Take a Cruise on an Alaska Marine Highway Ferry

The Alaska Marine Highway offers an informal, "do your own thing" type of vacation. Take your vehicle with you and cruise the inside passage to Alaska. The AMHS ferry system is operated by the Alaska Department of Highways. Ferries leave Bellingham, Washington, and stop at ports along the way. We traveled on the ferry in 2007 from Bellingham to Haines, Alaska.

Log onto their websites: www.akferry.org or www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs for information on ferry schedules, reservations and payment. The website has been updated and is user friendly. Reservations should be made as soon as possible in January.

Vehicles: Vehicles are charged by length. Check the website for charges for motorcycles, bicycles, or kayaks. Travelers need to arrive three hours ahead of the scheduled departure.

Cabins or "staterooms" are 2 or 4 berths, inside or outside, with or without bath facilities. They're comfortable, even though small. Don't expect a luxury liner, but the bunks are comfortable. You won't spend much time there anyway; it's nicer on the lounge decks with a 180 degree view of the coastline. There is no daily room service, but the beds were made up when we started and fresh linens are available on request. Towels and soap are provided. We didn't know what to expect, but had everything we needed.

Some travelers brought tents, pitched them on the deck and taped them down with duct tape. Tenters can weather it out inside if it rains. Travelers can also sleep on lounge chairs or on the deck with sleeping bags. Cabins are optional. There are public showers and also coin-operated lockers if you don't have a room.

There were only two times when the ferry was in open water, with no coast on the west (port) side. There was some pitching then. If you are susceptible to sea sickness bring Dramamine or just lay down for a couple hours.

Pets: Pets can stay in your vehicle or in an animal carrier, but must remain on the car deck. At least three times a day passengers can visit and exercise their pets. Pet owners are responsible for cleaning up after their pet and supplies are available for that. There is a small charge per animal, but no charge for service animals.

Meals: On the Malaspina hot meals, snacks, and beverages were served cafeteria style. Some vessels have full-service dining rooms. There are vending machines for food and beverages. The cafeteria food was tasty and cooked to order. Salmon, fish and chips, salads, hamburgers, and soups were all good and attractively served. Make arrangements ahead of time for special dietary needs. A microwave is available in the dining room if you want to bring your own food. The types of food to bring are limited because there is no available refrigeration for passengers. The staff in the dining area was very helpful to passengers with walkers or other needs. I was impressed with their courteous manner. A prominent sign declared "No tipping allowed."

Alcohol is served on some ferries, but can only be consumed in the dining area or in private rooms. Announcements were made that any liquor found outside the accepted areas would be put off at the next port . . . along with the passenger. The ferry personnel were serious about this and our vessel turned around in a narrow channel with great difficulty to put off a passenger who was drunk and rude.

Smoking is allowed on the outside deck. The outside deck was also popular for walking. Watch for orca whales. If the captain spotted an orca, he would announce over the loudspeaker: "There's an orca breaching on the port side." Also look for porpoises and seals.

Entertainment: The ferry system doesn't provide very much entertainment, but a Forest Service ranger traveled with us to answer questions and hand out information about local animals and plants. A large map showed our progress through the inside passage. Ranger Brett gave talks throughout the day about the areas we were passing through, especially the Tongass National Forest. A small movie room (maybe 30 people capacity) showed documentary movies about Alaska and two movies: Wild Hogs and Little Miss Sunshine. Take things to do such as books, magazines, and crafts. The Malaspina had a small toddler play area, a video game arcade, computer room, gift shop and movies for children. Wireless is available.

The AMHS is dedicated to providing services to persons with disabilities. There were some wheelchair accessible rooms, an elevator, and helpful ferry personnel. In Sitka the ferry had a van with a wheelchair lift to help passengers out for an optional bus tour.

We had a longer stop in Ketchikan. Take the bus out to Totem Bight and then back to town. The buses run often and we had plenty of time to get back to the ferry. There are taxis, but the bus is cheaper and easy to use.

Passports: The AMHS only travels between US ports, so proof of birth place is all that is needed. You will need a passport if you are leaving the ferry and planning to travel through Canada. Refer to the AMHS website for the latest information. It is updated regularly on passport information, schedules and details of what is available on each ferry.

2005 Chrysler PT Cruiser – 5 Years Later

Five years ago, I decided the car we had was too small for our growing family (we had just had our daughter and were trying to get her in and out of a two door coupe) so I ended up trading it in and leasing a 2005 Chrysler PT Cruiser. At the time, I loved the car. But, I have to admit, that love quickly began to fade.

In fact, when my lease ran out two years ago, I seriously thought about replacing the car. However, after some debate, I ended up buying it. After all, how many cars can you find for under $7,000 (my buy out) that have less than 20,000 miles on them?

Well, I now have had the car for five years and I still have three more years of payments on it. And, I can honestly say my opinion of the car has changed from love to a completely different emotion.

There are still some things I like about the car. For one, it is very roomy compared to the car we used to have. And, I love the fact that I can drop down the seats to make even more room if needed. That space did come in handy when we traveled out east a couple years ago.

I also still like the fact the car sits off the ground a bit more than a traditional car. This gives me a bit more visibility; especially when I'm at an intersection and some car pulls in the lane next to me.

However, I have to say that is just about where my love of this car ends at this point. After having it a few years, I'm discovering way too many things I don't like about it now.

The obvious one is the gas mileage. If I'm lucky, I get 20-21 MPG in the city. And, that's only if I go out of my way to make sure the tires are properly inflated, the car is up to date on maintenance, etc. When I bought the car, the gas mileage honestly wasn't a huge concern to me. I was living in an apartment that was less than a mile from work and only a few blocks from where my wife worked (she usually just walked if the weather was warm enough). And we had a grocery store and small department store within walking distance.

However, I eventually bought a house and moved into it. That property is across town from work and none of the stores, with the exception of Walgreens, are within reasonable walking distance so I am driving the car more than I was. And, as a result, the gas mileage is more of a factor; especially when I have to fill my tank on almost a weekly basis.

Apparently, the government also noticed the difference because my PT Cruiser is now officially considered a truck (or, more likely, an SUV), which means I pay a higher fee to register it each year.

Another thing we discovered about the PT Cruiser, which we were reminded of recently when we had our second child, is it isn't really designed for a rear-facing car seat. This is actually a problem with many Chrysler products (my parents have a Dodge Caravan and my wife has a Sebring). The seats are slanted a bit which makes it difficult to get the seat lined up properly. And, in the case of the PT Cruiser, my wife has to have the passenger seat up almost all the way to fit the rear-facing seat. Fortunately, our youngest daughter will likely be able to face forward in a few months.

This isn't as much of a problem now as it was a couple years ago when it started. But, the 2005 PT Cruiser still seems to have an issue where it will start to stall out in damp weather. I've had a few occasions where I'll be driving and the engine will stop running while I'm waiting at a traffic light. I've taken the car to the dealer in an effort to fix that problem but, unfortunately, it is unpredictable and they have never been able to recreate it while it is there. I've done some research online and have read several descriptions of the same problem.

I will say this; however, it is proving to be a reliable cold weather car. When I first bought it, I didn't think that would be the case. But, despite some bitterly cold temperatures over the past few years, I have yet to have an issue where the car would not start. There have been some mornings where it was a bit more difficult but the engine has always fired.

However, I also should mention it takes forever for the heater to warm up in it. If I don't have time to warm the car up for several minutes prior to leaving for work, I can pretty much expect not to have heat in the car until I get there.

As I said before, I still have three more years of payments remaining on the car and I'm pretty much stuck with it until it is paid off. Once it is, I will likely look to replace it. My kids should be old enough where I won't need as much space and I can look for a more traditional car with better gas mileage.

Oosterdam Cruise Ship, Holland America Line

Half of your cruise experience is the shore excursions, and I strongly suggest that you budget for those, as you don't want your only experience of your ports to be the high-ticket trinket shops. When you're onboard and at sea, you need another plan. Sometimes it will involve spending a little extra cash, sometimes a lot. But it'll make the difference between a so-so cruise and decadent excursion worth writing home about. My top 7 picks, for your next cruise on Holland America Line's Oosterdam.

# 7. Get yourself professionally photographed. How often do most adults get a chance to have professional photographs taken while they're all gussied up for a formal evening? Your best bet here is to take advantage of the studio on board on formal nights, where a professional will pose you for portraits. The lighting and the poses here tend to come out better than the quicker shots taken by additional photographers at the entrances to the restaurants. Wherever you have your photos taken, you can view them in the photo gallery for the rest of the cruise, with no obligation to purchase them unless you look great.

#6. Java junkies, learn the location of the Windstar Café on the Promenade deck. All barista-prepared drinks here are espresso based and pack that kick that urbanites crave. If you like your drinks large and with several added pumps of flavor, consider purchasing a HAL coffee card for $44 when you board the ship, that will cover you for 10 strong, espresso-based drinks of your choice, including blended coffee beverages. For those less caffeine addicted, the dining rooms on the ship all serve complimentary medium-strength brewed coffee, espresso and cappuccino. But they don't pack the same kick as in the Windstar.

#5. Order the Chef's Special appetizers or dinner in your room at no additional charge. Many a cruiser has realized late in the game that they were missing out on some perks here. The standard room service menu that you'll find in your cabin appears to be limited in scope, and can get old fast. However, you can order off the daily changing Vista dining room menu, which features the chef's specials. The trick is that these are only available once the Vista opens for dinner at 5:30pm. Recent specials of the day included Parmesan Crusted Chicken with Basil Polenta and Warm Wild Berry Crumble with French Vanilla ice cream. If you have a late seating dinner planned, this is a fine option for early evening appetizers in your room while dressing for a show. Deluxe Suite passengers receive the daily Vista menu in their mailbox; other passengers can simply take a stroll by the Vista after breakfast to see the evening menu. Good to know: the breakfast menu in the Vista also changes daily. Soda and alcohol always involve a fee.

#4. Get Thee to the Thermal Suite! For passengers traveling without children or those taking a break from the kids, this is the civilized, decadent, adult place to relax. You need to purchase either a $40 day pass or the more economical weekly pass at $150 for one person/$250 per couple. Since the spa limits the number of passes sold, you always have peace and privacy. A pass to the Thermal Suite includes access to two areas: the thalassotherapy pool on the inside of the ship (no views) and the heated ceramic lounge chair area on the outside of the ship, with fabulous views. The thalassotherapy area includes a sea water pool heated to body temperature, with water jets at varying heights. The heated lounge chair area has a large picture window, a soothing fountain, an aromatherapy shower, a dry sauna, and a steam room. Try each of the ceramic chairs in this area, as the temperature differs from chair to chair. One may roast you, while another is just right. Have an at-sea day on an Alaskan cruise? Your ideal day should involve a work out in the fitness center, followed by a sauna and a soak in the Thermal suite, followed by reading time in the ceramic lounge chairs. When other passengers are waiting, it'd be rude to fall asleep in them, so make a pact with your travel companion to give each other a shove before you inevitably take an hour-long snooze. You can always grab a glass of water, juice, tea or a piece of fruit in the in relaxation area, which has comfy, padded, non-heated lounge chairs. Alcoholic beverages are allowed when you're using the lounge chairs in the thalassotherapy area. Simply pop out to the bar right outside the Spa area and bring them back in with you.

#3. Splurge on the Seaweed Wrap, float and massage. This is one of the priciest treatment onboard and worth every cent. It was hands down, the best Spa service I've ever experienced. You're covered in a scented seaweed paste that helps draw toxins out of your lymph system, and then scrubbed gently with a bristle brush to stimulate your immune system. After that, you're wrapped up and floated in a warm water suspension that draws every ounce of tension out of your body. After a quick rinse, you get a second wrap and float, followed by a back of body massage. I recommend spending the extra $50 for the full body massage, which brings your total to $270. On days when the ship is in port, the spa often offers discounts. If you're having an anniversary or birthday, make sure the spa knows it – a discount of $50 on any signature service may appear in your mailbox mid-way through the cruise.

#2. Have dinner in the 5 Star Pinnacle Grill. This costs $30 per person, and it's well-worth the expense to experience top steak-house level filet mignon, and the decadent chocolate volcano cake. It is rich, half molten, served with whipped cream alongside and it is not to be missed by any chocolate lover. For another way to experience the Pinnacle, keep an eye out in the Daily Event Listing, or ask at the Grill early in the cruise about specialty wine tastings in the Pinnacle Grill bar. Wine flights are also available in this restaurant, a fabulous way to sample the best that HAL has brought in from around the world.

#1. If at all possible, find a way to book yourself into a Deluxe Suite on this ship; you'll never look back. The suites are far larger than standard rooms, with copious storage areas and spacious bathrooms with a whirlpool bath, separate shower, and dual sinks. My last cruise on the Oosterdam was booked into a suite at the starboard stern corner of the ship. With its large, wrap-around deck, we had prime viewing, sans crowds for the Hubbard glacier and peaceful sunning time on several of our at-sea days. We could have easily fit a crowd of 20 people for a cocktail party this deck.

A Memorable Lunch Cruise on the Loboc River in Bohol

As soon as our driver/guide Landel picked us up from Tagbilaran airport, my friend Nick extolled to me the virtues of the popular Loboc lunch cruise on the town's eponymous river. Essentially the Loboc lunch cruise is an hour and a half long eat-all-you-can buffet of native Filipino delicacies on huge river boats, aka floating restaurants, with some entertainment and sightseeing along the way. Nick had taken the Loboc lunch cruise a year ago on his first visit to Bohol, and now with me in tow, and a hot, humid day to boot, what else could be more appealing than a nice day floating on the Loboc river while feasting on grilled seafood, cholesterol-raising pork dishes, and ripe, mouth-watering fruit?

A long line greeted us at the makeshift tents where the vouchers for the Loboc lunch cruise are purchased for the sum of Php280 (US$7), a reasonable price considering the numerous dishes offered. Patrons are given a voucher with assigned seats on a specific floating restaurant, of which there seemed to be quite many. The queue was exacerbated by the seeming inability of Filipinos to form a single queue to keep things orderly; nor did any official staff try to impose any sort of discipline on queue-jumpers. Trust me, queueing is not the greatest strength of Filipinos (Karaoke probably is). So Landel got stuck in line for about thirty minutes, while I contented myself standing under the shade and whetting my appetite by looking at enticing photos of various native dishes prominently displayed by the tents. "This is gonna be some buffet", I even muttered to myself.

Vouchers in hand and growing hungrier by the second, the three of us excitedly rushed to the dock for…more waiting. Our floting restaurant was still ferrying the previous batch of tourists, and there was no definitive timeframe on when our turn would come to feast on the lunch cruise. In the meantime, we watched other people stuffing their faces on meat and seafood dishes inside the boats docked nearby. I counted at least fifteen different floating restaurants, each one varying in capacity from 30 to 60. Just when I was becoming delirious from hunger, our names were called and before you knew it, we were sharing a long table with a family of four, who looked equally impatient at getting their hands on some grub.

At long last, the dishes were set up on the buffet table (a disappointment in terms of both quantity and quality), and everyone proceeded to line up, plate in hand. I use the term "line up" loosely, as in the best Filipino tradition, all hell broke loose. On one side people furiously scooped as much meat onto their plates while ignoring the stares and mumbling of other diners unfortunately situated behind them, some were pushing their way forward to get the last remnants of baby shrimp which the first five people had apparently claimed the majority of, and most alarming, some folks decided that they couldn't be bothered to stand in line and thus created their own queue at the other end of the buffet table (where the desserts are located), and their counter-flow of traffic now collided with ours with the force of a ten-wheeler truck.

Somehow I managed to get out alive, albeit missing out on the chicken and getting mostly glistening fatty pieces of pork, and made my way back to our seats. Surprised at the sight of diners at the adjoining table feasting on pork barbeque on stick, I rushed back to the buffet but couldn't find traces of the dish. Totally bummed, I sat down and decided to make do with whatever I had, at the same time wondering where the hell Nick had gone to. My question was answered two seconds later, as I turned my head and saw him coming towards us clutching ten (ten!!!) sticks of pork barbeque, the look on his face indicating his intent to impale anyone who tried to grab them away. To this day, I haven't bothered to find out how or where he hijacked them from, but those sweet BBQ truly saved the day.

Thankfully, the rest of the Loboc lunch cruise went by pleasantly. As the boat slowly wound its way up the Loboc river, we admired the trees and abundant greenery lining the riverbanks which provided pleasant, easy-on-the eyes scenery. From time to time, kids swimming in the river came into sight, and without exception they would wave enthusiastically to us. Eventually we reached a series of mini-waterfalls (emphasis on "mini", as these are the puniest I've ever seen). An ideal photo op for camera-crazy Filipinos, to say the least. At this point, the boat turned around and on the way back, we also stopped by a nipa hut atop a wooden raft where forty or so guitar-playing singers entertained us with several native songs, accompanied by some enthusiastic dancing from small kids. The singers did have an English song as part of their repertoire, "Oh Carol". I actually liked the choreography, and wondered if they're being groomed to join those dance contests on TV programs. All part of the Loboc river cruise experience. An interesting, enjoyable, and mildly chaotic start to our visit to Bohol.

Casper the Friendly Cruiser: The Chrysler PT Cruiser Club

Since its inception in 2001, the popular Chrysler PT Cruiser has achieved cult like status among car owners and enthusiasts. The appeal of the Cruiser is its retro aesthetic, a family friendly albeit hipster take on the traditional station wagon with its caricaturized front section and wide interior. The modern playfulness the car exhibits makes it a favorite on the show circuit. One PT in particular, originating out of Brooklyn, has taken such events by storm on a national scope. Fuhgettaboutit! When it comes to winning competitions as well as winning over hearts, few PT's compare to the affable Casper the Friendly Cruiser.

Cruisers have a distinctive design, which set them apart from other makes and models. At first glance, the PT resembles the type of automobile you might find featured in an animated film because it does have a cartoon quality to it. It is that quality that initially attracted Casper's owner Joseph Cafarelli, a retired postal worker and lifelong Brooklynite, to it transforming the Stone White 2002 Cruiser into his childhood dream machine.

"When I joined the PT Owners Club, I got exposed to the art of PT modification at PT shows. I got hooked!" Cafarelli said with a smile. "I decided right from the start that I wanted to add ghost flames… that's when it dawned on me what the theme of my PT was to be, Casper."

Cafarelli's love of his car is infectious but the commitment to conceptualizing the ghost theme has been laborious. Having the right people, essential to success in any line of work, has enabled his vision to reach fruition. He credits pinstripe and flame expert John Torretta of local auto body shop Brighton Collision as being one of those people.

"John and I discussed what I envisioned. After I decided on the visual intensity of the flames, I first had my bumpers, mirrors, license plate holder and mud flaps painted Stone White. Then the flames were mapped out and filled with six coats of PPG pearl blue iridescent paint. Five coats of clear paint were smoothed over that." he explained. The ultimate effect is striking. "The flames are not visible unless sunlight hits them just right. Only then will their bluish metallic tint appear."

The ghost flames are undeniably the most unique element of the car. That being said, there are other accoutrements that enhance the mystique Casper is developing. As was the case with the flames, Cafarelli commissioned the help of neighborhood mechanics Michael and Richard Mineo of Audio's Best of Brooklyn to perfect his ideal electrical modifications. "They have installed neons, strobes and opera led light bars for the exterior. For the interior, they have installed APC EL lighted flame seat covers and mats and Nu-Glo series illuminated blue flame doorsills.", Cafarelli said. The final lighting touch is the custom made Casper sign for the rear hatch window. He enthusiastically adds, "As part of my neon shows I also incorporate a smoke machine to give a ghostly illusion to Casper, a real crowd pleaser!"

Clearly, bolder is better in terms of presentation and thus far car show organizers agree. The flames and lighting have contributed to Casper outshining other PT's at various car shows, most notably the Carlisle All-Chrysler Nationals 2003, 2004 and 2005. From September 2002 through the present, Casper has driven off into the sunset with thirty six prizes. Yet Cafarelli seems more impressed by the overall contribution Casper has made to the civic community. Due in large part to his audacious appearance, Casper has been selected to be the lead Cruiser in a number of holiday parades like St. Patrick's Day and Christmas as well as philanthropic events pertaining to September 11th. Those events attract enthusiasts from all over the country and raise sizable charitable donations.

With such a degree of tour acclaim, it would be easy for Cafarelli to have Casper rest on his laurels and let the flames die down for a while. Surely those owners of cars who have found themselves on the short end of Casper's stick shift would find a brief retirement of the ghost flames preferable. However thanks to an unexpected grass roots marketing campaign sparked by the power of the internet, Casper has transcended car show popularity.

"EBay has been very instrumental to my Casper theme", explains Cafarelli. "It has taken over two years of bidding on Casper items to obtain my collection of T-shirts, antiques and toys." Cafarelli is quick to praise a fellow PT owner and friend, metal artisan Yvan Michel, for refinishing his most treasured EBay purchase. "My greatest find on EBay would have to be the amazing brass five inch flying Casper… which I envisioned becoming the hood ornament. I told Yvan what I had in mind and he accepted the challenge. After five months of painstaking work, he created my incredible chrome plated masterpiece!" On days when weather conditions prevent Casper from displaying his technical bells and whistles, the brass plate is its signature feature making the PT immediately recognizable.

PT Cruiser clubs and organizations are a great way for fans and owners to meet and congregate at events. Unfortunately for some, distance and time can be the enemy prohibiting people from attending shows. Message boards like the one on www.ptcruiserclub.com allow people to chat and post opinions about their favorite vehicles. Official car show websites also offer people behind the scenes access to the events through streaming videos and photos. Utilizing multimedia sources furthers the camaraderie shared by PT owners and fans. Additionally, it serves to showcase cars like Casper, only enhancing its lore and reputation.

In any other budding business venture, lengthy renovations or additions to property whether real estate or automotive would be made with the promise of eventual financial gain. Websites would be constructed to shamelessly promote the product, a car in this case. Perhaps not surprisingly Cafarelli makes no bones about what he considers worthy profit. "When I see the reactions and amazed looks on all the children's faces, I know that all the time and effort I've spent to create Casper has been all worth while."