Tintern Abbey

Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me,
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet
—Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey
William Wordsworth, 1798

Perhaps it is the sign of a weak mind to be so influenced by a few lines of poetry written over 200 years ago that I felt I must see for myself what inspired Wordsworth. If so, then I am certainly guilty, for once I knew we would be in Wales, Tintern Abbey was on my list. I have gazed at photos of the site over the years, and the combination of the skeletal yet still-soaring stonework and the picturesque setting added to the feeling that this was a place I had to see someday.

I do love old cathedrals and churches, even though my interest is purely secular. A cathedral may have been intended as a tribute to God’s majesty, but to me, it is a symbol of humanity’s spirit, perseverance, ingenuity, and artistry.

All photos by Marian Buechert.

I planned our visit for an evening and the following morning, staying nearby in one of those pleasant inns that the Brits seem to specialize in. We arrived late in the day, just in time for the magic evening light, and although we couldn’t enter the abbey (it had closed for the day) we had the exterior of the site to explore by ourselves. It was intriguing to imagine the area buzzing with activity as it would have been during the abbey’s heyday.

As the shadows lengthened, we strolled across the nearby bridge and along a walking path that followed the river to where we could view the abbey from farther away. Without modern buildings or roads to ruin the illusion, the ruins probably looked much like they did when Wordsworth composed his lines.

In the morning, we revisited the site, poking around the interior this time. “Inside,” what was once flagstone floors is now a smooth carpet of manicured greenery across which the shadows of the pillars and arches etch patterns. With grass beneath your feet, stone rising around you, and the ceiling of blue sky, you feel as if you’re in a temple to nature.

Through the site, I wandered lonely as a cloud, when all at once I heard a single voice raised in song. I followed my ears around a corner and beheld a young woman, standing alone in the centre of the abbey’s great open nave, singing a beautiful melody in a language I didn’t understand. Along with everyone else on the site, I stood transfixed until she finished, when she immediately moved off and became just another visitor again.

I would have loved to do what she did and express my reverence with music, but I feared that it would be seen as mockery, so I remained silent. But inside, my heart was singing.

Are there historic sites that inspire reverence in you? Let me know in a comment.

Here Comes the Showboat!

As we roll into the beginning of summer, I’m once again reminded of how splendid is my own little corner of the world and how happy I am when I get a chance to spend part of the summer around here. This doesn’t mean I don’t travel, but sometimes I enjoy being a tourist in my own town with all its festivals, free events, and fascinating nooks.

The Kitsilano Showboat is a perfect example. Even though I was born near Vancouver, for many years, I had no idea where Kitsilano is. Growing up in the burbs of Port Moody, Kits was just not a place my family visited. I was in my 40s before I heard about the Showboat. They ran an ad looking for roving musicians who would stroll the nearby beaches and perform for the crowds there, with the idea of luring patrons to check out the free stage at the Showboat. The shameless exhibitionist in me jumped at the chance to go where buskers and other musicians are normally forbidden. Evenings that summer found my partner and I gussied up in 1890s costume, playing to the scantily clad throngs in thongs arrayed on the sand. Afterwards, we would head back to the Showboat to catch the show.

It’s s a classic Vancouver experience: park your keester on one of the amphitheatre’s tiered benches, look down to where the Mexican Dance Ensemble or the South Surrey Concert Band is playing its heart out for you, and then gaze past: first to the epic aquamarine dimensions of the Kitsilano Pool, which lies just behind the Showboat, next, to the waters of English Bay beyond that, criss-crossed by the white triangles of sailing dinghies and the wet-suited figures of stand-up paddleboarders, still farther to the skyline of West Vancouver, and finally to the stunning backdrop of the Coast Mountains. A little to the right of this world-class vista, rest your eyes on the white sand of Kitsilano Beach set against the skyscrapers of downtown Vancouver. Now add in a perfect summer-blue sky and some silver gulls soaring on the breeze, and you have a scene to inspire E.J. Hughes.

Discovering the Showboat was like finding out I had a long-lost great-auntie living in a Kitsilano heritage home. This auntie is a former vaudeville star, fabulously eccentric but always entertaining. You can visit her any night of the week, as long as it’s Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or Saturday. You never know whether she’s going to show up for dinner as a hula dancer, a kilted lassie, a saloon gal, or a cowgirl. She might come out playing a tuba or bring a troupe of tiny tots on stage to wave little Canadian flags. Even though she’s pushing 82, she’s still a spry old showgirl flaunting a bright new coat of turquoise paint each year.

Founded in 1935—back in the days when the average person was much more accustomed to entertaining themselves, their families, and their neighbours with homespun talent—the Showboat relies on volunteer performers to put on a show. From the kiddies of the Hi-Kicks Dance School to wanna-be rock gods, everyone gives it their best effort, and although the talents are not always professional-level, they are never boring.

There’s a concession nearby for snacks and drinks, or, for more up-scale nosh before or after the show, drop in at the beachside Boathouse Restaurant just around the corner. Best option of all might be a packed picnic dinner on a beach blanket among the driftwood of Kits Beach.

When the performance ends, meander along the promenade and enjoy the sunset.

Hamming it up on Kits Beach with my partner a few years back.

“See the Show Boat,
Will you go?
Let me take you to the show!”
Show Boat (the musical, 1927)

 

If you grew up in Vancouver, do you have any memories of the Kitsilano Showboat? Or do you remember a similar local talent outlet from your own home town? Let me know 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.

NOLA & All That Jazz

louis_armstrong_restoredNew Orleans. Why does that name draw me? I’m not really a city person, yet I’ve always wanted to visited NOLA.

I definitely associate it with the exciting history of American music, for which I blame Ken Burns and his excellent series, Jazz.

Maybe it’s the hint of Mardi Gras that seems to linger in the air all year round. There’s the possibility of exotic Cajun food and French pastries to tempt, plus the proximity to natural habitats of bayou and mangrove that promise bird species for me to add to my list.

Since this will be a winter trip, the warm climate appeals; although I don’t expect to be swimming outdoors in December, I do hope to escape subzero temperatures for a while. I also like the idea of visiting an antebellum plantation.

The visit to NOLA will be a few days tagged on after the end of a cruise out of Tampa, not a huge amount of time, so I’m happy to focus just on the city and nearby.

I started by doing quick online research on the average Dec/Jan temperatures in that area. Double-checked that I wouldn’t have to worry about hurricanes at that time of year (whew!). I also used Expedia to compare the cost of flying into Tampa/out of NOLA versus Tampa in/out—it was actually slightly cheaper, hurray!

Next stop was my local library to pick up any available guidebooks. As it happened, they had only one on the shelf, but luckily, it was a good one: the 2016 edition of Moon’s New Orleans.

In its pages, I discovered that NOLA is the home of the Jazz National Historical Park, run by the U.S. National Park Service. According to Wikipedia, “…created in 1994 to celebrate the origins and evolution of jazz….The Park provides a setting for sharing the cultural history of the people and places which helped to shape the development and progression of jazz in New Orleans.” They actually have “ranger-musicians” who perform and educate visitors. How cool is that? They also offer a free brochure outlining an 11-stop tour of jazz history sites in the city and you can download an MP3 version of tour narration to listen to on your own mobile device. Historic education embracing modern technology. Go, U.S. National Parks! (DYK?—it’s the 100th anniversary of the USNPS. Happy birthday, you wonderful Park People!) The Jazz National Park moves onto my “must-do” list for this trip.

Thinking about a boat trip into the bayou, I scanned the guidebook’s list of tours, but didn’t see one that really grabbed me, so I Googled “birding tours Lafayette” and found The Atchafalaya Experience, which seems to tick a lot of my boxes: small tours, experienced, knowledgeable guides, philosophy of getting out into the bayou in a quiet boat and seeing what there is to see on that day, rather than chasing down ‘gators or specific creatures. I know that December likely won’t yield as many species as a spring or summer trip, and I won’t complain if I’m chilly or damp. On the up side, mosquitos probably won’t bother us much!

My companion, who has visited NOLA on business before, was keen to select our accommodations in the city, so I acquiesced gracefully; after all, I do 99% of the travel planning/booking, it’s good to let go the reins once in a while. He chose the Hotel St. Marie for its location (just off Bourbon Street), price (moderate), and streetside balconies, while I liked the reams of positive reviews on TripAdvisor. Let’s see if she lives up to her reputation.

Whenever I hit a new destination, I have to check out bakeries, pastry shops, and chocolate emporiums. I have a sweet tooth, but I have very high standards: pastries and chocolates that are merely sweet don’t cut it. They must have rich and satisfying flavours. A beautiful presentation doesn’t hurt—but I’ve had too many fancy cakes and bon-bons that were all looks and no taste to fall into that trap. In NOLA, I’ll be visiting Blue Frog Chocolates, Sucré, La Boulangerie, and Le Croissant d’Or. Good thing I have some walking tours ahead to work off all that sugar.

Speaking of walking tours, I’ll round out my time in southern Louisiana with at least one of those plantation tours. Not very politically correct of me, I know, but I will mitigate my guilt by choosing the tour of Laura, which focuses on the history of the plantation’s women, both free and enslaved. I’ll never be hungry again!

Anyone planning a trip to NOLA? Let me know what you are looking forward to doing, seeing, or eating.