Monday, June 30, 2008

Monarch cruise - Mykonos

The taxi was waiting for us after our breakfast to take us to the port at Piraeus. There was already a queue at the cruise terminal. The cruise that was booked for us was on the Ocean Countess run by Monarch Cruise. We check-in the big luggage, air-plane style, but minus the weigh-in and we would find the luggage outside our cabin later. (We left the even bigger luggage back at the hotel since this is only a 3-night cruise.)

The Ocean Countess is a medium size cruise ship and has all the usual facilities but the deck numbering can be a bit confusing in the beginning but after a while, you'll be able to find your way around. We set sail at 11am but before that we had the mandatory safety explanation and hands on putting on the life jacket. There was also a presentation on the charging system, optional tours on the destination islands, etc.

While on deck, I met a Chilean gentleman who was doing some arithmetic; he was counting the number of seats in each lifeboat (Titanic must be in his mind) and was satisfied that there were enough room for the total number of 800 passengers. Then it occurred to me that today is Friday the 13 and I remembered a similar cruise ship (thankfully not run by Monarch Cruise) sank last year off the coast of Santorini. And I will be away on holidays for a total of 13 days............. Better not think about it any more, time for lunch!

The first stop on this cruise is at the island of Mykonos. This small island is very dazzling with the white-washed houses with doors and windows of striking colours (mainly blue).

There are many eateries or taverna in the main town of narrow lanes.

Here are a few shots of the famous Mykonos sights, in this order

1. Mykonos windmill
2. Little Venice
3. Petros the Pelican, the island mascot
4. Paraportiani Church

I had a gala time walking around town taking all the photos and my wife had her own gala time shopping with her lady friend. There are plenty of jewellery shops but prices are stiff. And finally before we left Mykonos for the cruise ship and our dinner, we watched the sunset by the sea.

It was a beautiful ending to a beautiful day.

Ronald Kwok

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Athens City tour, Greece

I thought we'll have a leisurely breakfast in the hotel this morning after a restful sleep but no, the tour operator came to collect us for the morning Athens tour at 7.30am, right in the midst of our breakfast. You see, for the previous night's tour, they came late so I thought it will be like back home where we have "rubber" time, i.e. always late. But this time they were early since our hotel is the first pick-up point. After picking up other tourists from some other hotels, we started the proper tour of Athens around town.

The fist stop was the original Olympic stadium that hosted the first modern Olympic in 1896. This is supposedly the only stadium in the world completely built with marble.

Next was the Temple of Zeus, the most colossal temple of ancient Greece.

The next and final stop is the must-see of Athens, the Acropolis. Atop this hill are the various remains of many majestic buildings. There were already many groups of other tourist there and our guide had to fight for her 'air-space' when she gave us her commentary of the whole area. Because part of the path were marble slabs, well polished by the throngs of tourist, there were many who slipped and fell so good gripping shoes are recommended.

Alas for us (especially those photographers, many of the buildings, including the Parthenon, were under renovation and were surrounded by scaffolding and cranes that restricted the photo opportunities.)

From atop the Acropolis, you have a good view of Athens and right across you can see the Filopappos Hill and just make out the Filopappos Monument. That's where the 18x zoom of my Lumix FZ18 come in handy. Just look at the full zoom shot to appreciate its usefulness.

Lunch was on our own, I had a kebab in pita bread at a 'grill house' near the hotel that cost only 1.8 euro. After a short rest in the hotel, we were off to an afternoon trip to Cape Sounion, the southernmost point of the Attica district where Athens is in. This was a scenic drive alone the coastal road passing many small beaches and had a view of the Saronic Gulf and islands that dotted it. The tour guide informed that on one of the hills along the way is one of the bungalows given by tycoon Onasis to Jacqueline as a present. On top of the cliff at Cape Sounion is the remains of the Temple of Poseidon.

After taking in the view from the cliff, we all relaxed in the cafe sipping ice lemonade before making our way back to the hotel. It has been a long hot day in Athens.

For dinner, my wife and I headed for Athinaikon, a mezedopoleia that is supposed to be popular with the locals. (This is also near the hotel.) But since we were rather early for dinner (by Greek standard), there was no crowd. I had fried codfish with garlic potato and my wife had octopus in wine. Together with some steam vegetables and soft drinks, the bill came to about 25 euro. I found the codfish too salty on its own and the veg too soft (better to stick to salad) but OK otherwise. So it was early to bed since we'll be going on the 3-day cruise the next morning.

Ronald Kwok

Friday, June 27, 2008

Plaka, Athens, Greece

At last, I can sit down and write on my travel in Greece. After being away for 13 days, it took some time to get back into groove. Not so much the jet-lag but other matters like tons of e-mail to plough through and piles of old newspapers to catch up on what has happened back home while I was away.

I took this trip with my wife and two other lady friends. This was not the usual package tour so there was no local guide to accompany us for the trip. The flight to Greece was by Gulf Air from KLIA to Athens via Bahrain. The flight from KLIA to Bahrain took 7 1/2 hours. Since the connecting flight to Athens was in the next morning, Gulf Air provided the hotel for an overnight stay in Bahrain with dinner and breakfast thrown in. Had a walk around near the hotel (Bahrain International) in the old town center and found nothing special. It was more like Little India with lots of gold and jewellery and clothing shops run by Indians. The hotel room was spacious but very noisy at night with many well-endowed ladies moving around and the staff was unfriendly so this hotel is not recommended (unless you are fascinated by well-endowed ladies!)
The flight to Athens the next morning took 4 hours and we finally arrived at Athens at 2pm. You need one Euro to release a trolley so if you need one, get your Euro coin ready. We were greeted at the arrival hall by 2 taxi drivers (2 persons to a taxi) holding our names in the placard so we were like VIP's for our transfer to the hotel. After being so used to the greenery back home, I was surprised at the barren hills surrounding Athens. There were also no high-rise buildings and I later learned that this is because they did not want the Acropolis to be obstructed by any man made structures.

(If you plan to dine or shop at the Athens Hard Rock Cafe, remember to pick up the free Athens Map at the airport; the Hard Rock Cafe ad entitles you to 10% discount at their Athens store.)

We were booked into Baby Grand Hotel, a 5-star boutique hotel. The decor and the reception is very unique, see photos below.

The hotel is located near Omonia Square, the old commercial centre. After a short rest, we walked down to Plaka, the tourist centre of the town. There we had the first glimpse of the Acropolis (from a distance) while the ladies did a lot of window shopping among the many tourist shops there. On the way to Plaka, we passed the Central Market and we stopped to buy some fruits at the stores outside. There were quite a variety and some were much cheaper than back home. I bought 1 kilo of strawberries for 1 euro and 1 kilo of cheeries for 1.6 euro and we ate to our full. A bit of advice, don't buy your strawberry and take it for your walking tour, it'll get squashed by its own weight with all the swinging during the walking.

Since the evening was free, we decided to go on a local tour - Athens by night - so we had a quick snack (club sandwich at 2.4 euro, a bargain at Everest, a fast-food chain) since the tour includes a Greek dinner at a tavern in Plaka. The coach took us from Athens to Piraeus, the harbour and surroundings and had a photo stop at Mikrolimano, a picturesque bay. The main part of the tour was actually the Greek dinner at Plaka with Greek music and dances.

There was a lot of fun when some of the audience were roped in towards the end to join in the dancing. At the end of the show, the coach dropped us at the hotel and I had a much needed sleep at midnight.

Ronald Kwok

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Back from Greece

Hi folks, I'm back from my memorable holiday in Greece and it is home sweet home. Still a bit tired from the jet lag and with hundreds of e-mails to go through, stack of old newspapers to read and a thousand photos to sort out, I'll write about my travels in my next posting when I've fully recovered. Anyway, I've survived the heat wave of 40 degrees C and had a close encounter with a lady pickpocket in Athens so wait for my tale. See you later.

Ronald Kwok

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Testing Panasonic Lumix FZ18

After getting my new Panasonic Lumix FZ18, I've been busy testing it out. This is not only to familiarise myself with the operation but also to charge and discharge the lithium-ion battery a number of times.

As you may or may not be aware, this type of rechargeable battery will not be at its full capacity until it has gone through a few charging cycles. This battery is advertised to be able to take about 400 shots which is a pretty good figure compared to other similar class of cameras. After the first charging, I managed less than 200. However, after every subsequent charge, the number increased and the last time I got about 400 photos, as claimed. but of course, this was for photos taken in rather quick succession so in actual usage, this will be less when it is used not as frequently. In any case, this is a very good capacity. With this, I reckon I can survive without having to buy a spare battery for my trip as I will be charging it at the end of every day. Further more, I'll be taking along a spare camera (the modest Ricoh R3) as an standby in case the Lumix misbehave. I remember in my last trip to Spain, the camera of one of my fellow traveller died on him and I had to loan him my spare camera at that time. So cameras can just give up when you least wanted it and this sort of thing do happen.

So how do my FZ18 perform? It is not the perfect camera (is there such a thing?) but it did pretty well and better than my expectations. Here are some examples to show what it can do.

Actually before buying this super zoom camera, I've looked at several contenders. At this range of 18X zoom, the other models available currently are Fuji FinePix S8100fd, Olympus SP560 and the latest Nikon Coolpix P80. There's also Olympus SP570 at 20X zoom which is an upgrade of the SP560. Out of this bunch, there is no clear winner as each has its pros and cons but in most of the reviews, the Lumix FZ18 seems to get more points. You can read some of the users comments at Amazon and maybe pick one up there as well.

To me, the Lumix FZ18 has more user-friendly features than the rest and so gives you more bangs for your bucks. One unique feature is the present of a joystick with which you can make changes and adjustment easily without going through the menu. The other is the iA mode or intelligent Auto mode which is really pretty intelligent when compared to the normal Auto mode found in other cameras. You have to try it before you can believe that it is uncannily intelligent. The only minus point about this is that sometimes it opt for high ISO (up to 800 for low light or fast moving subjects) which has too much noise. But it's a choice of getting a noisy photo or none at all! The menu is simple and pretty intuitive and very easy to navigate.

Since I enjoy taking macro photos, I really like the telemacro which can be as close as 1 metre at full 18X zoom which gives you fantastic DOF. At wide angle you can go down to 1cm but because of the size of the lens, it is not too practical and insects and other small creatures will be frightened away well before you reach that close. For that, I'll use my Ricoh R3 which is much smaller and less intrusive; the zoom macro is also great, down to 14cm at 7.1X zoom; well that's the subject of another post.

So I'm all ready to go on my trip to Greece and since it is bright and sunny there, camera noise should not a problem for my FZ18. So no more posts until I'm back from this holiday.

Ronald Kwok

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Tips, traps and treats on coming trip to Greece

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Hi folks, since I'll be going on a trip to Greece on the 10 June, I think this is a good time to start a new blog on my travels. As the title suggests, I'll be blogging about this present travel as well as where I've travelled in the past. As I can't afford to visit new places all the time, my past travels will help me in filling my future posts for a while until a new trip is made. This will also exercise my brain since I have to dig deep back into the past from my varsity days when I first started travelling abroad. So there'll be travel stories in the 70's, the 80's, the 90's and the present; not necessarily in that order.

The trip to Greece that I'll be going is under Sedunia Travel Services in their Greek Romance package. Since this is a Greek Romance holiday, I'll be travelling with my wife for our "nth" honeymoon. The previous honeymoons will appear in future posts, all fit for general family reading at all ages. This Greek trip is a semi "free and easy" tour and not the usual full group tour with a guide all the way. I'll be joining some pre-arranged local tours in Greece that is run by Ganymedes Tour or George Soultis Tour. Also included is a 3-day cruise to some fabulous Greek island by Monarch Classic Cruises that includes Mykonos, Patmos, Crete (Heraklion) and of course, Santorini. The package includes sightseeing in Athens and trips to Delphi and Meteora. I will cover the mandatory Saroni Isles (Aegina, Poros and Hydra), Corinth and hopefully Olympia on my own. My main stay in Greece will be in Athens.

Since I have about a week before I leave, I would like to get some feedback from readers who have visited Greece (especially Athens) or better still from the local Greek readers (if this post is not all Greek to them), in the following areas.

Tips - how best to enjoy Greece - the food, the places and bargains to buy.

Traps - what to avoid in Greece.

Treats - if you need any souvenirs, I'll capture it for you in my brand new 18 times zoom Panasonic Lumix FZ18 digital camera. Just tell me what and where, I'll shoot on sight.

Meanwhile, I'll be reading up on Greece and Athens so that I'll understand the Greek history and culture better, and this will definitely enhance my enjoyment while in Greece. So wish me kato taxithi!

Ronald Kwok