Exploring San Miguel – Part 1

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.

Giant puppets called mojigangas are a fairly common sight in town. It appears their headquarters is about a half block from our home. This is the groom puppet headed down the road to the Jardin. The bride puppet was also walking down the middle of the road a little ahead of him. As you see, puppets have the right of way as do other pedestrians. You will notice a puppet next to the door with the fake flowers above it. That makes me think that is where the puppets came from. It is hard enough walking on the cobblestones and side walks here. I would hate do do it in a mojigangas outfit!
I took this picture not for the building, but for the pots lining the roof. This is very common.
This building is labeled as a cultural center, but appears to be some sort of school. It is located on a very steep slope.
This square is lined with tubs that were once used for laundry.
Of course, day or night, we never get tired of passing through the Jardin and seeing the Parroquia!

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

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 kitchen is well equipped with a new refrigerator, a dishwasher, and a whole house water filter. They even left eggs and bread so we didn’t have to shop for breakfast on the first night.
This is a better view of the patio off the kitchen. It is a little cool outside for breakfast, but it was very comfortable for lunch.
This is the living room. The door to the street is at the upper left and there are two flights of steps down into the living room. The door under the entrance door is to a small powder room under the landing. Susan fits in it nicely. I am a little cramped.
The powder room. It’s a step down from the living room and a low ceiling.
This is a view of the living room from the entrance stairs. The other stairway leads to a landing where an equally long stairs leads you up to the second floor.
The master bedroom. It is in the back of the house and has the least street noise. However, San Miguel is rarely quiet; so we still hear plenty of dogs barking, buses going up the hill, and church bells.
The second floor guest bedroom. All bedrooms have a fireplace (Like 99% of homes here, there is no central heat.) and an en-suite bathroom.
The third floor guest bedroom.
The view from the third floor bedroom.
Our rooftop patio.

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.

Farewell Puerto Vallarta

After seven days of blue skies and comfortable temperatures, we bid farewell to Puerto Vallarta on Tuesday and transfer to San Miguel. Following are some additional pictures.

The view from our balcony. That is Puerto Vallarta on the other side of the bay. The river in the foreground runs into the Pacific Ocean which is also visible. We can sometimes see whale spouts from the balcony. Today we saw a whale breaching and slapping the water with its tail from the pool.
Looking off the balcony toward the Pacific.
Susan walked out on a sand bar below the pool where she took this picture looking back toward the resort.
Iguanas are common around the resort. There are two in this picture, one in the top right quadrant and one sticking it’s head out of the pipe to the left.
You know I love pictures of trees.

We only made two trips off the resort – both for dinner. One night we went to Bucerias to celebrate our friend Ron’s birthday. The following pictures are from that restaurant.

Bucerias is also known for good sunsets.

The Ultimate in Relaxation

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.

This is our patio at the conclusion of the ice storm that shut down the Wilmington airport. Some of you from the north may not be too impressed. We stayed in all day and didn’t see any cars on our road. We know what to do when the weatherman says “freezing rain”!

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.

Susan and Jean on the gondola ride.
We are staying on the sixth floor on the far side of the building on the right. We overlook a river and Puerto Vallarta on the far side of the bay.
A small part of the resort from the gondola.
Ponds, pools, sand, and ocean.
The entrance lobby of the Grand Mayan.
Wooden walkways cover the grounds.
Pond and rainbow
The Market Place. A little fancier than Harris Teeter.
The sun never sets on relaxation here.

Cruising on the Rotterdam

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.

Susan liked to walk around the third deck. Three laps was one mile.
The wake behind the ship.
For Halloween they had a pumpkin carving contest.
The Explorers Lounge was the best place to relax and take in the ocean views.
The BB King room was our favorite evening venue.
The main stage was very high tech. Projections can be made on the entirety of the front and side walls. Only the front walls are shown in the picture.
A farewell from the crew on the main stage.

While COVID created a lot of obstacles to overcome, we really enjoyed being out in the world again.

Quaint Quimper

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.

Quimper is located at the confluence of two rivers which give the town the appearance of canals running through it. The town name means confluence.
There were many half-timbered buildings in town.
Many of the half-timbered buildings showed a definite slant.
There were pretty street scenes all over the city.
A number of the buildings had caricatures on the front.
The French do love their merry go rounds. There was even one at the entrance to the cathedral.
The cathedral entrance.
The Quimper Cathedral is unique in that the nave has an angle at the middle. This was done to avoid building part of the church in a swampy area.
A garden square adjoining the cathedral.
Quimper is well known for its China and pottery. This store had a sample of the various patterns on the facade of the building. We visited on a Sunday and most of the shops were closed. However, what our guide called the “sin shop” was open; and we did enjoy some delicious French treats there.
We thought Quimper was a delightful city we would like to explore in more detail.

More Forms, A Manor House, and a Giant

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, a Tudor manor house.
While the manor house was impressive, we particularly liked the extensive gardens which featured many fountains, ponds, and trees. The topiary in this garden was particularly impressive.

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.

A dovecote adjoining the main house.
The billiard room and library.
The dining room.

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.

The figure is about 180 feet high. The people on the path to the left give some scale. The image was created by digging a shallow trench and backfilling it with chalk rubble. The chalk is renewed every ten years. The age of the figure is unknown with estimates ranging from 700 CE to the 17th century.
The significance of the figure is also unknown. A popular belief is that it is some kind of fertility symbol. According to our guide, couples used to attempt to have children in the shadow of the figure to increase their chances of success. The top part of the figure is obscure in this photo. If you want to see some better aerial photos, Google “Cerne Abbas Giant”.

The Land of Impressionism

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.

Monet had a large home set among extensive gardens. While the gardens were certainly past their prime, there were still a lot of blooms.
Monet’s studio is the entrance to the first floor. Like many of the rooms, the walls are covered with paintings. I presume they are reproductions.
His desk with a beautiful veneer image on the lid.
The dining room. Apparently, Monet liked Japanese art as this room was filled with it.
The kitchen had a nice assortment of copper pots.
The flower beds were not planted in an artistic manner, but were long beds of what seemed to be randomly planted flowers with a gravel path between the beds. They employ ten full time gardeners and have volunteers from around the world to assist in the summer. They try to maintain the gardens the same as Monet had them. The gardens are quite large as they extend across the front of the house which you see in the background of the picture.
The famous water lily pond was on the other side of the road in front of the house and was not visible from the house. Unfortunately, no blooms in the fall.
The edges of the pond were heavily landscaped. In this part of France, people were wearing masks outside as well as inside.
There were several row boats scattered around the pond, and that must be the way to get the classic view of this famous bridge.
We had lunch in the restaurant in the hotel where Monet liked to dine with his fellow painters. It was a very enjoyable day. We both like Monet’s art so it was nice to see the spot where he did many of his paintings.

How Many Forms Does It Take To Go To Amsterdam?

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.

The deserted Amsterdam baggage claim at 9 AM. Not many people are traveling.
The White Cliffs of Dover

Old Baldy

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.

Looking across the marsh at Old Baldy. If you look closely, the light on top is not centered. This is because a used replacement lens was installed that had to be placed off center to keep from blocking access to the light.
Old Baldy is no longer painted, so all the previous repairs can be seen. We climbed the 108 steps for the view from the top.
Unfortunately, you could not go outside at the top, so it was very hot and the pictures have some reflections from the glass. Still, if you love marshes as much as I do, it is hard to beat this view.
Looking toward the harbor area and ferry terminal.

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.

The harbor area.
The dunes are wide and natural.
These cabins are among the most popular on the island for their commanding view of the dunes and ocean. They were formerly used by the keepers of the third lighthouse.
The harbor and restaurant with Old Baldy in the background, You can clearly see the light is off center,

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Bald Head Island and are already talking about visiting it again as there is much more to explore.

The Travel Blog of Susan and Bruce