Blast from the past – Rarotonga, Cook Islands, late 2017

I decided to look back and include some writing and pictures from previous trips. Here’s one, edited just a little from the original jet-lagged version. My dedication to documenting the trip has certainly gotten better with more recent trips. The featured picture (above) is the view from our little hut on the beach.

11-25-17 – At LAX, on way to Rarotonga, Cook Islands.

I’ve never been so unprepared for a trip. Don’t know much about the place, haven’t talked with anyone who has been there. Barely know if we have a place to stay (AirBNB) and how to get there. It’s a leap.

Spent more than a few dollars on new snorkeling gear, again on faith. I’ve been snorkeling about 60 minutes in my whole life, so no idea how much use this gear will actually get. I hope a lot – would be good exercise and good activity on this trip.

Thank God (or whomever) for business class departure lounges. We’re in the NZ / Star Alliance lounge – good, but not great. But sure is relaxing after the hellish-as-usual drive to LA. Socal freeway driving is in the top 3 of things I hate most about what Socal has become. The hot dry weather is #1…have to think about #2. Maybe taxes.

It was weird getting ready to leave today. I was actually thinking about not going – the new pup, Mojo, has a pretty bad morning, health-wise. He was sick enough to make us both wonder if he needed to be taken to the vet. But that was also enough to make me kind of wish we weren’t going. Maybe that’s one of the characteristics of getting older – you look for excuses to keep doing the same damn thing every day. But here we are. And Mojo is (probably) fine. (Postscript – yes, he was fine.)

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Hard to believe I booked a 1030pm departure. Most nights I’m deeply asleep by 10pm, so this is a stretch. And…I think we only have a two hour time difference between us and Raro. We leave at 830pm Raro time, travel about 10 hours, and arrive at 630am. Go figure. Latitudinal travel isn’t intuitive. We’re traveling from 32 degrees north latitude to 22 degrees south latitude – just inside the tropic of Capricorn.

BTW – this travelogue is just an excuse to write a bit. Need to develop the habit if I’m ever going to do more than write in my head. So this stream of consciousness should do the trick. And speaking of consciousness, mine is fading. With unlimited drinks and food, now 9pm, my bedtime clock is kicking in. I feel my IQ dropping. So…likely more from in-flight.

12-1-17 – Leaving Rarotonga

In the ANZ lounge at Rarotonga airport

Well….finally writing again at the end of our trip. BLTN. Leaving tonight after 6 days.

My excuses for not writing while in country are: always wet, sand everywhere, no table and chairs in the hut (really!). Sitting with a laptop perched in front of me just wasn’t comfortable.

This was an interesting trip. Not terrible, but definitely not great. Raro is somewhere between primitive and modern/mercenary. We snorkeled every day, a plus. And snorkeling was really convenient – just walk out our back door and into the lagoon. Couldn’t have been better. We walked a lot. And we watched a lot of movies. And ate out every day; that was about it.

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The worst news was the weather. We had three decent days upon arrival, and then three dreary, rainy, windy days. Not optimal. But we took our chances with the rainy season and got a 50/50 split on days. Could’ve been worse. Though, being stuck inside on a tiny island is noticeably worse than on the mainland. With outdoor activities shut down, there’s just not much to do.

We had some stress on the first day, Sunday. We ran into a perfect storm of financial worry – our ATM cards were expired (unknown until we got here), we had only a little UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_a85e.jpgUS cash, the credit card processing systems on our side of the island were inoperable due to some recent island-wide network problem. And it was Sunday, so almost all businesses were closed – they take Christianity and the Sabbath very seriously here (thanks Captain Cook!).

 

Our little beach hut.

So no way to get NZ cash, no way to use credit, no way to rent a car or get food at a restaurant. Most (not all) places would accept US cash, of which we had a little, but then we learned that the locals would only accept it at a 1:1 exchange rate, as opposed to the “official” rate of 0.7NZ to 1US. So we bought a cab ride for an exorbitant premium, and a little food at a gas station for the same huge premium.

The credit card problem also got in the way of our acquiring Wifi access. While our hut had a dedicated Wifi hot spot, we had no way to sign up and pay for it. The online portal would let you get through an entire process, and then stick hard on the payment step (back to the credit system problem). As I noted, primitive.

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We solved all these problems on Monday, one by one. But for 24 hours we were resource-less in a strange small land. Uncomfortable, to say the least.

There was good news. We snorkeled every day, and on the days when the sun was out, it was glorious. Quite an experience. We tried a different restaurant every lunch and dinner (once we acquired a car), and most were good. Driving around the island was easy. Wifi connections were solid, though we had to watch our usage. It was $10 NZ for

unadjustednonraw_thumb_a863.jpg500 MB access, and 500 MB went pretty fast. K and I got along great during the trip, even during the stress points. And we found a treasure trove of movies on a portable hard drive hidden way in a cabinet (I was worried it would be all porn, but it was in fact a lot of not-well-known but good movies).

But were those good points worth the considerable time and money we invested in the week? I’m still making my mind up about Rarotonga, but in general I’m leaning toward not coming back. One last black mark – the Wifi in the ANZ lounge isn’t working. I was looking forward to reading the sports and political news. It’ll have to wait another 12 hours. In terms of connection anxiety, I have more millennial in me than one would expect.

Lessons learned:

  • There’s always a reason the airfare is cheap. Think about it and figure out why – in this case it was the beginning of the rainy season, and it definitely affected our visit.
  • Always take enough cash to any unusual destination. Shit happens.
  • Always know the exchange rate before you get there. The locals might (did) lie to you.
  • Don’t believe the pictures on an AirBnB. It’s not as nice as it looks online. (postscript – I just keep learning this lesson…).
  • Flying business class has important perks well beyond the in-flight seats. Getting preferential treatment checking in, boarding, and getting bags quickly all add up. And the seats are still a huge plus.
  • Don’t depend on a voltage adapter you got gratis at a conference. I’m zero for two on that deal.
  • For international travel, patience is more than a virtue – it’s a necessity. I did better than usual in that department this trip, if I say so myself.

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Alaska cruise, day 7 (final) – Seattle and home

Here’s our list of new wildlife seen on the trip. We saw most of this on the excursions in Sitka and Ketchikan. Not as extensive as I might have hoped, but not bad for a week.

  • Bald eagles
  • Minke whales (I can’t hear that name without going full-on Clouseau: “…eez zat your minkey?”
  • Sea otters
  • Black tail deer
  • Humpback whales
  • Orcas
  • King salmon

We really wanted to see some Alaskan bears, but talking with the locals they said we needed to stay overnight in one of the towns and hang out near the dumpsters after dark. So…scoring a bear sighting requires the same strategy as scoring drugs (or so I’m told). Didn’t see that coming.

Our final day included a leisurely disembark and a walkabout in downtown Seattle. We had scheduled a late afternoon flight home, not really knowing the logistics of leaving the ship and getting back to the airport. Doing it over, we’d fly home more like 1pm.

Even so we had a nice day, chilling out at a downtown hotel reading and writing, then  walking around the city center when we felt like it. With hotel lobby wifi it was productive and relaxing. Pro tip, if you have luggage in a large city and need to kill some time, just go to a major hotel, tip the bellman a little and you can store your bags until time to go to the airport.

Postscript – we arrived home around 930pm, tired, a few pounds heavier but with lots of great memories and experiences. I’d say that’s the whole point.

Alaska cruise, day 6 – Victoria, BC

I woke up in Canada with a hangover. Not the “OMG I think I’m going to die” kind, more like the “yeah, maybe that last tequila round wasn’t such a good idea” kind. This was a long cruising-at-sea day, so no need to get up and about for an excursion. Fortunate. I decided to spend the day writing, both on this travelogue and on my long-neglected novel.

On a slighter downer note, I have to say that this trip has reinforced my belief that there are a lot of jerks in the world. Boorish, rude and thoughtless behavior is everywhere. In my pre-retirement life I saw it mostly on the freeways, where people drove like idiots and Mad Max characters, endangering everyone around them. On this cruise it’s a couple of too-common behaviors that cause me to cringe.

1. The Land Grabbers. The people who show up 30 minutes early to a theater where there are no reserved seats and proclaim that “these six seats (always prime seats) are taken”. They use napkins, articles of their clothing or just pure chutzpah to stake their claim. We typically get there 5-10 minutes before the performance and there are lots of empty seats (just like Southwest, there are no reserved seats), but they’re all “taken” by Grabbers. It’s just unreasonable and rude. About half the time whoever they were holding the seats for doesn’t show up (I can’t imagine why). I wish I was a person who could just sit down and tell them “tough, move me”, but politeness is pretty deeply ingrained in me (thank Mom) so I end up frustrated and a small-time martyr.

2. The Monopolists. The people who elbow their way to the front of any attraction and monopolize the only prime photo spot. Reasonable or thoughtful people would step up, take their photo or two, then move along and make room for the next person. But there’s always someone who decides this is their god-given spot and they’re not leaving until they’ve taken their thousand carefully-framed identical photos.

I’m pretty sure the thing that enables these bad behaviors is anonymity. Whether it’s the drivers on the freeway, Internet trolls or fellow passengers on a cruise ship, these are people who are sure you’re never going to see them again and they’re safe behaving like complete assholes. In settings where people know them and will see them again (friends, family, work), their behavior is moderated, probably even normal/reasonable. In both real life and in the digital domain, identity is a powerful concept.

I’ve heard it said that your true character is whatever you do when you’re alone. In this case your true character shows up when you think you’re anonymous. And that’s our happy thought for the day, kids.

Ending the day and this post on a higher note, we walked from the ship to downtown Victoria, and I’ll have to say Victoria is a lovely city. Tidy homes, tree-lined streets, a mix of modern buildings and antique, and clean. Everything about the place screams well-managed. Even better, we stumbled into a superb eatery with a kitschy name – Nautical Nellie’s. With a name like that I had low expectations (OK, we were tired and hungry), but once inside it became clear that this was a fine dining experience. Pricey (though in Canadian dollars!) and 100% worth it. We had a light meal at the bar – crab spread on toast, seafood chowder and a seafood salad stack. It was all first class, and watching the food leave the kitchen was a masterclass in restaurantery. Highly recommended if/when you’re in Victoria. My only regret was that I didn’t order one of their signature (large) seafood dishes. Next time…

Alaska cruise, day 5 – Ketchikan

We floated into Ketchikan bright and early, docking at 7am. With only a half day to spend here, we had rolled the dice and booked a half day salmon fishing expedition. Our dice came up a lucky number, as we had a near perfect day. The weather was bright and sunny (we had only about one chance in 4 or 23% of having a non-rainy day – Ketchikan has 280 rainy days per year). We ended up with a great ship captain and good fishing partners (thanks to Nate and Charlie from Mansfield OH), and we caught plenty of King Salmon. Almost any day fishing is a great day, but a calm water sunny day where you make a good catch – priceless.

Most of the Kings we caught were small, under five pounds, but we caught a few that would have been keepers in the seven-ish pound range. Nothing huge, but plenty of fun. We trolled four lines at once, bait behind/below us at 80-120 feet down, and took turns

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landing each strike. Here’s our new friend Nate and our captain Leif. Our young captain was a really nice kid, and he did a great job keeping our lines in the water and landing fish without harming them – we did catch and release all day. Jason Momoa and Alaska thank us.

IMG_4618.JPGThe scenery on the water around Ketchikan was sublime. Like the most beautiful freshwater lake you’ve ever seen, only it was ocean channel. And deep ocean channel – we were in 700-800 feet of water most of the time (!).

The pictures we have can’t do the place justice, but here they are anyway. This was a place we could see coming back to for a week or more during high fishing season.

Alaska cruise, day 4 – Sitka

We had almost a full day in Sitka, and our big outing was a Nature Sighting Cruise – Bears, Whales, and Sea Otters, one or more guaranteed (I guess they have a contract with Dr. Doolittle or something). And yes, we got off a boat and got right back on another. Go figure.

Sitka was a pleasant little fishing town, surrounded by a network of islands and channels. We navigated through quite a few of those channels in search of said otters, bears and whales. Turns out we saw everything but bears.

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And we saw eagles – all the eagles you can imagine. Turns out the bald eagle is pretty much the pigeon of Alaska – they’re everywhere. If we see one in the lower 48, it’s front page news. Here it’s mundane. But for us Californians, every one was a thrill.

The sea otters were pretty cool. They were clustered up in a small colony, all floating around on their backs and apparently enjoying the day. Many of them were females with pups (also called kits) clinging to them, giving them an odd look from a distance. I don’t think my pictures of them do justice, but here’s one as an example. The light wasn’t great so everything is a little monochrome.

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Sitka’s population doubled or tripled with a couple of cruise ships in port, so the town had a very small, quiet feel to it. Kind of place where everybody knows everybody. We walked the length and breadth of it in about 15 minutes then decided to retire to our cabin, heading off for the next stop.

Alaska cruise, days 3-4 – Hubbard Glacier

I don’t know why, but I keep hearing odd phrases that sound like fun names for a rock band. Here are a few:

  • Fell Victim to An Arsonist
  • Pacific Waste
  • Everything Here is Edible
  • Awkward to Eat Your Friends (for context, the entire phrase, seen on a ball cap, was “Take a compass. It’s awkward to have to eat your friends.”).
  • Six Finger Fist
  • Fortress of the Bears

Vote for your favorite in the comments.

From Juneau it was an unmemorable overnight voyage to the Hubbard Glacier, but once we got there, whoa! The Mendenhall is an impressive glacier (see previous post). But the Hubbard is a GLACIER, full stop. Awesome is a word used too much, but that’s the best word to describe the Hubbard. Five miles wide, 350 feet tall (another 250 feet under water, we’re told), the Hubbard gets your full attention. Like many things we’ve seen in Alaska, its sheer scale is just hard to take in. Turns out the Hubbard is thankfully one of the exceptions to the whole

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“climate-change-omg-the glaciers-are-disappearing” thing. The Hubbard is not retreating at all. Our cruise ship got within a mile, so through binocs we could see a lot of detail. We saw several great instances of icebergs calving off the Hubbard. You’d see them and hear the cannon-shot sound a few seconds later. Awe-inspiring, impressive, humbling, sacred…take your pick of adjectives, the Hubbard inspired all those feelings. Loved it.

We got lots of (hopefully) great pictures, and here are a few.

Alaska cruise, Day 3 – Juneau

Today was a pretty good day. Beautiful shoreline scenery and some ocean wildlife spotting as we approached Juneau. Disembarked; took an eight-mile bike ride (go us!) through the rain to see the Mendenhall glacier, and it was well worth it. Thirteen miles long, white and dirt-streaked, with patches of that milky blue color unique to glaciers.

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It’s receding 200 feet per year, so if that rate stays constant (unlikely), the Mendenhall will be gone in 338 years, give or take a few. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, and let’s hope we have the ability to do something about it.

Equally impressive was Nugget Falls, the outflow from an adjacent glacier. We didn’t have time to hike over to the falls, but even from 1.5 miles away it was damn impressive.

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(As an aside, as I write this the boat’s entertainment system is playing one of my old favorite songs – John Mayer’s A Still Verdictless Life (or Why, Georgia, Why?). Good song, great lyrics, before Mayer got famous and pretentious. And a song that has some special meaning for me, as my original year 2000 blog used that as its title. And now back to our regular programming…).

After the bike trip we had a guided tour of some beers from Alaska Brewing, a Juneau original microbrewery. Pretty cool company as it turns out – ultra eco-conscious, and pretty good beers. We then walked around in downtown Juneau, decidedly underwhelming. Some surprising Juneau facts:

  • There are no roads connecting it to anywhere else. It’s completely islanded in terms of auto travel. You just can’t get there from here unless it’s by boat or plane.
  • Isolated as it is, it’s weirdly the state capital. How in the world did that happen?
  • Lots of churches on the outskirts, because some misguided legislator decided during the 1800s gold rush that for each saloon opened up in town, there must also be a church opened. I’d call that the Church of False Equivalence or perhaps the Opposites Attract Act.
  • All electric power in Juneau is hydro-based. It’s a 100% renewable micro-grid.
  • The Juneau area is basically a giant rain forest, and being adjacent to the ocean it’s more temperate than I would have expected. Never really gets hot, and never gets crazy cold.
  • Everyone we met from Juneau had a little of the slightly-off Portlandia vibe about them. It’s probably an interesting place to live (for a while), but you’ve gotta love rain. 280 days of rain per year.

So that was our first taste of Alaska. Funky, rainy, definitely beautiful, and a lot of fun.

Alaska cruise, day 2 – At sea

Heavy seas and thick fog the last 16 hours. You definitely know you’re on a ship – sea legs are a thing. I have to say, the rolling motion allowed me to sleep well and dream vividly. I UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_b747.jpgsometimes remember one dream, sometimes none, but last night I remembered 3-4 separate sessions, quite clearly. After breakfast I even fell asleep sitting up – the wave motion knocked me right out.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for K. She tends to be seasick, and this leg of the trip has her green and unhappy. So not a lot to write about today – just a quiet, rolling day with no land in sight.

Alaska Cruise, Day 1, Seattle

First full day of the Alaska adventure, and all is good. We flew to Seattle with no problems, took the super-efficient light rail into downtown, checked into our (very) modest Airbnb (more on that later), and had a nice walkabout from Belltown to Pike Place Market.

The highlight of that evening was a random discovery of a super waterfront bar/restaurant, Six Seven. Perfect waterfront location with commensurate views, spacious bar seating area, and excellent bar snacks and wines by the glass. Discovered a new wine that I liked a lot, a Pinot/Syrah blend (no, really) branded Rudeo. I’d buy that again in a heartbeat and will try to find it. Combine that with a lobster roll-ish slider and a mussels/clams bowl, and all was good.

We had a disappointing stop in Pike’s Market at Matt’s on the Market, where I had expected to be wowed by the food and atmosphere, but it was only so-so. We didn’t do a full dinner; just the charcuterie plate, and it was good but not the great we expected. You win some; you lose some.

We returned to our amenity-free B&B for a reasonably restful night. The next morning we got a nice surprise. We planned to drop our luggage off at the departure terminal and just browse around in Seattle until the scheduled 1pm boarding, but when we arrived at 930am we learned that we could start the checking in and boarding process almost immediately. Sold! That gave us an extra 3-4 hours to explore the ship, make some event appointments and have an already-paid-for lunch on board.

The Seattle departure was thus easy and fun for us – we missed all the long lines and got to do some things ahead of the crowd. And the view of the city and Mt. Rainier was beautiful. Looking at Rainier, I wonder why it doesn’t get the same coverage as Mt Fuji in Japan – it’s every bit as dramatic as it looms over the city.

Back to the Airbnb of the night before. This is the Airbnb stay that will make me very wary of them in the future. Austere to an extreme (basically a bed and a small rickety table, no Wifi, no TV, no couch), house rules written by Attila the Hun (every possible transgression threatened with penalties, fines and expulsions), and quite pricey. Just generally low value and unwelcoming (think TSA). We would’ve been better off staying in a modest hotel near the airport. Lesson learned; look really hard at the Airbnbs. In my observations of late, their value relative to plain old hotels has gone way, way down. I’m still trying to decide how negative a review to write, but I’ll let it sit for a day or two before I write one.

5-24-19 Louisville, Kentucky

Pretty much all my friends and family know that Louisville has become my second home. Once Emily and Greg moved there in 2014 the die was cast. We have a lot of family there – my brother Mike, cousins Donnie MD and Chris JD and their wonderful wives Kristen and Marci (both Donnie and Chris overachieved in the marriage lottery), my aunt Missi, my Dad who lives three hours east of Louisville, and of course these guys (below). When Hudson was born in 2017, the allure of having a home base in Louisville became an imperative, at least for me.

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As a result we’ve spent a lot of time there and invested in the area as well. We have some rental properties in Louisville that comprise my one real entrepreneurial move in life. Thankfully, that’s turned out well.

It doesn’t hurt that Louisville has become my kind of city. Interesting, funky, and foodie – big enough to be vibrant but not so crowded as anything in Socal. Kind of a Goldilocks city. Each time we go I find something else cool or likable about Louisville, so when you add that to the family ties it’s easy to spend time there.

This trip was a little different, as our focus wasn’t so much on Em, Greg and Hudson, but on the too-rare event of all four Nichols brothers getting together. Don and Jill came in from eastern Tennessee, Kathryn and me from Socal, Mark and Deeanne also from Socal, and Mike just stayed put in Louisville. We’ve only gotten together a few times in the last decade, a situation we’re trying to remedy. Here we are with the addition of Dad and one of Mike’s sons, Chase. Quite the crew.

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Our first evening with at least three of us together we ate at an odd little place called Hammerhead’s. It’s in the basement of a nondescript old house in a nondescript old neighborhood. But their food is first-rate. I’d say they’re masters of deep frying and smoking. Mark said the lamb ribs were the best he’s ever had, and pretty much everything we ate was in the “best ever” class. We tore through way too much food too fast and spent the rest of the evening fighting a food coma.

The first thing we (almost) all did together was a trip to the Red River Gorge and Natural Bridge. Mark and Deeanne didn’t make that trip, as Mark was sick. The Gorge and Natural Bridge aren’t well known outside KY, and that’s a shame.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_b720.jpgThey are spectacular wilderness areas, largely unspoiled, featuring hiking, camping, rock climbing, kayak/canoe trips down the Red River, and views of amazing rock formations. All amid a lush forest ecosystem.

I have a lot of great memories of the Gorge, as it was my go-to spot for skipping classes as a UK undergraduate. Some like-minded friends and I would take off for the Gorge at a moment’s notice, for an afternoon or a few nights. We got to know the place pretty well.

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After the Gorge trip, we did another small nature outing at one of Louisville’s park gems – the new woodland garden at Broad Run Park, part of the extensive Parklands of Louisville.

Backing up a step, I should say that Louisville’s park system is far and away its finest asset. Not the bourbon trail, not the river or restaurants – but the park system. From Cherokee Park to Iroquois and Central, and especially including the Parklands – I’ve never seen a metropolitan park system so extensive and so well cared for. It’s a miracle in this modern day and age, and Louisville citizens have every right to be proud of their parks.

Our little outing to Broad Run and the new Woodland Garden was a nice surprise. It was hot and humid, but under the canopy of trees it was pleasant. And the Garden! Fifteen acres, more than 47,000 new plantings, a spectacular limestone PfqNerOBQh+mVdW6iUBiYQ_thumb_b703.jpgpath throughout, years and millions of dollars in the making – it’s worth a visit, any time of year. It’s designed to have highlights in each season, so we intend to go back there often. Highly recommended.

Another big get-together for the long weekend was the obligatory Memorial Day picnic, which we held at Em and Greg’s place. The logistics of getting everyone there on time and pulling a meal together on time were daunting, but it all went well. Greg and I collaborated on some near-perfect smoked pork shoulder and others pitched in with side dishes.

For our anniversary dinner on Wednesday the 29th, Kathryn and I went to Decca and enjoyed a superb meal. The fresh PEI mussels and sauce were the highlight, but the whole meal, service and ambiance were great. It was a nice finish to our Louisville trip.