Cruising the Greek Isles on the MSC Musica: Best trip 2009

I never saw myself as a cruise ship sort of traveler until MSC Musica made me a changed woman.

I’m the person who lived for two years in N’Jowara, The Gambia in a room at the back of an empty shop house without running water, window panes or electricity. Until my MSC Musica cruise, my extended boat travel was five days on the Niger River in Mali, first perched on feed sacks in a ramshackle wooden cargo boat before switching to a small boat that was poled by a man and a boy. By the time I set foot on dry land in Timbuktu, I thought of changing my name to Huck Finn.

Back in February, I wrote a post on cruise ship deals. By the end of the post, I thought “If this is such a deal, why aren’t I going?” Since one of my mom’s lifelong dreams has been to go to Greece, I put the two ideas together and searched out a cruise. The Musica, one of the ships in the MSC cruise lines fleet, seemed perfect. After one day into the cruise, I knew I picked right .

Unfortunately, my mom had had to pull out of the cruise 10 days before the ship was to depart. Fortunately, my teenage daughter was able to switch in for my mom for a $100 charge to change the ticket.

Why MSC Cruise Lines? When picking a cruise ship, know yourself and what kind of vacation you’re after. MSC is geared towards multi-generational travel. If you’re a single person looking for love, this isn’t it. If kids make you shudder, look elsewhere.

I picked this company because kids 17 and under travel for free if traveling with an adult. One kid per adult. This gave me the idea of taking my seven year old son with us. Originally, my teenage daughter hadn’t wanted to go.

Also, MSC was offering half-price deals. We were able to get a ocean view superior room with a balcony for about $1,600 per person for the 7-day cruise. If I had planned to go without my mom, I would have gone for the inside room for $999 a person.

Other pluses were the ship’s activities–most importantly, Kids Club. The ship also has an exercise room, two swimming pools, a hot tub, various food options and activities geared for people of all ages. There is a stage show each night and the shore excursions promised a wide variety of options from adventure to cultural to historical.

Because MSC is an Italian cruise line, the feel is European. This was a way to travel to Greece with an Italian twist. That also had a big role in my decision to go with this company.

With that said, if you get irritated by hearing announcements in five different languages you might get irritated. Our shore excursions were in English and sometimes in another language. When the guide was speaking in the other language, I was able to let what he or she said in English resonate. I liked this.

Food and Drinks: There were two dining options covered by the cost of the cruise. Two restaurants offered sit down meals where you ordered off the menu and one restaurant was strictly buffet. Ah, the buffet. Located on the top floor of the ship with expansive plate glass windows, the buffet called to us for breakfast and lunch. We also took fruit, yogurt, salami, cheese and bread with us from the buffet so would have a snack on our shore excursions.

During breakfast coffee and juice were included.

For dinner, we were assigned to a table at one of the dining rooms. Because there were only three of us, we were assigned to a table with two American women who were living in Vienna for the fall. Meeting up with them each evening was terrific. They seemed to enjoy us as well.

Dinner was a five-course meal of various options, My son ordered off the adult menu after deciding that the kid’s menu was too normal . At 7, he’s an adventurous eater. The food had a European bent and, in my opinion, was splendid. As a seafood fan, I had my fill. I did order one glass of wine with each meal. The $5 price was fair.

At 4 p.m. each day there was a high tea sort of offering with desserts, coffee and tea. This was also included in the set price, as was the midnight buffet. I only went to that once. On the 2nd to last night, there were ice sculptures and fruit and vegetables that had been carved into animals and flowers.

Along with the included food options, there were other specialty restaurants, but since those cost money, forget that.

I ordered one glass of wine from one of the ship’s bars on a night that I went dancing.

Every day there was a specialty mixed drink, specialty coffee with alcohol and an ice-cream treat concoction, but those cost money too. No thanks.

Before we boarded the ship in Venice, I purchased a water package and a soda package. The water package provided us with two large bottles of water each day and the soda package gave my son and daughter a soda with their dinner. We used one bottle of water at dinner and took one bottle of water with us on our shore excursion. Buying the packages made beverages less expensive. There was a wine package, but since there was only me I figured my kids didn’t need a drunk mom to take care of.

We filled other water bottles with water at breakfast and bought other water on shore.

What did we do on the ship?

I took in the free yoga lessons, stretching classes, dance classes and arts and crafts activities that were offered at various times during the day on the ship’s deck. I also worked out three times in the workout room.

Each night we went to the show that was a mix of dance, singing, acrobatic and magic acts.

My son was thrilled with Kids Club. The hours were extensive. If I had wanted to, I could have left him there when my daughter and I went on shore excursions. Taking him on shore excursions, however, was one of my trip highlights, so he came with us. He did go to the shows at night with the Kids Club gang and stayed at Kids Club doing organized activities each night until 11:00.

One bonus of Kids Club was its international flavor. My son was one of the few kids who spoke English and was the only American. This was something he enjoyed, but he is the type who will talk with anybody. Bruno and Andrea, the two adults in change of his age group were absolutely superb and offered a wide range of activities to help kids feel special and a part of the group.

My daughter was not interested in the teen activities, but was not bored. She read, hung out with me or her brother, and spent time by the pool.

Other teens I met loved the teen activities that tended to be teen driven. Games, contests, dancing–that sort of thing, were offered daily.

I did not get a massage, a facial or pay for other classes that were offered. The prices seemed fair, but I splurged on shore excursions for the three of us.

Shore excursions and why the ship Musica? In the summer, the Musica is used for the Greek Islands in the Sun route. Starting in Venice, it makes port calls at Bari, Katakolon, Santorini, Mykonos, Piraeus/Athens, Corfu, Dubrovnik and then back to Venice.

At each stop we went on an organized shore excursion. In general, shore excursions made our travel experience more meaningful. They weren’t cheap but were well worth the money we paid for them. The only excursion I thought we could have done without was the one in Athens.

From Piraeus, the port town that’s connected to Athens, taxi drivers park right outside the terminal so its possible to hire one to take you everywhere that the excursion wemt and more. Our tour was fine, but there are places I would have liked to see.

Also, the Acropolis was so crowded that we kept losing our tour guide. On the other hand, the tour guide pointed out highlights near our ship like a traditional market and a couple of churches. After our tour was over, I walked around for two hours by myself. If I hadn’t been on the tour, I would have missed them.

Here’s an Acropolis tip. Have your kids wear something red so you can pick them out from a crowd.

On the Katakolon excursion, go to Olympia and include the museum. It’s not much more money and makes the tour more meaningful.

On Santorini, we went to the black sand beach and hung out. Renting an umbrella with chairs cost $5 for the day. We took the cable car down from the town to the boat shuttles that took us back to the ship. Don’t walk along the path. Even though walking is free, the donkeys make a mess of the trail. I heard that from several people. Be warned, particularly if you like your shoes.

The Mykonos stop did not involve a tour. We ate dinner and shopped. Man, I loved this place. Look for items made from olive wood. We also started buying soap for everyone we could think of. By the end of our trip, you’d think our friends and family had a hygiene problem. I loved the soap. Soap packs easily.

At Corfu, our tour took us through the old city and then to the bay of Paleokastritza and up to a monastery. We hopped out at the beach where we took the paddle boat ride before rejoining our tour bus. From this bay you can see the small island that is supposed to be Odysseus’ ship that Poseidon turned into a rock. My daughter saw it first and was thrilled.

Dubrovnik is a gorgeous, gorgeous city that has taken care of its historical architecture. After we took the tour that included the maritime museum and the aquarium, we returned to the 2nd oldest synagogue in Europe, the oldest pharmacy in Europe and went to a gallery that pays tribute to the world’s conflicts through photographs in order to promote peace. Before we left, we had time to walk around the top of the old city walls.

Why excursions are worth the money:

The tour guides provided background history and information that we would not have found out otherwise. As we drove in the tour bus, there was a running commentary of what we were passing.

We were guaranteed we would not get lost and miss the ship. Organized tours watch your back. This lowered my stress level to zero.

Tours were a chance for us to meet and interact with other people. This made the cruise more engaging and friendly.

Because we picked tours that most interested us, we were able to gear the trip towards what we wanted to experience without wasting time at each port as we attempted to find our way.

The variety in the tour offerings made each of our days different than the rest. By the time we arrived back in Venice, I felt we had a rich overview of Greece and knew of places where I would like to return–Mykonos is number 1. Our Bari and Dubrovnik stops were splendid as well. We didn’t stay in Bari, but headed out though the rural landscape to the Crystal Caves.

Because we were on a tour, my children and I were on equal footing. I didn’t have to be in charge to get us anywhere, therefore I could just enjoy myself. Whining by any of us was a minimum.

Tips for picking shore excursions:

Let your kids pick the tours. While I was buying the water and soda packages, I let my kids go through the various tours to pick out what they wanted. I did ask them to pick a variety and not the most expensive ones. Their choices were perfect. My suggestion when picking excursions is to plan a mix where it’s not all beach and not all history. Throw some activity into the mix. On Corfu, we rented paddle boats for an hour.

Do not skimp on excursions. Each time we went to shore, I thought, we’re not going on this trip again, and I’m not missing the money I spent.

Instead, I have memories that reminds me every day at how wonderful my kids are. Sappy sounding, maybe. But, I’m telling you; this trip was worth every penny.

Bribe if you have to: I got my son to agree to walking around the top of the wall of the old city in Dubrovnik by promising to buy him something. I bought him a ceramic fish that looked like one of the fish in the aquarium we visited there. For $6, I got a bargain.

Tips in general for enjoying the cruise: Be open to experiences and people. The more easily you talk with people, the more fun you will have. Eventually, I found out that I knew or at least recognized a lot of people because I was going to classes and taking in activities.

Besides shore excursions and the glasses of wine and the beverage packages, the only other thing I bought was the professional picture taken of us on the way to dinner one night. There’s a really hokey sunset backdrop, but the three of us looked better than usual. I bought the picture for my mom. If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t have been on this trip.

Take time out for Venice: When booking our flights, I arranged them so we would have two nights in Venice at each end of the cruise. I wanted to give us enough time for a missed flight connection if we had bad luck, get over some jet lag and take advantage of Venice. This also allowed for travel on our own to satisfy the need for unplanned adventure at our own pace.

We stayed the first two nights at the Antico Doge, the most elegant place I’ve stayed in my life–it used to be a palace. For the two nights after our cruise we stayed at the Hotel Abbazia, a former abbey which is an excellent location near the train station, the water taxis and the bus station. Both places served a wonderful breakfast.

If you do have time in Venice, go to the Jewish Ghetto. This is the first ghetto in the world and is being revitalized by the Jewish community who live around Venice. Originally, this is where the city’s foundries were located.

Look for the tribute to the people who died in the Holocaust on one of the plaza walls. You’ll notice it because of the barbed wire. There is also a kosher restaurant that is superb. The owners just opened a guest house next door. The restaurant is located on the plaza.

Photo of the Day (12-30-09)

With the end of 2009 approaching, this photo by tammystaats seems perfect. Are we walking towards or away from something or someone? Isn’t the traveler’s answer that we are doing both?

I love the footprints of these four people. Even though they started out further away from each other, they look as if they are merging the more that this group walks into the distance. The blue sky, white clouds and the crests of these dunes offer the suggestion of infinite possibilty. Bravo!

If you have a shot that captures the infinite possibility of the traveler, send it our way at Gadling’s Flickr photo pool. It might be chosen as a Photo of the Day.

*This photo was tagged Colorado, so I am assuming these are at the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

New York City bargain destination perfect for a 3-day weekend

New York City may be the most expensive place to live, but if you like to walk; it’s a bargain to visit. Arrive by Friday late afternoon, and by Sunday evening you can knock off most of the must see places and eat without spending much money. By the end, you’ll know a good bit of what makes this city so grand.

I recently tested out this method with a friend of my daughter’s who is a high school exchange student from Germany. She wanted to see New York and I’m always up for a trip. We did stay with my brother, but I do have two budget hotel suggestions that have been used by people I know.

When going to New York, have a point of orientation. Mine is Union Square located at East 14th Street and Broadway. Union Square is a hub where the subway station below ground offers trains in every direction and the park above is a gathering place of street vendors, a community farmers market and people out for a stroll depending upon the season and the day. In December, there’s a wonderful holiday market with creative, high quality items from around the world.

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This is where we began our New York jaunt on a Friday morning about 10 a.m. after arriving at LaGuardia from Columbus in time for the first bus into Manhattan. (The shuttle bus from LaGuardia drops passengers outside Grand Central Station. We took the #6 subway downtown to the Union Square stop. The roundtrip bus ticket is $21,)

Day 1

From Union Square, after dropping our things at my brother’s), we walked down Broadway to Ground Zero, a place I had been avoiding ever since September 11. The walk led us through Washington Square Park, New York University and the gallery district of SoHo. Along the way, we window shopped and admired the architecture. The American Thread Company, 260 W. Broadway is one that caught our eye in particular. The building gave me a chance to point out the city’s industrial past and imagine life in NYC during the late 1900s.

Ground Zero is now a bustling construction site where it’s possible to peek through the fence to see the progress of the new girders. Along the outside fence are building plans. As devastating as the area feels, there’s also a sense of renewal and hope.

The other World Trade Center buildings are still bustling with commerce. The 3 World Financial Center-American Express Building is a wonderful mix of office building and shopping mall. With Christmas approaching, Santa was busy listening to children’s wish lists. I couldn’t help notice how the holiday lights, poinsettias and Christmas tree inside the building inside were such a contrast to what occurred outside eight years ago. From the top of the steps in the atrium, there’s an excellent view of the construction site.

The American Express building also has a small display of the history of American Express. I particularly enjoyed the brochures that were developed to entice people to travel to far off places. On the second floor, above where the museum is located, notice the four murals. Each is of a major city in one part of the world. Venice, Istanbul and Rio De Janeiro are three of them. I think the 4th is Hong Kong. The title plate was behind a barrier so we couldn’t read it. People who work in the building who I asked about the mural didn’t know either.

From here we walked along the river to Battery Park where we purchased tickets to Liberty and Ellis Island. The walk on this end of Manhattan will take you by lovely apartment buildings and public spaces. Of note is the right before you arrive at the ferry terminal for the Statue of Liberty. There is construction site fencing around most of it, but the quotes from famous people added uplift to the day.

After a short wait, we were on an early afternoon ferry headed for the Statue of Liberty. The $12 ticket purchased at the booth operated by the National Park Service covers the ferry ride to Liberty Island and Ellis Island which includes the museum. We arrived at Liberty Island with enough time to walk around Lady Liberty and spend a few minutes in the gift shop before taking the next ferry to Ellis Island.

By this time we were starved, so after seeing the free movie about the history of Ellis Island’s past as the gateway for immigrants, we bought lunch at the café. A bowl of chicken soup cost $4.50.

By 4:00 p.m. we were back in Manhattan heading to Union Square to meet up with my dad and my brother, then off to the Museum of Modern Art-MOMA. On Fridays from 4:00-8:00, the museum is free. To get from 2nd Ave. and 14th Street, two blocks from Union Square, we took a taxi–$17 including a tip.

From MOMA it’s a short walk down 5th Avenue to Rockefeller Center and across the street from there is St. Patrick’s Cathedral. During Christmas, be prepared to be jostled a bit while you look at the center’s Christmas tree and watch the ice skaters. Give skating a pass. It is not budget travel.

Next stop, back to Union Square via subway where we headed to Chat ‘NChew, 10 East 16th St. for a late dinner. Chat ‘NChew’s specialty is comfort food. I ate the red beans and rice-a dish under $5.

Day 2

First stop, Union Square’s holiday craft bazaar where I bought non-alcoholic glugg for $2.50 before we headed to the School of Visual Arts Gallery via subway which took us to Chelsea. The walk was the chance to see the transition from a working class neighborhood to a warehouse district that has been changed to gallery spaces.

From there we walked to the Empire State Building on 34th Street, passing Madison Square Gardens and Penn Station along the way.

Before getting in line for our tickets to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, we ducked across the street to buy a slice of NY style pizza for $3.50. I had the spinach and feta cheese variety. When I forked over the $20 admission to the Empire State building, I swallowed the ticket price by seeing it as a contribution to preserving American history. The Art Deco architectural details are splendid.

We were blessed with a clear night so I was able to point out various buildings and bridges. Look for Times Square and the Statue of Liberty. The Chrysler Building is obvious.

Next was a walk past the Macy’s windows decked out for Christmas on our way to Times Square and Broadway. As always, there’s a surprise on some corner in New York. The biggest one this time was at Broadway where the annual Santa pub crawl was in full swing There were hundreds of people dressed up like Santa Claus milling about in the midst of .the flashing neon.

After our Christmas spirit fix, off we headed back to Union Square and a walk to Hollywood Diner at 16th Street and 6th Avenue. If you’re with another person, split the appetizer platter. The mozzarella sticks, chicken wings and chicken fingers cost us less than $6 a piece.

Day 3

After breakfast on-the-go at Chomp on 14th Street near 2nd Avenue where a small cup of coffee and a bagel is $2 we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art via the # 6 train. The museum has a suggested admission price of $20 for adults, but you can pay what you want.. Don’t feel cheap if you pay less. I do. For a trip through the best of the world’s cultural and artistic riches, here’s the place. My favorite exhibit was The Amercans, photographsby Robert Frank who created a photo essay of his travels across the United States from1955 to 1956.

At the other side of Central Park from the Metropolitan is the American Museum of Natural History. We stopped here long enough to see the atrium where part of the movie “Night at the Museum” was filmed. The two large dinosaur skeletons make an impression. Since I had been here two weeks before and we were limited on time, this stop was brief.

The walk through Central Park took us past the Delacorte Theater, home Shakespeare in the Park in the summer. We stopped long enough to take a picture of a couple who had just become engaged. They made a fetching site and asked us to take their picture when we passed by.

Next on the list was The Dakota where John Lennon was killed. The building is not well marked. The entrance is on off of Central Park West.

From here it was on to Grand Central Station where we stopped by the holiday crafts show, the whispering wall and the train museum. The whispering wall is by the food court on the ground floor. Look for two arches in an entry way. If one person stands on one end of an arch and another person stands at the other, you can hear each other talk, even if you’re whispering. Face the wall for it to work.

Next stop Chinatown and dinner at the Shanghai Café. on Mott Street. There were four of us. We had an order of steamed pork dumplings, chicken lo mein, chicken fried rice and a broccoli dish. The bill came to $24. From Chinatown, we headed up Mulberry Street through Little Italy. In a few blocks we came to Umbertos Clam House where we split a carafe of red wine and the high schooler had a cappuchino. The bill came to about $25, as much as dinner. No bargain, but a lovely way to end the evening. The half carafe would have been plenty.

With an early afternoon flight, we headed to the bus stop at Grand Central for the 11:00 a.m. (or thereabouts) bus and had enough time to go to the New York Public Library. Because you can’t take luggage inside, I waited outside for my high school friend to visit. She proclaimed it to be the most wonderful library she has ever seen and marveled that it was free. The library has rotating exhibits so it is always worth a stop.

So there you have it. New York City on the cheap. In all we, spent about $18 each on subway rides. I lost track.

For an inexpensive place to stay near Union Square, try Hotel 17 or the Seafarers International House..

The only place on the high schooler’s list that we did not see was Tiffany’s but we did see Tiffany stained glass windows at the Metropolitan. She also hoped to see the Naked Cowboy, but all those Santas made up for it.

Where the Hell is Matt—the book version, a perfect read for 2010

This time last year, Matt Harding was named traveler of the year by World Hum. His video, “Where the Hell is Matt?,” the one funded by Stride gum had gone viral earlier that year. No wonder. If there’s a secret to world peace, Harding had found it.

Start dancing a silly, but engaging dance and people will dance with you-most people. The guard at the DMZ in North Korea won’t dance.

In his book Where the Hell is Matt? Dancing Badly Around the World, published earlier this year, Harding tells the stories behind the video. The book is as real and honest as the video version. What makes Harding’s brand of world travel work is his lack of pretense.

This is a guy who likes people who people are drawn to by the droves.

What is made clear in the book is that Harding was as surprised by his success as anyone. He merely started out dancing at various spots around the world and filming his flailing. It was a spontaneous gesture. Once that video gained recognition, Stride gum approached him about round two and that’s when Harding’s life changed.

His book, as well as being an engaging and humorous look at the stories behind the story, delves into issues that can haunt the traveler using the people in various parts of the world for personal gain.

Harding, along with his girlfriend Melissa who held the camera for part of the video, was uncomfortable knowing that he was earning money for his efforts while some of the people he filmed were living in dire conditions. A guy with heart, Harding came up with solutions he–and Melissa, could live with. For example, at the school in Madagascar, Harding made a donation to the school as thanks for allowing the children to participate in his creation.

Making a video of dancing badly is not the easiest endeavor, even though the dancing looks as easy as pie. The shot snorkeling in Vanuatu was a feat in perseverance where a couple of minutes are, thankfully, all that was needed. That’s just one example.

The book also makes clear that Harding had no idea what a treasure he was creating. Even after the video was finished and Harding began promoting it, he had no idea. It wasn’t until he sat down one night to watch it over and over that he knew. When Harding saw his creation from the rest of our eyes, he did what most people who saw it did. He cried.

If there’s a book that will keep you engaged and give you the motivation to keep up the good work of honest, open world traveling in 2010, it’s this one.

Rafting the Smith River in Montana: Now is the time to plan

Rafting the Smith River in Montana requires planning ahead and a permit. Without the permit, you’re not going. Obtaining one is simiilar to acquring a permit for a private rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. A lottery system says who goes and when a trip can happen. Not everyone wins.

The application process for 2010 begins in January permits closes the end of February for trips starting mid- April through the beginning of July. Some trips can go in September or later in July depending upon the river’s water level.

The person who lands a permit can take a group of 14 people on the 59 mile route of that starts at Camp Baker and ends at Eden Bridge. That’s how we ended up on the Smith two summers ago when the river was still high enough to make the four day journey. By the middle of July the water level is too low, particularly closer to the bridge.

Lucky for us, we were the last minute tag-a-longs who happened to be in Montana two days before our friends’ trip and there was room for four more. Score!

The fact that I’m not a back country camping sort of person on most days was something I decided to set aside. The fact that my husband’s hip was causing him major grief was something he decided to ignore. When would such perfect timing happen again? Never.

As a newbie to the back country rafting experience, I learned a few things.

A raft trip on the Smith is a journey through an isolated section of the Little Belt Mountains and some of the best blue ribbon trout fly fishing in Montana. The blue skies, meadows of wildflowers, high cliffs that edge the river in places and the chance to see wildlife face to face is so worth the effort. Plus, there’s the leisurely pace of spending time with family and friends and allowing ones mind to clear from the hassles of life off the river.

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Although this trip does require trust, stamina and perseverance, it is doable for people of all ages. Most of the trip is the float trip version of rafting trhough class I and class II waters. As long as you have an expert rafter with you, someone who knows how to row AND read the river, and another person to help paddle AND to hop out to heave a raft forward or off a rock if need be, you can make it.

Here are tips to keep in mind.

At Camp Baker, your group will meet with a park ranger to map out your exact trip. There are designated campsites along the way. Which group gets which campsite depends on a first come first serve basis. There’s only one group allowed at each one.

To ensure that we would be able to sign up for our first choice of campsites, the two male friends of our group arrived at Camp Baker the night before to put us at the beginning of the line.

The rest of our group was made up of us–a couple with a teenage daughter and a six-year-old son–our friend with her two sons, ages 7 and 9, and two couples without kids.

When planning campsite stops, it’s important to know how far your group will be able to go in a day. Once you take off from Camp Baker, there’s no other place to stop the trip until the take out.

To get your car from the put in to the take out, you can hire a private outfitter with a shuttle service to drive your car from Camp Baker to the parking lot at Eden Bridge. It’s worth the extra money to pay for the paved road version. The gravel road is shorter and less expensive, but you can end up with a cracked windshield. Our car was waiting for us with a nice note from the driver and the keys.

The longest day for us was to be 14 miles which would take most of the day with enough time leftover before dark to pitch tents, make and eat dinner and do the majority of clean up necessary to not have unexpected, unwelcome visitors once we went to bed.

Back country camping that leaves no trace of your presence and taking precautions against bears. This means tying trash bags high up in a tree, putting food in coolers that can be made bear proof with bungee cords and rope each night, and taking everything with you.

Each campsite has a fire ring. We bought some wood with us and used sticks and twigs for kindling. The campsites also have a pit toilet a good distance from the tent sites. The views were splendid. Toilet paper, however, is not to be dumped down the latrine.

Planning for all sorts of weather and having enough supplies is imperative. If you go in the spring or fall, it can snow. We had some rain and mostly warm temperatures during the day, but it was cold at night.

Since we had no idea we were going until the phone call asking if we were interested, we weren’t prepared. To get prepared, we headed to the thrift store in Philipsburg, Montana to buy sweats, sweaters, socks and hats. At the Wal-mart in Missoula, we picked up a sleeping bag and food. At a sporting goods store we bought shoes that could be worn in the river, flashlights and whatever else we couldn’t borrow.

We were able to borrow sleeping pads, three sleeping bags, an air mattress for me, a cooler, a raft and oars. Not too shabby. We had our own pillows.

Well before the trip, the people in the group divided up the food obligations to share the responsibility. Each couple group was in charge of one dinner for everyone. Because we were the last minute tag-a-longs, we were in charge of appetizers and desserts. Each couple group was in charge of their own drinks, breakfast, lunch and snacks.

The biggest hit appetizer was a shrimp, cream cheese and green chili quesadilla. The fly fishermen experts on the trip who caught 40 a day, did treat us to trout, although they threw back most of what they caught.

Bags and bags of ice were a must to keep perishable food and beer cold.

Our biggest issue along the way was keeping the boys from bickering about who would be able to use the small solo float raft and who should ride in which raft. Also, our son did not have a fishing pole. A big mistake. The other two boys did. Upset? You bet.

Our daughter slightly whined because she had to wear a life vest, but not much. She was a trooper and helped haul the rafts off rocks many times.

We didn’t meet up with bear trouble, but we did run into a family who lost much of their food due to a bear getting into it at night. We offered to give them some of our bounty.

At the end of our trip we found out why it is a great idea to have AAA. Our car wouldn’t start. It’s a long tale, but the short version is we fried the wiring with a plug in adapter.

We had to keep getting the car jumped all the way back to Ohio.

For other handy Smith River rafting tips, click here.

[All pictures, courtesy of Jamie Rhein.]