Birding by Boat

Birding can be a tough slog. Marching along steaming-hot jungle trails, toting gear, trying to simultaneously watch the trail for poisonous snakes while craning your neck to spot birds in treetops, and disciplining yourself to stand perfectly still as swarms of mosquitos descend joyfully on your sweating limbs. Don’t get me wrong—I understand that masochism is one of the primary attractions of the hobby—but yes, there are actually times when I wonder why I do it.

On the other hand, you could be gliding effortlessly along a cool river, fresh air wafting past your face—sitting down, no less—encumbered by nothing more than binoculars, as the guide points out the colourful species that are easily viewed along the banks.

Once you picture the difference between those two descriptions, you’ll begin to see why I’ve become enamoured of birding by boat.

My favourite experience with BBB was on the Daintree River in Queensland, Australia. The bed and breakfast, a highly civilized establishment called the Red Mill House, got us up before dawn with a quick snack and the promise of a full breakfast upon our return. We were out on the river in time to enjoy the sunrise and catch the early-morning bird activity.

The boat was small but very comfortable, with seats that swiveled in any direction, leaned back as needed, and were just easy to sit in for a couple of hours. No canopy on the boat meant I could easily see up and around to view and photograph birds overhead or high in the trees.

Murray, The Daintree Boatman, shared his vast knowledge of the river’s ecology—birds, plants, reptiles, insects—and history. Not only did he know where to locate specific species, but he was extremely respectful of all the creatures, even taking the trouble to replace an ant back on its tree unharmed after showing it to us.

After two hours, we were delivered back to the lodge, where an excellent breakfast awaited us, along with a chance to discuss the morning’s sightings with the two hosts, formidable birders in their own right.

Okay, so I’m not so much about suffering for my hobby. Or, at least, not about needlessly suffering for it. I won’t pretend I’m not a lightweight when compared what some birders go through to “twitch” a new species.

Still, I’ve paid my dues when necessary. There was the time on the Caroni Swamp in Trinidad, where we did the sunset tour to see the scarlet ibises come in to roost. Despite the withering heat and humidity, I was wearing long pants, socks, shoes, long sleeves, and a hat, all drenched in DEET, and still the mozzies feasted. They bit my nether regions between the slats of the boat’s bench, through my trousers. They flew up my nose when I inhaled. They attacked the lens of my camera such that I could see them crawling across as I tried to focus. Those were some serious bloodsuckers. My companion squashed one and cheerfully called out: “Only 999,999 more to go!”

But that was the only way to see those roosting ibises, and we willingly paid the price in blood and sweat.

Like I said, birding can be a tough slog. So I’ll take whatever comforts and conveniences I can get, when I can get them. After all, it’s all about the birds, not what you have to suffer to see them.

Or is it?

What have you endured in order to pursue your travel passion? I’d love to hear about it in a comment.

First-time Cruising Part 2

In my first blog on cruising last week, I covered the basics. This week, I’ll talk about all the fun extras.

Entertainment As a performer myself, I was, of course, curious about the type and quality of entertainment provided—all for free—on the cruise. I’m happy to report that I found the musical talent to be top class. The family-friendly “main-stage” shows presented each evening in the large theatre were all very good and varied, including magicians, acrobats, a stand-up comedian, Motown review singers, a country music review, and a couple of shows that involved the whole cast. The daily entertainment found scattered throughout the ship in lounges, bars, and at poolside featured guitar and piano soloists, a reggae band, and a couple of dance bands. I enjoyed all of them, although I didn’t hear as much of some as I would have liked, as they played in areas where there was cigarette smoke. Also, the bands tended to be amped at ear-splitting levels, not conducive to quiet enjoyment.

Grade: A+

Activities This is where my expectations really were not met. Everyone I spoke to prior to the cruise who had cruised before said, “You’ll never be bored. There are so many things going on all the time.” However, when I looked at the list of daily activities that they provide each day, I could quickly eliminate those that:

  • Required extra fees (e.g., bingo)
  • Were thinly disguised attempts to help you part with your money (e.g., a talk on How to Spot a Real Emerald)
  • Were targeted at specific groups to which I don’t belong (e.g., LGBT meet-up)
  • Were dance parties of various kinds

This left me with a short list of things such as the “Crossword Challenge.” The “Crossword Challenge” consisted of a bored-looking staff member handing out copies of a puzzle–but only if you asked for it. That was it. No interaction between people, no game aspect to it. Wow. Basically the same as if I sat at home and did the daily crossword in my newspaper. To add insult to injury, there was a glaring error in the puzzle.

My friends went to the “Family Balloon-Twisting.” When the balloon they were working with popped and they asked for another, they were told they’d have to go up to a higher deck and get another balloon from the kids’ club. It obviously hadn’t occurred to anyone that twisting balloons inevitably results in some collateral damage and it might be a good idea to have spares. Duh. Not to mention that if an error like this occurs (i.e., they neglected to bring extra materials), it’s the staff’s job to solve the problem, not the person with children who should go running to another deck.

For the “Caribbean Dance Lessons” by the poolside, I was the only participant, which wasn’t their fault, but the staff person in charge spent a mere five minutes teaching me a simple set of moves to the music, then seemed to lose interest. After muttering about how brave I was (to be the only participant) and that she would “reward” me, she started talking to the band, leaving me standing there like a bump on a log, not knowing if there was more to come. When she finally noticed me, she shooed me away, saying I could sit down. Again, as a sometime performer myself, I know that when you only get a small turnout, you work twice as hard to ensure that those who do show feel extra special and are glad they made the effort.

So much for activities. There were a couple of fun group games that we enjoyed, but most were equally lame.

Grade: F

Shore excursions  Getting off and on the ship at the ports of call was much easier than I expected. Line-ups were minimal and the staff was efficient.

We only booked one organized excursion. It was okay, but expensive for what you got. From the cruise ship dock, we spent approximately one hour getting herded onto the bus and driving to the tour dock, one hour motoring to the snorkel spot, an hour in the water actually snorkeling (and the snorkeling was good, so we pushed the time to the max), a half hour eating lunch and lounging on the catamaran, and an hour to return to the cruise ship. The bus ride back to the ship was quite uncomfortable, as we were all in wet swimsuits and the bus air conditioning froze us, plus some of us were forced to sit on seats over the wheels where there was literally no leg space, so you either sat with your knees around your ears (for the young and flexible) or twisted around to jam your legs into the aisle where fold-down seats and their passengers already took up all the space. It’s the kind of situation I would normally just laugh off when I travel, but when I’m paying a premium price for a tour, I expect better.

Grade: B

A few health and safety issues

  1. In my humble (non-smoking) opinion, there are too many smoking areas, especially since the smoke seeps into adjoining areas. The ping-pong zone, for example, a hub of youthful activity, was always choked in fumes from nearby smoking areas, as was one hall where people–including families–would wait for the theatre to open.
  2. Some of the globe lights are set along corridor side walls at a height and angle such that my not-extraordinarily-tall companion smacked his head on one. A ship’s officer who happened to witness the incident merely paused for a moment and then continued on his business without apologizing, expressing sympathy, or checking whether my friend was injured.
  3. Most flooring was secure, but one outdoor area (around the outdoor aft eating area) was extremely slippery when wet. Both myself and one of my companions had scary near-falls and we witnessed a number of others skid in the same area. And no, none of us had been drinking!

Overall, I would have to recognize that this cruise was good value at about $100 per day per person. Would I get a luxurious, spacious room in an all-inclusive resort with gourmet food, excellent entertainment, pool time, beach time, and new scenery every day for that price? Unlikely. So it isn’t really fair to expect all of that plus more from the cruise.

In addition, I admit to being awed by the efficiency of the behemoth. Just planning for, keeping safe, feeding, and managing several thousand people floating on the ocean is a logistical miracle.

Would I recommend this cruise? If you like to eat, drink (for an extra charge), sprawl in the sun, dance to loud modern music, and watch some great entertainers, this cruise might be for you.

Would I cruise again? Never say never, I say. There are a wide variety of cruises and cruise lines, and I’m ever amenable to trying something different. Under the right circumstances, the open seas may beckon again.

First-time Cruising

I admit it: cruising has never been high on my travel list. I understand the appeal for many people, but I had my reasons why I steered clear. Recently, however, several factors came together to nudge me onboard. Like a good traveller, I tried to set aside my preconceptions and be open to a new experience.

After eight days at sea, I had compiled a stack of notes too long for one blog, so I’ve broken the topic up into two. This first entry will discuss the basics: general comfort and atmosphere, stateroom, food and beverages, computers onboard, and staff. I’ve assigned a letter grade for each category and included jottings about whatever caught my notice, good or bad. Since this is my first cruise, I’m not sure whether some things are specific to the cruise line (Norwegian) or common to the whole industry, however, one of my travel companions has cruised before and we were able to compare experiences, which gave me some context.

General Comfort & Atmosphere  Decor ranged from bright and colourful to garish in some areas (e.g., purple, orange, and silver in one lounge). Staterooms were calmer and more tasteful. Twelve elevators seemed sufficient to transport everyone at most times, except when large crowds came through at the same time (e.g., when the theatre shows let out, there might be short waits). Pools were small but adequate, since surprisingly few people actually go in. Staff were vigilant about keeping youngsters out of the adult pool (bonus if you’re an adult, not so much if you’re underage and trying to sneak in).

It could be hard to find quiet spaces outdoors, as there was almost always loud music broadcast. Even in the upper-deck “quiet zone” you could still hear it.

Grade: A-

Stateroom  Our room in the cheapest price range was excellent, more space than we expected , bed large and comfy, everything clean and in good repair, TV remote didn’t work probably due to a dead battery. Despite it being an inside cabin, it was quiet and had no smells. I am not claustrophobic, so having an inside cabin (no window) didn’t bother me.

Pet peeve: toilet set into bathroom at an angle that made sitting on it straight impossible, I had to sit sideways. Awkward and uncomfortable. (I know—too much information!)

Grade: A

Food  We did not eat in the paid restaurants but tried all the included (free) eateries. Food was plentiful, available nearly round the clock, and of solidly good–not brilliant–quality. Full disclosure: I’m not much of a foodie when it comes to savouries. For me, the main dishes were fine. However, my companion–who has cruised before–was not impressed, especially when she compared to her previous cruise on another line.

Pet peeve: French fries were universally crap. Thin and cold, like they salvaged them out of the trash bins of the closest fast food joint. Come on, folks, I know you can do better than this.

Grade: B

Desserts  Given their central position in my solar system, desserts form a separate category. Sadly, most were based on the “pretty but virtually tasteless” model. What my companion has aptly christened “sweet goo.” Comes in a variety of colours and shapes, sometimes shaped like cake, sometimes in a bowl, but always the main “flavour” is sweet. I stopped eating these after one day, having sampled enough to know they would all follow this pattern.

Bonus point: what saved desserts from a D grade was the crepe bar, where the chef hustled up fresh crepes with your choice of toppings. Yum.

Grade: C-

Beverages  The expected restrictions (pay as you go alcohol and soft drinks) aside, beverages did not impress. Watery, sugary “fruit” drinks and unsweetened ice tea were on offer at meals, plus coffee & tea.

Pet peeve: fruit drink bar. Fresh fruit and veggies aren’t expensive–they provide racks of them at every meal. But if you want those same fruits and veggies freshly squeezed and blended, you have to pay. That’s just stupid.

Saved from C- by unrestricted palatable water and ice.

Grade: C

Computer  Internet available but expensive. I wonder how long they’ll hold out on this one, considering that the grubbiest little cafe onshore anywhere now provides FREE wifi and people expect it.

Pet peeve: the onboard Internet cafe computers do not provide any programs for general use e.g., Word. They only allow paid access to Internet.

Grade: D

Staff  In general, I found the staff to be excellent, very friendly, helpful, and efficient. 

Bonus point, bumping this grade from A to A+, goes to the Washy-Washy Lady* who turns an incredibly dull but vital task into a bouncy moment of song-and-dance fun. For me, and, I’m sure, everyone else on the cruise, it will be her face, voice, and cheery greeting that stays in memory.

Grade: A+

*For you fellow cruise neophytes, the Washy-Washy Lady stands at the main door of the central dining room with a spritzer full of hand sanitizer, encouraging and assisting everyone to cleanse their hands before eating. Our WWL was a smiling, ad-libbing, entertaining individual who, I’m sure, had a night job headlining at some Philippine cabaret.

To be continued.