Croatia, Slovenia, Venice & Home

by Bob Sparrow

“Those who seek paradise on earth should come to Dubrovnik and find it”      George Bernard Shaw

Dubrovnik from the top of the cable car

I read the above quote with some skepticism – could this ancient city really be more like paradise than say, Bakersfield? But after being totally amazed by Montenegro, I was open to believe anything about this scenic Dalmatian Coast. I became a believer – Dubrovnik is beautiful. We had a tour guide here, but it was not a private tour (as we had become accustom to), rather there were about 18 of us in a ‘Cable Car/Walking Tour’ of the city. It was actually a fairly good walk just to get to the bottom of the cable car, but we managed to get ourselves into a gondola and up to the top of the mountain. The view was spectacular, as we took in the entire walled city of Dubrovnik as well as miles of beautiful coastline both north and south. We took the requisite photos, visited the gift shop and headed back down for a guided tour through the walled city.  After visiting a number of historical sites, we were left on our own to either ‘walk the wall’ or not.  As a group we decided that it was too hot and the wall provided no shade, so each couple went their own way.  The Wall kept calling me – it is the second longest wall in the world (behind China’s), so I decided that I wanted to at least walk a little part of the wall.  I paid 8 Euros and took the steep stairs to the top of the wall.  I decided I’d just walk out to the the part of the wall that was on the coast.  It was spectacular!  I continued around and by the time I was half way around I figured I’d complete the circuit around the entire city.  It was 3.4 miles, which felt like 13.4 on this hot, humid day, but I’m glad I did it . . . although I’m not sure why.  It’s hard to believe that this country just had its ‘War of Independence’ with Serbia in the 90s, yes the 1990s!

Game of Thrones King’s Cove

And yes, this is the location for much of the filming of Game of Thrones.

Dubrovnik, Split and Koper, Slovenia are only a few hours drive apart, but our ship took all night to get between them – I think we took a wrong turn.  In Split we took a golf cart tour of the city and surroundings, finding it to be a hip city with great beaches.  Koper, Slovenia, the home of our first lady, is another smaller, ancient city with old buildings that, at this point, we probably had our fill.

Our next and final stop on the cruise was due west across the Adriatic Sea to Venice.  We had arranged another walking tour of the city, where we had a very knowledgeable guide describing the many aspects of the city as we wound our way through the narrow cobblestone sidewalks.  The tour ended with a gondola ride and afterwards we found a great restaurant and enjoy a true Italian lunch of some of the best pasta we’d ever tasted along with a nice glass of Chianti.

Smile String Quartet

Meanwhile back on the ship: The best entertainment on board , in my opinion, was a group called Smile String Quarteta group of attractive Ukraine women who played violin, viola and cello.

Our travels home provided the longest 4th of July I’ve ever experienced.  We disembarked in Venice at 8:00 a.m. on July 4th and got to LAX at 8:00 p.m. – on paper it looks like 12 hours, but add the time change and it was a 21 hour trip home.  We were surprised that everyone here seemed very excited to see us – we were greeted with a fireworks welcome.

As those who read our blog know, I love travel; seeing new places and understanding how different people live is always interesting and educational, but I have to admit that one of the great aspects of travel for me is gaining an appreciation for our own country – it is always great to get home.

Thanks to Jack & JJ Budd and Chuck & Linda Sager for being great travel companions and making the trip that much more fun.  Thank you to wife, Linda who mostly puts up with my antics.  And thank YOU for coming along, especially thanks to those who made comments to let me know I didn’t leave you behind.

Get rested up as we have another trip planned with another group at the end of the summer – hope you can join us.

 

Malta, Greece & Ohhhh Montenegro

by Bob Sparrow

Malta

Malta – looks interesting . . . it’s not!

Malta’s history dates back to around 5900 B.C. – don’t worry we’re not going to start there. Because of its location, in the middle of the Mediterranean, it was a strategic island to have control of and was thus taken over in turn by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Aragoneze, French and British. During World War II the Germans wanted to add their name to the list, but despite the Luftwaffe leveling some of the oldest buildings in the world, they were turned back by Allied forces and now Malta remains as an independent country.

In Malta – just shoot me!

I think the day our ship arrived in Malta’s port city of Valletta, all of the above-mentioned nationalities were represented there, plus tourists from four cruise ships – it was wall-to-wall in this walled city. So a 10-minute walk to the ‘lift’ that took us up the walled city’s façade and a walk down the crowded main street filled with tee shirt and trinket shops was all the Malta we wanted to see. I’ll admit that I felt a bit like a shallow tourist, not really appreciating the history or the present culture of this historic country, but it was crowded and hot. I didn’t even stop to have a local beer!

Katakolon, Greece

Katakolon – yes, that’s it – really!

If you were looking to visit a Greek island and have imagined those stark white building stacked along a pristine coastline over azure waters; or if you were looking to stroll amongst the antiquities of ancient Greece’s structures like the Acropolis or Parthenon, don’t go to Katakolon. Its claim to fame is that it was the location of the very first Olympic games. We did not take the 30-minute drive to the original Olympic site, as we assumed most of the athletes had already gone back home. We did wander the main street of town (there was only one), which was about three short blocks long, and were subjected to old Greek men sitting outside their store like carnival barkers, trying to get us to walk in and buy something. The tour of the town was quick and uneventful, but Jack and I did stay long enough to enjoyed a famous Greek Gyro sandwich and a Mythos beer at a beachside café, which was quite good.  But I’m not checking Greece off my bucket list based on this visit.

A Day at Seas

Here’s what I discovered during our ‘Day at Sea’

  • The Budds and Chuck and I nearly flunked out of our ‘Pasta Cooking Class’

    JJ, Jack, Chuck & I just before we got thrown out

  • I couldn’t concentrate during the Zen ‘doodle art’ class
  • Two-piece bathing suits are not necessarily worn by thin, young women
  • After five days on board, I still had difficulty finding the way back to my room
  • Bingo is boring

Kotor, Montenegro

OK, this is more like it! Just getting to the historic, old city of Kotor was spectacular, as it requires the ship to traverse 17 miles of magnificent bay with high mountains on each side creating the ‘Montenegro fjords’. We docked and were greeted by our guide, Rajan (pronounced Ryan).  We wondered, Is he another Alfonzo or another Cammie? The big smile and warm welcome assuaged our fears immediately. We discovered that one of the keys to being a really good guide is to have been born and raised in the area you are guiding in – Rajan was. He was not only personable with a good sense of humor, but could speak intelligently on any subjects, from the politics of the country to cheese varieties in the farmer’s market.

Above Kotor with our ship behind us in port

Our tour had two parts, first a stroll through the fairly small walled city where Rajan pointed out some of the more interesting/historical sites, as he knew our ship was going to be in port until 11:00 p.m. and thus we had time later to explore the city on our own. The second part of the tour was a visit to the olive-producing region of the country, which was about a 45 minute drive from the port. We hopped in our van and headed up the mountains surrounding Kotor’s cove, providing us some amazing views.

When we arrived at the olive orchard, the owner, whose family had owned the business for over six generations, greeted us with a smile and brought us inside an old olive press room and served us a lunch of cheese, prosciutto, tomatoes, bread and, of course, olive oil, but first, a shot of brandy.  Yes, it’s a custom here and we certainly didn’t want to piss off the locals. We learned all about olive growing, pressing and tasting – we now know what ‘Extra Virgin Olive Oil’ means – to my surprise virgins have nothing to do with it!

We returned to Kotor for a stroll through the city as the lights came up allowing this city to show off yet another side of its beauty. Great city + great guide = great experience!

 Travel tip: Skip Malta and Katakolo and go directly from Sicily to Montenegro . . . and don’t play bingo!

Meanwhile back at the ship: A group of about 100 plastic surgeons were having a conference on this cruise and they brought along their ‘significant others’. Since the significant others looked significantly younger than the surgeons, we played a game trying to figure out if the doctors had performed surgery on their wives or just brought their secretaries to the conference.

 

Southern Italy & Sicily

by Bob Sparrow

(Editor’s note: Beautiful photos would not up-load due to limited bandwidth on board, so just use your imagination)

Positano and Pompeii

We anchored off the city of Sorrento and took a tender to shore where we were met by our guide for the day, affable Alfonzo Sorrentino. From that first smile we knew our day was going to be fun – the guide so makes or breaks the tour and he made it in spades! We hiked the steep road away from the dock to our private, 8-passenger van and wound our way through the town of Sorrento heading for picturesque Positano, which literally hangs off the cliffs on the shores of the Mediterranean. We walked the winding path down to the beach that passed by store after store – it was such an exhausting trip that we had to have a beer when we got to the bottom even though it was only 10:00 a.m. Back in the van, Alfonzo had selected a special stop for us at a ‘lemon factory’, where they made everything lemon, from lemon candy to Italy’s famous liqueur, limoncello. Alfonzo gave me a piece of the lemon rind and told me to eat it – surprisingly it was very sweet! We were then taken to a winery at the foothills of Mt. Vesuvius were we had lunch at the winery restaurant, Cantina Del Vesuvio, which was set in the middle of the vineyard – and what a lunch! First bread and olive oil, then bruschetta, then spaghetti with red sauce and then a lemon cake desert, all while tasting 5 different wine selections.  I think all those things were on my diet.

Due to a landslide next to a tunnel on our way to Pompeii, we got stuck in traffic, which caused about an hour delay in our schedule, but Alfonzo knew we were from southern California, so I’m sure he went that way just trying to make us feel at home. Once at Pompeii we hired a guide who promised to show us the whole place in an hour; which she did! I had no idea how big this city was or how many prostitutes worked there . . . not now, but back in the day prior to Mt. Vesuvius burying the city, along with the prostitutes, in ash and pumice in 79 AD. On our way back to Sorrento, Alfonzo asks if we like Frank Sinatra, we asured him we did, so he turned on his music and we all sang along.  We come to find out that Alfonzo’s other job is as an entertainer, where he sings and plays piano in a night club.  So all the way back to the ship he got us all singing Sinatra and Buble songs. A great time provided by a great guide

Catania, Sicily

With that great experience behind us, we were looking forward to our next day’s tour on the island of Sicily – The Godfather Tour.  But we found out that ife has a way of balancing out things, thus our amazing experience with Alfonzo was balanced out by our not so amazing experience with our next guide, Cammie, a young French woman who told us that she normally worked on her computer in the office of Viatour, but was now being asked to lead our tour. We were open to giving her chance, but her low voice with a bad French/English accent couldn’t be heard over the sound of the air conditioning fan, which the van driver, seemingly another neophyte, couldn’t figure out how to control. When she was talking at all, Cammie was basically reading something about the Godfather on her phone and then passing that information along to us. Otherwise it was a ride in the van with long periods of awkward silence followed by more long period of awkward silence. We walked around the beautiful setting in the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean in the town of Slovoca where they filmed the movie The Godfather, had lunch in the town of Toarmia and then she made us an offer we couldn’t refuse when she asked if we wanted to go back to the ship early. 

Travel tip: if you want to revisit The Godfather . . . rent the movie.

Meanwhile back on the boat: We enjoyed the fantastic music of the Smile String Quartet, four beautiful Ukrainian women, who were amazing musicians!

 

Finding La Dolce Vita

by Bob Sparrow

A great lunch in the town square in Santa Marinella, Italy

Whoever said getting there is half the fun was on drugs . . . really good drugs. We left the house at 5:15 a.m. Thursday morning and arrived in Italy early Friday morning, around 7:00 a.m; scientifically speaking, Friday was the longest day of the year (the vernal equinox) and this year we had small airplane seats, a crying baby and an uneatable meal that I describe as ‘faux fowl’ to lengthen the already longest day. All this while you sat in the comfort of your home over the weekend sipping Mai Tais and channel surfing from your couch. Hey, I’m not complaining, I signed up for this, but just wanted to let you know what I go through to make sure you’ll have a good time.

We were met by our driver at the airport and traveled about 45 minutes up the road to the Hotel Villa Delle Palme, which was featured in the film, Las Dolce Vita. We spent two nights in the hotel that sits on the Mediterranean coast in the town of Santa Marinella. One afternoon we took the train into the port of Civitavecchia just to walk around and get our first taste of Gelato – no one does ice cream like Italy! We returned to enjoy a dinner at a top-ranked restaurant in our hotel. The next day we had a beautiful lunch in the quaint town square, mostly enjoying the people, who were smiling and accommodating, particularly the owner of the restaurant, who regaled us with stories we could hardly understand, but she told them with such enthusiasm that she had us all laughing as we dipped our French bread in their amazing olive oil and sipped our Chianti.

Villa Delle Palme Hotel

By noon the next day (Sunday) we were boarding the Riviera; it is magnificent. We made sure we got in line to sign up for the upgraded drink package (Just letting you know we’ve got our priorities straight).  We thought maybe we’d been black balled as word may have been passed around in the cruise industry that the ship will lose money on us before they hit their first port.  Our first meal is at Red Ginger, an amazing Asian restaurant – the sea bass is out of this world. After dinner we head to a magic show that, quite honestly, was very amateurish, but the drink package made it forgettable.

I’ll check in on Thursday of this week and keep you updated on where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. Yes, it’s a short one this time, but I’m still trying to figure out what day it is and where I am.

Hang in there, it will get better . . . or not.

 

Cruisin’ Around Italy

by Bob Sparrow

Oceania’s Riviera

I’ll be leaving this week to cavort, literally around Italy on Oceania Cruise Line’s Riviera, along with Chuck & Linda Sager, Jack & JJ Budd and wife, Linda . . . and of course you guys, vicariously. We’ll be flying into Rome (You won’t have to endure that part!) a couple of days early and staying at the Hotel Villa Delle Palme which overlooks the Mediterranean and is just a few miles from our port of debarkation, Civitavecchia, where we will start our 11-day cruise.

Before I tell you the ports of call you’ll be visiting, let me give you a short description of our ‘boat’, the Riviera. It has 16 decks with a guest capacity of 1,250, served by a staff of 800. It is elegantly fashioned with interior architecture that features a spectacular spiral staircase (Don’t worry, you can take the elevator).  One of the ship’s specialties is food, and boy do they specialize! Aside from the Grand Dining Room, we will be eating at the Bistro and Jacques, both featuring quintessential French dishes, the Polo Grill, a classic steakhouse, Toscana, featuring traditional Italian cuisine and the popular Red Ginger, featuring contemporary interpretations of Asian classics. These are in addition to the numerous Cafes and Grills spread throughout the ship. Additionally we will be taking a couple of cooking classes offered on board, so I hope you’re hungry. Wow, I just gained four pounds writing about the food! And of course, we’ll be participating in some sort of drink package, so we’ll be needing a whole new wardrobe when we roll home.

Italy’s beautiful Amalfi Coast

The ship’s first stop is just a short jaunt down the coast to Sorrento on the magnificent Amalfi coast, where we will be taking a side trip to Pompeii, the city that was buried under more than 15 feet of volcanic ash and pumice from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD – it’s certainly taken a while to clean up, I guess the city workers have been on strike for a while. It’s just another short voyage to Catania, Sicily, where there has been recent activity of another volcano, Mt. Etna, we’ll try to avoid the falling pumice. It’s then another short trip to the island of Malta, known for . . . being a small island south of Italy. Not sure what kind of trouble we can find there, but we’ll find some I’m sure. We then motor over to Katakolon, Greece, where they held the very first Olympic Games, we don’t have tickets! We will then have a day at sea, where I’m sure I’ll spend most of my time in the gym or doing laps in the pool . . . OK, maybe I’ll just be sitting by the pool lapping up a cold one.

Bay of Kotor

We will then be heading up the Adriatic Sea with our first stop being Kotor, Montenegro, a picturesque city tucked behind a series of fjords. Like many of the cities we have seen and will be seeing, it is filled with lots of ancient cathedrals and other old stuff.  We will continue up the Adriatic to the country of Croatia, where we’ll visit Dubrovnik and Split, then to Koper, Slovenia and finally into Venice, where we will have two days to check out the canals, St. Mark’s Square and the millions of tourists.

Then, you of course will be spared the long and winding road home, while I must endure delayed flights, transfers, uncomfortable seats, airline food and a heavyset, chatty neighbor telling me all about her trip through Italy. What I don’t do for you guys!

That’s the plan; I’ll give you the real scoop as it happens, or at least a few days after it happens, depending on Internet availability. Hope you enjoy the trip.  Arrivederci.

Surfin’ Safari

by Bob Sparrow

Sandra Dee

As a native Californian, I was of course attracted to surfing at an early age. I think it was in 1959 when the first Gidget movie came out – OK, so maybe I wasn’t attracted to surfing as much as I was  attracted to Sandra Dee! I figured if MoonDoggie could get a girl like that by surfing, sign me up. But I was raised in a rural dairy community in northern California where surf is rarely up on the surrounding farms and ranches.  I will say that the iconic 1964 movie, Endless Summer, had some appeal to me as someone who’d been going to school for most of my life – I thought I was starring in the movie, Endless School. Even a move to southern California, or as my northern friends say, ‘the dark side’, didn’t get me interested in surfing, but I did feel closer to Sandra Dee.

Why then am I writing about surfing? Two reasons: 1) it’s only about a 20 minute drive from my house to surfing mecca, Huntington Beach or as it’s know to board riders, ‘Surf City’,  where the National Surfing Championships are held every summer, but more importantly (to me) it’s the home of my favorite restaurant – Duke’s!  2) I thought I would start an educational series on various museums in southern California; although after this trip to the ‘International Surfing Museum’, it may be a series of one, and not very educational at that.

Mid-bite at Duke’s

It was an unusual rainy May morning when I started my safari to Surf City, but those are the kind of days that keep people away from the beach, so I was happy for a little precipitation as I headed to the coast.  Before I hit the museum it was a must to get a burger and beer at Duke’s, which I enjoyed as I watched the surfers and volleyball players warming up for summer. The ‘International Surfing Museum’ is just a short walk from Duke’s down palm-tree-lined Main Street, which is bar & grill after bar & grill after bar & grill, with a Hawaiian-vibe. It wasn’t very crowded on this midday Thursday, but guaranteed it’s wall-to-wall during summer.

The museum is not large; in fact the space was an old doctor’s office and I’m guessing the doctor didn’t have a very large practice. The door was open, so I walked in and was greeted by Judy, the docent, who told me the museum was closed. I had just walked through the open door, saw the lights on and brochures out on a table and said, “It doesn’t look like you’re closed”. She said, ‘Well, we’re open, it’s just that we don’t have an exhibit up now” as she motioned to the adjacent vacant space. She encouraged me to take a look around and check out the surfing posters, the surf boards in the rafters and . . . the surfing posters. She gave me a quick history of surfing, starting with Duke Kahanamoku and continued to regale me with the upcoming surfing events of the summer. I feigned interest for as long as I could and then told her I wanted to get a photo of the Guinness record, largest surfboard in the world, which held 66 people and is hanging on the outside of the building next to their parking lot. It’s gnarly!

I drove home still relishing my burger and beer from Duke’s and having assuaged my guilt of living so close to the ocean and never hanging ten, or even one. But, hey Dude, it was still a bitchin’ day.

It’s Vegas Baby!

by Bob Sparrow

Bruno Mars

We all know the city of Las Vegas by several names, ‘Vegas’, ‘Sin City’, ‘Lost Wages’, to name a few, and we know, or hope we know, that ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’ – except what I write in my blog.  It is quite a city!  While this desert oasis loves its reputation as a ‘Gambling Mecca’, a few years back it tried to sell itself as a ‘family’ destination, but the only family it attracted was the mafia. Recently, in an effort to look like other large cities in the U.S., it acquired an NHL hockey team, the Knights, and next season will have the NFL’s Oakland/Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders – an apt place for this team and their irreverent fans.

But the reality is, Las Vegas, which means ‘The Meadows’ is like no other city on the planet, which I just witnessed last weekend. We were there to enjoy our annual golf trip, some great meals (diet starts Monday . . . again), some great friends and a blockbuster Bruno Mars concert.

Although I’ve been there too many times to remember (as well as times I don’t remember), the city never ceases to amaze me, as it might you as you read through these little known, and even less cared about, fact of ‘Sin City’.

  • There are an estimated 1,000 homeless people living beneath Vegas in underground tunnels.
  • In 1980, a Las Vegas hospital had to suspend workers who were betting on when patients would die. One nurse was even accused of murdering a patient so she could

    Celine Dion

    win.

  • It would take 288 years for one person (and a lot of luggage) to spend one night in every hotel room in Las Vegas.
  • Contrary to popular belief (and practice) prostitution in Las Vegas is not legal.  Now you tell me!!!
  • The Las Vegas strip is the brightest place on Earth when looked at from outer space.
  • Biggest game in Vegas, in terms of money per table, not blackjack, not craps, not roulette . . . baccarat. While the average blackjack table brings in around $500,000 each year, a baccarat table brings in an average of $4,000,000 annually.
  • Vegas’ favorite food: Shrimp – over 60,000 pounds of it are consumed . . . every day! That’s higher than the rest of the country combined.
  • Slot machine payout record? A 25-year-old software engineer invested $100 to win a jackpot worth $39,000,000.
  • Top performers: Back in the 70s Liberace made $300,000 a week! Today record holder is Celine Dion, who makes $500,000 per show.
  • There are over 300 weddings per day in Las Vegas, making it the top wedding destination in the US, but second in the world to Istanbul. Istanbul?!!
  • For all its gambling, you can’t buy a Lottery ticket in Las Vegas – it’s illegal.
  • A stack of pancakes and a quickie wedding may both sound like great ideas after a night of partying in Vegas; luckily Denny’s offers this great combo. For $199 you get a wedding officiant, use of Denny’s exquisite marriage chapel, a pancake wedding

    Denny’s Pancake Wedding Cake

    cake along with a Grand Slam breakfast. The pessimist would say that both the wedding and the breakfast could turn to crap by morning.

Hope you learned a little something about Vegas that you can pass along to a friend at lunch today.

Our Cinco de Mayo/Kentucky Derby trip is always fun, not so much because of Las Vegas, but because of the great people that go; I could tell you more about it, but you know, for the most part ‘What happens in Vegas . . .

 

Journey to the Valley of Death – Part 2

by Bob Sparrow

The Oasis at Death Valley

It was an auspicious beginning – Death Valley had claimed four people before we even got started, as two couples that had committed to go on this adventure were unable to for various reasons. Strike one.

Undaunted, the Johnsons, Pacellis, Linda and I set out on Thursday morning for Death Valley. Our research had told us that GPSs go crazy in the desert, but little did we know that it was going to start playing tricks on us so soon.  After we stopped for a great lunch at The Mad Greek in Baker, our GPS took us away from the correct route on a 30 minute detour – I was reminded of the German family that got lost out there and was never heard from again. Strike two.

Our group at its lowest

After about an hour and a half drive from Baker we came to our first attraction, Zabriskie Point. For my money, the best single place to see all the colors and rock/sand formations of Death Valley. We then traveled on to Badwater, the lowest place in North America at 282 feet below sea level; once there, you just sort of stand around and ‘be’ at the lowest place in North America. The road from there to our hotel has a nine-mile loop through ‘Artist’s Pallet’, which, at the right time of day and sunlight, shows off the magnificent colors of the rocks and mountains – we apparently were not there at the right time of the day! I was also anticipating seeing beautiful desert flowers following the rains we had this winter, but those rains came too soon, or too late, or they were too much, not sure which, but flowers were not in bloom.

Oasis pool

We checked into the Oasis at Death Valley and as the photo shows, it is truly an oasis. It is a four-diamond resort, where we have booked a casitas, which runs, including ‘resort fees’ about $600/night, but you get a golf cart to drive to go back and forth between the casitas and the hotel. What you don’t get are two sinks in a rather small bathroom, a corkscrew to open the wine we brought and Internet. I personally would take a couple of diamonds away from their rating.

We had dinner at The Last Kind Words Saloon, in ‘town’, Furnace Creek, which is about a mile from our hotel, and like the Oasis, the restaurant looks great, but the paper-thin, expensive steaks and generally bad food was only overshadowed by the poor service from a  “customer’s always wrong” wait staff. After dinner we went back to the hotel and to go up on the top deck to look at the stars, which we’ve been told are magnificent on a dark, desert night. Unfortunately there was a nearly full moon, a cloud cover and a slight rain.

Tamarisk trees – my golf ball is in there somewhere!

The next day, Friday, we played golf at Furnace Creek Golf Course, just a mile away from our hotel.  We thought we’d grab breakfast at the golf course before we teed off. But breakfast is not available at the golf course and the only breakfast available close by was a buffet, which we really didn’t want or have time for, so we grabbed a muffin and a cup of coffee at the General Store and headed to the course. The golf course was in surprisingly good shape; each fairway is lined with rows of Tamarisk trees, in which my ball came to rest on several tee shots (at least it was shady), although the greens were sort of like putting on a gravel driveway.  The weather and company was great and the burger and beer at the end of the round was most enjoyable.

Mark & Kathy looking for ghosts in Rhyolite

Dinner at the Oasis Hotel was OK, Linda didn’t like her Pork Belly – she was referring to her meal! After dinner we again went up to the top deck of the hotel to see the stars.  We ran into a professional photographer who had a laser beam gun to point out many of the constellations. He had a lot to say about almost everything, including Scotty’s Castle, which was the highlight of my previous trip here, but is currently closed for repairs to the road and the castle, due to flash flooding.

Saturday was our exploring day, according to Patrick ‘Trail Boss’ Michael’s schedule, which he kindly put together, but didn’t get to experience. We stopped at Harmony Borax Works – a 120 year old operation that refined the borax (a mineral found in the salt flats of Death Valley which is used in soap/cleaning products) and loaded it on a 20-mule team wagon to haul it 165 miles to the nearest train station in Mojave – a 30-day trip! Our next stop, after about an hour’s drive on the lunar surface, was the ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada – a town built on gold prospecting. It is the largest ghost town in the Death Valley area; at its peak had nearly 10,000 people, with 2 churches, 50 saloons, 18 stores, 2 undertakers, 19 lodging houses (which sometimes lodged prostitutes; OK, not sometimes, all the time!), 8 doctors, 2 dentists, a stock exchange and an opera house.

Cocktails at the casitas

We headed back to the hotel and sat by the spring-fed swimming pool and enjoyed a fancy cocktail – at least the price was fancy. As we were running out of places we wanted to eat, we decided to stop by the local taco shop, although these were not your traditional tacos.  The shop was on Indian land owned by the Timbisha-Shoshone tribe and featured ‘Native American Tacos’. They were quite large, a meal unto themselves and fairly tasty. We had tacos and wine as we sat in our casita’s patio on our last beautiful desert night.

I’d give the experience mixed reviews. If you go, wait until Scotty’s Castle is back in operation – sometime in 2020. So Death Valley is not dead to me, but it’s on a resuscitator.

 

Journey to the Valley of Death – Part 1 of 2 (hopefully)

by Bob Sparrow

Manson Family Death Valley Hideout

I’m writing this blog prior to heading to Death Valley with five couples from our ‘hood. I thought it would be important to provide a little history of this unique National Park as well as make sure I tell people where to look should our neighborhood safari not return – it is called Death Valley for a reason!

It actually got its name from a group of pioneers in Utah headed to California in search of gold in 1849. After listening to a guy who ‘thought’ he knew a short cut, but didn’t have a map (or too many living brain cells apparently), a group of pioneers split off from the main party (well, it really wasn’t much of a party) to take this ‘short cut’ to the California gold through what was to become Death Valley. After losing many weeks and members of the group, as they were leaving this valley, one of the pioneers looked back and said, “Goodbye ‘death’ valley.”

Death Valley’s underground city

Aside from the many gold-hungry pioneers that lost their lives taking the shortcut, the ‘valley’ has genuinely earned its macabre moniker. Mother Nature has played a role by taking lives with her cold winter nights with freezing winds, flash floods and of course the distinction of holding the record for the hottest place in the world – 134 degrees.

It is speculated that there is an underground city beneath Death Valley, where many people died digging and living in these subterranean tunnels. As late as 1996 a family of five visiting Death Valley from Germany disappeared, never to be seen again. But that’s not that unusual, there are many stories of people disappearing using their GPS to try and navigate the desert as there are many areas where cell reception is non-existent – it’s sort of like a black hole, the Bermuda Triangle and the Twilight Zone all rolled into one.

Borax Twenty-Mule Team

There’s more, California’s last lynching took place in Death Valley and there are several old mining ghost towns in Death Valley where ghosts still reside. The Armagosa Hotel and Opera House, once a hotel for the Pacific Coast Borax Company is now haunted. Close by, 100 pound rocks move across a dry lakebed by themselves, leaving a trail. Oh yeah and Death Valley was also a place that Charlie Manson’s gang hung out, so it’s got that going for it;

So why are we going to such a god-forsaken place of death? It’s a beautiful, interesting place; the colors of the rocks, sand, mountains and flowers are incredible this time of year; and we are staying in a four-diamond hotel and playing golf – so over the years there has been an effort to remove the ‘Death’ from Death Valley.

But still, if Suzanne’s next blog is about her missing brother, you’ll know where to start looking.

The Timeshare Two-Step

by Bob Sparrow

It was 1993, the kids were young and we had no money, when we got a call from the Marriott Desert Springs Timeshare folks offering us a free weekend in the desert in exchange for a mere 90 minutes of our time to listen to a presentation on timeshares. Like everyone else, we had gotten of number of these calls over the last few years, but because we had no money and couldn’t buy a timeshare if we wanted, we decided to take them up on their offer of a free weekend in the desert.

“Trust me”

We arrived and were warmly greeted while our two children we’re quickly escorted off to a ‘fun zone’ to be entertained for the next 90 minutes while we were locked in a windowless room where sat a guy with bad hair, a mustache and dimples. Small talk and big smiles ensued while he extolled the virtues of the Marriott name and their foray into timeshares, bla, bla, bla. We finally regained consciousness when he told us that for a week every year, we only needed $18,000. We didn’t even know how to spell $18,000! We looked at each other knowingly and in unison said, “No thank you, we really can’t afford it” and started to get up. We were quickly told to sit down and that with a small down payment we could make payment over time, enough time that we accepted.

As it turned out, it was one of the best investments we ever made, or had made for us. We’ve spent a week every spring at our Marriott timeshare for the last 26 years. Our kids graduated from the kiddy pool, the teen pool, to Costas’, the nightclub on property, to bringing their kids out. They know every inch of that property.

If you like vacations and you like clubs, Marriott has got a deal for you . . . bring cash!

About five years ago Marriott timeshares went to a ‘point system’ and we were offered two rounds of golf to listen to the advantages of converting our ‘week’ into ‘points’ and joining the Marriott Vacation Club.  Who doesn’t want to be in a vacation club?!  When we asked the salesman if we converted our week into points, would we have enough points to come out for our week every year like we’ve been doing? When he was finished calculating he looked up with a long face and said “No, you’d be a little short” and he knew he lost a sale.

Last week while at the Marriott Desert Springs for our week in the desert, we were again offered two rounds of golf to listen to a presentation on trading our two weeks (we bought another week on the ‘black market’ a couple of years ago) for more ‘points’ in the new BONVOY program’. We were told the program has really changed, that we wouldn’t have to exchange our week for points. Our salesperson must have just come off his shift at an Indio used car lot. Big toothy smile, dyed hair and a too firm handshake. Lots of small talk until we asked for the bottom line. We were told we could turn in our two weeks, along with an additional $42,000 and we’d get . . . I didn’t even listen after I heard the $42,000. “But you can put it on a 10-year payment program, and . . . ” he said as we headed out the door for the golf course. We gave him a hardy “Bon Voyage”.

I feel like I’ve earned an MBA in ‘timeshare’ (although it’s taken me 26 years), so if you have questions about ‘weeks’ or ‘points’ or fast talking salesman with bad hair – give me a call.