Porcupyn's Blog

July 1, 2018

South Africa – Preparations

Filed under: Family,Travel — Porcupyn @ 9:15 am

Long long ago, in school, we had learned of the Continent of Africa – the sobriquet was ‘andh mahaadviip’ or Blind/Dark Continent. Among other countries on other continents, I had studied about the countries of Congo, Ghana and Nigeria. But though I had had urges of travelling to, say, Argentina and Brazil, I had not really thought that I might ever want to visit Africa. In those days, due to the apartheid policies, an Indian passport holder wasn’t permitted to visit South Africa (the restriction was on the passport; I don’t know if South Africa ever cared about it). So, even if I were to visit Africa, it would have to be one of the other countries.

Anyway, apartheid is a thing of the past (no such restrictions exist anymore on an Indian passport) and now I live in the USA, which makes it relatively easy to travel to many countries without a visa. But still, I’ve always felt that there are many other places and countries I would want to visit before setting foot on the continent of Africa.

Then, a couple of years ago, some of our friends in the same subdivision made a trip to South Africa. After looking at their photos, I commented about how while those photos were really nice, Africa would not be in my radar for the near future. At the start of this year, though, something happened that changed all that.

It was during the South African summer of 2017-2018 that the Indian cricket team visited for a test series. Having purchased an annual cricket subscription via Sling/Willow, I was following the tour and watching some of the matches as time permitted. When the cameras panned outside the grounds and then South African tourism commercials were shown, I suddenly started to get butterflies in my stomach and a desire to visit South Africa was born.

We were up at 2:45 am, anxiously reviewing the status of our six am flight from MCO-JFK. Yesterday’s flight had been cancelled because of thunderstorm delays the previous evening (go figure!!), and as there had been thunderstorms and delays last night as well, we were really worried (correction – I was really worried). So worried I had been that yesterday, I had whatsapped our airbnb host in Rustenburg asking if we could think of a plan B (no dice, as they were pretty much booked solid the next week) in case our tenuous connections – just under two hours in JKF to change terminals and get past security (and something I hadn’t even considered, get a fresh set of boarding passes) and then just over an hour in Doha (thanks, Qatar Airlines). Anyway, I was afraid I had placed myself firmly under the eight ball, what with my quest for el cheapo airfares that turned out to be anything but!

Anyway, let’s start at how it all got started. In December 2016, I was going to India to attend my wife’s niece’s Big Fat Indian Wedding (to be honest, I was one of the few who really met the conditions for that adjective, but that’s besides the point). On an MCO-FRA flight, I got into a conversation with my seatmate – an employee of one of the plethora of cruiselines in Florida, he was off to his homeland for a well-earned vacation. And his homeland? Botswana. I learned that when I changed to a Mumbai flight in Frankfurt, he would get on his connection to Johannesburg enroute to Gabarone. I wondered: what on earth would he do in Botswana other than visiting his family? Not only could I answer the question then (Only now has the Africa-returned me finally got the answer), but I also wondered why anyone else would want to visit Gabarone (or even Africa for that matter)!

Africa had always been a mysterious place for me – I had studied about countries in Africa in middle and high school geography classes mostly (with some history thrown in), and the moniker of Dark Continent fit perfectly. Four years ago, I had sung along to ‘waka waka’ with Shakira and her troupe, and watched the World Cup Football matches on TV but that hadn’t kindled any desire to visit an isolated land mass, bearing lots of diseases especially the ones the flummox mankind and modern doctors – it was the last continent I would ever wish to visit (maybe even after Antarctica). Or so I thought. Well then, what happened that made me do the about turn?

Well, in December 2017, I purchase an annual cricket package online from Willow TV. Cricket is a game played by many countries in the world, but obviously it is more popular in the erstwhile colonies of UK than elsewhere. So in the early months of 2018, the Indian cricket team was touring South Africa, and I was tuned in on the TV. The more I watched, the more I wanted to visit South Africa. By the time the series ended, I was ready to jump out and head over if I found a good ticket price.

As I’m subscribed to a bunch of flight price notification websites, you would understand that it didn’t take long for the prey to be caught! Specifically, one day in January (or maybe February, I don’t remember which it was), I came across this email that touted flights to Johannesburg – even from Orlando – for less than $1,000 … with a catch! The tickets on Qatar Airways were open jaw itineraries, and we were on our own as far as getting back home was concerned. Not to worry I thought, we had enough of a cushion between the advertised price and (big mistake) what I thought the typical good-deal round-trip airfare to Johannesburg was –> $1,300 to $1,500 [[i]I have since learned that tickets can be had in the range of $1,000 to $1,100].

If we didn’t get a good ticket price from the Europe destination of the original ticket, I gave ourselves two days to get to a different European city from where we could take a flight back to Orlando. In other words, if we were landing in Open Jaw Destination city on day 1, we should be looking at landing in Orlando on day 4. We were severely constrained on this end, because classes were starting the Monday following, and family wanted to be here on Friday. Which meant, we had to make Thursday our “day 4” and Monday would be our “day 1”.

With that in mind, I scouted through the gamut of available destination options in Europe and, in my infinite wisdom, I picked Sofia, Bulgaria for our Open Jaw Destination. Why? Don’t even ask, OK?!!

We were constrained with regard to our departure date as well, but after a lot of brainstorming, we finally decided that we would leave two weeks and two days before our return date, i.e., on a Tuesday … assuming our stars lined up and I was able to get the tickets for that itinerary. Which I did, without much difficulty – except for the short connections, which I glossed over, as I thought that a morning flight should pose no issues (we’ve missed connections because of weather multiple times before – the last having happened just last summer – but they were all on evening flights) within the USA, and there should not be any issues in Doha, it being a Qatar hub and a Qatar-to-Qatar connection.

So now, we were armed with an open jaw itinerary MCO-JFK-DOH-JNB-DOH-SOF. At this point, we were left with figuring out the itinerary within South Africa and our return trip.

At this point, there was a mutiny in the house. DW and DS – with tacit approval from DD – had arrived at the conclusion that I turn into a slavedriver on pleasure trips, making everyone wake up early to use the maximum extent of vacation time [[i]guilty as charged, if I may add ;-)]. But they didn’t want to be running around; rather, they wanted to take it easy (or at least, easier). So, I had to reluctantly hand over the reins to them. As a result – and this was to my own disadvantage – I neglected to perform any research and planning.

First thing that they determined was that Kruger was going to be quite a reach. Instead they preferred a place closer to Johannesburg and found Pilanesberg National Park. To be honest, I had also been wondering if we could pull off Kruger, while also having time to visit the other destinations we wished to visit. But I had been looking at Madikwe based on – I vaguely recall (so might be wrong) – someone’s trip report in this forum. So, was not too overly worried about missing out on Kruger.

Next, DS – who is a veteran of a few message boards such as (and including) FlyerTalk – figured out the Southern African leg (South Africa plus Zimbabwe) of the plan thus:

Day 1 (in South Africa) through Day 3: stay in JNB area somewhere near Pilanesberg preferably
Day 3: fly to CPT
Day 4-6: stay in Cape Town
Day 6: start driving the Garden Route and overnight at Hermanus
Day 7: Garden Route to Knysna
Day 8: Knysna to PLZ
Day 8: fly from PLZ to JNB (overnight at airport)
Day 9: fly from JNB to BUQ, take bus to Victoria Falls
Day 10-11: stay in Victoria Falls
Day 12: fly VIC-JNB (our JNB-DOH flight leg was in the evening)

In theory, I was fine with all of that except that – I was worried that if we got up late on any of those days, we would be missing out on sightseeing, especially as it was winter in those areas and sunset was in the 6:30 pm range more or less. And I didn’t think we could afford to take it easy in getting ready once we got up either! I was not too keen on the Garden Route and would have preferred doing it a bit less leisurely and instead spend some time at Addo National Park; I wanted to take a train within South Africa JNB-CPT (either direction) and I wanted to take the overnight train from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls. But anyway, I didn’t want to get in the way of the plans that DW and DS had come up with, so I gave in to the plan. After all, for the most part, it was just me quibbling for a train instead of a bus and a couple of hours here or there.

In addition, DS did a lot of research to get us relatively under budget from SOF to MCO!! The result was this:

Day 13 (using the above calendar): land in SOF at noon and head over to accommodation (undecided as of now), then check out a bit of Sofia
Day 14: more sightseeing then take overnight bus (FlixBus) to Budapest
Day 15: check out a bit of Budapest
Day 16: BUD-RIX-OSL by airBaltic (he said he had seen excellent reviews, and more importantly, it had an excellent on-time record, which was important to us, as our flight to get back home was a separate itinerary/ticket)
Day 16 (evening): OSL-MCO by Norwegian (we’ve done Norwegian before and liked it, except for the little nickel-and-diming that goes with them – but we knew how to get the best out of that!)

So, to recap, we purchased (or planned to purchase, in the case of BUQ-VIC) the following separate tickets/itineraries:

– MCO-DOH-JNB-DOH-SOF (Qatar Airlines)
– JNB-CPT (Mango Airlines)
– CPT-CPT (in town car rental)
– CPT-PLZ (separate car rental to reduce the one-way drop off fee – I don’t know if the drop off fee is proportional to the number of days the car was rented, but DS got to that conclusion, and I followed his recommendation without confirming)
– PLZ-JNB-BUQ (one ticket, but different airlines – Mango and SA Airlink – per DS, both of these are subsidiaries of South African anyway, but they have different rules and regulations, and price points)
– BUQ-VIC (extraCity bus – DS had confirmed that there was no need to purchase tickets in advance and there would always be availability)
– VIC-JNB (FastJet)
– SOF-RIX-OSL (airBaltic)
– OSL-MCO (Norwegian Airlines)

Tickets purchased, next on our agenda was to figure out where to stay. DW and DS got everything planned out:

For the three days in JNB area, we would rent a car as soon as we got out of customs and immigration, then drive to Mogwase, which is a small town south east of Pilanesberg National Park and just outside the park boundaries. Here we would stay at a Bed & Breakfast.

In CPT, we would get an Airbnb very close to Table Mountain and the CBD area. Upon landing from JNB, we would rent one car for local driving for three days, then drive back to the airport and swap it (not literally) for a one-way rental for two days which we would drop off at Port Elizabeth. On the way, we planned to overnight (Airbnb again) at Hermanus and Knysna.

Then a night in the airport – our departure to BUQ was at six am, and we didn’t see the wisdom (now we do!!) of getting accommodation to sleep until 3 am then get quickly ready to go to the airport. In the town of Victoria Falls, we got a family room in the backpacker’s lodge accommodation – mainly for the convenience and the proximity to the actual Victoria Falls area (needless to say, it helped our budget too!).

Of all these plans,I was a bit worried about using the Airbnb. Now don’t get me wrong, we’re relatively Power Users of Airbnb; however, with the stories we had been hearing of security in South Africa, I was not too keen on Airbnbing – I was wanting to stay at a proper hotel. But then, once I started reading the Airbnb descriptions of the kind of accommodations and hosts available, I got over that feeling of insecurity. Besides, the media always reports the scarier/bad news, is how we sort of rationalized our decision.

After some more research on Airbnb, I was able to find what appeared to be a very nice place in Rustenburg, which is halfway to Pilanesberg from Johannesburg. Not only was this place less expensive than the Mogwase Bed and Breakfast, but the host also offered pick-up and drop-off from either of the local airports, as well as provide a day trip into the National Park. All for an extra fee. After asking for a quote, we decided that it might be the best of all worlds for us; we wouldn’t have to a) rent a car b) drive in a tired state of mind c) figure out how and where to self-drive in the park d) pay top dollar (or Rand) to a professionally guided safari (as our host should be able to give us some insights into the area). A bit surprisingly, both DS and DW agreed with my decision and so, we cancelled the Mogwase accommodation and signed up for Rustenburg. With that decision made, I realized that in Jo’burg, we wouldn’t really be going anywhere on our own – and I liked that, because this city is where I had been most scared about from a security standpoint. What it also meant, though, was that we wouldn’t be able to check out the most touristy aspects of the town, as we would be in Rustenburg except for the drive in and out of JNB airport.

For Cape Town, our primary factor was distance from the CBD and Table Mountain which we intended to hike up. In Hermanus and Knysna, the Airbnb decisions that we made were just based on the photos and the budget that we wanted to stay under. Both places had a range of available places, some less expensive, and others more expensive.

DS then figured out which car rentals to get, and I paid for one online – the second one we needed to pay at pickup.

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June 24, 2018

Becky … and Margaret – a Katya Tale

Filed under: Family,Humour,Uncategorized — Porcupyn @ 7:48 pm

Katya and I recently visited Magic Kingdom on our annual pilgrimage to Walt Disney’s World. Because of intermittent showers, thunder and lightning activity, it was not the normal fruitful trip – many of the rides were cancelled for the most part of the day, especially the outdoor ones. As a result, the queues for those attractions were astronomical even by recent Disney standards – and the resultant spillover because of closures force-landed on the inside attractions such as perennial favourite Space Mountain.

We were forced to wander around looking for something that had a shorter queue. We saw this raft ride that we had usually skipped; this ride was a two-minute ride to a small island – “Tom Sawyer’s Island” – that we’d never been to (other attractions were more attractive to us). After we landed on the island, Katya asked me whether I knew who Becky Thatcher was – I said sure I did, “She was Tom Sawyer’s girlfriend!” Apparently, I had failed to notice that the raft that had helped us cross the moat to the island was named after her (a typical Disney touch).

Anyway, we had fun exploring the little island in the rain, until the authorities were forced to close it due to inclement weather and “extradite” us back to Magic Kingdom.

So, today, we were recounting the incident to Mrs. Porcupyn.

Katya: So, do you know who Becky Thatcher was?

Mrs. Porcupyn: Well, I had forgotten but now that you talked about her, I remember. (Counter question) Do you know who Margaret Thatcher was?

Katya: Ummm… Becky Thatcher’s mother?

Porcupyn: #Facepalm!!

April 22, 2018

My reputation for honesty is in tatters …

Filed under: Family,Humour,Tennis — Porcupyn @ 7:22 pm

… and I don’t know if I’ll ever get it back with that set of kids.

Let me tell you how it happened.

Our group of tennis hackers was playing tennis on one court of this community whereas a group of about five little kids (<7 year old, if I may hazard a guess) where on the next court getting a group lesson. Now, as you can probably understand, with the group lesson, there was a whole host of balls near the fence of the kids' court. The group was on its haunches, diligently picking up one ball after another, when a ball hit from one of my buddies went over and joined the conglomeration of yellow-dot, red-dot, green-dot and dotless balls (belonging to the kiddos' coach).

Keeping my eyes trained on the one ball that mattered to me (and my buddies), I darted over to the kids' court avoiding the debris strewn all over their court … and gathered our Wilson 2 (or was it 3?) ball.

One kid: Hey! That's our ball.

Me (calmly walking back, ball firmly in my grip): No, it's ours.

Kid #2 (thankfully not running after me): That's our ball. Give me it.

Me (running back to our court now): No, it's our ball that rolled over.

Kids: That's steeeeaaaaaling!!

Me:

Our game resumes …

Kids (slightly muted) chorus from across the court: He’s stealing our ball.

… after a couple of points …

Kids (a bit louder): Stealer Stealer Pumpkin Eater.

Not that it was among my top favourite pies, but I certainly don’t think I’ll have pumpkin pie again!!

July 15, 2017

Alaska Trip – Day 12

Filed under: Family,Travel — Porcupyn @ 10:28 pm

On our last day in Alaska on this trip, we woke up at leisure. There was no need for us to hurry, as the flight out was past 9 pm. However, I did want to see if I could catch the reflection of the local mountains at a glassy lake at the point where Sterling Hwy forks off of Seward Hwy. Based on the couple of times we had driven by that area, I noticed that the glassiness was at its peak early in the morning (previously, we had wanted to get to Seward asap and so had not stopped for photos).

Unfortunately, this morning we were too tardy. By the time we got to the spot, the glassiness had all disappeared. We did stop nevertheless and took a couple of photos. We then took a left turn and rejoined the Seward Hwy back towards Anchorage. The weather was still pretty nice and sunny though there were some clouds in the sky.

Soon, we came upon the spot on the highway where there is a downward incline and the road curves to the right. At this point, there is a Kenai Peninsula welcome sign.

Welcome to Kenai Peninsula

Welcome to Kenai Peninsula

Sure enough, we stopped here to get a few photos. In fact, we took a fair number of photos with different combinations of family members 🙂 As I was posing for a photo, from my peripheral vision, I noticed a lady bike (on a cycle) past us towards Anchorage going downhill. When I was about to turn from subject to photographer, I noticed that she (and her bike) were on the ground just off the road, with the bike wheel overhanging over the highway.

I ambled/jogged (“ran” would be an exaggeration!) over towards her asking if she was OK. At this point, she had sat up and was looking quite dazed as far as I could tell (me being on the opposite end of the highway). As I saw a pickup truck (or was it a van?) approaching along her lane of traffic, I managed to flag it down. A couple came out from it, and I briefly told them about the biker lady. They quickly took over and together, we flagged down vehicles in both directions and made it a one-way traffic zone. Fortunately, though the queue was building up in both ends, drivers were patient … and the queues didn’t get too unwieldy. I didn’t get closer to the biker, but they appeared to determine that she had probably gotten a concussion or something, so were gingerly helping her maintain her sitting position. After a few minutes, a police vehicle also came to the area, and at this point, I returned to where we had parked our car near the welcome sign. Mrs. Porcupyn had apparently wondered where I was for a couple of minutes before realizing that I was out on the road! Anyway, before the traffic got unmanageable, we got into our car and managed to take advantage of a break in traffic to ease into our lane and continue with our journey.

In a few minutes, we came to the point where the Portage Glacier Road joins Seward Highway, and I got out of the car to take some photos.

Near Portage Glacier Road

Near Portage Glacier Road

This was the start of the weekend and folks were all out in full force enjoying the beauty of nature. But guess what? By the time I walked back to the car after getting my photos, I noticed that a lady biker was down here as well! Some of the others who were there either biking or jogging were helping her get back to her feet (and bike) – she didn’t appear in as bad a shape as the other lady had been.

Info boards about the old earthquake

Info boards about the old earthquake

Near Beluga Point, the tide had come in

Near Beluga Point, the tide had come in

We then continued our journey back to Anchorage. At about five pm, we were supposed to be meeting Mrs. Porcupyn’s second (or is it third?) cousin who lives in the Anchorage area. By the time we made out customary halt for water 🙂 and got back to town, it was about three pm. We still had a couple of hours to kill. Baab and I left Mrs. Porcupyn, Katya and my mother at the local mall and drove over to take photos of the flights landing and taking off. But here I made a big navigational error (and I still don’t remember how I made this error), and I went the opposite direction from where I needed to go. Let me rephrase this: I had known where I wanted to go, but looking at the map right now, I picked out a location on the diametrically opposite side of the airport. So, we did go to the destination I checked on the map, but it was not the correct one I had originally wanted to go. So, we ended up in this state park with tall trees, and though it was bordering the airport, I didn’t see any clearing where we could have seen and taken photos of planes. By the time I realized this and punched in the location we needed to go to, we realized that it would be too late for us to get back to the mall where we had said we would be back to by about 4:30 pm. So, we abandoned the quest for the planes. Next I thought maybe we could at least check out the train station, but that didn’t pan out either as I failed to figure out where it was located (remember, we didn’t have internet service at this time).

Finally, we went back to the mall, picked up the rest of the family, and went to meet cousin and her husband. We all then went to a local pizza joint for late lunch/early dinner. By now, it was nearly seven pm and I was starting to get a bit antsy as we had to return the rental car and check in. Fortunately, there was no line at either location and we were in our gate area before 8:00 pm. We killed time strolling around doing window shopping. Baab managed to get a few plane photos (so did I) before it was time to board. After an uneventful journey, we were in Seattle.

A naked plane (Baab informed me what this plane was all about and why it's special, but I've forgotten)

A naked plane (Baab informed me what this plane was all about and why it’s special, but I’ve forgotten)

More planes at Anchorage

More planes at Anchorage

In Seattle, we got the shuttle to our motel; later that morning, we rented a car and went on the Boeing tour which, to be honest, we thought was over-rated.

The Dreamlifter at Boeing Field - there were two the day we were there, and we were informed that it was very rare to have two there

The Dreamlifter at Boeing Field – there were two the day we were there, and we were informed that it was very rare to have two there

That evening, we had dinner at an old friend’s house. On the way, we got to see Mt. Rainier once more. We had great weather in Seattle throughout our time there.

The next morning, we returned the car and headed back to the airport. Our flight was at about 6 pm for Salt Lake City, from where we had a red eye into Orlando.

Mt Rainier from Seattle's terminal top parking lot

Mt Rainier from Seattle’s terminal top parking lot

Boeing's test plane (as per Baab) near Mt Rainier

Boeing’s test plane (as per Baab) near Mt Rainier

Mt. ???

Mt. ???

Mt. ???

Mt. ???

Flying into Salt Lake City right around sunset, we got some great views of the unique scenery presented by the Great Salt Lake.

Sunset while landing at Salt Lake City

Sunset while landing at Salt Lake City

After a couple of hours in the Salt Lake City airport, we boarded our Orlando bound flight and that, as they say, is it! It was a wonderful trip, notwithstanding the slight hiccup in the beginning when we missed our flight connection. But Alaska was all we could have asked for, and more! We never felt out of sorts while there, given how distant it appears on the map 🙂

July 14, 2017

Alaska Trip – Day 11

Filed under: Family,Travel — Porcupyn @ 10:32 pm

Today, the plan was to leave my mother in the Airbnb and go early in the morning to Seward to view the Exit Glacier. We planned to return at about noon or slight after that, with lunch from Seward. After having lunch, we would then head down Sterling Highway all the way down the other end of the Kenai Peninsula to Homer.

It was a bleak day when we set out, after having some bread sandwiches for breakfast, with bluebuerries and coffee. Forecasts called for light rain as well. We were glad that we had not encountered this weather yesterday, when we had our cruise out of Seward in “brochure” weather, as the crew had put it.

As was the case yesterday, we did not encounter too much traffic or delays related to traffic and were at the Exit Glacier visitor center by about 9:30 am. We waited around for the hike group to form, when we learned that there had been an earlier ranger-led hike that had gone further up the trail. Had we known about it, we would have definitely made an effort to be there earlier; however, it was now too late to catch up to that one. Oh well!

Our hike was quite easy. It was quite enlightening to see how far the glacier had retreated in the last century, based on the markers built along the hike trail. But what was really surprising was how much vegetation had built up in the last three-four decades where there used to be just glacier back then! The ranger explained to us the symbiotic relationship between the Alder trees and the Cottonwood trees that dominated the vegetation.

Tongue of Exit Glacier

Tongue of Exit Glacier

After about an hour, we got to the end point of the trail from where we could see the lip (though if you ask me, I would term it to be the ‘tongue’) of the glacier.

At the Exit Glacier, sections are roped off but the ranger was kinda iffy whether or not folks go past those to get closer to the glacier, At least, while we were there, everyone heeded the signs and no one went past the ropes. He told us that should we want to get closer, we could stay on the trail that led up to Harding Icefield, but being wary of bears as well as being short on time, we decided to head back.

On the way back, we first went to Seward and got some sandwiches from Subway as well as some other grocery items such as bread and snacks. Driving back, we saw that the lake (later I found out that it was Kenai Lake) looked really beautiful nestled between the mountains. I stopped the car and tried to see if there was a path to go all the way down to the lake to get a clearer and closer photo; however, there was no clear path and any way to get to the lake was pretty steep. So, I abandoned that thought and got a few photos from the roadside instead.

Kenai Lake

Kenai Lake

Even with an automatic camera, it is possible to bring out the contrasts in the scenery based on the exposure!

These two photos are from the same spot ...

These two photos are from the same spot …

... taken one after the other!

… taken one after the other!

After coming back to our lodge, we had a quick lunch and left for Homer. During my initial research, I had remembered reading about a volcanic mountain that would be visible from here, as well as glaciers across the bay. There were also ferries, I had learned, that would take you to a carless location (Soldovia) where you could go on short treks up to glaciers. Of course, though we did not have time to spare to do any of those activities, I wanted to go all the way to Homer, come hell or high water! Thankfully, we encountered neither, though it was drizzling for most of our drive there.

On the way, we passed through Sterling (reputed to be a great spot for fishing, an activity that didn’t really excite us … and bears, which definitely did not excite us either!), Soldotna (this is where I had originally reserved accommodations before realizing that we needed to be at Seward, not Kenai, for our cruise), Kenai River, and many other picturesque locations. Soldotna surprised us – I had not realized that the town would be as big as it was, especially after having encountered communities such as Whittier, Seward, Moose Pass, etc. Had I researched this area more and had we had more time to spare, we might have had a separate vacation trip to Soldotna as well, just to laze around and enjoy the sights! However, as it was, we went straight to Homer.

Into the haze

Into the haze


By the time we reached Homer however, the fog and drizzle had set in. It was difficult to see too far into the Bay. In fact, after we returned and even now, I am unsure whether we were looking towards the volcanic peaks or across the Bay into Kenai Peninsula itself. I would say this was the second worst weather day of our trip (the worst being the day we drove from Palmer to Denali in steady rain all day long), but given that we had already done whatever we wanted to do on the trip, I was not too miffed.

Though we could not see past the water very well, I could get a good enough close up of this boat on the water

Though we could not see past the water very well, I could get a good enough close up of this boat on the water

Raindrops on some plants at a rest area/welcome center at the outskirts of Homer

Raindrops on some plants at a rest area/welcome center at the outskirts of Homer

On the way back, I could not help myself taking this photo

On the way back, I could not help myself taking this photo


Though we never could really see Russia from anywhere on Alaska however much we craned our necks ;-), we did pass by this community that apparently still follows Russian traditions and some of them even speak Russian!

Traffic was pretty heavy that evening as the weekend was just getting underway (it was a Friday). We saw a lots of platoons of cars headed towards Homer. We were glad that we didn’t have a lot of traffic in our direction and reached the lodge after an uneventful drive.

July 13, 2017

Alaska Trip – Day 10

Filed under: Family,Travel — Porcupyn @ 11:22 pm

The two day cruises we had taken from Whittier had both departed right after noon; the reporting time had been after 11 am. However, the cruise that we were signed up for out of Seward was leaving at 10 am and the reporting time was just after 9 am, so we had to hurry up to get there in time. If we left at about 7:30 am, we thought it would be sufficient for us to get there in time.

The day before though, we ran into our elderly neighbour at the Airbnb, who said that it would take about two hours and likely even more if there were to be traffic and/or accidents. We would also need to wait for a tunnel. He kindly offered to give us a newspaper that had detailed information. Listening to him, I was confused. I didn’t recall reading anything about a tunnel to Seward – but as he obviously had visited in the recent past, I thought maybe I had missed something.

To be on the safe side, I decided to talk about it with our host. He confirmed that there was no tunnel and that if we left at 7:30 am, it should not be an issue, unless there was an accident somewhere! I decided that the neighbour must have – for whatever reason – mixed up Seward and Whittier!

Because we had to wake up really early, though the accommodation was comfortable, we had a fitful sleep. Besides, I was hoping for good weather and smooth seas. As it turned out, our day couldn’t have been much better. We woke up at about 6 am to a sunny day, quickly got ready with butter and jam sandwiches for lunch and left on time. The route to Seward is quite scenic with mountains on both sides and for the most part of the route, we had Kenai Lake to our right (though I didn’t realize it was one lake until I looked closely at the map upon returning!). We passed through the little town of Moose Pass along the way – this had been one of the places to stay that I had researched, but hadn’t found anything decent that fit our budget. Though it is much closer to Seward, I was thankful we didn’t pick it as it didn’t appear that there was much to the town (I am sure folks who have stayed there might have better information of things to do!).

As we started to see the outskirts of Seward, I realized that we were well ahead of schedule. It was about 8:15 am, so when I saw the road sign to Exit Glacier, I decided to take that fork. I thought that if we went about 15 minutes and didn’t get to the end of the road, we would turn right around. It was less than 15 minutes when we could see the glacier from the road itself. So, we decided to go all the way and take a couple of photos. But once we got closer and parked at the entrance parking lot, we found that we could no longer see the glacier among the mountain and the trees. So, we made the best of the visit by checking out the visitor center and using the restrooms.

We then retraced our path back into Seward, which was impressively bigger than Whittier (and we never did go all the way to the end of Seward). We were impressed, too, that it had a Subway, a Safeway and many restaurants as well, should we need food later in the evening.

The Major Marine Tours office in Seward

The Major Marine Tours office in Seward

Without much ado, I was able to get our boarding passes at Major Marine Tours’ office. We were unsure where to park, though I recalled reading that MMT would refund the parking fee for the day. At this point, we had parked at a nearby two hour parking zone. The agent informed me that we needed to turn onto the main road, and make a left to park at the paid parking lot. They would reimburse us for the parking fee in the evening after the cruise.

Shortly, it was time for us all to board. And here is my biggest peeve with MMT: on our first cruise from Whittier, we got the front seating in the boat (not that we stayed on the seat for the whole duration of the cruise). On the second cruise also, we got seats that were by the window though not in front. I didn’t ask, but I assumed that we got our seat assignment based on when we had purchased the tickets.

But on the cruise out of Seward, we got assigned a bench in the middle of the boat … on the UPPER deck! This would not have been an issue if we were travelling without my mother; and even that would not have been a problem had the restrooms and the coffee/tea been available on both decks. But no, for that one needed to come down then go back up. So, I asked the crew (Sean) if he could accommodate us on the lower deck, as my mother would’ve difficulty going up and down (one thing I had realized from the previous two days was that my mother would need to get tea – she preferred to get it herself to mix in the right amount of sugar and half-and-half – and use the restroom multiple times during the cruise).

When Sean expressed his inability as the boat was full, we had no other option but to proceed up the stairs. As the passengers were not being informed which seat was reserved for them, I thought that he could’ve rearranged it such that we were on the lower deck and some other – fitter – party could’ve been moved to the upper deck.

Be that as it may, I decided to hang around on the lower deck in case someone didn’t make it. As the boat almost filled up, I grabbed a spot on one of the cushioned seats by the windows that was still vacant. When I noticed that there were no more passengers waiting in line to be checked in by Sean, I approached him and asked him if we could have the seats I was sitting at. He said that we could (I was so glad!). I immediately rushed up the stairs and got everyone downstairs. That worked out perfectly.

I thought that as I had bought our tickets so far in advance (March), we should have gotten the lower deck or at least, we should’ve been asked if we have a preference. Since returning home, though, I have realized that probably even purchasing in March might not have been sufficiently enough in advance to get prime seating locations (though I never got a firm answer as to how they determine their seat allotments).

Soon, we were underway and immediately, I realized that the sea was much calmer than how it had been when we were at the Great Barrier Reef last year. This time, though, I was well prepared and had downed an anti-nausea pill. Soon, we were past the end of Seward town and in sight of our first glacier of the day.

The mighty Bear Glacier

The mighty Bear Glacier

A sea otter doing the backstroke (this was the favourite position of most of these creatures)

A sea otter doing the backstroke (this was the favourite position of most of these creatures)

We then got in position for some humpback whale action. Our boat had been trailing the Kenai Fjord Cruise’s boat, which had already gotten closer to the animals. But we came on the scene shortly as well, and were able to see the whales in action with their blow spouts. Needless to say, I cannot tell one kind of whale/shark apart from the other – and depended on the ranger on board, who was doing a great job sharing information with all of the passengers.

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Humpback whales

Humpback whales

Rounding Aialik cape, we came across more humpbacks as well as a school (or is it a pod) of Orcas. Living in the Orlando area, I have been to Sea World and seen “Shamu” in action. However, we never managed to take the kids there – partly because we never thought about it, partly because I felt that the swimming pool was too restrictive for the giants and partly also because we had been busy. Anyway, since the drowning of a trainer a couple of years back, Sea World has stopped the Orca performance (I believe), so it felt nice to see Orcas in their natural habitat. This was a group of four, so I named them Shama, Shami, Shamo and Shamu 😉

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I was not the only photographer around :-)

I was not the only photographer around 🙂

The Orcas I can identify and tell apart from the other - related or unrelated - species!

The Orcas I can identify and tell apart from the other – related or unrelated – species!

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In addition to informing us of the sealife around us, our ranger did an excellent job of notating our trip on a map, which I took a photo of for posterity

For the concluding part of the day, all I can say was that it was really nice to go so close to these two glaciers – Holgate and Aialik – and though neither of them calved significantly, just standing on the boat and staring at them at that distance was something! One cannot get a sense of how monstrous these glaciers are when you are on the boat heading toward them – or after the boat has made its closest approach and is in a holding/circling pattern so everybody can get their photos. Unless I’m on one – that did not happen on this trip – I don’t think I can comprehend the size of one of those.

There were many micro icebergs floating all around is as we went close to the glaciers. Just like on the previous two cruises, crew members harnessed a chunk of ice and made drinks out of them for the passengers.

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Holgate Glacier

Holgate Glacier

Aialik Glacier from a distance

Aialik Glacier from a distance

This was the only grizzly we got to see for the duration of our Alaska trip

This was the only grizzly we got to see for the duration of our Alaska trip


As we approached Aialik Glacier, we saw many kayaks on the water right below the sleeping grizzly. Oblivious of the action around him, he continued snoozing. On our way back from the glacier though, he had decided that enough was enough, woken up and wandered off back into the woods by the glacier.

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Aialik Glacier close up (see how puny our competitor boat - Kenai Fjord Tours - looks in comparison to the glacier)

Aialik Glacier close up (see how puny our competitor boat – Kenai Fjord Tours – looks in comparison to the glacier)

However, one thing that was really surprising and which stood out to us was that on the approach to each of these glaciers, we felt a draft of warm air. Where I thought we would be feeling the coldest, it turned out that it was the warmest feeling we had on the boat. I didn’t get a satisfactory explanation from the crew or from the ranger. Anyone here?

Bear Glacier on our way back

Bear Glacier on our way back

On the way back, once again we passed Bear Glacier with its huge moraines where three (or more) glaciers joined together to form it. Once we were back on land at about 5:30 pm, Baab and I noticed that some folks were being rushed off for their train journey. Upon enquiring, we were informed that the train to Seward comes in in the morning and stays there the whole day, returning only at about 6:00 pm. So, some of the folks on the boat needed to get to the train quickly.

Train getting ready to depart

Train getting ready to depart

We were glad that we didn’t have to leave just yet; besides, Baab and I thought that it would be nice to take some photos of the train departed Seward. So, we quickly hurried over – which, in retrospect, we didn’t have to because the railway station was not too far away – and found an ideal location to take photos and video.

Train departs to not much fanfare, and immediately afterwards, the employees closed up the station building for the night

Train departs to not much fanfare, and immediately afterwards, the employees closed up the station building for the night

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After the train had left, we wandered back into town and spent some time at the Kenai Fjords National Park Visitor center where we got some souvenirs; Mrs. Porcupyn and Katya went over to a couple of other shops for more curios.

At this point, we had ticked off everything that I had planned to do. I had wanted to go to the Exit Glacier for a hike, but was not interested in paying $100 (or thereabouts) per person to get a guided experience up to the Harding Icefield. At the place where we got souvenirs, the staff informed us that there was a ranger-led hike that departs the Exit Glacier visitor center at (IIRC) 10 am and goes up quite close to the glacier though you still cannot walk up and touch it. As this was something that would not be too strenuous and would only take about 90 minutes round-trip, we decided that all of us would go on it tomorrow, except my mother who we would leave in Cooper Landing until we returned right around lunch time.

July 12, 2017

Alaska Trip – Day 9

Filed under: Family,Travel — Porcupyn @ 11:07 pm

Today was a travel day – I did not have anything major planned, other than to get to Cooper Landing that evening. A few months ago, when researching Alaska, I had seen photos of Byers lake and wanted to see the views as well. However, as a hike was needed to get to it, I had put it on the backburner. Yesterday, I had had half a mind to stop by the Byers Lake to enjoy the scenery, but had not done so as we were in a hurry to get back. Now, that we would have time to spare, I thought that maybe we could drive up to this point and check out the lake as well as the South view point of Denali on the Parks Highway.

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However, we got up late and also had to clean up from last night’s dinner and this morning’s breakfast as we were to check out of the place first. By the time we were done with all that, it was already past 10 am. We had planned to go have lunch at an Indian buffet place in Anchorage. Now, it was looking tough unless we pared our plans. So, we decided to drop Byers Lake altogether and just go up to the South viewpoint.

Though Denali had decided to stay hidden today as well, we walked up the trail a little bit up to a higher spot where there were some infoboards and we could see Ruth glacier.

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Ruth glacier

Ruth glacier

It was touch and go after that, and we were debating whether to go for the buffet or order a la carte. But we were able to get there just before the deadline. The buffet was closing at 3 pm, and we presented ourselves at 2:45! The buffet was quite filling, though the quality was good but not exceptional. Given that we had not had home food for more than a week, we went hog wild 🙂

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For what it is worth, the decor was pretty good compared to most places we frequent here close to home

For what it is worth, the decor was pretty good compared to most places we frequent here close to home

After a good lunch, we were back on our way to Cooper Landing. The tide was out, and at Beluga Point, the ground was quite boggy.

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Baab literally got bogged down for a minute before he was able to extricate himself

Baab literally got bogged down for a minute before he was able to extricate himself

His shoes were a sight to see though!

His shoes were a sight to see though!

Once we passed our last familiar landmarks (the Portage Glacier Road turnoff) on the Seward Highway, the road takes a dramatic U-turn around Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet. After another turn, we leave the water behind and climb a bit along one hillside. The road is the direct access to Seward, but we turned off about 30-45 minutes north of Seward to go toward our Airbnb in Cooper Landing, which we reached after an uneventful journey.

A rant about some Airbnbs (such as this one): to me, a good and proper Airbnb is a house that belongs to the host, which the host either stays in as well and rents out a bedroom or two, or the host rents out the entire unit but stays close by. In addition, the host provides a decent breakfast as well, lacking which facilities are available for the visitors to make their own breakfast (at least bread toast and/or bake pizza for later). One other thing that really is a good feature is privacy from neighbouring homeowners – this is good not only for the guests but also to maintain good relations between the hosts and neighbours. We had really lucked out with the Palmer accommodation. Cooper Landing? Not so!

This is where the host actually runs a motel which does not even have the basic amenities that one would expect in a motel.Yes, I realize that at our price point, maybe that is all that was available. But then, I feel that it should be listed on an Airbnb – maybe only on hotels.com or booking.com – if the only kitchen-related amenity is coffee, and that too only when the host opens the office at 8 am. I could not even get ESPN – to watch some Wimbledon tennis – on the satellite TV which had tens of other channels. Thankfully, we at least had internet.

I am not blaming the host or Airbnb – I could have asked specific questions such as whether the room had an oven or not (it didn’t), a microwave (none available), etc. But for sure, it was more than sufficient if you needed to spend a night there – but we were there for three nights and were decidedly underwhelmed at the facility! But I didn’t complain on Airbnb or to the host, and won’t name the facility here either. After all, I should have done better homework (and maybe that was all that we could’ve had under the budget accommodation category).

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