Friday, July 20, 2018

Bridging the Distance

Laureen, enjoying a new perspective on life.
 We often express our personal desire to go explore what is new and exciting in our own backyards and recommend that pursuit for all to enjoy.

This summer, J and L decided to walk the talk and ventured out upon an Alaskan cruise through the Inside Passage aboard the Emerald Princess.

John, with a commanding view...
While admittedly, there isn't much of a backyard to explore on a ship sailing along the coasts of Canada and Alaska, there are ports and niches worth further investigation. Of course, when in port there are a myriad of activities to keep even the most active person moving at a fast pace, day or night.  But even on board, what this cruise ship has to offer is amazing. There is nightly entertainment in various venues from comedy to world-class musicians. There is the wonderful food to try in the buffets, elegant restaurants or just casual outdoor and indoor specialty bistros. There are enough bars on the port or starboard to keep libations pouring at all hours. There is a pool for swimming and hot tubs for soaking, as well as an expansive gym with huge floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the bow with panoramic views of incredible natural beauty. In other words, there is plenty to keep one happily occupied on a ship for the duration of the cruise, no matter how many days at sea.

But what we didn't expect were the two delightful treats which became the subject of this blog entry. The first was that J and L received an invitation from the Captain to tour the bridge of the Emerald Princess. The second, was the opportunity to take to the stage to perform as part of the Princess Pop Choir. But, more about that later.

First, let's start with the bridge tour, since it was less painful.

The tour was set for 9 a.m. and as always, we were punctual. Wouldn't want to keep the Captain waiting. We began by learning a few details about the Emerald Princess. She is large, 951 feet long beauty with a beam  (width) of 118 feet, and weighs in at 113,561 gross tons. It was built in Italy and was christened the 13th of May, 2007 and been in service carrying passengers ever since.
The Ex-cop and the Security Officer

We were whisked onto the bridge by a security officer, Marlon, who hails from the Philippines, and after a few introductions, the tour began. The bridge is the brain for the entire ship's operations on the Emerald Princess. This command center is a very serious place, ensuring the ship is running properly at all times. As such, we were advised very politely not to talk to the two officers on deck who were busy navigating that morning. We heeded that advice. We didn't want any shipwreck on our hands due to some questions we may want to pose and have one of the officers divert their attention from the controls.

Cadet Matt explains the navigation
and other systems aboard this vessel. 
The Captain greeted us warmly before being called away to attend to some matter of importance on another level of the ship. He left us in the excellent care of Deck Officer Matthew Cannon. Matt is doing his tour of duty as a cadet, learning the ropes of navigation and operation of the Emerald Princess.

We're coming in hot.
A strapping and humorous young man from England,  exuded such great pride when he spoke of the ship upon which he was training. He smiled as he spoke of the intricacies, the myriad of skills and equipment it took to navigate a ship this size. This was as true on the open ocean as it was for entering the often busy ports of call..

We did marvel at how expertly the crew moored the ship, seemingly effortlessly easing alongside the dock. John was breathless with wonder, and perhaps a bit of jealousy, imagining bringing J and L's own boat into port without occasionally having to exclaim: "Watch the dock - we're coming in hot."

No such words were uttered on the bridge of the Emerald Princess.

Cadet Officer Cannon took his time in explaining the many instruments on the bridge, and the purpose of each in minute detail. He allowed J and L to wander freely on the bridge and ask questions concerning anything that dealt with the running of the ship. The view was breathtaking from the large glass windows which overlooked  the Pacific Ocean crashing across the sleek pointed bow many decks below us.

We took our time and then finally the tour was over - Deck Officer Cannon needed to get back to work and not just be a guide for a couple of writers.

It was a spectacular treat that not all guests receive and we were thrilled to be allowed the privilege.

Now, the Princess Pop Ensemble.

It was advertised that the ship was looking for volunteers to sing on the cruise to other passengers. Somehow L convinced J to join a group of passengers who would practice singing five songs everyday under the guidance of the Assistant Cruise Director Yessenia Malca. The petite, young Peruvian lady was one tough director. Punctuality was a must for this cruise director and when she said practice was at five or three or whatever you had to be there.

So, for an hour a day we'd run through a new song, and review the previous day's music, until one after the other, the small choir of approximately 15 singers had learned them all. We were training for the last full day at sea where we would be the ship's entertainment on the Grand Piazza.

This is the painful part - J is not a singer by trade though L is, and a beautiful voice she has. But after being in a musical earlier in 2018, L convinced J that even he could be trained for 5 little songs. He acquiesced and a Star was Born. Well, maybe not quite, but in reality J kept up with the other altos and even managed to pick up the few simple dance steps our beautiful director decided to throw in.

Five days of training and the moment of truth was upon us as the Princess Pop Choir took the stage. Dressed in black and white, we performed in front of more than 300 of our fellow passengers. We must have been okay as no rotten fruit was thrown. Most of the crowd sang along, clapped, and generally had a good time.

Just before the performance orchestrated by Yessenia, she advised J that he would not only sing but be the emcee after the performance - introducing the cast and chatting about the experience to the audience.

That was something in J's forte - speaking to crowds is easy - singing to them, not so much.

The Princess Pop Choir was a hit, finishing to raucous applause before retiring off-stage where the champagne flowed as we warmly thanked our director, Yessi, and posed for photographs with our new friends.

Princess Cruises has a motto: Come Back New. Yessi has her own saying, "Most come aboard as passengers, and leave as..." Friends? Family? No. Yessi said some leave as cargo...A bit of tongue-in-cheek description of how we all eat so much at the buffets and generally take advantage of the opportunity to do nothing but be catered to...Not that there is anything wrong with that. When you have only a short time off from the Great Rat Race, relaxation is a prescription which allows you to come back new. But, sometimes, grabbing that adventure, stepping out and trying something totally different, is another way to come back new...and perhaps a little less like cargo.

So, no matter where you go, there is always a new adventure out there, waiting for you. Take a chance, go out and explore. We never expected to have such a great time cruising. J and L tend to prefer the freedom of making their own adventure and feared the cruise would be too restricting. And we're happy to say we were wrong. It was an adventure. Our lesson: Do something different. We did and had a pretty good time doing it - even with J's singing.

Judge for yourself:

Friday, June 29, 2018

Emerald City

One of J and L's desires has always been to visit the state of Alaska. The opportunity came during this summer, but unfortunately we were limited on time and chose to take a cruise to Alaska instead of the preferred method of driving through new territories and exploring on our own.

A few ease the pain...
Time constraints can be such a 'Debbie Downer' for adventures sometimes, but we find always find a way to cope...

We flew from the Ontario International Airport in California to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Washington the day before the scheduled cruise departure. We often try to spend a day before and a day after when flying to a destination to get a feel for the land and relax before exploring. It's a great way to prevent stressing about connecting flights, trains, or other means of transportation we would be utilizing.

Oh, now, that is GREEN!
A comfortable hotel, a change of clothes, a beer, a glass of wine, and we were ready to explore Seattle.

The city of Seattle is known by many names; 'Emerald City,' 'City of Flowers,' and 'Jet City,' among others, but one thing we believe it should also be known as is 'The Cruise Capital of the North West.'

This is the shove-off port for most of the cruises heading north into the icy waters of Alaska. The last frontier is the common term used for the 49th state of the United States, and the moniker seems truly apropos, when considering the size and location. This was one unbelievable piece of real estate, purchased from the Russians by the United States in 1867 for 7.2 million dollars. A heck of a price considering what the U.S. got for the money - territory, lumber, gold, oil, reality television, and the advantage of taking tourists there by the millions to see it all from the lower 48 on lavish cruise ships.

The land is immense. A local statement when Alaskan's talk about Texas is - "Texas is such a cute little state."

And no offense to our friends in Texas but Alaska is huge! It is over 660,000 square miles and when compared to Texas (the 2nd largest state in the union land size) at a little over 268,000 square miles the difference is outstanding. There could be two 'Texases' put into Alaska with room for Rhode Island, Maine and who knows what else.

Sorry, Texas but a fact is a fact. We love you anyway with the warm summer beaches in Corpus Christi, but this isn't about you old friend, it's about Alaska.

Actually, this is about Seattle and the beautiful dark green foliage and the wonderful activities that one can enjoy on their own merits, or before leaving the Port of Seattle for lands further north.

J and L took a long walk, about six or so miles along the Green River Trail in Seattle to undo the kinks of air travel. The scenery was breathtaking. Thick green forests on both sides of the trail through the Tukwila section of Seattle gave a new meaning to beauty. The land was alive with birds, rabbits, squirrels, and insects so loud it was almost unnerving. You could feel the flow of oxygen as it entered the lungs at each step along the trail.

A truly peaceful hike as long as one did not recall the hideous murders that had occurred here in the 1980's and 1990's by Gary Leon Ridgway. The cold-blooded killer who, when arrested in 2001, confessed to killing over 70 women during those years.  It is believed that total number of his victims may have been closer to 200. The bodies were dumped in the forests along the Green River Trail. Gruesome but true - it's the former cop in J that brings out these 'lovely' tidbits.

L hated that part of the story but it does point out that sometimes within beauty there is ugliness. When you have the researcher-mindset, you look beyond the beauty, and see the reality that is underneath. But, in the end, we choose to focus on the positive: the killer was caught and the beauty remains. Okay, enough with this evil stuff.

A great way to get around Seattle is the light-rail system which links pretty much anywhere an explorer would wish to venture. We started at the Tukwila International Boulevard substation and got off at Pioneer Square, providing easy walking distance to Fisherman's Wharf, Chinatown, Pike Place Market, and the Space Needle.

More than enough to occupy a couple of wanders for a long day.

The food was terrific, as tasted in a number of small bistros (and, let's be honest, paired with a local craft beer made it all the better); and the sights and sounds of Seattle were wonderful. People laughing, talking, enjoying the sunshine (a rarity in the city by the Puget Sound) made the day almost perfect.

Almost perfect?

We really wanted to enjoy a meal  or a cocktail atop the Needle, but it was under construction when we visited and won't re-open until early in 2019 according to a spokesman.

Besides the snafu in the unknown remodeling at the Space Needle, Seattle turned out to be a very relaxing and exciting place to visit in such a short time. Days, if not weeks would really be needed to explore all that this jewel on the west coast of Washington has to offer but sometimes we must make do with what time we have.

And if we do that - then an adventure has been achieved.

On a side-note - we were able to visit the original Starbucks at 1912 Pike Street. Not a huge fan of this or any chain, but for a couple of our daughters, that would be enough of a trip. Oh, those millennials!

L went in to Starbucks as J found a beer around the corner at a local dive. Like I said...almost perfect!

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Magic of Imagination

The late lead singer, Freddie Mercury of Queen enthralled fans with the first line of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' from the bands 1975 album, 'A Night at the Opera'.
That's Freddie Fender hiding behind the boa

"Is this the real life, is this just fantasy?"

That's how J and L felt as we stood looking over the quaint centuries old city streets of a village somewhere in Europe. The weather was rather chilly for almost summer with clouds threatening sprinkles at any moment.

But this wasn't Europe.

 Could be snow, if not rain very soon.
We were at Universal Studios Hollywood and marveling at what we were staring out in every direction. It really, really looked perfectly authentic down to the cobblestone streets of a village we have seen in our actual travels in Europe. But, NO, this was Southern California in May.

The day and evening were spent with two of our four daughters (Erica and Jessica) and their husbands (Brandon and Justin) as we meandered around the nearly 420 acres of Universal Studios Hollywood - not to be mistaken by Universal Studios Orlando.

The crew excited to explore
Thanks to the brilliance and creativity of  writer J. K. Rowling we were standing on a street corner  in Diagon Alley - a place where Harry, Hermione, and Ron spent many hours looking through fabulous stores full of imagination, sorcery and magic. They learned many lessons here that were used for the multitude of adventures they were involved in during their education at Hogwarts.

Kudos to Ms. Rowling - due to her, we believe, were created a generation of readers. Our own four daughters among that generation.

Back to Queen and the idea of mistaking reality for fantasy is not as far a leap as one would think while looking down the many streets of the mock village down from the mountaintop home of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Hogwarts in the rear and Jessica photo bombing

A different view of Hogwarts at night - simply magical - oh, it was wasn't it?
The talent of architecture at Universal was plain to see while visiting such shops as Ollivanders the makers of Fine Wands since 382 BC, or Honeydukes while sampling some of the most 'scrumptious sweets and beguiling delights', or downing a pint of ale at Hog's Head (also, some of the best Butter Beer around), and of course having dinner at the Three Broomsticks.

The Wand will choose you...

Erica was chosen by the wand - magical it was.
I command you to work - and it did - a light went on or something like that.
Every building was created with the illusion of being built many many centuries ago when handicraft meant everything, and appeared to be made by hand. Brick facades, actually carefully formed foam resembling actual brick exteriors, which gave that ancient look all the way around including to tilted - sometimes crazily tilted - chimneys.

Those are some 'crazeeee' chimneys - wonder if they are up to SOCAL code?
Of course, there was more than just Harry Potter Land (J's name for it) as Universal has created the famed city of Springfield where the animated family Simpsons reside, and a plethora of other attractions to keep the entire family entertained.

Yes, they even sell Duff beer - which made Brandon, J and Justin happy.
But be careful to not have too many - the cops will be looking for you!
A must is the 'The world-famous studio tour' which is actually quite fun and educational as a hour ride takes guests through the back lots of Universal. It gives the visitor a chance to see locations of where some very famous films were made as well as two great '3D-HD' attractions including the 'Fast and Furious' and 'King Kong' as well a street scene used in Tom Cruise's film, 'War of the Worlds'.

Looks like Santa had a bad day during the filming of War of the Worlds
Every detail at Universal Studios is created to represent reality or is it fantasy representing reality? A little confusing here and to prove it there are full New York City streets which are nothing more than plywood facades reaching for the sky. Blue screens behind a large empty pool which in a few minutes of movie magic can be turned into an ocean with a poor bloke being chased by 'smokers' as he bravely tries to outrun them to the sanctuary of the floating city. Scene out of 'Water World' starring Kevin Kostner - J wasn't in the film or was he?

Keep gunning it brave soul - you will outrun the smokers - maybe not though
Universal has a twenty minute heart pounding adventure with people on fire, taking high dives of collapsing structures, shooting at each other, jokes, and just all around fun. A time to sit back and watch some amazing talented actors showing what the earth would be like without land.

When the 'Deacon'  takes over the Sanctuary, there is heck to pay.
The Deacon even loses his only chance of escape - too sad, too bad.

Of course the house and motel from 'Psycho' are also in the back lot and as the guest tram drives by the scene, a sedan is seen with it's trunk open and suddenly from the hotel marches Norman Bates carrying a female body which he unceremoniously dumps into the open trunk. Not much into chivalry, but what serial killer is? 

Norman, that is not the way for a positive cash flow!
As the tram slowly, very slowly moves on Norman withdraws a huge butcher knife and chases after the tram with people screaming and taking photos of the crazed madman.

Luckily, to the date of our visit, Norman hasn't caught up to any of the trams and we hope that it continues that way in the foreseeable future. Of course, depends on who may be on that tram - hmmm. A little gallows humor there.

Of course, there are also rides where blockbusters are featured. Jurassic Park, Despicable Me, Transformers, Kung Fu Panda,  Revenge of the Mummy, and much more. There is so much to do that one day may not be enough. Though a day is a pretty long time walking, talking, laughing, and screaming. By night - we all were tired but thrilled to have spent a day together really enjoying the magic of Hollywood.

Welcome, but no feeding the Raptors
Again, in the world of J and L we encourage everyone to go out and research and explore at every opportunity. We traveled a short hour to explore an amusement park with our adult children and did the research to make it more of a learning experience for ourselves than just a day on rides. But that's okay too - just get out and explore. And be a grown-up child every now and then.

We like it that way and hope everyone feels the same.

And Freddie - we loved Bohemian Rhapsody and we're pretty sure J. K. Rowlings does, too, with this quotation from her 2007 novel, 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows': "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"

L leaving a bistro in Paris - or is she?

We especially wish to thank Justin Barr for the photographs in this blog. At least ninety-nine percent of the pictures for the day were taken by his expert photographer hands. One or two were probably mistakenly placed here by J from his smartphone. We apologize!

We will leave you with this, as we share our magical memories of a Mother's Day/Father's Day and the power of imagination: