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Day 11: Second Day of My St. Petersburg Marathon

Day 2 of Russian Marathon

For day 2, immigration was much easier. Our passports had already been stamped for the two days we were in St. Petersburg, so all the immigration officials had to do was check the passport stamps that were lined up right next to each other on the last page of your passport. Easy!

Our trip this morning was to head to Peterhof Palace & Gardens. Our guide wanted to get us there as early as possible so that her little “army” could be one of the first groups to enter the palace. When the van dropped us off, she told us not to stop for pictures – we would get the opportunity to do this later. Instead, she led us in getting our morning dose of “Russian exercise”, by getting us to walk very quickly to the entrance to Peterhof.  And, it worked as we entered, got our special “booties” on, and became the second group to tour the palace. Again, like Catherine’s Palace, everything was “over the top.” We also learned a lot about how much damage was done to the palace during the Second World War – and how much had to be restored in order for us to see the beauty of this building.

Cat Starr at Peterhof
Cat Starr at Peterhof
Booties worn to visit Peterhof
Booties worn to visit Peterhof
Peterhof Chapel
Peterhof Chapel
Perterhof
Peterhof
Peterhof
Peterhof
Peterhof
Peterhof

We then got to see the gardens. The main fountain that lead to the Grand Canal was based on the gardens at Versailles, however there are some major differences, the biggest being that all the statues around the fountains are covered in gold-leaf and the grand canal opens up in to the Baltic Sea, making this one way to come to the palace from St. Petersburg. Also, the fountains are powered through a system of gravity – no electricity. We were still a little early, so the fountains were not on yet, so we got to see more of the gardens. These gardens were made for pleasure and for surprises.

Peterhof Fountain and Canal to the Baltic Sea
Peterhof Fountain and Canal to the Baltic Sea
Fountain in Peterhof Gardens
Fountain in Peterhof Gardens
Main Peterhof Fountain
Main Peterhof Fountain

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There are several little buildings, each for a specific purpose. One was a “pleasure house” where you could have a romantic rendezvous. The servants would not know who was there, yet meals would be “raised’ to the “pleasure room” when called for by those using this building.  There were also some trick fountains – a little gazebo or a bench that, if you did not know the secret, you would step on the stones and get splashed by the fountain – or you could walk safely and sit on the bench or in the gazebo and then be hidden from prying eyes. There was also a building that was used to house Catherine before she finally ceased the throne and locked up this “prison” that held her. And, because the grand canal opened to the sea, there was a pier on the Baltic.

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The true magic came with the fountains were turned on and started to dance. Sparkling water cascading from golden statues and tumbling down the steps into a pool – it was an overwhelming and glorious sight! As we left Peterhof, we did get the take the final pictures that our guide promised us – our last look at this amazing building.

We then headed back to St. Petersburg and for our next adventure – taking a ride on the subway. Now, if you live in a big city and ride on a subway daily, like I do, this may not seem to be a “highlight”, however the subways in St. Petersburg, the subway is a magnificent example of the Soviet building and propaganda. The subways are vast museums with sculptures that celebrate the workers, the army and the heroes of WWII. They are very deep because they run below the rivers and canals that crisscross St. Petersburg, and I am very glad that we were able to add this experience to the day. Even the escalator was interesting, as it was one of the longest and fastest I’ve ever been on. I’m sure the locals on the trains were wondering why the silly people would want to partake in something they do every day – but truly it was a fascinating experience.

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Getting back into the van, I had to move everything I’d left on the van so I could take the subway. As with all subways, pickpockets are prevalent. However, as I tried to arrange my seat, my pocket camera slipped off my wrist and I heard it hit the floor of the van. I tried looking for it, but it was not under my seat – at least where I could see. So, I had a bit of a panic as this meant I would have no pictures of the subway!

Our next stop was a noble family’s palace, the Yusupov Palace. There are a couple reasons this is an important palace to visit. One is that this was the home of one of the four conspirators that lured Rasputin to his death and the place where he came and was ultimately shot in the alley outside. Second, it had a theatre where they still do performances by music and dance troupes.

Next, we went to a traditional Russian Orthodox Church, St. Nickolas. This was an active church that remained active even during the Soviet Regime. Our guide’s father had been baptised in this church. She explained more about the iconography that is an important part of the church and some of the traditional ways to properly enter and worship.  There was a service going on while we were there.

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By now, it was past time for lunch. We opted for another traditional and local option. In addition to the “pies” that we had on the menu the day before, we also had “Russian ravioli” which I would describe more like perogies or dumplings stuffed with meat and served with sour cream.

Our last stop was the Peter & Paul Cathedral & Fortress. This was the oldest part of St. Petersburg – the original fort used to define and defend the city. With its walls is the St. Peter & Paul Cathedral which is the final resting place for the monarchs of Russia, including all the members of the last Romanov family. It also has a resident cat.

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Once we got back to the ship, there is a final place to buy Russian souvenirs: dolls, lacquer boxes, Soviet military memorabilia, etc.

Then it was back on the ship to head to our next port of call.

My final thoughts on St. Petersburg:

It is a city of dichotomies – large ornate palaces and museums, and bland, stark housing blocks. Stunning churches, yet religion is not necessarily an important aspect in everyday life, especially for young people. The subway is good, but again a few of the stations are museums in their own right. I loved the food and the vodka! The people do not seem to smile much – at least not until you get the chance to get to know them.

I highly recommend using SPB Tours. They know the city, and can navigate and easily change an itinerary based on the group’s needs and what is going on in the city. Our tour guide was amazing! Thank you, Viktoria and Catherine!

Round Cape Horn

Rounding Cape Horn
January 8, 2012

When I told my friends I was going on a cruise to “round Cape Horn” I was very surprised by how many did not even understand where this was – or what the significance could be. For me, it held magic — the tales of adventure where clipper ships sailed the oceans that I read about in school. In many ways, this was a life-long dream to sail in these once unchartered and very dangerous waters.

Cape Horn, or Cabo de Hornos, is an island that is the southernmost of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. For ships, it marks the northern boundary of the Drake Passage (or the Mar de Hoces as it is known in Latin America). This is the waterway the lies between the southern tip of South America and northern top of Antarctica (at this point, Antarctica is ~800 km south). The waters are treacherous due to very strong winds, large waves, strong currents and yes, even an occasional iceberg or two (no icebergs for us that day, though). One reason the winds and the currents are so strong is because there is virtually nothing to stop the movement of wind or water as it sweeps around the globe. Imagine that for a second or two!

This day was special for several reasons. First, it was the longest “day” I’ve ever experienced! The sun rose at 4:58 AM (yes, I got up, took the usual sunrise picture, as seen here and then went back to sleep) and it set at 10:12 PM – that is just under 18 hours of sunlight! It was also a full moon, so for a portion of the day, the moon was also large but not so bright. Then, of course, was the actual sailing into these waters.

Sun rise at Cape Horn

I decided to grab a space early and just sit out on the deck. While the sun was nice and bright, the wind kept things cool, so sitting on the deck included a sunscreen, a nice blanket and a cup of hot chocolate. Soon, I was watching for birds, including some penguins other sea life, and taking pictures of rocky coastlines.

flying bird

When we finally got to the island of Cape Horn, my first thought was how much it reminded me of Lion’s Head in Cape Town, South Africa! I heard a couple other people say similar things, so I do not think I am completely crazy with this comparison. The ship slowed down and began to circumnavigate around the Cape – so we could see it from every possible angle! While this was going on, one of the guest lecturers on board described more about what we were seeing (although I was too busy taking pictures and sharing this experience with my fellow travellers).

Cape Horn

We finally got around to the tip of the island where there is a small building that includes a small lighthouse and a residence.

Cape Horn

There is also a sculpture by Chilean Jose Balcells that is a representation of an albatross.

Albatross Sculpture at Cape Horn

The island is pretty desolate – no trees, rough terrain, but lush grass – and there is a constant wind. The wind is call the “roaring 40s” but can increase to be called the “furious 50s” or even the “screaming 60s”. I think we lucked out with the 40s – although I did get a bit of sunburn/windburn.

All in all, it was a truly magical day and now I can say I went ‘round the Horn! (even have a certificate to prove it). This was a once in a lifetime adventure!

Me at Cape Horn

Last Day at Sea Day 16

Last Day at Sea Day 16
This morning, there was a staff talent show – Celebrity’s Got Talent – which was a lot of fun. At the end, they brought up as many of the 950 staff members as they could for us to applaud and give our thanks to this great crew. I can honestly say this is has been the absolute BEST cruise I have been on. After the last one, I had a few complaints – this time I have nothing but praise. I think part of it was due to the fact that the senior officers and staff managers were so visible throughout the cruise and very approachable. I really got to know people better (or maybe I’m just learning more about how to get the best). Of course, no waiter will ever be better than my Oscar from the Brilliance of the Seas – but Herman and Diana were great and he made excellent suggestions.
I sat at the coffee bar – Café al Bacio – for an espresso and to try to connect to the internet to update my blog, etc., but internet connections were a bit “iffy’ as we cruised up the Chilean coast but I was finally able to get some updates out. I also made it to the final tango class of the cruise before I thought it was time to pack.
This was a day of “finals” – final dinner with my new cruise family. Final drink at the Martini Bar with Marko, final hug from my favourite officer on the ship, final show in the theatre and final night to dance with my new dancing partners –and even meet some new ones.
This has truly been the BEST cruise. I am going to miss so many people – but I have a lot of pictures and a lot of memories to keep me going! Thanks for everyone who made this trip so special!
Now I am off to Santiago, Chile!

Still a rockin’ Day 14

Still a rockin’ Day 14
The ship’s still a-rockin’ in the Pacific –I feel like I’m surfing, except when I am lying down, then it is a gentle rocking that puts me to sleep. AHHHHHHH…
The main dining room had their Brunch Spectacular – wonderful food, ice sculptures, carved fruit – it was really over the top!
The rest of the day I spent at the thalassotherapy spa pool –falling asleep in one of the lounge chairs after floating in the pool –allowing the waves of the ship move me like a dance partner. It was a really interesting experience to just float.
We finally entered the calm waters of the Chilean Fjords – what a difference! The water was like glass and there was no “up and down, side to side” movement of the ship (I no longer felt like a California surfer). So our third formal night was very nice. It was also Lobster and Baked Alaska night! Woohoo!
The evening show included performances (music and dance) from around the world. As I entered the theatre – a group of people yelled “Toronto”! I looked at the stage where there was a screen that was running a trivia game for “places in the world” and the question was “Where to you find Yonge Street?” I sat with my fellow Torontonians as we played the game –they decided I was pretty good because I was answering questions before the multiple choice options appeared. The show was really nice, featuring Bangkok, France, Italy, Ireland, Africa, USA and Russia.
The tango group hosted a milonga-type evening in the Constellation Bar. I thought it was good for people to see the difference between “show” tango and the club tango. While I did not get to dance with one of the professionals, my friend from Bulgaria asked if I did the tango, so I did get to dance. He then introduced me to his wife and one of two sons who were cruising together. After the tango hour, the bar did a “dancing through the decades – and every 20 minutes we celebrated “new year’s”. It was a cool way to get everyone dancing and just having a good time (I think there is video of me doing the jive, although I am not sure I will share it!).

Rockin’ and Rollin’ on Day 13

Rockin’ and Rollin’ on Day 13 through the Chilean Fjords and the Pacific Ocean
It was another lazy day to sit and read. I like this kind of day! We are now in Chilean waters, which mean the casino is closed (great news for me as I’m not a good gambler – as in I get bored AND I do not win). We were actually darting between islands – then heading out to the open sea. For some reason, I remembered that the reason the Pacific Ocean got its name because it was “calm.” Think again! I did not realize how rough it was – or how cool – until I walked across the main pool area and it was closed. The thalassotherapy pool was open – but the way the ship rocked, more water was on the deck than in the pool!
So I took a Salsa dance class which was great until they wanted everyone to partner up – and not having a partner made the rest of the class well … a bit lonely.
So, I took a nap and had a weird dream of an earthquake – I really felt the earth shaking – but I think it was only the stabilizers on the ship working overtime. At this point, we were in the open sea and it was rough. On my way to dinner, I ran into one of my favourite officers on the ship – he had just told someone where they could get some Dramamine. He asked how I was doing and I said “great – this feels like I’m surfing”. He said I must be the only guest on the ship feeling good – and he liked that – and asked if I was a California girl, which yes, I once was…
I really enjoyed dinner tonight: Pheasant Terrine, Lobster Ravioli, Argentinian steak and lava cake. After dinner, I was finally able to connect to the internet and post some updates – which I did while sitting at the martini bar drinking my own special drink, thanks to Marko. There was a lot of activity, as they were setting up for the “White Night” party – with entertainment all around the ship. Once everything was setup, in the main foyer, there was a Salsa band and Marko was “front and centre” showing is bartending “flair.” And I danced wherever I found a spot! At one point, 3 of the ship’s photographers were flashing pictures of me. The casino was also open, so my dinner friends went there and won over $160 on a penny slot machine. My other favourite bartender, Rowena, was working in the Martini bar and made my other favourite drink – so I was doing fine with the rockin’ on the ocean.
I decided to check out one of the other bars. They have a good house band that plays more “popular” music. Not as many people – and dancing alone was not quite as much fun – but I really did not care because I danced. But after a bit, I headed back to the main area on the ship and joined in with a group of people dancing with the Salsa band. One guy from Columbia danced with me – then a gentleman from Bulgaria came up and said that he was dancing with me next – because he liked how I danced. So I danced with him as a couple people videotaped it. I ended my night dancing with my new friends from Columbia.

Day 9 at sea

Day 9 at sea
Woke up in a fog – and everything was grey – the waves, the sky. And while the temperature was ~21 C, usually my perfect temperature, I think the Southern wind made it feel much colder. I just could not get “out of the fog” in my head. There was a lot I wanted to do on the ship – including a tango lesson – but nothing felt “right.” As for the tango lesson, I think half the ship showed up for it! I also went to the special Captain’s Club reception. The ship’s Hotel Director is Ken, from Toronto (Bathurst & Bloor area). The Cruise Director, Steve, is also from Toronto. I chatted with both, and sat for a bit with some members of my dinner family, then wandered some more. This became a good day for a massage, starting with a dip in the heated thassotherapy pool. The rest of the day was spent looking for a place that felt “comfortable.” Sometimes a cat just cannot find the right spot. I think I finally gave up and got ready for dinner with my new on-board family. It was goat cheese crostini, sweet potato soup, filet mignon and marzipan amaretto.
The evening show was a lot of fun. It featured ship performers, aerialists from Spain (I have pictures!), and juggler/comedian.
Then, they had a competition called “Dancing with the Officers.” Truly a fun time! The “judges” were Ken, Steve (mentioned above) and Pablo, one of the tango performers. There were 13 officers who were paired up with guests. The idea was not really how good you can dance, but how much fun you have – and there are some very crazy officers on this ship who like to have a lot of fun!
All in all, a nice way to end a very foggy day.

At sea in the Atlantic Day 7

At sea in the Atlantic Day 7
What can I say about a day at sea? Slept in a bit, went to the gathering for members of Cruise Critics and met a few people I’d been chatting with on the website, sat by the pool. I watched a game of pool volleyball with members of the crew facing off with guests and I went to a talk by a naturalist on the different animals we will see in this next few ports of call. I did take a nap before our first formal dinner at sea. I like the dressing up part! Some people really go “over the top.” A woman at the table next to us had this very strange hat –and we got her to pose with the hat on (yes, pictures to follow). For dinner I had a smoked salmon appetizer, salad, and then our waiter surprised us with an “intermezzo” of a raspberry-cinnamon sorbet to ”clear the palate.” This was followed by the main course, rack of lamb, and dessert, cherries jubilee. Then I went to the captain’s gala toast and the show — I actually made it this time and sat with Carol and Brian. Then I found my dinner mates in the casino – winning $100 on a five dollar investment on a penny slot machine. Don’t ask how I did with $5. There was dancing – and I ran into my new friend in the hat who said I should join them since I was alone (I think she is from Brazil). I finally decided on a nightcap at the Martini ”ice” bar, since my new favourite bartender was there to make me my special tequila mango drink –we are calling it the Mango Star. I think this is a perfect way to spend a day at sea.