A Pre-Cruise Roman Holiday

The Mediterranean Journey Begins ~ in Rome.

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It was nearly the end of July and the first of August and time to embark on another annual summer vacation. As cruising has become our getaway of choice, we chose an 11-night cruise to the warm waters of the Mediterranean, where we would spend time on shore immersing ourselves in ancient history, architectural ruins and gelato! Our cruise would begin in Rome, so it only made sense to spend a few days prior in this magnificent city.

The Royal Treatment.

A few months prior, I had booked our flights on Aer Lingus, with a ridiculously long layover in Dover because it was the cheapest flight available. Just days prior, in a moment of insanity, I went on line at Aer Lingus and upgraded our seats on the transatlantic portion of the flight to business class.  We felt like we had died and gone to airline heaven when greeted on board with a glass of wine and way more leg room than we needed – can you imagine?  And check out the table linens in the pic!  But the leg room is needed – to make room for those incredible seats that recline in a number of positions including lying all the way flat for sleeping.  Aer Lingus also has a bidding system for business class seats, and as such, I placed a bid for business class on our return trip.  I received an email several days before our flight home and learned we were upgraded to Business Class for the ride home.  On one hand, I was thrilled.  On the other, I was thinking where would I find a second job to pay for this indulgence.

Not wanting to bother with exiting and re-entering the airport terminal in Dublin, we wondered what the heck we would do for the long 7 hours between flights. Fortunately, my clever husband found some chairs and footrests in an out-of-the way spot in a terminal cafe, where we were able to catnap in comfort, thereby avoiding some bad jet lag. The plane was packed on the flight into Rome from Dublin, as well as noisy, thanks to a large group of rambunctious teens onboard. Happily, we landed safely and smoothly – and only a few minutes late. Our pre-reserved driver, Massimo, from a great, well-respected company called RomeCabs was waiting for us, as anticipated, at the meet-up point, and we were immediately whisked off in comfort to our hotel, the Albergo del Senato.

IMG_3094Hotel Albergo Del Senato is absolutely gorgeous and sits directly on Piazza Della Rotonda, right beside the Pantheon. The location was ideal for getting to the major sites, either a short cab ride or a short walk away. We were given a room on the third floor facing the Pantheon and piazza, as I had requested in advance. The room was fashioned in understated elegance and the bed was very comfortable.  

But the real beauty was what awaited our eyes outside the window. The windows opened in and the shutters slid out, providing the most amazing view of the Pantheon and all the lively action happening on the piazza below. IMG_2570A light sleeper like me had no need to worry about noise from the plaza below, either, because the windows were fairly soundproof, and I slept like a baby. With a prime location, comfortable accommodations, a killer view, complimentary breakfast, and helpful and friendly staff, we couldn’t have picked a better hotel for our first visit to Rome.  Oh, and did I mention the rooftop terrace?  It was a stairway to heaven!

IMG_2575 Our first meal in Rome was right outside the door of our hotel in a sidewalk cafe directly on the Piazza Della Rotonda within sight of the Pantheon.  As all the guidebooks warned, we paid more for the privilege for dining directly on the piazza, but it was worth it just for the experience of taking in all the Roman sights and sounds all around us.

IMG_2580We followed up dinner with a walk around the corner for a cup of Italy’s famous gelato. Gelaterias in Rome are like Dunkin Donuts in the states – there’s one on every block. Delicious and so convenient!

Here are a few photos of the Albergo Del Senato – beautiful inside and out.  A little pricey, but worth every euro!

Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica: The Tour.

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The next morning, we rose before the sun and took a taxi at 7:00 am to the Vatican for our pre-reserved 5-hour VIP tour of the Vatican with Through Eternity Tours, including the famous Sistine Chapel, the Vatican museums, and St. Peter’s Basilica. I highly recommend this small-group tour, limited to just 7 people, the primary reason being early-entry to the Sistine Chapel before opening to the public. Instead of standing shoulder to shoulder with a massive crowd, we were able to enjoy the magnificent art of Michelangelo with just a couple of other small groups. Later, as we passed through the chapel again on our way to the Basilica, we completely understood the importance of this early tour.  By that point, the crowds were so heavy that every inch of the chapel was filled with people gazing up at the ceiling, shoulder-to-shoulder, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for these people who could not have had the same serene experience as we did.

The following two photos give an idea of the difference a few hours can make:

Early Tour ~ No Crowds

Early Tour ~ No Crowds

Later Tour ~ The Vatican "Shuffle"

Later Tour ~ The Vatican “Shuffle”

Our guide was very knowledgeable, thoroughly explained the history of what we were about to see, and expertly guided us through the exhibits, though at a somewhat faster pace than we would have liked. The frescos, tapestries and mosaics, for instance, were stunning, and I would have liked to spend a bit more time viewing them. Still, the museums are so large and the collections so vast that you would need days or weeks to see everything. With that said, he did a good job of giving us an overview and showing us a wide selection of important works in the amount of time we had.  Here is just a small sample of what we experienced:

The tour ended at St. Peter’s Basilica, which was incredibly beautiful, with it’s stunning soaring dome, statues and artwork of Bernini, the Holy Door with its ornate carved panels, and, perhaps most moving – the Pieta, Michelansgelo’s famous statue of Mary holding the lifeless body of Christ after the crucifixion.

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We exited the Basilica into St. Peter’s Square, where the Roman sun, heat and humidity hit us like a wall.  We sat a few minutes taking in the surroundings, amazed that we were actually there in this holy place.  We rested our weary feet and were grateful for the drinking fountains throughout the city, allowing us to refill our empty water bottles.  We would have liked to linger for another hour at the Square, but by this time we were exhausted and made our way back to the hotel by taxi for a mid-afternoon rest.

A Dining Disappointment

After our much-needed catnap, we walked around the corner to De Fortunato Al Pantheon for our pre-reserved dinner reservation. Honestly, after reading some recent not-so-great TripAdvisor reviews of this restaurant, I wanted to choose another.  My husband, however, had his heart set on this dining establishment, highly recommended by travel guru, Rick Steves. My instincts turned out to be right. Although the meal was fine, the service was far from it. I fully understand the American and Italian differences in wait service, i.e. American waiters are friendly and talkative, while Italian waiters are simply there to serve and won’t interrupt you unless you request something. Fine – I get that. However, our waiter – an older, surly sort, was downright rude. He was all set to take our order, when an elderly gentleman, who was obviously a favorite regular customer, was seated directly to the small table to our left, about 6 inches away. The waiter immediately became animated, turned away to greet the guy like an old friend, and momentarily forgot we were even there. He only returned when my husband slapped his menu closed to get the waiter’s attention, who offered nothing in the way of an apology.

Sorry, Rick Steves, but you got this one all wrong. For a Saturday night, the place had plenty of empty tables, even when we left at 10:30 - very surprising, given the fact that it’s supposed to be a favorite old classic.  We didn’t really get that authentic Italian feeling described in the Rick Steves’ Rome video. To be fair, I am partly to blame for the negative experience. I chose a table in the rear, thinking it would be a nice quiet place for the hubby and I to enjoy a nice romantic dinner, when the front room, street side, would have been livelier. Unfortunately, this restaurant was a real disappointment. While I didn’t expect the “Rick Steves” VIP treatment, a friendly server would have been welcome and would have made all the difference.

IMG_3020On a positive note, the food was very good and well presented, though overpriced as compared to other eating establishments in the same area of town.  In fact, we were so underwhelmed that this was the only photo I have from the restaurant.

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We left the restaurant, feeling pretty unsatisfied, and grabbed a table at another outside cafe back on the piazza, where we enjoyed both drinks and some people watching before picking up some delicious gelato and calling it a day.

 

The Colosseum, Palatine Hill and The “Caesar Shuffle” (or more commonly known as the Roman Forum)

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On our second morning in Rome, we awoke refreshed and took a taxi to the Colosseum for our 8:30 am pre-reserved small-group tour with Walks of Italy of the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Forum.  We had specific directions to the tour meeting point, but we had a little trouble communicating this to the non-English speaking cabbie.  I showed him the map, and everything was cool, except that he dropped us at the upper level entrance to the Colosseum rather than the lower level, as the instructions specifically indicated.  While my husband wandered away to shoot some photos, I found another tour company who pointed me in the right direction.  My husband seemed in no particular hurry, but not wanting to keep our guide waiting, I dragged him away from his photo op, and we walked a short way through the subway station to get to the bottom level.  Pretty easy, fortunately.

Just as with the Vatican the previous day, this tour was a small group of 6 and gave us early entrance to the Colosseum before opening to the masses, thereby avoiding huge crowds that arrive later.  Tickets were reserved in advance by the tour company, and there was no need for waiting in line.

IMG_2808Our tour guide, Rosa, was friendly, knowledgeable and explained in detail everything we saw.  The day was cloudy and overcast, with periods of rain, but it was actually a blessing, as we didn’t need to endure the heat and sun which we had anticipated.  Still, it was a lot of walking, and Rosa was kind enough to point out an elevator which we could take to the upper level, as my knee arthritis had flared up recently, preventing me from much climbing.  Yes, it seems odd – an elevator in the Colosseum, doesn’t it.  How did disabled Romans climb, any way?

IMG_2826Here was the Colosseum.  It’s what I picture when I think of Rome:  Gladiators, man-eating lions and, of course … Russell Crowe!  Just imagine the labor that went into building such a place in A.D. 80. There used to be a wooden floor (located where that white platform in the picture is) where the games were held.  Beneath it is the “backstage area” where both gladiator and animal prepared for whatever fate awaited them above.

IMG_2835From the top level of the Colosseum, there is a great view of the Arch of Constantine.  The Arch marks the point in history when Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the year A.D. 312.

 

 

A few more photos:

Next, it was on to Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum.  

Honestly, I don’t remember much about the history we were given for Palatine Hill.  I do remember climbing a bunch of stairs, once we left the Colosseum, it was raining on and off, and I was focused on keeping my camera dry.  In any event, here are a few photos I shot along the way.

The Roman Forum I do remember much better, and I see why it’s affectionaly known as the “Caesar Shuffle” (according to the Rick Steves guide, anyway).  Walking through the ancient stone road of the Forum was like a step back in ancient times when this place was the political, religious and commercial enter of Rome.  I can imagine emperors in chariots and processions of high-ranking officials making their way from one end to the other.  IMG_2877

We began our own Caesar’s shuffle at the Arch of Titus, which marks Rome’s victory over Jerusalem in A.D. 70.  The inside of the Arch is decorated in scenes depicting the defeat over Israel (or Judaea, at the time) and other ornate carvings.

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IMG_2897Also of note along the old road was the Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina in honor of the emperor of the same name and his wife.  It must have been mighty grand in its day.  See the green door?  That was originally at ground level in Caesar’s day.

 

 

Here’s a little of what we saw after the tour on our walk back to the hotel.  Since it was Sunday, the main road to the Colosseum was closed off to motor vehicles, making for a pleasant and safe stroll.

During the remaining time over our two days in Rome, we also wandered a bit around the Pantheon neighborhood, stopping for pizza, dinner at an outdoor cafe on Piazza Navona, and dropped by a couple of nearby churches.  Churches in Rome are like nothing I’ve ever seen, and I am not talking about the grandest of the buildings of worship such as St. Peter’s Basilica.  I mean regular neighborhood churches.  For instance, we happened upon the Church of St. Ignazio di Loyola, located in the Piazza of the same name, and our jaws dropped.  The church with its beautiful dome, artwork, sculptures and architecture is absolutely stunning and rivals anything you’ll see at St. Peter’s Basilica.  If you don’t get to see the Sistine Chapel, or if the crowds at the Vatican scare you away, stop by this gorgeous church.  It wasn’t very crowded, and we spent quite a bit of time going through this huge, magnificent place.

Another church we saw was The Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, dropping in on our way to Piazza Navona.  I wish I had read about this church before going because come to find out, it is famous for the painting done by artist Caravaggio.  Not as ornate or adorned as the Church of St. Ignazio, it was still beautiful to see.

A few more shots of a pizza stop and the famous Piazza Navona.

Final Stop ~ The Pantheon.

With our hotel being a stone’s throw from the Pantheon, our visit to Rome would not be complete without a look inside.  Since we were scheduled for a 10:00 a.m. pickup on our final morning for the ride to Civitavecchia to meet the ship, we used the time after breakfast for a walk through this magnificent ancient masterpiece.  After admiring the Greek-style portico and huge bronze doors, we entered this magnificent structure and were instantly mesmerized by Roman-style rotunda, the gorgeous dome and tombs of famous people including artist Raphael and modern Rome’s first two kings.  This was a very special place, and one which I am glad to have admired for so long from a hotel window.

Our time in Rome was very brief, and there was so much we did not see including The Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain (which I reminded my husband about 100 times that it is under renovation).  It is our hope to one day return to this amazing city.

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Review: 11-Night Eastern Mediterranean Cruise Aboard Celebrity Reflection – 8.4.14

This was my 10th cruise and my husband’s 7th, but our first on Celebrity as well as our first Mediterranean sailing.  Though we sometimes travel with family during our annual August vacation, this time it was just the two of us.  As we do with every vacation in August, we were celebrating our anniversary (37th) and my husband’s birthday.

IMG_3094PRE-CRUISE:  We flew to Rome three days in advance from Boston to Rome on Aer Lingus, staying at Hotel Albergo Del Senato.  The hotel is absolutely gorgeous and sits directly on Piazza Della Rotonda, right beside the magnificent Pantheon. The location is ideal for getting to the major sites, either a short cab ride or a short walk away. We were given a room on the third floor facing the Pantheon and the piazza, as I had requested in advance. The room was fashioned in understated elegance and the bed very comfortable.  But the real beauty is what awaits the eyes outside the window. The windows open in and the shutters slide out, providing the most amazing view of the Pantheon and all the lively action happening on the piazza below. No need to worry about noise, either, because the windows are fairly soundproof and block out any noise below. With a prime location, comfortable accommodations, a killer view, complimentary breakfast, and helpful and friendly staff, we couldn’t have picked a better hotel for our first visit to Rome!

EMBARKATION:  

ShipWe booked all our transfers with RomeCabs.  Our driver from the hotel to the cruise port in Civitavecchia was Monica, who arrived 15 minutes early to assure a timely departure. She was a friendly people person with a great sense of humor, and got us to the port safely and quickly. We arrived at the cruise port at about 11:00 am and were driven directly to the ship.  Because we booked Aqua Class, we had priority embarkation and were through registration and onboard in no time at all.

IMG_3139STATEROOM:  Just before final payment, we took advantage of a great deal and upgraded ourselves to Aqua Class and chose one of those raved-about balconies on the slant of the bump-out section – #2150, deck 12, starboard side, facing forward.  The balcony was huge, although the railing was showing some wear right down to bare wood and was in need of serious refinishing.  Still, this was by far the nicest cabin we’ve ever had.  The room was decorated in warm tones with a sofa positioned next to the balcony door.  The most pleasant surprise was the cabin bathroom.  It was very large for a standard cabin bath, with modern fixtures and lots of storage space.  No knees up against the sink while you’re sitting on the john and plenty of room to move around.  The shower was a roomy half-moon shape with sliding glass doors – no clingy shower curtain, and a heavenly showerhead that sprayed the water perfectly.  As a perk of Aqua Class, our cabin steward did a wonderful job of keeping us supplied with fresh fruit, late afternoon appetizers, tea, ice and all the complimentary bottled water we could use for the entire cruise.

IMG_3164 DINING:  We were assigned to the Aqua Class dining room, Blu, and it wasn’t love at first sight for us.  On our initial visit, we were seated in the middle of a row of three tables for two, situated close together, and just like my aversion to the middle seat on a jet, it was awkward and uncomfortable, robbing me of my much valued personal space. However, with each meal, the concept grew on us, and we realized that all it takes is a simple hello to your fellow tablemates to figure out whether to strike up a conversation or leave them to their dinner.  Breakfast on the first morning, for instance, was a better experience, as we were seated at a table by the window.  With my husband’s obvious disappointment at not getting a window seat that first night, he became well acquainted with the wait-staff as the guy who “likes light”. Obviously, it wasn’t always possible to have a seat by a window, but it didn’t hurt to ask, and one evening we were given a pager to wait.  Service was good, the staff was attentive, and we found the food to be excellent for the most part.  While French Onion Soup was not on the Blu menu, our waiter was happy to bring my husband a bowl of his favorite whenever requested, and he loved it. As much as we enjoyed Blu, however, we wouldn’t book Aqua Class just to dine in Blu.  We would still have been perfectly happy without the added perks, and the main dining room (Opus) would have suited us just fine.

Here are comments on the other dining venues we tried:

Tuscan Grille:  This was the only specialty restaurant we chose for this cruise, as we found that Blu provided us all the wonderful food we could want. Since it was my husband’s birthday, we decided to splurge.  The decor is very nice, and the food was great!  For all the folks who have been warned about the ribeye steak in Tuscan, the cut my husband had was fine and cooked to his liking.  I had the shrimp & scallops dish, which was delicious.  The Tuscan onion soup was superb, too.

Oceanview Cafe:  In general, breakfast and lunch were good, with many stations and lots of choices, and we never had a problem finding a seat.  The desserts, pizza, pasta and ice cream stations were great, too.  We chose to forego formal nights this time around, preferring to grab a plate here on the first of two formal nights, while we awaited the setting of the Mediterranean sun.  The sunset was lovely, but the dinner buffet here wasn’t anything special.  Neither the food nor the ghost town atmosphere did a thing for us, and we decided that would be our one and only night in the buffet.

Mast Grill:  Great burgers and hot dogs … but where the heck was the relish???

Aqua Spa Cafe:  It didn’t do much for my meat and potatoes husband, but for me it was a great place to grab a light, healthy lunch and was very convenient to the Solarium pool, our favorite hangout.

Bars/Clubs:  The only bar or lounge we spent any significant time at was the Sunset Bar, which was a great place to enjoy a cool beverage while watching sail-away in all the ports.

Special Occasions:  Celebrity remains low key when it comes to special occasion celebrations.  No balloons on the door or singing waiters.  In fact, while we were celebrating our anniversary while dining in Blu one evening, I was just remarking to my husband how senseless it is to note a special occasion in the Cruise Planner when Celebrity doesn’t acknowledge the special day, when, lo and behold, here comes our waiter with a little chocolate anniversary cake with a candle. He lit the candle, sliced up the tiny culinary delight for us, and graciously wished us a happy anniversary.  Nothing corny or crass – just class and style!  However, it must be hit or miss with the cakes, because on the following night in The Tuscan Grille, there was no mention of happy birthday or a cake to be seen.

Café al Bacio:  Good coffes, but I wish Celebrity had a coffee card – one price for 10 – or something similar, as Princess does.  I got by with the mediocre regular coffee in the morning, but I like to treat myself to a specialty coffee in the afternoon, and Café al Bacio was the place to find it.  A coffee card would have made it more economical without having to buy a beverage package.

DRESS CODE:  We didn’t participate in formal night this time around and left our dress-up clothing at home.  We dined in Blu on the second formal night, and despite being a business casual option on formal night, I have to say that 90% of the guests were in formalwear.  We also found that people were more apt to dress it up a bit every night on this cruise – more than any other cruise or itinerary I’ve sailed.

ShowENTERTAINMENT

We found the entertainment severely lacking compared to other cruise lines, and due to the port-intensive itinerary, I found myself napping a lot or spending time on the balcony, thus missing most of the acts, but here is a small recap of what we saw and heard:

Reflection (song and dance production show):  Talented singers and dancers – delightfully entertaining.

Walker Black Duo:  Guitar & Vocal.  A little too mellow for my husband’s tastes, but I enjoyed this coffee-house style duo.

Daniel (Guitar and vocal):  Excellent guitarist and vocalist, and we both enjoyed him. Unfortunately, we only caught one performance at the Sunset Bar during our sail-away from Athens.

Soulful Electronica:  We caught snippets of this high-energy dance band often while passing through the atrium, and what we heard was very good.  Actually, since the sounds from the atrium soar up the full vertical length of the atrium, we often heard them from all over the ship.

Casino:  I won about 80 bucks on the first sea day, and did even better on a subsequent night.  From then on, the machines ate all my winnings, and then some. My husband had no luck either.

Art History 101.  We enjoyed one of these brief 30-minute seminars presented by the art auction people.   We found it informative and entertaining, and it didn’t take a huge chunk out of the day like an auction, yet still allowed ample time to down a couple of glasses of free champagne.

Art auction.  Despite our vow not to purchase any more cruise art, I saw two matching relatively inexpensive pieces by Charles Lee I just had to have.  I didn’t need much convincing, either, after a rum-heavy concoction just prior.

Solarium pool:  Our favorite place on the ship.  We loved this relaxing retreat!  Quiet, pretty, uncrowded (with the exception of sea days when an unoccupied chair was difficult to find), enclosed and protected from the hot sun, it was our favorite adults-only spot to relax.  The pool was large enough for laps, and the water was a comfortable temperature and re-energizing.  I extend my compliments to the crew for swiftly re-directing any wandering little kids under the age of 16 to the main pools.

MEDICAL CENTER:  My husband developed a bad ear infection half way through the cruise, probably from all that swimming in the pool.  Out of 10 cruises, this was the first visit ever to “sick bay” aboard any ship, and my husband reports that the doctor was very kind, gave him antibiotics and eardrops, and sent him on his way.  The ear pain and blockage did dampen his spirits a bit for the rest of the cruise, and the medical bill of $280 we received on the last day of the cruise didn’t help, either.

WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?  The following comments are by no means a criticism, but just a few things about the ship that didn’t make much sense to us:

Noisy atrium:  Loud blaring music, activity and noise in the grand atrium, mid-ship … not all the time, but enough to wonder why Celebrity designed it this way.  Woe to the folks who thought they would find peace and tranquility in the Library, Hideaway Lounge, or Game Room, all of which happen to rest on the edge of the atrium’s upper open decks above, who must have been scratching their heads in confusion while inserting their earplugs.

Conflicting ship decor:  While most areas of the ship were elegant and classy, we found others to be – well, a little strange. The psychedelic cosmic flower garden motif leading to the specialty restaurants on deck 5 – or what my husband fondly called the “drug room” – was odd and out of place.  The much talked about upside down silver-toned tree thingy in the center atrium – which we figured out was actually the “roots” extending from the green tree above it – was just plain ugly to me.  The martini bar, all in monotone gray, could really use some color.  Putting it simply, it seems that Celebrity couldn’t decide which paint brush to use when designing Reflection.

The “fake” promenade deck.  The lack of a real promenade deck was the biggest design flaw in the Solstice class ships, if you ask me.  Sure, you can stroll a distance from about the front elevators to the rear ones on either side, but except for a few feet on either end, most of your view will be blocked by the ship tenders.  I like to begin every day on board with a few leisurely laps around the promenade deck, and I sure missed one here.

Speaking of laps – the jogging track is sorely misplaced.  Just try jogging or even speed walking in the middle of the day around the main pools and see where it gets you – especially on a sea day.  You’ll be competing with deck loungers, meanderers and groups of swimsuit clad folks just chilling in the middle of the track.  If there can’t be a dedicated jogging track, then don’t have one at all.

The Lawn:  The jury is still out on this one.  Perhaps a better use of this space might be to expand the Sunset Bar, which is a perfect gathering spot with incredible views – especially during sailaway.  The bar and surrounding area could use a bit more seating for a ship this size.

The language of the sign at the Solarium Pool indicating “Solarium Adults Only 16 Years and Above.”  I’ve always thought of adults as being 21 or maybe 18 and older.  Hmmm….

PORTS:  Every port was an adventure and we saw so many incredible things.  Here’s a recap:

ROME:  

IMG_2790Vatican Tour:  The first morning, we woke early and took a taxi at 7:00 am to the Vatican for our pre-reserved 5-hour VIP tour of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica with Through Eternity Tours.  I highly recommend this small-group tour, limited to just 7 people, the primary reason being early-entry to the Sistine Chapel before opening to the public.  Instead of standing shoulder to shoulder with a massive crowd, we were able to enjoy the magnificent art of Michelangelo with just a couple of other small groups. Later, as we passed through the chapel again on our way to the Basilica, we completely understood the importance of this early tour.  By that point, the crowds were so heavy that every square inch of the chapel was filled with people gazing up at the ceilings, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for these people who could not have had the same serene experience as we did.  Our guide was very knowledgeable, thoroughly explained the history of what we were about to see, and expertly guided us through the Vatican museum exhibits, the Basilica and finishing up outside at St. Peter’s Square. We sat a few minutes taking in the surroundings, amazed that we were actually there in this holy place.  We rested our weary feet and were grateful for the drinking fountains throughout the city, allowing us to refill our empty water bottles.  We would have liked to linger for another hour at the Square, but by this time we were exhausted and made our way back to the hotel by taxi for a mid-afternoon rest.

IMG_2841Colosseum Tour:  The next morning, we awoke refreshed and met our guide at 8:30 am for our pre-reserved 3-hour small-group tour with Walks of Italy of the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Forum.  Just as with the Vatican tour the previous day, this tour gave us early entrance to the Colosseum before opening to the masses, thereby avoiding huge crowds that arrive later. Tickets are reserved in advance by the tour company, so there was no waiting in line. Our tour guide, Rosa, was friendly, knowledgeable and explained in detail everything we saw.  Experiencing these ancient ruins was just amazing, and it really made my day, knowing I walked along the same ancient road that great emperors walked.  We leisurely walked back to the hotel, stopping for pizza at an outside cafe and picking up a few souvenirs along the way.

IMG_2579The Pantheon:  Being within eye’s view of the Pantheon, our visit to Rome would not be complete without a look inside.  Since we were scheduled for a 10:00 am ride with RomeCabs to the ship on embarkation day, we used the time after breakfast for a walk through this magnificent ancient wonder.  We stood in awe as we gazed upon the Greek-style portico and huge bronze doors, the inside Roman-style rotunda, the infamous dome, the tombs of famous people including artist Raphael and modern Rome’s first two kings, and the vastness of it all simply took our breath away.

IMG_3367SANTORINI:  We took the Oia and Winery tour with Celebrity, mainly to take advantage of the early tender departure.  The ride to Oia was very pleasant, with the guide giving some history and pointing out the sights along the way.  Our first stop was the winery.  There were multiple busses parked, so the wine-tasting portion of the visit was a little crazy, but the views were incredible.  After tasting a sampling of three types of wine – all of which were nothing noteworthy, we continued on to the cliff-top town of Oia.  We aren’t in the best of shape, it was hot and humid, and the walk from the bus up the hill left us gasping for breath.  With only an hour in Oia, we decided to plant ourselves in the first restaurant we saw, which turned out to be a great decision.  We were shown to a shaded table with an awesome view, ordered a Greek Salad, Souvlaki, wine and beer, and we couldn’t have enjoyed our visit any more than we did.  Back aboard the bus, we continued to the town of Fira, where we browsed a few shops on our way to the cable cars for return to the ship.  There was no line at all, and it was a quick car ride down the cliff.  Later, from our cabin balcony, I managed to zoom in on the infamous donkey trail and photographed some riders going up and down the ziggity-zaggety pathway.  It looked like a long way up and not a journey we would have wanted to take on stubborn animals.

IMG_3625ISTANBUL:  Originally, we were going to take a taxi into the city to explore on our own, but at the last minute decided to book seats with Celebrity’s “Istanbul On Your Own”.  What a huge mistake!  Celebrity describes this excursion as a stop at the Spice Market “for the ones who would like to discover the market…with access to the old city”, then the last and final stop at the Grand Bazaar…with “plenty of time to discover the Old City and Bazaar on your own.”  This was a huge misrepresentation on Celebrity’s part.  We were hardly “on our own”.  It was all about shopping.  The group was herded to the Spice Market – which we didn’t mind, as we wanted to do a little shopping.  But after an hour there, we were instructed to board the bus and proceed to the second stop – the Grand Bazaar.  But wait!  There would be no Grand Bazaar until you were led into a Celebrity-preferred retailer to undergo a “carpet demonstration”.  To make matters worse, it wasn’t a demonstration of how carpets are made but, rather, a presentation.  In other words, it was a sales pitch, simply showing a number of carpets followed by a roomful of shady salespersons for the hard-sell.  Unless you’re interested in buying a carpet, it’s a huge waste of time that could have been spent at places more worthy.  Following the carpet pitch, the guide (and by the way, why does an on-your-own tour need a guide, anyway?) began to lead the group to the Grand Bazaar for more shopping.  However, this was where we said see ya later, bud.  With confirmation on where to meet up later, we left the group to continue on our own to the Hagia Sophia Museum and the Blue Mosque.

Unfortunately, the Blue Mosque was closed on this Friday morning, until 2:30, which was the time we had to return to the bus – how inconvenient.  After settling for some photographs of the exterior of the Blue Mosque, we walked over to Hagia Sophia to visit this incredible former church/mosque.  It took about 20 minutes to get through the line, and once inside, we were amazed by the architecture.  First a mosque for 916 years, then a church for 435 years, it became a museum in 1935.  The enormity of size, the spectacular dome and the artwork and mosaics are a feast for the senses.  It began raining, very heavily, and just like magic dozens of Turkish men, women and children appeared from nowhere armed with umbrellas to sell.  We declined and started to make our way back toward the bus, stopping at a restaurant along the way for lunch and to dry off.  However, the rain never really stopped, and by the time we got back to the bus, we were soaked.

Also, be aware that EVERY tour with the cruise lines in all the Turkish ports include an obligatory stop at a rug or carpet demonstration, i.e. sales pitch.  Sadly, the “On Your Own Tour” was no exception.

Here’s a Tip:  If you do happen to take this tour or any Istanbul large group tour and are out on your own, remove your tour ID sticker.  The carpet hawkers are relentless when they find out you came in by cruise ship, and they will try to engage you in friendly banter to reel you in.  Just smile, say no, and continue on your way.

IMG_3734Bosphorus Cruise:  Later on in the evening of our first day in Istanbul, we did Celebrity’s Nighttime Bosphorus River Cruise.  After the ship’s on-your-own tour fiasco, I was a little apprehensive about this ship-sponsored tour, thinking it was going to be a crowded boat with hundreds of people packed into bench seats.  It actually turned out to be quite the opposite and a lot of fun. There were maybe 100 people spread out over two decks seated at large round tables with white linen, appetizers, and wait-staff pouring all you can drink free wine, beer and soft drinks.  We were one of the first to board and chose a prime table overlooking the back of the boat on the upper open deck on this warm beautiful night. We met some nice fellow American table mates from Arizona and Texas, and had a really great time.  A belly dancer provided lively entertainment, choosing some lucky victims to join in her dancing.  Great fun!

IMG_3937KUSADASI:  We pre-booked a private tour to the ancient ruins of Ephesus with Ephesus Shuttle.  Our guide was waiting for us at the pier, and we had a large, super-comfy mini-van all to ourselves.  As expected, it was very hot, humid and crowded, but our very knowledgeable tour guide allowed us to go along at our own pace through the Library of Celsus, ancient Brothel and Baths, the Theatre where St. Paul preached, and more, allowing us ample time at each point of reference along the way for pictures, water breaks and what little shade was available.  I highly recommend this tour for a reasonably priced way to see the tour at a relaxed pace and one-on-one with a guide.  We opted out of the step-laden terrace houses due to my recurring knee issues, but Ephesus was absolutely incredible and well worth the experience.

Tip:  If you’re heading out to Ephesus, you’ll most definitely need to bring water, a hat, sunscreen – and an umbrella as a shield from the sun wouldn’t hurt either, as there is little to no shade.  Be sure to wear sturdy, flat non-skid shoes or sport sandals, because the walk is entirely on slippery marble or uneven cobblestones.

IMG_3986After the tour, we stopped at The Temple of Artemis, even though it was not included in our tour. Unfortunately, all that remains are a single column and a few piles of rocks. Still, it is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and is worthy of a visit.  We finished up our tour with a delicious lunch at a small local restaurant, and returned to the port. She asked, but we declined a visit to a carpet store for a demonstration, as we had neither the interest nor the money to invest, and we never felt pressured into attending one.  Besides, we’d been there and done that in Istanbul.

IMG_4074MYKONOS:  We had no excursion or tour booked here and originally thought about staying on the ship, since we’re not really beach people.  I am so glad we didn’t. We walked along the gorgeous waterfront, strolling by the shops and restaurants and were rewarded with beautiful views of a clear, turquoise sea and a refreshing ocean breeze. We continued along the ocean road to the right and came upon a little blue-domed chapel, and went even further for even more beautiful views and a quaint alley with shops and cafés.  We enjoyed lunch at an outdoor cafe overlooking the harbor with a front row seat to all the action around us.  Mykonos was a pleasant surprise and a few relaxing hours to spend on shore.

IMG_4247ATHENS:  We took a taxi from the cruise port for the 20-minute drive to the Acropolis Museum.  If you want to see the Acropolis but are unable to make the climb (like me), go to the museum.  It may not be the same as being there, but it’s an excellent alternative. What you will see are many of the original ancient artifacts and statues, as well as the ancient streets and ruins of buildings below as seen through the glass floors throughout the first floor of the museum.  No photography is allowed inside the museum, but while some areas had the camera police standing around, other areas of the building, particularly the third floor, seemed to be more lax.  In fact, be sure to go to the third floor viewing area where you will be able to see the ancient monuments of the Acropolis on the “holy rock” and take photos.  One of the museum’s exhibits which really impressed me was the Caryatids, the original gigantic figures of 5 of the 6 maidens which supported the roof of the Erechtheion, one of the ancient temples on the rock.  Also, near the third floor viewing area, you’ll see many of the original statues and sculptures removed by the Greeks from the Parthenon to protect them from the elements.  We spent a couple of hours at the museum and continued on our way down the road and around the corner to Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Zeus, the latter of which we photographed through the fence without actually paying to walk through the gate.  By the way, you can get some interesting photos of the Acropolis through the Arch.  Of course, no first visit to a city is complete without sampling the local food, so we stopped for lunch between the museum and the Arch.

Amalfi CoastNAPLES:  We joined a small group tour with AP Tours (8 people) bound for the Amalfi Coast, Positano, Ravello and Pompeii.  Our driver was professional, friendly and had a great sense of humor.  Our first stop was Positano, where we walked a little ways along the quaint, but crowded streets and picked up a couple of ceramic gifts to take home. We continued on our way for another brief stop at The town of Amalfi, where he had a quick lunch and then back to the van to continue to our third stop of Ravello.  This was our favorite town on the tour.  It was not crowded, and very pretty with some lovely homes and scenery.  The town square was lined with shops and restaurants, and we wished we had more time to spend here.  

PompeiiOur last stop was a wonderful guided tour of the ancient ruins of Pompeii. The group hired a guide, who showed us around to the most important buildings and homes and gave us a good history of Pompeii and its destruction with the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. I was worried about what the uneven stone pavement and stairs would do to my bad knees, but Pompeii was not difficult to maneuver at all.  We found our earlier visit before the cruise to The Roman Forum and Palatine Hill to be much more challenging. Of course, it helped that we had a bit of cloud cover to keep the heat down.  This was a great tour, and the only thing I might suggest to others – and do differently next time – would be to choose no more than two towns to visit on the tour.  It’s a long day, there was a lot of traffic along the coast, and cutting one town would have allowed us more time to explore in each place.

DISEMBARKATION AND FLIGHT HOME:  We had a flight home at 11:50 a.m., and were off the ship with the first group at 6:50 am.  It took all of 5 minutes to collect our luggage and meet our driver from RomeCabs.  We shared a ride with some new cruise friends and shared stories of our 11 days on board the Reflection.  Our return flight to Boston – particularly, the Dublin portion – was the low point of this trip, not just because it’s always sad to leave, but because of the security ordeal in Dublin and nearly missing our connection.  We had a 2-hour layover, with barely enough time for three different security checks, carry-on bag inspection (me) and a full pat down (me again).  I guess it was my lucky day.  It was 2 hours of long lines and frustrated passengers.  We made it on board the plane with minutes to spare and had a safe flight to Boston, where our driver was waiting for us to take us back to the real world.

IMG_3448This cruise was fabulous – both the ship and the itinerary.  I would love to revisit Rome, Istanbul and Naples some day to see the sights that a day in port can’t possibly cover.  The Reflection is a gorgeous ship. Even though the entertainment on board was not as varied as what we’re accustomed to, we were very impressed with Celebrity and would sail the line again in a heartbeat!

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Return to a Summer Favorite … Wellfleet, Mass.

IMG_2333With the focus on cruise travel the past few years, a favorite family summer destination had begun to fade to the background.  Not that Wellfleet, Mass., wasn’t still my favorite seasonal escape.  In fact, Wellfleet will always be our go-to spot to do nothing but relax, enjoy the beach and take in the sea air in this most peaceful of places on outer Cape Cod.  While cruising is a great way to explore new places all over the globe, there is just something so special about re-connecting with family and retreating to an old favorite for a week of fun, relaxation and quiet reflection.

David and I discovered the magic of Wellfleet nearly 30 summers ago.  Thanks to President Kennedy, the Cape Cod National Seashore became a reality in 1961, providing miles of protected beaches, ponds, salt marshes, sand dunes, hiking and bike trails from Chatham to Provincetown. 

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In the midst of this natural wonder lies Wellfleet, known for its art galleries, big ocean waves, tranquil bay beaches, fishing, boating … and oysters!  We’ve had many week-long summer retreats here – and a few brief off-season ones, too!  Memories of sunsets, long bike rides, swimming, beach combing, clam shacks and family hikes fill our minds and our photo albums.IMG_2476

With another cruise planned this summer for the two of us, this time to the Mediterranean, it looked as though another summer would pass with no family week on the Cape.  With vacation time scarce and the small fortune involved in a 2-week European sojourn at sea, an additional week on the shores of Cape Cod seemed highly unlikely.

Then came Alex!  When my daughter and son-in-law mentioned last fall their desire for a beach rental this summer in Wellfleet with our first grandchild, that was all I needed to hear.  Time and money be damned!  I immediately sprang into action, searching for the perfect bayside cottage to show off our beloved Wellfleet to 15-month-old Alexander.  A new tradition with many future years of Cape Cod summers immediately came to mind, and I made it my mission to start one.

There was just one problem:  The tiny 2-cottage colony we called home for our many years of Wellfleet summers were sold, and I now had to find something similar which would leave us with similar new memories.  

IMG_2561With great excitement, I went to my computer and googled Wellfleet rentals, which brought me to Home Away, a site dedicated to weekly vacation rentals.  With a family of 8 or so, we needed either a roomy 4 bedroom house or a pair of 2-bedroom cottages.  Finally, we found exactly what we were looking for: a pair the cutest little white-brick, blue-shuttered cottages I’d ever laid eyes on, directly across from the beach.  I contacted the owner, and learned that both side-by-side cottages were available for the second week in July.  While not the best week for Grandpa’s busy summer work schedule, he begrudgingly agreed to spend part of the time with us, and commute the rest.  With our cruise buddies also on board – also known as my brother and sister-in-law – I happily paid the deposit and eagerly awaited the arrival of summer and our return to family bayside bliss.

IMG_2354That week in July had finally arrived, and as we drove through the familiar narrow street to the tiny two houses on the shore, I felt that inner warmth and happiness that overcomes me whenever I arrive here in Wellfleet after a long absence.  It’s like returning home. 

IMG_2563As I sat there one early morning, amidst Wellfleet’s unassuming splendor, I thought how so very grateful and so very blessed I was to have this opportunity to share this best of vacations with my grandson.  I hope he learns to love and appreciate this amazing place as much as I do.IMG_2146

 

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My Top 10 Most Memorable Travel Moments of 2013

Japanese Gardens-San Francisco

Japanese Gardens-San Francisco

In 2013, David and I were blessed with another year of amazing travel firsts – first time to Alaska, first time to San Francisco, first time to the Grand Canyon, first time in a tiny 6-seater plane, and other notable moments of first glimpses. New and different sights and opportunities always produce an abundance of fresh stories and photos to share.  Here, in no particular order, are our top 10 most memorable travel experiences of 2013:

IMG_2455Flightseeing in Ketchikan, Alaska.  While aboard the Grand Princess on an Alaska cruise, we spent a large stack of bills on this privately-booked floatplane flight to see bears in their natural habitat.  Unfortunately, the bears did not come out to play with us, but the ride was exciting nevertheless, landing and takeoff smooth as silk, and the view from the sky was beautiful.  My initial fear of taking off in a tiny plane was replaced by sheer excitement, and the ride was worth every precious penny we paid.

IMG_1111The Grand Canyon, Arizona.   The thought of cold and snow at the South Rim made me really hesitant about visiting the Grand Canyon in February.  However, I was so glad we did.  Thankfully, the forecasted major snowstorm, which threatened to create a traveling mess, never materialized.  Instead, we were left with a fine layer of fresh powder and sun. The effects of natural light and snow-layered rims of the canyon enhanced the beauty and splendor of this natural wonder.  As we drove and stopped for photos at several points along the rim trail, I lost count of the number of “Ahhhh” moments where words could never describe what lay before my eyes.  The quiet solitude of the canyon in winter was a gift, making me wonder why anyone would want to fight the heat and crowds in summer.

cathedralrockCathedral Rock Hike in Sedona, Arizona.  On our drive back from the Grand Canyon to Phoenix for our flight home, we stopped for a night in Sedona.  The drive through the winding, mountainous roads blessed us with some of the most beautiful snow-covered vistas we’d ever seen, and as we drove closer to Sedona and caught our first glimpse of grand red rocks, the scene took our breath away.  As with the Grand Canyon, the light layer of snow against backdrop of red proved to enhance the beauty of these majestic rock formations.  We are not the adventurous or active sort, but we managed to hike our old, tired legs a short way up the trail in the lightly falling snow toward the grandest of the red rocks, Cathedral Rock.  Our hiking shoes were caked with red mud, but it was well worth the experience.

IMG_2361Glacier Bay, Alaska.  This is what we came to Alaska for and why we chose a cruise with Glacier Bay as part of the itinerary.  We were blessed with a gorgeous, sunny day when we sailed in, and as she ship slowly guided past the great ice, we marveled at the majestic splendor of the glaciers and mountains reflected in the calm, blue water of the Bay.

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Muir Woods, California.  A visit to the stately redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument was part of a post-cruise day tour of Sausalito and Marin County.  Although the sections of the park were crowded with noisy tourists, there was plenty of opportunity for quiet tranquility on the walk through this forest of old, beautiful redwoods.  The towering, majestic trees were simply stunning and I couldn’t help but feel small and inconsequential next to such natural beauty.

 

IMG_1705Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco.  We had several opportunities to see the bridge, both on a pre-cruise city tour when we stopped for the obligatory photo ops and again on a post-cruise tour when we traveled over the bridge to explore the Marin County area and Muir Woods.  It seemed that the bridge appeared different each time we gazed at it.  At times the bridge was barely visible in the foggy mist, other times it was shrouded in clouds.  On our final day in San Francisco, the fog lifted and a blue, sunny sky revealed the bridge in all its glory.  But perhaps the most dramatic Golden Gate Bridge moment was gliding beneath the bridge aboard the Grand Princess on our way out of the Bay to Alaska.  You could almost hear a collective sigh as the bridge approached then disappeared above us, and the applause that followed by all the cruisers on deck said it all.

IMG_1664Dim Sum in Chinatown, San Francisco.  Chinatown in this amazing city is a huge area of kitschy souvenir shops mixed in with authentic Chinese art, sculptures, crafts and other unique wares.  There is a never-ending feeling of hustle and bustle here, and it was nice to stop at a small restaurant along the way for dim sum – good, inexpensive appetizers and tea to hold us over until dinner time while resting our weary feet.

IMG_1534Alcatraz, San Francisco.   I’d always been curious about this old prison since seeing Burt Lancaster as the Birdman of Alcatraz, and I wasn’t disappointed.  A steep hike up to the prison from the pier was well worth the informative self-audio tour.  Listening to the voices of former inmates tell of their time behind bars, stories of attempted escapes, the famous criminals imprisoned here, and what life was like at the prison made for a very interesting – and a little bit haunting – experience.

 

IMG_1956Whale Watching & Mendenhall Glacier Photo Safari, Juneau Alaska.  This was a 5-hour ship-sponsored excursion while aboard the Grand Princess on an inside passage cruise from San Francisco.  Unlike many large group shore excursions, this one was refreshingly different.  We were part of a small group of 12 other shutterbugs, both experienced and point-and-shoot type of travelers, and were led on a nature hike at Mendenall Glacier followed by an amazing small boat ride to search for whales.  This tour did not disappoint.  We saw amazing whale activity, enjoyed breathtaking views of Mendenhall Glacier, experienced beautiful plant and animal life, and learned some helpful photo tips along the way.

IMG_3091Japanese Hot Rock at Izumi, Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas.  My daughter, with whom I traveled on a cruise to Canada aboard Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas, is an avid fan of Japanese food.  So it was only natural we had to try Izumi, the newly-added Japanese restaurant to the ship’s roster of onboard eateries.  I decided to be adventurous and try grilling my own dinner right at our table, all by myself, with just a 550-degree blazing hot rock, some steak, vegetables and a spatula.  Like the waiter said, if it came out bad, I had only myself to blame.  Not much of a griller at home, and steak not being my specialty, I was a little intimidated.  However, it turned out to be lots of fun and the highlight of my onboard dining experience.

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20 Signs That You Chose the Wrong Cruise

pirate shipThink yours was the cruise from hell?  Here are some REAL signs you’re on a really bad cruise:

1.  Upon embarkation, you hear a computer voice calmly announcing that “this ship will self-destruct in 5, 4, 3 ….”

2.  The Captain’s name is Jack Sparrow, and he wants to know, “Where’s all the rum gone?”

3.  The Atrium resembles a waiting room, with a sofa, folding chairs, and a coffee table containing a copy of “The World’s Biggest Cruise Ship Disasters Ever”.

4.  “Stewart”, you’re cabin attendant, greets you on the first day, happily announces he’s going on vacation, and hands you a bucket and a sponge.

5.  That “size-of-a-closet” inside cabin you booked (against the advice of your travel agent) is just that – an actual closet.

6.  Your cabin is semi-private, and the bathroom is shared with the cabin next door.

7.  On a visit to the bridge, “re-CALC-ulating” is repeatedly heard from the ship’s GPS.

8.  The crewmembers are all wearing life jackets.

9.  It’s Day 3 of a 4-night cruise, and you still haven’t left port.

10.  Each passenger boarding the tender boat to go ashore is handed a pair of oars.

11.  Tonight’s “Surf and Turf” dining selection is Tuna Helper and Spam in a Can.

12.  Your dining room seat cushion also serves as your flotation device.

13.  The only song the band knows is “There’s Got to Be a Morning After” (remember the original Poseidon Adventure?)

14.  All the towel animals look like the Grim Reaper.

15.  There are sharks swimming circles in the pool.

16.  The end of the water slide is positioned off the side of the ship.

17.  The lido deck is occupied by chair hogs – the live, curly tailed, 4-legged animal kind.

18.  Dr. Hannibal Lecter is the doctor on call.

19.  The ship needs a jump-start at every port.

20.  The chief engineer is overheard mumbling something about a “bucket ‘o bolts”.

Author:  Janice Neves (October, 2013)

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“Mom Moments” From a Mother & Daughter Cruise

Mom&JennMy daughter and I just returned from a cruise from New England and Canada aboard the Brilliance of the Seas – or should I say from just Canada, since I already live in New England, and it seems strange to say I returned from a place in which I already live.  I thought I would share a few amusing personal cruise episodes, things that my kids fondly refer to as “mom moments.”  People of a certain age prefer to call them “senior moments”.

I’ve always been a little clumsy and absent minded, but generally I’d say these missteps, mispronunciations, misreads, mistakes, brain freezes and blunders have increased with each new gray hair and wrinkle that appears.  I think it started when I was about 40, when I decided to try eyeglasses with progressive lenses.  I must have tripped over a hundred things just trying to get acclimated. Since then, I always blame the eyeglasses for every mom moment – or senior moment that comes my way.

I could write a book, but here are just a few “mom moments” from our most recent cruise.

IMG_3307The Elevator.  So it would figure that on the first day just after embarkation, I would press the button for the elevator when the thing was already there beckoning in front of me with its doors wide open.  Must be my glasses, I said aloud.  My daughter immediately jotted this down as #1 in her notebook of mom’s cruise moments.

WET_FLOOR_CONECaution: Wet Floor.   Most people watch where they’re walking.  Not me.  I was looking around the Windjammer, admiring the room and figuring out which buffet food station to begin my grazing, and WHAM!  I walked right into one of those tall, yellow cones in the middle of the floor marked in big black letters, “Caution: Wet Floor”.  Why they needed to place it there I don’t know.  The floor wasn’t wet.  Fortunately, just the cone fell over – and not me.  The only thing that was bruised was my dignity.   There could only be one possible explanation – must be my glasses.

IMG_2176The Jock.  This wasn’t a blunder of any kind, but just an unfortunate situation that adversely affected the rest of my cruise experience – and eyeglasses had nothing to do with it.  I decided I was going to continue my daily at-home exercise regimen of 25 minutes on an exercise bike here in the ship’s fitness center.  I got on the bike, set the machine on automatic, set the tension to “it’s so easy an ape could do it” and off I pedaled.  I had a nice conversation with trainer, Six-Pack Steve, about workouts in general and how biking keeps my knee arthritis in check.  OK, Steve wasn’t his name, but the six-pack abs reference definitely fit.  I finished my 25 minutes, left the gym and went about my day, returning to the room for a catnap before dinner.  I woke up, and my knee had blown up like a balloon and I couldn’t straighten it or bend it.  I quickly raided my first aid bag, called for some ice, filled my handy Ziploc bags, and iced up the knee and limped off to dinner.  With the help of some Jacuzzi time in the morning, some ice at night, a bottle of Advil and one of those stretchy knee braces, I was able to make my way around the ship and even in port, but just a lot slower.  So ended my well-intentioned shipboard fitness plan.

I had never cruised at any time other than summer, and was not accustomed to so many older people.  Make no mistake – I counted myself among them on this cruise, and by day 2, and I was beginning to feel and appear like the oldest of the old, folks ambling about the ship with canes and walkers.  In other words, I fit right in.

IMG_2162As a side note, I was worried that 26-year-old daughter Jenn would feel out of place with this crowd.  In fact, one gentleman, while waiting for the elevator, asked her “What’s a young thing like you doing on this ship?”  To the contrary, she was very flattered being the youngest at the table every night.  She wound up being the go-to person for advice on movies, science fiction, Facebook and the Internet.

IMG_2959The Juggling Act:  Get me a job on a cruise ship, because I can juggle!  Too lazy to wait for an elevator, I was making my way down a flight of stairs one afternoon with two cups of coffee and a plate of pastry.  Hey, it was only one flight and my bum knee could certainly make the trip.  The only problem was I had only two hands – the plate in one and the two cups – one on top of the other  - in the other hand.  No hand left to hold onto the rail.  I was doing great until my heel caught on a step, and sent my cups wobbling back and forth and my hand sliding around feverishly in order to compensate.  Had to be the eyeglasses.  In the end, I saved the coffee and my wits.  Better yet, I didn’t fall.

IMG_3559Look Before Crossing.  Something happened to me after I double-fractured my ankle on another vacation seven years ago.  That’s right – I was as clumsy then as I am now.  I am a magnet for mishaps.  Memories of a double ankle fracture on Cape Cod as well as a trip and fall, landing face first on a sidewalk in Savannah, Georgia, make stepping off sidewalks and traversing a street equivalent to walking on eggs.  I don’t want to risk breaking another ankle, nor do I want to fall down in the street and get run over.  So, of course, there I was shopping with my daughter in Portland, Maine, last week, and while one side of my brain is concentrating on my footwork in navigating the sidewalk, the other side has failed to inform me of the approaching car.  My daughter grabbed my arm and stopped me in my tracks.   As I said before, it must be the eyeglasses.

Three things I have learned from this cruise:  (1) Get the knee fixed. (2) I can’t be trusted to travel alone, and (3) Lose the glasses and look into contact lenses.

IMG_3292Oh – and one other thing I learned:  I suck at mini-golf.

 
 

 

For details of our cruise, read my review: Boston to New England/Canada Aboard Brilliance, Oct. 6, 2013

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No Cure for This Cruise Junkie

DSCN1964When I told my husband I would be cruising without him come October, he was less than enthused.  We have enjoyed seven previous journeys at sea together, one being with Carnival, another on Norwegian, and the rest with Princess.  I was itching to try another line, not because I disliked the other three, but simply because I want to say that I’ve sailed every major cruise line, at least once.

25448_111060068905343_1039650_nDavid and I discovered cruising fairly late in life, at age 47.  Why we waited so long to sail away on a ship at sea remains a mystery, but embarking on our first cruise for our 25th anniversary got us completely hooked.  I spent countless hours over a 14-month span preparing for that first cruise – and the same is true for each one that followed.

Has the excitement and anticipation dimmed over the years with each new booking?  Not in the least.  The only thing that has changed is the number of bookings I have in the pipeline.  What was once the excitement and joy of booking one new cruise immediately after disembarking the last has now become booking three or four.   My family says I’m obsessed, but I don’t see it that way.  I just love to be on the ocean and see it as an opportunity to try new experiences – new ships and new itineraries.  No longer am I content to restrict my vacation time to the same week every summer to in order to work around a spouse’s school schedule.

brillianceTo quench my unending thirst for new cruises and to reaffirm my status as a cruise “junkie”, I began researching some other options and liked what I found.  For instance, just up the road in Boston, Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas would be doing fall foliage runs up the coast through New England and Canada.  I was super excited – it would be a new itinerary for me.  Despite living in the Northeast my entire life, I had never been to any of the places on the schedule – Portland, Bar Harbor, Halifax and Saint John.

Neither had I yet sailed Royal Caribbean, a line I’ve always wanted to try, but my husband always vetoed because “it’s just not Princess.”  Well, I thought to myself, David will be busy with school when this cruise is set to sail, so here is my big chance to stray.  Yeah, he’ll object and otherwise put up a fuss over my going without him, but hey, he’ll get over it.

IMG_0817Next, I needed to find someone to join me.  I don’t fancy the idea of traveling solo, and even if I did, I am not prepared to pay an obscene single supplement.  So I started going through my meager list of family and friends and soon discovered it wasn’t easy to find someone with money to spare who wasn’t committed to work or babies.  There was only one logical choice:  our daughter, Jenn, who still had some vacation time coming.  She jumped at the chance to take a week off from her hectic job in tech support, and I knew she would be a great travel companion, too – easy going, quiet and she doesn’t whine!

I immediately blocked off a week from work and booked the cruise.  Even better, as luck would have it, I qualified for a senior discount – another first for me.  On one hand, I was dismayed that I would ever be considered “old”, but on the other hand, I was grateful for the savings.

Not willing to stop there, I continued my search for another cruise in the not-too-distant future.  I had been badgering my husband for years about cruising during school break, but he would always protest, preferring to be home catching up on reading, TV watching or – more often than not – school work.  What kind of vacation is that, I ask!

rubyLo and behold, my email reveals that Princess, for the first time ever, will be sailing short 4 and 5 day cruises out of Fort Lauderdale, and wouldn’t you know – one of them falls during April break!  Surely, he will come around this time.  After all, it’s Princess, his favorite cruise line.   Well, I was right.  Not that it didn’t take a little convincing, but he was on board with the idea pretty quickly.  Before he had a chance to change his mind, I went immediately to the computer and booked our 5-day Caribbean cruise on the Ruby Princess scheduled to sail during April break.

celebrity_reflectionFor what has become our annual summer cruise, my search for the new and different in 2014 resumed.  We’ve been talking about the Mediterranean for a number of years, but when it came time to book, we’d always end up somewhere else on the map.  Finally, it’s settled.  Next August, we are jumping the Princess ship and climbing aboard yet another – this time, Celebrity.  Once again, for David, it was not an easy sell to choose Celebrity over Princess, but the price was right, the promo was one we couldn’t refuse, and both were really enraptured with the brochure depicting all the fun we would have aboard the very beautiful Celebrity Reflection visiting Italy and Greece.

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I can’t wait to see what new cruise adventures await us in our retirement years … some day.  Maybe a transatlantic cruise?  A repositioning cruise?  A dirt-cheap last minute cruise only someone with a flexible schedule could possibly consider?

The possibilities are endless, so stay tuned!

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