"" Writer's Wanderings: January 2018

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Cruising The Caribbean - Changing Ships

Cruise lines have started something that has made it very convenient for us with some of our travel arrangements. If you are able to carry off your own luggage you can exit the ship early in the morning. The early morning window of time worked out well for us and we exited the ship right after breakfast. We made the phone call for our parking garage shuttle pick up and hoped that we wouldn't have to wait too long.

To our surprise our ride was there quickly and we were soon on our way to the Miami parking garage to pick up our car. Smoothly and quickly we were on our way. We needed to go to my son's house and get my new contact lens that my eye doctor had sent before continuing on to our next ship and setting sail.

Contacts in hand, hugs from all the grandkids and we were on our way to Fort Lauderdale to board our ship for our next cruise. This one would be a holiday cruise and include Christmas and New Year's. We chose Holland America because it had been our experience that they decorated the ships enough to make it truly feel like the holidays.

We parked at the cruise side of Park N Fly located between the airport and the cruise port and within minutes, we were shuttled to the Nieuw Amsterdam. Embarkation was smooth but I think that was partly due to the fact that we were a little later than usual in arriving. We weren't all that hungry so we
went about booking our specialty restaurants and the spa thermal room for Bob. After a quick light lunch, we sought out our stateroom and found it to be clean and in good order.

The rest of the afternoon we spent looking over the ship and acquainting ourselves with the changes that had been made. The Nieuw Amsterdam had just come out of dry dock a week ago where they had refurbished much of the ship. The smell of new carpeting was strong and as I watched the carpet pil as new carpet does, I was thankful I didn't have to be the one to keep running the vacuum.

Some of the changes looked nice others I thought had taken some of the old world charm away and replaced it with more sleek modern looking furniture and decorations. But the Christmas decorations were throughout the ship and Christmas was only a day away.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Cruising The Caribbean - Norwegian Escape

Several of our stops for the three weeks that we would be cruising were rearranged because of Irma but for the most part our ports were still a go. What I didn't expect was the weather to keep us out. Our seven days on the Norwegian Escape started with a day at sea to be followed by a stop in Falmouth, Jamaica.

Our second morning we arose to see Jamaica before us but, just like a plane waiting to land, our ship seemed to be in a holding pattern. Sure enough, the captain came on the PA and announced that we would not be going into port. The windy conditions and the direction of the winds would not allow large ships to safely enter. He was followed by the cruise director cheerfully assuring everyone of another relaxing day at sea.

The difficult part of having a relaxing sea day we discovered was trying to find a quiet place to relax other than in our room. The ship is laid out almost specifically to keep people in the areas of activity and of course spending. Unlike many other ships where people finally begin to disperse and the crowding of the first day lessens because people tend to find niches and different areas of interest.

It took a while but we discovered the Waterfront area of the ship. Probably its greatest asset at least where we were concerned. The promenade deck is laced with most of the specialty restaurants and they have seating areas outside for when the weather allows. Between the restaurants and bars there are lounge chairs--comfy couches and chairs with lots of padding. And for the most part, it was quiet.

At Grand Cayman we chose not to go ashore. It was an opportunity to take advantage of the pool area and the slides without all the kids around. Bob enjoyed the slide that drops you straight down and then around. He ran out of time to go on the rope course though.

Throughout the week, we found more things to like about the Escape. Our room service did not improve though. It was never serviced until late in the afternoon. The food however even though restaurant service in the main dining was slow was always hot and delicious. The specialty restaurants were excellent. We enjoyed one night dining out with the Brazilian style steakhouse where the grilled meats come to your table on a huge rod and is sliced onto your plate. Another great meal at the French restaurant and a pretty good meal at the Italian as well.

A sunny day at the private beach was a welcome getaway from ship noise. When it got crowded, we ate and went back to the ship.

Evening entertainment was a bit of a hassle to reserve but as the week went on, we discovered that standby usually got you in anyway. Probably the night we enjoyed the most was the dinner theater with a singing quartet. Food was good, music and personalities were fun and enjoyable. Stage productions were great as well in the main theater especially "After Midnight" which was a jazz revue that paid homage to the Cotton Club.

While our stateroom may not have been serviced at convenient times, there was always a towel animal each night. And while I enjoyed the animals, we ended up with a zoo by the time the cruise was over. They never went away. Of course if you read my posts often, you know I love zoos.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Cruising the Caribbean - Norwegian Escape

When you open the door to your stateroom the first day of your cruise you expect everything to be orderly and sparkling clean. There was only one time I ever remember opening a door and not finding a clean stateroom and that was on a Chinese riverboat on the Yangtze when they gave us the key to a storage room full of cleaning supplies instead of our stateroom. Correction made quickly and we laughed about the whole thing.

Now I'm not a terribly clean freak or germ phobe but I do expect that the room I'm going to stay in, the bed I'm going to sleep in and the bathroom I'm going to use are as clean as possible from those just using it a few hours before our arrival. From what I understand, each cruise line has a crew from shore that comes aboard and helps with the turnaround so that it is done quickly and efficiently. 'Nuf said. Here's what happened.

I set down my back pack and began to look around. There were a few suspicious dents in the bed near the pillows that were a bit disarranged. Someone had obviously sat there after the bed was made. I immediately checked out the bathroom which seemed to be okay thank goodness.

On the sofa there were two beach towels just tossed there and the pillows again looked like they'd recently been sat against. Certainly not the neat fluff and position you would expect to make a good first impression. When I sat down and looked across at the mirror I saw two big smudges. Not the kind caused by the swipe of a cleaning cloth.

Just as I was deciding what we should do. A knock on the door came and when Bob opened it a small woman with black hair and steward uniform rushed in mumbling something and apologizing. She had a cleaning rag in her hand and hurriedly began to wipe surfaces.

Okay, so maybe not all the rooms were clean. We set our backpacks on the top shelf of the closet and said we'd let her do her work and we'd be back. I guess she expected to clean that whole room with just that one rag because there was nothing in the hallway to indicate she was going to use other equipment.

When we returned, the room did look better but over the next couple of days we still found pieces of trash here and there that had been left untouched. I know. We should have complained. If I had it to do over again I would. Now, with time to think about it, it truly was unacceptable. After all the horror stories about Noro virus you would think the standard would be raised for the turnaround days to keep things as clean as possible. So--maybe I am a little bit of a germaphobe.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Cruising The Caribbean - Norwegian Escape

Over the rest of December, 2017, after our return from the river cruising my husband (the travel agent of the family) had planned two cruises in the Caribbean. The first left from Miami, the Norwegian Escape. This was only our second time to cruise with Norwegian. We had taken a short cruise a couple of years earlier on the Norwegian Sun and enjoyed it so we thought we would give Norwegian another try.

The Escape was newer and larger than the Sun holding over 4200 passengers plus crew. Embarkation was a bit hectic but always expected. There are few times when you board for a cruise that there isn't a wait or crowds or lines. Because we were so close to the holidays, there were more kids than usual which always adds to the energy and noise level but certainly makes the cruise more entertaining. (If you want a cruise with no kids, chose a time that is not near school vacations, that is a longer duration and farther away than the Caribbean or Mexican Riviera.)

What followed our boarding though did not get us off to a good start. As expected, our rooms would not be ready until afternoon. That is normal procedure for most ships. Usually we would head to a place to eat lunch--preferably the hamburger place or a pizza stop on the ship, out of the busy bustling buffet. Before doing that though, we though it would be a good idea to get our reservations in at the specialty restaurants. That's where the chaos began.

Lines were long and crowded into a small space. We managed to finally get a dining package that gave us three specialty restaurants (there were at least eight to choose from) and find reasonable times to schedule our dinners.

Always looking for a bigger TV.
Seeing the chaos at the dinner reservations line, we thought we'd better check out the spa quickly. Bob likes the thermo packages that many ships offer and often there is a limited number. We did the required tour and asked about the package. It was quite pricey and he decided to pass for this one week voyage.

Lunch--finally. But we had to eat in the buffet as we didn't find a quiet place anywhere else. I would soon learn that a quiet place was an oxymoron on this ship.

Ah, but the announcement came that our rooms were ready. Anxious to get rid of the backpacks we were carrying, we headed for our room. I had already given myself a pep talk about the room. After the upgrade to a suite on the riverboat, I knew this was not going to be as luxurious as that. What followed after we opened our stateroom door though was thoroughly not expected.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Filling The Days Between Cruising

What do you do with three days between cruises? Laundry and a zoo visit with grandkids! But not all on the same day.

It's been a while since I've done laundry in a coin-op laundromat but we managed to find our way through one in Homestead where we were staying. The hotel had a laundry but with only one machine and on a different floor it would have made the whole operation a lot harder.

One of our three off days, we met with grandkids at the Miami Zoo. Our son joined us for a fun day which worked out well. Extra peddle power for the bicycle cart the kids delight in.

Our first stop was the tiger exhibit where a playful tiger was crouched just like a playful kitty cat, his tail end in the air, expectantly waiting for a toss of fresh meat his direction. The staffer that was there to toss the meat and answer questions from zoo guests gave us a little background on the tiger and then proceeded to explain that the meat was horse meat. I missed where it came from but my grandson didn't miss the fact that it was horse meat and his little sister loves ponys.

After several attempts to upset her with the news, he finally gave up. Apparently ponys didn't equate with horse meat in her mind--thank goodness!!

It's always a joy to be with these kids. They are quite inventive and funny. I hoped the entertainment on the cruises ahead of us would be as good.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Cruising The Danube - Oh, The Food!

Our morning on the last day of the cruise was spent visiting the Schonbrunn Palace Zoo (or the Vienna Zoo--whichever you want to call it). While the sun kept peeking out from between the clouds, it was still chilly, enough to want a bowl of soup. On our earlier trip to the Schonbrunn Palace Christmas Market I had seen soup in a bread bowl. It was a good reason to return.

For a carbohydrate "addict" a bowl of bread sounded perfect. Add to it a potato soup that was delicious and all was heavenly. To my surprise the bowl did not leak. Instead the soup kind of soaked into it a bit but not so much to make it real soggy. The stand where we purchased them offered real tablespoons to eat it with and we walked a little bit away to a table to stand and eat it.

Just a note: There were no tables with chairs at the markets. The tables were all chest high except for a few just a bit shorter for kids. So if you are person who needs to sit a spell after a long walk around the market, you need to be prepared to go into a cafe.

We pretty much cleaned up our bread bowl of soup and felt more than satisfied. We returned the spoons and I wondered how well that kind of trust would work back home. Would people return them or throw them out with their trash?

It was still early afternoon but we had packing to do and one more excursion in the evening so we headed back on the subway. Later, all bags packed and stored with just enough clothes left out to get us through our dinner excursion and the morning trip to the airport, we relaxed with some coffee and tried to refrain from eating anything with it. Coming up was a Michelin dinner (no it's not at a tire store) that we didn't want to spoil.

That evening, four buses awaited our departure for four different Michelin star restaurants in the city.
We had our choice and had picked the one we thought from the menu we would enjoy the most. We had no idea what to expect. We'd never eaten at a Michelin restaurant--at least not that we knew of.
So what's the deal with Michelin stars?

To my surprise, the Michelin stars awarded restaurants do have something to do with tires. The Michelin tire company (yes, the one with the Michelin man) is based in France. Not only known for its tires, it also publishes travel guides and road maps. It all began in 1900, just 11 years after brothers, Andre and Eduord, started their tire business. They were clever fellows. They figured if they encouraged people to drive more, they would need to buy more tires as they wore the old ones out.

Their guides expanded to include most of Europe and their one star rating rose to three stars. One star is superb, a second star is greater and the third means it's a destination place to go to dine. The inspectors, chefs themselves, who travel to the restaurants to rate them are trained and remain anonymous (for obvious reasons). They may return several times to be sure the quality of the chef's product is award winning. And it is mostly about the chef and how he/she chooses ingredients, creates his dishes and presents them.

While the chef is important, it is the restaurant that gains the star/s. You can lose your stars if the quality drops. And your restaurant does not need to be fancy. There is a three star establishment that serves from a wooden counter at a car park.

Our restaurant, Le Ceil, was no car park. It was on the top floor of the Grand Hotel Wein which in itself was quite a place to visit and see. Beautiful chandeliers. Exquisite decorations. Charm and beauty. The restaurant was the finishing touch.

White table cloths, candles, polished silverware, elegant centerpieces, glassware and dinnerware gave the evening a special atmosphere. White gloved waiters poured water and drinks and brought us each course on the menu all while a pianist played on a grand piano near us. Each dish was presented artfully on the plate and was absolutely delicious. Ours was a set menu and I thought that was just because of our large group but according to their menu online, you can also order a dinner that way.

It was quite an experience to end our cruise on. The next morning would find us on a plane heading for warmer weather and a few days of laundry, grandkids, and warming up for our Caribbean adventure.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Cruising The Danube - Back To Vienna

Through the night our the Crystal Mozart returned to Vienna. We would have one more day and night to enjoy our adventure before leaving with our memories and pictures. The excursions for the day did not appeal to us--partly because they involved museums and a lot of history and partly because we were ready to be off on our own for a change.

The weather had warmed a bit and there was even the promise of a bit of sunshine so we decided to return to the Schonbrunn Palace and the zoo that is there. Besides that, I wanted to go back and try the soup in a bread bowl we had seen there.

Bob and I set off for the subway and found our way back to the palace. We purchased our tickets and set off in the direction we thought the zoo was. We were sort of right but hadn't realized it would be such a walk.

The zoo sits way back almost at the end of the garden area. While it was quite a walk, it also gave us a chance to take a look at the garden that we hadn't seen on our first visit.

Except for a few small groups of school kids and some other tourists, the zoo was pretty empty. What we didn't know though was how large it was. It was called the Imperial Zoo and since I knew it was originally begun by Emperor Franz I Stephen, I just thought it would be a small kind of private zoo. At least that's how it started.

In 1752, there were enclosures built around what would be a central pavilion and they held thirteen animals. Since then the zoo has expanded and expanded. The central pavilion and the circle of enclosures (now with bars instead of walls) are still there but the zoo radiates out from there.

The menagerie became a zoological garden in the late 1800s. In 1914, it held 3,470 animals, the most it would ever have. Of the 500 or so animals they have now, there were several that we definitely wanted to see before we left.

Our polar bear back home had died a couple of years ago of old age. I was eager to see a polar bear again. There were two in a wonderful exhibit that was several levels which allowed you to see them from above, at eye level and below the water level. The bears were very playful and we enjoyed them at all the levels.

The hippopotamus at our zoo was also gone so we enjoyed seeing several of them even though they were indoors and not in the water.

Then we happened upon the rain forest exhibit. It was quite different from ours but we enjoyed the warmth, shedding our coats for a bit. We found one spot that had a sign of someone with a finger up to their lips indicating that we had to be quiet when we entered. What it didn't say was that it was completely dark--or at least dark enough that it took a long time for eyes to adjust. We went through all the flaps that were hanging and hoped for a little light to see where we were going. There was just enough to see that there were things flying through the air just above our heads--bats! We hustled!!

It took us a while to find the other animal we were looking for but we finally did and spent some time watching one panda sleep and the other sit and eat his bamboo shoots. We hadn't seen pandas since our trip to China in 2003. Obviously it didn't matter too much which part of the world they were in, they didn't do a lot of moving but did do a lot of eating.

All in all it was a great adventure and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Cruising The Danube - On To Bratislava, Slovakia

For the second day in a row we had a morning of cruising the Danube. It was leisurely but not quite as sunny as the day before. The interesting scenery was interrupted only by the presentation of apple strudel making. The chef came into the lounge where most of us were gathered and demonstrated how he makes apple strudel (his mother's recipe). The tasting was the best part.

Shortly after lunch we arrived in Bratislava and gathered our things to go on an excursion. The temperatures had warmed a bit and it was a much more pleasant day for touring. The focal point of Bratislava is hard to miss. It sits high above the city and the river. It is the Bratislava Castle, a square building with four towers. This would be our first stop.

Unfortunately we could not get inside the castle itself but the grounds were interesting and the interior courtyard was decorated for Christmas. There were some live animals to delight the kids as well as a huge nativity scene and a neat sleigh.

The view from the castle was lovely as would be expected but of course still a little chilly and windy.

We boarded the bus and rode down to the old town area and began a walk through the main area of the town. The town was not bustling. For some reason I seem to recall that many shops were closed. Perhaps it was a holiday we weren't aware of.

We passed one window that caught my eye with an unusual product--at least one I'd never seen. Honey wine. I looked it up. It can be served hot or cold and in the old days, the very old days, it was called mead. A while later we got to sample a warm honey wine. Tasted a bit like I remember a hot toddy tasting when my parents would make one to chase away cold symptoms.

There are apparently a lot of unusual statues in Bratislava but the one our guide was most happy to point out to us was one in the street, a service worker crawling out of a manhole. He has a name, Cumil and has been there since 1997. You can understand why his head and nose are shiny. You rub one and you get good luck. You rub the other if you want children--of course after looking at our group she said grandchildren would work too. I hope I rubbed the right one for luck, kids.

Our tour ended at the Christmas Market where we were on our own to explore as the sun disappeared into an early evening twilight. The market was a bit different than the ones we'd seen in Austria and Germany. Of course they would exhibit more of the Slovakian culture and the local flavor of Bratislava.

I liked Bratislava. Something about it felt homey. Maybe because it was closer to my Czech roots.

Our walk back to the riverboat was pleasant. If only the weather had been this cooperative earlier in the week there would have been much more pleasant outings along the way. But what do you expect when you choose to explore during the Christmas season?

Monday, January 15, 2018

Cruising The Danube - Krems, Austria

City Gate
After a morning of cruising along the Danube, we arrived at Krems, Austria. It was already mid-afternoon and with the winter days, the sun was already getting lower in the sky. Our guide for our tour of Krems and the Christmas Market was very energetic. She was a little difficult to keep up with at times.

Being Sunday, a lot of the places in town were closed and while it was a quaint area, it didn't offer a lot to do that day. She did manage to get us into a gift shop that was open. Other than giving the merchant a chance to make some money, I have no idea why we were there. Perhaps the building had some history but it wasn't evident.

We visited another church. Maybe I'm a bit worn out on churches but after a while they begin to look alike. As we entered, the guide began fumbling in her purse and then apologized for not having remembered her two Euro coins for the box that would turn the lights on.

Bob reached in his pocket and pulled out two one Euro coins and she gave him a big smile. "Your sins will surely be forgiven," she said with a chuckle. He got a lot of slaps on the back from fellow passengers who congratulated him on being set free from sin.

The church was beautiful and ornate. Lots of gold accents and a lovely organ in the loft overhead. My interest was waning however and I was getting cold and tired. When we were told we were going to see another church that was set up on a hill I shrugged and started up a long set of stairs that was to take us to the door.

"We don't have to do this you know," said Bob as he put a hand on my arm to stop me.

"You're right," I said. "Thank you."

We turned around and went down the few steps we'd taken and found our way back to where the bus had dropped us off. The small Christmas Market was right there but most of the booths were closed. A couple had some warm drinks and we indulged. The best part was a booth that held a group of instrumentalists who were paying Christmas music. As I looked around, it seemed we had become a part of the neighborhood. Everyone smiling with Christmas cheer and friendliness.  It didn't even bother me when a few snow flakes fell.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Cruising The Danube - Cruise Morning

My idea of river cruising was always sitting on the boat and watching the scenery go by. That doesn't happen a lot as much of the movement on the river is done at night. There were a couple of times however where we could spend a bit of time watching as our boat made its way along the Danube. One such morning came between Passau, Germany, and Krems, Austria.

There was a beautiful sunrise to begin the day and the sun stayed with us for most of the morning's journey. We sat in the forward lounge and sipped coffee and watched villages and farms and churches pass by.

Lock near Hofamt Priel
Along the way we went through several locks which are always interesting to experience. I think the river locks are more fun than even the Panama Canal locks--although the history and the size of the Panama Canal locks certainly make them a bit more spectacular. It is a thrill to see the boat either raise or lower to the level of the river as you circumvent the dams. The gates to the lock open and you see the river ahead and continue on your journey.

Lock near Persenberg-Gottsdorf
About mid-morning, there was a Crystal Society Party in the lounge (can you tell we never moved from the lounge?) We were in the top three for number of days cruising with Crystal Cruises. That 108 day world cruise gave us quite a boost--and probably the upgrade.

I love how my iPhone labels my pictures. It makes it so much easier to tell where they were taken. I have wished for that for a long time. This trip I had left my camera behind. I was glad I did. My phone took great pictures and with the labels I can tell now where the picture was taken even though I am writing this weeks after the journey. I will label some of the pictures we took as we cruised that morning.

Seeing the beauty of the landscape along the Danube makes it tempting to take the trip again--only in warmer weather.

Ybbs an der Donau

Weissenkirchen in der Wachau

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Cruising The Danube - Vilshofen, Germany

This cruise day began with snow. We had been originally scheduled to cruise to Vilhofen but were held overnight in Passau because of some bridge work being done that would not allow our riverboat to pass beneath it. It was not a terrible inconvenience as Vilhofen was just about a 30 minute bus ride from our boat.

Much as I wanted to enjoy the snow as a part of the Christmas theme to our cruise, I was concerned about slipping on icy walks and the cold weather was really beginning to wear on me. Every so often I had that fond memory of 80 degrees and sun in Miami we had left behind. We had signed on for this excursion to Vilhofen and the Aldersbach Abbey not really knowing what to expect other than seeing another Christmas market.

Our bus ride ended at a small riverside parking area but a ways from the Christmas Market on the riverbank. It was a bit of a walk on slippery cobblestone and pavement and it ended at the market area that was closed. It didn't open until much later but our tour guide obviously felt obligated to show us. I took a couple of pictures, inhaled the lingering chocolate smell from one of the closed booths and admired the large nativity that had been set up on top of a riverboat moored at the shore. Just then the hotel director from the Crystal Mozart who had joined our tour asked that the tour guide just take us back to the bus before someone fell. He apologized. We returned to the bus and made our way to the Abbey.

I fully expected another church to look at and wasn't disappointed. There was a church and a monastery. The church was under renovation and icy cold. I could feel the cold seep up through my boots.

The Aldersbach Abbey however was known for something more--their beer. Ah, those monks knew how to make beer and the Abbey continues to turn out all sorts of brews. Our tour guide handed us over to a lady who took us on an extremely educational tour of the brewery. She showed us every which way they make beer. I always wondered about how they got different colors and flavors and it has to do with the grains they use and how long they roast them before they put them into the mixture with the hops and the yeast. Oh yes, and there were two kinds of yeast. One that stays on top and one that works from the bottom so that lends to a whole other flavor and texture.

Maybe it was because everyone seemed quite attentive or maybe because she was such a precise person who seemed a bit like a school teacher but I leaned over to another woman in our group and said I hoped she wasn't going to give us a test at the end. She giggled. "I was just thinking the same thing."

Our brewery tour ended in the pub with some samples of beer and the best part, the famous white sausage of Bavaria accompanied with sweet mustard and a soft pretzel. Yummy does not sufficiently cover that eating experience.

The trip back to the boat was quiet. Eating comfort food has a way of doing that to you. We spent the afternoon watching Christmas movies and warming up. After all, we had this wonderful room and a big TV and a really comfy couch and bed. And it was the Christmas season. . .

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