U.S. Virgin Islands – Blackbeard’s Playground

Pirates have been around for as long as Mankind has plied the seas for trade and commerce over several Millennia ago.  Images of skulls and crossbones, eye patches, parrots, black hats, hooked hands and wooden legs will conjure up in one’s mind when thinking about these sea-faring robbers.  For the Western World, no pirate has been more infamous and vilified as Edward Teach (aka Blackbeard).

Looking Out at the Harbour

Looking Out at the Harbour

Blackbeard was around during the Golden Age of Piracy in the Caribbean (1650s – 1730s) when pirates took control of specific trade routes in the West Indies where European navies were very weak or non-existent and the United States of America was still a mere British colony.

Looking Out at Charlotte Amalie

Looking Out at Charlotte Amalie

When I found out that my cruise ship was offering a day trip around St.Thomas, which included the famous Blackbeard’s Castle Walking Tour, I knew immediately that was exactly what I wanted to do during our short stay on the island.

Blackbeard

Blackbeard

Blackbeard’s Castle

After several hours of touring St. Thomas, we finally made our way to Blackbeard’s Castle.  Despite its name, Blackbeard’s Castle is actually a lookout tower called Skytsborg Tower.  Now considered a National Landmark, Skytsborg Tower (literally translated as Sky Tower) was used as a lookout tower to protect Fort Christian from invaders coming from the North side of the island, as well as to keep an eye on ships coming in from the horizon on the South side.  You can find Blackbeard’s Castle at 38 Dronningens Gade in Kongens Quarter.

Blackbeard's Castle

Blackbeard’s Castle

Villa Notman

One of several historic buildings in Kongens Quarter, Villa Notman is the next stop on the Blackbeard’s Castle Walking Tour.  Built in 1860 by Robert Notman, a Scottish Engineer who came to St.Thomas to help build the West Indian Company Dock, this stone and yellow brick villa gives a glimpse of what island life was like on St.Thomas in the late 1800s/early 1900s.

Villa Notman Chambers

Villa Notman Chambers

This villa has exchanged ownership several times over the past 150 years, and is one of the few houses on St.Thomas to be built out of Augite Andesite (Blue Bit), which is a native stone to island.  Villa Notman can be found at 36A & B Dronningens Gade in Kongens Quarter.

Britannia House

Following Villa Notman, we headed over to Britannia House.  Built in 1847, Britannia House gets its name from Robert Boyd Lamb, her Britannic Majesty’s consul on the island of St.Thomas.  It is one of the few remaining wooden residences from this era.  Britannia House can be found at 43 Dronningens Gade in Kongens Quarter.

Britannia House Kitchen

Britannia House Kitchen

Haagensen House

Next we visited Haagensen House, which is located at the top of 99 Steps on the west side.  Built in 1822, this house survived several fires over the years before Danish banker, Hans Haagensen, arrived in St.Thomas in 1837 to run the Bank of St.Thomas.  Much like Villa Notman, Haagensen House offers a glimpse of what life was like for the upper class merchants in the 1800s.  You can find Haagensen House at 30 Kongens Gade in Kongens Quarter.

Haagensen House

Haagensen House

99 Steps

This peculiar attraction is situated on Government Hill, and is the primary route between Haagensen House and Hotel 1829.  Charlotte Amaelie has several step streets – or frigangs as Danes call them – which were built around the mid-1700s.  99 Steps just happens to be the most popular of the frigangs, and the bricks used to build them actually came from Denmark.  And for the record, the 99 steps are actually 103 steps.  But, who’s counting? ;)

99 Steps

99 Steps

Hotel 1829

As our walking tour continued, we reached Hotel 1829 at the bottom of 99 Steps.  This building bridges historic Kongens Quarter (King’s Quarter) with the business district of Charlotte Amalie.  Originally built for a French seas captain, Hotel 1829 was at one point one of the largest residences in the King’s Quarter until Dr. Charles Taylor opened it as a hotel in 1900.  Hotel 1829 can be found at 30 Kongens Gade in Kongens Quarter.

Hotel 1829

Hotel 1829

Following our visit at Hotel 1829, our half-day tour of St.Thomas, and more specifically, the Blackbeard’s Castle Walking Tour concluded.  At this point, we were free to roam around Charlotte Amalie for a couple more hours before having to board our cruise ship.  That in itself was an adventure all on its own, but I will save that story for another day.

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U.S. Virgin Islands – Beaches, Beauty & Banana Daiquiris

The U.S. Virgin Islands was our second stop of the cruise following Puerto Rico.  Specifically, we docked at Charlotte Amalie, the main city of St.Thomas.  The thought of visiting the U.S. Virgin Islands never really appealed to me in the past largely in part because it is an expensive area of the Caribbean to visit and because I sensed that there was a sense of fakeness to the area with its high-end resorts and expensive jewelry stores.

Arriving in St. Thomas, USVI

Arriving in St. Thomas, USVI

With only 8 hours to spare on this island, I knew I wanted to maximize my time here at St. Thomas knowing I most likely will never return here again.  In the end, I selected a half day tour exploring the “Best of St. Thomas” while the rest of my group headed over to Magen’s Bay for some rest and relaxation.

Charlotte Amalie, USVI

Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

Due to the length of the tour and the numerous sites it covered, I have decided to break this article into two parts.  Part 1 will focus on Magen’s Bay and the scenic lookouts we stopped along the way.  Part 2 will focus on Blackbeard’s Castle, which was my main reason for signing up on this tour.

Without further ado, here are the basic highlights of the first half of the tour:

Beacon Point

Our first stop of the tour was at Beacon Point.  Beacon Point gives you a beautiful panoramic view of the Southern part of the island, particularly Charlotte Amelie.  From here, you get a great vantage point spotting cruise ships docking in at port and the hundreds of houses that dot the lush, green mountain hillside.

Beacon Point Overlook

Beacon Point Overlook

This spot is great for some photo taking, but aside from that, there is not much else to do here aside from checking out the retail shop or bargaining with the vendors that are hawking their cheap souvenirs.  Personally, I would not suggest staying here for more than 10 – 15 minutes.

Mountain Top

The next scenic overlook we stopped at was Mountain Top, St. Thomas’ most visited attraction.  Unlike Beacon Point, there is a bit more that can be seen and done here at Mountain Top.  Located over 1200 feet on the north end of the island with a great panoramic view of Magen’s Bay, Mountain Top is also where the Banana daiquiri was invented back in 1953.  If panoramic views and alcoholic drinks don’t tickle your fancy, then there is also plenty of opportunity to duty-free shop at the Mountain Top Mall.

Magen’s Bay

Depending on who you talk to, Magen’s Bay is considered to one of the Top 10 beaches in the World.  Is it a beautiful beach?  Absolutely.  But a Top 10 International beach?  Questionable.

Magen's Bay

Magen’s Bay

Fred the Groom, whose destination Wedding cruise I went on, told me a lot about Magen’s Bay prior to the trip.  A cruise aficionado, Fred had been to Magen’s Bay before on a previous trip and raved how beautiful of a beach it is.  While the majority of the wedding party spent the day at Magen’s Bay, I had about two hours to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of this famous beach.

Beautiful Magen's Bay

Beautiful Magen’s Bay

Stretching out for about ¾ of a mile, it was really easy to find the rest of my friends on the beach where I just sat back and relaxed with them for a while.  I also did some walking along the beach and waded in the water in my shorts (!) during my brief stop over here.  Overall, two hours were enough for me at this beach.  But Fred, if you ever read this, you are spot on how beautiful it is!  Unfortunately, the legend of Blackbeard was too alluring for me to ignore.

Categories: U.S. Virgin Islands | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Day of Thunder – My Visit to Daytona International Speedway

Following a Sales retreat I had in Orlando back in April 2008, I decided to explore a bit of downtown Orlando and re-visit Daytona Beach – a place I had only previously visited once before on a family vacation back when I was 14 years old.  Along the way, I decided to pop in for a tour of the Daytona International Speedway – famous for being the site of the annual Daytona 500 NASCAR race.

Daytona International Speedway

Daytona International Speedway

The Daytona International Speedway is located at:

1801 W International Speedway Blvd

Daytona Beach, FL 32114

United States

Coming from downtown Orlando, I drove for nearly one hour Northeast along Interstate 4.  Once you see signs for Interstate 95, head north for about 5 minutes before getting of Exit 261 – West International Speedway Boulevard.  The Speedway is about 5 – 10 minutes Northeast of this exit.

Daytona International Speedway Map

Daytona International Speedway Map

Tours for the Daytona International Speedway happen every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday between 1 – 4pm EST (except for when racing events occur).  My tour was done on a Saturday.

Tours range anywhere from $16 – $50 US and last from 30 minutes to 3 hours:

  • Speedway Tour – 30 minutes ($16 US)
  • All Access Tour – 90 minutes ($23 US)
  • VIP Tour – 180 minutes ($50 US)

I opted for the All Access Tour myself as I felt that 90 minutes was plenty of time for me to learn more about this world-class race track while still having some time to check out Daytona Beach in the late afternoon.

Interior of Daytona International Speedway

Interior of Daytona International Speedway

The tours all start off by taking to you the track via tram.  As you drive along the interior of the track, the tour guide gives you tidbits of information about the race track specifics, as well as some important stories about the Daytona 500.  Highlights of the interior track include the Start/Finish line, the garages, and Victory Lane.  Mind you, if you are like me, then your mind will wander and be more focused on the massiveness of this stadium!

I've Got the Need.  The Need for Speed!

I’ve Got the Need. The Need for Speed!

The #1 highlight of the tour in my opinion is the opportunity to watch cars zoom by you during practice laps.  In fact, it is possible to either be a passenger in one of these cars or actually drive one yourself with a professional driver by your side.   While I was extremely tempted to go, the price of admission was dear (around $250 US) and would have killed my budget for the weekend.  So, I had to settle for watching them zoom past me instead from the stands.  Truth be told, it wasn’t so bad given there weren’t many of us here on this day (we were a group of about 10 – 12), so I felt like I had a rather intimate experience at the track.

Victory Lane

Victory Lane

Of course, from here we went to Victory Lane for the token photo-op.  As the name suggests, this is where the winner of the Daytona 500 is crowned with their reward.  Once you are done here, you spend the rest of the time touring the inside of the Daytona International Speedway.

Race Car Exhibit

Race Car Exhibit

Inside the Speedway, visitors can to learn the history of both the racetrack and the Daytona 500.  Exhibits include the history of the Daytona 500, models of past race cars used, and the Daytona 500 Wall of Winners.

Wall of Winners

Wall of Winners

Down the road, I may attend the Daytona 500.  But for now, my day at the track was a nice glimpse into the NASCAR lifestyle.  Definitely a worthwhile visit while you are in Daytona Beach.  For more information or to book tours, you can visit the Daytona International Speedway official website.

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Sacré Cœur – Paris’ Sacred Heart

The Sacré Coeur – or Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris – is one of a handful of attractions that you should visit in Paris.  While I have both driven past and walked past it on my high school trips, it wasn’t until my fourth trip to Paris when I finally took the time to walk inside this beautiful Basilica.

Sacre Coeur (March 1998)

Sacre Coeur (March 1998)

Sacre Coeur (January 2011)

Sacre Coeur (January 2011)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where is the Sacré Coeur located?

The Sacré Coeur is in the Montmartre District of Paris at 35 Rue du Chevalier de la Barre.  Like I said above, depending on where you stay in Paris, the Sacré Coeur is accessible by foot, metro or car/bus.

Sacre Coeur Map

Sacre Coeur Map

Sacre Coeur - the Heart of Paris

Sacre Coeur – the Heart of Paris

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How do you get to Sacré Coeur?

If you are coming by metro or subway, then here are your four stop options:

  • Jules Joffrin (M12) + Montmartrobus (Place du Tertre stop)
  • Pigalle (M12, M2) + Montmartrobus (Norvins stop)
  • Anvers (M2) + Cable car (metro ticket) or steps
  • Abbesses (M12) + Cable car (metro ticket) or steps

If you come by bus, then here are your options:

  • 30 – 31 – 80 – 85 (Anvers Sacré-Coeur bus stop at foot of Montmartre)
  • Le Petit Train de Montmartre tourist train

What is the Sacré Coeur?

The Sacré  Coeur is a Roman Catholic Church completed in 1914 as a way for the French to seek penance for their defeat in the 1871 Franco-Prussian War.  Today it is one of the most visited churches in Europe, as well as one of the busiest for services.

Sacre Coeur

Sacre Coeur

Who created the Sacré Coeur?

The Sacré Coeur was a nearly 40 year project from conception to completion that was designed by Paul Abadie.  Following Abadie’s death in 1884, another five architects were employed to see the project through completion.

When is the Sacré Coeur open

Public prayer and sightseeing is allowed within the Sacré Coeur seven days per week between 6am and 10:30pm.  After 11pm, only people who have registered for Night Adoration are allowed within the basilica.  Night Adoration is an once-in-a-lifetime experience where you can spend the night within the Guest House and are given a one hour slot time to pray within the Basilica between 11pm – 7am.

What can you see at the Sacré Coeur?

As soon as you walk in the Sacré Coeur, your eyes gaze straight to the front pulpit where the Apse Mosaic is located.  The Apse Mosaic was inaugurated in 1923 by Olivier Merson, H.M. Magne, and R. Martin and depicts a risen Christ, clothed in white and with arms extended, revealing a golden heart.  At 475 square metres, it is one of the largest mosaics in the world.

Apse Mosaic

Apse Mosaic

Equally as impressive is the Grand Organ.  Built in 1898, the organ was acquired by the Basilica in 1919.  Containing four keyboards, a pedal board, and 78 stops, the Grand Organ is the most widely heard pipe organ in the world after that of Notre Dame.

On the outside of Sacré Coeur at the bottom of the staircase on the left is the entrance to the Crypt.  Crypts are quite prevalent throughout Paris given its long history, significant populations, and lack of burial space over the centuries.  The Crypts of the Sacré Coeur contain the tombs of Cardinals Guibert and Richard, a monument in remembrance of the priests and seminarians killed during the two world wars, a bronze statue of Christ, and the foundation stone of the Basilica.

View from the Dome

View from the Dome

Also found on the left of the Basilica on the outside is the entrance to the Dome.  Access to the Dome costs approximately 5 Euros, and gives you a great cardio workout as there are 300 steps to climb to the top.  I nearly missed out on the Dome because my friend, Prat, was too lazy to climb the steps.  Both his Sinthyia (his wife) and I had to convince him that the climb to the top would be worth it, and it certainly was!

For those brave enough to climb to the top, the Dome rewards you with a 360 degree view of Paris as it is the highest viewing point in the Montmartre District.  We spent close to a half hour taking panoramic photos and admiring the view from the top at dusk.  If you can, then try to get here for sunrise or sunset as it not only less busy with tourists, but it also gives you prime photographic opportunities of Paris’ skyline!

Secondary View from the Dome

Secondary View from the Dome

Speaking about photography, you are forbidden to film or photograph inside the Basilica.  This is to pay respect those worshipping and praying inside.  I had a small point-and-shoot camera with me with my flash turned off, but others around me were not as lucky as the inside is heavily guarded by security and asked people to put their cameras away.  And while filming is forbidden inside the Sacré Coeur, film permits are granted to the outside entrance.

Upon arrival, Prat, Sinthiya and I saw a film crew either producing a Christmas commercial or movie.  We are not sure exactly what it was, but there was a man dressed up as Santa Claus.  I should also point out that we were here in late January 2011, so I am guessing this film shoot was most likely for a movie slated for the following holiday season.

Film Set at Sacre Coeur

Film Set at Sacre Coeur

For more information about the Sacré Coeur, please take a look at their official website.

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Convento de San Francisco

From the outside, the Convento de San Francisco – or the Monastery of San Francisco – is just like any other cathedral in Peru.  But from the inside, it’s a whole new story and one of the first places I visited in Lima during a free walking tour.

Monastery of San Francisco Directions

Monastery of San Francisco Directions

Completed in 1774, the Monastery is located just outside of the Plaza de Armas (Main Square) of downtown Lima at Jirón Lampa y Ancash.  Specifically, it is south of Parque la Muralla and one block northeast from the Main Square.

Convento de San Francisco

Convento de San Francisco

The Monastery is opened seven days a week from 9:30am to 5:30pm.  Conducted in both English and Spanish, 30 minute tours cost approximately 7 Peruvian Nuevo Soles or $3 CDN.  Photography within Peruvian cathedrals is forbidden by law, but you might be able to sneak in a couple of photos like me if you are both quick and discreet.

The Main Pulpit Inside Monastery of San Francisco

The Main Pulpit Inside Monastery of San Francisco

During your tour, you will get to see 12 main sections of the Monastery of San Francisco:

  • The Porch
  • The Visitor Room
  • The Dome
  • The Library
  • The Choir
  • The Main Cloister
  • The Stand Room
  • The Museum of Viceregal Art
  • The Clementine Hall
  • The Refectory Room
  • The Sacristy
  • The Catacombs

Of particular interest to me on this tour were the Catacombs.  Discovered in 1943, the catacombs served as a burial-place until 1808 when a new cemetery was opened just outside of Lima.

The Convento de San Francisco Catacombs

The Convento de San Francisco Catacombs

Aside from the Catacombs, the artwork and library within the Monastery is quite impressive and the tour gives you some good insight about how much influence the Conquistadors had over Peru and the rest of South America during this period.

For more info on the Convento de San Francisco, you can visit their official website here.

Categories: Peru | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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