, but that stretch of ocean is known to have a lot of bull sharks (the aggressive kind) in addition to the crocodiles. All the local guides said they wouldn't risk it, so I decided to wait for the next day when we were scheduled to snorkel at an island about an hour of the coast. More about that in my next post though...


That's it... we are ready to head home and have a drink at the pool.

 

BTW: Thanks Gwynne, for letting me use your pictures!



This post belongs to a series of posts describing our trip to Costa Rica (May 2008). The following is a list of all 4 posts in this series:



Posted @ 9:14 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
Comments (22)


Tuesday, July 01, 2008
Adventure in Costa Rica - The Journey

Costa Rica, at least to me, has always been one of those places that I wanted to visit, but not quite enough to actually make it happen. Sure, I've heard of the nice beaches and the incredible variety in scenery and wildlife, but still, places like Australia, Egypt, or China have been above Costa Rica in my list of places to visit. After all, the pyramids, the Great Barrier Reef, or the Great Wall just are more obvious targets for "must see" places. So I filed Costa Rica under "cool to see if I get the chance" just above other Central American countries like Honduras or Panama.

All that changed this spring however, when the in-law's 50th anniversary came up, which was to be celebrated with a trip to Costa Rica. As it turns out, Costa Rica is not just "nice", but it is incredible!

A little research revealed that even though Costa Rica only represents about 0.1% of the world's land mass (the surface that is out of the water), it hosts an incredible 5% of the world's bio-diversity. In other words: about 1/20th of the world's animal and plant species can be found in Costa Rica. Or, to look at it slightly different: If you go to Costa Rica, you will get to see about 50 times as much as other places!

Our trip to Costa Rica started out in Houston, with a convenient direct flight into the capitol city of San Jose. Total flight time was a little over 3 hours, so shorter than many of the domestic flights I take in the US. We arrived in the afternoon and traveled on to our first hotel, which was just slightly outside of San Jose. The parts of San Jose I got to see where not really inviting, and I wasn't to sad to not have spent much time there. It looks like most capitol cities in relatively poor countries do: Most locals seem to gravitate there, and there are many poor areas and not much to do for a foreigner.

We spent our first night at the Vista del Valle Plantation Inn, which was just far enough outside the city to be cool. It is set completely in what I would have considered the jungle (until I saw the real jungle) and has some very nice scenery. It was nicely secluded and completely quiet. The perfect way to start a jungle vacation and to forget about the stressful days that had lead up to the trip. In fact, the thought had occurred to me that this hotel would have been the ideal place to disappear to and write a book. Nobody there to bother you. Nice places to sit and and just lean back and relax.


Our room at the Vista del Valle Plantation Inn

The only thing that was slightly less than perfect was that it rained as we arrived. Our trip took place in May. For those of us that didn't pay in geography class: That means the rainy season is about to start. I hadn't really paid too much attention to that, and besides, a lot of people told us that that was a great time to go, as the weather was not quite as hot, yet it didn't rain all that much yet. "2 hours every afternoon to cool things down" is what people who went to Costa Rica before had told us. We figured we could handle 2 hours of rain a day.

So we spent a nice night at the Plantation Inn (it stopped raining later) and had a nice dinner at the hotel's quiet restaurant (the only one easily reachable there without a car). I really only have good things to say about the hotel. The hotel was nice. The rooms were all in little bungalows and were quite nice, with a certain jungle-book-flair. And the people there were very nice too (a statement that is true for just about everyone I met in Costa Rica). When we arrived at the hotel, we didn't check in, but we simply left our luggage in the van and we were just shown around the hotel's gardens and swimming pool area, the restaurant, and all the different plants they had (since this really felt like the middle of the jungle). When we finally arrived at our rooms, our luggage was already there, and we realized our vacation had already begun 30 minutes earlier. In short: It was a very nice experience.

The next morning, we continued our journey to get the the first "real" destination: The Corcovado Jungle Lodge at the edge of the Corcovado National Park, one of the must stunning national parks in all of Costa Rica. National Geographic calls it "the most biologically intense place on Earth". The lodge we were headed for was right at the edge of the park and a perfect starting place to explore it. However, our interest wasn't just in visiting the park. Getting there is a little adventure all in itself. From San Jose, one can take a small jungle-hopper flight into Palma Sur, which is a small jungle airstrip. We took a flight on Nature Air, the world's only carbon-neutral airline (according to their own claims anyway). The flight itself is - shall we say - "interesting". The plane is relatively small, and the weather wasn't all that great, so it was a bit bumpy. What impressed me most was landing in the jungle. You could swear they are putting the plane down into the palm trees, until, at the last moment, the landing strip appears and everything works out fine (against all odds, as it seems to the rookie jungle passenger).


Nature Air flight from San Jose to Palma Sur

Palma Sur airport is quite small. Hardly more than a roof on four posts. There is no baggage claim there. The pilot gets out of the cockpit and fishes your bag out of the cargo hold and hands it over right on the tarmac.


Palma Sur airport. Terminal A I guess...

From there, you are on your own. Well, almost. We were in luck, because our assigned guide from the Corcovado Jungle Lodge (who was assigned to us for the entire stay there) picked us up and packed us into a van for the 20 minute ride to a nearby river, which was our "road" to Corcovado. That's right: The remaining 2 hours of the trip took us down a river and across the ocean to our final destination. I really enjoyed this part of the trip. After all, it's not every day that you go somewhere without roads. The boat was small and could only fit about 8 people (including our guide and the boat captain). (Note: We were told there was a 25lbs baggage weight limit due to this boat ride, but the guys there had never heard of such a limit). The boat ride was pretty entertaining as there was lots to see along the winding river, and even within the river, since there are crocodiles. However, the boat is big enough to provide enough protection for even the most squeamish of passengers.


The boat in front (blue top) is the one we rode to the hotel


Going through the mangrove on the way to the hotel


One of the "friendly natives", an American Crocodile. Not at all like gators...

A bit more than the first half of the boat ride was spent on the river, and we stopped several times to look at wildlife or the scenery. Danny (our guide) took the time to point out all kinds of things, from crocs to birds and other things. After about an hour, the river opened up into a pretty wide delta before it opens up to the Pacific ocean. At that point, the ride got a bit bumpier, and would not have been all that great for those who tend to get sea-sick. Personally, I enjoyed the boat-ride part of the trip a lot. After all, how often do you go somewhere these days where the journey includes transport on a boat?

After a boat ride that all-in-all took a bit less than 2 hours, we reached our destination at the edge of the national park. Casa Corcovado is a small eco tourism hotel that is completely cut off from the rest of the world. There is no Internet and cell phones do not work. The only means of communication is the hotel's radio. Electricity is available within limits, since all the electricity is produced by the hotel by means of solar collectors. All this goes along with Costa Rica's push for sustainable eco tourism, and I was quite impressed by the entire setup. Here we were, in the middle of the "real" jungle, with unbelievable scenery and wildlife around and hardly any connection to the outside world, yet we had electricity and a swimming pool. Nice!

The hotel itself is set up as a series of bungalows and individual small buildings that blend into the environment quite nicely. Every room is its own building that's a bit separate from the next building over. There is no air condition and no glass windows. Mosquito netting is all that is needed, as the temperature year around is such that no heating or air condition is required. However, I am told that in February and March, it does get a bit warm and the ceiling fan is much appreciated. Overall, the entire style of the hotel reminded me of colonial times. The contrast between the wilderness and the amazing flora and fauna all around, and the comfort of the hotel, was quite startling.


Our "room" at Casa Corcovado


The same room from the inside


The hotel's restaurant and bar


Ready for a dip in the jungle swimming pool?

The total capacity of the hotel is about 40 or so people, but when we were there, there never were more than 15 people counting the six of us. It made for a very nice atmosphere at breakfast and dinner, which was always held at the hotel's restaurant, which really was the only place to get food. The menu was limited to a few choices each day, but every day it changed. Most of the food was Costa Rican, and I quite enjoyed it. For instance, for the first course of the first evening, soup was served out of a cut-in-half coconut that was collected right on the beach belonging to the lodge. Pretty cool!

So those were the first 24 hours of our trip to Costa Rica. Our vacation and our adventures hadn't hardly even started yet, but as I fell into my bed dead-tired at 6pm (which is when the equatorial pitch-black night starts), I realized that the trip had already been worthwhile. The rain had started again and dripped on the roof. We could hear the sounds of the jungle. And nothing else. A perfect setting to get a good night's sleep before we were ready to venture into the jungle. But that shall be the topic of my next blog post...



This post belongs to a series of posts describing our trip to Costa Rica (May 2008). The following is a list of all 4 posts in this series:



Posted @ 7:44 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
Comments (196)


Sunday, June 01, 2008
Cruise to Cozumel

Those of you who follow me on Twitter, know that I just returned from a trip to Costa Rica. So where are my Costa Rica blog posts, you may wonder? They are coming (and it will take more than one to cover all the cool stuff), but before I do so, I still owe you a post on my cruise to Mexico (Cozumel).

I had never been on a cruise before. I am not sure why exactly. It has long been one of those things I always wanted to do, but never quite enough so to actually do it. And besides, I was never quite sure whether I would be too bored by a cruise or not. I had sailed on big ships before, but they were mainly large ferries to Greece (check out this post for instance) or Corsica, and after 24 hours on the ship, I had always been ready to get off. But we finally did it with my parents last month: We took a cruise from the port of Galveston (which of course is very convenient if you live in Houston) down to Cozumel (Mexico). My expectations were that there was going to be some partying on the ship, some semi-decent food, and as the climax, a very nice day spent in the Mexican Caribbean.

To my surprise, getting on the cruise was relatively painless, and also quite inexpensive, all things considered (especially since you need relatively little money on board). We just drove down to Galveston on a Thursday morning, parked the car, and got on the ship. Boarding can take a little while, but due to the fact that my parents as well as I have an Austrian passport, we all boarded at the "foreign visitors" line, which wasn't a line at all. We just walked up, showed them our tickets and paperwork, and a few minutes later we were on the ship, while the line for US citizens would have probably taken about an hour to get through. (And I really do not queue up very well at all... so that worked out good).

The ship itself was quite impressive. We sailed on the Carnival Ecstasy, which holds 2,052 passengers and is 855 feet (260 meters) long. Quite impressive, although not entirely as impressive as I expected, I must admit. For instance, one of the ships I was on going to Greece, the F/B El Venizelos is 575 feet (175 meters) long, which is quite a bit shorter, but holds 2,500 passengers and 1,100 cars! In terms of number of decks and such, the two ships are about equal. Nevertheless, the Ecstasy was very impressive in terms of the amenities and the quality of things provided. I was really surprised at how nice our cabin was. Plus, they always came up with funky little towel animals I liked. Here is an example:

(In fact, we even bought a book that tells how to make 100 different towel animals. I have only mastered the snail so far, and the result looks a bit vulgar, so I couldn't possibly show a photo of it here...)

The cruise from Galveston to Cozumel and back is considered a 5-day cruise, but it really isn't. The ship leaves port Thursday afternoon, and gets back Monday morning. So you really have 4 nights or 3 days of vacation. The first and last day seems to be mostly wasted on cruises. One of the things that I pretty much knew ahead of time, but it still took me by surprise anyway, is how much food one consumes on a cruise. (The average passenger gains 8lbs, I am told). And what was even more surprising was the quality. I expected it to be decent for mass produced food, but it actually turned out to be very very good. So I ate a little more than I feared :-).

The other thing that struck me pretty much as soon as we boarded was that I had never seen such a collection of fat, deformed, and genuinely ugly people in one spot. It was quite amazing. Not that I am claiming to be an Adonis, but boy, this was something. On the other hand, it makes you worry a little less about sucking in your stomach, which is probably a good thing. But if you are stuck on a boat with 2,000 people for an entire cruise, and not once do you see a girl where you think "oh, she is kinda cute", something is just plain wrong! Well, anyway, this is what it was. Not a good single hangout, I would say.

Anyway: Our first day at see was quite uneventful. I wasn't bored at all I have to say. Quite the contrary. I had been so busy and stressed the few weeks before the cruise, I was just happy to find a quite spot on deck (I found one aft) and read a book, and enjoy not having Internet access for a change:

I spent a little bit of time by the pool, but frankly, if a pool is what you want, go to a hotel. The ship's pool was nothing to write home about. And in terms of a "funship party on deck", I didn't see much of that either. (Unless the meant the men's hairy chest competition...I kid you not!) But that was fine with me in that case. We spent the day eating and relaxing, and eating some more. We also saw a nice show that evening (comedian) and lost a bit of money at the casino. Here is a photo from one of our dinners:

I also noticed that one of the things the ship was big on was "getting pampered at the spa". That is all fine and good, except "pampered" ("pempern") means something entirely different in German. Totally different. "Come up to our private rooms, and we will have you pampered in no time", they said. Uhm, OK. Or "pamper yourself for only $95" said another advertisement. Gee, that would be the first time I had to pay for that! I didn't take them up on that offer though. Seems to me I got "pampered" at the casino more than I wanted...

So I found the day at sea enjoyable overall, but what I was really looking forward to was the day in Cozumel. I hadn't been to Cozumel before, but I had been to the Riviera Maya, which is the mainland the island of Cozumel is just off of. And I have very fond memories of that trip. However, I also realized that with 2,000 people trying to get off at a relatively small port, it probably wasn't that great an idea to do what everyone else did. So we decided to ask our waitress (whom we had become friendly with) where she would go for a land excursion, thinking that might be our best bet to not go where all the tours and catamarans go. She made a recommendation, and we got off the ship (agonizingly slowly, I might add!) grabbed a taxi, and of we went... to what ended up being exactly the same beach as where all the other tourists from the ship went! What a disappointment! This must have been the single worst Caribbean beach ever! Tons of people, a boring beach, no snorkeling or Caribbean atmosphere. I was devastated. Here's a photo from that beach (which really doesn't do it justice):

Also, I found the whole process of getting off the ship in Cozumel to be an exercise in frustration. It takes a long time (did I mention I don't like to wait?) and then you are herded through a series of shops that having nothing whatsoever to do with Mexico. You will see a Starbucks and a Subway restaurant. A Burger King and a McDonalds. Why would I want to see any of that?!? I could have had that cheaper at home! It always pisses me off when I see something like that. Especially Subway seems to have a habit of opening up restaurants at the oddest places, such as archeological sites. Why would I want to see a Subway restaurant when I came to see Mayan ruins?!?

We had from about 9am to 4pm to explore Mexico. However, what you have to take in account is that it takes forever to get off the ship and out through the terminal, Realistically, you won't make it to anywhere before 11am or later. You also have to be back on the ship at least 30 minutes before it sails. And considering how long it takes to get on, you have to leave wherever you are no later than 2:30pm or so. So that leaves you with just over 3 hours max to do anything. And guess what: There just isn't that much you can do in 3 hours. In hindsight, I might have chosen to just stay on board and relax a little more. Even considering other options now, there just wasn't enough time to get away from all the commotion.

Here is our ship (with a second ship from Carnival) at the dock in Cozumel:

Here we are, just before we get in the 1+ hour line to get back onto the ship (did I mention I hate to wait...? Oh, I did, didn't I?):

Once back on the ship, the good life continued however. We enjoyed a nice sunset over Cancun, before we ate more food and enjoyed another show:

The next day was spent at sea again, as we steamed back to Galveston. More food, but we even mixed in a littler exercise. It was another enjoyable day, even though it started raining in the afternoon. So much so in fact, that they had to close the deck off. But that was OK. We just ate a little more food. This was also the night of the magnificent buffet, which included a number of nice sculptures, such as this ice dragon, which I took a picture of, since my hockey team is called the "Ice Dragons":

So how did I like the cruise all in all, and would I do another one? Well, I liked it OK. It was a very nice and relaxing long weekend. And it was convenient for us and not overly expensive. I wouldn't call it exactly a vacation, because as a vacation it would have sucked. But as a nice thing to do on the weekend, I would probably do it again in a little while. You just can't think of it as a way to get to Mexico, but instead, I think of it as a nice alternative to spending the weekend in our yard by the pool. Not a better way to spend the weekend, mind you, but I can't sit by the pool every weekend :-).

Everything we did on board the ship was actually a little better than I expected. The food was awesome (they def. had the best lobster I ever ate, and I have eaten lobster at some expensive places...) and the crew was friendly. Our waitress was awesome (Izabella). The land excursion was a huge disappointment, and I felt especially bad for my parents who had never been to Mexico before.

I would however consider another cruise (and am in fact planning one right now) to places you couldn't otherwise get to very easily. To Mexico, I would fly the next time around, but Alaska and Antarctica seem to be great places to cruise to. I also would like to cross the Atlantic as well as the Pacific on a ship one day. In all these cases, traveling by ship serves a very specific purpose, but just traveling to a common vacation destination on a cruise ship is not that high on my list at this point.

BTW: We had a very inexpensive cabin way down in a low deck in the middle of the ship. This turned out to be a great choice. It was inexpensive and being low meant you feel little movement. I do not get seasick, but this is a good thing to know. Also, being in the middle of the ship (slightly forward, perhaps) means you are away from the noisy anchor chain yet you can't hear the engines much either. So this is the cabin I would go for again for this type of cruise. You do not need a window, because there isn't much to see, so that isn't worth the higher price. You don't need a bigger room, because you don't spend much time in your cabin anyway. The only thing that I would consider spending extra money on is a cabin with a nice balcony, especially on a cruise where you actually see land.

We arrived back in Galveston Monday morning. You had the option to grab all your own bags and walk off the boat early, or you could have your bags carried off for you, and leave based on a specific schedule. We carried our own bags, and that is what I would recommend. If you get the bags carried off for you, you still end up picking them up just before immigration anyway. There is little benefit to it, and you will only be further back in line. And the line was long! 2,000 people (the equivalent of 10 average flights) trying to make it through immigration with 5 customs officers. Yikes! It took forever! It was poorly organized and overall a mess. Way too much hassle for a trip that felt like you never left Houston, really. But we made it through, and were back home around noon on Monday.

 

Posted @ 6:07 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
Comments (21)


Sunday, June 01, 2008
Things I must do before I die...

A lot of people talk about their imaginary list of things to do before they die. "Visit the Great Wall of China" is probably the most stereotypical item people put on it. And guess what, I have such an imaginary list too. And although I always thought I've had such a list, I couldn't really tell you what was on it, to be honest. Or how I'd go about many of those things for that matter.

So yesterday it occurred to me, that I should probably organize myself a bit, and create an actual list. Most people would probably write it down on a piece of paper or perhaps create a simple computer file. I am a software developer however, so I decided to create a database suitable for the task, accessible as a web application. This way, I could easily add items to the list no matter where I am at. I could add items, indicated whether I had already done them or not, store additional information for each task as I do research into how to accomplish this, and so forth. So that is what I spent a few hours on yesterday. While I was at it, I created it in a way where multiple people could theoretically store their things they want to do in this database, and see who else wanted to do the same thing or had already done it, and what their experiences were. (Currently, only I can actually add items to the database, but I may make it available to others as well).

So now, all that's left to do is add the actual things I want to do. I spent a bit of time on this and the list is already huge. And I am sure there will be much much more to add. Man, I better get planning!

Here's the link to my list: http://www.markusegger.com/ThingsToDo.aspx 

Oh, and yes, visiting the Great Wall of China is on my list...



Posted @ 4:28 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
Comments (12)


Saturday, May 31, 2008
Luggage on Plane Trips

How to tell a seasoned traveler from a novice one: Look at how they handle their luggage and what they pack. Here's how I usually go about it:

First of all, I do not check in luggage unless I absolutely have to. I usually bring one of those new roller bags that are exactly the right size for the overhead bins, as well as a special notebook backpack. For more adventurous trips - like the the trip to Costa Rica I just returned from - I replace the roller bag with a duffel bag, since it is often easier to get that into cars and boats. 

The roller bag I have is pretty cool. It has an extra zipper that extends the whole thing to fit quite a bit more. If pressed, I zip it up, often at great difficulty :-), at least temporarily. This way, most airline staff only hassles me temporarily. Often they will tell me it is to big (although it really isn't). In that case, I always say "OK, I will give it a try... if it doesn't fit, I will gate-check it". This has always worked for me, and I usually never need to gate-check it anyway. Only on small city-hopper planes are the overhead bins too small for my bag. In that case, gate-checking is no problem. You hand them the bag outside the plane (typically, you have to walk out the runway for those smaller planes) and I they hand it back to me outside the plane when I arrive. I then carry it on to my next flight or final destination.

The smaller bag I carry, I use for my computer, as well as all my important documents, such as an ID or passport, the printout for eTickets or a hotel, and extra credit cards or cash (I generally carry a small wallet with some cash and 2 or 3 credit cards in a zipped pocket of my pants) and other important items, like keys, my cell phone, and my camera. I *never* give that bag away. I carry it with me at all times. I won't even put it into the trunk of a taxi cab. When I take a nap at an airport, I wrap the strap around my leg. When I go to the bathroom, I typically carry it with me. And I *always* put all the documents and important stuff in the same place inside the bag. It is by far the best way to make sure you don't misplace them or forget them.

I also usually put an extra shirt, a toothbrush, and maybe even a pair of pants into that bag. After all, I am much less likely to get separated from my backsack than my second carry-on. And luggage does get lost. A lot. On our recent Costa Rica trip, we met a couple that spent several days in a jungle lodge completely without luggage (which was still in Miami). There was no chance for them to get it either, since it would have had to be flown there by a small airline, and then brought to them by boat. So they each had a pair of sneakers, jeans, and a t-shirt. Not exactly a great way to spend a dream vacation. We didn't lose our luggage (thank god), but if we would have, I would have had an extra t-shirt, a pair of shorts I could have worn to swim as well as hike, and a pair of hiking-quality sandals. I had all this stuff in my rucksack, since I decided it would be exactly what I needed as a minimum if my luggage got lost.

"So why do I never check anything in", you ask? Well, for one, you need to be at the airport earlier to check stuff in. Also, luggage tends to get lost. A lot. If you travel enough, you will lose stuff if you check it in. (BTW: If all your checked in stuff is lost, it isn't that bad... it probably got delayed somewhere. If only one bag is missing, it really got misplaced. You should have kissed it goodbye before you checked it in!) If you have a short connection (or a delayed flight somewhere and you need to run to the gate), checked luggage will almost never make it. This is particularly bad when you travel on after your final destination. (Flying somewhere to go on a cruise and your luggage gets lost by the airlines? Good luck!) Also, luggage you carry on (even if you end up having to gate-check it) is less at risk of getting damaged. This is important, not just for fragile stuff inside your bags, but your actual bags will get trashed as well. Check in a brand new bag, and by the time you get it back, something will be broken off. It is one of those facts of life.

So what do you need to do to make sure you can carry your bag on? For one, get a regulation size bag. Of course, you can also only bring whatever fits. However, I don't usually give too much thought to what I bring (I usually start packing about an hour before I leave). I find that with the backpack and the roller bag I have, I can easily pack for 2 weeks or even a bit more, even if I need business and casual cloths. The other thing you need to pay attention to is liquids. Yes, it is completely stupid, but you have to deal with it. I now have a collection of small bottles and containers that I collection from hotels (the empty ones that is ;-)). I refill them before the trip, so I can bring small quantities of my favorite shampoos and such. I pack them into a small transparent bag. I actually have gallon-bags, even though you are only supposed to bring quart bags. Nobody ever complained about it so far. I also try to have at least one or two things in there that have an official prescription label on it. It tends to avoid stupid questions. (Probably security staff doesn't want the hassle of giving you a smaller bag, since they can't really make you throw some of the stuff out without giving you a way to keep the prescription drugs).

Sometimes, the airline staff will not want you to carry your bag on anyway. They may claim it is too big or too heavy (and an airline can meassure practically anything and come up with reasons why it is too big or too heavy, no matter how small and light it is, as regular laws of physics do not appear to be valid in the eyes of most airport staff...). In that case, I have a few phrases that often allow me to carry it on anyway. The aforementioned "I will gate-check it, if it really ends up being a problem" often does the trick. In more severe cases I resort to "I would really rather check it in too rather than having the hassle of carrying it around, but I have this really expensive [X] worth $[Y] in the bag that I am worried about. Will you guarantee to replace it if it gets damaged?". You'd be surprised how well this works, and how other passenger's bags all of a suddent are in line before yours to get relegated to the cargo area.

I also have that one finger that is very well trained to lift heavy weights. I figure I can lift up to 35lbs with that finger for very short durations. It hurts like hell, but I have trained myself to look like I am smiling when I am in that kind of pain. So when they ask how heavy my carry-on is, I lift it up quite leisurely and demonstratively with one finger and say (smilling that smile) "oh, not heavy at all".

Some people might consider some of this to be borderline lying. (Other people may notice that the line has been crossed...). But hey! This is airlines we are talking about here. We are dealing with the same people that tell us on the phone that "yes, you are all set... your ticket has been changed" just so you hang up the phone and discover at the airport that nothing is in order at all. It's the same people that tell you 6 different prices when you call them 3 times. It is the same people that tell you at the gate that "seat 12E" is an aisle seat just so you get out of their hair, and by the time you are on the plane, it is too late to strangle them. So I don't think I am the one crossing that line. It's more like they are grabbing me by the throat and dragging me along involuntarily...

Generally, all of this allows me to bring everything I need, and hang on to it when other people lose their stuff. I don't spend a huge amount of time thinking about what I want to bring. I generally bring tons of magazines and books. I can't even read half of them, but I am terrified of getting bored on planes. Plus, I want the freedom to read whatever I am in the mood for. I also try to bring magazines I throw away after I read them. I like to read Money Magazine, for instance, but I never keep it after I read it. So I leave it in the seat-back-pocket in the seat in front of me. Maybe it makes the next passenger happy. I also have other magazines that I do not throw away after I read them (CoDe Magazine, anyone? :-)). But I bring fewer of those. I also typically bring my iPhone to watch movies on, as well as my PSP for extreme cases of boredom.

BTW: Sometimes you may be allowed to bring on your luggage, but then there really isn't any room in the overhead bins. Now you really are in trouble, trying to back up through the aisle way against the flow of boarding passengers, getting your bag ready for gate-check. I usually manage to avoid this by trying to maintain at least a minimum level of frequent flyer status on several airlines. This usually covers those airlines as well as a good number of partners, and it allows you to board with the first class passengers, even when you are in coach. This way, the overhead bins are still empty and you are in good shape. (This is also one of the reasons why I actively avoid airlines such as Delta who have a zone-boarding policy... frequent delays caused by this nonsense being the other reason).

Talking about gate-checks: I much prefer to gate-check my luggage over really checking it in. In most cases, you get your bag back right at the exit of the airplane. Even if you have to claim it at the regular baggage claim, gate checked bags are usually the last ones that get loaded, which means they are the first ones to get unloaded. So you are still better off than the other passengers since you get your bags first. Also, gate-checked bags are not very likely to get lost.

So that's it. I hate checking in luggage. There are few things more frustrating than getting to your destination after a 24 hour trip, and then waiting for your luggage for an hour, just to learn that it was lost. Now you spend another hour or two, waiting in line so you can tell the airline what happened (as if you knew!). Also, if you don't have to wait for your luggage to show up, you are usually first in line at the taxi stand. It makes quite the difference when you got off a plane with 250 other people...

 

Posted @ 2:35 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
Comments (5)


Saturday, May 31, 2008
FlyersRights.com

Did you know that as an airline passenger, you have fewer rights than a prisoner of war, according to the Geneva Convention?

For instance, if the plane sits on the runway for hours, you have no right to go to the bathroom, get a glass of water (or other drink), stretch your legs, or get off the plane (they can basically detain you indefinitely). It really sucks, and I have been stuck in such a situation several times.

And I am not the only one who noticed this. Check out www.FlyersRights.com. This is an organization who tries to battle this problem. They have even appeared before congress a number of times. Here is how they describe themselves:

The Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights was formed by hundreds of passengers who were stranded on several American Airlines planes for up to 9 hours at Austin International Airport on December 29, 2006. During that period we were denied food, water or access to working bathroom facilities. Ignoring our pleas, the airline refused to allow passengers to deplane despite medical emergencies, and other health and safety issues. As a result of this ordeal, we discovered that there were thousands of other passengers who share similar experiences and together we decided to turn our anger and frustration into action. We are the fastest growing coalition of airline passengers, with over 21,000 members onboard. Since forming, our coalition has made numerous visits to Congress and there are several passengers' rights provisions pending in the form of legislation and Department of Transportation regulation.

Also, check out their proposed Bill of Rights for passengers. Sounds all reasonable to me. Amazing really, that things like "allow passengers access to needed medical attention" are not yet covered in any way. It really goes to show how the airline industry lives in a world of their own, and the lack of choice (you can choose a different airline, but get the same crap) can lead to monopoly-like customer experiences.

You can sign a petition on that page as well, if you want...



Posted @ 1:15 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
Comments (11)


Saturday, May 31, 2008
No more paper tickets...

As of June 1st, there will be no more paper tickets. The IATA has announced that paper tickets will be completely abandoned, and all tickets will be electronic only. Former plans of being able to get paper tickets on request have been dropped.

For more info, check out this link.

Suits me fine. Paper tickets were a hassle anyway. Some people thought that it was nice to have paper tickets, as you have something "in hand". But that was really baloney anyway. Paper tickets didn't do diddley for a long time now, other than giving you a chance to lose them.



Posted @ 10:31 AM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
Comments (8)


Sunday, May 18, 2008
About skiing in Austria and not blogging...

So I haven't blogged very much over the last 6 months. At least not on my travel blog. "What's up?" you may say, "is he not going anywhere anymore?!?". Quite the contrary, actually! I have been traveling like crazy, and I have been so busy with all kinds of situations that I just didn't have the time and energy to blog. I guess I needed a "blogging hiatus" you could say. But now I am back! And I have some catching up to do! I haven't at all talked about the time I spent in Europe this winter, so I will do that in this post). I also haven't told you about my inner-American trips, some of which I still plan to catch up on (such as my recent cruise down to Mexico).

So what have I been up to this past fall and winter? Well, I spend a whole lot of time going back between the US and Europe. Most of my Europe-time I spent in Austria as you may have guessed. In fact, this was an awesome winter. Not a huge amount of snow all in all, but it snowed enough early on to make it an awesome skiing winter. And unlike in recent years, I had decided to buy my own gear and season tickets again, and even though I do not live there full time, I managed to take great advantage of them. (For about Euro 450, I got a "Super Ticket" which allowed me to ski anywhere in the region of Salzburg and parts of Tirol, which amounts to a large number of resorts and god knows how many thousands of miles of slopes). I probably skied about 20 times or more. Having my own gear (as opposed to renting them) allowed me to just grab my stuff and go for 2 or 3 hours if I didn't have more time. It was expensive to get all the gear again, but in hindsight, it was def. worth it. Plus, I can use it all again next season, so it is an "investment into the future".

I did most of my skiing near my hometown of Saalfelden, which means the resorts of Zell am See, Saalbach, Kitzsteinhorn (the glacier where that big accident happened a few years ago), Leogang, and Hochkoenig. Combined, these resorts make some of the greatest skiing you can do on this planet. If you are into skiing at all and fancy a trip to the alps sometime, this is def. an area you should consider. Zell am See and Saalbach are touristic slam-dunks anyway, and Leogang is really catching up and an insider-tip. (For a great fancy hotel, check out the Krallerhof!).

BTW: If you consider going there, you basically have two options: 1) Fly into Salzburg, which is most convenient but also expensive, or 2) fly into Munich, which leaves you with a 2 hour drive (either by taxi or with a rental car, which is quite easy), but is generally the better option from the US because it is less expensive and also because you have way more flight options. You could probably get there with frequent flyer miles if you fly a lot (going to Salzburg, that has never worked for me so far...).

Even Ellen got into it and improved a lot. Unfortunately, she twisted her knee the last day we went, which put a damper on things.Luckily, she didn't need any surgery. Knee-injuries are very common with modern skies, unfortunately. But it could have been worse, and I hope she will ski again next year.

Anyway: I was so busy skiing this year, I didn't take a lot of photos. Here are a few thought that should give you an impression (for a complete set of skiing photos, visit the album I created on Facebook):

Here are some I took with the iPhone, which came out predictably crappy, but should still give you an impression of what it is like:













Posted @ 10:41 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
Comments (13)


Friday, May 16, 2008
From New Orleans to Toronto

I just returned from a few short trips. Last weekend, we went to New Orleans. We drove by car, since we were 4 people, so flying would have been more expensive. We left Friday afternoon from Houston. Lots of traffic, so it took a loooong time to even get out of the city. It took us about 6 1/2 hours to get to our hotel there.

We stayed at the Royal St. Charles hotel. The hotel was reasonably nice and had a little bit of a modern funky look to it that I liked. However, what made the hotel a bit of a downer is that I really felt ripped off as soon as we checked in. We booked the hotel online (Expedia.com) and paid it in advance. However, as soon as we got there, they charged us a "mandatory resort fee" or they wouldn't allow us to check in. This is a daily fee that covers the "resort amenities", I guess. It also is supposed to include free high-speed Internet. However, besides not being there to enjoy the "resort", this ain't a "resort" in the first place. It is a pretty basic hotel with a bar downstairs. Secondly, the free high speed Internet this was supposedly for didn't work. So it boiled down to the fact that we paid for the hotel in advance online and then had to pay a little more when we checked in. (This had already been a long day, so I didn't have the energy to raise hell about this, but in hindsight, I probably should have...).

Anyway: This was the only downer really. Other than that, we had a blast. We went to Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse that evening. Not the most imaginative choice I guess, but it was already 9:30pm and we needed something quick, and I found Dickie's is always a safe bet for a decent dinner. And besides, it is right there just off Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, which made it very convenient for us. The waiter was fun too. My steak was excellent.

Then, we "did the Bourbon Street thing". We hung out at several different bars and listened to some good old rock. We enjoyed a few beers, and had a genuinely enjoyable evening. There was a bit of an "interruption" when a girl got shot into the thigh next door at Chris Owen's, but they just closed off that part of Bourbon Street for a while, and we really only found out what had happened later. (I had suspected that something like that must have gone on, but we decided to ignore it as best we could...). In general, Bourbon Street seems to be back to its old self. Maybe there are a few less people than before, and maybe some of the bars have turned into strip-joints, but by and large, things are like they were before the hurricane. (In other parts of town, it is real obvious that things have changed... or not been fixed as the case may be...).

The next morning I finally managed to sleep in before we grabbed a sandwich around noon and drove back to Houston (driving time somewhere between 5 1/2 hours and 5 3/4 hours). So I made it back in time for my hockey game :-). At first I was worried that driving to New Orleans for a single night was crazy, but it actually worked out pretty well, and I am glad we did it. We def. had a great time.

One day later, we flew up to Toronto. This was a business trip. I always like Toronto as a town. It has an almost European flair. In fact, for some reason it always reminds me of London. Not sure why really, but the feel seems to be similar. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to do much other than work, but we did have an excellent sushi dinner at Masa Sushi, which I can recommend. Beyond that, we had a crappy flight going to Toronto (which I blogged about here), and we visited the Hockey Hall of Fame, which I blogged about here.



Posted @ 7:29 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
Comments (6)


Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Visiting the Hockey Hall of Fame (Toronto)

Since I am in Toronto this week, I took advantage of the opportunity and visited the Hockey Hall of Fame! :-)

This was actually much cooler than I expected. At first, I wasn't even sure whether I wanted to go. To be honest, I only decided to go because Ellen had suggested it, and I thought "well... it will give me something to blog about". And now I am really glad I went. It was well worth seeing. I even found the building cool, which says "Temple du Hockey" on the outside:

Inside, you can see a whole bunch of stuff. Anything from display cases dedicated to individual "hall-of-famers" (like the one for Wayne Gretzky below) to just cool gear, videos, and even an area where you can shoot the puck or try your luck as a goalie.


Even my home country of Austria has a small appearance there, but only in the form of a few jerseys:


Well, maybe Thomas Vanek (Buffalo Sabres, and former "Zeller Eisbaeren" player... the club where I played as a kid) will be a hall-of-famer one day.

Anyway: The coolest display is the Stanley Cup. This is the closest I will ever get to it, unless the Ice Dragons go on a heck of a winning streak:

It was quite impressive in a way to see this thing up close. I actually didn't realize that the cup looked different before, with quite a few of its pieces cut off and put on a wall. I guess that makes sense considering that they have been doing this for over 100 years now. (Every winning player's name gets engraved on the cup, so they keep running out of room).

Of course they also have a gift-shop there. I considered buying a jersey or two, but holy-moly! Anywhere between $130 and $200 for a stupid jersey?!? They gotta be kidding. And that isn't even with a number or personalized or anything! (So I ended up going on NHL.com later, buying a personalized jersey with my name and number, which I can wear at some of my hobby games...for less than $100).

Anyway: This was a cool experience. If you are a hockey fan, I recommend you check this out if you ever have the chance...



Posted @ 10:56 PM by Egger, Markus (markus@code-magazine.com) -
Comments (4)


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