Friday, February 15, 2019

Whale bonanza as great grays head south to give birth, fatten up

A misty blast of water from the whale's blow hole helps us see him, as our Hornblower boat moves closer.

For sailors worldwide, the San Diego skyline is one of the prettiest.

THE AIR was crisp and fresh, the sun shone bright and our group of 200 aboard Hornblower was in the mood for whale watching.
We were NOT disappointed!
The Hornblower bar did a brisk business as nature lovers from Europe, Asia and North America cast off from San Diego Bay in search of migrating grey whales.
A frisky dolphin dives near the boat to our delight.
 While we motored out, a lively commentary began with a capsule of the magnificent whale's life and travels, his breaching, "spyhopping" and mating habits. We followed the main channel past Harbor Island, Shelter Island, graceful yachts, sailboat races, our exotic submarine base, popular restaurants, the U.S. Coastguard Station, our Navy Base, and into the ocean, a scenic 40-minute journey.
For us, it's a pilgrimage we make several times a season, a lovely way to enjoy whale watching as well as to admire one of the prettiest skylines and harbors in the world.
San Diego's abundant pleasures include the opportunity to observe one of nature's grandest creatures close-up and we take full advantage as often as possible.
 When a whale spyhops, it pokes its head out of the water.
 Most oceanographers say spyhopping simply lets the animals
 get a better view of activity near the water's surface.
We found this great grey near Alaska,
where we also saw humpbacks.
THIS TRIP, we saw about 10 grey whales -- in peak migration season -- each one about the width of a basketball court. Two of our sightings were of mating pods, three whales each.  The greys often mate in a trio. We've seen babies with their mothers in April, heading north. But since the gestation period is 12 months, the ones we see mating these year will give birth next year.
We'll be looking again in April for the mothers and calves.
Keller took this photo last April, a thrill for both of us. 
Dolphins are also a delight on our whale watching expeditions. They frolic, jump and dive for us, enjoying their captive audience.
 The whales know we're nearby and don't seem to mind.  Some experts speculate that they are naturally curious and trusting, which could explain their near demise at the hands of the ruthless and greedy whalers of yore.
These beautiful creatures travel at about five knots (about six miles per hour), so when a boat captain or passenger spots one, we slow down -- usually from five or six miles out, although we've seen them at closer range. Someone hollers "thar she blows" and gauges the direction off the boat -- 2 o'clock, 11 o'clock, etc.
A bonus of whale watching is the frequent sighting of dolphins.
Their spectacular journey is over 10,000 miles roundtrip, for us, the best opportunity to view. We've taken whale watching ventures in Hawaii, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Polynesia and Iceland - but have never had better whale watching than right here in our own back yard.
This year, we've been out only twice, not our usual half-dozen times, exploring the 70 miles of coastline in the migration path.
Another  grey whale "spyhop" off the coast of San Diego near La Jolla.
The gray whales start swimming south from Alaska in October,  passing the coast off San Diego from December through February, and again in March and into April, when they head north. But it's not unusual to see a northbound whale this time of year.  For as our captain said, "The whales don't have a time table. And it varies year to year, season to season."
SO WE TRY TO catch the mighty grey whales coming and going.  After spending time in warm Baja California waters so their young can grow strong and pregnant cows gain weight, they make the journey north again later in spring. This remarkable trip of 20,000 creatures represents the longest known distance any mammal migrates on an annual basis. Experts from San Diego's Natural History Museum enhance the trip with information and dialogue with curious passengers.
Wonders await aboard Hornblower's whale watch.
For this Montana girl and my San Diego born partner, it is an extraordinary spectacle.
In summer, the legendary blue whales -- the largest animals on Earth -- feed offshore the San Diego coast. Once on a summer cocktail cruise, we spotted a blue. We've also seen humpbacks, fin whales, pilot, minke and even killer whales off our gorgeous waters!

View the Whale & Dolphin Watching Brochure

Jeffrey Scott Parsons as Bobby Child is surrounded by a terrific tap-dancing
ensemble in a fine production of "Crazy for You" by San Diego Musical Theatre.
BEST BET: Magnificent tap dancing and winning Gershwin tunes grace Horton Grand Theatre, San Diego, in a satisfying production of "Crazy For You."  The thoroughly fun, old-fashioned musical features snappy numbers performed with panache by a terrific ensemble, a well tuned orchestra, colorful set and a series of show-stoppers ala Busby Berkeley. Impressive season opener for SDMT, the lovingly crafted endeavor of producers Erin and Gary Lewis. Through March 3. 
Madrid's stately boulevards are handsome and inviting even in winter.

 NEXT UP: Madrid.  Think elegant boulevards, baroque palaces and expansive, manicured parks. We take you to this exciting and historic central Spain city,  renowned for its rich repositories of European art, including the Prado Museum’s works by Goya, Velázquez and other Spanish masters. The heart of old Hapsburg Madrid is the portico-lined Plaza Mayor and we'll be there! Remember to explore, learn and live and visit us each Friday for a fresh take on travel, nature, the arts and family.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Eurail maintains its reputation for an excellent way to see Europe

Eurail offers efficient, pleasurable train travel in Europe. Purchased in the U.S., Eurail allows the traveler to
experience many European countries in clean, comfortable cars, with the latest technology, snacks and fine views. 


View from a first-class coach on a Eurail train between Rome and Florence.

Christene (Cookie) Meyers relaxes in a comfy coach
with the daily Italian paper, her phone and Eurail pass.
FEELING LIKE 20-year olds again, we launched our latest European odyssey on Eurail.
It was my 55th trip to Europe, and my partner's "20-somethingth," but for our last dozen years together, we'd rented cars, used planes and booked individual train reservations for our European forays. My last Eurail experience was in 1973, my partner's in 1977.
That time-honored train pass system, launched in 1959, requires purchasing ahead in the U.S. Our encore would satisfy our mutual desire to revisit Eurail, recapturing our youth in a delightful seven-week Eurail trip.
THE EURAIL Pass, once known as "Europass" or "Eurorail pass," allows holders to travel in 31 European countries on most European railroads and even some ferry lines.
Pass holders can visit Austria, Belgium, Bosnia Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and more.
You can buy a Eurail pass if you reside outside Europe -- living in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Asia or Africa. We met fellow travelers from all those places, including many Americans with whom we traded travel experiences, snacks and business cards.
Europe's landscape glides by on Eurail, here entering Naples. 
EUROPE'S TRAIN system is huge and Eurail is only a part of it.  There are no special Eurail trains. 'Eurail' is simply the brand name for the railpass options for overseas visitors to travel on normally scheduled European trains. Eurail passage is offered by an impressive co-operative network of 31 national train operators. A marketing team based in Utrecht in the Netherlands manages the Eurail scheme on behalf of the national train operators. It's a massive undertaking which works wonders in streamlining travel abroad.
First, do some homework, remembering that you must purchase Eurail in the U.S. before your trip. Decide between first and second-class, both of which are fine and comfortable.  A 3-month first-class ticket will cost around $2,000, less than a third that for our one-month passes, which worked beautifully with our trip. We book-ended cruises with the month-long land tour in the middle.
Train travel in Europe is an efficient, interesting way to explore the 
continent.  A Eurail pass makes it easy to move from country to country. 
FIRST-CLASS by train is lovely, comparable to comfort plus on the airplane.  First-class is available on most longer-distance trains and if you can afford it, first is a bit nicer, with wider, plusher seats, more legroom. You'll also find nicely dressed businessmen on laptops and fewer families with kids in first class. You'll also get a little snack and beverage, but it's not the airlines, so don't expect free booze for your entire journey.  A well stocked bar and snack car is near first class.
WE TRIED second-class for one of our segments-- Madrid to Barcelona.  It was just fine. It's the way most Europeans travel - unless the company is paying.  If you're booking a longer trip, there are  sleeper trains of many types -- even deluxe sleepers with en suite toilet and shower.
Once you purchase your Eurail pass, you've got 11 months to use. We activated our month-long passes on the 30th, and used them for the last time the 29th of the following month.
Eurail offers a chance to enjoy beautiful train stations, here Naples.
    Once you've learned the system -- how to use your pass to arrange specific dates and times -- Eurail offers a relaxing way to travel without the stress of driving. We enjoyed excellent fast express trains where we met locals and tourists and watched Europe glide peacefully by.
WE FOUND that Eurail rules are not complicated, but they are specific, and each country has its own system in dealing with Eurail passes and reservations. Once you get the Eurail pass, use the Eurail timetable to see if you need a reservation for a specific trip. (We paid an extra 10 Euros each to reserve longer trips.)
On some trains, a reservation is mandatory. Other reservations are optional. Some trains don't need a reservation at all.
Because most of our trips were several hours --
Bruce Keller and Cookie arrive in Florence, where the
 train station features artwork of the Tuscan countryside. 
and we were in the comfy, modern, first-class compartments with large windows -- we really enjoyed our return to Eurail. My techy partner, this column's ace photographer, also appreciated the technical amenities: hook-ups for our laptop and power for all modern devices. We had excellent cell reception except in the occasional tunnel, and used the on-line Eurail ap to check schedules and tickets. Be sure to swap out your U.S. sim card for a European version. For a little more than $40, we had unlimited communication with the greater world. More on that coming soon.
Kudos to Eurail for rekindling happy memories as we revisited favorite cities and villages in swift, stylish comfort.

Christene Cookie Meyers and Bruce Keller enjoy whale watching around
the world.  Their best viewings occur, however, in their own backyard. 
NEXT UP:  On the trail of the great gray whale with Cookie and Keller.  The magnificent creatures are heading south by the hundreds, passing by our San Diego perch.  We're all eyes -- aboard Hornblower -- to see whales and dolphins and share with you, as they make their way to the Baja to give birth, nurse their young and fatten them up for the return trip home.  Remember to explore, learn and live and visit us each Friday for a fresh take on travel, nature, the arts and family.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Flamenco feast: Spain visit features performances of famous art form

Flamenco dancers dazzle with their movements and hypnotic footwork.


The swirling and twirling of scarves is part of the flamenco tradition.

AS A YOUNG bride on honeymoon in Granada, I witnessed my first flamenco dance.
I was mesmerized.
The dancers were a mix of ages and shapes, but all had the expressive moves down pat -- their arms and feet moving in time to the intricate footwork, shawls whipping around their bodies. From our center table in a small dimly lit cafe, we could see the facial expressions and drops of sweat. I pressed a flower that flew from the head of one of the dancers during an intricate move.
Dancers take individual bows at the end of each piece.
THE TIME honored dance form became famous in Spain but reflects contributions from many other world cultures.  It usually features a solo performer, backed by musicians and sometimes a partner.  Hand clapping and that distinctive percussive footwork give flamenco its flair, enhanced by intricate hand, arm, and body movements. 
  Today's flamenco reflects music of Latin American, Cuban, and Jewish traditions.  It was originally not set to music but was accompanied by emotional singing and clapping of hands called “toque de palmas."
The company takes bows on stage, with the featured singer in the center here.
IN OUR annual forays to southern Spain, we always include at least one night of flamenco. On this most recent trip, we gilded the flamenco lily, choosing two very different venues to enjoy this integral part of Andalucian culture. One can find as many definitions of flamenco as there are tapas bars.  Most scholars agree that flamenco is composed of four elements: voice, or cante; dance, or baile; guitar, or toque, and "jaleo," which roughly translated means "hell raising."  Clapping, stomping, shouts of encouragement to the featured dancer convey the emotion of the numbers, often laments about life's sorrows and the human condition.

Flamenco guitarists and rhythm makers
are an integral part of the show.
Dancers, singers and musicians share a final bow.
One of our shows, "Encuentros en la cumbre del baile," or Encounters at the pinnacle of dance, featured two of Spain's most famous flamenco dancers, Miguel "El Rubio" and Palmoa Fantova, backed by Maria Carmona and Sara Barrero. The other show, "Tablao Flamenco Cordobes," promised to convey the mystery of the singing and poetry -- paying homage to Gypsy, Moorish, and Andalusian folklore. As our waiter said, "flamenco is an outcry, an expression of love and pain, or enjoment and happiness.  It is meant to be felt, not necessarily understood."

All aboard next week for tips on Eurail travel with our team, Cookie and Keller.

UP NEXT: Eurail was the way to see Europe for many young Americans in the 1970s. Our two young at heart travelers take to Eurail again, so all aboard with tips on seeing Europe anew again by train. Meanwhile, remember to explore, learn and live and catch us each Friday for a novel look at the arts, travel, nature, family and more at