Saturday, April 7, 2012

Traveling Arkie

Posted By on Sat, Apr 7, 2012 at 5:01 AM

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OK. Several have complained about a lack of vacation reporting. I have a feeling only a tiny minority wants the slide show. But those who don't can scroll on.

I did hit the ground running as fast as an aging fat man with jet lag can run Wednesday morning, so I do have that excuse. I also didn't take many pictures on this trip.

We sailed from Miami (skyline above), a great experience itself, from my first exposure to the art deco South Beach zone to fascinating Little Havana, where we joined a throng of chattering, coffee-drinking Cubanos at the Versailles for breakfast, Cuban-style.

If you want more ....

We bought what were comparatively low cost tickets (about $1,850 each for 14 days in what amounts to a fine hotel with great restaurants) for a non-balcony cabin on a cruise ship "repositioning" from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean. That meant most of the days on the Oceania Marina were spent at sea. With an expensive and problematic Internet connection, I soon cut loose from the news and gave myself over to days of walking circuits on the track around the smokestack, eating, reading and a whole lot of sitting in a top-deck forward lounge and watching miles and miles of ocean go by. Seas got a little rough at times, but nothing severe. Lots of lectures — a BBC correspondent with a yen for trivia and an oceanographer who minored in dirigibles — also helped pass time, along with non-stop music from bands, combos and a classical string quartet.


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Sure, we saw some shows. The ship carries about 1,200 — mid-sized in the industry — and so they weren't on a par with the production numbers on the giant ships, but singers and dancers were talented. The shows themselves were hokey and the costumes over the top, such as here in "Grooving," a 60s-era medley that was, if anything, a little young for the older crowd that flocks to non-port-intensive trans-Atlantic voyages.

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We had a stop in Bermuda, where a $12 pass bought you unlimited bus and ferry rides up and down the British outpost with the pink sand beaches and an economy driven by offshore financial institutions. If you go, buy the local newspapers. Great local news coverage that reflects a heavy dose of the tension between locals and the British masters and the sometimes funny customs, including weird hats (feather-bedecked pith helmets) worn at official ceremonies. Above is the main street in Hamilton.

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After Bermuda, it was five days at sea before we reached Madeira, a surprise highlight of the trip. The Portuguese island and its principal city of Funchal are temperate year-round and the vegetation — from flowers to fruit and vegetables — is lush.

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The place is unbelievably cheap. The bowl of caldo verde above — potatoes, cabbage and chunks of Portuguese sausage — cost $1.50. The big glass of orange juice, squeezed before my eyes, cost about 75 cents. The tiny banana grown on the island was dense and impossibly sweet and cost pennies at the local market.

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At right is the Funchal market display of scabbardfish, a hugely popular prehistoric-looking local fish dredged up from depths of 3,000 feet.

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We bought a cheap all-day bus pass that took us all around Funchal and allowed us to get on and off to inspect markets, lace makers and a Madeira wine cellar and stop at a ritzy hotel overlooking the harbor (above) for a proper British tea with finger sandwiches, scones, clotted cream and pastries.

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A few more days of sailing brought us to Tangier in Morocco. I can't recommend it after two visits. You'll be driven crazy with pestering — sometimes threatening — from would-be guides/hawkers/con men. So we took a bus ride out to an Atlantic village known for a small art museum and annual festival of painting of the whitewashed walls. Above, a cookie merchant offers his wares on a rampart overlooking the sea.

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The cruise ended at Barcelona, a gorgeous, stylish city. We repeated an around-the-city bus tour past such Gaudi architectural masterpieces as La Pedrera, the apartment shown above, as well as his masterpiece church, Sagrada Familia (too dark for photos by the time our bus passed). But the highlight as ever was a big round of tapas, this time at Cerveceria Catalana, a stylish beer bar (wine and sangria also poured copiously) where draft Estrella washed down plate after plate of Iberico ham, manchego cheese, patates bravas smothered in garlic mayo and hot sauce, a salad of shrimp, crab and clams, pan tomate (the tomato-smeared bread), wild mushrooms and asparagus and more. Considered expensive by local standards, it seemed fair to us. We spent maybe $50 for a feast for two amid a riotous crowd that had a horde waiting in line to eat at 11 p.m. in a city that goes very late.

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