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 Canyon



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


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


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


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.



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),


John & Mary at Peterhof, Russia


Jack & JJ

Jack & JJ in Tallinn, Estonia


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


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 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



Barnstorming the Baltic


Suzanne ‘into’ her chocolate cake

(Editor’s Aside: Suzanne & Alan, Jack & Sharon and Linda and I were all on the ‘Central Coast’ last weekend. California’s Central Coast is known for producing a lot of wine, and last weekend we were known for drinking much of it. The occasion? Suzanne’s birthday! I’ll let her tell you which one, although I can tell you that the old Beatle lyric, ‘Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?’ has become moot. But I’m here to say, she hasn’t lost a step, although after last weekend there may be a few brain cells missing.)

by Bob Sparrow

Norwegian Cruise Line Star

Norwegian Cruise Line  – Star

After being released from the Betty Ford detox program after Tahoe and sweeping out my underwear, it was time to ready myself for another ‘road trip’. This time the ‘road’ is a bit salty, or at least brackish – the Baltic Sea, more accurately the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea.  No, I won’t be hiking it, but rather enjoying the trip from the deck of the Norwegian Cruise Line ship, the Star. Linda and I have never been to any of these destinations, so we’re looking forward to checking off these countries from our ‘Visit Every Country in the World’ list. Just kidding about the list – it doesn’t include Iraq, North Korea or Syria.

Our travel companions for this excursion include Jack & JJ Budd (previous travel companions to Ireland, South Africa and Charleston/Savannah), John & Judy VanBoxmeer (Ireland and Charleston/Savannah) and new additions from Canada, John’s sister Mary and her husband, John. I guess it’s always good to have two Johns on board. Come to think of it I guess we actually have three Johns, since Jack’s name is really John. Can you ever really have too many Johns? I’ll let you know in about three weeks!



We will all meet up in Copenhagen; some will get there via ‘1st Class’, some via ‘Business Class’ and then there’s Linda and me, in . . . ‘No Class’. On the leg from Chicago to Brussels I believe we have to serve coffee, make one trash pick up and prior to landing, remind passengers to return their tray tables to their fully upright and locked position; but those chores will give us some relief from our two middle seats in the rear that don’t recline.

Once in Copenhagen, we will have a couple of days to see that fair city, which we will do in part on Segways, a vehicle that the group practiced on recently in Newport Beach – the injuries should be fully healed by the time we get there. We also plan on sampling and rating ‘Beers of the Baltic’, ideally not while we’re still riding the Segways. We’ll start with some of Denmark’s most popular beers, Carlsberg and Tuborg, but we hope to get into some of their more interesting beers such as their top-rated, Mikkeller Beer Geek Brunch Weasel; say that three times fast . . . after you’ve had a few.

Baltic Ports-of-Call

Baltic Ports-of-Call

After departing Copenhagen, our first port-of-call is in Warnemunde, Germany, where we will take a train to a Concentration Camp in Berlin, which is not known for serving beer, but somewhere along the way we’d like to try Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, a beer that is said to have a smoky flavor that tastes like beef jerky or leather – yeah, that’s what I looking for, a beer I can get my teeth into. Next stop is Estonia’s capitol, Tallinn, a city and country that has had a long history of German and Soviet domination. Then it’s time to move on to the happier countries. Oops! Our next port is St. Petersburg, Russia, that is if Mr. Putin has not annexed anything before then or declared war on someone. If we mysteriously disappear on this trip, this would be the first place I’d look for us.

Our final two ports are the Scandinavian cities of Helsinki and Stockholm, before we return to Copenhagen, where we will undoubtably spend time trying to find all the items we left there the previous week.

I know our ship will have ‘connectivity’, but the frequency of my blog submissions may be determined by just how much they’ll be charging me to use their precious cyber space. I’m sure I’ll figure out a way to ‘bring you along’ on this adventure. We look forward to you joining us.