Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Late July 2017: Back On Our Own Boat

The Next Ghost Rider
We are back in familiar territory: sitting on our new-to-us boat at Old Port Cove Marina in Palm Beach, Florida, moving stuff aboard and discussing the punch list with Yacht Tech personnel.  Since arriving back in the USA on 03-July we had been busy checking out a Nordhavn 50 and ultimately, following surveys and sea trial, we purchased our second Nordy.  We are either stubborn or crazy….likely both.

Previously this boat had been known as Boundary Waters, then Sea Fox, and lastly The Getaway, and in each case had received lots of care and numerous upgrades.  We got lucky; we had seen Getaway when she accompanied the N60 (Relish) that we were taking to Nassau back in late April '17 in preparation for the Atlantic crossing (NAP-2017).  At the time we both had commented on her pristine condition and agreed if that boat ever came on the market again, we wanted a shot at it. Fast forward just two months, still aboard Relish as we were approaching our last Atlantic crossing port near Malaga, Spain. Michelle was trolling the Internet – still a few miles offshore – and quite serendipitously found her in a new listing.  Her relatively new owners wanted a bigger boat.  Just over a month later we were back in the USA and finalizing the purchase.

Ghost Rider II is a Nordhavn 50, constructed in 2002, hull number 21 (out of 26 produced before the model was discontinued in 2005.)  For more details and specs on her, click HERE to visit our “About the Boat” web site page.  You'll find links to a video and some pictures of the vessel there.
Chelle & Her New Toy During
the Survey Haulout

While in excellent condition for a 15 year old boat, we nonetheless have a punch list to work through based on surveys, sea trial and our own personal preferences.  We’re in the process of prioritizing (and quantifying) the list, and we expect that will take a few weeks to work through.  After that our near term plan is to spend a few months cruising the east coast of the USA - once again in shakedown mode - hopefully staying north of any tropical storm activity.  The Chesapeake area seems like a suitable destination given its attractions and options for repair yards should that be needed, plus we have good friends cruising there now.  And several more we'd like to visit along the way.  We'll come back to Florida later in the year once the weather and storms have cooled down, likely early November.

Based on our inability in the past to refrain from blogging, it's a safe bet we'll have more postings in the future as we progress down this new path.  So stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

July 2017: Madrid, Lisbon...Then Back to the USA

It was another leisurely morning for us as our train didn’t depart until late afternoon, so after a room service breakfast we checked out at noon and walked to the adjoining mall area for some shopping (wine and scotch mostly), and later a light lunch.
The Train Station in Malaga - Clean, Bright, Modern

The well-established train system in Spain has a solid and well-earned reputation for timely and reliable service, and our scheduled departure was a good example of that – with boarding as advertised promptly at 1530. Then without any fanfare or announcement it quietly glided away from the station at exactly at the scheduled time, 1555.  This was the high speed link to Madrid…reaching up to 271 kilometers per hour during the open stretches, or 168 MPH.  By the time you added up the comparative time to/from airports, standing in long airport security lines (which were a good deal more streamlined at the train station), and then the cumbersome boarding processes, the 2.5 hour train ride at half the price of an airline ticket sure looked to be a good idea.  Plus we had nearly first class seat and leg room, along with vistas of the Spanish countryside and Internet access most of the way.
The Digital Display in the Train Clocks Us at 271 KM/H

There were a few short stops along the way at interim stations, and we arrived in Madrid not at the scheduled 1841…but 10 minutes early at 1831.  The Madrid Atocha train station was another story – huge, not particularly good signage for foreigners, a maze of levels, exit and entry points, and packed with way too many people.  The reason for that became all too apparent a short while later.  From here it should have been a quick ten minute taxi ride to our next abode, the Hotel Europa, which we had selected based on its central location; plus it came highly recommended by Rick Steves’ guide books and by Bernie Francis, who had passed through there on his way back to the states ten days earlier.  But when we finally found the taxi stand thirty minutes later and asked a driver to take us there, his response (in Spanish) was “impossible”.  Eh? 

In his best broken English he explained that all streets between here and our hotel were closed for a “celebracion” – which turned out to be “World Pride Madrid 2017”….think Mardi Gras in New Orleans plus Fantasy Fest in Key West, then add a couple more million people.  It was an LGBT festival on a rather grand scale.  And we walked straight into it.  You can’t make this stuff up.
World Pride Festival in Madrid....Weaving Our Way Thru Massive Crowds

We’re pretty sure we walked through about a million of those partying throngs enroute to our hotel, which involved a fairly circuitous route given the closed streets and clogged crowds we had to negotiate, all while hauling our luggage packed with two months’ worth of travel gear.  We tend to think of ourselves as an American military family with generally conservative leanings on many issues, but have never believed in politics that dictate lifestyle.  So while we were frustrated at our own poor or unlucky planning, we saw this as just a big freaking party, and a well behaved one at that.  At any rate, it took us two full hours to make the trek to the hotel.  If it weren’t for Google Maps and the Spanish National Police – who are a no-nonsense but reasonably friendly sort in spite of the Uzis slung around their necks – we probably wouldn’t have made it to the Europa Hotel until sometime in August.

For a wildly jubilant and partying crowd of that size, and one with a somewhat culturally-charged change agenda, they admittedly were the best behaved mass of people that we have encountered in such quantities at a single time and place. At one point, as we were hand carrying all that luggage down a steep set of stairs, one of the revelers just grabbed a suitcase handle and helped Chelle get her gear to the bottom. If you care to know more about the event then click HERE

After Sunset the Crowds Continued to Grow as Did
the Decibel Levels
Of course the hotel room we had reserved was one of the few remaining premium rooms with a balcony overlooking the square – which was packed with more of the aforementioned crowds.  But now we also had a big outdoor stage that featured Spanish rock bands blasting percussive music at higher decibel levels than any jet engine Rick had ever encountered.  Given that we had reserved that room in ignorance, the hotel staff gave us the option of changing to a quieter room; but we said “oh what the hell”, let’s experience the whole damned thing.  So we did. 

We chose to eat dinner in the hotel restaurant around 2300 (11pm) more due to fatigue than culinary preference, although the steak was actually pretty good, and the place did offer some acoustic relief.  By the time we got back to the room and our balcony view, the crowd size had increased even further, and so had the decibels.  For the most part the recorded music and live bands were sticking with Spanish language contemporary rock, but when they played the USA version of “YMCA” (remember the Village People?) the place went more nuts….thousands dancing and singing in synchrony.  Chelle even joined in from four floors up.  We were exhausted by 0200, and by 0300 the celebration had finally wound down to something less than a riot level.  For a brief video (oh yes, and audio) of the event as viewed from our hotel balcony, click HERE.)

Watch out New York City – the World Pride festival is headed your way in 2019.

One of Several Elaborate Palaces in Old Madrid
By this time our circadian rhythm was totally wonky, and our feet, knees & backs ached, so we didn’t get even partially motivated until 0930-ish. And even then we just hung around the room catching up on some emails and the typically confusing news from the states right up until the noon checkout time.  We had a nice brunch at one of the nearby sidewalk cafes and decided we’d tour Madrid strictly by bus today….we were pretty spent, and definitely done with walking for a while.

Madrid has some very good touring buses with reasonably priced one or two-day pass options, and we were able to split the afternoon into two parts with a break in the middle: the first couple hours touring “old” Madrid; followed by a Sangria and Mohito break; and then a couple more hours touring “new” Madrid.  It was all quite enjoyable and informative, and didn’t involve much walking.
And Another Palace in Old Madrid

Madrid is Spain’s capital and largest city, with 3.5 million residents within the city, and well over 6 million in its metro area.  It is the EU’s third largest city behind only London and Paris.  While lacking the absolute charm and appeal of those “White Hill” towns we so enjoyed, it is still an impressive community.  Whether you’re in the new or old sections, for a big city it has more visual appeal and character than almost any U.S. large city environment.  Judging traffic was a bit difficult given it was Sunday, but overall it appeared to be well-managed with very good streets and thoroughfares.

New Madrid is Modern, Clean...and Green.
That evening we had an early dinner (and another Sangria) and then took a taxi to the Madrid airport to catch an easyJet flight to Lisbon, Portugal. That marked the unofficial end of our tourista days, since the only thing we’d have time to do in Lisbon would be to go to the hotel, sleep a few hours, then head back to the airport for the long ten hour flight back to the USA – crossing the big pond once again.

The flight the previous night was blissfully boring, the hotel was more than adequate for the few hours of sleep we managed, and then we were back in the Lisbon airport by 0815 (GMT+1) for a mid-morning departure on a TAP Portugal Airbus A330.  By 1040 we were tucked into our comfy business class seats and airborne; and shortly after 1100 we were “feet wet” at 35,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean, pointed directly at the Azores.  It was an interesting thought looking down at all that blue water – we had been almost exactly in that same spot in a fairly small boat – headed in the other direction – just 16 days ago.  This particular crossing would be faster, more comfortable, and boring as hell. 
Elaborate Fountains Are Also a Prominent Feature in Madrid

But as Chelle had said the night before, “I’m tired and done with living out of a suitcase; it’s time to go home.”  We had been traveling rather energetically in some shape or form since 10-May, or roughly for 54 consecutive days.  And we were running low on clean clothes as well as energy.

We never thought we’d say this about Miami, but it felt good to be back here as we disembarked the plane just after 1400 Eastern Time.  We wouldn’t get home for a few more days since we wanted to visit friends and tend to some boat business in Jupiter and Palm Beach.  We’ll keep you posted on what kind of adventure might develop from that.


·        Crossing an ocean is more about preparations than the actual execution of the journey.  Assuming you selected a capable boat (and in the powered vessel world, that admittedly is a short list of brands) then most of the real work is in prepping the boat, and to some degree, the crew.  That includes vetting the boat’s mechanicals of course, but also loading up with the right consumables, tools, supplies, safety gear and provisions. Securing a good weather router with multiple means of communication falls into that prep category as well.

·       Speaking of provisions, Chelle did a fantastic job of planning and procuring those for Relish; we didn’t lack for anything, and not just coincidentally, we ate very well all along the way – even when sea conditions should have dictated much less time and effort in the galley.

·        If we were to make such a journey again – on our boat or someone else’s – we would want to do it with exactly four crewmembers (assuming the same or at least equivalent skill sets); three is too few (tiring); five is too many (crowded).

·        We highly recommend the Garmin inReach device to any long distance cruisers as well; it does not replace an EPIRB but its tracking and messaging capabilities are impressively flexible and reliable, and its backup SOS/SAR option is a smart redundancy.

·        We enjoyed each place we visited, but we ranked Gibraltar and Arcos as the top two; the former for its marina environments, Med access, and the international variety of interesting sights and sounds, plus its amazingly affordable prices on everything; the latter for its well preserved old world charm, stunning views and superb hospitality.

·        We were treated well at every stop we made along the way; and that’s saying something as Americans aren’t exactly viewed favorably these days by a good portion of the globe.  So kudos to the hospitality forces in Bermuda, Portugal, Gibraltar and Spain.

·        Of all the places we visited, the Spanish hospitality and service ethic in the small towns was the best of them all; you could tell they wanted you there and they wanted you to enjoy their unique experience.  And they delightfully lacked those hustle/bustle and stress factors that you can see in the eyes and hear in the voices of the big city staffs.

·        Iberian ham is fabulously delicious, especially when sliced thin like prosciutto and served with eggs and toast for breakfast or brunch.  If you are not familiar with it, read about it by clicking HERE; but when you taste it you can tell it takes up to four years to make it that way.

·        Our two new favorite fun drinks, particularly when made in Spain, are the Sangria and the frozen Mojito; it is easy to see why Hemingway fell in love with them during his time there.

·       And finally, re-crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a TAP Portugal A330 Airbus in business class is a very nice way to make the return trip across the pond both boring and fast.  Cheaper, too.

Frozen Mojito and Sangria -- CHEERS!

Sunday, July 2, 2017

June 2017: Cadiz, Sevilla & Ronda

Cadiz is a Port City with Many Park Areas
We spent just a single night in Arcos and headed out Tuesday morning, backtracking a bit south and further west to the coastal town of Cadiz.  This large city is mostly notable as a deep water port on Spain’s southwest coast (and thus is a handy stopover point when the weather in the Gibraltar Straits is nasty), but we wanted to check it out.  So we wandered around a bit – very pretty parks – had a coffee and juice in one of the sidewalk plaza cafes, and headed back north for Sevilla (aka Seville), another two hours of driving.

There are a couple of notable sights one will notice when driving the winding mountain roads of southern Spain.  The first is the number of large wind farms consisting of dozens of large – over 90 meters tall (300 feet) – power-generating wind turbines; there is always a breeze here and Spain has been one of the leaders in their deployment and use, currently ranked fifth in the world.  Also noticeable are the large, expansive fields of yellow sunflowers; the government long ago began encouraging their growth here to produce sunflower seed oil to compete with the more expensive olive oils that were in an oversupply state throughout the Mediterranean countries.  Spaniards are adaptive.
Not Your Don Quixote Windmills...These Turbines Produce
Prodigious Amounts of Electricity

The drive to Sevilla reminded us how lucky we were to have GPS and Google Maps available to us – we’re not at all certain we would have found any of the places for which we were searching without those aids. And when in the townships, if you can’t navigate the numerous roundabouts here, you will find yourself in an accidentally perpetual holding pattern.  As for the art or science of finding a place to park – we have not figured out that part yet.  When we arrived in “old” Sevilla and supposedly within a few hundred meters of our hotel, where once again many streets were the perfect width for an undernourished horse, we had to give up.  We found a garage about a klick away and walked with our luggage in tow to the hotel.
Our Room at Las Casas de la Juderia

But it was worth it.  Our hotel was a tourist destination all on its own.  The Hotel Las Casas de la Judería de Sevilla is comprised of 27 traditional houses and it has 134 different rooms which are linked through 40 patios, gardens and a labyrinth of small passageways.  It’s best to bring something to make a breadcrumb trail if you go wandering, as Chelle accidentally discovered.  She wrote the following that night in an email to her mum:

We were unable to successfully order a cheese platter from room service so I ventured out while Rick continued to work on boat contracts/negotiations.  I found my way out (yay).  Walked across the street to tapas bar, bought a bottle of wine and 2 tapas to go.  Then walked back to our hotel restaurant for a glass of ice for Rick’s scotch.  Tried an exit and staircase back to our room but got lost.  Backtracked to the restaurant, found the office again and the way to our elevator, found our floor then lost again.  Oh yeah, back outdoors (thru a tiny windowed door), across a rooftop terrace to our room – found it!  It’s an absolute maze.  We rec’d a map of the hotel which is as hard to decipher as a city map!  The room is really cool (big & funky, loft-like) but Rick’s bound to walk into a rafter or 2 before we leave.

Another Cafe & More Tapas
That last statement turned out to be painfully prophetic, but we still loved the room. That evening we enjoyed a leisurely stroll through some of these historic streets of the old town section, and helped out the local economy by consuming more tapas and drinks to wrap up another fine day.

Chelle had booked one of Sevilla’s walking tours that come highly recommended in Rick Steves’ guides, so after a light breakfast of coffee and croissants we headed out at 1000 to meet our guide, Alphonso, in a nearby town square.  The square was coincidentally the site of a protest by sanitation workers (which would turn out to be slightly foreshadowing), reminding us that left-leaning unions are an integral part of Spain’s current culture with an approximate 20% density (about twice that of the U.S.). While peaceful, the demonstration was very noisy, so we had to re-start our tour a block or so away.

For the next two hours, however, we were thoroughly entertained as well as educated.  Alphonso’s English was quite good, as was his sense of humor, irony and history.  Once again we were treated to architectural and cultural reflections of Sevilla’s checkered history, from Carthaginians and the Roman Empire in the early period; then the Visigoths and Christians eras; followed by the Moorish Muslim conquest and ultimately the retaking of Spain by Christian King Ferdinand III circa mid 1200’s.  Alphonso also made it a point to show us how to find some of the more interesting areas of the city on our own after the tour.
Somewhere Underneath There's More to the Arches & Columns

At various points along our tour Alphonso also pointed out some recurring themes and symbols; for instance the oddly short look of the columns and arches….which are indeed at least a meter shorter than they were originally before sediment over the centuries built up and the resilient people of Sevilla began building on top of them.

An then there is the fairly prominent repetition of an anagram that reads “NO8DO” appearing on sewer lids, facades, service vehicles, the city’s coat of arms, and a number of other inauspicious places.  Our guide slyly observed that American author Dan Brown would have all sorts of fun with it, and that a number of attributions and legends exist. 

The NO8DO Anagram Appears Frequently in Sevilla
But the most popular is that it’s basically a pun, combining two Spanish syllables (NO and DO) and a drawing in between of the figure "8"; the figure represents a skein of yarn, or in Spanish, a madeja. When read aloud, "No madeja do" sounds like "No me ha dejado", which means "It has not abandoned me".  And that apparently is in reference to the retaking of Sevilla by Ferdinand III from the Muslim (Moors) in 1248.

After our tour concluded we had yet another leisurely lunch at yet another sidewalk café, accompanied by what Alphonso recommended as the best “local” beer, Cruzcampo. (Which, by the way, is actually Heineken’s premier brand in Spain.)  He also taught us that the locals drink it in small portions – not out of any sense of restraint, but because they prefer their brews very cold….so they end up eventually ordering several.
It's Easy to Find Several Centuries of Different Architectures
in a Single Complex in Sevilla

That led Rick right into a quality siesta time back at the room.  And of course Chelle went walking and shopping.

Our goal the following day was to complete the drive and a visit to Ronda, another of the “White Hill Towns” in the Andalusia region.  Graced with another late checkout time (Rick was really digging on the “Spanish time” sensibilities) we meandered to the front desk to check out and, since we had managed to park our rental vehicle quite a distance away, hire a taxi vs. hauling our four bags across a chunk of the city.  That led to this exchange:

Rick:  Englais, par favor…we need a taxi.
Front desk:  Lo siento, senor…no taxis today….on strike, just today…from 9 until 3 o’clock.
Rick:  A labor strike….just here….only today?
Front desk:  Si
Rick:  Pardone….you’re just pushing my buttons…right?
Notice the Shade Coverings in Sevilla....It Gets
Hot Here in the Summers

Surprisingly all three of the friendly hotel staff at the front desk seemed to comprehend that very American idiomatic phrase as they all laughed and shrugged apologetically.  We chuckled with them, grabbed our bags and walked to the parking garage.

Driving the approach to Ronda was very similar to what we had experienced getting up to Arcos….twisting and steadily ascending two lane roads, terminating in another quaint mountain-top town perched on some interesting cliffs.  Our selected hotel here was a bit different in that it was more of a modern Spanish resort, plus it actually had its own parking lot with space available.  But its views were nonetheless yet another treat.

Another Hotel with Stunning Views in Ronda
While Ronda doesn’t have all the character of Arcos it still retains a lot of old world charm, with plenty of shops, cafes, restaurants, churches, convents and basilicas.  It seems to draw more tourist traffic than does Arcos, and part of that might be due to the newer resorts that cater to that, along with its famous and picturesque gorge.

The El Tajo Gorge is a gigantic gash in the ground, about 120 meters deep (nearly 400 feet) and formed by eons of natural erosion.  The current bridge spanning that river and gorge, connecting the “old” and “new” settlements of Ronda, was started in 1759 and took 34 years to build. The one previous to that had fallen down after only six years, so presumably they learned a lot in that process.
The El Tajo Gorge and the Bridge That Spans the "New"
and "Old" Town Sections

Ronda is also home to the oldest bull ring stadium in Spain, the Plaza del Toros, built in the 18th century (started in 1761 and completed in 1783) and still in use today.  While bullfighting has historical roots that date back to ancient Greece and Rome, its popularity as a competitive blood sport really only goes back to the 1700’s when Spanish Royalty popularized it via theatrically costumed displays that drew both commoner and privileged attention as entertainment and aspirational value.

It’s also easy to find social events here in Ronda that feature the famous Flamenco dance.  We didn’t have to look far or hard, as our hotel had musicians and a dancer performing in their open air courtyard when we returned from our touring for the day.

Some Flamenco Dancer Action at Our Ronda Hotel
We slept in, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast in the hotel restaurant (a quality buffet of local dishes), then jumped back into the rental car for the drive back to Malaga. (Dropping the car in Malaga was not our preference in the beginning, but leaving it in a different location was amazingly pricey; and dropping in Lisbon, our original preference, would have been well over a thousand Euros.  Rick tried to explain that we did not want to buy the damned thing, we just wanted to borrow it for a few days…but to no avail.)

While only 102 km away, it took nearly two hours for the drive to Malaga as the roads were largely two lane and winding through the picturesque foothills. Passing slower autos on some of the blind switch-backs seemed to be a daredevil sport to those Spaniards with the higher end vehicles. We dropped the rental car back at the airport, grabbed a taxi there for the short ride to our hotel, the Barcelo Malaga.  It was a comfortable modern place and immediately adjacent to the Zambrano rail station, where we planned to catch a train to Madrid the following afternoon.
Malaga Doesn't Have the Charm But it Has the Shopping

Malaga isn’t normally a recommended stop in southern Spain except as a transportation hub, as that’s about the only consistent thing going for it.  But if you need to catch a flight or train to just about anywhere else in western Europe, it will serve that purpose well enough. Chelle was certain, however, that Malaga had more to offer, so off she went hunting the big city streets for something more redeeming than a few overcrowded beaches, and some planes and trains….while Rick enjoyed another siesta before tending to more administrative business that still beckoned from back home.

Whole Grouper Prepared at the Table....It Was Quite Good
Ultimately she did find a city center area that was clean, inviting and quite vibrant – large crowds of locals and tourists meandering walkways both wide and narrow – the wide ones mostly had modern retail storefronts, the narrow ones were lined with the (equally new and modern) tapas cafes and restaurants.  It was a better place to spend the evening than the hotel.  While lacking the old time charm that we so enjoyed in Sevilla, Arcos and Ronda, the service was still excellent and so was the food.  We split a bottle of wine and a whole grouper (e.g., it still had the head and tail); but our waiter was meticulous about preparing it at our table for easy consumption.  And in true Spanish style we didn’t complete our meal until around 2230 (10.30pm).