My Favorite Ports
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My Favorite Ports
The question "what is your favorite port" is one that I'm often asked -- and that makes sense! Having sailed on cruise ships for 25 years, and visited nearly every port in the world, from Alaska to Cape Horn, Hawaii to Turkey, and Finland to Africa (though, oddly enough, I've still never made it to Asia), it's nevertheless a tough question to answer.
It would be fair to say that among my favorite itineraries have been the Mediterranean, South America, Alaska, the Baltics and all of the Caribbean Islands. Among my most visited ports of call -- places I've sailed to so often I literally have spent weeks, just a day at a time of course -- are Turkey's Kusadasi and Istanbul, Egypt's Alexandria, all the Greek Isles, Morocco, Peru's Lima, Rio de Janeiro, Vancouver, and numerous ports in Alaska and Hawaii. And there are so many more.
For me, what makes a port particularly special are aspects that could include cultural influences, historic sights, a unique ambience in which you feel as if you've magically escaped from the world (like Venice), places that exude romance and, finally, those that simply offer a chance for fun. You'll never find all of these things in one place (well, never say never), but here are my four favorites for the reasons mentioned above:
History: Kusadasi, Turkey. I gain insight, the love of richness and the dare of dreaming each time I view the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, once a port city, now located 20 miles away from today's real port city of Kusadasi. With ongoing excavations, we are allowed to view this city as one of the most wondrous outdoor museums of all time. This ancient city bears an extraordinarily rich story unknown anywhere during its time and it stands today for all to recognize beauty beyond reason. Ephesus, one of the seven cities addressed in the Bible's Chapter of Revelations, is among other things the last known home of the Virgin Mary and the place of the last sighting of Anthony and Cleopatra; its mosaic sidewalks and built-in swimming pools offer a glimpse of times past and present. The characteristics of this magnificent city of history, prosperity, fortune and power are impossible to list.
On our visits to Ephesus, we developed a tradition. We'd head off the ship first thing in the morning to purchase fresh baked bread, creamed butter and cheese, and homemade salami and wine. Taking our favorite taxi, we would arrive at Ephesus early. For morning exercise, we battled the climb to the top of the 25,000-seat outdoor Theater. There we dutifully waited to hear every word the passengers uttered when embracing the gigantic view upon them, the theater's acoustics allowing for "natural" eavesdropping.
One time wasn't quite the same as the others. With a full tummy from a 4:30 a.m. breakfast and our carefully packed picnic snack, I was feeling good. Listening to people's comments could be eye-opening but this time one passenger, who was asking his guide why the Turkish put all these rocks together for people to see, was simply hilarious. I rolled forward a bit too much while stifling my laughter and headed toboggan-style straight down 48 steps, landing at the feet of our most boisterous and obnoxious passenger onboard.
Right on cue, without lending me a hand, he told me to "get up, straighten up" and didn't I learn to tie my shoelaces and walk with grace? I could not stop laughing from the embarrassment of it all. What a sight for all to see, especially for our cranky passenger. I'm sure today he remembers with hysterical amusement that bundle heading down those ancient steps. How I did not seriously get injured remains a mystery. Surely the Ancient gods safeguarded me in great appreciation in my love for their history.
Sheer Fun: Buenos Aires. What can I say about this city filled with action, dance, dreams and a zestful dare of life? To eat is to feast like nowhere on earth, with flavorful meats so soft they can be cut with a spoon; fashion is worth splurging your savings and history makes you yearn for more. Then the piece de resistance: a lust for dance that leaves you breathless.
The Gauchos are a sight to behold and men, the girls leave you with a lust for life. Shows grip you hard with a heart racing time to the Gaucho beat. The serious sensuality witnessed in tango leaves you perspiring with awe. Tango is not only viewed on stage, but can be seen on a variety of street corners, avenues and squares. Admiration in the beauty of their perfected art is not lacking. I simply love it. Now, do I have an experience here? Of course! When walking into a completely local, non-tourist night club, I was pleasantly surprised when shown to our table that I had a great view of a man dancing with incredibly smooth moves. When he turned around it was none other than actor (and famed tango-ist) Robert Duvall. That man can tango and the pleasure was all ours to view.
When the show ended a couple of hours later, a stunningly chiseled creature offered to give me on-the-spot tango lessons; fearless as I am, I accepted. The Gaucho's patience with me was flawless and right on the beat. As he glided me across the floor I was in heaven. In his suave accent, he told me to exaggerate my moves, don't be afraid and allow my leg to freely swing fast and hard. Well, I did exactly that; in the process of swinging my leg behind him, I shockingly whacked the back of his knees, knocked him directly on me and we were officially introduced to terra firma. The emotion welling up inside me was like volcanic lava ready to blow. I couldn't cry. I couldn't laugh. I couldn't move -- it was a stunner surprise. He giggled with bewildered politeness and informed me that I was the first to "knock him off his feet." Then he graciously picked me up. I crawled under the table to the laughs of my tablemates.
From my many visits to Buenos Aires, there remains a strange force repeatedly pulling me into the gates of the Recoletta Cemetery, known for the final resting place of Eva Peron. For some mystifying reason, a haunting experience remains within me. In this sleeping city, a strange wind wraps its arms around my legs very time I peer into the window of this family tomb located on the right side of the main entrance to the grounds. I have pictures and the family name, but I haven't felt to move forward in asking friends to find their story. I will one day. It is all in the timing in knowing when I am ready to learn more.
Romance: Ushuaia, Argentina. If your ship will be going to the port of Ushuaia, Argentina, known as the "Switzerland of South America," you must take a couple of hours to absorb one of the most romantic settings I have ever known. Half way up the mountainside is a husband and wife team that owns the restaurant Kaupe. You must make reservations before you arrive -- it's well worth the effort. The food is exquisitely delightful. You leave outside a cold chill, quite possibly snowflakes, and waiting inside is a warm, loving classic atmosphere to tease your senses. Large bay windows open a panorama seascape of the harbor, the village and the quiet world the area embraces. The hospitality, warmth and fresh food will leave you craving for years to come. An un-erasable memory for both my husband and me. You fill in the rest. For info or reservations, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Escaping Today's World: Venice, Italy. Everyone knows the famous canals and admits to losing their way. With open eyes, I traveled deeper to grasp the heart of a Venetian society. They founded this secreted area to rid themselves from crime and barbaric wars. What you perceive is what it is. I feel lucky today to have shared a piece of their life filled with art, love of music, and the honor and grace of their Theatre. Best of all, if you are on the street at 8:30 p.m., you are alone. Walk without fear of being hurt and get lost like never before.
Each nook and cranny has a story and a feel to search for answers to the elusiveness that makes this place tick. This town is forever having an event which allowed me several experiences of times past. As my girlfriend and I stepped out of our last shop finding the place deserted, lights out, doors closed. Interlocking our arms, we briskly walked while meeting many a dead-end alley. After two hours, we were gloomy; everything looked the same. Not knowing then what we know now: you are never lost as all canals eventually dump you in a main area. In a heart-skipping moment, there we stood face to face with Casanova himself wrapped in a broad black cape with vividly dark enigmatic eyes carefully protected by a solid gold mask. I heard this intense scream and gasped in wonder of who it was -- it was me. I absolutely couldn't stop. His eyes enlarged to a puzzling fear. As fast as he appeared, he disappeared. My friend, shaking like a wet cat, desperately tried to close my mouth. Was that, the man of the myth or the myth of the mind? I never found out. With his identity still unknown, we found our way home somewhat disappointed.
These four ports left a solid impact on me for the differences in the way of life compared to my own upbringing. Viewing something I would not see at home leaves me with an awe of learning and appreciation of earth itself and those living in it. The crew feel the trials and errors in their individual experiences. Once we have seen what we can during a certain contract, we become regulars in some ports, and learn to just hang out. We go out to eat at the non-tourist hot spots, shop and exercise to refresh our minds.
Here are just ten ports of call and the "secret" things we like doing with our friends while visiting :
Tortola, British Virgin Islands. We love its relaxing beaches and the freedom to do as you wish. We swim, bake in the sun and make sure to go to "Bomba Surfside Shack," a handmade hut that is unique to itself.
Livorno, Italy. Livorno is known as the port city to Pisa and Florence. But we've seen it all and then some, so for us it's off to the center of this city (alas with its unexceptional architecture -- it was bombed heavily during World War II) to the outdoor market for local fresh fruits and vegetables. At 2 p.m. it closes and we frequent between the two and three bars/taverns that serve up fresh pasta, sandwiches and delights like only the Italians can do. We polish it off with an espresso that is laced with a secret recipe of grappa and cognac to make sure we always think well of our Italian friends.
Antigua: It's known for 365 beaches, one for every day of the year. We book in advance (through the tourist board) to have a BBQ on a tiny island called Prickly Pear -- nothing there but a mound, lots of coral, small beach and privacy. Or we rent a car driving down Fig Tree Road to get to Darkwood Beach where there is one hut for food and drink, a long stretch of white sand, and no people.
Port Stanley, Falkland Islands. Remember the Falklands War in 1982 between the British and Argentinians? The island may have its place now in the history books but for us its chief appeal is its King Penguin Colony. Beware: It's difficult for ships to anchor here (it's a tender port) and occasionally, spates of bad weather can cause captains to bypass it. Again through the tourist board (during those calls in which we made it) we book a private Jeep and driver to dare take us where there are no roads, crossing over private property, muddy lands and major bumps that hurt for days in order to reach the King Penguin Colony, amazing people-like birds by the thousands ... a sight never to be believed.
Vancouver. Here, the crew get off the ship and walk, skate or ride bikes to Stanley Park, an experience that is always amazing, fresh and alive. There we play on the swings, visit the Vancouver Aquarium, eat hot dogs and enjoy the lush gardens and scenery. The exercise here is refreshing.
Buenos Aires. Known for the aforementioned tango dancers, we also love this city, dubbed the Paris of South America, for its shopping. Our favorite is the endless Florida Street (and before we head there, we always stop in at Silvia & Marios, located next to Marriott and to the left of the beginning of Florida Street). Silvia makes your Antelope leather or cashmere sweaters in hours. We have been going there -- a crew favorite -- for over 20 years.
Skagway, Alaska. Skagway may be better known for the role it played in the gold rush in Klondike region of the Yukon Territory. But here, exercise enthusiasts climb the mountain in front of the ship to reach Lower Dewey Lake (it takes just another hour to reach Upper Dewey Lake). Bears are often sighted, so we talk loud and obnoxiously on our way up in order to frighten off the bears before they frighten us.
Stockholm. Stockholm is known for its harsh winter life (and it can get chilly in summer, too). Here we get warmed up in the Absolut Ice Bar located in the Nordic Sea Hotel. We enjoy an Absolut Citron served in a hollow ice cup, placed on an ice table amidst ice-sculptured walls, bar and columns. We don't feel cold for very long.
Haines, Alaska. This stop is known for its bald eagle "resort." By that I mean this is one of the only places in the world where bald eagles hang out together by the thousands. After visiting these beautiful creatures, we head off to the Halsingland Hotel to eat in their quaint restaurant. My favorite? Salmon burrito with jalapeno pepper sauce. My husband enjoys their juicy moose meat.
Eze, France. Eze is a sleepy perfume village delicately balanced above Monte Carlo. When our ship is in port overnight, at 8 p.m. we eat at Mas Provencal, a converted greenhouse that has a gothic atmosphere of plants. They surround your setting and even hang close over your head and table. Mist and the sound of running water are constant in order to feed the plants. Furniture is made of old tiles and dark woods. Our salad was served fresh and uncut along with quail eggs. We cut what we want and dip into one of three sauces handed to us. Next is a hot cheddar barrel risotto. Then for dinner, whether it is suckling pig, seafood or fish, we are never disappointed. Prince Ranier frequents it to get away and not be seen. It is dark, tantalizing and delightful.
I have barely touched the surface; there are many more astonishing places I want to know and could tell you about. But remember when considering your own list of favorite ports, I encourage you to defy the odds -- and make each one count.