Out with the old/In with the new in Paradise!

What to our wondering eyes should appear, just in time to stave off the after-Christmas doldrums? A flight from NAS Whidbey to Hickam on December 29!

Hmmm…bringing the year to an end with clouds, cold, rain and dark, or starting the new year off with sun, sand, heat and light…which to choose, which to choose?

A quick call to the Navy Gateway Inn and Suites (NGIS) complex on the Pearl Harbor side of Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam (JBPHH) revealed that they did, miraculously, have rooms available. We were convinced that the space a gods were truly beckoning us to come to paradise. The decision was made!  We made room reservations for a week, called Whidbey to sign up, and packed up our summer gear. As an added bonus, we enticed a space a newbie friend to take the plunge with us; now there would be THREE happy souls in paradise for the new year!

Ground transportation research revealed that the Enterprise rental concession at the Honolulu airport was $170 LESS than renting from the Hickam. What is up with THAT? Fortunately, it’s easy to get over to the airport on The Bus (Oahu’s public bus system). Number 19 departs from a stop outside the terminal for the short ride to the airport, and continues all the way to Waikiki beach, near the Hale Koa military hotel, about every 20 minutes. 

All arrangements were in order when we showed up, in the dark and the rain, at the Whidbey terminal for roll call. I had even had time the day before to bake some treats for the PAX reps and flight crew (always feed your PAX reps and flight crews!). A couple of hours later, we were on our way, aboard a very comfortable 737 (configured just like the regular commercial airline version, except with a cargo section separate in the front) – thanks to VR 61!

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After landing and collecting our bags, we stopped by the the AMC counter – temporarily located in a tent outside the main terminal due to terminal renovation work – to be sure they had our return sign ups in their system. They did not, but we showed them our sign up emails and all was quickly put in order. We just had time to stop by the USO –  also temporarily located in a tent, opposite the AMC tent – to grab a couple bottles of water and some activity books before hopping on the bus to pick up our car. 

Check in at the Lockwood complex was quick and easy, and the rooms were very nice in the main lodging tower. They do not, however have balconies (lanais?), so, after a couple of nights we switched over to the Hale Alii in the Arizona complex. We like to sit out in the morning and enjoy our coffee, and in the evening to have a glass of wine :). Another quirk at Lockwood tower is the beds – they are so high up that even at 5′ 5″, I had to hop up to get in! 

We had dinner our first evening at Restaurant 604, near the Arizona memorial parking lot. The food and service were great, but the music was very loud! We had to shout at each other to be heard – mai tais helped :). For the rest of our visit, we dined almost every evening at the Lanai at Mamala Bay (formerly Sam Choy’s), on the Hickam side of the base. Yes, yes, I know there lots of wonderful places to eat on the island! But, after being out and about all day, by the time we returned to get cleaned up for dinner, we just didn’t feel like fighting traffic again. The Lanai is nearby,  in a wonderful location – right on the water, with views all the way down to Waikiki and Diamond Head, and, closer by, the end of the airport runway, excellent for watching planes. Sunsets can’t be beat! The food is great, the service friendly, the prices right (for Oahu), and the atmosphere quiet and relaxed. We couldn’t ask for anything more!

 

We got our fill of local fare at lunch on our adventures. The snack bar at the Barefoot Bar (Hale Koa), Dim sum in Chinatown, the Haleiwa cafe on the north shore for ahi tacos, Filippino food out past the former Barber’s Point, and even a dinner at the Big City Diner – a local chain with six locations around the island – for some Hawaiian fare.

New Year’s Eve was a low-key affair. It’s been some time since any of us bothered to stay up for actual midnight in our local time zone. We watched the ball drop in frosty Times Square while sipping li hing margaritas at our table at the Big City Diner, then returned to the Hale Alii to enjoy some of the fireworks going off over the ridge at Waikiki and all around us. At about 2200, we shared some Prosecco (which I had accidentally left in the freezer and so was like a bubbly, melt-in-the-mouth slushy confection) and chocolate to bid 2017 farewell. There were quite a few celebratory bangs and explosions throughout the night, so I was really happy I had my earplugs! 

There is plenty to do (or not!) on Oahu – whatever your interest, you can find something you like. We hiked up Diamond Head, toured the Punch Bowl cemetery, explored Chinatown, drove up to the North Shore and lounged on the beach watching the surfers at the Banzai Pipeline, hiked the paved trail to Makapuu Point, and the rugged trail out to the west point of the island, and visited the Byodo-In temple in Kaneohe.

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There was also plenty of beach time! In addition to the North Shore, we soaked up the sun at the Hale Koa, Pyramid Beach (MCS Kanoehe), and Bellows Air Force Station. We even had the opportunity to visit friends on the island.

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It was perfect!

The one fly in our ointment was our return from Hickam. Normally we have active sign ups going at all times, but this trip we were joined by our space a newbie friend. She was not signed up, so we needed to adjust in order to have the best chance of flying together. We would only have a little more than a week on the list at Hickam when we were ready to come home, instead of our usual 45-50 days. Those odds are almost never good, but we decided to take the chance anyway.

Around day four of our escape, we began to watch the Hickam forecast for flights to McChord or Whidbey. The terminal was being quite obliging and posting a 96, rather than a 72 hour forecast, probably due to holiday traffic, so we had an extra day’s information to work with. Unfortunately, the closest option that appeared was a flight going to Fairchild AFB, near Spokane, a 6+ hour drive over the mountains and across the State from us. Weather reports in WA were not great for the drive, and a one-way rental from Spokane was going to be pricey. We opted not to try for that one (good thing – there were 50 PAX for 31 seats and the last one who got a seat had a sign up date two weeks better than ours!).  There were a couple of flghts to Travis AFB, but we knew those would be packed with higher prioirity passengers and Cat 6 with better sign up dates.  The roll call reports showed we were correct!

Finally, on January 3, with nothing on the flight horizon through the coming  weekend, we did the calculations (continued lodging, food, car rental VS commercial tickets), and decided to purchase for our return. We lucked out and found some fairly cheap ($267) one-way tickets on United on January 4, and jumped on them. Our flight was departing at 2200, so we got a whole extra day of activities and a final dinner at the Lanai before we bid Aloha to Paradise.

As mentioned in the recent holiday travel tips post, even though the holidays are a busy travel time, it is sometimes possible to find a flight in the period between Christmas and New Year’s. We were fortunate finding and being able to take advantage of one such gem this holiday season! Keep your eyes open and your bags packed! 

Toes

 

 

 

 

Full Circle Part 3: The Long Way Almost Home

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My three idyllic weeks studying Italian in the beautiful city of Lucca had come to an end, and it was time to bid arrividerci to Italia and begin the long trek back to the east coast, and ultimately home to the great Pacific Northwest.   Since our Plan “A” for getting to Italy had not worked out (Full Circle – Part 2: On to Italy!) and our car was located at Andrews instead of Norfolk, we decided to reverse our course exactly, and return to Ramstein via the Medevac Bus (Another space a option in Europe: Take The Bus) and try to return to our car.

Our lovely Air BnB host, Serena, gave us a ride to the train station on Saturday, April 22, and soon we were gliding along the Italian rails back to Vicenza, where we caught a taxi from the station to the gate at the base. We had booked lodging on post for two nights, planning to hop aboard the bus on Monday morning for the ride north.

After settling into our room, we headed back out the gate to enjoy dinner at one of our favorite close-by restaurants: Il Fauno (https://www.facebook.com/Il-Fauno-Restaurant-and-Pizzeria-130534530292074/).  Actually, we ate there both nights, as our other nearby favorite, Regina’s (https://www.facebook.com/Reginas-Italian-Restaurant-144079165656803/?rf=192517084101109), is closed on Sundays.

Speaking of Sunday…It was time for a lounge around, do-nothing kind of day. We slept in late, did a little laundry, wandered around base a bit, and re-connected with our new friend, Nancy, who was also returning to Ramstein on the Medevac bus. After weeks of go, go, go, it was nice to have a stop!

We were having problems arranging for lodging at Ramstein. There was a large conference going on the week we were to arrive, and it wasn’t until Sunday that we finally got a reservation, for one night only. We had no idea where we were going to end up, but at least we knew we had a room waiting, wherever that was!

Pre-dawn Monday morning (0645) found us outide the Vicenza medical clinic, ready for our ride north to Ramstein. Lots fewer passengers on the bus this time; pretty much everyone had a row to themselves. The ride took the standard 12 hours, though for some unknown reason, we only got two stops instead of the three or four usually made enroute.

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Thus began our record-tying five day marathon attempting to leave Germany!

At the check-in desk at KMCC, we were happy to find that our lodging was on the base at Ramstein, though it was up in building 542 again (near the Deutsches Haus!). We caught a ride on the lodging shuttle up to the building, then headed to the Deutsches Haus to meet Nancy for dinner, and turned in for the night – we had flights to catch beginning Tuesday morning!

The first day began quite promisingly, as we were quickly manifested on a C5 to Andrews! We called ahead and made reservations at the Presidential Inn for the evening, and were looking forward to an uneventful flight home.

And then…mechanical problems intervened. The PAX reps told us the flight was canceled, collected our boarding passes, put us back on the marked present list for the day, and returned our luggage. There were several other flights heading to the east coast, but all the seats either zeroed out, or they didn’t get to Cat 6 passengers.  Sponsor canceled our room at Andrews, then ran back into KMCC to try to get a room for another night. Our luck was better there – back to Building 542 we went, to another room on another floor of the building.  Another dinner at Deutsches Haus, another sleep, and Wednesday came, the second day.

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Again, there were several options on the forecast for the east coast, including the C5 that had canceled the day before.  Spangdahlem, a little over an hour and a half away via 200 euro taxi/shuttle, also had three flights going to the east coast, so we had a conundrum – wait out the roll calls at Ramstein, or take a chance on Spangdahlem. We opted to sit tight at Ramstein. As with the day before, all the seats zeroed out or were taken by higher category travelers, except for the C5. We waited and waited as the roll call delayed and delayed, until finally, the flight was canceled again. A few other travelers and we quickly agreed to split the cost of a ride to Spang to try to catch one of the flights there, but when we got to the parking area, the only vehicle available couldn’t fit all of us and our bags. Time was of the essence, so we opted to give up our places so the others could make it in time, and their luggage, too!

Unfortunately, there was no room at all at lodging Wednesday evening, and we ended up at a hotel in the nearby town of Steinwenden. The room was basic but comfy; there was a restaurant on the premesis, and a lovely 5K sculpture walk trail around the town for a little exercise, fresh air, and head-clearing.  Another delicious dinner, another sleep, and Thursday came, the THIRD day!

Following breakfast at the hotel, we decided to take the little train back to Ramstein. We missed the bus connection at the Ramstein station, and called a taxi back to the terminal. Another day spent waiting for seats that never materialized over several flights. Another trek to the check-in desk for ANOTHER room in building 542, another dinner at Deutsches Haus (I was beginning to think I would eat their entire menu before we ever left Ramstein!), another night’s sleep, and Friday came, the FOURTH day!

There were only a couple of flights on the forecast, both in the morning, neither with enough Cat 6 seats (at least they GOT to Cat 6!). Fortunately, this time KMCC had a room for us, available for early check-in, in the main building – hooray!

It was time for another outing. We dropped our bags in the room, then rushed out to catch the bus outside KMCC to return to the train station and take the train to Landstuhl. In all the times we’ve transited Ramstein, our only experience of Landstuhl was the ER at the Army hospital – not a very happy memory of the town! We had a lovely short train ride, then strolled up the street from the station into the town. It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, including an excellent Chinese food lunch! We had planned to ride the bus back to the Ramstein station and transfer back to the bus to KMCC, but it was running late. We caught the train again, with moments to spare, and were soon back in our room overlooking the flightline.  Dinner at Romano’s in the mall, back to sleep, and SATURDAY came, the FIFTH day!

As we made our way back, yet again, to the terminal, we chatted about our options. Sponsor remarked that he was ready to bite the bullet with tickets any time I wanted to. But, knowing we had a few days left yet on our sign up and encouraged by the number of flights on the 72 hour forecast and that a few Cat 6 passengers had gotten out the day before, I decided to hold off  through the weekend. We could take stock again on Monday, if we were still at Ramstein.

The space a gods smiled upon us at last! We manifested on the second flight of the day, a C17 (yes! my favorite!) to Dover – and, most importantly, we actually took off! The flight was pretty full of cargo, but there was still room to take turns stretching out on our trusty Klymit Static V blow-up pad for the duration of the flight. At last, sweet space a success!

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There was still the little detail of our car, parked at Andrews. Lodging at Dover was full and the next day was Sunday, which meant getting a rental car might be tough. Fortunately, Enterprise is open Sunday mornings and had a vehicle available (Andrews has an Enterprise drop box in the terminal, so they are the most convenient to rent from). We found a room at the Microtel Hotel, less than a mile from the base, and within walking distance of Enterprise, and we agreed to split a taxi to the hotel and the next day’s rental with our new space a friend DB, who also had a car at Andrews. The taxi, from Andy’s taxi service, was truly a rip-off: $30 ($10 per person) to go that less than one mile! Don’t use Andy!

Sunday morning, April 29, we picked up our rental from Enterprise, and, along with DB, began the 2 hour drive to Andrews.  The ride went smoothly, and we enjoyed trading stories with and getting to know another friend made possible thanks to our space a adventure! The cars were right where we left them, and we were soon back on the road to our east coast base in Greensboro – and another week planned with the grands before embarking upon the final adventure – finding a flight back to our beautiful PNW!

Next time… the final chapter: Home to Whidbey at Last!

 

 

 

Full Circle – Part 2: On to Italy!

Family visits happily concluded, it was time to move on to phase II of our springtime space a journey – three weeks in my favorite little city in all of Italy: Lucca! I had signed up at Lucca Italian School (www.luccaitalianschool.com) for language lessons beginning April 3, and rented an apartment from Air BnB with a check in date of April 2, so we had hard dates by which we needed to be in the city.

And so, March 28 found us setting out from our east coast base in Greensboro, NC (grandchildren!) for Norfolk with high hopes of catching the PE to Naples. Our plan was to spend a few days revisiting our old  Napoli stomping grounds (we were stationed there from 2005-08) before hopping on a train to Lucca. We had made reservations at NGIS at Capodichino so we would be a short bus ride up the hill from “downtown” Naples and train connections, and were looking forward to our first authentic pizza and vino in Italia!

Alas for us, plan A was a bust.  We waited dutifully in the terminal until all hope was lost, but we had not hit a good Cat 6 day for the PE.  On the plus side, we were able, after several snafus, to recover a piece of luggage that Whidbey had forgotten to send along with us to Oceana several weeks earlier! That bag had my Italian books in it, so I was particularly happy it arrived!  

Sponsor had made reservations at Ely Hall (really Ely Hall this time!), just in case, so we settled in to our room to regroup and move on to Plan B: Andrews to Ramstein, and Medevac Bus to Italy.

March 29, we headed north to Andrews for a C17 (my favorite!) flight to Ramstein. Instead of slogging up I-95, we opted for a more relaxed drive up Route 17. It was a great choice – beautiful countryside, beautiful day…

The space a gods were smiling upon us! We snagged a couple of seats on the returning Medevac run to Ramstein. Even the parking fairies were on our side, as the long term lot was being paved at the time, so we were able to leave our car at the far end of the short term lot, closer to the terminal. We even met a new friend, Nancy, who had come in from March ARB on the mission and was continuing to Germany! A couple hours later, we were on our way. When cruising altitude was reached, broke out our C17 kit, laid our pad out on the floor, then stretched out and settled in for the flight. The medical personnel had left the stanchions and stretchers set up from the outbound leg, and scrambled into their “bunks”, and since about half the passengers were children, the back of the plane resembled a kindergarten slumber party with the pads, mattresses and blankets scattered about on the floor.

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We had arranged lodging at KMCC, so while I waited for our bags, Sponsor headed to the check in desk to pick up our key.  After checking in, with a day and a night at our disposal before the next leg of the journey, we took a nice long nap, then wandered around the base.  The evening was capped off with a tasty dinner on the outdoor terrace of teh Deutsches Haus restaurant – by far the best dining option on base! The pork in apple/calvados sauce was scrumptious!

The next morning, March 31, we waited at the appointed pick up spot for the Medevac bus to Vicenza, Italy. All waiting  to ride space available  (about a dozen) were accommodated, though, for the first time in our many rides, the bus was fairly full with patients.  Perhaps because it was a Friday?  I did have a row to myself, so, no complaints :). Another lovely day, another spectacular ride through the Alps into Italia via the Brenner Pass.

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Our outbound space a travel now complete, we checked into our room at Vicenza lodging. The next morning, April 1, we met our new friend, Nancy, in the lobby, then proceeded to walk out the gate to get our taxi (lodging will call for one for you, but they are not allowed on base so need to be met outside the Chapel/Pedestrian gate) to the train station. All of us were heading for Verona – we, to visit with old space a friends Wes and Dina, and Nancy to embark upon the  first day of her planned tour of Nothern Italy. 

We had a wonderful overnight visit and tour of Verona before returning to the train station for the final leg of our journey to Lucca. Our host met us at the station and tok us to our lovely apartment near the school…and our Lucca adventure commenced!

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Full Circle – Part One

Our latest space a trip started long ago, on March 11, and just concluded  last week Sunday, May 7. Whew! Talk about a trip!

The idea was to visit eastern CONUS family (Part One), and position ourselves on the east coast for a flight to Italy (Part Two), where LC6 had made arrangements for 3 weeks of Italian language school in April.  It’s not often we have to be a certain place at a certain time when “planning” on space a travel, but, when we do, we always allow ourselves a week or more to get where we need to be.  Departing early in March allowed us a few weeks with family (especially grandchildren!) before the week we planned to spend getting to Italy.

NAS Whidbey was cold and rainy and beginning to thunder as we took off March 11 for Oceana! Three C40s were going to Oceana that day, all around the same time: one direct, one with a stop in Kansas, and one roundabout route to Nellis, Point Magu, BACK to Nellis, and, at last, on to Oceana. Guess which one the PAX ended up on? Mechanical problems delayed option #1, cargo filled #2, and so…about 9 hours later, we arrived in Oceana, via option #3. Success!

Our car, however, was parked in the long term lot at NAS NORFOLK, 26 miles and a $60 taxi ride away.

There are no taxis permitted on base, so we called Uber – also not permitted on base – and resigned ourselves to walking out to the gate. In the dark. In the drizzle. Fortunately, an active duty sailor picked us up and gave us a ride. After clearing a slight mixup about who had ordered which Uber driver, we were on our way…only to discover, at the gate at NAS Norfolk, that Uber drivers are not allowed on base there, either, even with ID card-holding passengers as sponsors! The terminal is miles from the gate, and after much begging and cajoling and swearing on all that is holy (my sponsor even offered to leave me at the gate as a sort of “ransom”) that we would escort the driver directly back to THAT gate once we got our car, the guard relented. We were permitted to proceed. True to our word, after arriving at our car, we had the Uber driver follow us back to the gate, and made sure the guard verified he had left the premesis. 

On to check in at Ely Hall. Of course, our room was not there; it was at Murray Hall, which we had never been to before. We ended up bumbling around in the darkness with a poor map, and even more poorly-signed streets for awhile, but eventually stumbled upon the correct location. The room, as nearly always with NGIS, was clean, comfy and well-appointed.  We had snagged a bunch of half and half from the main lobby at Ely for our coffee in the morning (Lady Cat 6 detests powdered creamers – especially in those cheap packets where there is only one!), so with everything in order for a happy morning caffeine shot, we settled in for a long night’s sleep.

The next morning we were on the road north, making a circuit that included Pittsburgh and Cleveland before completing the eastern circuit in North Carolina. There, we’d take a breather and work out the next leg of our journey – to Italy!

NEXT TIME: OCONUS adventures!

The “Road” to Morocco: The Final Chapter

NOTE: At the time of our travel, the Moroccan Dirham (MAD) was 10 to 1 USD. Easy to divide MAD prices by 10 to get the US equivalent.

January 20: Our tour of Morocco began in the hustling (literally!) bustling port city of Tanger (Tangier).  Waving off swarms of “mosquitos”, we made our way across the port, through the medina gate and up the tangled streets to the Hotel Continental (http://www.hotel-tanger.com/lhotel-continental-tanger-034 website in French), our base in the city. 

 

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While the grand old place is somewhat run down, we chose it for its history (Churchill, and other luminaries and scoundrels have graced the premises over the years), and because it’s clearly visible right above the port and so fairly easy to get to, “unaided”, on foot.  Our room (second floor, no elevator but yes air conditioning and heat!) was a bit dated, but clean and comfortable, and the price ($45 USD, terrace-top breakfast included) was right! After wandering around the streets and having dinner, we turned in to rest up for a full day of exploring.

Following a lovely roof top breakfast overlooking the port, we set out. Our must-sees were the original American Legation museum,

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which documents Morocco’s being the first nation to recognize the US. Next, a ramble up the hill through the busy street markets to Saint Andrew’s Anglican Church (open for visits when there is not a service going on), and the Roman Catholic Cathedral (locked up except for Mass times). The Kasbah, a hike to the top of the town, has a fabulous museum documenting history and culture from pre-Roman to modern times.  We had a truly delectable fish dinner and lemon tart dessert near the hotel at Restaurant Rif Kebdani (http://www.rifkebdani.com/ ) – it was one of our best meals in Morocco!

January 22: Off to the train station (Gare) by taxi (take Petit Taxis in town in Morocco – Grand Taxis are for longer distances) for our departure for Fez. We bought tickets for the entire journey all at once at the Tanger station, so we wouldn’t have to be standing in line at every stop. First class tickets (6 seat enclosed compartments) are extremely reasonable, and guarantee a window seat if you want one. We found our car, compartment and seats, settled in, and relaxed for several hours watching the varied scenery glide by. Agricultural fields, olive groves, herds of sheep and goats with attendant shepherds/goatherds, seashore, Morocco’s got it all!

Arriving in Fez, we caught another Petit Taxi to the gate to the medina for our walk to our lodging at Dar Seffarine (http://www.darseffarine.com/ ). We would NEVER have found it on our own if Sponsor had not been there last year; he was picked up at the station and shown the way. Our room was one of the two deluxe suites and the price – $130 per night, was well worth it! There are, however, very nice rooms for considerably less. All include breakfast on the roof! Expect lots and lots of stairs and no elevators; there were 49 steps up to our room, and more to get to the rooftop garden!

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Both of our nights in Fez, we dined at the Dar (for an extra fee, a bit less than we would have spent at a restaurant). It was easier than trying to find a place to eat in a strange city, and afforded the opportunity to visit with the other guests. The typical Moroccan food was quite delicious!

Fez is a much larger city than Tanger, and the medina and souks are quite labyrinthine, so we had arranged for a guide (Rachid Sebbar – rsebbar2@gmail.com tel: 06 76 64 97 55) to help us make sense of it all and keep us from getting lost. It was fascinating seeing the local craftspeople, hearing their stories, and learning how life in the medina has not changed much over the centuries! People still bring their bread dough to the neighborhood baker, and bathe in the neighborhood hammam. Tile patterns are still cut and set by hand, cedar and other wood is hand-carved, copper and tin are hand-hammered into pots, pans, utensils, and cut into intricate lamps, and slippers and carpets are hand-sewn and woven. It was well worth having an expert on hand to explain, and introduce us to the crafters!

January 24: Caught the train to Rabat, the capital of Morocco. As we traveled along, we struck up a conversation with two of our compartment mates – Officer trainees of the Moroccan Army. They told us all about their training, and enjoyed hearing about our travels. We made reservations on the fly at Riad Dar Zouhour (http://www.darzouhour.com/hotel-en/ ), for about $45 per night; breakfast, as always, included. Lodging was a manageable, fairly straightforward walk from the station with the help of google maps.

 

Rabat is a seaside city and most of it is walkable. Our day started with a mint tea at the beach, followed by visits to the Kasbah, Andalusian Gardens, and the Tomb of King Mohammed V, located next to the never-finished Hassan Mosque, which, with its many columns, reminded us of something out of Pompeii.

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From there, we took a taxi to the ruins at Chellah, which is a site containing the remains of both Roman and Arabic settlements, and over 100 active stork nests!  I never knew storks made such a racket, constantly clapping their beaks – it was quite a cacophony!

January 26: Five hours on the train from Rabat to Marrakech. Another Petit taxi ride to the Bab Agnaou gate to the medina, and short walk to the wonderful Riad Bab Agnaou, named for the gate (https://www.riadbabagnaou.com/ web page in French).  Our room was about $45 per night, including breakfast. Again, we never would have found it had Sponsor not been met at the train and escorted last year. You can be, too!

Marrakech can be overwhelming, there’s so much to see! Tombs, palaces (The El Badia is stunning, with its woodwork, carved stucco, and tiles!), gardens, museums, and the huge souks (I’m still kicking myself for not purchasing the hand-made, bright red slippers with the turned-up toes for $8, but, traveling with only one backpack each, I just had no place to put them!).

Not to be missed is the ongoing sideshow that is the Jemaa el Fna square, with its musicians, snake charmers, magicians, dancers, storytellers, food stalls, restaurants, and people, people, people! We enjoyed overlooking the scene while enjoying lunch and dinner after mingling with the crowds.

January 29: Our time in Morocco was swiftly approaching an end, but we wanted a chance to take a quick respite from the frenetic pace of the cities before returning to Spain. So, at the mercy of a sweet little old taxi driver who had absolutely NO idea where he was going (he pulled over several times to inquire of police, other drivers, and a couple of teenage boys), we were off to the Supratours (http://www.supratours.ma/en/  a component of the ONSF rail system) bus station (right behind the train station!) for a quick overnight to the seaside town of Essaouira (buy tickets the day before). Upon arrival, we purchased tickets for the return trip. Our reservations were at Riad Al Zahia (http://www.riadzahia.com/ ), again, in the medina for about $50, with breakfast. It was an easy walk from the bus station with map in hand.

This was our relaxation stop, so we didn’t have any sights or activities on the agenda, just poking around the alleyways of the medina (we found a tiny, still active – according to the docent – Jewish synagogue that was open to visitors), having coffee at the beach, and people-watching in the main square. Nice!

 

January 30: Following a succulent fresh fish luncheon (with wine! Not many restaurants in the medinas of Morocco serve wine – though Morocco produces some lovely wines!), we hopped back on the bus to return to Marrakech and the Riad Bab Agnaou for our final night in Morocco. Our “last supper” was celebrated at the same spot as our first: the Kasbah Café (http://www.kasbahcafemarrakech.com/ ), just a couple of blocks from the Riad.

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We took our time after dinner, relaxing at our table on the terrace, sipping our mint tea and listening to the evening call to prayer emanating from the minaret across the street. At last, it was time to return to the Riad and pack up for our departure.

January 31: Bidding our hosts adieu, we shouldered our backpacks and headed out to the taxi stand for our ride to the airport and flight to Seville. From Seville, it was just a short train ride to Rota, and our C17 flight home.  

At last, we had come full circle in our exotic tour of Morocco…for now. We hope that someday, soon,

We shall return!

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The “Road” to Morocco, Part 2: Both Sides of the Pancake

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The second we disembarked from the ferry in Tangier, we were immediately engulfed in a buzzing “cloud of mosquitos” – young men, one after another, insistently “offering” to “guide” us, or “help” us find someplace to eat or stay (for pay, of course)!  The introduction to Morocco was molto intensivo!

In the interest of providing a balanced report, let me first talk about the “downside” of visiting a country that is a dizzying combination of first, second, and third world.

The medinas (ancient cities) and their souks (tangled mazes of equally ancient shopping alleys) are a third world experience. You will frequently smell urine, and sewer gas, and other odors, while out and about.  The streets are not clean (though the bathrooms are!). There are no sidewalks. As you walk along, you will share the space with mopeds zipping by (in both directions), small, motorized vehicles of all shapes and iterations, donkeys, horses, carts, and even cars and trucks.  You will see beggars sitting in doorways and in front of mosques. You will probably see thousands of stray cats (though not many stray dogs). You will be confronted with the heads of animals hanging outside butcher shops to “advertise” the types of meats available. If you express any curiosity or interest in an item you see in a shop in a souk, you are going to get a sales pitch (and, probably, a glass of mint tea). The pace of life is loud and frenetic, a bit frenzied for those who are accustomed to a more sedate, modulated existence.

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And then, there is the constant, incessant, presence of those aforementioned “mosquitos”. While the port area of Tangier was, by far, our most “in-your-face” experience with them, we ran into more benign variations of the species on a daily basis, throughout the country.  To be clear, none of these people appeared dangerous or frightening. Irritatingly persistent is the most apt term I can think of. They were all very friendly, and respectful, in their own pushy way. Eventually, most gave up and said goodbye, and headed off to find another “victim” when they were finally convinced we were not going to take advantage of their services. They are a fact of life for tourists in the medinas.

That’s the downside.

On the other hand, the transportation system is first-rate. Morocco is investing heavily (thanks to China, most likely) in high speed rail. We saw TGV trains parked at stations, awaiting the completion of the new tracks that will accommodate them. Construction of those tracks was busily taking place along the routes we traveled. Beginning sometime next year, the trains will come into service, cutting travel time significantly between major cities. The current train cars are a bit dated, but they are clean, well maintained, and comfortable.  Personnel in train stations and aboard trains spoke English wherever we went, so there was no language issue. It was a real pleasure to sit back and watch the countryside glide smoothly by. 

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Buses make connections to locations trains do not service. Again – the equipment is clean and comfortable. Again – personnel at the stations spoke English. Many buses even have wi-fi available! Seating is assigned, so if you have a preference for the sunny or shady side, figure out which is which and ask for seats on the driver’s side or opposite. The rest stop we visited on the way to and from Essaouira was comparable to the Autogrill or other similar type of establishments along the autostradas of Italy and Germany.

Taxis are kind of hit and miss. They’re supposed to be metered, but most are not. You can (and should!) bargain for the price. Taxis right outside train and bus stations (and, probably airports but we didn’t come in that way) are most expensive at first glance, but most will bargain down to between half and two thirds the original price. Also, if you walk a block or two away from the station and hail a cab, the starting price will be less expensive.  The exception to this, at least in Marrakech, is taxis to the airport    (a 10-minute – 2 mile – ride from the medina). All the taxis we saw had official-looking stickers on the windshields indicating a standard charge for the airport, and the drivers held firm. Our most expensive fare, which was to the airport, was the equivalent of $5.  The others ranged between $2 and $4, which made taxis a great “bargain”.

Of course, there are wonderful architectural and cultural sites to visit, and shopping, if you are into shopping, is a marvelous adventure! Morocco is a place where hand-made craftsmanship is still highly valued, and, even if you’re not in the market to buy, you can see the people who make the goods at work in shops and stalls and squares throughout the medinas. Everyone is happy to explain their particular expertise, and proud to show their wares.

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Moroccans as a people are very welcoming and friendly! Almost everyone speaks some English, and many are quite fluent in our language. Morocco was the very first nation to recognize the US, while we were still fighting our revolution, and Moroccans are very proud to point out that fact to American visitors. “We are your oldest friend!” was almost always among the first words spoken upon learning we were visiting from the US. Also almost always, there was some expression of uncertainty about whether or not the US would continue to be friends with Morocco, but that’s another tale. Expect this topic to come up in conversation, though, because it will. Moroccans are very curious people!  They are proud of their country, their King, their history and culture, and eager to share and to learn. We found them to be gracious and open hosts!

Whew! Two posts in and I still haven’t gotten to describing the places we visited in any detail!

NEXT: Tangier, Fez, Rabat, Marrakech, and Essaouira! 

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The “Road” to Morocco, Part 1: Logistics

Ever since my sponsor enjoyed a solo trip to Morocco just about a year ago ( Let Your Sponsor Go! ), he’s been on a mission return, with “moi” in tow. Thus, our first overseas space a adventure for 2017!

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From Rota, Spain (via space a from Norfolk), we planned a circuit, taking the ferry across the Straits of Gibralter to Tangiers, spending a couple of nights each there, Fez, and Rabat, then finishing up with several days in Marrakech.  From Marrakech, we tucked in quick overnight break to the relaxing seaside town of Essaouira before departing for Seville on Ryan Air and making our way back to Rota for the return hop to the east coast.

Our transportation looked like this:

January 17: Depart NAS Norfolk on Patriot Express (PE) for Rota. Room reserved at Navy Gateway Inns and Suites (NGIS) on base.

January 20:  Rota to Tangier. Walk out the Rota gate to the bus station. 30 minute bus ride to Cadiz, transfer to 1 hour, 45 minute bus to Tarifa. 5-minute taxi from bus stop to port. 30-minute ferry to Tangiers, Morocco. Spain stamps passports out at the ferry terminal, and Morocco stamps them in aboard the ferry.  Look for the line aboard the boat and get in it.

Once in Morocco, we traveled mostly by train: http://www.oncf.ma/Pages/Accueil.aspx  (page is in French, buy first class tickets). All prices below are conversions from Moroccan Dirham (MAD) to USD equivalent.

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January 22: Tangiers to Fez (about 4 hours/$16 PP)

January 24: Fez to Rabat (about 3 hours/$12 PP)

January 26:  Rabat to Marrakech (about 5 hours/$18 PP)

January 29/30: Marrakech to Essaouira and back by bus http://www.supratours.ma/en/Produits-services/National-transport   (3 hours including 30 minute food stop/ $8 PP each way). Tickets sold one-way only, purchased bus stations in Marrakech and Essaouira the day before travel. 

January 31: Marrakech to Seville via Ryan Air. Seville Airport bus to train station. Train to El Puerto de Santa Maria. Taxi to NGIS. 

February 1: 0445 roll call for 10 hour C 17 ride back to Norfolk.

Easy peasy, yes?

We got out of Norfolk on our first try, on the planned date – YIPPEE! From Rota, all the transportation was clean, comfortable, and pretty much on time. Everyone spoke English at the train and bus stations, both in Spain, and in Morocco – there was no language issue making arrangements. We couldn’t have asked for better travel!

NEXT: Experience Morocco!

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Happy Chance

Lady Cat 6 just loves Serendipity! There I was, at the beginning of June, craving some Yiya time with our grandboy in North Carolina, when, what should appear on NAS Whidbey’s forecast? A very rare flight to MCAS Cherry Point…North Carolina (https://www.facebook.com/CherryPointVAL/ )! Sponsor and I quickly dug our summer togs out from their winter storage, packed up, made lodging reservations for a couple of nights at the Devil Dog Inn, and presented ourselves at the terminal for roll call! 

As the only space a passengers for the flight, which was going to Cherry Point via Edmonton, Alberta, to pick up some Marines and take them home, we had our pick of seats on the comfy C 40 (737).

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Spit spot, we were heading north and east towards Canada, with the Cascade Mountains spread out below us like a row of tipsy ice cream cones.  After a short stop to pick up the duty passengers, we were on our way again to our final destination.  The flight was smooth, the Marines were fun, and the pilot was quite entertaining.

Upon landing at Cherry Point, we were met by a van (serendipitous!) and driven to the Devil Dog Inn, the former transient enlisted quarters. There is also a fancier lodging – the Cherry Point Inn – but that is a few miles away from the terminal. We had planned on walking to lodging, so the Devil Dog was the best choice. The room was comfortable, though the bed was on the small side. As always, though, the price was right! The van driver pointed out the MCX and several on-base eating establishments on our way to the Inn, and after getting settled in our room, we walked over to the Roadhouse for a quick dinner.

Next morning, sponsor took a long walk to the main gate to meet the Enterprise car rental representative and pick up our car. We had planned on two nights at the Inn, so we could do a beach day before heading inland to the family. Atlantic Beach was the perfect spot for sun, sand, surf, and Italian ice! Following dinner out in town and another night of rest, we were on our way to our boy!

For our return to the great Pacific Northwest, we had our eye on a flight from Pope to McChord, with Andrews Air Force Base and Oceana as back-ups. Pope would have been perfect, just an hour and a half drive, but, the flight dropped off the board. So, we packed up again, made a reservation at the Presidential Inn on Andrews, and headed out on a 5+ hour drive to Plan B.

The first flight of the day, a medevac run with a roll call of 06 something, dropped McChord off the itinerary, then the roll call for the second got delayed for a few hours. We still had our rental car, so took advantage of the extra time by driving to the Suitland Metro station, and hopping downtown to our Nation’s Capital for a short visit.

The roll call at Andrews was the strangest we’ve ever attended! After the PAX rep announced the imminent roll call and requested anyone not marked present to report to the service counter, there was…nothing. Finally, about an hour later, I very politely inquired when roll call would begin. I was told it was already over. I responded that no one’s names had been called. The PAX rep responded that everyone was on the flight, and they would begin taking our bags in another hour or so. OK. Thanks for letting us know. And that was it.

We boarded my very favorite plane (yes, the C 17) and 6 hours of alternating naps on the floor later, landed at McChord. We had reservations at the Evergreen Inn, and had planned to take a commercial shuttle the next morning up to Seatac Airport, and then another commercial shuttle to our car, parked at Whidbey. BUT, while we were in the air, a flight from McChord to Whidbey was posted for the next afternoon – serendipity again! Instead of spending the next day on the shuttle buses, we slept in late at the Evergreen (a leisurely 22-minute walk from the terminal on a lovely, balmy night), enjoyed their breakfast buffet, then walked back over to the terminal for roll call.  Twenty minutes after taking off from McChord, we were landing at Whidbey – sweet!

Some space a trips take a lot of doing, and a lot of effort. This one was pretty much a door to door piece of cake! Happy Chance was with us from start to finish, and Lady Cat 6 is now one tired, happy Yiya, resting up for her NEXT adventure!

The Air, the Bus, the Train, the Sea, and Sardinia

 

It’s been about three weeks since Lady Cat 6 and sponsor splashed down at home, returning from our adventure to Sardinia!  Our travels on the island will be another post; for now, let’s talk about the travel logistics.   As is often typical with space a, some things went according to plan, some missed the mark, and the ability to plan on the fly proved critical to success!

Our flexible Plan “A” had several possible iterations: catch a flight from JBLM (Joint Base Lewis McChord) to JBMDL (Joint Base McGuire Dix Lakehurst), and then connect to one of the forecast flights from there to Rota the following day.  From Rota, there were also two flights on the forecast we could pick up – either to Naples (preferred), or Sigonella (workable). Once in Italy, if traveling from Naples, we’d catch the train to Civitavecchia (north of Rome) for the ferry to Olbia, on the north end of Sardinia. Or, from Sigonella, we’d rent a car and drive to Palermo for the ferry to Cagliari, on the southern coast. What could go wrong, right?

We left McChord as planned on April 11, catching my favorite ride (C 17), bound for McGuire. YAY! With very few passengers and little cargo, the flight provided an opportunity to test out our new, lighter weight, smaller-packing inflatable mattress (Klymit Static V) for warmth and comfort on the floor. It was perfect! We took turns stretching out and napping across country.

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Things seemed to be going extra right when we landed at McGuire! There was a pop-up (not previously on the forecast) flight to Rota holding a roll call in a couple of hours! That would get us in to Rota with plenty of time to spare for catching one of the Italy flights. We already had a reservation at the All American Inn on base at McGuire, so we just stuck around until roll call, and got manifested on the flight. Since there were several hours to take off, and the plane was an older C5, we hung on to our reservation at the All American Inn on base, just in case.  After turning in our bags, we waited. And waited. And waited. Did I mention the plane was a C5?

Finally, around 2200, our bags were returned to us and we were told to come back the next morning. Good thing we still had that lodging reservation! Off to the Inn we walked. We called the terminal in the morning, and were told to come in at noon. We called at 1130 and were told 1500. Oh, goodie! Time for lunch at Pudgy’s! We considered removing ourselves from the manifest, but, both of the other flights to Rota had dropped off the board, and nothing else was forecast. The C5 was our only hope.  At 1430, another delay…and then another. We made the most of being stuck and went out for dinner at Sebastian’s Schnitzel house, which we love, and then returned to the terminal and waited several more hours.

By the time we finally left – 17 minutes before the crew was going to have to call it quits on time – we knew we had missed the connections at Rota. We had made reservations at the Rota Navy Lodge, again, just in case we had to wait around for a day or two. We settled in to the dark for the long transatlantic flight. Fortunately, there were few enough passengers that almost everyone had a row to themselves. Landing at Rota, we found our options limited, since the 72 hour forecast had nothing going anywhere near Italy.  Off to the lodge we walked, pulling our very lightweight luggage behind us.

After a good night’s sleep, planning on the fly produced Plan “B”: spend the day and another night in Rota, then take the bus to Sevilla and fly commercial from there to Roma via Ryan Air. From Roma, proceed by train north to Civitavecchia, as in Plan “A”. Since Sevilla was celebrating Feria, their big flamboyant Spring festival, we decided to toss in a night there before flying on.

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Reservations for lodging in Sevilla and Roma, and flight from Sevilla were quickly arranged online, and then we headed into town on foot to the police station to get our passports stamped.  It’s a LONG, but pleasant walk through the old town and along the waterfront most of the way. Once officially entered into Europe, we caught a taxi back to the base, had lunch and a siesta, then spent a lovely evening out in Rota,  enjoying dinner at a little place recommended by another Cat 6 traveler.

The next morning, we were up and out early, walking to the bus station near the front gate of the base for the bus/bus/plane/bus/taxi/train/ferry journey from Rota to Sevilla to Roma to Sardinia.  One week to the day after leaving McChord, we were settling into our bunks for the ferry crossing to Sardinia – FINALLY! 

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We spent just over a week on a leisurely exploration of the island – so leisurely we only covered the northern half! Then, the weather turned cold and rainy, so we headed back to Olbia.  This time we took a ferry to Livorno, where our return plan commenced.

Plan A for getting back to the US was to take the free medevac bus from Vicenza to Ramstein, and catch a space a hop from there to anywhere on the east coast. We were visiting eastern family before returning to the magnificent PNW (Pacific Northwest), so we weren’t concerned about getting all the way west. We purchased train tickets from Livorno to Vicenza, and secured two nights’ lodging at the Ederle Inn on post. Bus #1 from the Vicenza train station deposited us right outside the gate, and after our IDs were checked, we were in! Early Thursday morning, we were at the appointed pick up location for the medevac bus, outside the health clinic, and were soon off through the Austrian Alps to Ramstein – where we had also secured a few nights’ lodging at the lovely KMCC complex.

This time, Plan A came together without a hitch! We had just enough time the day after we arrived to enjoy lunch at the German Kantina before reporting for roll call to McGuire. Another C 17! This flight had more passengers and cargo, but I still found a little nook between the crew luggage and boxes of helicopter blades to lay out our mattress. Several long naps after reaching altitude, we were back on terra firma.

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After another night resting up at the All American Inn, the Enterprise car rental guys picked sponsor up at the McGuire main gate, and we were on our way to PA and OH for our family visits. We opted for commercial tickets the rest of the way home because nothing was heading our way from the east coast when we were ready to leave. Sometimes there are transcontinental dry spells…exactly a month after departing, we landed at Seatac Airport. We spent the night at a nearby hotel, and sponsor got up early the next morning to take public transportation down to McChord to retrieve our car for the drive home.

In summary, we flew space a from the west coast to Rota, Spain (with unplanned delay enroute), took a couple of buses and flew commercial from Rota to Rome, Italy, and then proceeded with commercial train and ferry travel to Sardinia and back to Vicenza. From Vicenza, we caught the medevac bus to Ramstein, and from Ramstein we caught a hop back to McGuire. After our visits, with no space a opportunities in sight, we flew the rest of the way home commercial. In total for our commercial flights, we spent about one quarter of what it would have cost us to fly commercial to Italy from the west coast and back. On the way, we got to eat at two of our favorite McGuire area restaurants, had a beautiful walk through and dinner in Rota, finally checked Feria in Sevilla off our bucket list of things we want to do before we die, got to spend a few days in the Eternal City and enter St Peter’s through the Jubilee of Mercy doors (I’m Catholic, so that was a BIG deal!), had a wonderful week in Sardinia, enjoyed another spectacular ride through the Alps, partook of homestyle German food at the Kantina aboard Ramstein, and had FABulous visits with family before returning home.

All in all, I call that a successful space a adventure!