Pittsburgh: Wednesday 25 March 2015

27 03 2015

I didn’t do much today, except relaxing and catching up with Char, wandering out to a local Rite Aid, having a light lunch (small soup and 1/2 sandwich) at Au Bon Pain at a downtown food court, and publishing some of my long-overdue blog posts and some photos! This evening there was a welcome reception for the freelance conference attendees upstairs at the Sharp Edge Bistro on Penn Ave, about 10 easy blocks from the hotel. We met a few people there. Everyone seems nice and welcoming, and Pittsburgh locals are equally nice and welcoming. Tomorrow the conference starts. I won’t post conference notes here — instead you can find them on my business website (http://cybertext.wordpress.com), though I may not add them for a few days. My flights back home to Australia begin again on Sunday, and this, I think my 23rd trip to the US, will be over.

Miami to Pittsburgh: Tuesday 24 March 2015

27 03 2015

My flight out of Miami was delayed 2.5 hours. I spent the time in the Admirals Club at MIA, arriving in Pittsburgh much later than expected. It’s about 45-minute cab ride to hotel downtown, and near the end you go through a tunnel that opens out to show the expanse of downtown Pittsburgh. A ‘wow!’ moment.

I met up with my great friend Char again – my room buddy for this conference, as she has been for many prior conferences. It was great to see her again (after three years). She’s looking terrific (she had a kidney transplant last June and this is her first foray back into travelling and conferences).

We went out to dinner with Alan and Nicky (two people we both know from past STC and WritersUA conferences) to a great downtown restaurant called ‘Meat and Potatoes’. Terrific food! Great company, lots of laughs.

34 oz rib eye steak (we did NOT have this dish -- I took the photo at another group's table)

34 oz rib eye steak (we did NOT have this dish — I took the photo at another group’s table)

'Pub' burger at Meat and Potatoes

‘Pub’ burger at Meat and Potatoes

After dinner they took us up to the top of Mt Washington (via the Duquesne Incline – an old funicular railway that I was glad I didn’t see in the daytime as it was very steep). The view from the top of Pittsburgh at night was just spectacular. Thanks Alan and Nicky!

Pittsburgh at night from Mt Washington. The red lights light the Duquesne Incline

Pittsburgh at night from Mt Washington. The red lights light the Duquesne Incline

More photos from Pittsburgh: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rhondamadeit/sets/72157651247017857/

Miami: Monday 23 March 2015

27 03 2015

We were up early this morning (as we have been every morning… even when we didn’t have to be) and on the road to the place where we were meeting the River of Grass representative for our Everglades airboat tour. Their advice was to do an earlier tour before the animals hide away from the airboats and/or it gets too hot for them to be out.

Bob was our very knowledgeable and competent driver who showed us some fantastic sights in the 90 exhilarating minutes we were on the airboat. We saw HEAPS of alligators and birds, and lots of various vegetation.

Wall to wall alligators

Wall to wall alligators

"Hello, breakfast!"

“Hello, breakfast!”This tour and the kayaking in the mangroves in Key West were the best nature-based highlights of this trip, and I would highly recommend both.

After the airboat tour, we drove further down Highway 41 to the Miccosukee Indian lands. We had a nice lunch at their restaurant (Indian tacos for me, and we split a Florida Orange Sunshine Cake), then wandered around in their gift shop where I saw some of their patchwork designs. The Miccosukee are part of the Seminole nation, thus many of their patchwork designs are what I would call ‘Seminole’ patterns.


This evening we caught a cab to South Beach (which was much further than it looked on the map!), meeting the organiser (Marie, originally from Denmark) and the six others on the South Beach Culinary Tour.

Our first stop was Bolivar (on Washington Ave) to sample some Colombian cuisine (empanadas and a fish ceviche of some sort; the two vegetarians had suitable versions of these). By the way, Bolivar also does a very nice mojito!


Next was Manolo, where we tasted Argentine-style churros filled with a caramel made from condensed milk. Yummy!


At Larios on the Beach (Emilio Estevan’s restaurant on Ocean Drive), we were all taken with the clean and crisp interior design. There we were served a Cuban dish (can’t remember what it was called, but it translates as ‘old clothes’) of a slow-cooked beef mixture, with fried plantain strips. NOTE: All the dishes served were fairly small – the aim was to get a taste of the various cuisines available in South Beach.


After looking at some different architectural styles along Ocean Drive, our next stop was The Tides, a classic Art Deco building that is now a luxury hotel. There we had a lovely delicate Moroccan-style chicken curry dish on a bed of Israeli couscous.


Next we turned away a little from the beachfront (we never did see the actual beach!), and stopped at Blocks Pizza Deli to sample one of their vegetarian pocket pizzas (sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, VERY salty feta, basil, etc.) made with their own sourdough crust. The crust was delicious as would the pocket pizza have been had the feta not been so salty.


Our last stop was Milani Gelateria, where we had Italian gelato. I had the vanilla and it was lovely. My only concern was that the server did not wear food handling gloves or something over his hair as he reached in and scooped the gelato.


Overall, I think this walking tour gave us a good taste of the various cuisines in South Beach, which is what it intended to do. As an Australian, almost all these cuisines were unfamiliar to me, so I got quite a bit out of it, as well as some delicious-tasting food! The company—Miami Culinary Tours—has several tours, including one for Little Havana, which would also be interesting.

More photos from today: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rhondamadeit/sets/72157649382177033/

Oceania Riviera: Miami: Sunday 22 March 2015

26 03 2015

The cruise was all over by 9am today. We arrived in port just after 6am, had our final breakfast delivered by Jemeesh, and after disembarking in groups to better manage the process of clearing Customs, it was about 9am.

Downtown Miami from the ship, while waiting to disembark

Downtown Miami from the ship, while waiting to disembark

We caught the shuttle to the rental car depot, found the hotel after a few shaky starts (luckily it was Sunday morning in downtown Miami!!), and dropped off our luggage in the room. Then we drove down to Key Largo. The traffic was horrendous so we didn’t go any further down the keys.

We had a late lunch at Key Largo Conch House (pronounced here as ‘konk’, not ‘conCH’ as many other parts of the world—including Australia—pronounce it). I had a conch fritter to try, but the conch meat was cut up very finely and, with the curry flavours, I couldn’t really taste anything except something like a deep-fried samosa. We ended up splitting a vegetarian wrap and a spinach and feta salad with a strawberry vinaigrette dressing, so I’m not really sure why we bothered going to this place. The wrap and salad were excellent, but this restaurant specialised in conch, which Sue, who’s a vegetarian, couldn’t eat.

Conch fritter

Conch fritter


Once we got back to the hotel in equally horrendous traffic as going down to Key Largo, I felt very woozy and dizzy and lay down for a while (I had ‘sea legs’). We were going to go to Little Havana for a bite to eat, but I didn’t feel right—the room kept moving in odd discombobulating ways.

I watched the Oceania Riviera sail away about 6:30pm from the hotel room’s windows (Sue was at the waterfront watching the ship leave).


More photos from today:

Oceania Riviera: Key West: Saturday 21 March 2015

26 03 2015

We arrived at the Navy pier in Key West, Florida, so had to be shuttled from there to Mallory Square, downtown. Our first task was to find a taxi to get us to Kayak Kings for our mangrove maze kayaking adventure. Pete was our taxi driver and he took a bit of a shine to Sue. We hired him to come back and pick us up and to take us around the main sites of Key West once our kayaking was over. Which he did. More on that later…

The mangrove maze kayaking was just AMAZING. AJ (the owner of Kayak Kings) was our leader (there were only two of us under his guidance). We left the Cow Key Marina and skirted some mangroves close by that were the roosting location for heaps of pelicans. After going under a road bridge and along a canal with waterfront homes on one side and mangrove thickets on the other, we split our paddles in half and entered a tiny channel using a half paddle ‘canoe style’. Inside the mangroves was just unbelievably beautiful and so far away from the sounds of ANY civilization (except when planes went overhead). It was a jungle in there, but with well-defined water channels. There were lots of little creatures in the water – star fish, various corals, thousands of small cassiopeia jellyfish (which swim right side up, but live in the algae upside down!), some tiny fish and fish that were up to 6” long. We didn’t see any manatees, but what we did see was pretty amazing.

I thought I heard banjos...

I thought I heard banjos…

Cassiopeia jellyfish look like small flowers when they are upside down

Cassiopeia jellyfish look like small flowers when they are upside down

After we got back and changed into dry clothes and shoes, Pete turned up to take us around town and show/stop at the highlights – Southernmost Point, Hemingway’s house and the rare polydactyl cats (6-toed cats), Kermit’s for key lime pie (OMG!!), and the port area for the yachts.


Polydactyl cat at Hemingway’s House

Then we walked some of Duval St and had lunch at The Lazy Gecko (excellent Cuban sandwiches – Sue’s vegetarian, so she asked for hers without meat and with extra cheese [cheddar] to complement the provolone). Duval St was PACKED with people, many of whom were likely on Spring Break.

Cuban sandwich

Cuban sandwich


We had to be back on board the ship in time for a 4:45pm sail away (all ships docking at Key West have to leave port before sunset so that the locals and visitors can view the sunset unimpeded!)

Our last dinner on board was at Red Ginger, the specialty Asian restaurant. We sat with Bill and Miriam (ex UK and Australia and other places), and Ed and Lil (also veteran cruisers). My meal comprised rice paper vegetarian spring rolls, crispy skin chicken, and a mango tapioca with ginger biscuit. All delicious.


More photos from today:

Oceania Riviera: At sea: Friday 20 March 2015

26 03 2015

We had strong winds last night (~35 mph), so the boat rocked a little more than previously. But as we’d had so much heat, humidity, sun, and wind yesterday, I slept like a baby.

It was a relaxing day at sea today, cruising from Belize City late yesterday afternoon, to somewhere west of Cuba (I could see it in the distance!) by mid-afternoon. We are due into Key West, Florida tomorrow morning, where we will be processed by US Customs and Border Protection on board. As I’m not a US citizen, I have to get processed separately from the others, but Reception has said there aren’t too many non-US citizens on board so hopefully it will be quick.

We had a late breakfast in the Terrace Café, then I had a culinary class (Asian cuisine from the Red Ginger restaurant on board) from 10 am to almost noon. According to reports, this is the only cruise ship line with a culinary center on board its various ships.

The chef who took the class was Noelle Barille. She demonstrated some basic knife skills, talked about various Asian ingredients and sauces, and showed us how to make five different dishes. We created three of those dishes (two were for demo purposes only, but we got to try them)—Pomelo Banh Trang Rolls (rice paper rolls made with grapefruit instead of pomelo), Watermelon and Duck Confit Salad, and Lobster Pad Thai. All dishes tasted great, but as I’m not a big fan of grapefruit, duck, or lobster, I’d probably substitute other ingredients for each. We also tasted Tom Kha Gai (chicken and coconut soup), Chilean Sea Bass in Miso Plum Sauce, and some sort of yummy lemongrass and something else ice cream.




After the cooking class, we hung out by the pool for a while (me in the shade, Sue in the sun) until the sun crept over to me, and I went back to the stateroom to start packing away all the stuff I know I don’t intend using/wearing before I get to Miami or Pittsburgh.

Tonight dinner  was at Jacques, the Jacques Pepin specialty French restaurant on this ship. Mine was absolutely delicious — duck foie gras with black cherries, onion soup with gruyere cheese, which was so rich and unctuous I didn’t eat it all as I wouldn’t have had room for the main course, which was the house special that night–a filet with foie gras and a truffle sauce (I think!).


Tomorrow we have to be admitted back into the US, then we will disembark to spend the day kayaking and cycling in Key West. All bags have to be packed and outside our rooms by 10:30 tomorrow night, so I’m glad I spent some time packing today—and sorting out what to wear for the various activities tomorrow!

More photos from today:

Oceania Riviera: Belize City, Belize: Thursday 19 March 2015

26 03 2015

We arrived in Belize this morning and anchored quite some distance from shore. The tenders took about 15 minutes to go each way into the port at Belize City, but from the moment we stepped on board there was a different—and much friendlier—vibe than in Honduras. Don’t get me wrong, the Honduras people we met were lovely, but the Belizeans have a great sense of fun. They also speak English as their main language (Belize was called British Honduras from the 1700s to about the 1970s), with Spanish the secondary language.

Our ship-organised shore excursion was to the Lamanai Mayan ruins via a boat ride on the New River. This was a 7-hour round trip, starting with an hour-long bus ride to the place where we got onto the boat for the hour-long ride along the river to the ruins (the return journey was the same).

It was a hot and humid day and expected to rain. Fortunately, we got no rain. And even more fortunately (for me anyway!), the bus was air-conditioned and the boat ride was mostly fast, so the wind blew away any hint of humidity. The tour guides were great, especially Dino who gave us a potted history of Belize for the first 20 minutes of the bus ride. Adrian, the other guide, was our nature guide for the boat ride, but we didn’t see a lot of animals, so there wasn’t a lot for him to do.

Some general facts and figures about Belize (summarised from what I remember of Dino’s talk):

  • approx 180 miles long and about 80 miles wide, with a total population of about 340,000 (7 sets of traffic lights in the entire country, with 4 sets working, one of which we went through twice!)
  • melting pot of colonisation and resulting cultures—first the Mayans, then the Spanish, then the British. In more recent times, the Chinese have made a name for themselves as the owners of the supermarkets, food shops, restaurants, etc. and there is quite an Asian population here. Mennonites and Amish settled here some time back after being hounded out of Mexico, and now provide most of the dairy products in the country.
  • main industry is tourism, employing about 20% of the population directly and indirectly; agriculture is next. Little mining, though some petroleum extraction industries.

Some of the animals we saw on the boat ride included these birds: white egrets, cormorants, jacana, kingfishers, osprey, and lesser nighthawk; and these mammals and reptiles: howler monkeys (not howling, thank goodness!), one crocodile, and two iguanas at the place where we caught and disembarked the boat.

The river has many many tributaries and diversions and deviations, but our boat captain was absolutely terrific and was able to negotiate his way through with ease and without the use of any navigational device other than his brain. (To show the global nature of world markets, the boat captain was wearing Billabong board shorts, an Australian brand!) The river is surrounded by thick vegetation, and many plants have epiphytes (‘air plants’) attached to them. And along the way, there’s a settlement of Amish whose farms we saw and some of whom we saw fishing in the river on the return journey.

We got to the ruins about noonish, and it was SOOOO hot and humid…. I discovered sweat glands in places where I never knew there were sweat glands. By the time we got to the first ruin (a couple of minutes easy walk), I was soaked with perspiration and feeling very heat stressed. This was the Jungle Temple and those feeling energetic could climb it. Not me! I was happy to keep my feet on terra firma and let others climb the steep stone staircases to the top! (no hand rails!!).

After another short walk through the incredibly lush vegetation on each side of the walking path (I would have appreciated it much more had I not been dying of heat and humidity!),we came to the Ball Court and the High Temple behind it. Again, those without a fear of heights and a game stomach and who weren’t dying in the humidity could climb it via a staircase at the side. The rest of the group remained behind on the benches!

The final stop was the Mask Temple, which you couldn’t climb. And then it was a 15-minute walk on the neat, clean and tidy walking paths back to the boat for the ride back to the drop-off place for a late (2pm) lunch (chicken with rice and beans cooked in coconut milk—really lovely).

Many people slept on the bus ride back into town—not me; I was more interested in what was going on in the slice of life I saw outside the bus windows.

After a quick stop at the duty free area at the port, it was back on the tender for the return trip to the ship.

Dinner tonight was at the Terrace Café . We were so tired we went to bed pretty much straight after (well, after I had processed my photos for the day and written this blog post that will be published after we return).




Snake plant

Snake plant

Skechers Go Walk shoes (mesh). BEST. WALKING. SHOES. EVER.

Skechers Go Walk shoes (mesh). BEST. WALKING. SHOES. EVER.

Jaguar Temple

Jaguar Temple

High Temple

High Temple

Mask Temple

Mask Temple

More photos from today: