Sunday, October 16, 2016

Hawaii 2016

Yes…..yes, it has been awhile but I have an excuse. I always considered that we would have grandkids someday. But when that day came….I was somewhat unprepared. When little Robert came along, I hearkened back to those early days when we had Nicole and William and life was easy. We were relatively young and had energy to take on any challenge that came along. Kid rearing was part of the fabric that became our lives and we seemed to zip through jobs, two kids, competitive roller skating and vacations while dragging along entire bedrooms (and kitchens) of stuff to and fro without (generally) a complaint. That has all changed. As John Mellancamp said in ‘Longest Days’….”So you pretend not to notice, that everything has changed, the way that you look and the friends you once had, so you keep on acting the same. But deep down in your soul, you know you got no flame and who knows then which way to go. Life is short, even in it’s longest days.”

After much soul searching, I (and my wife) have come to the conclusion that I have gotten old. I can not muster the stuff of yesteryear and leap tall buildings…etc, etc. Child rearing is serious work and I have to reach down deep to keep up with the little darling. But it is fun and thank goodness we can ship him back after a time to his parents and we can recover our strength and wits (the kid is the Eveready bunny in disguise…and his grandmother will gladly provide the drum if called upon). Mind you, we only have the GS (yes the world is anachronism crazy) maybe twice a week and just putting the house back together after he makes his strafing pass causes me to take a nap.

The Reader’s Digest version is some weekdays and weekends are taken up with our grandson and have superseded our weekend jaunts to far flung points of interest and cool places to eat (we’re all about the people and the food).

So we decided back in April to book a cool cruise to Hawaii by way of Vancouver, British Columbia. Yes….strange as it seems, that was the only port serving Hawaii during the month of September when it was scheduled. Which led us to a really convoluted (but cheap) air route to B.C. From DFW to Seattle, to Vancouver by way of Alaska Air. After we get off the ship we’re going back from Honolulu to Portland to DFW. Crazy.

So our first day was mostly on airplanes and a not too pleasant Immigration entry into Canada. Vancouver International Airport (VCY) is a very nice airport but the exit through Customs really sucked. After exiting the aircraft you have to log in to an automated processing of your Declaration of Goods and show passports to a kiosk. Then present same to an Immigration Officer. You then get to collect your bags and stand in line for the exit which also has Immigration Officers who stop and collect the Declaration you already submitted to the machine and the first Immigration guy. This led to quite a bottleneck in that they only had one officer collecting Declarations from everyone on the way out in a line that snaked all the way back to the Immigration Checkpoint. It was nuts until somebody thought to add another two officers to collect Declarations.  Oh well, the price of freedom I guess.

We hailed a cab who’s Indonesian driver was wayyyyy too light weight to manhandle Dianna’s luggage. I had to lift and shove our load of three bags into the back of this guys’ Toyota Prius (preferred cab of Vancouver…they were everywhere…with free wi-fi in each car) and made our way into downtown to our hotel, the Victorian Hotel on Homer Street.

The Victorian is a neat old historic hotel in downtown, a stones throw from the port where our voyage would begin the following day. It is the oldest continuously operating hotel in Vancouver.

It was built in 1898 when the Gold Rush was rolling through the Northwest to house the many prospectors working their way to the Klondike. A guest of note was Klondike Kate Rockwell a Vaudevillian of Klondike Gold Rush fame in Dawson City.

Very Creative Canadians
I am a big fan of historic hotels and try my wife's patience when I book one. This was one of those times. The hotel has been remodeled and has some modern appointments but on our floor, we had shared bathrooms with the rest of the floor. Not a first for us but after a long day of airport shuttles, Dianna was not amused. And there was the matter of no air-conditioning. Luckily, it is fall in Vancouver and the temperature never got over 70 with overnight lows of 50. So as long as she could open a window…we were ok.

Our first mission was dinner. We had been on airplanes with little more than soda and pretzels. The vivacious Michelle at the desk recommended we head for “Gastown” just a short walk away. We came upon the  “Rogue Kitchen and Wetbar” inside the Waterfront train station.

Their burgers are epic and Dianna had the Rogue Burger while I had the Quinoa Veggie Burger. Really cool spot to people watch right on W. Cordova Street. Including the homeless who come right up to the glass and ask for contributions. It was around 6 p.m and workers from all over were heading for the train depot probably heading home. We then headed back to the hotel for a good nights rest to the sounds of the city winding down.

The following morning, we headed out to try breakfast. Cruise day and we had to gather ourselves to face the check-in and walk-on. The hotel had an uninspiring Continental Breakfast and we needed something grander. A short walk up Homer to Dunsmuir Street took us to “The Legendary Whitespot Restaurant”.

Dianna had the Classic Benedict (that she rates all restaurants with) and I had the Spinach, Portobello and Feta Omelette. Each came with “smash brown” potatoes. Rick, our server, explained they took baked potatoes, cut them into bit-sized sections, pressed them and then deep fried the pieces. Really tasty replacement for standard fries or hash browns.

Rick asked us about our travels and we asked him about living in Vancouver. Rick told us the real estate market had gone crazy making it impossible for common folk to live within the city limits. He credited it to a large influx of Asian investors  who were buying up land and were building high-rise apartments and condos everywhere (there were high-rise cranes all around us). He said the average home in the city goes for about 1.7 million and they have a very large wealthy population of students who's parents have sent them to college in Canada which has dried up all the available housing.

Rick said he was typical of the average worker in that he has to commute about 30 miles one-way each day to work and that wages were not keeping up with the cost of living so he cannot afford a home. Sounds a lot like portions of the US including our own State of Texas which is experiencing an up and coming California style real estate boom making home buying very hard for starter families and the lower income brackets.

We then moved on to Dianna’s favorite pastime in foreign countries….pharmacy shopping. We found one just down the street where she found several items she would normally need a prescription for. Looking around at their various “over-the-counter” remedies and you could spot lots of pain relievers and cold remedies at prescription strength that lined the shelves. It’s amazing what you can find.

Loaded up with her booty, we made it back to hump our bags back down the creaky staircase to an awaiting cab for the trip to the  Canada Place Cruise Terminal. Canada Place was originally a terminus for the Canadian Pacific Railroad to ship Canadian lumber and goods all over the world. In 1986, it was the Canada Pavilion for the 1986 World Expo and in 1987 became the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre. It was the Press Center for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and continues as a home port for most Alaska cruise lines.

We had gotten there early enough to deposit our luggage and did the check-in without incident so we wandered around so Dianna could use her phone app at the Starbucks right around the corner from the terminal. Life is good when your dollar is worth more than the local currency. Soon we were aboard and watching as the Lions Gate Bridge passed overhead.

Repositioning Cruise primping
The Carnival Legend is a Spirit class ship built in 2001. She's a little bit long in the tooth and was showing her age. In a world of super cruise ships, she lacks some of the extreme amenities of her sister ships like massive shopping malls, climbing walls and water parks. I learned ,once on board, she had just had a mechanical problem on a recent Alaska cruise when the starboard azipod malfunctioned and she listed severely causing water to cascade out of the pools and caused quite a stir just a month ago.

Dessert Bar at the Buffet

Cheesecake at the Steakhouse
Our trip involved a long five-day ocean run to the Hawaiian Islands. A great time to get your sea legs and get a bunch of reading done. That was good because rain pursued us for the whole 5 days. It opens up just as we got into hailing range of the Big Island and our first stop, Hilo, Hawaii.

Hilo is on the northeastern shore of the Big Island and is the government center for the County of Hawaii (that must make it easy to remember). Hilo is also home to five volcanos, two of which are the most active Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. The two are considered the tallest mountains in the world. Although Everest is 29,029 feet above sea level, Mauna Loa is 13,678 above sea level but is another 16,405 feet to the sea floor (remember the visible island is the volcano), a total of 30,085 feet. Mauna Loa  has a satellite volcano, Kilauea providing a continuous flow of eruptions and lava flows since 1823. Volcanoes National Park was the 15th National Park established by Woodrow Wilson in 1916 making it 100 years old this year. It is the island where British explorer Captain James Cook met his demise. It also sprouts the largest number of astronomical observatories in the world.

Thus we found ourselves on the “Chain of Craters” Tour with Captain Rob. Captain Rob provided a running commentary and historical record of the island based on his 25 years of being a tour guide on the island. On the way to the Volcano, we took a side trip to the  Nani Mau Botanical Garden for a great lunch and walk around some of the most beautiful Japanese style gardens around.


The Volcano tour got us a stop at the Kilauea caldera as well as the famous Lava Tube. Captain Rob pointed out that that part of the Island of Hawaii is a rain forest with about 140-150 inches of rain a year (12 feet…wow). As we traveled up the lush green Highway 11, Rob pointed out the Kilauea Military Camp. It was established as an Army training camp in 1916 but became an Internment Camp for Japanese residents after Pearl Harbor and a Prisoner-of-War camp later in the war. It is still used today as an Armed Forces Recreation Center. But as we arrived at the Kilauea caldera, the thick trees retreated and we found ourselves in an almost barren landscape. Rob said it was due to the high temperatures. The ground was so warm, it can’t sustain trees and only low brush survives.

On the way back, he explained about the Hawaiian State flag. It boasts a Union Jack for the long British presence. It also has seven or eight alternating white, red and blue stripes representing the eight main islands of Hawaii. The current flag was designed by King Kamehameha in 1816 and is most probably based on the British East India Company’s flag. It is the only state flag in the United States that was once a royal flag representing a monarchy.

The following day, we anchored off the city of Kona. Still on the island of Hawaii, it is coffee central for most of the civilized world. Our guide was David, a native Hawaiian. He explained a long running disagreement over the “native Hawaiian” designation. David pointed out that there are no “native” Hawaiians. The islands have no indigenous people. They  were discovered and populated by early Polynesian and Tahitians in the 4th century. Things were further complicated by the sugar industry. The sugar plantations became so big that they didn't have enough Hawaiians to do the work so many people were recruited to come to Hawaii to work the plantations. Thus people from many different lands came to Hawaii to work really mixing things up with intermarriage of the different races.

David pointed out that this year, Hawaii was no longer in the sugar business. He said the sugar industry had been shrinking for some time and the last island with plantations, Maui, were doing their last harvests. He said the high cost of labor was to blame and stiff competition from South America and the Caribbean were driving them out of business.

Our first stop was Royal Kona Coffee. Everybody made a beeline for the free samples and store to buy up 100% Kona Coffee. Our guide told us you need three things to qualify to use the term 100% Kona Coffee. You had to grow it in a small region on the western slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa. It has to be an Arabica bean (subspecies Typica)  processed and packaged in Kona. The coffee plant is not native to the islands (neither was sugar..came in with the Polynesians) and was brought to the Kona district in 1828 by Samuel Reverend Ruggles from Brazilian cuttings. Little known fact, Kona coffee and other Hawaiian coffees are the only coffees commercially grown in the United States. All coffee beans in Hawaii are hand picked mostly due to the rough volcanic hillsides, machines can't handle the terrain. The beans are originally green and are red when ripe (referred to as “cherries”). The beans typically have two beans within a pod, the best (and most expensive) have a single large bean. These are called peaberries. The processed coffee will run about $25 dollars a bag and $10-$15 more per bag for the peaberry beans.

Caffeined up, we made our way to the Pu'uhonua o Honaunau (place of refuge at Honaunau) National Park. In old Hawaii, if you had broken a law (pretty much any law), the penalty was death (tough place to live). Laws, or kapu, governed every aspect of Hawaiian society. If you had entered into an area that was reserved for only royalty, or had eaten forbidden foods. Your only option for survival is to elude your pursuers and reach the nearest Pu'uhonua, or place of refuge. While there, you could perform certain mea-culpas until a priest (Kahuna) would sign off on your parole and you could return to society without fear of retribution. Not sure how they would get the word out to everybody….but I’m sure it all worked out.

Next stop was St. Benedict’s Roman Catholic Church  also known as the “painted church”. The church was originally on the coast of Honaunau Bay (the place Captain Cook was killed by natives when he disrespected the Chief by pushing him while trying to take him hostage). When Father Aloys Lorteau passed away in 1898, it came under the care of Father John Berchmans Velge a native of Belgium. By the mid-1880s, the people of that area had decided to move farther up the mountain to more fertile land. When Father John took over, he decided to move the church up to what is now the town of Captain Cook. One piece at a time, he loaded mules with pieces of the church and rebuilt it where it sits today. Father John, a self-taught artist, decided to paint the interior to help the Hawaiian parishioners learn about the religion.

In the 1800s, most Hawaiians could not read or write English and so Father John painted the walls and ceiling with religious messages to help them understand the teachings of the church. Inside there are very colorful renderings of scenes from the Bible with hidden messages which conveyed the things Father John wanted the natives to learn. An example are the palm fronds painted on the ceiling. Each frond has both brown and green leaves. The leaves pointed toward the back of the church were brown and the ones facing the altar were green meaning that following the church and its teachings helped one grow but turning away from the church meant a poor life and a bad death. Very cool and a moving sight to see.

Feral Pigs and Chickens...Huge problem
Back to the ship for a run to Kauai. There we met up with Leonora, a cab driver/guide we snapped up in town. She took us around to Wailua Falls and rode us through the valley which was the backdrop to both Jurassic Parks and the King Kong remake. Beautiful countryside with lots of lush green in what most would think of when they visualize a tropical paradise. Most of the valley is privately owned and Leonora remarked that the rumors were that the owners were selling off portions for future development. Not surprising….the islands have been going through a definite growing spurt of new high-end housing and commercial development as well. She drove us to one of her personal favorite city parks at Lyncate Park and a really cool driftwood strewn beach. There was wind kicking up and it was pretty choppy but very scenic. On the way back, she took us to the Old Lihue Harbor where early shipping came to dock. Right behind the Lihue Airport, we had to cross behind huge lots of stockpiled rental cars waiting for use. Hundreds of new Mustangs, Cameros and fields of high-end SUVs sitting in waist-high grass behind chain-link fences.

Mike is Skinny
Our last stop was Maui. We did not partake in any tours and decided to hit the mall to pick up souvenirs and take in a movie. It's nice to hang out and watch the locals go through their day. Families buying school clothes, paying bills and getting the kids ice cream. It's like home but different. Even in paradise people have lives and live them like anywhere else. Make sure, when your in Lihue, get over to Skinny Mike's for an Hawaiian Ice.

We left and arrived in Honolulu the next morning for the big departure. We’ve gotten real good at packing and getting off the boat. We now pack an empty bag for souvenirs so we don't have to stuff the bags we bring. We have sets of matching luggage which fit inside each other. I therefore pack a medium bag inside the largest bag and don't pay the extra bag until the return flight. Works real well and keeps the bag weight down as well and saves some bucks there.

The downside is the flight back. Saving on airfare results in no direct flights and stopovers in Seattle and Portland before an equally long flight back to Dallas. But it was good to get back until we learned from our son that we suffered a leaking garbage disposal which ran for an entire cycle of the dishwasher. So,
first thing on returning home was a trip to Home Depot for replacements and cleanup. No rest for the weary. End of vacation.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Tyler Texas

Back in May, it was our 41st anniversary. It seems like only yesterday we were young and vital people with all of our hair (in a much darker color). Now after our children have sucked the life from us (well….one did give us a pretty nice grandchild) we are forced to get away from time to time to rejoice in our aging and recall when we were young and without responsibilities.

So we found ourselves driving eastbound to the Piney Woods region of East Texas to take in Kierposol Winery and it’s lovely B&B. I learned about Kierposol from, all places, a Texas Co-Op Magazine article. Texas was the test ground for a Federal program to bring electricity to rural communities championed by an up and coming little known Senator from Texas, Lyndon Johnson. In the part of Frisco we live in, we are a part of the Co-Serv utilities Co-Op power company which encompasses parts of North Texas. The magazine in question has articles by freelance writers about things going on in other Co-Op communities in Texas. The article was an overview of things to do when visiting Tyler, the County seat of Smith County.

It turns out Kierposol was the dream of a South African immigrant named Pierre Kierposol who arrived in America in 1998 after uprooting his family to move to Tyler, Texas in the hopes of growing grapes and making wine in the booming Texas wine industry. He bought up a sizable estate and produced his first production wine in 2000. In the following years he expanded into the Bed and Breakfast and restaurant. The B&B has gone from three rooms to five in the restaurant building, an event center, a recently completed cottage, multi-room Stable House and a distillery to complement the winery on the property. The surrounding property has been developed for high end housing in front of the vineyard along Farm to Market Road 344 just outside of Bullard, Texas (go Panthers), a stop on the Kansas and Gulf Short Line Railroad in 1890.

The area around Tyler is much different than the Land of Lakes region that Frisco resides in. Tyler is right on the edge of the Piney Woods and the Post Oak Savannah regions of East Texas. Providing stunning vistas of old growth Oak, Sweet Gum, Pecan and Black Walnut trees lining the roadways and hills. Very green and laced with deep dark shading of roads and the porches of dwellings among the gently rolling hills.

We left the DFW area and quickly found the wide open spaces along the I-20 and headed south just short of the Louisiana border. As the low brush grew into towering trees, we arrived at Kierposol about two hours from home. Too early to check in, we made our way into Tyler for lunch at a Friday’s along U.S. 69 (Dianna got a chuckle at of that). She had the Chicken Tenders and I had the Chipotle Chicken Salad. Top that with the Oreo ice cream sandwich dessert, wow.

After getting a lay of the land, we returned to Kierposol to take a nap in preparation of our Haunted Tour of Tyler at 9:30 pm. As we refine our travel protocol, we tend to revolve around two central themes. Either Bar Crawls or Haunted Tours. I know, rather limited but consistent. Over consumption of alcohol or scaring the crap out of ourselves, our parents would be proud.

We found a haunted tour run by Jerico Tours of Tyler. We were somewhat surprised at being the only two people signed up for that Friday night tour. We hooked up with Heather who, when she wasn't ghost hunting, was a second grade teacher during the day (probably more scary than her nighttime gig). Heather was very informative about ghost and spirit investigations and even brought along some Electro-Magnetic sensors, flashlights and a temperature sensor for us to use.

For the next three hours, we drove all over Tyler to various sites where sightings and investigations had been conducted. The most interesting for me was the old Smith County Jail which was now an attorney's office (how appropriate). There the hanging tree was located in the side yard of the jail where several legal and maybe some not-so legal hangings took place in the late 1890s.

There were also two outside all-metal prisoner cells (more like cages) where prisoners would spend their time when the Judge determined public humiliation was in order. I can’t imagine how uncomfortable this must have been in the Texas Summer or Winter much less inclement weather. This is the only location we got a hit on the EMF meter. Pretty strong reading right by the outside cage. Heather said it was most likely a frequent resident of the cage, a horse thief who hadn’t died there but who's spirit came back to haunt a place he spent a lot of time at.

As she ushered us around in her Ford Taurus, she spoke at length about the politics of Tyler and how it meshed with the lives of the rich and famous and how it had a bearing on how and where they ended up haunting. One of the most active places was the former Tyler Pipe manufacturing buildings. Tyler Pipe was producer of oil pipes for the massive oil fields covering this part of Texas back in the oil boom during the early 20th Century. Heather pointed out that there was no OSHA to regulate industries back then and this resulted in several deaths which occurred on the site. Some of those spirits still remain among some of the structures.

Interestingly, the site is now where one of the best Halloween Haunted Houses in the area. Terror Nights has a reputation of one of the most scariest Haunted Houses in America. During the rest of the year they utilize the facility for a Terror Escape Game that's quite the rage.

An escape game is an escape room venue. You and your crew are  locked inside for 60 minutes while you try to figure out how to escape. The rooms contain clues, secret doors, and hidden items. Anything that’s not glued or bolted down can be used and may be vital in getting out before you’re killed (yeah…I don’t see the draw but then I don’t Tweet or Facebook either).

Anyway, Heather’s husband (and fellow ghost hunter) George runs the Terror Escape Games and we got a behind the scenes look at how the game is conducted while Heather pointed out some of the hot spots throughout the site including a little girl who haunts a corner of the building. She’s quite playful and sometimes appears when coaxed with shiny coins tossed on the floor. I emptied my change upon the floor but no response from the child and no explanation why she would haunt this industrial site.

The next day, we were up early for our B&B breakfast in the restaurant.  Dianna had the eggs Benedict and I had the hearty Farmer’s Breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast. Then we made it out to the Tyler Rose Museum.

Many of you may know Tyler is considered the “Rose Capitol of America”. More than 1/3 of all roses commercially sold in America are grown in Tyler. The Tyler Municipal Rose Garden and Museum has more than 450 varieties of rose bushes, including antique varieties, bloom in the garden with cool names like Leonardo Di Vinci and Elizabeth Taylor.

Here more than 50 varieties of antique or heritage roses, along with many perennials bloom all summer long. The Rose Garden is the site of the annual Texas Rose Festival held in mid-October each year.  Visitors gather to meet the Rose Queen and enjoy refreshments in this spectacular outdoor setting during the popular Queen's Tea. The museum showcases really amazing ornate glamorous (one might suggest gaudy....I apologize Debbie) gowns worn by Texas Rose Festival Queens, as well as the history of the rose industry.

I love airplanes and airplane museums. There is a little museum located at the Tyler Pounds Regional Airport called the H.A.M.M. Aviation Museum (Historic Aviation Memorial Museum). That day they were having a Discover Aviation for kids and the place was alive with little ones. They were giving rides in the Museums immaculate DC-3, pretty cool.

 Among the many inside exhibits included this little known artifact the "Short Snorter" not to mention a fairly good batch of aircraft on the flight line.

We (I) were pretty hungry and decided to lunch at a renowned restaurant, Jucys. Its burgers are legendary for good reason. Dianna had the Cheeseburger I had the Spicy Blackbean Burger. We each had the Fried Green Tomatoes . Excellent!

On returning, we stopped for a visit at the Winery. They've recently added a Distillery and make Rum, Vodka and Bourbon as well. We made our way to the tasting room and got a sip of all their sweet and some their dry wines. We, of course felt compelled to buy up some for the trip home. The vistas from the patio were very relaxing and just right for sipping wine.

After a nap (we take those now), we were able to get to the restaurant for dinner in the B&Bs restaurant. Dianna had the Fillet Mignon and I had the Black Pepper and Honey Glazed Salmon. Top that with the Creme Brulee for Dianna and I had the Cheesecake. Wow!

Loading our booty of wine and souvenirs from the road into the Rogue (a few pounds heavier), we wended our way back to our humble home in laconic Frisco.