Mediterranean cruise

South Pacific update (I hope)

This is our first try at an email posting. We are currently in the future, having crossed the international date line a couple of days ago (I would share a picture of it, but of course it is invisible). Somewhat surprisingly, we made it ashore to all of the South Pacific islands on the itinerary. All but Tahiti are tender ports & Rarotonga & Niue lack outer reefs that create lagoons with calm water for easy tendering. So those two islands are often missed because of bad weather or rough sea conditions. Boarding the tenders was pretty dicey on both of these days, especially at Rarotonga, but we did make it ashore. So that is probably a pretty good omen for the rest of the cruise.
For the last two days we have been sailing through a real gale, with wind speeds up to about 60 mph. The ship has really been rocking, both side to side & front to back. Actually, the captain says we are threading our way between two big storms, so we are getting it from both sides. The weather on our port days has been mostly quite good, so we can’t really complain about bad weather when we are confined to the ship anyway. Day after tomorrow we will be in Auckland, New Zealand, which is actually the last of the Polynesian Islands we will visit on this cruise.
I have attached a couple of pictures, so we will see if they get posted when I send this. The first is a view of the island of Moorea from Tahiti. The second is the early morning sail in to Bora Bora.


Monaco

     On April 17 we docked in Port Hercules in the middle of Monaco (legend has it that Hercules passed through here & made the area habitable by getting rid of all the wild beasts).  Monaco is the world’s second smallest sovereign state (after the Vatican), covering less than a square mile. But it is also the world’s most densely populated state with some 37,000 residents (just about a third of whom are citizens). It is only about 5 miles from Italy but is surrounded by France on all land borders, and by treaty France is responsible for the defense & foreign policy of Monaco.  Although not a member of the European Union, the Euro is Monaco’s official currency.  Monaco is, of course, famous as a playground for the rich & famous, so the harbor is full of (big) yachts, the streets are full of fancy cars & everything is expensive.

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     It was a gray rainy day, one of the very few we have had on this trip.  Mary was still feeling pretty bad from the illness she picked up in Dubai, the previous two days in Rome & Florence had been pretty taxing & we were planning a big day in Barcelona the next day.  Monaco really wasn’t a priority for us, so we decided to take it easy & just took the HOHO bus tour around the city/country.  We didn’t hop off the bus at all, though, so all the pictures in this episode were taken either from the open top of the bus or from the ship.  Thankfully the heavy rain didn’t begin until just after we got back to the ship.

     Our first stop was at the Casino of Monte Carlo.  Monte Carlo (Mount Charles) is one of the five districts of Monaco.  The casino was first built in the mid 19th century because the ruling family was in dire financial straits. It worked: they aren’t in any danger of bankruptcy any more. You have probably seen James Bond walking up the steps to the entrance in Casino Royale or Never Say Never Again. The back part of the casino, facing the harbor, is the opera house, built a few years later.  And on one side of casino square next to the casino is the Hotel de Paris, built in 1863, very ritzy & expensive.  The tennis ball decorations are to celebrate the 110th Monte Carlo Masters tennis tournament (actually held over the border in France), the final day of which was the day of our visit.

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     We rode through the narrow, sharply curving & hilly streets of the city to the Palace.

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     The Prince’s Palace was first built in 1191, but has been expanded, renovated & enhanced many times since then.  Built on top of a huge rock overlooking the Mediterranean, it was initially a Genoese stronghold & you can still see some of the more castle-like walls at the edge of the rock.  The Grimaldi family, Genoese noblemen who were on the losing side in a struggle for control for Genoa, captured it in 1297 & have ruled here most of the time ever since.  The princes were absolute rulers until 1910, when a rather ineffectual parliament was established under a constitution granted by Prince Albert I in response to public unrest. But even today Prince Albert II is the dominant political power in Monaco & his offices & residence are in the Palace. His predecessor (& father) was Prince Rainier III, who famously married the movie star Grace Kelly (Albert’s mother) in 1956.

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     From the Palace grounds there were some stunning views of the harbor & the mountains.  Next to the Palace on the edge of the rock cliff is a statue called “hommage aux colonies étrangères,” built in 1914 to honor the 25th year of the reign of Prince Albert I.  Across the square from the Palace were some interesting buildings that look like they date from the 19th century.  We drove on, down through an arched road, to St Nicholas Cathedral.  It was built at the turn of the 20th century; Prince Rainier & Princess Grace are buried there.

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     We passed by the Oceanographic Museum.  It was built in 1910 by Prince Albert I, who had an avid interest in the subject, and presided over from 1957 to 1988 by Jacques Cousteau.  The collection inside has a first rate reputation, including an aquarium with more than 4,000 species of fish, but of course we didn’t see the inside.  Outside the museum was a very colorful exhibit, but we have no idea what it was about.

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     The Monaco Grand Prix auto race was first run in 1929.  It is a challenging course through the streets of the city, with hairpin turns, changing elevations & a tunnel. The 2016 race was to be at the end of May & they were already preparing when we were there, building viewing stands in several places on the water front.  One of the excursions offered by HAL was to walk the course of the race (it might be a lot cheaper to buy a map & walk it yourself).  We saw several of the viewing stands that were under construction (built anew every year).

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     Well that’s it for our short bus-top tour of Monaco.  We returned to the ship & it then began raining pretty hard for most of the afternoon.  We will leave you with a few pictures taken from the ship.

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Please Stand By; We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties

     It’s been a long time & we don’t want anyone to get the idea we have abandoned this blog or jumped ship or shipwrecked by a cyclone.  We are continuing to sail through the beautiful South Pacific seas, taking lots of pictures & composing blog posts.  Unfortunately, so far the internet connection has been woefully inadequate to upload postings with lots of pictures (which means lots of data).  We can still receive email intermittently (my email works better than Mary’s) & we will still receive by email any comments that are posted on the blog.  But blog postings just haven’t worked.

     We will continue to try and hopefully will eventually be able to start posting actual voyage episodes to the blog.  We don’t know when, but hopefully not too long.  Rest assured that eventually all of the voyage will be posted.  Meanwhile, for all of you currently buried under tons of snow (and particularly the one of you buried under that snow on our front yard), here is a teaser to keep you from changing to another channel.  Those of you who have been here will recognize it; the rest will just have to tune in later to learn where this particular South Seas paradise is.

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Hamilton, Bermuda, then Home

     We arrived in Hamilton in the afternoon of May 13.  Our original itinerary scheduled us to dock in St. George’s on May 14. They switched to Hamilton early in the cruise (don’t know why). We were able to dock in Hamilton a day early because we left Horta much earlier than planned & the Captain pushed the ship in order to give us more time in Hamilton as compensation for missing Horta. It was raining a lot, however, & Mary wasn’t feeling well (we were both pretty worn down by the end of the voyage) so we didn’t go ashore on the 13th. The 14th was rainy off and on as well, and we had already been to Bermuda once, so we only spent a few hours in town. While we visited several buildings on our walk, the predominant impression was made by the profusion of beautiful flowers (it was Spring, after all).

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The picture above is distorted, of course, because it is a panorama.  The wall in the front is actually straight rather than curved. Prominent in this picture are the cathedral (top center), the Sessions House (top right with towers) and Front Street (nice old buildings filled mostly with tourist shops & restaurants) along the front.

     We started out walking to the right down Front Street & soon came to the Cabinet Office. Hamilton has been the capital of Bermuda since 1815 (one of the world’s smallest, at just 1800 residents), so there are a number of government buildings here.  This one had a nice garden in front of it (the green space just above front street on the far right in the picture above). In addition to some lovely flowers, there is an interesting memorial to the Bermudans who fought in WWI & WWII. It has seven plaques with a total of 3000 names & in the center is a sphere that constantly turns on its base.  The sphere is not attached at all, so it must be supported by running water from underneath. There is also a striking sculpture that is a memorial to Sally Bassett, an elderly slave who was burned at the stake in 1730 after being convicted of attempting to poison the owners of her granddaughter. The sculpture shows her tied to the stake with kindling stacked under her feet. These are recent monuments: Sally Bassett was erected in 2008 & the war memorial in 2010.

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     We went on to Queen Elizabeth Park, formerly called Par-La Ville Park. It was laid out in the mid-19th century by the local postmaster, named Perot, who owned the Par-La Ville manor which is now the library. He collected plants from all over the world for this park & most are still there. It is a fairly small park, filled with colorful flowers, a fish pond, several roosters and a “moon gate” (a round gated portal of which Bermuda has several). Since 2007 it has also been a sculpture garden.  Considered by many the premiere park in Bermuda, it is well worth a visit.  

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     Next to the park was the Bermuda National Library & Museum. Its pretty small and unimposing for a “National” library, but it is known for its collection of Bermuda literature. In front of it somewhere is a rubber tree planted by Mr. Perot, in which Mark Twain once expressed disappointment because it did not bear hot water bottles or rubber overshoes. Inside is a collection of Bermudiana, including a doll dressed as a Gombey dancer (a Bermudan specialty) & the pocket trumpet of Vernon “Ghandi” Burgess, Bermuda’s most prominent jazz musician.

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     We walked on to the gleaming white City Hall which also contains the Bermuda National Art Gallery. The tower of the building appears to be a clock tower, but it actually tells the direction of the wind determined by the weathervane on top. The weathervane is supposed to be a model of the Sea Venture, the ship that brought the first settlers to Bermuda. It was trying to reach Jamestown (among the passengers was John Rolfe, who later married Pocahontas & was the first to plant tobacco in North America) but was wrecked on Bermuda in a hurricane. This well publicized adventure is said to have been the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. Anyway, upstairs in the City Hall was the Gallery, displaying a lot of very interesting Bermudian art. There was a bronze  sculpture of a family reading a book sitting by the front door & on the first floor a sculpture of a group of men that pretty much defies description.

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    We visited the Anglican Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity, a gothic structure dedicated in 1911 that dominates the skyline, as you can see in the picture at the beginning of this episode. Apparently there is a law against erecting a building taller than the cathedral. Inside was a very large pipe organ (we have seen quite a few of those on this trip).

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     The last building we visited before returning to the ship was the Sessions House, which is home to Bermuda’s legislative Assembly & also its Supreme Court (in the lower level).  It was first built in 1819, but the tower & colonnade were added in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee (there is a medallion of Queen Victoria on the outside wall). The dial on this tower really is a clock. Bermuda’s is the 4th oldest active Parliament in the world, after Britain, Iceland & the Isle of Man. Inside they still conduct government (court & assembly) the old fashioned way, in wigs.

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     It was starting to rain so we walked back to the ship but were unable to avoid getting pretty wet, even though we had umbrellas. But we saw more pretty flowers on the way. We also noticed a sign threatening a harsh sounding punishment for trespassing (so we didn’t go in). Right after we got back the sky opened up and it really poured, so as in Ponta Delgada we luckily timed it to avoid the worst of the weather.

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    Happily the weather cleared up before our departure in the late afternoon, because the sailaway from Bermuda is lengthy (to avoid the reefs) & beautiful. We passed a lot of brightly colored houses that are characteristic of Bermuda, we saw the lighthouse high on a hill and we saw a lot of beautiful bright blue water as we left.

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     So after two more days at sea we arrived in Ft. Lauderdale early on the morning of May 17, tired but happy. I will include here pictures of some of the crew (you may have seen some of these before). Here are the cruise director, Gene; Captain van Schoonhoven, who was captain on the second half of the trip; Lisa the travel guide; and Firmin, the hotel director (also on our South America cruise), who was about to retire (and planning a cruise as a passenger . . . I don’t think I would want to be the hotel director on that cruise with Firmin  aboard).  Here also are our table waiter from Barcelona to Ft. Lauderdale with Arthur our assistant waiter for the entire trip, Willie the supervisor in the Lido,  Endang our super head waiter, Gildas the manager of the restaurant, and the delightful Kiki, who was our waiter for most of the trip.  Here also is the director of the Prinsendam orchestra (about 5 pieces), an excellent guitar player who looks a little like Pete Townshend (or at least I thought so). These musicians are really good; they accompany visiting acts, which requires them to be able play in every conceivable style with almost no rehearsal. They did a concert by themselves of demanding jazz numbers (John Coltrane & Miles Davis) the day before we arrived & it was really excellent. Finally, if you have been with us the whole way you may recall from the Lanarca, Cyprus episode the night when I was randomly seated at dinner next to the ship acupuncturist from Australia, Lisa, who turned out to be the aunt of an attorney who had worked under my supervision at the Federal Election Commission. It was a stunning coincidence & I am including here a picture of Lisa & me taken on the deck the day before we landed. All of these folks worked very hard to make this a tremendous voyage, and with great success.

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     So on May 17 we disembarked, retrieved our car & drove to Saint Petersburg, where we spent a couple of enjoyable & relaxing days with Mary’s aunt & uncle, Michael & Irene. They live on a canal where from the veranda you can watch boats and wildlife all day long.  Not to mention that this meant an additional two days of gourmet food cooked by someone other than us!

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     After that brief respite we drove home (two days) to Arlington, Virginia. And it felt great to get home after all that time even if we did have to start cooking our own food & washing our own dishes. But, looking back on it, this was truly a phenomenal voyage that actually exceeded our expectations. It is hard to imagine any other way to visit so many iconic places we have always wanted to see – the pyramids in Egypt, the acropolis in Athens, Pompeii, Venice & Rome in Italy, Jerusalem in Israel, Hagia Sophia & Topkapi Palace & Ephesus in Turkey, Marrakesh and Casablanca in Morocco, the Alhambra & Gaudi’s buildings in Spain, the rock of Gibralter – all in one trip. On top of that were all the places with which we hadn’t been familiar that turned out to be so fascinating, like Taormina in Sicily, Antalya in Turkey, Taroudant in Morocco, Kotor in Montenegro, Dubrovnik in Croatia and Valletta in Malta. Traveling by ship has many advantages: unpacking once on a two month trip with a single all-inclusive ticket that provides transportation, hotel, meals, education & entertainment, without the hassle of scheduling all of those things separately.  And you can develop friends among your fellow travelers with whom to share the adventure.

     Of course nothing is perfect and the primary downside to travel by cruise ship (assuming you don’t suffer from seasickness) is that there is often insufficient time in a port to see and do everything you want.  But there were so many places we never would have seen at all without this voyage and we did see and experience quite a bit in every port we visited. The fact that there are some places you (certainly we) would want to revisit at a more leisurely pace doesn’t really detract much from all that. There is no other way to see & do & learn all that we we did on a trip like that. And while it is far from cheap, when you compare the daily cost with all that was provided it is a pretty good value compared to other ways of traveling. (No, I wasn’t paid for this commercial.) For those who haven’t followed the whole voyage, here is a reprise of the map of our original itinerary (we missed about three of these ports, Naples was added en route & St. George’s was switched to Hamilton) & a picture of the Prinsendam that includes our stateroom window (2d window from the front on the walking deck just below the lifeboats).

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     So I hope you have all enjoyed following along on this blog, although there is no way you enjoyed it as much as we did. I would bet that, after all this time, a lot of you had given up on my finishing it, but although it took a lot longer than I expected, here we are at the very end! We are planning another voyage in July of 2014 that will take us to the icy north: Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Scotland & Amsterdam. Assuming that is long enough for me to fully recover (& forget how much work this actually required) I expect I will blog that trip too. If you are signed up for email notifications or RSS feeds from this blog you will automatically receive notification when we leave; if not you will just have to remember to check back in July if you want to tag along. I will leave you today as I have so often with another towel animal (one of our favorites that reappeared on the last leg of the journey) & a  fruit sculpture (a watermelon shark). That’s all, folks!

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Ponta Delgada & Horta, Azores, Portugal

     Early on May 8, after two days at sea, we limped into the harbor of Ponta Delgada. Why limped? Well, during dinner a couple of days earlier we suddenly heard a loud noise coming from the engines (located below the restaurant). One of our tablemates said “that doesn’t sound good,” and indeed she was correct. It turned out that something had broken (we seem to recall a stabilizer, but I’m not sure that’s right) which necessitated turning off one of the two engines. Fortunately the other engine kept going, but the Captain sounded quite nervous about it. They arranged for someone to meet the ship in Ponta Delgada with a replacement part that they spent the day installing. After a successful test we were able to leave that evening only a few hours late.  It’s a good thing this didn’t happen after we left the Azores when we had 4 days of open ocean to travel before a port where repairs could be made! On the positive side, during the evening before we reached Ponta Delgada we had an amazing sunset off the starboard bow that made it look like the whole ocean was on fire.

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     Ponta Delgada is the capital and largest city (about 45,000 people) in the Azores, a group of islands about 800 miles west of mainland Portugal. It is located on the island of Sao Miguel, the largest of the group.  These are volcanic islands that are the tips of the highest mountains in the world (measured from their bases on the ocean floor). When discovered by Portuguese sailors in the early 15th century the Azores were uninhabited (by humans), but that didn’t last very long.  Given their location it isn’t too surprising that the Azores became an important stop in American trade; at one point Ponta Delgada was the 4th largest city in Portugal. In the 19th Century it was a center of the American whaling industry. Today it is a convenient stop for cruise ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

     Prinsendam was docked on the inside of the sea wall across from the town waterfront, and a shuttle bus was provided to take us into town. This is supposed to be a beautiful island, with lots of green hills & lakes in old volcano calderas & picturesque fishing villages, and a lot of passengers took tours of the island. But it was a drizzly day & we were pretty worn out of bus touring, so we decided just to walk around the town & see whatever was there. The shuttle bus drove along the sea wall, which was covered with very interesting graffiti (at least I think it was graffiti rather than commissioned art) and dropped us on the waterfront promenade. Some of the graffiti looked like Hieronymus Bosch figures. The seafront promenade was paved with mosaics of black & white volcanic stones, of which we would see a lot more.

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    Our first stop was Forte de Sao Bras, a 16th century fortress right on the waterfront. It was originally built to defend the town from pirates. There was a museum inside, but everything was in Portuguese so we didn’t get much out of it. On the battlements were some guns that looked like WWII vintage, and there were good views of our docked ship and of the town. The side of the fort facing the town has a memorial to Portuguese sailors in WWI. There were some fairly creepy looking trees not yet in bloom that could have come from a Dr. Seuss book & also some flowering succulents.

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     We walked over to the large nearby square called Campo São Francisco (I think), which is sort of a festival ground. It is covered with mosaics. Sidewalk and street mosaics seem to be a Portuguese specialty (we saw a lot in Madeira and last year in Brazil) and Ponta Delgada is chock full of them in many varieties. Those of you who have followed this blog will know that we never tire of these, so you will be seeing a lot of them in this episode.  Standing with your back to the water & the fort, on your left is the Igreja Sao Jose (Church of St. Joseph) and in front to the right is the Convento de Esperanca attached to the Igreja de Santo Christo. These two churches are good examples of the distinctive architecture here, with detailed decoration of dark lava stone on white background walls that look like stucco.

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     The biggest religious festival of the year in Ponta Delgada is the “Festa do Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres” (Feast of Lord Holy Christ of the Miracles). This is a multi-day festival highlighted by a procession carrying an image of Jesus around to all the churches in town through streets full of flowers followed by a large fireworks display over the fort. The image was presented by the Pope to the first convent established on Sao Miguel in the 16th century and the first procession was in 1700 when the island was hit by earthquakes. The tremors abated and the tradition was established. Unfortunately, we missed this spectacle by three days, but the festival lighting was still in place on the church, in the plaza and over some of the streets. The image of Santo Cristo dos Milagres is in the Church of Santo Cristo, where we saw it in a large room full of flower displays behind a gate. On the other side of the church was an area of gilded walls and vaulted ceiling with an altar that looked like a Christmas tree from a distance. The walls of the center section of the church, near the entrance, were partly covered with murals made of blue and white tiles that made an interesting contrast to the richly polished wood appurtenances.

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     I don’t know if this is only associated with the festival or if it is normal, but walking around town we saw a lot of houses with beautiful displays of flowers, mostly under windows or on balconies.

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     We walked on toward the center of town over several interesting mosaic patterned sidewalks. We came to the city hall, sporting a 17th century bell tower. In front is a fountain in a long pool leading up to a statue of the Archangel Michael, the patron saint of the island of Sao Miguel.

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    Continuing on, we came to the old gates to the city, built in 1783, on a huge plaza facing the water. Before the seawall was built this was where ships docked. At that time the water came much closer and this was the gate in the city wall. On the right of the plaza (facing away from the water) is the clock tower of the Church of Sao Sebastio & well to the left is the city hall behind its fountain. In the front of the plaza facing the water is a statue of Goncalo Velho Cabral, the first governor of Sao Miguel and the sea captain credited with discovering it. The plaza is named after him.

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     We walked over to visit the 15th century Iglesa de Sao Sebastiao just beyond the plaza. We passed sidewalk mosaics that were pictures of fruit & vegetables, as well as a plaza of mosaic stars by the church. This church has a great deal of interesting carved wood & stone at the entrances and inside. It also has a nice pipe organ on a balcony and some very old music on display.

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     So we moved on up the hill, looking for what is always one of our prime objectives: the library. Needless to say, we saw more sidewalk mosaics, all different from what we had already seen. The library must be important to these folks since they have a special street sign giving directions. The library didn’t look very interesting from the front, but inside we found a nice garden, a brilliantly tiled stairway & a wall with a variety of languages carved into it. Just down the hill from the library was the 16th century Colegio convent (although I’m not sure whether it is still used for that).

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     Further up the hill from the library were the beautiful Palacio de Sant’Ana Jardim (Gardens of the Sant’Ana Palace). On the way up we encountered some tiny frogs in a pond in someone’s front yard. The Sant’Ana Palace is a large 19th century reddish colored building with statuary embedded in its walls. Our favorite was a statue of a woman with a sword wearing what looks like a Greek helmet. But what was special was the bird sitting on the helmet.  We have seen quite a few outdoor statues with birds sitting on top, but this is the only one in which the bird is actually part of the statue. Maybe it landed here and was turned to stone! The palace is the headquarters of the Presidency of the Azores & the gardens surrounding the palace are quite beautiful, with flora from different parts of the world set out in their own areas. It was pretty quiet when we were there.

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     We returned to the ship just ahead of the rain. That night, after the refurbished engine passed its tests, we sailed on to our next scheduled port: Horta, on the island of Faial in the western part of the Azores. Unfortunately, this was a tender port & the Captain decided that the water was too rough to disembark (boo!). So here are some photos of Horta, taken from the ship. You can see that the weather was not very nice & there was some turbulence in the water (although it doesn’t look all that bad). The hill on the left is an old volcano caldera.

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     On the opposite side of the ship from Horta was the nearby island of Pico.  At its center is the largest mountain in Portugal, an extinct volcano, which looked particularly dramatic among the clouds on this day.

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     So we set off a little early toward Hamilton, Bermuda, our last stop before returning to Florida. This would be four days at sea, a welcome respite for tired travellers. I will close this episode by catching up on pictures of some pretty creative food art, a couple of brightly colored ice sculptures & several towel animals (some of which are similar to ones we have seen previously; I guess 64 days exceeds the towel animal repertory of our artistic room stewards).

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