The Best & Worst of 2015

by Bob Sparrow

Where's waldoTwenty-fifteen was a RED BANNER year in terms of playing ‘Where’s Waldo’ and showing up in a lot of fun and interesting places. I’ve enjoyed having you readers come along vicariously, which has prompted many of you to ask, “Where are ‘we’ going next year?” As of this writing it seems I’ll be lucky to get to the end of my driveway to pick up the paper, so forgive me if I do a little reminiscing of the mostly Good, but sometimes the Bad and the Ugly of my 2015 travels.

1st Quarter

Good: Visit with Suzanne and Alan in Scottsdale where I had my Best Cigar of the Year, A Cuban, from Bob Gett, while overlooking Scottsdale sitting in his and Liz’s beautiful backyard after a delicious dinner.

Bad Idea: Using my National Geographic Expeditions to travel the world ‘through beer’; good at the time, bad the next day.

The Best Place to Live: Completing the ‘Southern California Trifecta’ – breakfast at a golf course in Palm Desert, lunch at a ski lodge in the San Bernardino Mountains and dinner at Duke’s in Huntington Beach.

2nd Quarter

Ladder

Ladder Canyon

HAVASUPAI

Havasupai

Great: My time with the ‘odd couple’, Patrick Michael and Marc Webb, on our hike through the unique terrain of ‘Ladder Canyon’ adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park.

Best time with my in-laws (No that’s not an oxymoron): Rochester, Minnesota celebrating Warren & Phyllis Barnes 70th Wedding Anniversary.

Biggest surprise: Hiking in the draught-stricken Grand Canyon in the Havasupai Indian Reservation with Rick & Chris Fisher and finding gushing waterfalls generated from flowing underground springs.

Bad and Sad: the overweight and unfriendly Indians at Havasupai.

Bad prediction: Saying LA would never have an NFL team; it looks like they could have up to three by next season. Good: Rams; Bad: Chargers; Ugly: Raiders

Nepal

Kathmandu, Nepal

Bad news: The earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal that destroyed thousands of homes, including Dom’s, our Himalayan guide; fortunately the family survived with no injuries.

3rd Quarter

Best time with the family: No question about it, our family gathering at Rocky Ridge at Lake Tahoe – great place, greater people!

Baltic Cruise . . .

Best photo: the photo I took of the ‘No Photos’ sign as I was trying to sneak into Russia at Passport Control in St. Petersburg

no photos

NO PHOTOS!!!

Best reunion: After 28 years, seeting Mira, our au pair for Dana, in Helsinki

Best & Worse: St. Petersburg – spectacular sights, depressing people

Great traveling companions: Jack & JJ Budd, John & Judy VanBoxmeer and John & Mary Billham and of course Linda

Ugly: The living conditions in Sachenhausen, the concentration camp outside of Berlin

4th Quarter

The Inca Trail

WW

Winaywayna, Peru

Good: Winaywayna – the mini Machu Picchu, without the crowds

Bad: Mosquito bites I’m still scratching

Ugly: Disneyland-like crowds at Machu Picchu.

As 100 year old, Frank Sinatra would have said, “It was a very good year.”

So while I’m working on some adventures for this year, I’m sure you’ll find lots of laughs from our politicians in this election year.

 

 

The Inca Trail – Day 4 Machu Picchu

by Bob Sparrow

stones 3We had an early wake-up at 5:00 a.m. At breakfast we could see other groups in camp heading down to the trail and turning left toward Machu Picchu, when we got to the trail, Humberto turned right. We looked at each other quizzically, as we knew he knew that Machu Picchu was the other way, but we also knew that Humberto wasn’t lost, so we followed. After a fairly short hike, we came to a clearing and to a placed called Winaywayna. I’ll come back to explain more.

G killer

Pat and me on the ‘Gringo Killer’

We turned around and headed for Machu Picchu, but just prior to getting there Humberto tells us to go ahead of him, that he wants us to experience this on our own. So we round the next bend in the trail and are confronted with what is known as ‘The Gringo Killer’. It is the trail, or more aptly a ladder, of granite stones going straight up that requires hand-over-hand climbing to scale them. About half way up we look back to see Humberto standing there with a big grin on his face.

Shortly after ‘The Gringo Killer’ we come to the Sun Gate, which is the unofficial entrance to Machu Picchu from the Inca Trail; we renamed it ‘Rain Gate’ since it had started to rain again. The Sun Gate is on a ridge above Machu Picchu and was built by the Incas in such a way that the sun would shine through a hole in the stone and onto Machu Picchu on December 21, their summer solstice that marks the half way point of their year.

sun gate

Sun (or Water) Gate

From the Sun Gate, for the first time, we see the vast expanse of Machu Picchu, the mountains that surround it and the incredible stonework that the Incas crafted. The many pictures of it that I’ve seen since booking this trip, and the many descriptions I’ve read, all pale in comparison to standing there and taking it all in. It is such an incredible work of architecture and art that it just boggles the mind to think about how it was all put together. I try to envision how it was back then, the movement and placement of the stones, the terracing of the steep mountain slopes for crop-growing, the creation of intricate irrigation systems for drinking, bathing and nurturing the crops. I try to envision the approximate 400 inhabitants going about their daily lives in this Andean paradise.

CRoWDS

‘Mucho’ Picchu

But it’s hard, when I look down and see hundreds of tourists milling around through the complex. Unfortunately we arrived on a Saturday and the place was shoulder-to-shoulder with people from all over the world, who had come early by train to see a sun rise over the Sun Gate on this rainy day. That’s not to say that it ruined our experience, it didn’t, it just colored it a little differently than we would have liked.

Back to Winaywayna – when we left camp and turned right, Humberto wanted us to experience something very special. As we came around the corner to Winaywayna (it means ‘forever young’), we all just stood there in awe and said, “Wow”. It is a complex similar to Machu Picchu, only much smaller – stone wall terraces, stone buildings, and irrigation systems that were still working, while several llama were grazing on the terraces. And on this beautiful mist-covered morning, we were the only ones there. The only ones there! We would appreciate that much more when when got to Machu Picchu.  We walked out on several terraces, examined the water features for irrigation and bathing and looked at the living quarters, all made of stone that will be there for centuries to come. The four of us talked about it later and concluded that being at Winaywayna that morning was on all of our ‘top 2-3 highlights’ of the trip. I can’t speak for the others, but for me it was somehow an incredibly spiritual experience.

WW

Winawayna

We spent about three hours touring through Machu Picchu as Humberto gave us vivid and detailed accounts of Incan life here during the 15th century. I mentioned earlier that your guide can make or break your trip – we were extremely lucky to have someone with the knowledge and wisdom of Humberto – he made our trip!

From Machu Picchu we take a train into the Sacred Valley where we meet our van that takes us to the Sol & Luna Hotel, where we have our first shower in four days – you can imagine that our van didn’t exactly smell like a bouquet of roses! We had dinner at the hotel and, exhausted from four exhilarating days in the Andes, we were all anxious to get into a real bed.

The next day we went into Cusco for our last day in Peru. As our van came through the hills over-looking Cusco, we were reminded of the ever-present poverty that exists in this country. Ironically the homes on the hillside that have spectacular views of the city and the Andes, are the most impoverished, as the higher up on the hill a home is, the colder and windier it gets, and thus less desirable.

We knew we were ready to come home when we spent our last afternoon in Cusco in Paddy’s IrishMP best Pub, having a beer and a cheeseburger while watching the 49ers beat the Ravens.

It was an incredible adventure; one I’m glad I didn’t wait too much longer to do.  Thank you to Patrick, Steven and Graydon for sharing this awesome, life-time experience and thanks to those of you who followed along vicariously; as you know, you’re the reason I do this crazy stuff.

The Inca Trail Hike – Days 2-3

by Bob Sparrow

Day 2

DWP

Dead Woman’s Pass

If I just had one word to describe the hike on Day 2 it would be, ‘hard’; if I had two words, it would be ‘very hard’, if I had more than that this blog wouldn’t be rated PG.  It is a ball-buster! It’s only about 6 miles, but it all up – very up. Patrick calculated that today’s hike is like climbing the stairs of a 30 story building . . . 10 times. We are on the trail at 7:30 and Humberto reminds us to take tiny steps to keep the heart rate down. He reminds us that there is no hurry to get to the next camp, that there is nothing to do once you get there anyway, so take our time.

The first section is 4 miles, all up, going from just under 10,000 feet elevation to just under 14,000 feet elevation at the summit at ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ – so called because the mountains at the summit resemble a woman lying down. No women have died there to my knowledge. While we are on the subject of women, we saw a lot of them on the trail, so I asked Humberto if there were typically more women than men on the trail. He said yes.  Did you hear that Dorie Riddle?

Without a doubt there is a certain amount of euphoria when you hit Dead Woman’s Pass, but it is short-lived as the next two hours will be spent pounding down the granite stone steps – not an exercise that is particularly good for my ‘vintage’ knees. After a ‘mere’ 6 miles, we make camp at 12,000 feet, and retire early to another evening of partial sleep.

Day 3

Misty summit

Heading into the ‘rain forest’

As we awake on Day 3, there is a certain amount of relief that we had survived Day 2, but Day 3 is no walk in the park; in fact today it is rainy and cold much of the day, so I guess you could call it a walk in the parka. The day starts with another up-hill climb that lasts about two hours and then levels, which in Incan means up and down. Rain, fog, clouds and mist greet us at the summit as we now entered a more ‘rain forest’ environment – complete with rain!  As miserable as the weather sounds, we all agreed that these conditions added an almost mystical aura to the trek.

When we stopped for lunch, it was cold and windy and the soup the cooks had prepared really tasted good. We actually had soup for almost every lunch and dinner and, I know we were always tired and hungry at mealtime, but the cooks did a great job of offering a good variety of food, which always included cocoa leaf tea – I think I’m hooked; I need to find a dealer in the U.S.!  We continued on until we stopped to make camp (OK, the porters had already gone ahead and made camp for us!) and had covered nearly 12 miles. Coupled with Day 2, it was two really challenging days of hiking – without much sleep.

Since this would be our last evening on the trail, we had a little farewell ceremony with the staff, where they presented us with a bottle of wine (our first alcohol in three days, although we did have the cocoa leaves going for us), and we presented them with their tips. We wanted to present the ‘rookie’ porter with a little higher tip, as he was the one who had to carry the ‘potty’ and the gas butane tank (a bad combination), but we were told that would just spoil him and he’d always want to do that. The cook also ‘baked’ us a cake – I don’t know how he did that out in the wilderness with no oven, but it tasted pretty good!

We were excited that we would finally get to see Machu Picchu in the morning and we were also very excited at the thought of taking a hot shower and sleeping in a real bed tomorrow night!

Next: The Inca Trail – Day 4 to Machu Picchu

 

 

Moray, Salt Mines and On to the Inca Trail

by Bob Sparrow

Humberto

Inca Trail guide, Humberto

After a good night’s sleep, we wake up Tuesday and meet our guide, Humberto, at our hotel. Your guide can make or break your trip – Humberto made it, in spades! He is 54 years old, head of the Inca Trail Guide Association and has made nearly 1100 trips (yes, 1100!) up the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu; we felt fairly confident that we weren’t going to get lost. Aside from his technical skills, he had an engaging personality, and easy smile and a great sense of humor; he fit right in to our group.

Moray

Moray

Today we drive out of the city to our first stop, Moray. It is best described as an Incan agricultural laboratory. From the picture it looks like it’s just a hole in the ground with some circles dug out of it. It is that, but the location is well chosen for it topography and rain fall and the circles are intricately scribed at precise levels creating various microclimates so that a variety of vegetables can be planted to see which ones thrive best under which condition. Ingenious!

Our next stop is the salt mines. On the way we are surprised to see prickly pear cactus and agave lining the road – very desert-like. Humberto tells us that the road to the salt mines is “lined with tequila” and with the salt from the mines, all we’d need is a lime and we’d have the start of a great margarita!

salt mines

Incan Salt Mines

The salt mines were originally created by the Incas and have been a source of salt and employment ever since. We were able to actually walk through the sections of salt and see how the natural salt water coming from inside the mountain collected and produced literally tons of salt each year.

We hiked about 5 miles down the hill to our van; I think it was Humberto’s way of giving us a little test run – we all did fine; it was mostly down hill and we were starting to get acclimated to the thin air. By late afternoon we were back at our hotel for a little rest before we went to dinner at a restaurant that Humberto had recommended.  We had a glass of wine to celebrate starting the hike in the morning and to the fact that we would not have anymore wine for the next four days!

The Inca Trail – Day 1

4 start

Me, Steven, Graydon & Patrick at the start of the hike

Our ‘team’ consists of the four hikers, Patrick Michael, who is not only a hiking buddy and a neighbor, but a good friend, who reignited my interest in hiking when we hiked Mt. Whitney several years back.  We have done numerous hikes together since then including Half Dome and the Himalayas. Steven Bernardy, who I just met while training for this hike, is a successful financial planner, who’s full of life and rarely at a loss for words – good hiking companion, as there is never a dull moment. Graydon Bernardy, Steven’s 22 year old son, is a recent graduate from the University of San Francisco and an intelligent and insightful young man; and me, AND our guide, Humberto, a cook, an assistant cook and 8 porters; so yes, a cast of 15 set out on Wednesday morning.

Meal tent

Meal tent

Today’s hike will be approximately 7-8 miles that are fairly level – actually there is no ‘level’ in the Andes – ‘fairly level’ just means not crazy up hill. Our porters and cooks take off a little after we do, but quickly pass us like we were standing still. We will see them about 3-4 hours later when they have set up our ‘meal tent’ and the ‘kitchen tent’, had lunch themselves, then cooked and served our lunch. Once we finish, we head out on the trail again, while they break down the tents, clean up the pot, pans, dishes, stove, pack them up and then we see them passing us on the trail again to set up for dinner. This is how it works for the whole trip, except when they get to the spot where we’re spending the night, they also sent up our sleeping tents and the ‘potty tent’. Patrick even saw a porter carrying a woman ‘piggyback’ up the trail – that’s above and beyond the call of duty! These guys are truly amazing athletes and just great people.

cocoa leaves

Cocoa leaves – illegal in the U.S.

Due to the barren topography, low clouds and mist, there is not a lot of great sights along the trail, but it’s just as well, with our heads down, our brains oxygen-deprived and our mouths full of cocoa leaves, we probably couldn’t see anything even if there was anything to see.  But the trail has history and it is a true hiking test. Oh, the cocoa leaves?  They are offered to us to chew on, put in our tea or do with as we wish, as they help the body remain strong under stressful hiking conditions. These are the same leaves from which cocaine is made, and are against the law to grow or import into the U.S. The reality is they’re really safe and I could hardly feel the affect of them, except that one time I saw a psychedelic llama dancing with a lavender alpaca.

tent

Our luxury suites

We cover about 7.5 miles before we reached our ‘home’ for the night, which is a two-man tent on the ground; our shower is a bowl of warm water and a paper towel and our bathroom is a small tent around a seat with a bag under it – not exactly the Ritz Carlton. Sleep, even after a long, hard day of hiking, comes begrudgingly if at all.

Next: The Inca Trail – Days 2-3

 

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – Floating Down to Peru

by Bob Sparrow

“Come fly with me, let’s float down to Peru

In Llama land there’s a one-man band, who will toot his flute for you”

llama2

———“Float this!”———-

 Frank Sinatra’s Come Fly With Me has been playing in my brain throughout my flight to ‘Llama land’. Frank may have ‘floated’ down to Peru, but I’d hardly describe a cramped airline seat in the back of the plane, on a full flight, with turbulence over the Andes on a ‘red eye’ then sitting in the Lima airport waiting for our connecting flight to Cusco, as ‘floating’. We didn’t see any one-man bands either, unless you count the guy sitting next to me on the plane who had beans for lunch. I’m thinking Frank traveled First Class. After 17 hours of travel and layover, our flight arrived in Cusco at 7:30 a.m. Monday morning.  Sleep-deprived, jet-lagged and disorientated, we half expect to get from the airport to our hotel on a flatbed truck filled with pigs and goats. We were wrong – the truck was filled with Llamas and chickens. Nah, just kidding, our Global Basecamp guide was there to greet us and rushed us off to Hotel Midori in the heart of Cusco for a much-needed rest.

cusco

Cusco

We’d all been watching the weather Cusco and Machu Picchu from home over the last 2-3 weeks and it showed nothing but rain nearly every day. I figured that could be a good thing, in that it’s getting the rain out of its system before we get there; or it could be a bad thing in that it was a signal of an early start to the rainy season. We are in luck, our first day is clear, mild and in the mid-70s.

The Midori, is strategically located in the center of town, so after a little rest, we head out on foot to explore the city. But wait; did we forget something? Yes . . . air!!! The first thing we all noticed was that we couldn’t breathe! After walking just a few feet on level ground, I was panting and puffing like a lizard on a hot rock. We were quickly reminded that Cusco is over 11,000 feet in elevation – the ‘two miles high city’! In spite of its rare air, we managed to make our way through much of this streets of cuscogreat city. A majority of the economy of this city is based on tourism and thus it is filled with many charming hotels, restaurants of every description, most serving local cuisine to include llama, guinea pig and a hundred varieties of potatoes. Being the jump off point for trips to Machu Picchu, there is also a lot of trekking outfitter stores and of course your requisite t-shirt shops and street vendors plying everything from alpaca sweaters to hand carved gourds. But the best part of Cusco is its people. As a group they are very friendly, hard working, nice looking and always seem to have smile on their face; they were sincerely a joy to be around.

We visited a number of museums and churches and saw some great examples of Inca stonework that, while the more ‘modern’ Spanish buildings crumbled to the ground during three major earthquakes in Cusco, the Inca foundations of mortar-less, tight fitting stone, survived them all with flying colors. This stonework is truly amazing; you couldn’t get a razor blade in the space between these giant stones and they did it all with fairly primitive tools, or with the help of ancient aliens. Amazing!

It was only a matter of time before we found what I’ve sought out in almost every city I’ve visited . . . Paddy'san Irish Pub. We stopped for lunch at Paddy’s Irish Pub, which claims to be the highest Irish Pub in the world at 11,156 feet. Even though we had to climb a flight of stairs to get there (which was no easy task!), we enjoyed a great lunch and a cold one before we continued our tour of the city.

We opted for an early dinner at a nice, second story restaurant which over looked the main town square, where a band and group of young school children were celebrating something – it was a beautiful, but short evening, as we had been going fairly strong for the last 30 hours, and we needed our rest and our bodies to acclimate to this rarified air if we expected to hike the Inca Trail in two days.  As a matter of fact, I’m getting winded just writing this, so time for a break.

Next: Outside of Cusco and Hitting the Trail

 

The Hike

by Bob Sparrow

Machu Picchu

—————-The ‘Lost City’—————–

It is the most famous hike in South America, perhaps the world; it is said to be life changing. Making the four-day trek on the Inca Trail through the Sacred Valley to the spectacular lost city of Machu Picchu is said to be the perfect travel combination of the excitement of the journey and the joy of the destination. It is an experience that is both arduous and awe-inspiring.

In two weeks our flight will take us from Los Angeles to Lima, Peru and then on to Cusco, located near the Urubamba Valley where the snow capped Andes Mountains gives way to the lush Amazon jungle. It’s also not far from Lake Titicaca, not that that’s important, I just wanted to get the word ‘Titicaca’ into the conversation.

The ‘us’ on this trip include, of course my hiking buddy and good friend, Patrick ‘Trail Boss’ Michael, newbie Steven ‘Yogi’ Bernardy, a friend of Patrick’s’ since childhood and Steven’s son, Graydon (No Nick Name Yet), a recent graduate of University of San Francisco, who is headed to Med School.

Ironically, we arrive in Peru on Columbus Day and since Columbus’ explorations led to the subsequent colonization of the New World and specifically to nefarious Spanish Conquistador Francisco Pizzaro and his three barbaric brothers’ conquering of the Incas, it is not a particularly joyous day in Peru. They celebrate Columbus Day in South America with the same enthusiasm the British celebrate the 4th of July in England.

Our first order of business upon arriving in Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire which sits at 11,000 feet in elevation, will be to ‘acclimate’ to the altitude; as our four-day hike will take us to nearly 14,000 feet. Below is a graphic that’s been haunting me ever since I saw it . . .

Inca_Trail_Elevation_Profile

–After seeing this, I started looking at bus schedules–

Our hike is scheduled as follows:

Day 1 is about 7.5 miles of slightly up-hill hiking, that evening we will sleep in a tent and have no shower facilities.

Dreaded Day 2, as you can see by the graphic, has a lot of ‘up’ in the 5.5 miles we cover going over ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ (more on that later) – it is by far our toughest day. We will try to keep in mind that getting there is half the fun! We sleep in a tent that night and have showers, but there is no hot water. I suspect we all may be a bit ‘gamey’ after two days of no hot showers.

Incatrail_in_Peru

–Mist Shrouded Inca Trail–

Day 3 is a little up and a lot of down, covering about 8.5 miles; our tent accommodations do have warm water showers after the hike – for a price.

Day 4 is only three fairly flat miles, but we’ll be getting up between 4:00 – 5:00 a.m. so that we can see the sun rise over Machu Picchu. The remainder of Day 4 will be spent exploring the lost city with our guide.  At the end of the day we will board a bus that will take us to the train station where we will head to the Sacred Valley. The Sacred Valley is a collection of small towns and archaeological sites that offers both a glimpse into daily Peruvian life as well as a full picture of the accomplishments and operation of the once-glorious Inca Empire.

After a night’s stay there we will head back to Cusco and try to find all the things we left there before we embarked on our hike. We will spend the night and then leave for home the following morning.

It shouldn’t surprise any of you to know that there are no cell towers, Wi-Fi or any other kind of connectivity along the Inca Trail, so this will be the last blog you’ll get from me until I’m back in some form of civilization. I promise to take notes with a pencil and pad (if I still remember how to use them) at the end of each day and get them into the blog when time and connectivity allow.

I know that some of our readers have been to Machu Picchu, so please let me know if there is anything I should make sure to see or anything I should make sure to avoid. Thank you!

THE “OTHER” WINE COUNTRY

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

The Beautiful Central Coast

The Beautiful Central Coast

Each year we spend some part of the summer in the Central Coast region of California.  It’s beautiful beaches, oak-studded hills and temperate climes make it the perfect place to escape the heat of Scottsdale in July and August.   Well, let’s face it, anyplace that has temperatures less than 105 is the perfect place.  But literally, the Central Coast has been designated as having the most consistent weather in. the U.S.  In the last dozen years it’s also become known for something else – wine!   The San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara county wine-makers are giving their northern brethren a run for their money.    They have a long way to go, but having grown up in Northern California, I can remember when Sonoma and Napa were best known for dairy farmers and ranchers.  The Gallos were the biggest wine makers back in the day, generating their huge bottles of Italian reds that were cheap even then.  Once the Mondavis and Beringers began cultivating serious wine grapes, well, the rest is history.

On the Central Coast our ventures out to the wine trail usually take us to the vineyards of Santa Barbara County for reasons that will become evident later.  The first recorded wine-maker in the area was none other than Junipero Serra, who planted the first vines back in 1872.  I must say, between founding missions and exploring the El Camino Real, Father Serra was a pretty busy guy.  In any event, over the following 100 years the area gained  sixteen more vintners and grew to over 260 acres of grapes.

Sadly, during the Depression the Prohibition buzzkills burned many of these historic vineyard sites and mostly put an end to winemaking in the Central Coast.  Fortunately,there are always those that find their way around any ridiculous law so the passion for wine making was carried on by a group of scofflaws.  From that small seed, or vine as the case may be, grew the abundant grape-growing region that exists today.  In large part, the recent popularity of Santa Barbara County wineries can be attributed to the wonderful little movie, “Sideways” which was filmed in and around several of the local venues.  The popularity of the movie turned out to be a boon for tourism and local wine, especially the Pinot noir that the region is famous for.  (For those of you who have seen the movie I can attest that it is possible to get a bottle of Merlot here too!).

Fess, in his Davy Crockett days

Fess, in his Davy Crockett days

So why do we frequent the Santa Barbara County wineries? Because our brother, Jack Sparrow, works for the Fess Parker Winery.  Lucky?  You bet!  But we have a long history in our family of having fun retirement jobs.  When our dad quit his day job he worked at Sonoma National and then his local golf course as a starter until he was in his early 80’s.  Our mom, who was rivaled only by the Queen of England in her love for jewelry, retired from the local school district and worked at a jewelry store until she was 90.  Brother Bob helps people, which is his passion, in both volunteer and part-time jobs, and as a life-long fiber enthusiast, I have been lucky enough to work part-time in a knitting shop for 13 years.  But it is brother Jack who really lucked out.  He spent most of his career in the restaurant business, even owning his own place in Tahoe for a few years.  So he knows his way around food and wine (as opposed to the rest of the family that just consumes lots of both).

Jack, displaying his wares

Jack, displaying his wares

Ten years ago when Jack and his wife Sharon moved to the Central Coast Jack went in search of a fun retirement job.  He was hired at Fess Parker Winery and soon met “the man” himself.  For those of a certain age, we remember him best for his portrayal of Davey Crockett.   Jack spent many hours with Fess, hearing about his days in Hollywood and with Disney.  But it was Fess’ love of wine-making that captured Jack’s attention.  He absorbed all that he could until Fess died in 2010.  Now, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday you can find Jack behind the bar in the tasting room, regaling customers with stories about Fess, the winery and the wines.  Jack’s great oratory skills (we have another name for that in the family) are evident in the rapt attention that his audience gives him. Seriously, although I’m the one working in a knit shop, it is Jack that spins a good yarn.  My husband says that the most fun he has is sitting quietly in a corner of the tasting room, watching Jack work his magic.  It is no coincidence that he has been the top seller of wine club memberships for several years running.

The Fess Parker Winery

The Fess Parker Winery

By the time you read this we will be home inspecting our remodeling project and, thus, drinking lots of wine.  If your travels take you to California I highly recommend a stop in the Central Coast.   Just one warning:  if you go to the Fess Parker winery when Jack is working, reconcile yourself to walking out of there a wine club member!

 

 

 

 

 

Baltic Cruizin’ – Epilogue and ‘Don’t & Dos’ of a Baltic Cruise

by Bob Sparrow

Home at last after 13 fun-filled days – OK, maybe only 11 were fun-filled; the getting there and coming home weren’t that filled with fun. But the fun included traveling with three most enjoyable couples (Billhams, Budds and VanBoxmeers),

Mary

John & Mary at Peterhof, Russia

 

Jack & JJ

Jack & JJ in Tallinn, Estonia

Judy

John & Judy in Copenhagen

visiting six very interesting and diverse countries, ‘sneaking’ into Russia, cruising on a great ship with so many restaurants that we couldn’t get to them all, imbibing on the ‘Unlimited Drink Package’ and of course, meeting up with our former Finish au pair, Mira in Helsinki.

no photos

Photo of the ‘No Photos’ sign at Russian customs

We enjoyed such a variety of experiences, from our two pre-cruise days in Copenhagen, to the sobering experience of visiting a concentration camp in Germany, to the antiquity of Tallinn, Estonia, to the historical grandeur of St. Petersburg and the pristine waterfront cities of Helsinki and Stockholm.

But if you’re planning a Baltic cruise in the near future, I’ve asked my travel mates to help me put together a list of ‘Don’t and Dos’ to help make your trip more enjoyable. Here you go . . .

 

Don’t:   Bring your workout clothes

Do:      Buy and bring clothes a couple of sizes larger; you’re going to gain weight

cannon

Me getting an up-close look at a cannon in Finland

Don’t:   Go to the public WC (Water Closet)(bathroom) in Estonia  – it cost me 2 Euros          Do:        Go in Stockholm, it’s free (if you can hold it that long)

Don’t:   Expect the Russians to understand anything you say

Do:      Understand that they started learning English in the first grade; they just don’t want to give you the satisfaction of knowing that they learned our language. Yes, the old Cold War is heating up.

Don’t:   Fret over what you should drink next or what it will cost

Do:      Get the ‘Unlimited Drink Package’ and try everything

Don’t:   Get Tatiana, the Alla Tour guide, for St. Petersburg, she walks and talks too fast

Do:      Get Slava, who took our friends the Houstons and Despies to the top vodka bars in St. Petersburg

Don’t:   Be an ugly American

Do:      When you’re going to do something rude or stupid, say your ‘outs’ and ‘abouts’ funny and tell them you’re from Canada

Mira Dana

Mira and Dana circa 1985

Finally, a couple of THANK YOUS . . .

Thanks to Suzanne for editing and putting photos in my blogs. Because she was in Nipomo and away from her computer, she had to use her iPad to laboriously insert photos into my blogs; I thus limited the blogs to one picture, which is why I’ve included some more here.

Thanks to Louise at Alla Tours, who, when I was apoplectic about getting my passport Russian-ready, made multiple calls and ultimately assured me that I was good to go.

I really love to travel AND I really love getting home, albeit with a pocket full of change in rubles, krona and Euros. Oh well, great ball markers for golf.

Hope you enjoyed the trip.

 

 

 

Baltic Cruizin’ – Day 9 Beautiful Stockholm

by Bob Sparrow

The Islands of Stockholm

The Islands of Stockholm

I must have gone to bed too early the night before, or perhaps fell into bed in a drunken stupor, but I woke up alert as can be at 5:00 a.m., stepped out onto my balcony and saw the narrow channel we were passing through on our way into the harbor of Stockholm. Over the public address system, our captain was telling us that Sweden is made up of some 30,000 islands. The homes on these islands were beautiful and the grounds meticulously manicured. We were told that many of the homes on these islands are ‘summer cottages’ for the wealthy of Sweden.

Once we arrived in the port of Stockholm, we found, as you might suspect in a country with so many islands, there is not only a ‘Hop On Hop Off’ bus, but a ‘Hop On and Hop Off’ boat as well. We chose the boat. Once on board our driver tells us the name of the boat is ‘Take A Chance On Me’; not exactly a name that instilled a lot of confidence in the driver’s ability to navigate the busy port of Stockholm, until we learned that all the boats in this line were named after ABBA songs. The singing group, ABBA is still big in Sweden, very big. In fact, there is an entire museum dedicated to them. To me, it would be akin to having a museum in the U.S. dedicated entirely to the Monkees.

Our first stop for our water shuttle was the Vasa Museum. Vasa was a ship built in 1628 at the request of the Swedish king, slated to be the most powerfully armed vessel in the world. Unfortunately it was built too high and too narrow, with not enough rocks in the hull for the proper ballast and the ship sunk on its maiden voyage before it ever got out of the harbor! It remained at the bottom of the harbor for hundreds of years, until a crew in the late 1950s was able to salvage the hull. Over the next decade, 98% of the ship and all that it carried, was salvaged and restored and put on display in the Vasa Museum. The museum would seem to be more a tribute to the Swedish salvaging abilities than their ship building expertise.

We were back on the water shuttle and headed for our next stop, ‘Old Town’. Unfortunately, because Stockholm was our last stop, and thus the last of five ‘old towns’ we’d seen in a week, we were suffering from a bit of ‘oldtownitis’. But nevertheless we strolled along the cobbled streets, popping in shops and ultimately stopping for lunch. Stockholm was our shortest shore stay, so after hitting the stops along the water shuttle route, we were back on the boat for a late-afternoon departure.

The journey out of the harbor lasted over four hours as we weaved (as much as a large cruise ship can weave) in and out of the many islands on our way back out. We sat on the Budd’s luxury suite deck in the late afternoon sun sipping wine and watching the islands go by. Beautiful scenery. We had one more day on board and it was all at sea as we crossed the Baltic on our journey back to Copenhagen.

 

Next: Epilogue and Don’t and Dos of a Baltic Cruise

 

Baltic Cruizin’ – Day 8 A Reunion in Helsinki

by Bob Sparrow

Typically any place after St. Petersburg would be a let down, and the people who we’d talk to who had been to Helsinki said there really wasn’t a lot to do at this stop. But we had a special reunion planned.

A wonderful visit with Mira

A wonderful visit with Mira

When our daughter, Dana was not quite two years old, we had a live-in au pair (babysitter) from Finland, named Mira, who was about 20 at the time and attending near-by Chapman College. When I wrote my blog about Dana’s open-heart surgery two years ago, Mira, who had returned to Finland, read it on Facebook and re-connected with us. After we had booked this cruise, we wrote to her and told her we would be in Helsinki this summer and would love to see her. She responded in kind and set up a meeting for the afternoon we were in port. We disembarked in Helsinki and first took a water ferry to see the island fortress of Suomenlinna and toured there for about two hours. We then came back to Market Square in the town center to meet up with Mira.

She arrived with a big smile on her face and was simply delightful. She brought a couple of pictures of Dana and her from when she was with us in 1984. We spent the afternoon just catching up on what we had each been doing for the last 30 years!   She is doing well and lives in a very nice area just blocks from Market Square in mid-town Helsinki with her daughter Nova, who is 14. Nova’s father and Mira separated years ago. Mira had been a professional photographer, but is now working for an ‘electric company’ and is an avid tennis player. Regarding her social life, she said that after living 15 years in the U.S. then returning home, that she found Finnish men a bit wimpy compared to American men, so is not in a serious relationship.

After lunch she walked us through the Esplanade (the main street of Helsinki) and told us about her life in Helsinki and we up-dated her on our family. We stopped by the open market and she said she wanted to buy something for Dana. Linda picked out a Helsinki necklace piece that she really liked and Mira bought one for Dana and one for Linda. She took a cab with us back to the ship and we had a tearful goodbye. It made our trip to Helsinki very special. She promised to come and visit us with her daughter, but said she wants to wait until her daughter, who is an aspiring model, is 18.  Mira said that when Nova sees California, she will probably want to stay!

Next: Day 9   Stockholm