One of the highlights of visiting San Miguel are the numerous activities at many venues around town. We are finding that there are far fewer activities than in previous years. The Shelter Theater and the San Miguel Playhouse are both shut down. Their replacement was a theater at Casa de la Noche (a bed and breakfast where we play bridge) which operated for the first part of January before closing temporarily for COVID. It was supposed to reopen in mid February, but no sign of that happening. The Biblioteca has less than half of its normal programming. Pro Musica (chamber music) is on a normal schedule and we attended a concert our first week here. One of the pocket movie theaters is on a normal schedule and the other appears to be closed. The Angela Peralta auditorium has some attractions. So while it is less than normal, we are still able to find activities of interest. I continue to find that the COVID precautions in San Miguel exceed those in the USA.
But another highlight of San Miguel is exploring the city. And that is what we are doing most every day. Following are some pictures from our first few days of exploration.
We have attended lectures at the Biblioteca in previous years where the speaker advocated focused walks where you concentrate on one aspect of the architecture such as fountains, doors and windows, murals, door knockers, corner niches, or roof drain pipes. I have never done this, but I am thinking it might be fun this time.
Our home in San Miguel is narrow and tall with a lot of steps. Based on the pictures and reviews, this was expected; but it was more than we expected. We were also concerned that it was part way up the hill, but that doesn’t seem to be a major issue. The location seems to be very convenient.
The people in San Miguel appear to take COVID more seriously than the people in the US. A significant majority of the people, including both expats and Mexicans, wear masks outdoors. To eat in the restaurants we have to sanitize our hands, have our temperature taken, and wear a mask. We had to follow all these precautions to attend a lecture at the Biblioteca plus leave our name – presumably for contact tracing but we didn’t have to leave contact information. All restaurants have QR codes on the table to see the menu on your phone or menus printed on the paper placemats. There is not as much entertainment/lectures as normal and the attendance has been sparse so far. Still we are getting settled in and enjoying seeing San Miguel again.
We have begun our winter vacation in Mexico. Getting into Mexico in the age of COVID was easy. Getting out of Wilmington, not so much. We began our vacation in Puerto Vallarta visiting our friends Ron and Jean. We were booked to fly out of Wilmington to Puerto Vallarta on Saturday, 22/Jan at 6:20 AM. All the preceding week they predicted freezing rain in Wilmington starting on Friday and ending Saturday morning. We investigated changing our flight to Sunday, but that would cost us $500. We decided to hope for the best. The freezing rain started as predicted; and by early Friday afternoon, all flights in and out of Wilmington were canceled for the remainder of Friday and early Saturday. The earliest flight they could book us on was Monday morning and we got the last two seats on that flight. While getting here was traumatic, it could not be more relaxing once we arrived.
We are staying at the Vidanta resort in Nuevo Vallarta, across the bay from Puerto Vallarta. The resort is huge with three golf courses, a lush tropical landscape, numerous hotel buildings and even more numerous pools. If you tire of the pools, it is located on the ocean. There is no good reason to leave the resort as there is ample shopping, restaurants, and entertainment on the grounds. There are electric shuttles to take you around the resort. They aspire to become the Mexican version of Disney World and have been working on their theme park for several years. So far they have built a gondola ride covering much of the grounds, a Ferris Wheel, and a parachute drop with only the gondola operational.
This is our first cruise on Holland America. We were drawn to it because several friends on the Viking world cruise were HAL veterans, and they preferred HAL at the end of the Viking cruise. Other friends had little good to say about HAL, so we decided we really ought to check it out for ourselves. The ship is brand new and this is the first cruise with paying passengers. As might be expected, this means there was a learning curve for the crew.
The ship’s name is Rotterdam. It is the seventh ship with that name. They were all named after the hometown of the parent company. It is a pinnacle class ship holding just under 2700 passengers. Due to a number of COVID related issues, there are only 900 passengers (which matches the 905 member crew), so there are never any waits and the venues are normally pretty empty. The entertainers and crew all talk about not working for 20 months and how happy they are to be sailing again. I think all the passengers feel the same.
COVID procedures are followed and enforced on the ship. Everyone is fully vaccinated and tested negative prior to the cruise. Everyone was tested again after five days, but no results are known. We must wear masks when moving around inside the ship. Masks can be taken off while eating and drinking. There are many signs that say “Sip and Mask”, but I have seen no one do that. People tend to social distance where practical; but if it is not practical, no one seems to worry about it. In the main show where social distancing is easy, about half leave there mask on and half take it off. HAL provided each cabin with four branded masks, and they are the most comfortable mask I have worn. All in all, we feel very safe!
On a transatlantic crossing you expect a lot of sea days. We were scheduled to have eight; and since we had to skip two ports due to high winds, we actually had ten sea days. This means the day and evening entertainment are critical. The evening stage entertainment was a highlight. We had a contemporary dance troup, a Jersey Tenors group, a classical pianist/humorist who was outstanding (check out pianistwiththehair.com), a saxophonist who was also outstanding, two comedians, and a soprano. The second deck has a music walk with several venues featuring diverse music. Our favorites are the chamber music quartet, a jazz group, and the B. B. King group performing classic rock. In addition there is a piano duo and a hard rock group. We had dinner with the saxophonist one night and he said the performing groups were franchise groups where the franchiser has a number of similar groups to offer to the cruise ships.
The ship is clean and attractive; but, interestingly, they are busy painting parts of the exterior decks. I guess the salt air requires continuing maintenance from day one. The food is good, but we feel it lacks variety. It should also be noted that they charge $8.50 for a shrimp cocktail in the main dining room and that there is no free lobster on the ship. The biggest disappointment for me is that there are no lecturers on the ship. That has always been a big part of my sea days. They do have a duplicate bridge and mahjong game, but each has at most three tables.
While COVID created a lot of obstacles to overcome, we really enjoyed being out in the world again.
Our next, and what would turn out to be our final, port of call was Brest, France. Our tour here was to the quaint, half-timbered town of Quimper (which our guide pronounced as Kim.pair’) located in the Brittany prefecture. The weather had been cloudy and somewhat threatening in the previous ports, but here it was off and on rain all morning. As we were riding the bus to Quimper, the rain intensified to a steady heavy rain. Just as the bus stopped to let us off, the rain stopped and the clouds soon parted for a beautiful afternoon in a beautiful little French town.
Our second port was Portland, England. On our unexpected sea day we received a notice that we had to complete a form on line, receive a QR Code and print it to enter England. The form was designed for air or car travel, but they gave instructions on how to fill it in for our case. This would be pretty doable if I was in my office, but was impossible with neither wifi or a printer. The only option was customer service and they were quickly overwhelmed. I was lucky that I only spent about an hour there as others were in line for several hours and were then sitting around trying to complete the form on their phones. My customer service agent said it would be faster if she did the form for me, printed it, and delivered it to our room. I readily accepted that offer.
The night before we arrived we were advised that everyone on the ship, whether going ashore or not, was required to have a face to face meeting with British immigration early the next morning. When we went down for our turn, the line extended more than half the length of the ship (it’s a big 2500 passenger ship). Fortunately, we had a late morning tour; so we went to the cafeteria and were processed quickly after a leisurely breakfast. It was quick because all they did was see that the passport picture matched our face. At no time did anyone look at the form we all worked so hard to create! Nevertheless, this was our favorite port.
Our primary destination was Athelhampton, a Tudor manor house dating back to 1485 located in Dorset, England. The original manor had a Great hall, Solar and Buttery. A Solar was located on the upper level of the manor and was the living quarters for the owner and his family, while a Buttery was a service room located near the Great Hall that held the liquor (wine or ale). The person in charge of the Buttery was called the Butler. In a royal household the same officer was titled, Marshall of the Buttery. This officer was responsible to serve the wine to the head of the household and his guests.
Athelhampton is now considered one of the most haunted places in England. The Buttery that adjoins the Great Hall is said to experience a tapping noise (on barrels) from a ghost that is referred to as “Cooper.” Various other occupants and visitors of the manor have all seen a “grey lady.” She has been seen by some to wander through the bedrooms (and walls) of the east wing of the house during the early hours of the day.
The most well-known of all the apparitions at the manor house is the pet ape. The ape was owned by Nicholas Martyn and when he passed away in 1595 the ape was somehow accidentally entombed in a secret passage behind the Great Chamber during construction on the house. While he has never been seen it is said you can hear scratching from the behind the panels of the Great Chamber as if he is trying to escape his tomb. For the record, we experienced no signs of ghosts on our visit.
The remainder of this blog is rated PG13. Another stop on the tour was the Cerne Abbas Giant, a hill figure near the village of Cerne Abbas.
After our first port of Zeebrugge was cancelled because our departure from Amsterdam had to be delayed until the high winds had diminished so we could safely traverse the locks. That made our first port LaHavre, France. The main destinations for this port were Paris, a three hour drive, and the beaches of Normandy. Since we had lived for a month in Paris and visited the beaches of Normandy during that month, we opted to visit Monet’s home in the small village of Giverny.
Many months ago, when COVID was something occurring in other countries, we thought fall of 2021 would be a good time to see some new parts of France and then make our way up to Amsterdam to take a transatlantic voyage home. The first step in the process was to book the Holland America cruise from Amsterdam to Fort Lauderdale. As COVID started to ravage Europe and the US, we lost interest in the pre-cruise explorations, but kept our HAL reservation thinking they would cancel and we would get a big credit. We went ahead and booked our flights through HAL to arrive several days early to spend a little time in Amsterdam.
Our cruise was on the Rotterdam VII, a brand new ship that was to have several months of cruises before ours. First, HAL moved our cruise back about two weeks so it would enter the US after the ban on foreign cruise ships entering the US would expire. Then they started canceling the cruises prior to ours, making ours the first sailing of the ship with passengers. Next the Netherlands decided to require visitors arriving from high risk countries (such as the USA) to quarantine for ten days on arrival. It made no sense to arrive early to spend the time in quarantine, so we changed our flights to arrive the day of the cruise departure. Shortly after we changed our flights, the Netherlands cancelled the quarantine requirement, but we decided not to change our flights again.
The other source of worry was that HAL advised that all passengers would be given a COVID test at the pier. If the test was positive, you would not be allowed to board. Also, only fully vaccinated passengers would be permitted on the ship. This made us think we would feel safe on board, but what if we tested positive at the pier??? We decided for sure we would get a test before leaving the States to minimize that risk.
At the time the Netherlands announced the quarantine, they announced the following requirements to enter: proof of vaccination, negative COVID test taken no more than 48 hours before first flight, quarantine declaration exemption for less than 12 hour stay in country, health declaration that we had no COVID symptoms in last 14 days, and a COVID test result document that contained all their required information. Needless to say this was all very stressful.
We took a rapid PCR test on Sunday and had the negative result an hour later. We filled out forms and uploaded them to the United Airlines website where they were quickly approved. At the airport in Wilmington they only looked at our passport and our CDC vaccination card. At our stop in Chicago, they checked all of our documentation and put a red sticker on our passport when we passed.
The Netherlands immigration looked only at our passport. They relied on the airlines to check all the other required documentation. HAL transferred us to the pier where eight booths were set up to take the samples for the rapid antigen test. We were then seated in groups of about 80 people to await our results. When everyone in a group passed, they were released to board the ship. Everyone passed in the three groups we saw released.
We have to wear masks at all times when we are indoors on the ship except when we are eating or drinking. As if you don’t eat enough on a cruise, we are really motivated to be eating and drinking now!
Our first port of call was to be Bruges, Belgium, which is a city we loved seeing on our first transatlantic cruise about 7 years ago. Unfortunately, bad weather forced us to skip that port. Thus our first port, was LaHavre, France. We are presently on the Atlantic crossing. We now have wifi, so I will be posting about our earlier ports.
After spending all day Tuesday driving home from New Jersey, we went with a group from our Del Webb community to Bald Head Island on Wednesday. Bald Head is a small barrier island about a 45 minute drive from Wilmington, NC and is accessible only by passenger ferry. Other than a few commercial vehicles, transportation is only by golf cart, bicycle, or foot. We took the 30 minute ferry ride to the island and then had a two hour guided history tour by golf cart.
The early history of Bald Head Island relates to its proximity to the mouth of the Cape Fear River, the only river in the state that flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Consequently it was an important transportation link with the rest of the world. It made Wilmington the largest city in the state until other means of transportation became prevalent. Bald Head Island became home to three different lighthouses in an attempt to help ships avoid Frying Pan Shoals (also known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic) near the river mouth. At low tide, it is possible to walk several thousand feet into the ocean with water only reaching your ankles.
The first light house was built on the river side of Bald Head and soon had to be torn down due to erosion from the river. The second light house was built further inland in 1817 to avoid erosion problems. It is still standing today as the oldest lighthouse in the state and is known affectionately as Old Baldy. Unfortunately, it was too low and it’s light was not bright enough to provide full protection from Frying Pan Shoals. Therefore, it had to be supplemented by a lighthouse boat to provide full protection.
The taller and brighter Cape Fear lighthouse was commissioned in 1903. Unfortunately, it was built of cast iron which quickly rusted in the salt air. It had to be torn down in 1958 for safety reasons. Old Baldy was decommissioned in 1959 and both were replaced with the Oak Island lighthouse, the newest lighthouse in the state.
The development of Bald Head Island began about 40 years ago under the direction of the man who invented fracking. While you may think fracking is not environmentally friendly, he did give a lot of consideration to the environment in the development. The development was planned at about 2000 home sites with the rest of the land given to the Bald Head Island Conservancy. Many property owners have deeded their land to the Conservancy, so at this time development is limited to about 1800 homes of which about 1200 have been built. The permanent population of the island is about 230. The houses are generally built in the woods rather than tearing down all the trees to make construction easier.
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Bald Head Island and are already talking about visiting it again as there is much more to explore.