Diving the Great Barrier Reef & learning about underwater photography: Cairns, Queensland, Australia

Earlier this week I am happy to say that I completed yet another one of my bucket list items; I went scuba diving/snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef along the eastern coast of Australia…. before it died completely. That said, I’m VERY sorry to say that, at least for the bits I was able to see up close, were already pretty much bleached/dead, when compared to pictures I have seen over the years of the explosion of color it once was…. very sad. Global climate change, it’s a thing.

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My travel-buddy and I had went up to Cairns in northern Queensland, which is the town located closest to barrier reef, and stayed there for a week. Be warned! Once you get there you’ll be barraged with boat tour options because Cairns is about either diving the reef, or visiting the UNESCO world heritage area rainforests/wetlands that line this part of the Australian coast. We ultimately opted for a company a friend of ours had previously used and been very happy with, called Reef Experience, which advertises itself as the only one to offer “all-inclusive” tours… no “hidden fees”, etc.

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This would be one of the photos they sell to you, taken by their photographer

What this translates to (per my understanding, which may be flawed)… is that while there are other companies that may seem cheaper… in reality they all pretty much cost the same or in fact more, while delivering essentially the same offerings. The major difference is other companies might not include various taxes and fees and what not (cost of the swim gear?) in the advertised price, and you’ll find you have to choose to add them in addition, or not dive… and by the time you do, those other guys are actually more expensive (unless you own all your own scuba gear, etc).

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Our tour group, including me and my friend (can you spot me?). The company posted this to their Facebook page for us to download afterwards — a freebie photo

They do have an online website, but I, rather than make the reservation that way, dragged my ass into their offices (a short walk from our Airbnb) FIVE days in advance of our trip …  on the assumption that this would keep problems from developing … I paid for the two reservations, and they asked were there any food restrictions. I explained that my friend was a vegetarian who was allergic to mushrooms. So, all good, and was told what to bring with me, when we’d be picked up, etc… and went home.

TWO days later (on Sunday, when we were supposed to dive on Wednesday), and I might add AFTER it was already two late to cancel and get a refund!!!!! I get an email explaining that under Queensland law, not everyone is legally allowed to do scuba diving and that we had to both fill out a medical form and send them a list of all the medications that we were taking, dosage, and how often; They would then show the list to their dive doctor and he would say if we could dive; or he would say that we needed to go to a doctor to be certified in person as healthy enough to do scuba. WHY they could not have told me that when I was in the office, and given me the form then, I don’t know. …. AND this was no PDF that we could fill-in and then send back to them, or even a website to fill out, it was an image file (???!!!). Something you needed to print out and fax back. Now keep in mind, we’re tourists, and I’ve yet to find a really portable printer (and who the fuck brings those on a plane?) and the Airbnb we were renting didn’t have “business office” facilities … so we had to get REALLY creative to figure out how to fill this thing… my friend, who is a professional geek, luckily had an image editor on his laptop… I have no idea how other people might manage it

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Also, read the form REALLY carefully. [Have you EVER suffered from a cold? Our best guess was that was, what’s called in the legal profession, a gotcha question; i.e, IF anything bad happens that you might want to sue them over, odds are you answered “have you ever had the common cold” with “No” because you want to be allowed to go scuba diving, and they can then say “SEE they lied on the form! They can’t sue us!”

So… Early Monday morning, after finally figuring out how to fill this thing in, and before we left to do the tourist stuff we had come to Cairns to do — which was NOT filling out medical forms, we sent it to them. LATE Monday night — seriously I kept checking my emails for a response from them, it didn’t come till around 9pm…. we got an email saying that their doctor had OK’d me to dive, but my NOT my friend (who is WAY healthier than I am and not a month before had been scuba diving in the waters off of Bali). Do not pass go, do not collect $200…. He had be seen by an actual doctor to get OK’d to dive, and they suggested a 24 hour walk-in-clinic nearby. My friend (being too tired and grumpy to go that night) contacted them to make an actual appointment for the next morning, but was told he couldn’t get one, that he had to come in as a walk-in, and hope to be seen on a first come first seen basis starting 5pm. (We called the company, who started calling around to other clinics and NONE could see him.) So the next day, he went over at 4:30 …but the doctors on staff did NOT know of his medication, and could NOT ok him to dive! They told him he had to come back AGAIN the following morning at 6:00 AM, BEFORE our 7:30 am dive, when the doctor who actually knew his stuff would be there. So my friend did, and that doctor said it was no problem — the drug is a common one in the USA, but less commonly used in Australia — and thankfully my friend was able to go there and be back by 7am, in time for our 7:30 bus…. which came 10 minutes early…. and after all that rushing, we were dropped off and discovered we now had to stand and wait for the boat crew to be ready…. because they were not.

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Talk about hurry up and wait!!! But back to the issue of pricing…. Essentially most of the one-day tours at this price point, about $150 USD/person, all seemed to last for about the same length. You should expect need to arrive at your ship at about 7:30 am and return to port at 4:30 pm. (Like I said, ours included pickup from and drop-off at our hotel — and thankfully the Airbnb was actually IN a hotel or they would not have — as part of the price… on the up side, they did call us when they were about to arrive. I STRONGLY suggest you find what the nearest hotel to you is, and set that as your pick up location if your airbnb is NOT so situated)

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Finally the staff arrived to check us all in. We had to show either the print out of our ticket or an email confirming it. On their sheet I saw that they had my friend listed as vegetarian, but NOTHING about his mushroom allergy, so I reminded them…. they said “thank you” and wrote it down…..

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This guy was traveling solo

Then every group of visitors (friends, families, etc) had their photo taken… like the one I posted at the top of the blog…. this is a photo you’ll be expected to buy later…

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Before the boat got started they talked to us, and told us that motion sickness pills (both medicinal and ginger tablets) were available. The Medical ones were $3 AUD for two pills (one for BEFORE we got moving, the second to be taken after lunch), which I went straight over the purchased… and was SO glad I did. Even with, I had to focus on calm breathing and such during part of the rougher parts of the ride out. During the way out to the dive site they fed us breakfast, and lets just say some of the folk who had thought they didn’t need the pills had ‘spilled their cookies’. For my travel buddy…. they had a veggie burger, which he didn’t want because he wasn’t hungry… and for everyone else there were fried-egg and bacon sandwiches… I just had a fried egg which I patted down with paper towels, to remove the oil. While doing it I talked to the chef-female and asked her, “did they tell you my vegetarian friend is allergic to mushrooms?” and the answer was “NO they  had NOT.!”… Keep in mind I told them this TWICE…. AND she kind of freaked because the dish she was getting ready to make for his lunch, was FULL of mushrooms!!!! That’s a MAJOR screw up!!

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There’s a top deck for those wanting to tan and rest, note the resort deck out in the distance (it just stays out there pretty much 24/7)

SO, that said… Along the way no matter which cruise you take, they’ll feed you breakfast, lunch, and a snack on the return trip (ours were all you can eat, and there was enough for seconds) — which is either included or you’ll need to pay extra. Ours was included, with water, tea and coffee for free…. pop or beer cost extra.

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Taken using their underwater rental camera… notice the color difference between the shoe in or out of the water?

Once out there, you’ll be lent a blue “stinger suit’ to protect you from jelly fish stings, a pair of flippers, a snorkel and goggles. Our company also lent a wet suit to anyone who was a certified swimmer and didn’t have their own (again something that I think other companies might charge you for). They seemed to have all the gear at pretty much every size, so for instance my friend who wears a shoe size of 13 Australia /49 European & 15 US — huge feet, has trouble find socks and shoes, WAS able to borrow ones that fit… while my feet are at the other end of spectrum (unusually small for a white girl, although average for an Asian woman), and I was also able to find ones that fit snuggly.

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They even had prescription goggles that they were lending out for free. I have particularly horrible eyesight, and doubted they’d have mine… but they had one that was close enough to allow me to see, and even had one that was for folks who were even worse than me… although they weren’t bifocals so I could see far but not near….

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Me, with my borrowed prescription goggles — purchased pic

Once we got out to the reef and dropped anchor, everyone got one scuba dive with an instructor (if they weren’t already certified), where the staff helps you get into the gear, into the water, and then makes sure you can both breath properly using the tank and regulator, and are able to expel water from your goggles while under the water (because apparently the goggles have not yet been made where that won’t happen).

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The rental camera is red filtered for underwater use, and is kind of lousy above it

And then you get led around by the instructor for about 20 minutes after that, after the photographer has had a chance to take pics of you while under the water. A second optional scuba dive was available for $65 AUD more (clearly advertised as such in advance), and you could make up your mind to add it after you’ve done the first depending on how you felt about it.

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This platform (holding a mini motor boat for emergency pick ups) was lowered into the water, and we took off from it, see the 12 air tanks lined up?

The first dive was about half an 35 min and included instructions and making sure each diver UNDERSTOOD them and could demonstrate them (one on one testing), while the second scuba dive is 45 minutes with none of it wasted on instruction. IF you are a certified diver… you could spend the WHOLE time swimming alone, but if not you HAD to swim with a guide and HAD to go through the lesson, even if, like my travel buddy, it’s not your first time going scuba diving. In fact in my group of four swimmers,  I was the only virgin who had never done it before.

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The red filter is simplistic, and makes everything look green

So the pic above — see how it’s very green? — That was one I took with their underwater rental camera which cost me about $99 to rent (but included my choice of 15 of the professional photographer shots … not great, … The pics below are that are blue, are by their photographer…. the very big fish is like the crew’s pet. Apparently this type of fish has a 5 year memory and is a bit like a dog in terms of his level of affection for the divers who come by daily

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The professional photos were color adjusted using very expensive specialized software, I’m SURE of it, because I watched him doing it.

So again, compare the color palate of the pics by the professional (blue) with the one they rented me (green), which I used while scuba diving… i.e., going MUCH deeper into the water than I would experience while snorkeling… much higher water pressure.

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The above were also passed through some basic color balancing attempts by me, using my Macbook’s photo program not complex algorithms for divers

Dealing with this pressure, and the fact that the goggles flood regularly is a big part of what they taught us before we went down. I felt ok for most of it; there were some initial problems my regulator which for some reason was set so tightly that I was having to REALLY force the air out while breathing, I could just breath out.

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Multiple boats all sharing reef adjacent areas, and little platforms set up about midway between

I hand signaled the instructor as we’d been instructed… we went to the surface and I told him about it and he made some sort of adjustment to the thing…  and from then on it was fine. Also between the fat on my ass and my tits, there was too much buoyancy between me and the suit (which also has built-in air pockets) so that I wasn’t able to submerge like everybody else … again I asked to go up… explained it to him… he made some more adjustments and then I was fine.

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A purchased pic of the diving staff, the blond guy front and center led my group of 4+him

After we finished the dive the instructor (blond guy wearing glasses above) told me that I had actually done unusually well and should feel proud of myself. He said that MOST virgins on the first dive freak out during the instruction section, because of problems breathing, or feeling like they were being water boarded, or whatever…. and MOST never actually manage to get past the initial instruction phase to do the scuba dive itself. I on the other hand had managed to do the whole thing, including pretty much the whole time allocated to the dive.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_213c.jpgBut at the very end of it my core muscles in my torso, and the muscles in my legs were just knackered. At that point, my friend, who is a strong swimmer, signed up not for the 2nd scuba dive (which he had intended to do) but rather for a snorkel dive with the ships marine biologist (I forget what the fee for that was, but it was less than the snorkel dive), which you could only sign up for if you were a strong swimmer. Since I was tired, he ‘informed’ me that he was borrowing my rental camera. 

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Me, showing off my iPhone in it’s waterproof plastic case, $28 AUD/~$20 USD ($13 on amazon)

Before going on the trip I had found a camera store just near our Airbnb rental. The girl working there had convinced me that the rental underwater camera’s offered by these trips weren’t actually all that good, and intended more for video than photos. That a better option, was to use my own iPhone inside one of these clear, heavy plastic zip-lock bags designed for smart phones. She said that’s what she uses and has used for a few years, and if you’re NOT going to invest in a top of the line camera it’s really the best choice. Supposedly I COULD have used it for scuba diving but to be honest, I didn’t trust it to keep my iPhone dry more than a few feet down …. but I figured snorkeling it could manage…. and in addition to the scuba outing, which you HAD to do with a crew member unless you had certification to scuba solo (which takes a full three days minimum to complete in Australia) there were two chances to go snorkeling independently (about four hours total) — although you had to stay within a certain distance of the boat/life guards while doing it ….

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Googles maps

An image of an underwater reef taken from above the water, they’re easy to spot, and at points they come up so high that boats can’t pass over them… so snorkeling really is a viable option… at the right locations you don’t HAVE to go very deep to seem them. Our boat while it ultimately docked at two different locations, so we got to see some variation of the reef while limiting our snorkeling to within the ken of the lifeguards. Although, that said…. BOTH locations were on/at the bit of the barrier called the Norman reef — if you look at a map of the barrier reef, it looks like a line of underwater islands.

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As the medical thing we had to go through earlier demonstrated, not everyone can scuba dive safely because of medical reasons— for instance people taking certain prescriptions aren’t allowed,  and not everyone feels comfortable scuba diving (even among those who want to, they freak out when first trying it as it can be claustrophobic and a bit like being water boarded). As such, even though scuba is included in the price, you can choose to just do snorkeling the whole time, if you’d rather

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These were the photos I took during our first chance at snorkeling, before we did our scuba session, when I was still using their rented underwater go-pro type camera (i.e., everything is very green)

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Photos from the rented camera, even after I futzed with the color balance on my computer, still not very good (but better)

… First thing I noticed when doing snorkeling was that MUCH bigger fish than I saw by the reefs seemed to like to hang out JUST under the boat. I think it has something to do with what was in the blue plastic bin they had hanging below the boat… it had these things that looked like transponders in it which I guess sent out sound-waves that attracts the fish to the boat… but that’s just an educated guess (after they pulled up the crate, no more big fish were hanging out down there). Anyway, once again… here was the photo I took of the photographer using the expensive to rent underwater rental camera … very very green

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And by comparison, THIS is the image of the same guy only this time I was using my iPhone inside the plastic bag. See how BLUE everything is? And sort of monotone everything is?

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Taken with my iPhone … really

DwdX1JAQSv+xgt9Rj8NcXg_thumb_c24e.jpgAfterwards, at the end of the trip while we were heading back to port, one of the staff members saw me flipping through images, and suggested try a free app for the smart phone, that she loves, which would automatically color correct my photos for me (it also allows you to modify that correction, less or more, etc) called Dive+ … which I did… and here’s what it looks like (before and after)

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So it’s a sort of judgement call as to whether to use it or not to apply the correction… but I was actually REALLY happy with some of the photos I ultimately got with the iPhone/Dive+ combo

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Love this one, it’s very other worldly

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I keep wondering how far down the professional dive photographer had to go to find this shot (below) … because it was NOT up near the surface where we were snorkeling (images above), that’s for sure

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Purchased image from our dive, also visible on their Facebook page

That said, its pretty clear from my images that the barrier reef, at least up at the top where a snorkelers could see it is already like 90% bleached out in these areas… which is very very sad.

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bottom right is scuba and deep divers (folks who are experienced enough to hold their breaths and go deep)

OR of course, if you don’t TRUST the plastic pack to keep your smartphone dry, you could always still rent from one of those underwater cameras from the tour company … which I opted for — at the last-minute — as the thought of a water-logged smartphone popped into my brain before the scuba dive. I admit I did this AFTER a lecture by the photographer about how much better my photos would be if I had the right equipment…

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purchased pic of me and my friend … I’m holding the rented phone (at the end of the yellow thing… which will make it float/bob in the water if you loose it) in my left hand

Actually I think that it was because  I decided to rent their go-pro-type underwater camera (the yellow thing in my left hand in the picture below) along with a package of 15 of the digital photos the professional photographer took……that they decided to put the above photo on their Facebook page… I’m GUESSING it was because … as far as I know, I was one of only TWO people who had opted to rent one of those underwater camera things, and as the camera is front and center in this photo, above, the photo helps to promote other people renting it

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A stroll and a Cruise (Homes of the rich and famous, Miami style)

After having to head into the city to do some business: targetless wanderings through Miami’s downtown area, musings on her public transit system, and cruise …

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Today I had some errands to run in Miami proper that required I drag my ass out of bed obscenely early (for me) and get into town by 9:30 am. I wasn’t able to do what I needed (I showed up to the office without an appointment) but I was able to get a promise that they’d deal with me on Friday at 10am… so I’ll be heading there again then. However, since I was already downtown, I took to wandering.

First, I walked to the seashore (a block away), and then south along the coast; and, for the first time in my life saw a dolphin in the wild! Till now I’ve only ever seen them either in aquariums, or in caged up “swim with the dolphins” type things, which I find horrific, as they’re good for us and definitely not so great for them. This dolphin was getting jiggy with a seagull, they seemed to be almost playing with each other, and the dolphin practically swam right up to the walkway in the process. I was so stunned that I was slow to pull out my iPhone, and missed the interplay, but was able to get some pics of the dolphin as it swam away.

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Because of the recently concluded Art Basel Miami, essentially a viewing forum/event that lasts about a week where the world’s top art galleries can present their best wares to potential buyers (essentially the top 1% of income earners, and museums, etc.)  — it began shortly after I arrived on Nov. 28th and was pretty much over by Dec. 4th, there are still a whole slew of temporary outdoor art available for viewing along Miami’s ocean front.

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I had not known about the event before I arrived (the timing was completely coincidental) but I learned about it from my host, because a German couple (both artists) who were renting one of the downstairs rooms were both working it. (They both worked for one of the galleries that was showing work, although he’s apparently somewhat successful as a struggling painter in his own right — I don’t remember his name. When I went, it was mostly because I was in town that day anyway — more paperwork, although in sum it was rather like going to a very good but insanely expensive museum … $45 for one day’s entry — and there wasn’t even free wine and cheese.)

The next thing I discovered was that the downtown train system in Miami is free (BOGGLE!!). I had taken a Lyft/Uber type taxi into town, so I figured I would try out the rapid transit system which I had heard was pretty decent by US standards (in other words, lousy). I entered the system looking for where I was supposed to pay… kept looking, and still not finding, and then when the doors of a train opened I stuck my head in thinking “maybe there’s a conductor?” (the Metra system in Chicago still has old fashioned conductors)…  but there wasn’t. So I asked a woman siting on one of the few seats (only four per car), “is this free?” and she responded, “yup.” So I got in and road around, and… I’ll admit, I was using the ride to pick up some much needed balls from Pokémon stops — yup, still addicted to the game.

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After a while the train came to a halt at a station, and the loudspeaker informed us the system had broken down and please be patient… so I waited, and waited… and finally decided to just get out and walk. I found myself at what the city intends to be a museum park (like what we’ve already got in Chicago). They have an Modern Art museum … and they are in the process of building a (what I later learned was a new home for a) science museum — that had formerly been located in Coconut Grove across the street from Vizcaya Museum & Gardens; apparently, when it’s done, it is ultimately going to house the world largest shark tank (I have some thoughts on that, but they’re particularly cynical).

I had not yet had lunch (or any coffee for that matter), and according to my Yelp app, the Pérez Art Museum — which has very modern art, not really to my taste so I didn’t go in) also had fairly highly rated cafe, described as good enough so as to be worth eating at even if you weren’t going to see the art…I had Ceviche with pomegranate seeds, and iced coffee — and they were nice enough to give me a large plastic to-go cup of the iced coffee for my ‘refill’.

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Not long after, as I was walking along the shore line… one of my best friends, Carmi, who lives in Florida, called to chat, and when I told him about the train he said that it was considered by many Floridians to be an economic debacle. According to him, it cost so much and so few people actually ever use it, that the city could have instead offered free taxi fares within the same covered area – for life – to anyone who wanted one, and it would have been cheaper (and more likely to be utilized).

In fact, the city also put up a bicycle rental system scattered around the city, which is NOT free, and cost them a pittance by comparison to set up… which IS from what I could see taken full advantage of.

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Although I’ve seen similar systems in other places where the bikes are less to do with tourists and more to do lowering traffic on the roads and/or smog levels (China for instance)… and in those cases the first 15 or 20 minutes are usually free — like the train — only better because if you plan it right you have free access to a bike 24/hours a day with no worries about it being stolen.

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The yellow building is called The Freedom Tower (and should not be confused with the one in New York City which replaced the Twin Towers that were destroyed on 9/11) because it was used, at one point, as the processing facility for refugees from Castro‘s Cuba. Before that it was the offices of a newspaper, and now.. since we’re opening up normal relations with Cuba, it has become a museum — but ironically, not a history museum — instead it’s yet another modern art museum.

Next I headed towards the Bayside Marketplace, which my tripadvisor app was listing it as #12 of the best things to do in Miami (it’s sad how for a lot of towns in the USA the best thing to do is to go to the mall).  And as I walked through the stores that were NOT national chains — most of them were — I was like, “HEY, the 1970’s are back!”

Back when I was a kid my dad (a professor) had this one graduate student who was the consummate Hippie type. He and his wife were both these laid back granola types, and I used to love hanging out at their house. They loved, but couldn’t have, any kids of their own (this was before in vitro fertilization) and they weren’t stable enough economically to be allowed to to adopt —  back then they didn’t allow cross ethnic adoptions… so they set up their place up so that all the kids on their street would want come over there to hang out there. They had all these board games, and toys and cool stuff (like door handles with roses embedded in them). At one point, he and my dad were both presenting a paper at an academic conference in London, and the wife’s sister (who was her exact opposite) had flown over to hang out in London with us. Unlike the wife, who had married a Hippie, this sister had married a VERY rich guy from Beverly Hills, and was living THAT 70’s lifestyle; firstly, her husband apparently had NEVER seen her without her full face makeup applied, and — even in the cold of winter (or London summers) — she wore outfits so low cut that at least 1/2 of each breast was always exposed. My English male cousins, goggle eyed, would just stared at her with their jaws hanging open waiting for something to fall out. Walking around the Marketplace, half of the dresses there (in the locally owned shops) had neck lines that cut a deep V all the way down to the belly button, just like her outfits all used to do, so that if your wore them you’d risk your breasts being are completely exposed. Since then, the only time I’ve seen this sort of thing were on formal dresses at… like the Oscars, being worn by stars like JLo who are very proud of their bodies, but apparently in Miami these are now considered appropriate for daily wear.

However, one of the good things I found at the Market place was that there were like a few different cruise companies offering hour and a half tours of the bay for the VERY affordable price of $20 (I’m guessing this may have been due to it being a weekday during the off season) and 10% off of any drink from the bar.

So, I got myself a diet breaking virgin Mojito (normally I’m very careful to only drink black coffee or water) because this is Miami and I haven’t had once since I arrived…

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………….and then I’m went to go on a Bay side-cruise of the Port of Miami….

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…………that included what’s was described as a tour of millionaires row.

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This is apparently the Miami home of the singer Enrique Martín Morales, formerly of the boy band Menudo —  better known as, Ricky Martin

img_7614According to the tour guide, this rental property is popular with rappers and other stars who don’t already own homes in the area, as a place to throw parties.
—– It rents out for the low, low price of $30,000……. a WEEK!!!

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A great view of the Miami coastline, described by some as the third nicest in the U.S.A.  (after NYC and Chicago, of course) … we were all instructed to grab our camera’s for it

Then They took us to tour around Star Island.

img_7627And this is the home, supposedly (Wikipedia claims that some of the tour guides, including possibly my own, fib about who does or does not live in these homes) of one of the best selling artists of all time,  a singer/songwriter who with over 120 million records to his name worldwide; he has recorded in 14 languages, and has more than 400 gold and platinum records…..  Julio José Iglesias de la Cueva, better known as Julio Iglesias.

img_7631This estate is over 6 acres with a reported 31,615 sq ft of house and is lined with imported (and VERY erect) African Palm Trees is worth $122,000,000 and is (actually) the home of Dr Phillip Frost, who is on the Forbes wealthiest humans lists.
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Born of an observant Jewish family and served as the lieutenant commander for the U.S. Public Health Service at the National Cancer Institute, from 1963 to 1965… …..who, according to our tour guide used to own Pfizer — she called it the house Viagra built

img_7644And this comparatively modest home, apparently, belongs to Beckham’s David and Victoria… he being considered one of the greatest soccer players in the world, and she a former member of the Spice Girls.

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Louiseville Slugger Museum, KY

What the name suggests: it’s very touristy, but interesting; and worth driving by, if only to see the worlds largest baseball bat (but made of carbon steel, not wood). It is an oversized replica of the bat the Louisville Slugger company made for Babe Ruth (aka, ‘The Bambino’ or ‘The Sultan of Swat’in the 1920s.

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Among the sources I used when planning my trips, there’s a web-page/iPhone app resource that I use, called Roadtrippers.com where you can load in your destinations, and the application/web site will pop up a list of all the various things you might want to consider stopping at along the way (in its “oddities” category, which I love). You chose the ones you want, and then on your iPhone you load the list… HOWEVER, I have also found that the addresses appended to those locations are NOT always correct, so it’s best to then double check them with google. (For instance, on this day I was TRYING to get to the Louisville Slugger museum which is in downtown Louisville, and got misdirected to a residential neighborhood in what seemed to be the worst part of Louisville (really run down). But there were factories there so I thought MAYBE this right… till I ended up on a residential street. That said, it wasn’t a complete waste, as I learned from the myriad of signs (advertising the fact), that this was the neighborhood where Muhammad Ali, formerly known as Cassius Clay, had been born.)

I then (thank the lord for the iPhone and cellphone data plans — folks not old enough to remember a time before such things don’t appreciate just how magical it is) googled the attraction and found the correct address, which was a good thing because an old friend of mine was actually driving in from her small town in Indiana (two hours away) to meet up with me there.

As I waited for her (she was, thankfully, running late as well) I discovered that Louisville has done something very smart, they’re historic downtown is full of these amazingly beautiful historic buildings. When the area got run down and the businesses for the most part left for safer neighborhoods, they ‘restored’ most of them, by leaving the amazing facades and ripping out everything behind it. Most of these buildings they then filled up with museums and other touristy attractions. So there’s now a ‘historic’ museum row / tourist mecca that is centrally located with most of what you’d  (as a tourist) want to see when visiting Louisville.

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Just out front of the Museum was a fairly in-congruent statue of Captain America… I have no idea WHY it was there, but it was pretty cool… and purely coincidentally, it matched my shirt.

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But it may have been reflective of the large number of street pieces along Museum row, of which I only photographed a few.

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And then lining the sides of the museum were these highly inconspicuous, to the point of one almost tripped me…  little memorials to various famous players who had preferred the Louisville slugger bat.

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The first (and last thing) you see upon entering the building is the gift shop, which impressive in it’s own right, with everything from key chains and bumper stickers to collectors items, like baseballs signed by some of the greats, which you can buy.

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The one things that I found “tempting” was walking sticks made out of mini baseball bats. As I’ve discussed previously I’ve been suffering from periodic bouts of benign positional vertigo now for about 15 years, so for me walking sticks are useful, AND these could double as a self-defense weapon.

that said, the Baseball Bat Museum is reasonably priced (see below); but that said, my friend and I were actually able to get in for FREE!! (can’t beat free). It was an off-season weekday, and the tour, which was just about to begin, was far from sold out; as such they were just handing out the tickets. (This made me think that the store is far more profitable than the museum itself, while the latter draws new customers to the former.)

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In the waiting area before the factory tour there’s a museum devoted to Louisville Slugger bats, and baseball in general.

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In it, there’s a batting cage area where you can put on gloves, and get to hold and test the weights of various bats that were ACTUALLY used by some the greats.

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In addition to an extensive collection of memorabilia, and explanations about the history of baseball, there are also Madame Tussauds type wax figures of some of the greats that you can can go right up to, take your picture with — and I saw some people touching them.

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At a certain time, an announcement is made, and all the people wandering through the museum file into a loading area, and watch a movie loaded with facts and figures regarding the production and sale of Louisville slugger bats.

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After the movie, we walked through the factory area, with demonstrations of bats being made by hand (solely for the purpose of the tour), and then there are explanations of how they are made now. There are low tech systems, which are used to make bats for sale to the general public, or little league teams. One interesting factoid she shared was that, if you’re a baseball player in the minor leagues, odds are you’ll use a custom made bat to your preferred configurations, however, you have to pay for your own bats, the teams don’t pay for them for you — while they DO pay for the major league players‘ bats.

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But, on the seemly unrelated topic of “why the jobs are not coming back” — a conversation I had had a few weeks before with a progressive liberal friend who was sure Bernie Sanders would be able to do this (I spent a few hours trying, but failing, to convince him otherwise…. I now offer the case of the Louisville Slugger:

According to our tour guide, it used to be that the bats were all turned by hand on the lave, each one taking about four hours of very careful shaving, smoothing and measuring to produce. Then, the industrial revolution reached baseball, and the bats were, and (for the most part) continue to be produced by a factory mechanized system which, while nowhere near as precise, allowed them to make bats that were much cheaper and therefore able to reach a broader market; and as I said, these are the ones that are today sold to the home market, Little League’s, and customers like that.  Then they showed us a brand new very expensive computerized machine that, in just one hour can produce the entire needs of a major-league team … THREE times over. They spoke of it with great pride, noting that at that moment it was making special order bats for the Chicago Cubs that were painted blue and said “World Series champions” — having just broken their 108 year losing streak by beating the Cleveland Indians, who were the 2nd most losing team in the country. And everyone in the group was all happy and impressed until I chirped up…

Question: “You said that untill the computerized system arrived professional bats, for minor league and National league players, were made by hand… correct?”
“yes”
“Then, could you tell me HOW many workers this one machine put out of work?”

Suffice it to say the girl leading the tour didn’t look happy, and the people in my tour group looked at me annoyed (how dare I point out the obvious)… She didn’t know but promised to get the answer by the end of the tour, which was that this one computerized machine has replaced/made redundant 50 highly skilled workers.

Jobs that be done cheaper aboard, enough so that the added shipping still results in a cheaper product than what can be produced at home will be produced abroad. At a certain point, labors who previously were happy with 10 cents an hour are now asking for $1.50, and that becomes no longer true. AT THAT POINT, it then becomes cheaper to invest in a computerized production system that can do a job as well as any skilled laborer, only much quicker…. And THAT ladies and gentleman is why the jobs aren’t coming back.

After the tour was over we were taken into a final room, and were allowed to choose our only miniature baseball bats out of the bin in this picture, to take home as a souveigner.

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And then towards the back of the building there is an actual batters cage where you can try out your skills against an automated pitcher, using different types and weights of bats produced by the company.

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On one side of the building that houses the factory tour, they also have a small Ripleys believe it or not subsection (believe it or not… seriously WHAT is this doing here?). Most of what’s there is less the “believe it or not” sort of stuff that would show up in a circus side show, and more art in utilizing “unusual” mediums, so like duct tape, chewing gum or nuts, but some of it is the more exotic stuff — at Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory.

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After we finished with the museum, and walking around the downtown area we headed back to the neighborhood I had been to the day before, where Zachary Taylor’s grave yard is. We HAD wanted to have dinner downtown, but a staff member in the museum had STRONGLY warned us against it, saying that once the businesses had closed up it would quickly become an unsafe neighborhood. As such, I suggested that we go to the same restaurant I had gone to the night before, a place with AMAZING food in a neighborhood full of what looked to be multi-million dollar homes.

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Anoosh Bistro was a restaurant I had found the day before using Yelp. The first time I came I was deeply impressed with how Anoosh and his wait staff were HIGHLY accommodating to my medical dietary needs.  The first time I had the Cioppino (Fresh Fish, Shrimp, King Crab, Mussels, Clams, Tomato Saffron Clam Broth — all of which was incredibly fresh, and there was so much fish that I ended up taking home half) & the poached pear salad, which was incredibly tasty — I ate the salad before the meal and saved the pear for my desert (there was SO much alcohol in the pear that it left me tipsy).

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As I was leaving, the first time, I discovered that this place is actually halal (the owner is Lebanese — considered by many to have the best pallet in the middle east) — which is a good thing.

This time, with my old friend from University … I had the red snapper special with black rice and vegetables (they had modified it to meet my dietary needs) while she had the chicken curry which smelled amazing… and both of us were doing the ‘happy food dance’… Although Andie ate my carrots for me cause I hate cooked carrots (and they’re not good for me either, too much sugar) while I ate her asparagus for her…. She said my carrots were also amazing.

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Then, for dessert — something I generally skip unless they have fresh berries… she ordered the white chocolate bread pudding with their home made pistachio ice cream in place of vanilla. I had a tiny taste of both and they were amazing… especially the ice cream which we were sure was made in house… (we tasted a tiny undercurrent of rose water in it).

My Dad would’ve approved (and he always really liked Andie, and he loved bread pudding). As she ate it (I did have a small taste) we were remembering the one time my dad made her dinner, and it was mind-blowingly amazing…  but it was one of these things where he just kind of improvised with whatever happened to be in the house, so that afterwards he could never duplicate it because he could never remember how he got there.

Jeffersonville, IN

Louisville Kentucky is one of the myriad of US towns situated on a river that is a state border, so that her ‘suburbs’ effectually spread over multiple states; historic Jeffersonville Indiana is just such a suburb.

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Originally the location of a fort named after Baron Von Steuben (the Gay military genius without whom we would have most likely lost the Revolutionary war), Jeffersonville was most likely named as such the same year Thomas Jefferson became president of the united states, and the settlers of the town used the same grid layout that he had promoted as a way for distributing land.

To the town’s credit, they have embraced the historic nature of their town, and as you walk around it you’ll see numerous historic buildings, and signs attached to walls, that offer you a window into the towns past.

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Ironically, however, when I scanned the QR codes attached to those signs into my phone I was taken to a web page saying that the campaign had been disabled — not sure why they would go to all the effort to produce the signs if the city leaders weren’t committed to at least keep the associated web pages active.

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The town however is full of architecturally interesting buildings that have been, for the most part, well maintained, and was full of cute little restaurants, cafes, etc., including a two different cigar lounges (all leather armchairs and sipping bourbon), and a Cafeteria resturant, which is sort of a dying institution.

img_7068Truth be told, I hadn’t come to Jeffersonville in order to see the town, even though having seen it I would happily categorize it as a destination in and of itself, but rather U had come here because of Schimpff’s Candies, which is historic enough to have been covered by the history channel (it was, ironically, featured in the show, Modern Marvels on an episode devoted to candy production).img_7065

Having celebrated it’s 125th anniversary, Schimpff’s, which was originally opened on April 11, 1891,  is one of the oldest continuously operated, family owned candy companies in the US to still be located in it’s original location. And in case one were to forget the perils of being in a town located adjacent to a river, I found the way that the owners had proudly notated its various floods on the exterior wall of the shop to be interesting.

Schimpff’s Candies is a cute place, a combination store, ice cream and lunch counter, with a museum of the Candy industry located in the back.
img_6847I came here because I thought there was going to be a factory tour but there is not — they just do demonstrations of what they’re making that day.
img_7063They’re famous for their red hots, but today they were making Christmas candy.

While the store itself was worthy of a stop, I think that the it’s more the high point of a cute little historic town visit, rather than a full destination in and of itself.

The day I went was by sheer coincidence veterans day… and I saw this:img_6867

Victoria, B.C., Great Destination town

I spent a full month living in Victoria, a popular port-of-call for cruise ships, and liked it so much that it is now on my list of favorite cities on the planet (and I’ve been to most of the good ones) … so much so that I could almost see retiring there, if the Canadian Government would allow it.

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So … as an explaination of WHY I like it much, let’s start with with a seemingly insignificant fact ….. no bugs — seriously! And this lack of annoying little critters extends to all of the Island, not just British Columbia‘s capitol city, Victoria.

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One of the seemingly infinate pieces of outdoor art to be found along the streets of Victoria

Now, granted, of course there are bugs, there wouldn’t be life if there were not bugs… but not so much that you’d notice; and more to the point, other than chiggers (out in the woods) not much in the way of bugs that bite. I was on Vancouver Island  for two whole months and only suffered ONE … seriously… ONE mosquito bite. And it really doesn’t seem to matter what time of day we’re talking about. Granted this may seem trivial, but after having spent a few months in places like Florida or parts of the upper midwest — where you’ll be eaten alive at certain times of day; and when you are bitten you run the risk of things like zika and other nasties … 24 hours a day; and let’s not forget to mention myriad places on the North American continent where if you drive at dusk, within miniutes your car will become so THICK with dead bugs that you’ll have to get it washed, and the job will HAVE to be by hand, or you won’t to get rid of them all (and if you don’t … you’ll have the pleasure of watching other bugs swarm your car to feast on the carcasses of their dead friends. So, really, you learn to appreciate ‘no bugs.’

Beyond that, let my list the other reasons why I love Victoria so much:

Architecture

As my pictures will show, it is a visually GORGEOUS city; the local government has put laws into place that require that all historical buildings be maintained (at the very least their facades) and/or restored. The result is panoply of colors and designs to delight the eyes. Architectually it’s buildings range from Stuart influenced Victorian British and early 19th century Americana, to a smattering of modern glass and steel on the outer edges of town.

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This is the capitol building for British Columbia

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The red pagoda looking building is a school that serves the Chinatown community

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History:

Victoria it is a city that with British zeal embraces and honors it’s history in a myriad a ways; if you pay attention, stop, look and read, you almost don’t need a tour guide to learn about the place; and it’s not allways done via obvious things, like this memorial to Captain Cook,

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The plaque below it reads:

Capt. James Cook, R. N. (1728 – 1779)

“After two historic voyages to the South Pacific Ocean, Cook was cruising the waters of the Pacific Northwest on his third and final voyage, with his two ships, Resolution and Discovery. He was searching for the western exit to the legendary Northwest Passage. In March 1778, they put into Nootka Sound for repairs and to trade with the native people. With him on the voyage were Mr. William Bligh as master of the Resolution and midshipman George Vancouver.

This statue was commissioned by the Victoria Environmental Enhancement Foundation and unveiled by The Honourable William Richards Bennett, premier of the province of British Columbia. July 12, 1976.”

Rather, in Victoria you really need to pay attention and look, because the place is RICH with historical documentation, but it tends to go overlooks; for instance, one of the things I noticed (during my month long stay in Victoria where I passed this statue almost daily) was that MOST tourists never seem to stop and take notice of is the LONG line of smaller plaques all along the wall located right behind that statue (see picture above), and all along the dock which memorialize all the notable ships that docked in her port (below are just a few example, but they line the whole dockside):

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Another example is that there is ample evidence and explaination regarding the location of the original fort on the main shopping street in Victoria, but if you don’t stop and look (as the Asian tourists who were being led by a professional guide — the guy in the red shirt — are doing in the picture below) … you’ll miss it:

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The large tan and white building, across from where the fort had stood, was the first office building of the Hudson Bay Company, when Victoria transitioned from a fort to a city
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Every name memorialized in these bricks is that of a founding citizen of the city

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And then every single historic building that’s been renovated and repurposed (and there are LOADS of them) has attached to it a sign explaining the history of the building. Below for instance is a bank building that is now a bar.

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img_9582And then Victoria has different districts, and again, if you stop and look you’ll find plaques, and the like, explaining the area’s past.

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And then in the front of the Government building, there are little vignettes, describing the history of the city, performed by the Parlimentary Player’s, a group of young actors dressed in historiacal garb that try to ‘bring history to life’ in a way that might be more appealing for those who don’t enjoy reading — including one playing the role of Queen Victoria herself. After which, you can enjoy a enjoy a tour of building itself (either self guided with a pamphlet, or led — for a fee, see my blog post).

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That said, it is STILL worth your while to invest in one of the many historically themed walking tours, because they will often add more information than the signs and plaques, not to mention point out little historical tidbits that city has overlooked — or chosen not to — document… for instance, as you walk along Fan Tan Alley in Victoria’s China town you might easily walk right by this little piece of history which links back to the active opium trade that used to exist in the area.

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What the picture doesn’t show (or at least well) is that across the alley from the door are two peep holes in the opposite wall. From here, guards would check the alley for cops, and if they gave the all clear, the metal door would open, handing a customer his or her opium.

In addition to the history that exists in historic parts of town, There are more historical spots, just on the outskirts like the  Fort Rodd Hill National Historic Site (see my blog about it), which host historical events, Craigdarroch Castle (again, see blog), and Christ Church (ditto).

Public Art:

Public Art is visible almost everywhere you look; be it street art, murals (government sanctioned or otherwise) that either celebrate the city’s history and rich cultural past — or simply decorate boring buildings, sculptures that range from monuments to famous people involved with the city’s history, to the more esoteric and fanciful, Victoria almost doubles as an outdoor museum.

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Mother Nature, Natural beauty:

Although one could argue that Victoria’s proximity to the ocean is such an incredible an asset, that the aforementioned, massive investment in public art, is “gilding the lily” just a bit …

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And in addition not only have the Canadians inherited the British love of gardens, but they the almost perfect weather for a wide variety of flowers and plants. The weather is SO good (not too hot, not to cold), that it is considered to have a mediteranian climate (PALM TREES growing outdoors, north of Seattle, REALLY!).

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To that effect, a short drive away (maybe 20 minutes) is the world famous (see my blog post on) Butchart Gardens, which not only hosts musical events, but also serves up a very nice afternoon tea

Shopping:

I was really impressed by the shopping in Victoria. The prices for pretty much everything are low (well, at the exchange rate at the time, that could change); And there is great shopping from high fashion to antiques;

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A bank, converted into a book store

img_3255The guy who owned this store, which was stocked with stuff that made my history major heart swoon, said that he USED to have significantly more WWII era stuff, but that the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. bought out most of his best items a few years ago.

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This next store was probably the coolest of of the MANY gaming stores I found in Victoria, as in one every few blocks — apparently gaming is a popular activity there. You could come with friends, or join up with other folks already there, play board games, etc., and buy them if you enjoyed them… plus it was a cafe.

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The owner of this next, historic store, which is the oldest contiuously running store in the city, said he was worried now that US and Cuban relations were about to normalize, as a large chunk of his business was selling Cuban cigars to Americans tourists who couldn’t get them at home.

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Once many years ago, while in the UK, I accidentally purchased a t-shirt made of hemp, found it to be an amazingly comfortable, sturdy, and breathable fabric, and have been looking for clothes made of it ever since; hemp clothing was difficult to find in the US, till quite recently, because of it being a variety of cannabis plant, i.e., marijuana).

So when I saw this store, I got excited; Now, granted, there wasn’t much I could buy — since living out of the trunk of a car limits one’s closet space,  but since I was supposed to attend the orthodox Jewish wedding of an old friend a month later, and didn’t have anything appropriate to wear, I had a reasonable excuse to buy myself a really nice formal (yet informal) dress made from hemp.

Safe!:

From the perspective of a girl from Chicago, Victoria has an impressively low crime rate (see happy homeless people for part of why that is) so that as a single woman I felt completely comfortable walking around alone, even at night;

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Great resturants:

There are no shortage of really great resturants,  (see the blog post about my favorite, the Ferris Grill) all of which have fresh from the ocean seafood obtained from the local, and more importantly working, (see my blog post about) Fisherman’s warf; so that I got spoiled with buck-a-shuck amazingly fresh oysters, most of which were HUGE… and then keep in mind the exchange rate, so that from my viewpoint it was actually cheaper than $1 each. While there is a China town, I was not overly impressed with the Chinese.

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RedFish BlueFish is a VERY popular foodstand on the dock across from the fancy hotel (not fisherman’s warf)

Music and Art:

There is an active music and arts scene! (Although, sadly, not much in the way of Theater) For instance, there are free concerts almost every week day in front of the city hall, not to mention orchestral presentations at the local cathederal, and a plethera of street performers.

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Tourism:
From a straight tourism point of view, there’s relatively little in the way of “tourist trap” attractions (which is not necessarily a bad thing). There’s the aforementioned fisherman’s warf area, there is one really good museum (see my post about the Royal British Columbia Museum) which hosts really impressive traveling exhibits, and a few small ones. There are also in addition to the aforementioned historically themed walking tours a few tour different bus tour companies, whose offerings are for the most part, the same (I took two of them).

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of the multiple tours the most amusing one I spoted (although not for me as I don’t drink) was the rolling pub tour.

And, as a Jew, I was very excited to see an active Jewish community (albiet a tiny one) that was active in the city

Mayfield Dairy Farms Inc.

Interesting factory tour of a Mayfield plant that packages milk and ice cream (no cows, no cheese), that is highly affordable <$5 for adults, with the price including a bowl (or cone) of their freshly made ice cream.

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As my friends know I’m not one for early mornings, in fact I tend to live in my own little time zone which if I’m lucky is only three hours behind of everyone else (my normal bedtime is about 3am or 4am and I need a good 8 hours to function well). Sometimes I get so out of synch that I just find it easier to move my body clock forward an hour or so every day till it is in local time. IF I have a job where I am forced to yank myself out of bed at a set time it’s less likely to happen, but during periods like now, where my time is my own… well let’s just say getting to things that are far away and that shut down by 5pm can be a struggle. In addition, I don’t do mornings well… I tend to stagger around and grunt for the first half hour, and I’ve found my driving during the first two hours of wakefulness tends to be ‘unsafe’ meaning if I need to leave the house by 8am to be at work on time I have to be up by 6am, at least if I need to drive to get there.

So, You do the math: recently I’ve been waking up at around 11:40am, and this place is about 1.20 hours away from where I was staying, and the dairy’s last tour is at 4pm and I was assured that by that hour most of the machines have already been shut down, so it would be best to come before that. NOT the easiest thing for me to pull off. I had intended to go on yesterday, but by the time I got up, dealt with a couple of pieces of business that had popped up in my emails, etc., it was already nearing 3pm. So today I tried again, and managed to get there by about 2:48pm, and found during the tour that they were already starting to discontinue production on a few of the machines. So, I strongly suggest you go there earlier rather than later… and they don’t do tours on Wednesdays.

The tours are every hour on the hour, and begin with a documentary about the company (which seems to serve the secondary purpose of adding on a few stragglers to the group). Then everyone is given a hair net (whose purpose seemed legal rather than actual, we were almost never anywhere near a machine when there wasn’t glass between us and it).

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Unfortunately they do not allow any photos taken while inside the factory area, so I can’t show that, but its the usual processing machines, either molding the plastic jugs for the milk, or filling them, etc. I did learn one interesting fact… apparently its a huge mistake to keep your milk in those nice spaced on refrigerator doors. According to the woman we’re supposed to keep the milk as far to the back of the fridge as possible, if you want to keep it fresh.

During my visit there was male toddler type who at first was completely disinterested, with parents who clearly didn’t grok the concept of teaching … I think they just thought taking the kid to things like this would be enough. Sorry but no. The tour guide was talking to fast and delivery her script in too monotone of a voice to grab the kids attention, so I picked up an example of the snapped off extra plastic from the milk jugs that they had examples of sitting on a side table (well above child reach) and wiggled it in the kids view, talking about what it was and then redirecting his attention to the machine chopping them out at a fast pace… from then on he was enamored.

At the end your let out in a shop area with a lot of appealing chatchkees and amusing T-shirts that advertised the company in one way or another — I was sorely tempted to get something but my life style requires a strict limitation of stuff (my car can only hold so much). There is also an ice cream parlor where you can redeem your one scoop of ice cream. I opted for a flavor called Extreme Moose Tracks  “Rich chocolate ice cream with Moose Tracks Fudge-filled cups and famous Moose Tracks Fudge” … whatever that means