Category Archives: Destinations

The Curse At Peterhof Palace St. Petersburg

One of St. Petersburg’s Most Popular Attractions

It’s about a 45-minute drive from the Oceania Marina to the palaces and gardens at Peterhof, often called the “Russian Versailles.”  Peterhof Palace is a place I look forward to with anticipation and dread. (Note: See previous post for origin of the curse)

Our lively guide Marie briefs us on the past of St. Petersburg and Vladimir Putin. We pass through countryside that is green and eye-catching. There isn’t a single visible scar from the horrific 900-day German siege of  St. Petersburg, at the time known as Leningrad. When the Germans attacked Leningrad in 1941, the city was an important industrial center as well as the country’s second largest city.

One of the first Russian prizes sought by Germany, Leningrad was nearly surrounded and its major supply lines cut off. The effort to keep the city from falling to the Germans was both heroic and horrific. An estimated one million Leningraders and Russian soldiers died in the conflict here. It’s believed hundreds of thousands of city residents perished not from bullets or bombs but from starvation and cold.

Lower Gardens fountain, Peterhof, St. Petersburg, RussiaThe fountains operate only from May to mid-October

Peterhof palace and its surrounding grounds were occupied by German troops for 28 months. Leningraders knew of the impending German attack and Peterhof staff and volunteers were able to remove numerous pictures, statues, and thousands of art objects, sent by train to other parts of the country. Unknown to the Germans, many of Peterhof’s marble and bronze sculptures were hidden beneath their boots, buried in the ground. Anything left standing was stolen.

Peterhof’s Great Palace was almost destroyed by an explosion and various palaces and buildings elsewhere on the grounds were also badly damaged. A third of the 30,000 trees growing there were cut down. After the war, the Soviet government restored or replaced Peterhof’s eight palaces and more than 150 of the fountains at tremendous expense. Strangely, our guide Marie never mentions any of this on our bus ride.

We begin our tour of Peterhof in the 284-acre Alexandria Park located east of the main palace grounds. The park is named after Empress Alexandria, wife of Tsar Nicholas I, who granted her the land as a present. The property became one of the imperial summer residences of the Romanovs.

At Alexandria Park we’re supposed to take a “miniature train” to Peterhof. I’m not sure what kind of miniature train I expect, probably something similar to the ones at Disney parks, certainly something that runs on tracks . The “train” turns out to be a regular parking lot tram with a locomotive-shaped engine pulling the carriages.  Most carriages are open air but we’re herded aboard one with windows  that don’t open.

When Things Start to Go Wrong

Before boarding the carriage, several Oceania passengers ask to use the restrooms located  about 10 yards from the tram.  A sign with the letters WC–denotes Western commode or water closet but also a flush toilet–points the way.  Marie insists everyone wait until our “train” arrives at Peterhof.  So we sit there, perhaps another 5 to 10 minutes, waiting for another group to arrive and board their carriage. We have more than adequate time for a quick restroom break.  Marie’s refusal to allow us to use those empty restrooms will create a series of needless problems.

Alexandria Park train tram, Peterhof, St. Petersburg RussiaThe train tram at Alexandria Garden: note the WC sign

Rocking and swaying, our train tram travels non-stop along a wide walkway shared with pedestrians.  Bright glaring reflections cover our locked windows,  making photos impossible. Too bad since some of the park’s buildings are intriguing. My favorite is an elaborate Gothic-style building the imperial Romanov family used as their private church.

It takes the tram over 20 minutes finally to reach Peterhof’s Lower Garden and the long awaited restrooms. Peterhof is the most popular day trip from St. Petersburg and the restrooms have agonizingly long lines. Thankfully the men’s queue moves efficiently. Waiting for the other passengers to return, I test my wireless tour guide receiver. This nifty device will enable us to hear Marie’s descriptions as we navigate the palace crowds.

One passenger complains the women’s line isn’t moving, an exaggeration since several from our group are just outside the restroom entrance. To the annoyance of the women  who’ve  already waited 30 minutes for relief, Marie calls them back immediately. Instead of touring, she will now lead us to a more remote restroom “just 5 minutes away.” She guarantees fewer people there. Our Peterhof visit is disintegrating into a restroom quest.

When Things Really Go Wrong

On our walk we soon encounter the Checkerboard Fountain where water spills over a long sloping checkerboard. As it happens, a group of musicians start to play long Swiss-style horns in front of the checkerboard display. Several of us stop for photos. I pay attention to Marie’s comments as I quickly check that my camera hasn’t crashed as in the past. The camera works well. Images are recorded for my first time ever!

Abruptly, Marie’s commentary ends in mid-sentence. Her words don’t gradually fade away but suddenly cut off.  Scanning the area, I don’t spot anyone from our group, including Linda, who is seriously interested in finding that next restroom. But they all were here only seconds ago.  I even saw Linda out of the corner of my eye while I checked the camera.

The sidewalks of the Lower Garden are filled with tourists, making it increasingly difficult to pick out anyone even a short distance ahead. Marie’s logical route should be the restaurant in the Lower Grounds, though that’s also likely to be crowded. But it’s the only possible place within her promised “5-minute walk.”  Wrong location. Plenty of people but none from our group. Yet there are no other buildings anywhere nearby. Perhaps on the upper terrace near the great Palace?  That would probably take more than five minutes but I check it out anyway, hoping to hear Marie’s voice in my earbuds. Not there, either.  I check my watch: 11 a.m.

Normally losing track of one’s group isn’t a serious concern since a guide typically details a departure point and at what time. Not today. Marie briefly mentioned our bus would leave from a different place but she never said where that would be. And I don’t recall her stating a departure time, either. Still, by now she must know she’s lost one of her group. I search again back in the Lower Gardens restaurant in case she shows up there.  Again no luck.  I have no idea where to look next. This is turning into a bad morning.

Oceania Marina Visits St. Petersburg, Russia

Exploring St. Petersburg

Probably the main reason we book the  Viking Trails cruise is the Oceania Marina  three-day visit in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the free tours offered for this port. Linda and I each schedule six Oceania St. Petersburg excursions two months before departure. Normally, the tour packages would cost close to $1,000 for each of us.

Aboard the Marina, we meet frequent Oceania passengers who ignore the ship’s no charge tours in favor of using a local tour agencies like SPB which caters to smaller groups.  Among those touring independently are the new friends we make the first day over lunch. They do not want to be herded around with 40 other Oceania passengers as on previous cruise tours. That may have been a problem elsewhere but in St. Petersburg, our large bus tours aren’t a problem.

On my two prior visits to St. Petersburg, I enjoyed having complete freedom to explore the city on my own any time of day or night. That’s not an option now due to Russia’s high visa fees for independent U.S. travelers: between $200 and $300 a person. Cruise ship passengers, however, do not need visas for stays up to 72 hours as long as they join government-authorized tour operators when they go ashore.

Marine Facade St Petersburg RussiaMarine Facade Terminal, St. Petersburg

We arrive in St. Petersburg early enough for a 9 a.m. tour departure. We dock at the mouth of the Neva River beside a cruise terminal with the odd name of Marine Façade.   Well, the terminal building is a façade of sorts for now, filled with lots of empty space that easily could be made to accommodate much greater numbers of passengers. Outside, in front of the cruise terminal, is a huge expanse of barren ground temporarily occupied by a flock of sea gulls. No doubt lots of development is planned for this land, too.

Immigration & Politics

As in the Cold War days, Russia remains security conscious. In St Petersburg, we must not only carry passports ashore but pass through immigration in the terminal each time we leave and reboard the Marina. Entering the Marine Façade, the cheerful morning atmosphere disappears, replaced by a cold official reception. The immigration officers are all business, never smile, never offer a hint of friendliness. These passport stampers act annoyed at our presence.

Perhaps they are, considering the disdain Russian President Vladimir Putin has for President Obama. St. Petersburg is very Putin friendly. This is his hometown, where he was born, where he graduated from law school and, according to one Russian guide, where he routinely allocates generous projects to benefit the city.  Moscow may be the capital but Putin also has an official residence here at Konstantinovsky Palace, also called Putin’s Palace, which is open to visitors.

Putins Palace St Petersburg RussiaRussian presidential residence, a.k.a.  Putin’s Palace

The Russian immigration staff may appear permanently grouchy but the average Russian in my experience is almost always friendly towards American tourists. As one Muscovite told me during the Cold War after we sled raced down a steep snow-covered hill well outside Moscow, “We are all the same. It’s the leaders who create the differences.”

Some of the ship passengers are troubled by their immigration experience. They voice their concern to our guide. She attempts to defuse the cold St. Petersburg greeting by reassuring everyone, saying “In St. Petersburg there is a saying that only fools smile for no reason.” She explains the absence of smiles also reflects the St. Petersburg temperament due to the freezing Russian winter here which can bring 19 hours of darkness during the day. Her explanation seems to mollify those upset, even though I think she’s just advised them to stop behaving like smiling fools.

This morning we visit my old nemesis, the famous parks and palace of Peterhof built by Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great) about 20 miles from St. Petersburg. Originally known as Peterhof (“Peter’s Court” in German), Peterhof was de-Germanized to Petrodvorets (“Peter’s Palace”) in 1944.  The Peterhof title returned in 1997 following the Soviet era, although the area around Peterhof is still known as Petrodvorets.

Peterhof’s assembly of palaces and gleaming golden statues, one of Russia’s most recognized landmarks, sustained heavy damage during World War II. By 1947, the grounds and structures were largely repaired and for the 300th anniversary celebration of St. Petersburg in 2003, everything was restored fully.  Which means the gardens and statuary will be more impressive than my last visit, and I was thoroughly impressed then.

The Peterhof  Curse

Peterhof, built at the beginning of the 1700s, is most famous for its spectacular series of spewing fountains spread over several acres.  No pumps of any type ever powered the fountains. Instead, large reservoirs built at palace level above the statues provide the immense water pressure to power the fountains and the famous statues depicting ancient gods, goddesses, horses and fish.  Peterhof’s most important formation is The Grand Cascade, a series of terraces, fountains and statues that stretch downhill from the Grand Palace to the Marine Canal.

Despite two previous visits, I have not a single picture of the palace or the fountains or the statues. Oh, I definitely tried to take photos each time, several years apart. I even used different pairs of Nikon SLR film cameras on each trip; I always carry two cameras in case one fails. A lot of good that did at Peterhof. On both visits, cameras that worked perfectly before and immediately after my Peterhof tours inexplicably stopped working while at Peterhof itself.

The cameras simply would not function there. Naturally I changed camera batteries, did everything I knew how to do to make those damn cameras take a picture. My equipment seemed cursed. Or perhaps it was me. No one with me experienced camera problems.

I never suffered such total camera paralysis anywhere afterwards, at home or while photographing on all seven continents.  Another similar camera disaster can’t possibly happen again today. I come loaded for Russian bear, carrying three cameras this time. It’s inconceivable every one of them mysteriously will break down again. The weather is perfect this morning. I take that as a good omen. This time, no camera or anything else possibly can ruin my Peterhof visit…I hope.

Oceania Marina Visits Helsinki

Classic Architecture And Strange  Art

We have a promising day with bright sunshine, blue sky and only a few small clouds when the Oceania Marina enters Helsinki harbor. A Celebrity cruise ship follows in our wake, passing between the small ice age islands forming the harbor entrance.

cruise ship at helsinki harbor entranceHelsinki Harbor entrance

From the cruise dock, we take a shuttle bus provided by the Helsinki Tourist Board to Market Square, a major landmark near the city center and by the harbor edge. Stepping off the bus, we’re greeted by the statue of a tall cartoonish pink-colored man peeing into the harbor.

Our first Helsinki landmark! Although prominently displayed, the statue is here only temporarily. The previous summer the statue (or is it a mobile fountain?) known as Bad Bad Boy was featured in a different Finnish city.  Not everyone in Helsinki is happy to have the statue here.  A member of the Helsinki tourist board is embarrassed to admit the statue locally is known as “The Peeing Man” or something similar.  He says it’s temporarily present for an upcoming Helsinki fringe/arts festival.

The statue is decidedly arresting, and its location near several government buildings could also be a political statement.  Hmmm…what if this was moved to Washington, D.C., and the Bad Bad Boy’s spray aimed at Congress.  Most Americans would love it, based on the  opinion polls of the last two years.

Helsinki Finland Bad Bad Boy statueThe Bad Bad Boy statue

 Classic Helsinki Highlights

Behind the “The Peeing Man “ statue  the  historic green and gold onion domes of the Uspenski Cathedral rising above a small grove of trees a few blocks away. Uspenski Cathedral is the largest Orthodox Church in Western Europe. Its golden cupolas and deep red brick facade gleam in the sunlight, a popular photo subject for the numerous tourists roaming the cathedral’s grounds. Uspenski cathedral, built between 1862 and 1868 and designed after a 16th century church near Moscow, is one of many lingering but still popular monuments related to past Russian dominance.  (By treaty, Finland was annexed from Sweden to Russia in 1809 as the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland until Finland gained its independence in 1917.)

It’s a short downhill walk from Uspenski Cathedral to Senate Square and the Helsinki Cathedral,  two more of Helsinki’s best-known historic landmarks.  Helsinki Square is a large open area bordered by the University of Helsinki, Government Palace as well as Helsinki Cathedral, the Square’s main attraction.

Helsinki Finland Helsinki CathedralBikes lined up below Helsinki Cathedral

The neoclassical cathedral, also known as Toumiokirkkor and the Church of St. Nicholas, is also designed after another Russian church, this one in St. Petersburg.

Most countries topple the statues of their former rulers once they gain freedom, so it’s surprising the statue of Russian Tsar Alexander II is still a prominent Senate Square landmark and that the statue’s base is richly decorated with flower baskets.  Tsar Alexander  II obviously earned enduring gratitude from Finns as a result of  his reforms that increased Finland’s autonomy from Russia.  Once  Finland gained its independence, there definitely was talk of removing the statue, yet Alexander II remains,  a very popular place for family photos and selfies.

There’s a festive air in Senate Square today, as if everyone is waiting for a marching band or a rock concert to start.  Concerts indeed are held here but not today.  Time for us to move onto Helsinki’s famous bronze mermaid statue locally known as Havis Amanda.

 The Mermaid Trapped in a Box

Where is the celebrated bronze mermaid standing on seaweed as she rises from the water? The statue, Helsinki’s unofficial symbol, is nowhere to be seen in the wide open spaces of Market Square.   We learn she has been “disappeared” by city officials for reasons that sound like a bad Saturday Night Live comedy sketch.  It seems the Helsinki Art Museum chose an artist to hide the iconic image inside a big black box—the Hotel Manta–which also is considered an inspired work of art.  To me, Hotel Manta looks as “inspired” as a cheap prefab plywood box. I don’t get it. Or the idea of removing the mermaid statue from public view by another art object. This is like New York City deciding to hide the Statue of Liberty inside a black skyscraper.

Hotel Manta Helsinki FinlandArt hides art as  Hotel Manta obscures the  famous bronze mermaid

However, it soon becomes apparent the real purpose of  Hotel Manta is to be a cash cow for the city. There’s now a 3 euro fee for the privilege of viewing the caged mermaid  standing inside a hotel room instead of outside under the sun. Even more  money is generated by renting out the hotel room at night for those wanting to sleep with the mermaid inside the fenced off,  elevated observatory over Market Square.  (The hotel  stopped taking reservations following the summer season.)

Ironically, the mermaid’s confinement to a hotel bedroom may have fulfilled the worst fears of some Finns when the mermaid first appeared in Helsinki in 1908. Those objecting to her nudity considered her a “whore.”   Made to pimp for tourist money, some might say that’s what she’s become. We like to think the hotel is present to raise money for any needed restoration of the statue so she can return to the outdoors, though we saw no indication the hotel was only a temporary prison.

 Taste of Finland

We wander to Market Square’s famous outdoor summer market known for its variety of crafts, souvenirs and food stands.  Wonderful looking vegetables and fruits, most far larger than the ones we ever see back home, are displayed in numerous stalls.

Helsinki Finland Outdoor Summer Market The popular summer market in Helsinki

The most striking souvenirs are colorfully dressed dolls and other crafts from Lapland, Finland’s northern most region.  Lapland’s inhabitants are known as the Sami, the indigenous people who have maintained their traditional language and culture. They are best  known for their distinctive colorful clothing, for raising reindeer, traveling by dog teams and the wintertime Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle.

The Sami make wonderful dishes with reindeer meat. During my several visits to Lapland I developed a strong fondness for the region’s famous stew of reindeer, lingonberries and mashed potatoes.  One of the things I hoped when we arrived in Helsinki is we’d find Lapp food so Linda could taste it.  At a tented restaurant selling “Lapland Food” she agrees to order the stew. Then she smells the delicious aroma of ground reindeer formed into meatballs. That not only smell scrumptious but has a flavorful spicy taste.  When we order, although Linda’s choice may be more flavorful I remain loyal to the reindeer stew . I’ve wanted to taste reindeer stew again for a long time.

This simple meal will be a perfect memory of Finland. Our time in Helsinki ends as jet lag catches up with us big time. It’s like we feel hung over and it’s time to take care of it. We don’t want to feel like this tomorrow in St. Petersburg. It’s back to the Oceania Marina and a long uninterrupted sleep.

 

 

Settling in on Oceania Marina Baltic Cruise

Terrace Cafe for Nightly Lobster, Steak, Sushi

As much as we ‘d like to sleep through the first hours of our Oceania Marina Baltic Cruise, the  lifeboat drill interrupting our nap has us fully awake. We might as well unpack before grabbing something to eat before sacking out again.  Finding places to store clothing takes longer than normal since many of the drawers and shelves are not in the traditional places, near the closet. It’s a novel stateroom design, with drawers scattered throughout the stateroom.  The computer desk, located near the veranda door and opposite the closet, is an unexpected storehouse for clothing with several side shelves and deep drawers.  The hunt-and-seek for storage may reflect the imaginative design needed to squeeze both a bathtub and shower stall in our 282-square-foot stateroom.

The Terrace Café is our choice for dinner.  Serving ourselves should be faster than any other dining option including room service. The Terrace Café is surprisingly empty, perhaps because most passengers have gone to sleep, are seated in the main dining room or sampling one of the Marina’s five specialty restaurants.

Stockholm archipelago Finland      Cruising through the Stockholm archipelago

With so few people present, we easily find a window table for two. It has a good view of the Marina’s passage through the Stockholm archipelago, a cluster of  islands and rocks bordering the channel to the Baltic Sea. The larger landfalls, popular summer vacation spots,  contain good-sized homes.

At the buffet, Linda is elated to find fresh sushi and sashimi in the salad bar section.  I’m more interested in the cafe grill preparing cooked-to-order steaks and lobster tails.  I have a Caesar salad made while waiting for the meat to cook. Since the Terrace Café serves many of the items on the main dining room, it becomes a favorite dining spot.  As we will discover, the café is more relaxing than the main dining room with its harried waiters and sometimes long waits between courses. Besides, in the cafe it’s easy to combine several entrees or quickly replace a disappointing one with another and not disrupt the pace of anyone else’s meal.

Back in our cabin, a card placed on a bed pillow contains the unwelcome news that we’ll lose an hour of sleep because the Marina will move into a new time zone tonight.  How much sleep we’re likely to get is debatable. Jet lag is bound to play havoc with us. What a foolish mistake to take that nap before the boat drill. Better to have stayed awake until after the drill, ordered room service and then called it a day without much unpacking.  Sleep, wonderful sleep, so taken for granted.

Marina Concierge Lounge Sparse, Disappointing, 

Not unexpectedly, I awake the next morning  at 6 a.m., four hours before we arrive in Helsinki. I decide to check out the concierge lounge before breakfast.  The lounge, accessible 24 hours with my room card, won’t be staffed until around 8 a.m.  About the size of two inside cabins. the lounge is well arranged, with a desk near the entrance door with a computer for anyone on the concierge deck. On this trip, it’s not likely to be in much demand considering the free internet bonus in our cabins. Beside the computer is a small stack of  Helsinki maps. These same maps will be available downstairs later when we disembark but at almost all other Baltic ports, the concierge lounge contains better, more detailed city maps than any brought aboard by local tourist boards.  the Marina’s daily newsletter doesn’t include port maps so it essential to find one somewhere before leaving the ship.

Oceania Marina Concierge LoungeOceania Marina Concierge Lounge              

The rest of the lounge is laid out to resemble a mini-book library combined with a reading room. Full size copies of today’s editions of one major newspaper from the U.S., Canadian and British are displayed on a table in front of a sofa just beneath a large flat screen TV. Behind the TV is a long counter  stocked with chilled juice dispensers, coffee  and tea as well as pastries and cookies.  Although various web sites claim the concierge lounge serves daytime sandwiches and evening canapés, it has only cookies and pastries during our trip. Unlike concierge lounges in many high end hotels, wine and beer are not served in the evening, either.  Except to read a newspaper or to consult the concierge staff about what to see while in port. the facility doesn’t offer any reason for passengers to visit. . For concierge class, the lounge isn’t much of a perk .

I glance at my watch. Time for Linda to get up and for us to head to breakfast before arriving in Helsinki.

Oceania Marina Lacks Stockholm Terminal

Never a second chance to make a first impression.

Deplaning in Stockholm, we move through immigration and customs amazingly quickly. No serious concerns about terrorism here. At the luggage carousel, we meet an Oceania representative collecting luggage for passengers taking a bus tour of Stockholm before boarding the Marina. We tell him we’d just like to go to the passenger terminal and nap in a chair before the ship is ready for boarding, assuming the terminal has any seats. He assures the Marina’s terminal not only offers a comfortable seating area to wait but also a café. Sounds perfect. Little did we know that of all the cruise ships in port, Oceania Marina lacks a Stockholm terminal.

Our 28-mile taxi ride to the terminal may be lengthy we see mostly highways and only a small bit of Sweden. The small bit of Stockholm we view reminds Linda of Stieg Larsson’s famous Millennium series, a best-selling trilogy starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She imagines heroine Lisbeth Salander walking the streets we pass. Her vision of Lisbeth looks like Noomi Rapace, the Swedish actress who starred in the original movie.

Our taxi driver is an interesting man. From Iraq, he says he abandoned Baghdad in 2005 after his two supermarkets were set on fire a second time. He says he has no plans ever to return despite close family still living there. His regular family reunions occur in a European country, never in Iraq.

Arriving at the cruise port, we find the Marina is not at the Vartahamnen 523, the terminal address provided by Oceania. The port section, known as Vartahamnen South, has five quays  but all dedicated to ferry service, including Scandlines. Our driver takes us to the northern port section and soon locates a Holland America ship with a Celebrity vessel docked behind. The Marina is located opposite them, easily identified at a distance by its white smoke stack with a big “O.”

Oceania Marina’s absent Stockholm terminal-why? 

Instead of the promised passenger-friendly cruise terminal, we discover a curiously long column of Oceania passengers just outside the fence gate leading to the ship. When our taxi draws up, several passengers quickly approach our driver to secure a ride to the airport. It’s 8:45 a.m., which seems late for so many people still to be disembarking and without any organized transportation for departure or hotel stays. We grab our luggage, then pay the fare with a credit card. Our cab driver seems filled with new energy, surprised and pleased to pick up a new fare so quickly.

Still early, the temperature is chilly and the overcast sky has the look and feel of rain. We ask the way to the terminal. What terminal building?  There isn’t one for Marina passengers.  Apparently the only terminal is located at the pier opposite us where Celebrity and Holland America ships are berthed.  We’re advised to wait outside the fence gate where, thankfully, is a tiny gift shop with a large wooden deck containing only five plastic chairs, already occupied by other new arrivals waiting to board. We claim an edge of the deck to sit before that space is occupied. The hard deck feels identical to the SAS Premium Plus seats. Since it will be several hours before we can board the Marina, we pass the time people watching and talking to our new shipmates.

I estimate the waiting passenger taxi line at 40 to 50 people.  It doesn’t shorten for more than hour. Taxis, slow in coming, depart sporadically with handfuls of people.  As some leave, more disembark from the Marina to replenish the column. It’s almost 90 minutes for the last person to catch a ride. Never witnessed such an unusual and haphazard disembarkation procedure. Fortunate that for those departing and the swelling numbers waiting to board that the sky still only threatens rain.

Oceania-Stateroom-Bed-1.jpg
After a sleepless SAS flight, this bed is what we seek most.

Oceania cruise staff have no explanation for the lack of a cruise terminal or the lack of any facilities; nor do they seem to care. Their attitude and the situation don’t reflect well on Oceania’s claim to offer a “luxury experience.” Or match our previous Oceania experiences, either. Makes us wonder what to expect once on board. Will it be better or worse?  Can’t believe we’re questioning our wisdom about booking Oceania for this cruise.

Around 11 a.m. a large truck arrives with baggage from the airport. We lug ours over to be added to the bunch. About 20 minutes later, wonderful news! A large canopy is erected at the ship’s gangplank and officials assemble under it so we can begin boarding. As expected, no staterooms ready yet but we learn a full lunch buffet lunch is waiting at the Terrace Café on deck 12. Linda and I agree the Marina’s interior is classy but décor is hardly foremost in our minds. Where are the restrooms?

Terrace Cafe best part of the day

At the Terrace Café, the buffet reassures us how good dining on Oceania can be. Although Linda limits herself to soup and a salad, I graze the hot courses. It will be the next day, when I’m more awake, that I discover I can have a fresh, personally prepared Caesar salad at the salad bar for lunch or dinner. Seated at our table, we have a birds-eye view of those still waiting to board. The weather has changed. Anyone standing outside the canopy waiting to begin the boarding process is standing in a light rain. Strangely, don’t see any umbrellas being passed out. That same thing could have happened to us while waiting on those gift shop stairs, with no shelter waiting anywhere.

Following lunch, we remain at our table to talk with another couple as everyone waits for an announcement that rooms are ready. The couple, from the northeast, was on our SAS flight, also in SAS Premium Plus. We compare note on our experiences. Departing their hometown, they also were sent to TSA’s fast track line, so flying premium class was worth more than we knew. And they didn’t sleep much on the flight, either, due to SAS’ hard seats.  At 1 o’clock, the first rooms are ready for occupancy. They start at the top category: the suites. At 1:30 our concierge category is announced. We’re told later the bulk of the rooms were ready just before 3 p.m.

Our room is just a few decks below the Terrace Café and convenient to elevators, as planned. Our stateroom is impressive. Nice and spacious. A laptop computer with unlimited internet sits at the desk for our use. A bottle of champagne chills in an ice bucket. Our bathroom is expansive, offering both a large tub and a sizeable shower stall. Unexpectedly, we find we have a mini-fridge stocked with an assortment of soft drinks (no charge). And two impressively large bottles of water that will be replaced every day. This is going to be very nice.

Our luggage soon arrives but we leave it unpacked. One more thing to test: the comfort of the bed, which must have been suitable since we fall instantly asleep, only to be jolted awake two hours later by a blaring announcement to prepare for the lifeboat drill. Abruptly, normal shipboard life begins .

Married Middle Name Cruise ID Nightmare

By Linda O’Keefe

Passing through immigration in Stockholm, I can finally relax.  I’ve arrived at our departure port so no more worry about being denied boarding by an airline. My concern? The full name on my passport is different from the full name on both my flight reservations and the Oceania cruise manifest.   This inconsistency is my middle name. It’s partly due to the conflicting ID requirements on the state and federal levels, a situation many married women may encounter when they travel internationally.

My Florida driver license has my maiden name for my middle name. That is due to the marriage license requirements in the county where we were married, which requires the woman must use her maiden name for her middle name.

A woman’s maiden name also is supposed to be on her US passport. But several years ago  when I applied for a passport name change my new passport  was stamped with my middle birth name although it was supposed to have my maiden name.

I’ve had to work around this ID contradiction ever since when it comes to overseas travel.  Men are lucky. They never deal with this problem since their names usually remain the same for life.

Obviously I should have booked the cruise under my “passport name” as I usually do, not my “Florida name.”  As for my flights overseas,  will I even be able to get my tickets?  TSA also will expect my airline tickets to match my passport ID.  Overlooking this mistake until the last-minute is inconceivable.  It puts me in a great panic of whether I will be denied boarding in Orlando or Newark traveling to Europe or on my flights returning from Europe.

Orlando International Airport-1Will I ever get out of here,  Orlando International Airport?

My first call is to our travel agent.  She says she can’t make ticket changes since Oceania issued them.  And Oceania probably can’t make a name change at this point but if  it could the new ticket likely would  come with severe penalties.  Worse, she indicates it’s unlikely I’ll be able to board any flights.  Her suggestion is that I call the different airlines to report my problem and check the TSA website. But there are no guarantees these steps will get me on an airplane.

This is turning into a horror story. I call TSA, encountering a recorded message with more options than toothpaste brands at a grocery store. Eventually I speak with a real person, a woman who asks my name. Then I hear only computer keys clicking. Her next question: “Where are your flights going to?” I reply “Orlando to  La Guardia (incorrect) to Stockholm.” Silence again on the line.  Then, “Mrs. O’Keefe, you are flying United to Newark (she caught my error) and then SAS to Stockholm on August 20 and returning British Airways from Amsterdam to Gatwick and BA Gatwick to Orlando on September 4th.” Now it is my turn to be silent. She knows all this better than I do because of just my name? Glad to know the government can be on top of something as small as this so quickly.

The TSA call is the smartest thing I could have done. The TSA representative is extremely helpful and informative, assuring me this was not a big deal and that it happens all the time. Her advice is to carry my Florida driver license, my social security card and a copy of my Florida marriage license with my passport to show as much ID as possible.

Checking in at Orlando International, a woman at the United counter immediately questions  the middle name differences.  I’m ready, full of explanations and a fistful of documents. The problem quickly disappears when a supervisor is called:  a female supervisor. What luck. She has the same middle name problem and is questioned about it sometimes at OIA—where she works.  We’re part of the same sorority!

I receive boarding passes for both Orlando to Newark and for Newark to Stockholm.  The tickets are stamped with the notation my documents are checked.  Ironically, and happily, my home airport is the only place on our entire trip  where the middle name problem comes up.  I know that now but not on that travel day. I will not stop worrying about be turned back until I board the Oceania Marina.

Once on board, I’m given my official ship ID card–which carries no middle name.  That’s more than convenient. It means I will have no problem in St. Petersburg where I must show my passport and ship ID card each time I leave and return to the ship.

In the 13 or 14 years Tim and I have traveled together internationally, this never was a problem and it came up only now because 4 years ago we were married. Thus, it’s all  his fault!

Tim:  Linda and I both wrote this post together and I am responsible for much of it. I also wrote the last sentence. I am the guilty party who made the reservations using her driver license.  But she should have noticed my mistake  at the time.

Tim & Linda:  A learning experience for us and this silly mistake  won’t be repeated.  All international bookings will carry Linda’s passport name even though it’s technically incorrect, carrying her middle birth name.  Thanks, State Department! 

Oceania Marina Baltic Cruise An Easy Choice

Song and Dance Ensemble of the Russian Army, St. PetersburgSong and Dance Ensemble of the Russian Army, St. Petersburg

It’s been too long since Linda and I cruised (or blogged) so last January we began looking at cruise itineraries. The Oceania Marina 12-day summer Northern Europe Viking Trails itinerary appeals immediately to us but especially to me since it includes three full days in St. Petersburg, Russia. Having visited St. Petersburg twice decades ago, I’m interested to see how much it’s changed since the end of the Soviet era. For whatever reason, Russia is a long-time fascination. My first visit there was is in the 1970’s Soviet era with four more trips over the years.

In addition to St. Petersburg, other interesting Marina stops include out-of-the-way ports in Estonia, Lithuania and Poland along with Helsinki, Copenhagen, a German port convenient to Berlin and ending with an overnight in Amsterdam. Oceania is one of our favorite cruise lines but the price quoted in January seems a bit too high.

Linda and I always are interested in anything new Oceania offers. We have a long history with them, going back to its previous incarnation when it was known as Renaissance Cruises. The first cruise Linda and I ever made together was on one of their 684-passenger “R Ships.” That was in the spring of 2001, just months before Renaissance went under due to the 9/11 Twin Towers attack, when all their ships were stationed in Europe. It was a sad ending to a wonderful cruise line but what happened in the class action suit against Renaissance made us laugh. Would like to meet that judge.

We scan the promotional materials Oceania sends at regular intervals, as new features are added to the Vikings Trails end of season cruise. Now included are free shore excursions for all three days in St. Petersburg ($1,000 value), prepaid gratuities, free unlimited internet in our stateroom and a $300 on-board ship credit to use for whatever we want.

When Oceania offers the option to upgrade round trip air to premium economy for just $198 round trip from Orlando, we’re ready to book. Oceania always includes round trip air in its cruise prices and we’d be crazy not to use it. We’d save $850 if we opted out of Oceania’s air package but the best online economy flight rates for our itinerary would cost two to three times the $850 discount. Premium economy is considerably more.

We decide to treat ourselves to an early wedding anniversary and go concierge class, which allows us first choice of the St. Petersburg tours and early reservations in the Marina’s five specialty restaurants. Unlike most cruise lines, Oceania does not demand an extra charge for its specialty restaurants; only advance reservations required. The Marina is one of Oceania’s new large, almost twice the size of the original “R-Ships” and carrying 1,250 passengers. It will be interesting to see how much of an improvement this new class size is over the smaller vessels.

Klaipeda, Lithuania, located on the mouth of the Dane SeaKlaipedia, Lithuania, located on the Dane River

Oceania books our flights, not our travel agent, and the itinerary is a surprisingly good one. We fly from Orlando to Newark with a layover of under three hours before taking Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) to Stockholm, our departure port. The return flight from Amsterdam takes us to London Gatwick and another short layover with a direct flight back to Orlando. The schedule is fine though we wish we could avoid the United Airlines flight to Newark since it wants $100 for a second bag. Especially since our other carriers, SAS and British Airways, both allow two free bags. We’re extending our trip for several days in Amsterdam after the cruise, so packing at least one extra bag for the two of us is kind of necessary.

When we check in at Orlando International we encounter the usual summer crowds that often increase TSA screening lines to 30 minutes. Unexpectedly, our tickets send us to the TSA fast-track lines, which proceed quickly. This is one of the benefits of premium economy class.

Arriving at Newark, we look forward to boarding the SAS overnight flight to Stockholm. Our only previous premium economy experience was on Air New Zealand from Los Angeles to Auckland and that truly was something special. Premium economy had its own cabin, comfortable space age style seats and meal service better than the business class of some other carriers. Descriptions of SAS Premium Plus appear equally appealing.

The SAS flight begins impressively. During takeoff, SAS allows us to watch the takeoff from different views on our personal TV screens. I watch the takeoff starting from the cockpit view, switch to a rear angle as we lift off the runway and then look straight down at the area we fly over. Very nice touch. The selection of recent American movies is good, too.

Windmill in the NetherlandsWindmill in Holland

But about an hour after takeoff, the SAS Premium Plus experience is not so pleasant. The seat bottom lacks any kind of padding, assuming it ever had any. It’s extremely uncomfortable. Linda says she feels like she’s sitting on a concrete slab. In addition, I find it impossible to maneuver my legs around the large left leg on the seat in front of me. That support blocks almost half of the normally available legroom, leaving no way to stretch my legs, much less place my laptop there without seriously intruding on Linda’s leg space. I’m convinced the design engineers never tested this arrangement in real life conditions.

The evening meal choices are chicken with plain white rice or salmon with plain white rice. They’re just as bland as they sound. The run-of-the-mill airline salad, rice entrée and dessert come clustered together on the usual typical economy tray. This is nothing like SAS’ classy website description: “For dinner, there is a starter, main course (choose between two alternatives) & a good dessert with coffee or tea.” The accompany photos are equally misleading

For the first time ever on a flight, I’m unable to sleep. Normally I can fall asleep on a bus, train and every airline until now. A mild sleeping pill doesn’t block the pain of my lead-lined seat. I read my Kindle until breakfast. Would have liked to have read SAS in-flight magazine but my overhead reading light is out. Stewardess said she would report it. Linda squirms in her seat much of the time. She also is awake most of the night.

Landing in Stockholm, and shuffling like zombies from The Walking Dead, we gladly leave SAS Premium Plus behind. We’re more than ready for our next stop. The Oceania Marina and its usual flavorful welcome aboard lunch buffet.

Dining on the Lindblad Endeavour

food_paella-1
                      Classic Spanish paella with shellfish but no shrimp

Sustainability guides the ship’s dining choices—yum!

Lindblad Expeditions takes its dedication to conservation seriously, extending it even to the Endeavour’s dining room. Although seafood is a staple on the ship’s menus, you’ll never find a shrimp cocktail, fried shrimp or shrimp of any sort on the ship. Lindblad banned shrimp from its kitchens more than a decade ago, in the summer of 2001 as part of its sustainable dining program to help preserve fish stocks world-wide.

Lindblad says it could not find any shrimp suppliers who could prove that their shrimp harvesting methods did not damage the marine environment. One of the serious problem shrimp trawlers create is the “bycatch” of unwanted fish species that end up being killed and disposed of. In addition, in some areas the trawlers may sweep the same section of sea bottom several times a year, which leaves no time for re-growth or recovery of the marine habitat.

Shrimp farming also has serious negative impact because shrimp growers have made their pond water poisonous due to the large amounts of artificial feed, pesticides, chemical additives and antibiotics used for the highest possible production rate. Typically, the ponds are located in coastal areas to provide easy access to new fresh water sources to refill them. Unfortunately, instead of reducing pressure on overharvesting, shrimp aquaculture’s toxic  effluent is blamed for reducing local shrimp and fish populations in some regions

When it comes to the fish served on board the Endeavour and other Lindblad ships, they are species considered not to be over-fished or caught by environmentally destructive practices. Lindblad Expeditions is not being extremist in its sustainability approach. According to Ocean Wise, a Canadian non-profit education and conservation association, an estimated 90-percent of all large, predatory fish have disappeared from the world’s oceans and it states that one recent scientific study predicts a world-wide fisheries collapse by the year 2048.  Obviously, this is a topic that impacts all of us and one we all should be concerned about.

Placing the serious aspects of the Lindblad Endeavour’s menu aside, as you’ll see from the accompanying photos and the week’s menus on accompanying pages, no one starves and there is a serious emphasis flavorful food, although the preparations are not always ones we have every day or perhaps ever have had before. But trying new foods always has been an essential part of travel. The menu emphasizes Ecuadorian cuisine, as you would expect.

Here are some sample signs that are posted to explain unfamiliar dishes:

food montepillo sign-1 food potato patty-1

Here’s how seriously Lindblad Expeditions takes its commitment to cater to the diverse tastes of its passengers.  The photo at the top of this post shows paella served once a week at lunch that definitely would not suit vegetarians.  So, a vegetarian paella is served at the same time. 

This kind of catering is routine on large cruise ships. But the Endeavour carries fewer than100 passengers. Here is a photo of the vegetarian paella served at the same lunch.

food veg paella-1Vegetarian paella, a rice dish from Valencia, Spain

See for yourself what the dining on the Lindblad National Geographic Endeavor is like. You won’t be disappointed, I promise you. If I didn’t like it, I would tell you. But I do wish there was just one time during the week for plain old hamburgers with buns and all the trimmings.  But that may be just me.

Lindblad Endeavour Galapagos Cruise Links

The Galapagos Experience                                        Endeavour Dining
Galapagos Adventure Upcoming                       Sustainable Dining Policy
How Darwin Saved The Galapagos                   Saturday Dining Menus
Galapagos Photo Tips                                                 Sunday Dining Menus
What To Pack For Cruise                                           Monday Dining Menus
Getting to Guayaquil                                                   Tuesday Dining Menus
Las Bachas Shore Landing                                      Wednesday Dining Menus
North Seymour Shore Landing                          Thursday Dining Menus
Fernandina & Isabela Islands                              Friday Finale Menus
Urbina Bay Shore Landing                                      Endeavour Recipes
Life Aboard The Endeavour
More About Life On Board
Puerto Egas Shore Landing
Endeavour’s Floating SPA
Meeting One of World’s Rarest Animals
Puerto Ayoro Walking Tour
Santa Cruz Highlands Tour
Hunting Tortoises in the Santa Cruz Highlands
San Cristobal, Endeavour’s Final Stop

Grazing New Zealand at SKYCITY Auckland – Restaurants & Menus


SKYCITY Restaurants dine by Peter Gordon and The Grill by Sean Connolly both are world-class dining experiences.  See their menus in photos.

NZ Auckland Sky Tower-1   glass of wine-1

At precisely 1076 feet and 1.38 inches (328 m), the Sky Tower is the tallest man-made structure in New Zealand and serves as one of Auckland’s signature attractions. The Sky Tower also marked the location of SKYCITY Auckland, a casino-hotel complex with 25 cafes, restaurants and bars.

This visual menu is from the SKYCITY Grand Hotel’s restaurant called “dine by Peter Gordon.” The word dine certainly deserves to be in all caps at this award-winning restaurant featuring a mix of Asian, Pacific and traditional European cuisine.  This is a true fine dining experience and one not to be rushed.

dine by Peter Gordon Visual Menu

Appetizers (or “entrees” as they’re called in NZ)

tuna-1Seared yellowfin tuna with nori sauce, crispy squid, wakame salad and wasabi jelly

pork belly-1Crispy free-farmed pork belly and smoked mackerel fritter accompanied by lemon,
coriander, bean sprout, cherry tomato, macadamia salad and lime dressing

salad-1Roast Cambridge duck breast accompanied by green beans, caramelized
shallots, smoked eggplant, beetroot relish, pastille of five-spiced confit
duck leg and chestnuts

Main Course

beef-1
7-hour braised Firstlight grass-fed wagyu short rib accompanied by
eggplant, shitake mushroom, salad and toasted almonds

Dessert

dessert-1Valrhona Guanaja 70% chocolate terrine topped by lemongrass ice cream
with pistachio white chocolate mousse, popping candy, manuka honey crisp

The Grill by Sean Connolly Visual Photo Menu

Another excellent restaurant at the SKYCITY Grand Hotel, The Grill by Sean Connolly is more casual than dine but the menu is just as delicious and memorable. The emphasis here is on fresh local foods with the natural flavors allowed to shine through.

Seafood Entrees

seafood platter-1This seafood appetizer for 4 is a meal in itself: Queensland prawns,
Cloudy Bay clams, king crab claws, scampi and oysters. Single servings
also available.

prawns with garlic and pesto-1Queensland prawns with garlic butter and pesto.  We should have stopped
right here.

Main Course

XXX

          There should be a picture above of a 1-1/2 inch dry aged savannah Angus rib        eye on the bone.  I was trying to arrange this great piece of cow into a more
photogenic position but made the mistake of cutting into and tasting the rib eye
while doing this. The results were not pretty or suitable for public viewing.  The rib eye,
however, was magnificent and you have my word –if not my photo—attesting to that.

Lindblad Endeavour Arrives at Puerto Egas

puerto egas beach walk sea lions marine iguana-1

Puerto Egas, where the wildlife offer a warm welcome

Everyone who takes a Galapagos cruise usually has a favorite shore landing. Mine comes unexpectedly almost midway through the trip when Lindblad’s National Geographic Endeavour takes us to Puerto Egas on Isla Santiago (also known as James Island and Isla San Salvador). On our afternoon stop there, everything comes together: the sunlight is gorgeous, we encounter a good variety of birds and mammals and also witness lots of lively animal interaction, including a large bellowing male Galapagos fur seal. Best of all, this is one of the most leisurely walks, without the usual and constant push to keep moving.

Ironically, when Lindblad’s National Geographic Endeavour arrives and anchors off Isla Santiago, there is no hint this will be a special afternoon. Instead, once our Zodiac lands on a narrow rocky beach, the scenery is almost depressing. A dilapidated house sits on a small cliff above where we stand. Then, after we exit the beach and get a better view of the old deserted homestead and its empty, fenced-in fields, the spot seems even more dismal.

There may be 30,000 people living in the Galapagos, but this is the first evidence of human occupation we’ve seen since sailing from Baltra on Saturday morning. This unexpected detritus of human intrusion is an irritating reminder of past efforts to harvest salt here, first between 1928 and 1930, then much later in 1964. Both attempts invariably caused environmental damage by using native and endemic trees for firewood and also introducing new plants and animals. The Puerto Egas name, in fact, refers to the last salt company operation, run by Hector Egas whose venture failed when the price of salt in South America became so cheap that operating in the Galapagos was impractical.

puerto egas ruins-1  puerto egas Remains of old salt trail-1
The jarring reminders of the humans who once lived here

Thankfully, we quickly leave the settlement area and make the short walk across the island’s narrow point to the other side, which is surprisingly different. It’s long black lava coastline that seems to extend endlessly along James Bay, where Charles Darwin’s ship anchored and he explored the interior of Santiago Island. The shore, comprised of an old lava flow that poured into the ocean, has many large inlets and tidal pools created by the erosive force of the rough wave action. One of these inlets, a vertical chute where the water rises and ebbs as waves regularly crash against the rock, carries the appropriate if undignified name of “Darwin’s toilet.”

This lava shoreline is a favorite haunt of fur seals, the smallest of the pinnipeds and creatures we really haven’t encountered closely before. Endemic to the Galápagos Islands, an estimated 40,000 fur seals are spread throughout the islands, apparently much smaller than just a few decades ago. Scientists say the fur seal population was reduced significantly in the 1980s due to the effects of El Nino, which also reduced the local fish populations.

The best known place to see fur seals is Gruta de las Focas, which has a natural bridge above the inlets where fur seals are normally found. They’re present today because, thankfully for us, Galápagos fur seals are the most land-based of all the fur seals, spending at least 30% of their time out of the water. Fortunately, they also do most of their fishing at night since they prefer to spend as many days as possible warming themselves on the lava rocks and only occasionally sunbathing on sandy beaches.

puerto egas american oyster catcher-1American oyster catchers were common place at Puerto Egas

Hopefully, the fur seals will be as prevalent here and throughout the Galapagos in coming years since the current climate change seems to have prompted an ambitious group of Galapagos fur seals to look for better fishing waters in Peru. No one is sure why, perhaps because there are more fish there. This migration happened in 2010 when a group of Galapagos fur seals traveled 900 miles (1,500 km) to the northern waters of Peru and established a colony there, the first recorded instance of Galapagos seals migrating from their homeland. Rising water temperatures have been credited as the motivation but the water still averages warmer in the Galapagos.  Water temperatures off northern Peru have increased from 62F (17C) to 73F (23C) in the past 10 years; Galapagos water temps average 77F (25C). It’s speculated more such colonies might be established in northern Peru. Still think it’s due to better fish populations in Peru and not the water temperature.

Darwin paid scant attention to the fur seals during his visit, perhaps because fur hunters had almost hunted the animals to extinction. On this day fur seals are prominent at Puerto Egas, along with Sally Lightfoot crabs, marine iguanas, American oyster catchers, a Galapagos hawk and more. Two fur seals are in a contest with a sea lion to dislodge the sea lion from its flat rock perch just above the waves. The sea lion ignores the fur seals’ loud noises and aggressive threats, holding its head high with an expression we interpret to mean something like “Well, here goes the neighborhood!”

puerto egas Lava Gull-1Lava gull stalking the Puerto Egas tidal pools

The matter is semi-resolved when one of the fur seals jumps on an adjoining rock and gradually nudges its way into sharing part of the platform. The sea lion refuses to retreat and both animals end up appearing to have reached a compromise for the space. The second fur seal stays in the water, preferring to swim around and keep out of the way. Once the action subsides, we wander away, careful not to trip over or step on the marine iguanas littering the craggy lava surface like washed-up seaweed.

As we walk the shoreline in the direction of the ship, it’s obvious the Puerto Egas tidal pools are attracting the largest variety of birds we’ve ever seen in one location. Even several Darwin finches land in the trees bordering the shoreline only a few yards behind the beach. I lag behind the others for the unusually prime photo ops. It’s what photographers call the “golden” or “magic” hour, very close to sunset, and the colors are amazing. This one afternoon almost makes up for the  cloudy days we’ve had to work around most of the trip.

When I finish photographing the birds in the tidal pools, I catch up with my group and see they are watching a Galapagos hawk dine on a sizable marine iguana. We are perhaps 20 yards from the hawk, which is well aware of our presence but continues to feed while keeping an obvious watch on us. We’ve seen numerous marine iguanas along the coast, more than in most places, and it’s not surprising there would be a natural death the hawk would take advantage of. The hawk carefully watches on us as we photograph/view it.

Puerto Egas Galapagos hawk feeds on marine iguana -1  puerto egas fur seal tidal pools-1
                                           Galapagos hawk feeds on its prize meal; a fur seal pup.

My day’s highlight comes near the end of our walk where we encounter a huge male fur seal with his harem.  The males are supposed to grow no larger than 5 feet (1.5m) in length and weigh no more than about 145 pounds. This fellow not only looks much larger and scarily impressive because he sits on a rock plateau just a few feet above us.

Seen in profile, this huge male should emphasize why the Galapagos fur seal’s scientific name is Arctocephalus galapagoensis, from Greek words meaning “bear headed.” to me, it doesn’t. Although this fur seal does have a short, pointed muzzle, along with a small, button nose and large eyes, the muzzle of most bears I’ve seen are considerably longer and the noses hardly button-size. Think hound dog, instead. But when the male fur seal starts bellowing at one of his concubines, he draws his lips back and flashed sharp, triangular teeth that did make me think of something as deadly as a bear.

puerto egas Male fur seal profile teeth 2-1                                               Male fur sea offering us some advice: “Stay away!”

Dominant male fur seals are enormously protective of their breeding territory, often required to challenge and chase away challengers. This fellow also obviously expends a lot of effort trying to keep his women in line, though he doesn’t seem to have much success. He seems to be loudly coaxing, or whatever—with hands, he might act like a gorilla beating its chest–to impress the only female on the platform with him. She acknowledges his “whatever,” occasionally swaying her head like a boxer in the ring, but eventually just turns and descends to join the other girls below him.

Our guide (a woman) explains, “She’s out to prove she wants more than a one-night stand. He needs to step up his game and romance her.”

It seems absurd that a creature this size and fearsome could ever court (date?) a mate. But male whales do it. Male sharks do it. Male magnificent frigate birds do it (remember those big red sacs?). Male blue-Footed Bobbies do it (by building impressive nests and their dancing). Uh, even human males do it. But instead of impressive nest building, we’ve evolved to offer dinner, a show, a sports event or not even acting in person, just text messaging.

In the Galapagos, you realize a lot about life and love.

Puerto Egas Lindblad EndeavourLindblad’s National Geographic Endeavour off Puerto Egas