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. 

CapeCodNatlSeaShore

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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“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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Winging It in Alaska … “Bear”ly

A cruise to Alaska isn’t about standing at the railing watching the scenery.  Don’t get me wrong; you’ll see some amazing scenery from the deck of a cruise ship – wildlife, panoramic vistas and glaciers.  No, to really experience Alaska, you’ll need to get off the ship and venture out into the wild and commune with nature.

IMG_2385My husband came up with the idea first – a flightseeing trip to see black bears in their natural habitat.  I’d seen pictures – tiny planes that fly relatively low and land on water. The pessimist in me (or “negative nanny” as the hubby affectionately calls me) immediately came to surface, as I thought to myself … are these little winged vehicles safe?  Is our will up to date?  Is our insurance going to cover if the plane goes down?  What if the plane breaks down and we miss the ship?  What if the weather’s bad?  Will I be able to get my arthritic knees up the ladder into the seat?  Will my beefy husband fit?  You can see where I was going with this.  I found the idea a little unsettling, to say the least.

IMG_2520When I am presented with any potentially new experience, I turn to my best friend, Google.  I immediately opened up the iPad and began researching small Alaska floatplanes, the best companies, and the best places to see bears from Ketchikan, one of our ports of call.  The more I read, the more I liked the idea.  “Hey, this could be fun!” I tried to convince my skeptical side.

My search revealed several well-recommended flight companies, so I began making some calls.  Two viewing locations for bears in Ketchikan were recommended – Anan Creek or Traitor’s Cove.  Both involved a half-mile trail through rainforest to a viewing platform overlooking a creek.  Traitor’s Cove provided a guide to the viewing area.  Anan Creek did not – once the plane landed, you were on your own, alone, at the mercy of any bear encountered along the trail.  Since our comfort level regarding meeting any large 4-legged wildlife in the woods is pretty low, we opted for the safety and reassurance of a guide and Traitor’s Cove a/k/a Margaret Creek.

The next consideration was price.  Like many tours involving travel to locations in the Alaskan wilderness, a flightseeing trip would mean expenditure of a small fortune.  Geez, I thought.  I could buy another cruise for that money – a short one – but a cruise nonetheless.  But, hey, this is Alaska.  A ride on a small plane would be an adventure well worth the price.  After reading some very positive travel reviews, we finally settled on a small family aviation business.  Run by a young couple with two very cute kids (according to website photos anyway), Dad was the pilot and Mom ran the office, and they owned just two planes.  Mom was very kind and friendly on the phone, patiently answered all my questions, took my credit card deposit, and we were good to go!

IMG_2533I had read stories of bad Alaska weather – rain, cold and thick fog – conditions that could possibly hinder the view from the plane, or preventing the plane from even taking off, for that matter.  As luck would have it, we were blessed with a perfect sunny day for our flight.  I won’t lie, though … I was really nervous.  My stomach was doing flips, and I ate very little that morning.   We were picked up as scheduled on the dock, driven to the DeHavilland Beaver 6-passenger floatplane, shown a brief safety video while we all settled our account, and led to the plane, along with our 4 other flight mates.

Now, remember when I mentioned the family owned two planes?  Well, as we’re walking to the plane, Mom apologizes for running a little late – that one plane had to go rescue some passengers stranded by their other plane that had developed a small mechanical problem out on a Misty Fiords run.  After registering the look of alarm on my face, she assured us that all was fine with the plane sitting in the water in front of us.  Dear, God – I thought – I hope you’re right.

IMG_2412It was time to board, and pilot Dad assigned us our seats.  David and I were seated side by side in the row behind the pilot.  It was a little tricky maneuvering up the ladder and in and out of the seats, but the pilot was happy to assist, and I am happy to report that we all fit just fine.

Once the engine started and we began to take off, my worries melted away, replaced by excitement, and I felt perfectly at ease.  Take off was very smooth, and we hardly felt a thing.

IMG_2427Even better was the view.  In a six-seat small plan like this, everyone has a window with a view, and we gazed in wonder at the mountains in the distance and the beauty of the islands and forestry below.

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After about 20 minutes of breathtaking scenery, with pilot Dad narrating into our headsets as we flew, we landed effortlessly at the dock.  A guide greeted us and brought us for a short walk to the van that would drive us into the rain forest.

Close to the van was a small outhouse, and I was reminded of a YouTube video I recently watched showing a woman held captive for some time by a curious bear pacing outside the door of the outhouse she was using at another bear viewing location.  I really had to go, and I prayed that wouldn’t be me.  Thankfully, no bears came calling.

IMG_2472After a short ride in the van and some preliminary instruction in the event of an encounter with a bear on the trail, we hiked along the half-mile dirt path, marveling at the quiet solitude and beauty of the lush rainforest, with our guide pointing out some exquisite plant life along the way.  As it turns out, we didn’t run into any bears in our pathway, but we did find some fresh bear poop (yes, you could even see the red berries he had recently eaten!) indicating to us that one may have been recently nearby.

No hike along a nature trail would be complete without a photo op.  In this case, we crossed a foot bridge and caught a beautiful view of the creek.  As an added benefit, two people fishing added a nice perspective and some interest to the photo.

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We finally reached an observation deck overlooking a creek, where we all had our eyes peeled to the running water below in the hopes of seeing a bear or two come and feast on spawning salmon.  We quietly waited and waited – for anything … a bear, a porcupine, a moose – something to start our cameras rolling.

IMG_2484Other than a few salmon in the running water in the creek below, there was no sign of life – at least none that we could see with the naked eye.  Finally, two bald eagles flew low overhead through the trees, landed and posed for pictures.  These two majestic birds flew around, landed here and there, and otherwise kept us entertained for the rest of the time at the creek.

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Come to find out, the recent spell of unseasonably warm, dry, sunny weather in the area – while great for the tourists – had not been so good for bear sightings. The water levels in the streams were low, with far fewer salmon running, resulting in fewer bears showing up for dinner.

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In the end, no bears were seen on this trip.  The only photograph showing evidence of bears at Traitor’s Cove was a detailed picture of bear poop!  Although we were disappointed that the bears did not come out to play that day, we thoroughly enjoyed the ride!

As an added bonus, we had a great view of our cruise ship – the Grand Princess – from the plane when we landed!

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For more photos of our Flightseeing excursion from Ketchikan, AK, view my Web Album.

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Alaska Cruise Highlight ~ A Day in Glacier Bay

IMG_2203This was it, the reason for our cruise to Alaska – to see glaciers before they melt.  We were aboard the Grand Princess, on an 11-day cruise, which left San Francisco on July 29, 2013.

The Captain told us the previous day that the best place to initially observe the glaciers would be port side, and a naturalist from Glacier Bay National Park would be on board to narrate about our wondrous surroundings.  We reached Glacier Bay about 6:00 a.m., and as the morning wore on, the skies became sunnier and the water bluer than we could have imagined, setting up what would become one of the most breathtaking visual displays of nature that we’ve ever seen.

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We woke up early, grabbed our cameras and binoculars, donned a couple of warm layers and headed up top, where we could get a good panoramic vista.  There were already a few hardy souls up there when we arrived, wrapped in blankets sitting in chairs by the railing.  This looked like a good idea, so we did the same.

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I won’t lie.  It was freezing up there on deck!  It wasn’t long before we ran back to the cabin for another layer or two.  We purchased a nice hot Irish coffee from the nearby cart to warm our insides and hunkered down bundled up in our chairs as the ship slowly glided through the bay.

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My new high-powered binoculars did not fail me as I scoped the waters for wildlife and calving glaciers.  I spotted a few sea lions swimming by and a few whale spouts in the distance, and I heard from others that a moose was seen swimming from one shore to another.  As beautiful as the hills of Ireland and Scotland were on our cruise last summer, they were no match for the beauty of these snow-covered rugged peaks, mountains, inlets, majestic glaciers and crystal-clear waters.  The mix of clouds, sun, shadows and mist lay over the glaciers and mountains in such a way that they sometimes appeared to be magnificent works of art.

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20130820-220008.jpgAs the ship made its way through the bay, we marveled at the splendor of it all, including two glaciers – Margerie Glacier and then John Hopkins Glacier – and were lucky enough to witness calving at Marjerie.

One especially large chunk of ice starting from the top of the glacier came down crashing into the sea below and, fortunately, was captured on video by my husband.  I had gone inside to warm up and, of course, missed the whole event, but we are so lucky to have it on record!

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IMG_2361Our day in Glacier Bay truly exceeded our expectations.  It was humbling to stand in the presence of some of nature’s finest wonders, and I hope to some day return again in the not-too-distant future.

This is just a taste of what we experienced on our recent Alaska cruise.  For the full report, READ MY FULL REVIEW.

Check out my “Best of Alaska” Photos 

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Our Alaska Cruise ~ Day 2: San Francisco, The Tour

IMG_1324July 27, 2013 ~ We began our second morning in San Francisco with a pre-arranged tour with a local tour guide.  We were picked up as scheduled at 8:30 a.m. in a mini-bus with just 8 other guests from area hotels for a 4-hour overview of San Francisco.  The driver was friendly, very entertaining and gave us a brief glimpse of the city’s famous highlights.  However, the guy must have been absent on the day counting was taught in preschool.  The company website describes “many” stops for photo ops along the way, but I counted only three:  Golden Gate Bridge, Alamo Square (location of the Painted Ladies row houses featured in Full House) and little Clarion Alley for a look at very interesting murals in the Mission.  The rest of the time was spent driving all around this diverse city, up and down the famous hills, through Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach, Chinatown, The Marina, Nob Hill, The Presidio, Union Square, Pacific Heights, and Haight Ashbury – and the ever so popular “Mrs. Doubtfire” House.

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“The Painted Ladies, S.F. a/k/a “Full House”

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Vermont St., SF – The Other Crookedest Street

I would be neglectful if I failed to mention the Crookedest Street … no, not that one.  Unlike the famed curvy Lombard Street, the lesser-known Vermont Street, according to the locals, has a steeper grade and tighter turning radius.  I don’t know about that, but our driver rumbled down the bumpy pavement, swerving to and fro, on a street barely wider than the little bus we were in.  I was really glad I ate light that morning!

Due to heavy fog in the higher elevations, we were unable to drive up for a city vista look from Twin Peaks, but our post-cruise tour would more than make up for it.  More about that in a later blog.

IMG_1365Although this was described as a 5-hour tour, in all actuality we were dropped off at our hotel 4 hours later.  I don’t know if it was the change in plans for Twin Peaks or the change in route when a street festival blocked our way.  A couple of additional photo stops would have substituted nicely and filled in the time.  Just the same, it was an enjoyable ride with a pleasant small group of people.

IMG_1436After a brief regrouping at the hotel, we headed down to Pier 39 for lunch outside at Wipeout Bar and Grill, where the food and service were both great.  There was a lot going on in town, including the America’s Cup races, and the pier was very crowded.  After lunch we made our way through the packed crowd to get a look at the sea lions everyone talks about.  We were a week or two early in the season to see the docks fully populated with sea lions, but we did see a few lounging around, yelping, playing, swimming and otherwise doing what sea lions do.

 

IMG_1456We had tickets for the Alcatraz tour that evening and walked down to Pier 33 from the hotel to await ferry departure.  The ride over was nice, but when others tell you to wear a jacket or extra layers, believe it.  The wind picks up out there at the pier and even more on the water, and the cloud cover made it seem colder.  Arrive at the pier and be in line early if you need a space inside the sheltered cabin area of the boat.

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IMG_1534Alcatraz gave us a great self-audio tour experience, and 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 experience.  Be prepared for the steep hike up and down the hill between the pier and the prison.  For those who choose not to hike up the hill to the prison, there is a trolley available.  The fact that I don’t want to ride a trolley and look weak in the eyes of others meant that I returned to the boat at the end of the tour with screaming joints and barking feet.

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Our Alaskan Cruise ~ Day 1: Arrival in San Francisco

IMG_1287July 26, 2013 ~ The day finally arrived.  Our long-awaited weekend in San Francisco was about to begin, followed by a 10-night round-trip cruise to Alaska’s inside passage, with stops at Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan and Victoria, Canada. The icing on the cake would be beautiful Glacier Bay!  Once again, David and I would be joined by my brother, Norm and wife, Dana.  We found them to be great cruise buddies last summer sailing around the British Isles – their very first cruise – and we invited them along again on this Alaska cruise.  Packing for Alaska was a challenge, as we needed to be prepared for cold, hot, rain, sun and everything in between.  The luggage weighed in a few pounds shy of the limit, so we were good to go.

David is a fan of warm tropical destinations, and every time I raised the subject of Alaska, he resisted, insisting that Alaska cruises were for old, retired people. While I don’t consider ourselves to be knocking on the door of the retirement home just yet, we are creeping close to that age and, frankly, I would like to enjoy the Alaska outdoors before I’m in a wheelchair!  David was still reluctant, and it was my job to make him a believer.  Three days in San Francisco and a repeat cruise aboard our first-ever cruise ship were the bones I threw to him, and he finally bit.

Our adventure started off with just one slight glitch.  It was 5:00 a.m.; we were packed, ready and…. waiting.  Waiting for the pricey but ever-so-convenient transport we hired to take us to Logan.  A call to the company revealed a mix-up in the times.  It seems that when I changed our 5:30 a.m. pickup time to 5:00 a.m., they forgot to inform the driver.   It was all good, though.  The driver arrived within 20 minutes, we were finally on our way, and arrived exactly two hours ahead of the flight.  As it turns out, Virgin America at Logan had the shortest check-in I’ve ever seen.  We literally walked in the terminal, stepped up to the desk to check in, took a short few steps to the security check point, and made our way around the corner to the gate waiting area.  No lines, no waiting!

Our 6.5-hour non-stop flight went smoothly, and our driver, Mike, of Pleasant Limo, met us on arrival.  For a very reasonable rate, he greeted us in baggage claim holding a sign with our name.  He was friendly and polite, and drove us safely to our hotel.  Best of all, he was on time!

IMG_1306We chose the Tuscan Inn and Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco for a 3-night pre-cruise stay.  Summer prices for hotels in this area are steep, but with my magic fingers, an iPad and a Hotwire App, I was able to find a lower rate – still pricey, but lower than anything else in that neighborhood.  Upon arrival, the friendly desk staff warmly welcomed us.  The lobby is nicely decorated, and the complimentary wine reception held at 5:00 p.m. for all guests was a nice touch.

The room was a wee bit smaller than what I expected, but it was clean and cozy, with a very comfy queen bed.  I liked the fact that the windows were dressed in white shutters rather than drapes, which added a feeling of space.IMG_1272

The room was located inside, facing a quiet courtyard of plants and greenery, – something to consider if you don’t like street noise. Complimentary morning coffee was available every morning in the lobby, and breakfast, lunch and dinner were served at the adjacent Pescatore restaurant.

We had drinks at Pescatore on the day of our arrival, and the crab cake I ordered was very good.  However, breakfast the next morning was another story.  While my raisin cinnamon French toast was good, my husband’s eggs were overlooked, my sister-in-law’s were runny, and the cream was bad, turning our cups of coffee into something that looked pretty ugly.  A second attempt at coffee with fresh cream failed, so we gave up on the cup ‘o Joe.  That was our first and last meal at Pescatore.

IMG_1302We spent the rest of the day checking out Fisherman’s Wharf, and had dinner outside at Alioto’s.  We had a covered patio table with an overhead heater, which came in handy on this cold, cloudy and blustery day in San Francisco. We found the seafood to be okay, but not nearly as good as what’s found here in New England.  It certainly was, however, a great place to rest and people watch.

By the time we finished, it was only 7:00 pm and the Wharf was hopping.  Since our body clocks were still on East Coast time, we were all exhausted and went back to the hotel to rest up for another day.

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Alcatraz Island

 

 

 

 

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San Francisco to Alaska ~ Let the Journey Commence!

San Francisco, Alaska and Grand Princess, here we come!

Grand San Francisco

Credit: Princess Cruises

I am getting a jump on reviewing this trip – our 2013 summer vacation – less than two days before departure.  Tomorrow, I’ll be busy double-checking and triple-checking my CruiseCrazies packing list to make sure I have everything covered and probably will be too exhausted to do much of anything else, let alone write.

The idea – and I’m probably over my head on this one – is to write a day-by-day review of our experiences along the way.  As with most good intentions, however, things don’t always turn out as planned, but I’ll give it a shot.  Much will depend, of course, on internet connection, cooperation from my iPad, free time and my level of exhaustion after a day of sightseeing.

After months of preparation, excitement and anticipation, the day is nearly here.  Our bags are nearly packed – or I should say OVER-packed – and we have to endure just one more day of work before finally escaping life’s daily routine.  Come early Friday morning, my brother and his wife will greet us with their cheery smiles, our hired car will scoop us up well before the New England sun rises, and promptly transport the four of us to Boston to await our non-stop flight to San Francisco.

This is a first visit for all of us to San Francisco, and we are eager to experience as much as we can in the three days we have before boarding the Grand Princess.  I understand that the city is alive with the America’s Cup races, and being summer, I expect the streets will be bustling.  Our home base for three nights will be the Best Western Tuscan Inn.  Originally booked directly with the hotel using a 30% AAA discount, I later discovered an even lower rate through Hotwire, and being one who never passes up a deal, I canceled and re-booked our two rooms, saving us a few bucks – which we will blow later on the ship.  Hey, it’s vacation!

My well-planned itinerary – which all in our party will follow because I tell them to – includes a 4-hour city tour with a local guide and an evening visit to Alcatraz, tickets for which were purchased the day they opened for sale.  It’s a good thing, too, because a week later they were gone.  The rest we will make up as we go along.  Armed with our mini city guide and advice from friends and acquaintances, I am sure we will have no trouble filling our time with all sorts of city splendor.  Marin County, Muir Woods and Sausalito will be explored later with another local guide when we return from the cruise.

Stay tuned … more to come!:smile:

 

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The Good, The Bad & The Ugly – a Week in Mexico 1990

While I was recently perusing the labels of my vast collection of faux leather photo albums, I came across one identified as “Mexico 1990”.  As I opened the cover and began viewing the photos, the first thing that struck me was how young and attractive my husband and I were 22 years ago.  How time changes us!  SCAN0040The second thing that sprung to mind was our encounter with a bat.  Not the baseball kind, but the other kind – that nocturnal creature that flies in the night and inspires the likes of Dracula and Batman.

This trip to Mexico in June of 1990 was just one of the many music education conferences my husband has attended over the last 35 years, and I was more than happy to go along for the ride.  Unlike other group events typically held in big American cities with first-class hotel accommodations, our home for a week was a large athletic campus used for Olympic training in 1968.  From what I can tell, the location was a town called Tlayacapan, about an hour and a half from Mexico City.  Why this location was chosen for a convention I’ll never know, but it was highly popular with the local people of Mexico City looking for an escape to the country.  It was basically a summer camp.

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The building we were housed in was a dorm of sorts. SCAN0039

My memory of the room we occupied is vague, but the photos tell me it was a small, unattractive room with primitive furnishings, no décor to speak of, two single beds and no AC.  In looking at the photo, why we didn’t just pack up and go find a real hotel remains a mystery.  The room wasn’t just unattractive.  It was just plain ugly.  I’m glad to say our standards in accommodations are much higher these days. SCAN0058

There was a single window in the room, open and screened, and we noticed several good-sized holes in the screen.  Some time during our first evening, we were awakened by a noise and noticed the outline of a small winged creature flying around the darkened room.  Our original thought was that a bird found it’s way through the hole in the screen, but after flipping on the light switch, we discovered it was not a bird.  It was a bat!  It wasn’t very big, but it was there.  I can’t remember if it was moving or just “hanging” out, but the sight of a bat was more than enough to send me screaming from the room and my husband out to the hallway to fetch a staff member for some assistance.  Of course, the gentleman we found spoke only Spanish, and after a game of really bad charades, he was able to determine the problem.  He came into the room, took a look, left and returned a few moments later with a long-handled broom.  A broom?  Well, apparently, this is the pest elimination method used in this part of the world.  In all the chaos, we did not remember to get photos or video, which is a darn shame.  It would have made for some great entertainment.  The guy was running all around the room on a wild chase, swinging his broom in a feverish frenzy, attempting to beat the poor creature to death.  I don’t remember if he killed it or just mortally wounded it, but that was the last we saw of the bat.

SCAN0044As I made my way through the pages of the photo album, I was reminded of other sights we experienced in Mexico.  On a walk through town, we saw sidewalk vendors selling all manner of clothing, household goods, fruits, vegetables and raw chickens – surrounded by buzzing flies!  Poverty was alive and present in this town, as well, but so were beautiful old churches, architectural ruins and a culture totally new to us. SCAN0041

A page of the photo album also revealed a stunning botanical garden we visited on an excursion outside of town with lots of green palms, a variety of birds and waterfalls.SCAN0057

The highlight of the trip took place on our final day in Mexico.  Our group was transported on a wild bus ride up the side of a winding mountain road to the picturesque town of Taxco, famous for silver.  SCAN0055SCAN0053 SCAN0054SCAN0052

If this were a vacation I had planned on my own, and not a group trip planned by someone else, I would have had a touring plan in hand.  Since we had no such strategy, we simply roamed the charming cobblestone streets, learned how to barter with the local shops, and explored this beautiful hillside town with its ornate churches, white washed houses and red-tile roofs. SCAN0042 SCAN0050 SCAN0048SCAN0051

Later that evening, we dined at a local restaurant and had a rousing time, complete with margaritas, brightly decorated sombreros and a mariachi band. SCAN0036 SCAN0046

We flew home the next day with our own pair of sombreros, a pair of small straw hats for the kids, a beautiful Mexican blanket, wonderful memories – and a bad case of Montezuma’s revenge, leaving us both ill for the following week.

I closed the photo album, glad to have had another glimpse at all we experienced that week in Mexico – the good, the bad and the ugly!

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