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August 24, 2011

Vancouver, BC Canada

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If I ever left my heart in a city, it would have to be Vancouver. Like my wife, Dawn, Vancouver for me was love at first sight. This beautiful Canadian city has been the backdrop for some of my most cherished life moments and I anticipate many visits and meaningful experiences there in the future.

On our vacation this year, my family sailed from Whittier to Vancouver aboard Diamond Princess. It was somewhat sentimental for me as it took me back to when I first joined Princess Cruises as a seafarer, when I signed up for an Alaska season to work aboard the original Royal Princess for what I thought would be a brief six-month escape from my life in the UK. It's now 24 years later (to the month) and I'm still happily working for Princess.

This recent voyage not only took me back to my first week at sea, but also reminded me of when I first fell in love with Vancouver. Standing on the top deck sailing under the Lionsgate Bridge past Stanley Park, I harkened back to a somewhat fresh but clear Saturday morning on August 8, 1987 when I first sailed into Vancouver on Royal Princess.

Little did I realize then how much the city would capture such a special part of my life and eventually become part of me, particularly because it's the hometown of my wife, Dawn. We got married in Vancouver and now we travel there frequently with our kids Jordan (4) and Jenna (11 months). You could say, it's our second home.

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I'd always been intrigued by the amazing friendliness and warm hospitality of the Canadians. After completing that first tour of duty, I took local leave and explored Canada from the West Coast to the East Coast using a student rail pass. It was in Vancouver that I met some local chaps who helped me map out my Canadian journey, giving me insider tips and must-see sights. After my amazing six-week trip, I knew one thing for certain-I wanted to go back to Vancouver. I felt so at home and connected to the people.

On our most recent trip, we made sure to experience a grand entrance into Vancouver, an amazing event in itself. Granted, it's a very early morning for those who want to watch the ship's final approach into Canada Place, but armed with a cup of coffee it's really worth the 5:30 a.m. wake-up call. Vancouver easily rates as one of the world's most scenic ports and sailing into the city reminds me of a fellow Englishman, Captain George Vancouver, who on June 13, 1792, was exploring the same Burrard Inlet just before his 35th birthday.

Admittedly Captain Vancouver's two-year voyage from England took a little longer, as he had to take the scenic route via Capetown, New Zealand, Tahiti, and China. The city adopted his name in 1886.

Today, it's the fourth largest port in North America and major film production studios have now turned Vancouver into the third largest film production location in North America, after Los Angeles and New York. The city certainly lives up to its many accolades and has frequently been recognized as one of the top cities in the world in which to live.

As with many other West Coast locations, Vancouver experiences spectacular sunsets. One of the best spots for enjoying a scenic evening is at English Bay, in a restaurant or bar, or simply sitting on the beach. If you've really timed it right, make sure you're there for the annual International Fireworks Competition, which is held in July and August.

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That's what we did in 2004 when, together with 100 of our closest family and friends . . . and a priest, I hired a boat to tie the knot with my amazing wife. After the ceremony we were all treated to dinner and a perfect view of the fireworks competition - a truly enchanting and memorable evening topped off with a rare blue moon. It was perfect!

Now that Dawn and I have kids, with family and friends in Vancouver I-ve discovered there is plenty to keep all ages intrigued while exploring the city. Stanley Park, one of North America-s biggest urban parks, has six miles of sea wall that, regardless of the weather, is frequented by Vancouverites and visitors alike enjoying walking, jogging, biking, and skating. The park offers numerous choices of transport - a horse-drawn tour will drive you comfortably around the park, or you can walk it in three hours.

In the middle of the park we like to visit the Vancouver Aquarium and the Stanley Park Miniature Steam Railway - a particular favorite of Jordan's, since as a typical lad he simply loves anything to do with trains. Whilst on the east side of the park, it's always nice to sit on a bench and take a moment to enjoy the sights of Coal Harbour with its busy float planes or cruise ships gracefully entering and leaving the port. Following tradition, at noon every day the Heritage Horns sing out the first four notes of "O Canada" (Canada's National Anthem), while at nine o'clock each evening the Stanley Park Gun (first fired in 1898) is sounded from the cannon perched on the sea wall.

Just around the corner from Stanley Park are English Bay and False Creek, home of a favorite of our kids . . . Granville Island! The fun starts with a foot-ferry ride from False Creek to get to the Island. Once we've landed, the kids go wild at the Kids Market and Water Park & Adventure Playground, while parents can enjoy the market, a selection of stores, restaurants . . . or (my favorite) simply sit back and relax with a coffee as you are entertained by performances of the local street artists, or watch the water traffic sail by.

To enjoy a bird's eye view of Vancouver, my favorite vantage point is Grouse Mountain. Located just 15 minutes from downtown, this peak offers spectacular views in summer or the snow of winter. It's easy to get up to the summit by cable car, and at the top visitors can not only take in the scenery but can enjoy a great meal. Of course, if it's winter . . . don?t forget your skis!!

It's been 24 years since I first caught sight of Vancouver from the deck of a cruise ship. Today, as I think of all the city has given me and what it means to my family, I can't think of a better place to stop and stay a while.

Written By David Price, Director of Hotel Operations Princess Cruises

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Posted by Denise at 11:21 AM | Comments (0)

August 03, 2011

Amsterdam, Netherlands

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Amsterdam is a city of canals, historic row houses and freewheeling social policies that attract visitors from the world over. As I discovered, it's also a city of very determined cyclists and committed distance walkers.

In October 2005, I traveled to Amsterdam for a few days to meet a wing of my family that I'd long heard of but never met. My second cousin Tjalda and her husband Albert lived in the southern part of the city. My grandfather was born in the Netherlands and was Tjalda's great uncle. My mother was always telling me I should go meet my Dutch relatives-years later I finally made the trip from San Francisco to Amsterdam.

As I got off the city shuttle train from Schiphol Airport, hauling a heavy bag and giant roller suitcase, filled with finery for the cruise I would take after this visit, Tjalda met me . . . astride her bicycle with no more than a wicker basket for storage.

We shared a warm greeting - honestly, I felt like I knew her already - and continued to Tjalda's house. As Tjalda wheeled her bike, I slowly walked the five blocks. One of the first things I noticed was that Amsterdam streets were filled with cyclists. They were everywhere and seemed to own the roads more so than the cars.

Tjalda's house was a narrow, three-story row house in the typical Dutch style I'd seen in photographs. Once inside, I noticed how modestly furnished it was. The Dutch have a reputation for frugality and my relatives seemed to live without unnecessary bells and whistles (which I love and admire).

My luggage, alas, was still my millstone. Dutch row houses have narrow, winding staircases. It wasn't worth dragging my heavy bags up to the third-floor guest room, so I plucked out what I'd need for the next three days and carried that up instead.

Tjalda and I chatted for a while about my grandfather who moved from the Netherlands to Colorado where my mother and, years later, I grew up. Tjalda's brother had visited us there a few times, staying at my grandfather's old miner's cabin we keep in Ouray, Colorado, so she was familiar with the many stories about him. A noted naturalist, landscape architect and author, my grandfather, M. Walter Pesman, has written a few books about native flora that are still in print.

While I spoke no Dutch and Tjalda halting English, we discovered we both love the outdoors and try to eat healthfully. Perhaps the roots of that love for what grows from the land and a desire to live simply lay with my Dutch grandfather.

That first day we walked to the market: a series of connected outdoor stalls, one selling fish, others with fruit and vegetables, flowers and cheese. I was amazed by the giant wheels of Gouda, some as big as truck tires, plunked on the counters for portioning.

Tjalda cooked the spoils of our market trip for dinner that night. The broiled fish and vegetables were the perfect healthful meal to restore my energy after my long trip. And I needed that strength for the next day. Tjalda tried to convince me to take a "little" 50-mile bike ride with her. While I love to hike and ride bikes, I didn't think I had 50 miles in me, so we settled on a route that would cover about 30.

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Even though I am a long-legged 5 feet 10 inches, Albert's bike was a little big for me so I felt a bit wobbly riding through the busy streets of Amsterdam. But the day was so beautiful, light and sunny, I soon learned to ride the streets like a native. To get out of town, we caught a free ferry at the Centraal Station and soon we were wheeling our way through the countryside.

We rode across the flat Dutch landscape alongside canals adorned with gliding swans, famous windmills, and miles of dormant flower and agricultural fields. As we approached the endlessly grey and choppy North Sea I felt exhilarated and recalled the country's great reputation for shipbuilding and pioneering engineering that reclaimed viable land from the marshy coastline.

On our way back to Amsterdam, Tjalda convinced me to try a local specialty - herring. It's a popular local delicacy to the point that it's sold from street-corner carts like hot dogs in the United States. She told me about a 100-year-old lady who ate a herring a day and attributed her longevity to that. I did have a few bites even though it was a bit out of my comfort zone and it was very salty.

The next day, Tjalda and Albert had to go to their jobs in The Hague, home to both the Dutch government and royal family, only 32 miles from Amsterdam. I left Albert's bike at home and decided to walk my way through the city. I love to wonder around cities alone and see as much as I can.

The classic Dutch row houses, some as narrow as 25 feet across, compensate with height and character. I was charmed by the variations of stepped-front gables and scrolled tops.

I took a canal boat ride and learned that these houses have hooks made for hoisting furniture up through the windows. Now I know how Tjalda and Albert furnished their upstairs rooms!

Having read "The Diary of Anne Frank" as a child, one of my first priorities was to visit the Anne Frank House. I found the lines outside quite long, so for future visitors I recommend buying tickets online to skip the wait. The cramped, claustrophobic rooms made me shiver to think of how frightening life here was for this young girl. Anne Frank wrote so beautifully about the majestic chestnut tree that stood outside the house. Life upon its top branches - be it dew, blossoms or emerging leaves - became her link to the outside as she hid in the cramped attic. I looked out the same window at the same tree. And I was lucky to see it, as the old tree, rotten with fungus, fell in 2010.

I continued my walk, crossing the Keizersgracht, the Herengracht, the Singel -just a few of Amsterdam's famed canals. At that point, I stopped to ask a woman for directions and I realized that she looked a lot like me - fair hair, blue eyes, longish nose and almost six feet tall. As a matter of fact, I realized a lot of people in the Netherlands looked like me, which had never happened on my travels before.

When I returned back to Tjalda's, we went to the market and bought preparations for our last dinner together. I had come to see that my mother's suggestion to visit my Dutch relatives was an excellent one. I not only connected with Tjalda and Albert but discovered a commonality, a deep-rooted sense of familiarity and sameness with the Dutch. It took me a long time to discover my heritage, but I found it in the Netherlands.

The next morning, Tjalda escorted me to the train station. This time, I was relieved to note, we loaded my luggage into the family's car and drove the five blocks.

Written By Megan O'Toole August 2, 2011

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Posted by Denise at 12:49 PM | Comments (0)