Mossel Bay

Refreshed and ready to start our adventure the next morning, we filled up with a hearty breakfast at the hotel and headed out along the N2 to our resort just outside Mossel Bay. The scenery is rugged, with many mountains, farms, plains and animals. My husband, David, was much more at ease driving a large vehicle on the “wrong” side of the road with a left-handed stick shift after a bit of sleep and in the daylight. We were all in good spirits and enjoying the sights of South Africa. It took about 4 1/2 hours to get to our resort, called Pinnacle Point. This is a golf course community perched on a promontory with stunning views. Sadly, fog had set in and we couldn’t enjoy a long-range view. But the views from the resort restaurant and from the little beach, just a hike down the hill, were still beautiful.

The original plan was to head into Mossel Bay to explore in the afternoon. But we were so tired that we ended up just exploring the golf resort, eating in the restaurant, and relaxing. David and I had also run out to the grocery store to stock up on a few supplies, but had forgotten that many countries don’t keep the hours the U.S. stores keep. We headed out at 6 pm, only to discover that the grocery stores were already closed for the day.

We were all probably eating too much because the prices of food in South Africa are so inexpensive compared to the U.S. Even resort restaurant food seemed like a bargain. We had also been treating ourselves to very nice South African wines.

Half of our group slept great that first night at Pinnacle Point, but the other half kept awakening hot and sticky. Our penthouse has views and beautiful floor-to-ceiling glass doors that can be fully opened to catch the breeze, but there’s no a/c. Even though it cools down nicely in the evening, it’s very humid. Some bodies just don’t adapt well to that kind of weather.

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Welcome to South Africa

Our family enjoys active vacations. So when planning our 2020 family trip, my task was to find a place we’ve never yet visited where we could hike, golf, climb, and enjoy some cultural and historical pursuits. Plus, we needed to go in February or March, but wanted to escape winter weather. I threw out a few different ideas, but everyone agreed unanimously on Cape Town, South Africa.

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Weather while heading to Atlanta

Flying to Cape Town requires a lot of travel time. The best flights we found for price and convenience were out of Atlanta, so we made the call to add the drive to Atlanta. Adding the drive, plus extra time in case of traffic, plus getting to the airport 3 hours ahead of a 15-hour flight to Johannesburg, 2 hour connection, then 2 hour flight to Cape Town, seemed like punishment. Thankfully, we have some long-time family friends in Atlanta we could visit. So we drove down the night before and had a bonus visit with wonderful friends.

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After the 15-hour flight, we had to pick up our luggage in Johannesburg to go through customs. Then we switched to the domestic terminal to fly to Cape Town. Right after we claimed our luggage and passed through customs, heading to re-check our bags in the domestic terminal, two men “materialized” in uniforms of sorts, pretty much insisting on leading us and trying to take some of the luggage to “help.” While we resisted allowing them to take any luggage, they still insisted on leading the way. As a kindness, we decided to tip them several dollars worth of rand. They got indignant and told us it wasn’t enough. They wanted 10 USD each. My kindness was quickly evaporating as disgust at their tactics took root. I was entering “don’t mess with me” mode as my husband handed over half of what they wanted and nicely said that was plenty. They had what they wanted and left. Telling them to leave us alone at the outset would have been best. Lesson learned.

While landing in Cape Town, the sun was setting and we were treated to a beautiful sunset over the city and mountains. It was a beautiful welcome, except that it meant we would have to drive out of the airport with only printed directions to try to get to our hotel, in the dark. A few things worked against us: signage was terrible, we had a 10-seat van with a left-handed stick shift while driving on the left side of the road, and taking one wrong turn near the airport meant entering extremely dangerous neighborhoods. We had been warned in advance to avoid any routes going into these neighborhoods, but told that if we did find ourselves in them, we should lock the doors, not stop at all, even at red lights if the coast was clear, and make no eye contact. We checked with the car rental agent to make sure our planned route avoided the dangerous areas and he confirmed it was perfectly safe. And it would have been if we hadn’t made a wrong turn. In addition to difficult signage, our windshield kept fogging over slightly, even with defrost running. So visibility was bad. We were tense, tired, hungry, and frustrated. Then we made the wrong turn and immediately found ourselves in a very, very bad place. Fear took over as the predominant emotion. We ran red lights, ignored hand signals and other gestures, and desperately searched for a sign to get back on any highway. By the grace of God, we made it back to a highway and somehow made our way back to the airport. Our plan (thanks to Hannah’s quick thinking), was to hire a taxi to lead us to the hotel. Brilliant. We found plenty of taxis at departures, had 2 of our group ride in the taxi, making sure he didn’t lose us, and had a much calmer and definitely safer drive to our hotel. Have you ever felt like angels were keeping you from really imminent danger? From not crashing to not getting attacked in a truly dangerous area, I am convinced every time I relive the whole scene that angels were surrounding us.

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Sketchy neighborhood we accidentally drove through
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“DANGER ZONE DO NOT STOP ON FREEWAY”

Finally, safe at the hotel, we were greeted by a different sort of angel. My sister had arrived in the early afternoon and took a taxi to the hotel to meet up with us there. What a blessing that was. By the time we finally made it to the hotel, the restaurant had closed (and we were very hungry). We had communicated our frustrations as we were trying to get to the hotel, so she ordered everyone burgers, fries, and drinks to go. Right after checking in, our order was ready to go and we all savored the food, toasted God and my sister, and laughed about our inauspicious start in South Africa.

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What makes a trip to Israel special?

I have not yet met anyone who has regretted visiting Israel. The fact is, it’s an amazing destination and it would be hard not to love touring there. However, although most tours list many of the same sites in their itineraries, each tour actually varies considerably.

Knowing the reason for your visit is critical to figuring out the best tour group. I just returned from a small group, custom-designed trip (my specialty) to Israel for 12 days. While there, my husband and I ate breakfast at one of our hotel buffets with several German travelers who happened to be Catholic. When we asked them what they had seen and done, they said, “Oh, you know, everything.” And then they proffered a list of churches. This demonstrated the vast differences in preferences groups or individuals can have when visiting. Some love to see the churches. Some love museums. Some want lots of free time. Some want full tours. Some want to do a lot of hiking and walking, whereas others prefer to make stops that only require a bit of walking. Some want a Jewish or historical focus; some want an orthodox focus, etc. etc. The list can go on.

Our small group wanted to focus on experiencing the land, culture, people, and history of Jesus as a Jew while integrating New Testament teachings at the sites we visited. We did a lot of sweating, but also a lot of learning, spiritual growth, and laughing together. We connected as a small group, even giving each other trail names for our hikes and walks. My daughter, Adri, and her husband, Josh, went on this trip, which was led by my husband (Reverend David Wachter).  Adri put together a little video with some of her highlights. She’s agreed to let me share that here. I hope you enjoy it! And if you’re ever seeking a trip to Israel that will fit your particular needs, please let me know!

The Inside Passage and Vancouver

Inside Passage

We had a full day of cruising through the Inside Passage as we left Ketchikan and returned to Vancouver. Steering a huge ship through this narrow passage must be daunting. Everyone onboard commented on not just the beauty surrounding us on all sides, but also on the proximity of so many treacherous outcroppings of rocks and winding bends. We lucked out again this day with mild and beautiful weather. Whether sitting on our balcony, enjoying a coffee in the Exploration’s Cafe at the front of the ship, having lunch along the back windows in the dining room, or walking around the promenade deck, our focus was constantly on the scenery. Natural, rugged beauty unfolded like a movie along the entire route.

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View from the front
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View off the rear

Vancouver

After 15 nights at sea, it was time to leave all our new acquaintances and friendly, hard-working crew. It never ceases to amaze me how hard most of these crews work and how pleasant they make the voyage. Although the Westerdam is not flashy and has a pretty subdued crowd, Hannah and I loved the experience. The main dining area provided truly quality meals. We only ate several times in the buffet, since that’s not as much to our taste, but the options were plentiful. I usually had a huge salad with all kinds of vegetables and nuts mixed into it, with a bit of sushi or roasted vegetables on the side. Hannah was still in Asian mode and opted for the Japanese or Chinese meals most of the time. By far our favorite part of the day was going to dinner and continuing our jokes and conversations with our same waiters each night.

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Cabin Steward’s towel animals

We debated taking the Sky Train, which conveniently runs from just outside the cruise terminal, to the airport. However, since Hannah was traveling with all her belongings from 2 years in China (less “stuff” than most of us could ever manage, but still enough to fill a few suitcases), and we had already lugged them around Tokyo, we decided having porters and a transfer directly from the ship would be so much more pleasant! It was also a nice option because as we drove through much of the city and its outer neighborhoods, our driver acted a bit as a guide and gave us interesting information while pointing out some sites of interest I hadn’t seen during my last several visits to Vancouver.  In the end, it was well worth about $30 pp.

Vancouver airport is really well done. I love that it’s a pre-clearance airport, so as Americans, we could clear customs at the front end of the trip and check our luggage straight through to our final destination.

This almost felt like three different trips: from the Asian flavor of Japan, to the laid-back 6-night cruising experience across the Pacific, to the Alaskan coast, we were treated to so many different types of foods, sights, tempos and styles of touring.  We’d do it again in a heartbeat! If you’d like me to help you find an experience like this, just reach out to me at noelle@insightsintravel.com!

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Ketchikan

After 2 somewhat isolated ports of call, I wasn’t sure how to feel about one that’s much more commercialized and sometimes filled to capacity with cruisers on shore. We were lucky. There were only 4 ships, including ours, visiting that day, and they were somewhat staggered. We were never overwhelmed with crowds. The ships dock right in town, so it’s a very accessible and easy-to-walk port town.

Hannah and I started our morning by heading out on foot away from the main town area. We took a left turn and followed our GPS to the University of Alaska’s campus bookstore, where there’s a trailhead for the well-known Rainbird Trail. We were actually approaching it from the opposite side that most people do. That portion is still pretty rugged and undeveloped, making it a little tricky at times to find the path. But we managed and loved the wildness of the Tongass rainforest in this section. As we progressed to the other half of the trail, it became much more maintained, with rocks and steps and a well-developed path. There were also more people, though we only passed fewer than a dozen in all, and 3 were locals.  The trail (when hiked in this direction) ends near the gorgeous library, a popular sanctuary for cruisers seeking good wi-fi for a few hours. From there, it’s just about half a mile into town, where we did the self-guided tour of the famous sites like the fish ladder, “married man’s trail,” Creek street, etc.

Starving after the hike and walk, we found an old restaurant called the New York Café for lunch. Originally established in 1903 by a Japanese-American couple as a café on Front Street, the café was moved south of Creek Street during the Roaring 20’s. The Shimizu family was no longer welcome in the northern side of town, which was now officially segregated, so they opened the New York Hotel and Café in 1925 with 18 tiny rooms and only 1 shared bath. During WWII, they were struck with another blow when the family was moved to an internment camp for Japanese-Americans. However, their neighbors continued to run the hotel, collecting the profits, and returned everything to the family upon their return. Although no longer run by the same family, we kind of wanted to eat there just for the history. Lunch was good and filling with common options for the area (fish and chips, burger and fries, salmon, and some salads and vegan meals).

There is no lack of shopping available in Ketchikan. Some of the prices are cheaper than we saw elsewhere and there seemed to be a few unique shops. We’re not shoppers, so we mostly just looked in passing.

Even with the tourist element of Ketchikan, it’s hard not to be charmed by Creek Street. It’s a quaint area and I think it deserves its reputation as a great place to visit. We were happy we weren’t there during a day filled with ships. I imagine it could get overwhelming at peak capacity, but even then, I’d want to at least walk through the town once. Then I’d get out to the trails or on an excursion!  Next time we’re there (thinking positively that there will be a next time!), Hannah and I hope to hike up the White Deer Trail. Friends on our ship who have done that one said it takes about 5 hours roundtrip and goes up to the top of the mountain with great views.

Icy Strait Point

After another full day at sea, we arrived in Icy Strait Point. This port is fully owned and run by the Hoonah community (specifically the Huna Totem Corporation made up of approximately 1,350 Alasakan Natives). It’s small and very easy to navigate, with great signage, beautiful buildings, and some wonderful walking areas along the bay.  The seafood restaurants looked wonderful, but they are pricey, and we had already spent over $300 for our UTV shore excursion. Prices in Alaska are high!

We strolled over to the cannery museum, which is part museum, part shopping area. The museum has some of the old machinery with old photos from when they were in use as well as descriptions and explanations, so a self-guided tour is easy to do. There’s also a guided tour available and the guide demonstrates one of the packing machines. Numerous gift stores line the old cannery floor, including shops selling anything from the usual souvenirs to some with locally made artwork, foods, prints, and crafts.

All excursions begin in the same building, just off the pier. There’s a convenient coffee shop right there, where we grabbed some lattes to go and took them out to sit on the benches that line the walkway overlooking the calm bay. We had a beautiful and mild day (60’s – very nice for early May). While looking out over the bay, we were able to watch a Humpback whale bubble-net fishing and some sea otters swimming around. That was a highlight! Pictures can’t do justice to the beauty and serenity of this bay.

Our UTV excursion started with a bus ride up the mountain a bit. This took us through the small town of Hoonah, where we learned about life there from our guide, a native Tlingit who grew up in the community. Throughout our bus ride and then during stops along the trail on our UTV’s, the guide regaled us with facts, stories, and myths. His wealth of information was the best part of the tour. Although the UTV’s were in great shape and it was fun to get out into the forest area, the driving is pretty tame. The forest area there is so thick, wet, and treacherous, I’m not sure if there could be an option for riding on the real forest ground. Many of us were shocked at the denseness of trees, moss, and other growth in this rainforest. Some areas are so thick with layers of water and natural forest debris that it’s like quick-sand. Our guide told us about entire tractors disappearing overnight because they sank.

Returning to the port, our bus stopped as our driver pointed out a coastal brown bear making its way across the road. Although there’s a huge concentration of coastal brown bears in the area, and some are beginning to venture into town, it’s still not all that common to see them casually crossing the road. We were all thrilled – and most were glad it was while we were on the bus and not the UTV’s!

Kodiak, Alaska

As much as we enjoyed our relaxed rhythm and pace on our days at sea, we were all pretty excited to get out on land and see some new sites. Hannah and I planned a hike. It sounded really easy from the directions online, but as another cruiser from San Jose discovered, it was a bit harder to navigate. We had to clear U.S. customs on the ship before disembarking, so we were a little late getting off. As we were walking on the road to the trail head, another cruiser approached us from the opposite direction. He had been seeking the same trail head and couldn’t find it. I used Google Maps to keep track of our location and that’s how we found the trail. It wasn’t marked anywhere and would have been really hard to find otherwise!  But we were successful and climbed to the top of Pillar Mountain Trail, making it a roundtrip by ending in town on the opposite side from where we climbed up. We had wonderful views in all directions, so we could really appreciate some of Kodiak’s beauty.

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There isn’t a lot in town. We did find a cute gift shop with a good selection, called Norman’s. Food was very pricey, but we were hungry after hiking 8 miles and were ready to sit down and relax! Cold wind was almost always present as well, and we were tired of being blown! We had a full and enjoyable day visiting this Alaskan island and a great appreciation for those who can live there year-round!