Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Universal Studios, Orlando

Our decision to do Universal was a bit of a dim moment on my part, as I somehow had it in my head that it would have more proper film stuff in it - I was of course thinking of Universal Studios Hollywood, not Orlando!  But still, we are happy that we did it.

There are two parts to the park here, and you can buy a ticket to cover either one or both. We opted to do both in one day. We started with the Islands of Adventure part, because they advised that the queues here were bigger later, and did the Universal Studios bit afterwards.

Now you may recall from a previous posting in Germany that I like roller coasters and other rides that generally throw you every which way all at the same time, but Nic doesn't. So here we were at a park that has a lot of rides. Nic had been building himself up to this and was steeling himself to go on at least some of them. We decided best to do those before we ate, just in case.
So we rolled up at the first rollercoaster, which was the Hulk. They don't allow bags on the rides, but they have a good system of free lockers available. They are self service lockers that are accessed via your fingerprint, and you get an allotted period of time that is enough to queue for and go on the ride, based on their current queue times. We found it worked very well.
Being off season and a weekday, the queues weren't bad, so we were soon at the roller coaster. Nic looked a bit anxious, but he got on and we were off. For ride fans, this wasn't the best one around, but it was OK.
Nic was quite happy with it not throwing you in too many different ways. He said afterwards that he found this easier than the waltzers, because the the cars on those spin as well as the ride going up and down and around. It appears he can cope with the speed of the ride as long as it is mostly going in just one direction at once.
Our next ride was a bit less hairy as it was a simulator 3D Spiderman ride. In this you only feel like you are being thrown everywhere. It was quite effective, especially the part where you are plummeting to the ground.

We passed through Toon Lagoon into Jurassic Park, where Nic was happy to have his photo taken with a model dinosaur and we had a slightly disappointing look at some dinosaur information and fossils.

Then we were into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Have to say that this section looks fabulous, with it's recreation of Hogmeade (with I think a smattering of Diagon Alley) and Hogwarts.But even on a slow day like today, you couldn't move if you went into the wand shop, and the queue for the Harry Potter ride was ninety minutes - yes, that's right, an hour and a half! Sod that!
We did queue forty minutes for another roller coaster in this section, which was a very fast one.

This whole queuing thing is a bit mad really. I can't envisage standing there for that long to go on a three minute ride. I think if you are bothered about going on all the rides, and especially if you are there in the peak times, you would have to get the fast track pass that speeds you through the queues. But even then, that only sometimes gets you right to the front of the queue; other times you just bypass a large section of it and then still have to queue for a while.

We didn't find anything of interest in the Lost Continent or Seuss Landing areas, so headed out to City Walk, the between the parks area, for something to eat.

Of course that meant that when we went into the Universal Studios park, we had to skip the Rockit roller coaster, as we weren't sure Nic's stomach would cope with that immediately after a big meal.

We did the Shrek 4D 'ride', which was cinema style seating and just not nearly as effective as the Spiderman one earlier.  But it was OK.

We were a little disappointed with 'Twister' the tornado experience.  We had initially expected that it was going to include a ride but realised it didn't when we didn't have to drop off bags.  Then we thought that it would have a simulator. But in fact you just stood at a barrier and watched the scene unfurl in front of you with a bit of wind and rain effects thrown in.  It was OK, and we did rather like the flying cow, but they could do so much more with this one I think.

It was quite nice wandering though the USA street 'set' and listening to a bit of the live music, but it felt like there wasn't quite enough going on.  I wondered whether perhaps they don't have some entertainment or activities that might have been happening in peak season.  Or it could just be that the streets were empty without the summer hordes and that it what felt strange.
We passed the Back to the Future DeLorean and made our way to the thirty minute queue for the Men in Black ride.  The fast trackers on this did get pretty much straight on, so it was a bit frustrating watching them walk in and get on while we waited - another reason to get the pass in peak times. But we got on eventually and the ride wasn't bad.

This wasn't a roller coaster.  It was styled as MiB training and was a 'shoot at the aliens' ride.  It was OK once you realised how the scoring worked.  My score wasn't bad compared to some, though the guy next to us was way ahead.  Nic, it appears, never really worked out what he was supposed to be doing and had a pitifully low score a the end.
We did plan to go back to the Rockit roller coaster at this stage, but it started to rain heavily so we gave it a miss.  I think Nic was secretly quite pleased actually.
So we enjoyed our day at Universal, though personally we don't quite get what all the hype is about, and just don't have the patience to queue for as long as you would have to to go on everything.

Seaworld Orlando

We weren't entirely sure about Orlando as a destination, but that was where we had booked our flight to, so we figured we'd spend a few days here and do a park or two.

After lots of consideration we had decided not to do Disneyland.  Shock, horror I know to be in Orlando and not do Disney, but we weren't convinced that it was really enough of our thing given the price of it.

We opted to do Universal Studios and Seaworld and as we had booked a place to stay that was quite close to the Seaworld park, that was the first place that we went to here.
We arrived just in time to catch the start of one of the dolphin shows, so dashed round there quickly.  The show was a mix of aerial acrobatics and dolphins, with a few brightly plumaged macaws added in at one stage.

It was good enough as a show, but personally I would have liked more focus on the dolphins.
The dolphins were obviously very good at their part.  They performed their leaps and flips with almost perfect timing synchronisation.  

There is always a slight doubt in my mind when going somewhere like this because I wonder about whether it is right for us to keep creatures like dolphins and whales and have them doing acrobatics for us.  In general I conclude that the answer probably depends on the park and how they treat them.

According to Seaworld, and as far as we can see there is no suggestion that they are not being honest, their parks are pretty good.  They have a good environment for the animals, which have largely been born in captivity rather than taken from the wild.

They do a lot of conservation and rescue work, releasing most rescues once they are rehabilitated and homing the few that can't be released.  They also have quite a lot of educational programmes, including snippets of information on environmental issues fed to visitors around the park.  I'm not sure that I thought that these would particularly change behaviour of anyone not already open to recycling and so forth, but it can't harm to try.

They also say that no animal is ever forced to perform.  They only use positive reinforcement in their training, and they get fed the same amount whether during the show or not.  They also mention that they train all of the animals regardless of whether they will perform, because it enables them to more easily care for them and treat them when they are unwell without stressing the animal more, as well as simply keeping them fit and active.

I know that it is easy to justify these things if you want to, but they do genuinely seem to treat the animals well and the success of their breeding programme supports that.

So anyway, we followed the dolphin show with a sealion and otter show.  This was like a pirate pantomime, with lots of naughtiness from the animal 'actors'.  It was OK, but definitely more for the children in the audience.

The woman in the show was better and coped well with the smaller audience meaning less participation in the jokes, but the main guy seemed a bit less adaptable.

One of the funniest parts though was the very miserable reaction of a dad who had been selected to participate.  He had sat in the front of the splash zone, but when his participation involved the sealion deliberately giving him a drenching he looked most unhappy.

The sealion was of course the star of the show.
After the show we went to see the rest of the sealions and found some to be very vocal about getting the fish from the visitors.

We wandered around the park for a while, around the various tanks.  There was a nice set of aquariums with smaller aquatic creatures, including a couple with some fabulous looking jelly fish.

The sharks were interesting in their variety, but just about everywhere has an underwater tunnel these days, so it has lost its gloss somehow.

I did rather like the fact that they had a light that you could turn on behind the shark's purse or egg sack, so that you could see the tiny sharks wriggling around inside.
The park was heavily advertising 'Antarctica', the new attraction that they were building.  It doesn't open for a while, but as readers will know, we have recently been to the real thing, so we weren't too disappointed at missing it.

We were more disappointed to miss the polar bears though.  It was probably the part that I was most looking forward to, and after failing to find it, we discovered that it had been closed over the Christmas period to fit in the Santa express.  Hmmm.  Not happy.

But we got over our disappointment and had a drink whilst watching the oyster fishers 'diving' for the oysters in the tank so that customers could select their oyster and take it to be opened to find out their pearl inside.  

Despite having six potential colours there, we never saw anyone get a pink, peach or gold one, let alone the elusive black one.  But then realistically I am sure no one was expecting anything else.

There were of course a number of 'lovely settings' that you could also purchase to show off your invariably small white or cream pearl, which I am not sure all of the parents had banked on when deciding at the price of getting your own pearl wasn't too bad.

Our last show of the day was definitely the best.  The orka, or killer whale show features the much advertised star Shamu, who was born in the park.  We decided to go for the very back of the splash zone, where we hoped we would avoid getting very wet, but still get great views.  It was a good choice.

Those sitting at the front did get very wet; even if the general show doesn't achieve that, one of the tricks is for the Orkas to swim around flicking the water out with their tails, so that does get you!

We certainly enjoyed watching the Orkas.  They seemed to enjoy themselves and clearly loved the attention that they got from their trainers when they did their stuff.

We spent a while at the ray pool, where Nic made a few new fishy friends. A couple in particular seemed very keen to come over when he put his hand in the water; I'm sure it had nothing to do with the fact that they know that some people feed them.

From there we went and watched people hand feeding the dolphins.  We didn't feed them, and just watched from one end, but we still got a great view of them and I had one swim close enough to give it a quick stroke.  That was allowed, I wasn't being naughty.

And of course being Florida we had to go and see the manatees.  These huge endangered creatures, which are the somewhat less fairytale but supposedly 'real' mermaids, are strange looking things.  They sort of drift around their pool, often on their backs.
Overall we quite enjoyed our day at Seaworld.  The Orkas were definitely the highlight though.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Back in the air - or are we?

After all of our false starts, amended and extra flights, cancelled and repurchased insurance policies and just the general sadness of our reasons for having been back in the UK, we were looking forward to getting back on the move and enjoying some time in North America.

Given our luck so far this travel year, we decided that rather than risk a problem with traffic, breakdowns, snow or ice stopping us making it to the airport in the morning, we would get to Gatwick the night before so had   booked up a Premier Inn for £19.

So there we were, at the airport in good time for our flight to the States.  We hadn't got a visa for the US, as we hadn't been able to risk not getting our passports back in time for our trip to Germany in the summer, so we were travelling under the visa waiver scheme.

Our plan was to be in the States for the permitted 90 days allowed under the scheme, then to leave the States and cross over to Canada by bus for the six months we can have there.   So we had our return flight booked from Montreal in the autumn.  As far as we could see, this is all within the rules.

When we were at the gate, the guys checking our papers (they have to check pre departure because if USA don't let you in they get fined £2000 and have to take you back) said they thought that we would have a problem because our flight back was not within the 90 days.  They referred it to someone else, who phone someone else and checked, and they said it was fine, but the USA might make us book a flight from States to Canada within the 90 days.  We were OK with that.  So we got on the flight.

But just as they were ready to take off, we had to get off the plane.  Someone had spoken to Homeland Security and they had said we had to change our flight home to the UK to within the 90 days of the US visa waiver scheme,  even though by that time we would have been in Canada not the USA.  They won't let us in for the 90 days unless we are due to leave the whole area, not just the States, at the end of it.  Crazy.

But anyway, BA were helpful and changed our flights for free so that we were able to get back on.  We had delayed the flight by 45 minutes, but I think because they announced that it was an issue with homeland security, most people were sympathetic rather than annoyed. Either that or they thought we might be dangerous criminals so were scared of us!

Of course when we arrived in Orlando they didn't even ask us about our return flight, they just made sure we knew we had to be or within the ninety days.  Whether this was all just the airlines being over cautious due to past problems I don't know, but they did speak to homeland security apparently, so I suspect that it was someone a bit over zealous there.

Since then, Canadian officials have confirmed that we can have ninety days there, so whilst we haven't dared change our flights again yet, we expect that we will be able to have our time as planned.

Anyway, we are here now, and enjoying some Florida sunshine.

In the UK

From Antarctica we made the journey back to UK via the same long route which we had arrived.  We had a few hours before our flight from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires, but that was easily passed with some practical stuff and playing cards, when we weren't talking to others from the ship.

We stayed in Buenos Aires for a couple of nights over Nic's birthday.  We didn't do much there, but we did go back to what does seem to have become a firm favourite restaurant, Minga.  Nic likes the chicken caesar salad, I like the empanadas, and we are both rather partial to the large, excellent steaks and the wines. 

From BsAs we had a connecting flight to London via Miami.  I say connecting, but it isn't connecting in the conventional sense, where your bags are transferred to the next plane and you stay airside.  No, here you have to get off, go through immigration, collect your bags and go out through customs, then drop our bags back off again, go back in through security and get to your gate.

We had just under two hours.  Our flight was at 8pm and we were supposed to be at the gate by 7pm.  At 7:10pm we were still waiting in the immigration queue and, when we asked if there was any arrangement for those with connections to get through quicker, we were told 'well you'll just miss your flight'.  Great, thanks!
Once we got to the desk, the guy was at least helpful and pushed us through quickly, and thankfully there was a connecting flights queue in customs, which was shorter than the normal one.  We belted it around the corridors to get tithe bag drop off area, then to security.  And we saw a huge queue, which we knew we had no chance of making through in time for our flight.

Luckily though, having made enough flights last year to qualify for the bronze level on the BA executive club scheme, I had priority access on my boarding pass, so they directed to a different security queue which was much shorter.  We made it through that in time and got the flight.

We won't be doing a connecting flight at Miami with less than a three hour changeover in future though.

Obviously given the circumstances of our being back, we weren't really doing anything very bloggable.  But I did go up to London during the run up to Christmas, so I thought I'd post a few pictures of that.
There is a Winter Wonderland every year in Hyde Park, where they have a ferris wheel, some other rides and an ice rink.

They also have lots of the German style market stalls, where they sell Christmas decorations, lights, candles, jewellery and all sorts of other things.

And of course there are plenty of food and drink stalls.  Again the german influence is there with Glühwein, Bratwurst and lots of other goodies.

Oxford Street had a Marmite theme for its Christmas lights this  year, which did seem a bit strange, but it looked quite good still.  I can't say I either loved it or hated it though!

Selfridges always looks good with its fantastic doors, but it does look even better in its Christmas get up.

And then there was Covent Garden.  I thought the giant Rudolph was quite an impressive but still tasteful adornment for the old marketplace. And the barrel Christmas tree was a bit of fun too.

Also rather impressive was the lego advent calendar.  It was entirely made from lego and when opened, each door revealed a little christmassy scene.  The turkey dinner was good, as was the wreathe, but I particularly liked the snowflake.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Drake Lake and The House That Cherry Built

All too soon our second Antarctic adventure had come to an end and we were putting our seasickness patches behind our ears, wedging everything securely in pace in our cabins, and preparing for the two and a half days' of rolling waves back to Ushuaia.
But nothing happened. Yes of course there were some waves, but nothing at all like the other three crossings we've made. This was that novel experience that they call Drake Lake. A smooth and easy journey back.

It was quite strange to find that we could walk without holding on, we still had a full complement of passengers in the dining room, and that no glasses, cutlery or chairs went flying during a meal.
We spent some time on deck, watching the birds, and we're lucky enough one day to sail close by some pods of whales. The humpbacks were a bit far away to get a good sighting of, but we got fairly close to some fin whales and spent quite some time watching them alongside us.
We also went along to a few of the talks. I particularly enjoyed Sarah's fantastic rendition of a poem called The House that Cherry Builthind it. It is a silly poem, one of those cumulative ones which adds a line but continually repeats the whole of the story so far each time, but it tells a story of an horrendous journey made by Wilson, Bowers and Cherry-Garrard shortly before the ill fated trip to the South Pole, where the Wilson and Bowers died alongside Scott.
This journey was incredible not so much for its destination, but rather for the fact at it was done in the middle of the Antarctic winter. Back then in 1911, there was a belief that the embryo of the emperor penguin may hold some vital information about an evolutionary link, and so they were eager to get hold of some eggs. The problem with this is that the emperors nest in middle of the winter, so any egg collection would gave to be done then when the weather is at its worst and the sun never rises.
The three of them set off on their trip on 27 June and made their way in the perpetual dark, howling winds and temperatures that froze their clothes solid. They quickly learned that when they first put their head out of the tent in the morning, they had to remember to have it in the right position that they would want it in for the rest of the day because theitr necks froze in that position!
They reached their intended base camp area Mount Terror on 15 July and built a stone igloo with their tent as a roof, but they still had 6.5 treacherous km to go to Cape Crozier where the emperors had their rookery. This journey took them five days because the conditions were so bad and they had to haul themselves over huge ice ridges and dangerous crevasses.
At the rookery, they collected five eggs; two of them got broken on the journey back to the camp at Mount Terror and they pickled the other three embryos in alcohol. But then the blizzard set in so they were going nowhere. Though it turned out that even being in the tent was dangerous, as one night the fat used to fuel their stove spat and hit Wilson in the eye, temporarily blinding him.
On 22 July the blizzard blew away their supply tent, with everything in it. The next night, the tent that was covering their igloo blew away too, so they were left exposed to the wind and snow, huddled in their frozen sleeping bags.
Somehow they managed to survive like this for two days and nights, with nothing to eat and their only liquid coming from sucking the ice on their sleeping bags. Even their teeth were frozen, so much so that when their teeth chattered in the cold, they actually shattered.
Finally the storm relented. They were lucky enough to find their tent and some supplies, and they set off back to the base camp at Cape Evans, arriving exhausted, frost bitten, but alive.
Cherry-Garrard returned to London after the bodies of Scott and the others were found, and in 1913 he delivered the prized embryos to what is now the Natural History Museum. Unfortunately the start of World War I meant that the eggs were not examined until much later. The results were finally published in 1934, by which time they had long realised that the emperor penguin was not the missing link that that had been searching for after all.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Half Moon Island

In the afternoon, we had our final shore landing on Half Moon Island.  This is a lovely island, with a great colony of chinstraps as well as some adelies and gentoos.

There is a science station, but we decided to spend our time at the other end of the island with the feathered inhabitants.

We landed in a nice spot and trudged up the slope, passing a few stray penguins as we went.  The walk along to the colony was on the side of the slope, and it did feel a bit hairy at times.

The pathway was quite slippery and there was quite a wind blowing at the time, so it did feel that you could lose your footing and end up rolling down the hill.  Thankfully we didn't.

We passed a bit of rock within a gull nesting on it, and stopped to take a few photos there and look out across the sea.  By this time, although the wind was a bit chilly, it was a nice day, and the sea looked a lovely blue against the snowy island scenery.

Further along the way a seal had hauled out onto the beach.  It cast a wary eye our way, but carried on sunning itself.

A couple of penguins came walking along and seemed a bit perturbed to see this enormous creature blocking their way.

They waddled around for a while, but then decided that it wasn't going anywhere, so they would just have to make their way around it.

As we continued to the colony, we found ourselves in a lot of deep snow again, and we were frequently up to our knees.

Thankfully unlike the Devils Island day, here we knew we were on an island, so we weren't going to suddenly drop into freezing seas.  It still made it hard work walking though.  But we got there.

We watched the penguins for a while and then decided to go on to where some other seals had been spotted.  Except here the snow was even worse, with every step landing us knee deep or worse.

We ploughed on for a while before deciding that we were going so slowly that we would probably not make it there and then get back in time for the zodiac, so we turned around and plodded our way back to the landing site instead.

Oh and this is our last landing in Antarctica, so we have to say a fond farewell to the penguins.