Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The ABC Islands Cruise

After the year we have had, we decided to reward ourselves with a celebration of life.  There's nothing like a cruise in the Caribbean to make you feel special.

We left our rig in Mesa on Nov. 18 and drove the car to Tennessee to spend Thanksgiving with Darin and Diane.  We stopped the first night in Van Horn, TX and spent the next night at Chris and Dayna’s in Allen, TX.  The next night was spent in Jackson, MS and we arrived in Cleveland, TN on the 21st.  We had a nice visit with Darin and Diane, and a very nice Thanksgiving.  They are doing well and the house is working out great for them.  It’s a lovely wooded area only a mile or so out of town, but it almost feels like a vacation home.

The afternoon before we were set to leave for our cruise, the car began running rough and missing.  I took it to Autozone where they read the diagnostic codes for free.  It said the most likely cause was a bad coil on one cylinder.  I took it back to Darin’s where we verified that was the cause by swapping two coils, then I returned to Autozone and purchased and installed a new one.  Problem fixed!  Nothing like car problems when you need to drive 800 miles to catch a cruise in the next two days.

We left Darin and Diane’s home in Tennessee on Sunday morning, the 29th of November 2015, and drove south on I-75 as far as Gainesville, FL where we spent the night.  The following morning we drove into Tampa and parked at the cruise ship parking facility directly across from where our Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines ship, The Vision of the Seas, was docked.  After a relatively short and painless boarding process we were on board. 

For this cruise we chose an inside room at the lowest possible price.  This is our fifth cruise and we have learned that you spend very little time in your cabin except to sleep and shower.  The time we had a balcony was nice, but we didn’t’ spend as much time out there as we thought we would, and by choosing the least expensive room we could take two cruises for what one would cost us with a balcony.  Outside the room there is no difference in what you can do, where you eat, and what activities are available to you.  In fact, there is no way for anyone to know what deck or type of room you are in.  Our room was admittedly small, but adequate.  The two beds were arranged into one king size bed and there was plenty of room for all our clothes.  The shower was quite small but worked great with plenty of hot water.  When we wanted to know what it looked like outside we just turned on the flat screen TV on the wall and tuned to the channel with the bow mounted camera.

We sailed out of Tampa at about 4PM and it was dark before we left Tampa Bay.  We had the late dinner seating at 8PM and found the two other couples were delightful company.  We ate in the dining room every evening, and could have had breakfast and lunch there as well, but chose to use one of the other venues available for those meals.  The options for food was varied and usually well prepared.  On night 9 I chose the lobster, but it was rather small so I ordered another.  The amount of food available was limitless.

The ship was completely booked but we noticed that the majority of the people were even older than we are.  There were a large number of walkers, wheel chairs and mobility scooters.  It turns out that the cruise line had made a special effort to fill the ship by going to some of the many retirement communities near Tampa and offering special deep discounts.  I guess it is tough to fill a ship between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Anyway, we felt like youngsters.  There were probably fewer than 100 people out of the 2300 passengers who were under 50.  While we are way past that age, we were still younger than most on the cruise.

Our first stop on our 10 night cruise was the next day in Key West, FL.  We have been there several times so it was nothing really new.  The ship docked on the Navy base because the cruise ship docks were full, so the cruise line arranged for a tram system to take us directly to the center of downtown.  That provided a free guided tour which was nice.  I had a bit of an upset stomach, probably from eating a rich meal the night before, so we didn’t spend too much time in town.  We did tour the oldest house in Key West, but other than that we just strolled down Duval Street and observed all the tourists buying the usual souvenirs that are made in China and embossed with the words “Key West” on them.

The next two days we were at sea as we steamed (just an expression – the ship has diesel engines) around the east end of Cuba, south between Cuba and Haiti, then into the Caribbean Sea and south toward our real destinations, the ABC Islands.  That is how Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao are often referred to.  These small islands just off the coast of Venezuela were previously known as the Dutch Antilles, and are located only about 30-40 miles from each other.  At their closest point the island of Aruba is only 14 miles from Venezuela.  They have been Dutch colonies since the 1600’s.   Without going into too much detail that you can learn by Googling, they still maintain a very close relationship with Holland.  Bonaire is still a province of Holland, and the other two have a bit more independence, but still have Dutch governors.  The official language is Dutch but most people speak not only Dutch but also English, Spanish and a local dialect called Papiamento which is a mixture of all three plus some West African languages and Portuguese thrown in. 

All three islands are very dry with average rainfalls of only around 10 inches.  They were formed by undersea volcanoes millions of years ago that were forced up by the movement of tectonic plates.  As they neared the surface, colonies of coral grew and when they continued to rise out of the ocean, erosion began to shape them to their current form.  In many places you can see some of the eroded top layer of coral, but the primary rocks are volcanic or in some cases granite.  Cactus and small brushy trees are the primary vegetation.  The predominate cactus is a variety of Organ Pipe, very similar to the Organ Pipes in Arizona.


Although they are very dry, their size and the sea make them feel much different than a desert area on a continent.  Homes are colorful and built mostly on the leeward side of the islands where the ever present trade winds are less, and where the beaches are protected from the crashing waves on the Atlantic side.  None of the islands have much in the way of hills, but they are not flat.  The highest point on each of the islands is around 500 feet.  The islands have been inhabited by Europeans for over 500 years but were originally inhabited by a people known as Arawaks who moved there from the mainland of what is now Venezuela.  There were never large numbers of them on the islands as the only food source was from the sea, and water is very hard to come by.  Until the advent of desalination plants in recent years, the only source of water was by capturing the scarce rainfall.

Bonaire was our first stop and is the most laid back and undeveloped of the three islands.  Although it is the second largest of the three in size, it’s population is only about 17,000.  Only 3 or 4 cruise ships stop each week during the heavy season, but tourism is still the main industry.  We took an off road tour of the island on Unimogs, a go anywhere truck like vehicle made by Mercedes Benz, that took us to the remote north side of the island.  

We stopped at a collapsed lava tube where the volcanic origins of the island were apparent.  We also stopped at some sea caves where petroglyphs left by the Arawaks were still preserved.  Their graves are all above ground and painted in the same bright colors as the house the deceased lived in.  Makes for a very colorful & festive place.

Overnight we relocated to Curacao.  It is the largest of the three islands and much more developed.  We took a tour here as well, but this time in an air conditioned bus.  A great deal of the island is developed with a population of about 150,000.  We visited a very nice but small limestone cave, not unlike most of the caves we have visited in the US.  We also took a walking tour of downtown Willemstad, the capital city and where we were docked.  We spent more time on foot in Willemstad than at any other place we stopped, and enjoyed it very much.  The downtown area and the pontoon bridge over the harbor entrance were pleasant and interesting.  We even stopped at McDonalds for a chocolate shake and a sundae.

Curacao also has a magnificent protected harbor that fostered the development of a huge refinery.  Check it out on Google Maps.  Oil is brought in by tanker from Venezuela and the refined gasoline and other products are shipped out to various locations.   There is also a salt production facility on the island, and of course, tourism.  There are miles of hotels, condos and time shares lining the beaches.  Curacao had none of the remote laid back feel of Bonaire, but it was still an interesting and beautiful place to visit.

Our last stop in the ABC Islands was in Aruba.  Aruba is even more developed than Curacao, and the economy consists almost exclusively of tourism.  The population is about 100,000 and the island is the smallest of the three.  There are few places that are still undeveloped.  There are miles of hotels, condos and time shares all over the island.  It was not our cup of tea because of that.

We did take a tour of Aruba in an air conditioned bus.  We saw a good part of the island and made stops at an old lighthouse on the tip of the island, the rugged north shore, where we visited a neat natural bridge formed by waves that undercut an opening, and an aloe factory.  The commercial production of aloe used to be a major agricultural product of Aruba, with hundreds of acres in production.  But with industrialization and the rise of tourism, there are only the 60 acres beside the factory still in production.  They make many cosmetic products that are sold all over the world.  We also stopped at an interesting rock formation that reminded me in some ways of Cochise’s Stronghold near Wilcox, AZ.  Huge boulders were scattered about.  We spent very little time in the town of Oranjestad where we were docked.

We then headed north again and after a full day and a half at sea, we stopped on Grand Cayman.  There are no docks in Georgetown, and we were ferried ashore with tenders.  Apparently the family that owns the tender company has a lot of political power because every attempt to develop docks has failed.  There were four ships in port when we were there and the tenders were very busy.  We had been there before, but many years ago.  It did not look like we remembered.  Grand Cayman is highly developed for tourism.  Again there are miles and miles of hotels, condos and time shares.  We took a local tour that we arranged on shore that took us to Hell, were we saw very unique rock formations, and to a dolphin show.  As we drove around the islands we saw many iguanas, as we had on all the islands, and chickens running wild.  Both are problems and their populations are not well controlled, although iguana and chicken are both eaten by the local population.

After another full day at sea we arrived back in Tampa early on the 10th.  Previous debarking experiences had left us apprehensive about getting ashore, but this time it was a breeze.  Since we had parked just across the street in the parking structure, we were on our way in no time.  After stops near Tallahassee, FL and Vicksburg, MS we arrived in Texas once again to spend the next two weeks of the Christmas season with Dayna’s family.

This was our 5th cruise and we have noted some changes since our first.  We certainly enjoyed it, and spent time on the ship engaging in some of the activities and watching the entertainment.  We availed ourselves of the hot tubs, took walks on the deck, Dianna used the fitness center, and we had all we wanted to eat.  However, it did feel as though the level of quality has dropped over the years.  Some of the food was not as good as in prior years, and it appears that it is getting harder for them to keep trained staff.  Almost all waiters and cabin attendants are from Eastern Europe, the Philippines or Indonesia.  These areas don’t have a lot of jobs and an opportunity to sign a six month contract for working on a ship gives them an income.  What many don’t realize is that they will be working seven days a week and for 12 or more hours a day most days.  They become disillusioned and burned out quickly.  Some don’t make it through their contract, and a large number do not stay past the first one.

The other thing we find disappointing about cruises is the way we always feel that we are being nickeled and dimed.  All cocktails are exorbitantly priced, and even sodas and bottled water cost $2.50 on the ship.  On top of that, they automatically add an 18 percent tip.  Tipping is expected and we understand that.  It is how the waiters and cabin attendants are paid.  We prepaid the gratuities before the cruise, however if you elect not to prepay, the cruise line automatically adds $12.50 per day per person to your shipboard account.  This is over and above the 18 percent added automatically for drinks.  You can have the charge removed or changed if you go to the customer service desk, but the point is that they are just constantly sticking it to you.  You used to get envelopes that you put cash into and gave to the people you wanted to tip, but I guess enough people stiffed the help that they decided to make it practically automatic.  If that’s the case, why not just include the tip in the cost of the cruise, and let you add an additional tip if you feel you had extra special service.  The staff certainly needs to get paid, but I wish it felt more like a tip for extra service than just an additional cost that they are going to make you pay regardless.

All that said, cruising is still a great experience and something we enjoy doing.  It has allowed us to go places we would otherwise never visit, spend quality time together, eat much better food than we normally would, and be pampered and waited on.  (When we got off the ship, I was so used to that pampering that I almost forgot to take care of my tray at a fast food place where we stopped for lunch!)  We’re already looking forward to our next.

To see photos of our trip, follow this link:  ABC Islands Cruise Photos

Thursday, January 1, 2015


This post is for the techies in the family.  It's not a travel post.

For the past few years I have had a NAS on our home network that has been used for local backups.  Although I also have Mozy cloud backups set up for all three computers, the desktop, my laptop and Dianna's, I just like the extra security and flexibility that local backups provide.  There are also some large files that don't seem to lend themselves well to cloud backup, like .iso files.

A few months ago I began to have problems with my desktop computer which was still running XP.   After many weeks of trying to get it to work right, including a stint at "Daryl's Computer Repair", it just became more trouble than it was worth.  I made the decision to shut it down permanently except for rare instances when I needed some old physical interface that only existed on it.  We didn't really use it much anymore anyway, except that I did keep some large archival files on it because it had dual 250G drives configured as RAID 1. This has always provided good local security for my data.  I had a drive failure a couple years ago and simply replaced the failed drive and kept on running.  That's the beauty of RAID.   I decided to just leave the desktop sitting here in case I needed an aforementioned interface, but I also replaced the 250G hard drive in my laptop with a 500G Samsung SSD and copied all the important files from the desktop to my laptop just in case.

All was well until about a week ago when the drive in the NAS failed.  Fortunately there was nothing on it that was not also on one of my other systems, but still.....    I decided to replace it with what I should have purchased in the first place for backups.  I purchased a new NAS with RAID 1.  Fortunately, the prices have really come down so it is much more reasonable than it would have been back when I purchased my first NAS.

I purchased a Buffalo Linkstation 220 with dual 1T drives.  Although my previous NAS was 2T, I was only using about 600G of it so having only 1T is plenty.  If I ever do want to upgrade I only need to purchase larger drives and install them in the enclosure.

I read many reviews and decided this will work well for me.  Most of the reservations pointed out by reviewers had to do with using the NAS in a small office environment, and with features that I just don't plan to ever use.   So far it seems to be working fine.

Tennessee and Texas

I again find it has been a while since I posted about our travels, so I guess I better bring things up to date.  We spent the month of November in the same place near Darin and Diane where we spent last summer.  This year the project was enclosing an area of the garage and turning it into a salon for Diane.  I did the electrical and plumbing work, and the rest of the crew, along with a friend of Darin's did the drywall and painting.  It came out nice.

Other than spending some time with them and Christine, Nathan and Skylar, we didn't do a whole lot.  The weather was cool, wet and not conducive to much of anything else.  One of the things that many people expect is that since we are full time RV'ers we are always doing something or going somewhere, but it doesn't always work out that way.  We have spent a lot of time in the Chattanooga area and have seen most of what we want to see, so what we really do is just "live" there for a month.

After an uneventful four day trip to the Dallas area we parked in an RV park near the Jennings family.  Again, what we did for the most part was just "live" here for the month.  There were several Dr. visits since all of Dianna's doctors are here and she needed to do all her annual stuff.  She also saw a dermatologist who treated her for some skin issues that she will need to keep an eye on.

We visited the Jennings family and had the kids and their friends over to visit us.  Christmas was spent at their apartment, as was New Years Eve.  The rest of the month has been pretty boring.  Except for a couple nice days when Dale stopped by on his way west, the weather has been cold, wet and gloomy.  Many days we do not leave the rig.

Our plan has been to leave here on the 2nd to head for Arizona, but a winter storm may delay that for one day.  It's kind of wait and see.

We wish everyone a Happy New Year!