Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bluebridge Ferry - the 1,000,000th booking

I have long said that the worst travel experiences make the best stories. But there are occasional good travel events that also are fun to relate. One such happening occurred recently on a ferry crossing the Cook Strait from Picton, New Zealand to its capital, Wellington.

We arrived at the terminal of the Blue Bridge Ferry about 45 minutes before the scheduled departure at 7 p.m. The employee at the check-in counter seemed very glad to see us and asked, “didn’t you check your e-mail?” We first feared that the crossing had been cancelled. But she quickly assured us that the correspondence concerned something really exciting. We were the one millionth booking for the ferry and they wanted to celebrate. The Company refunded the cost of our ticket and we were to be their guests for the three and one-half hour crossing.

First, a picture was taken of some of the employees and us to be used in their media. A van carried the two of us to the ship where we were escorted by “Lorna” up the elevator to the café. We were told we could order anything. Both my fish and chips (served with mayonnaise on top of the fish and sweet ketchup for the fries) and my husband’s chicken salad were basic but good. Drivers from the trucks below were already dining and other passengers soon joined us.

Lorna then offered to take us to the bar. We hesitated. It would be nice to relax and have a beer or glass of New Zealand wine but we knew the Cook Strait could be one of the world’s roughest stretches of water. It is the only opening between the North and South Islands and acts as a huge wind tunnel. Ships have been known to sink in the high swells. Lorna laughed. She said we were lucky. The wind was from the north that night which meant smooth sailing. A southerly wind is another story. A week after our crossing, all ferries were shut down because of “wild weather conditions” including a strong southerly air stream.

Reassured, we followed Lorna to the bar/lounge area which was quite comfortable with windows on three sides and an opening onto a large deck. Surmodh, our bartender from India, served the drinks and threw in a free Cadbury chocolate bar. He noted it was a quiet night with only 45 passengers and 30 truck drivers. I saw him dim the lights for some people trying to sleep. A Kiwi truck driver approached us and joined in the conversation. He had driven trucks through Oklahoma, Nebraska and Iowa and wanted to talk about the Obama Health Care bill which had received a lot of press in New Zealand.

After we had sailed through the Marlborough Sound into the strait, Lorna led us to the bridge to meet Captain Donald McCloud, a veteran of sailing in the South Pacific. We passed state rooms for the First Mate, Second Mate, First Engineer, and Second Engineer, before stepping into the darkened bridge. Only the soft lights of the radar and GPS system were on but a full moon lit the sea ahead. One sailor used binoculars to watch for fishing boats without lights. The season for Hoki fish was approaching and more fishermen would be out.

Captain McCloud pointed out the mounds on the radar which outlined the North Island and explained that their GPS system benefitted from the same satellite as the one used in cars. An engineer below was running the boat although they could do it all from the bridge, if needed. To our left were cables, 300 meters under water, that carried electricity between islands. And in answer to our questions about a rough sea, he said they would stop passenger ships at four meter swells (12 feet) but he had been on ships in 14 meter (42 feet) swells. Yikes.

At the end of our visit to the bridge, Captain McCloud gave us a dark blue Bluebridge travel bag filled with Bluebridge memorabilia. We are now the proud owners of two Bluebridge t-shirts, two Bluebridge hats, two Bluebridge tea towels and water bottles, and Bluebridge playing cards and chapstick.

Bluebridge is owned by Strait Shipping that has provided freight shipping for years. But the passenger ferries only began service in 2003. Their competitor is the Interislander ship line. When I asked Lorna what distinguished Bluebridge from the Interislander, she quickly replied “good, friendly customer service”. It’s hard for me to judge that comment as few customers get free fare, meals, drinks, and a meeting with the Captain. But I do know the friendly part is right and we would book Bluebridge if we’re ever lucky enough to again cross the Cook Strait.

Bluebridge Ferry Information -

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What Is There To Do In Sulphur Springs, Texas

An abundance of springs first attracted travelers to rest in the Sulphur Springs area. Today, Interstate 30 passes through the southern portion of this East Texas community and sports the usual national restaurants and hotels for the weary. But if visitors branched out, they would discover a surprisingly varied restaurant scene, some nice outdoor settings and unusual museums.

Main Street Eateries- Whether you’re hungry for an old fashioned hamburger or AHI tuna, just seared enough, the newly renovated Main Street area in downtown Sulphur Springs has you covered. (By the way, it’s also the setting for fun events through the year such as a farmers market every Saturday morning from March to October and a night time Christmas parade.)

1. Lou Viney Winery began with the owners making their own wine from locally grown grapes. Then owner/chef, Susann Briggs, discovered she enjoyed cooking for her clientele. Lunch and dinner are now available with daily specials and a nice wine list. The blackened talapia is the most popular dish with sweet brandy flat iron steak a close second. If you’re lucky enough to be there on a Friday night, enjoy the live music.
206 Main Street 903.438.8320

2. Muddy Jake’s is a sports grille and pub named after the owner’s two dogs. Burgers and sandwiches are even served in dog bowls. With all sports channels available as well as 32 screens, including one in the bathrooms, sports aficionados are in heaven. The owner keeps the crowd happy with basketball shots and American Idol shows.
Find Muddy Jakes on facebook
229 Main Street 903.885.6833

3. Pioneer Café is the dream of Barbara Palmer, who retired after 38 years with the government to open her own restaurant in 2009. Whether it’s an omelette for breakfast or her famous Hopkins County Stew for lunch, patrons are guaranteed good home cooking. Authentic Texas memorabilia decorate the comfortable setting.
307 Main Street 903.885.7773

Eateries outside of downtown.

4. Ray’s Barbecue is a walk-up, no-frills BBQ joint which offers chopped beef sandwiches for just $2.60. The only question is whether you want it with or without onion. “Gravy Sop Juice” is extra. At noon, the diverse crowd circles the order window, awaiting their names to be called. “If you don’t want greasy, go elsewhere,” advised a fan who has been coming here for years. It’s a great stop for local color.
158 Putnam St. 903.885.8506

5. Locals claim that Burgers & Fries on College Street has the best burgers within 100 miles. The french fries are “real” and fresh, as are the burgers. Chili can be added to anything. At noon, the courthouse crowd mixes easily with those in boots and tennis shoes. Gimmie hats dominate. They do a brisk drive-through business also.
208 College St. 903.885.9496

6. The San Remos Italian Restaurant comes with a New Jersey- Italian owner (the Mala family) and opera singers on CD. It’s no surprise then to find an ambitious, authentic Italian menu that includes Polenta Gorgonzola and veal at market price. While open for lunch, the dark walls and dim lighting are more inviting in the evening.
1201 South Broadway 903.438.1243

Other Hidden Gems

7. Southwest Dairy Museum. In a county that once had over 500 dairies, the milk cow is a sacred creature with the Holstein being the reigning queen. It is no surprise then to find a dairy museum here dedicated to this important local industry. Filled with great information and trivia for the family, all ages will find something of interest. Children will be particularly happy to learn that there is no nutritional difference between white and chocolate milk.
1210 Houston St. 903.439.MILK

8. Coleman Park. What is an urban park doing in a small town setting? Well, thanks to the donation of 21.44 acres of land by Robert Lanier, coupled with 166 city-owned acres, Sulphur Springs can rightly boast of its own Central Park. Soccer fields nestle among groves of trees, the walking track borders a fishing lake, and picnic tables are available for eating and viewing baseball games. It’s well worth a leisurely stop.

9. Hopkins County Courthouse (on the square). They don’t get any more beautiful than this courthouse built in 1895 of red granite and sandstone. With turrets and columned balconies, one expects the king to appear at any time to speak to his subjects. Instead, justice is meted out daily in a lovely setting. Feel free to explore and enjoy the district courtroom.

The Hopkins County Heritage Park began with the donation of the George H. Wilson home built in 1920 which houses historical collection and memorabilia from Caddo Indians to the Civil War. Over the years, historical buildings have been moved to the park, including an old general store with a Texaco pump, a mill, the 1894 St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church, and a Monument store. Special events, such as the folk art festival, are scheduled during the year but a drive-through visit is available anytime during its open hours.
416 North Jackson 903.885.2387

And if you have more time... Enjoy the Hopkins County Stew Cook-off in the fall or a performance at the local Community Players Theater ( A surprising world class collection of music boxes can be found at the public library.

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