Category: travel

Cruise day 7

So today was a day at sea. The time shifted another hour back so we were awake around 6am, got some breakfast at 7, read for a bit then I headed up for my 3rd watercolor painting class of the cruise. The class has become much more popular over the past week and was pretty full. After I came back downstairs to the room and we both read for a while then went back up to the Cosmos lounge for the newlywed and anniversary welcome reception where they served champagne and a quite tasty strawberry custard cake. We sat with the New Mexico couple and stuck around afterwards to watch and commentate on the merengue dance class that happened after the reception. We found out they are both also only children and, eerily enough, had also first planned to do a driving trip out of Boston through New England as their honeymoon, then opted out due to too much planning being needed. Small world.

After lunch we got into our gym clothes and sat up on the deck for a bit and read, it was a bit windy and cloudy which made it cooler than normal but it was still nice. At 4:30 they had a staff vs guests volleyball game on deck 12 so we were eager to play in that. The court was shorter and narrower than standard, and the net lower but it was still fun to play. The wind blew the ball all around and quite a bit of the play wasn’t the standard bump-set-spike but it was nice to get out and exercise a bit (and realize we miss home a bit too).

We got cleaned up after volleyball and headed to dinner in the main restaurant. We had been told last night that the chefs table dinner was tonight but turns out it is actually on the 16th, which is what we were originally told, so we still have that to look forward to later in the week. Tonight we had another nice dinner with John and Karen, chatting about gardening, movies, and our cats.

Tomorrow we are doing the rafting excursion in Costa Rica so that should be really fun, I know my parents, Jeremy and I enjoyed it on our last cruise.


Cruise day 6

So today we made our voyage through the Panama Canal, with Jeremy geeking out pretty much the whole time ;). We started entering the lock system around 6am and completed the crossing around 5pm. Jeremy was up bright and early to see us enter the first set of locks. We kept the cruise ship info channel on in the room and when they announced that the helipad was open at the front of the ship to view the locks up close Jeremy and I hustled (ok, ran), along with many other guests, to deck 5. I didn’t hear during the announcement that you had to have closed toed shoes to go up on the helipad so I went back up to the room and waited for the rush to die down a bit then got on my loafers and headed back down. Jeremy had staked out a prime spot at the very front and center of the viewing area and so I got some very dirty looks when I called to him and worked my way through 3 layers deep of people to get to him, but he had saved me a spot. We got rained on rather hard two or three times while we went through the first set of three locks at Gatun. Despite the rain, it was pretty awesome to see the mechanics up close, the way the railings on the locks folded down to tuck into the sidewalls, how the locks used only gravity to transfer the water and keep each lock sealed. Very cool. As we were going through, we felt a pretty big jostling at one point and apparently one of the locks closed early and hit the back of the ship. The captain made an announcement about it after we completed going through the first set of locks but I didn’t hear the complete announcement so I’m not 100% sure what happened, I’m sure we will hear rumors throughout the ship for a while though.

After the first set of locks we were in Gatun Lake, where we had kayaked yesterday. We went upstairs and had some breakfast and then returned to the room to watch things go by on our balcony. Then we decided to try lunch in the dining room for a change, it was alright, the service not quite as attentive as at dinner, Jeremy and I both had the udon noodles which were unexpectedly salty (most of the food, if anything, has been a bit under seasoned, but expectedly so as there are lots of folks on the cruise whom I suspect need to control their sodium intake), but still tasty. We then went out to the outside walk around deck 5 and encountered the newlywed couple from New Mexico and we watched going through the next set of locks together and chatted, took photos, and we all managed to touch the canal wall when we went through we were so close to it, very cool.

After the second set of locks we headed back to the room and read, watching the last set of locks go by from our balcony. I proceeded to take a 45 minute nap and then got ready for dinner. Tonight John and Karen rejoined us and we chatted away the whole dinner, ranging from science to touching on politics a bit.

Tomorrow is a sea day and I plan on going to the watercolor class at 9am, there’s a newlywed/anniversary welcome reception with cake and champagne at 11am, there’s also a volleyball game against the staff at 4:30 so I think we’ll be partaking in that as well.


Cruise day 5

Our second day in port has been a bit more active than the first. We chose to go on a kayak tour of Gatun Lake today in Colon, Panama. We got a light breakfast when we got up around 7 this morning then went up to the buffet to have something with a bit more protein and carbs to fuel us for the exercise to come. We waited in the Celebrity Theatre for our excursion group to be called, and while we waited we tried to figure out who was going to be in our group. It turned out to be about 20 people, of all ages pretty much, but mostly couples.

We rode through the city of Colon and into the old military zone where the US military base was (it now has been converted, and is still being converted, into civilian housing). We were taken to a beautiful hotel resort that was a hospital during World War II and then a school they called “The school of dictators” that apparently dictators like Noriega attended. Some folks changed into bathing suits (Jeremy and I had worn quick drying workout clothes) and then headed down to the water and boarded our two person kayaks.
We paddled around for about an hour, and it was great to get some exercise. We didn’t see a whole lot of wildlife, a few birds, moving branches that supposedly housed black howler monkeys. We did see some beautiful wild white orchids. I brought my little digital camera so whenever we saw something interesting Jeremy would paddle over after carefully handing me the camera out of the ziplock bag inside a drawstring bag we had brought with us on the kayak.

After we returned to the dock we were given a little time to shop their souvenir store or buy a beer from their bar, so Jeremy and I split a Panamanian brand beer (a quite tasty lager) and then we boarded the bus.

Our next stop was the Gatun Locks, and we timed it just right that we got to see one ship finish going through and see the locks fill and open for another ship. It will be very cool to see the same process tomorrow morning from the ship. Jeremy was definitely geeking out at the locks, he even let me take his photo on one of the “electric mules” that pull the ship through the locks that was out on display.

After getting dropped off at the dock and perusing a little shopping area next to the ship we headed back to the room. Since we got back around 3pm we ordered a sandwich, fruit and cheese via room service to tide us over until dinner.

Since we had four open spots at our table tonight the maitre’d sat the two couples from the other night with us again. It was another interesting evening of conversation, we even ventured into discussing Chick-fil-a and gay marriage a bit, with Jeremy and I both repressing some of our commentary to keep the conversation polite and not too heated. We learned that Sheila was a flight attendant for America West airlines and that both couples had experience sailing so planes and boats also ended up being topics of discussion.

Tomorrow we are heading through the Panama Canal and locks, starting at 6:30am so I have a feeling Jeremy will be up bright and early to catch the whole thing 😉


Cruise day 4

So today was our first day in port, Cartagena, Columbia. For this excursion we opted for a pretty standard sightseeing tour of the Popa Monastery and the Gold Museum. We boarded a bus around 8:45 and were touring around the city until around 1pm. The monastery is the highest point in the area and offered great panoramic views of the city and the port. It is no longer a running monastery but they do still hold mass there on Sundays. On the road up to the top of the hill there are the 12 stations of the cross, each marked by a large white stone and concrete cross. The roads are very narrow so it was a bit of an interesting ride up in the bus, especially when encountering other cars. It was a very stark contrast driving up to the monastery, as there were a lot of old and rundown homes, contrasted with the exceedingly touristy areas that we were brought to initially when leaving the ship.

Our tour guide Elkin (we wore name tags around our necks with his name on them to identify our group) called us his VIP tour and offered us “10 star service”. It was helpful when we were in crowded areas with other tour groups to hear him call “Elkin’s VIP tour group over here!” He talked back the dozens of vendors who would cluster around the bus when we would get off somewhere, selling hats, t-shirts, necklaces, fans, purses and bottled water, soda and beer. There were also folks wandering about with sloths who would let you take your photo with it, for a tip, as well as ladies colorfully dressed with baskets of fruit balanced on their heads.

We were dropped off at a little tourist mall to shop at the end of the tour and we finally introduced ourselves to one of the other newlywed couples we had seen around on the ship. They live in New Mexico, he is an Air Force pilot and she is an industrial psychologist. Before dinner we sat in the Rendezvous lounge purposely at a table for four and ordered cocktails in the hope they may pass and stop by on their way to dinner, and they did, so we had a chance to chat a bit more then. But back to the shops in Cartagena, we realized we had not called the credit card company to notify them we would be making out of country purchases so Jeremy turned on his phone and made a call to them to notify them (booo to roaming charges). We then purchased a kilo of medium dark roast Colombian coffee to use ourselves and distribute as gifts.

When we returned to the ship we went up to the buffet deck and staked out a corner window, had some lunch, split a bucket of beer, played Scrabble (Jeremy and I each won one game) and watched as we departed port.

For dinner our friends John and Karen returned, raving about their dinner the night before in one of the specialty restaurants Qsine. Our dinner buddies from the previous night ended up getting seated at the table across from us (much to the surprise of one of the wives, who thought we’d be sitting with them again). Tomorrow night it’s likely they will be sat with us again, as the older couple from the first evening we haven’t seen in the dining room since, and John and Karen are eating at the Olympic.

We opted out of seeing the comedian tonight and just decided to go back to the room and read and relax.


Cruise day 3

So today was our second day at sea, and a relaxing one at that. We moved into a new timezone and set our clocks back an hour but that didn’t stop us both from waking up around 6:30 this morning. We got up, had breakfast and then I went to my second day of watercolor painting class. Today we learned about negative space, painting big tropical leaves, and then using dry brushing techniques to add texture and layer color on the leaves. I will have a whole gallery worth of little paintings by the end of the cruise.

After the class I met up with Jeremy and we went on the ship’s galley tour. There were a lot of folks there and we waited probably an hour while the earlier groups went through, and while we waited the head chef and director of the food and beverage department on the ship answered various questions. When it was our turn we went down one of the express escalators that the servers use down into the galley on the third floor. The area was relatively quiet as they were only prepping for dinner but it was neat to see such a huge kitchen, with stainless steel everything. During the Q&A the chef mentioned there was a “chef’s table” in the galley that seated 8 people, we were very excited to hear that. Jeremy tracked down and asked the maitre’d about reserving a spot for us for one of the dinners and luckily they still had space for their second seating next week, so that should be a fun, and very “us” dinner, so really looking forward to that.

After the tour we grabbed lunch and then found a more secluded corner on the pool deck in the shade to sit and read. It was right next to the ping ping table however so twice we had games going on right next to us but overall it was a quiet spot. After a few hours there we went back to the room and I took a nap (I’m getting quite good at them) while Jeremy read until dinner.

At dinner tonight our normal dinner companions were not there and about halfway through our meal two couples were seated with us, Diane and Alan from Australia who retired from the baby and children’s clothing manufacturing business and Sheila and Bob from Arizona, he retired from the steel industry. They had met each other earlier in the cruise and were quite chatty. Both couples had done very well for themselves and it was rather entertaining listening to them chat. For example, while vacationing at the Club Med in Indonesia, Sheila and Bob met a championship Formula1 driver who later in the year invited them to his home country of Monaco for Christmas on his yacht. The couples had been married nearly 50 and 43 years respectively and we were advised that the reason they were married so long, and the reason the two couples ended up getting along so well, was because they could always laugh and talk together, they said if you always sat and never spoke you were doing something wrong.

So even though I napped quite a bit today, we headed back to the room after dinner to relax. We are getting up to an alarm tomorrow, as we are to be out on the dock at Cartagena at 8:15 tomorrow morning for our tour of the gold museum and monastery, so that should be fun and a good change up from these two days at sea.


Cruise day 2

So today was the first day at sea. After a room delivered breakfast (not too much variety so I think we’ll be planning on utilizing the buffet for the rest of the trip) I went up to the Cosmos lounge for a watercolor painting class taught by Linda Curtis and assisted by her gregarious husband. It was actually a lot of fun, I got to practice my artistic side a bit (and the ladies next to me kept loudly vocalizing that they were copying me, so I guess I was doing ok). We were given a 6 color paint set and 3 brushes and paper and were told that each sea day there would be a class at 9am so I’m planning to go as many times as I can (and with gaining one hour tonight the class will be even easier to get to).

Afterwards I came back to the room to meet up with Jeremy and we had lunch outside after reading for a bit and waiting for the buffet to open. After lunch and reading/lounging we came back to the room, read some more, and napped until we needed to get day for our first formal night. Jeremy wore his wedding suit and a blue tie and I wore my “wedding departure” dress from White House/Black Market and a blue necklace from Charming Charlie so we matched quite well. Only Karen and John were at our table tonight but we had a good time talking (I had a great filet minion for dinner) and then we went to see the “Simply Ballroom” show in the theatre which I very much enjoyed, it was essentially a ” Dancing with the Stars” simile but quite entertaining and fun to see the dances in real life. Tomorrow is another day of relaxing 😉 no big plans aside from watercolor painting class in the morning.


Cruise Days 0 and 1

We arrived on time in Miami after a layover in Newark and caught a cab to our hotel, the Hilton Miami Downtown. We were treated to an upgraded suite and discovered we had both a living area, with seating for 6 plus a dining room for 6 as well as a separate room with king size bed. We relaxed in the room for a bit then stopped by the Publix to buy two bottles of wine to bring with us on the ship (you are allowed two bottles per stateroom). We were happy to find Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc in the store and picked up two bottles to enjoy over the next two weeks.

A fun coincidence, our wine list was printed on our wedding day!

After we returned we got cleaned up and headed to our dinner reservation at Michy’s, Michelle Bernsteins restaurant in Miami. We had seen there was a tasting menu online and that’s what we ordered when we arrived. We were offered three or four course options, with an optional wine pairing. Figuring that we were on vacation we decided to treat ourselves and get the four course with wine. We were surprised (and delighted) to discover each “course” consisted of three separate and distinct smaller dishes.

The next morning we found a fun greasy spoon diner called S&S for breakfast, then killed time in the room before checking out (and waiting 20 minutes for the down elevator). We got a cab from the hotel and were able to immediately get checked in to the cruise. The rooms were not available until 2pm so we relaxed on one of the upper decks, grabbed a light lunch, and then headed into our room to unpack and then do our “muster” drill. Afterwards we explored around the ship a bit, then got ready for dinner at 6. We learned you don’t need to arrive early to dinner, as they don’t open the doors until exactly 6pm (much to many folks’ chagrin). Our table is right next to the door, a six top. Our tablemates are John (retired from Safeway) and Karen (a hygienist) from the Bay Area of California, who have been dating for two years after meeting on Our other tablemates are Ethel and her husband who are from New Mexico. We all chatted and seemed to get along well, John and Karen are quite into cooking and wine so we found quite a bit to talk about. After dinner we headed in to watch the theatre show, and after the show discovered we are only one of four newlywed couples on the ship (with one of the other couples appearing nearby us throughout the day, in line to check in, waiting for dinner, then sitting near us in the theatre). There is a newlywed/anniversary reception on the ship that I think we will go to to try and connect with some of the younger folks here on the cruise.

We’ve ordered room service breakfast tomorrow, so looking forward to that. They are offering some dance lessons tomorrow, we may also explore the fitness facilities, and I have a feeling Jeremy will be doing a lot of reading 😉


California trip – day 8 – San Francisco and Alcatraz

Our last day in San Francisco we started with a tour of the iconic Alcatraz Island. All of the travel websites say this is worth going to and it definitely is. Yes, it may be touristy but it’s also really interesting and beautiful. I purchased our tickets online about a month prior (you have to as this is such a popular attraction) and secured the first morning ferry out so that we’d beat a bit of the crowds and still have a good portion of the day to do other stuff as well. There are night tours of Alcatraz as well which I’ve heard are really cool but, even a month in advance, these were sold out for the day we wanted to go.

So you take a 20 minute ferry ride out to the island, getting a nice view of the city on your way out, and then you dock at the main (and only) dock on Alcatraz Island. We were greeted by one of the park rangers who gave us some general information and were informed that there was a garden tourthat was being offered that

The only thing behind bars on Alcatraz now, are the geraniums (to protect them from the birds)

morning that would take you through some of the less-seen areas of the island as well as see a bit of “behind-the-scenes” stuff. Since this was a free tour it sounded like a great way to tour the island and learn more about its history before heading up to the main prison building.

"Tour Starts Here"

After the garden tour concluded we were encouraged to take the Agave Trail to go back down to the ferry, as it went down past the bird sanctuary on the coast. So keeping that in mind we headed into the main building, picked up our audio tour headsets, and walked around with lots of other folks, hearing from previous inmates and guards, about life at Alcatraz.

After the audio tour we took the Agave Trail as recommended. It’s a pretty walk down the island, lots of its namesake plant along the trail,

Air show practice over Alcatraz Island

as well as great views of San Francisco across the Bay. It’s scary imagining being imprisoned there, with the city and its “normal life” seemingly just out of reach. We had to wait a while to board the next ferry and were annoyed by the vast quantity of flies that apparently hatch at this time of year, but thankfully once we were on the ferry and moving they dissipated. As we were leaving the island we were treated to another air show practice, this time not just by the sleek Blue Angels jets but by the older planes as well. All my Fleet Week air show photos are on Flickr if you’d like to see more planes 🙂 Also, the rest of my Alcatraz and San Francisco photos are also online.

Once we were back in the city we headed out towards San Jose, stopping at an amazing Chinese place in the Mission District (aptly names Mission Chinese Food) for a quick lunch. Jeremy had seen this place recommended in the New York Times and it was also well reviewed by the travel sites and Foursquare. So taking Foursquare tip recommendations we ordered the Salt Cod Fried Rice and the Cumin Lamb Belly. The rice was very good with just a hint of the fishy salt cod flavor, but the lamb was amazing, perfectly spiced pieces of lamb broiled so that the fat melted and caramelized along with the onions and few peppers in the dish, so good!

After this late light lunch we headed out to San Jose to meet up with a couple from Williamsburg who had moved out here a few months ago. We met at The Counter, a build-your-own burger place, and had a great time catching up. After dinner we took a stroll around the downtown area, trying to keep up with their two year old son, and then parted ways and drove the hour back to San Francisco. Since we leave very early tomorrow morning we are heading to bed early, back to the real world tomorrow!

It’s been a great trip. It has been quire fun to see Jeremy and my parents interact (and get along well 😉 ) as well as see this side of the country that I’ve heard so much about. There are definitely lots of things I’d like to come back and see, more photos to take, more wines to taste, more great restaurants to find, and I’m looking forward to it 🙂


California trip – day 7 – San Francisco, Ferry Building Marketplace, Pier 39

For our first full day in San Francisco we were greeted with a foggy and rainy morning. Initially the plan had been to ride the bus down to Pier 1 and the Ferry Building Marketplace but the rain swayed us towards the decision to drive down and park for the day. Thankfully the rain cleared up as the day progressed and we only got caught in one stray shower the rest of the day.

"Welcome to Bacon Land"...why thank you!

The Marketplace is definitely a foodie’s dream, dozens of shops, all with some combination of gourmet, organic, free-range, handmade, natural products (all of them beautiful and/or tasty). Mom and I split a blueberry scone as a quick breakfast as we walked the length of the old ferry terminal then we went outside to see the famous tower and “Port of San Francisco” sign. As we were walking around outside we saw that we were right next to where you can take the ferry to Saulsalito. I had heard from a few folks that it was a fun place to go for lunch so we bought Clipper cards (reloadable mass transit fare cards, it was $5 cheaper to use that than to buy the fare with cash) for the 11:35am ferry and then wandered around the marketplace a bit more until the ferry departed.

Our fellow passengers on the trip to Saulsalito were almost exclusively other tourists, so most were crowded at the front or back of the boat taking photos of the passing coastline during the trip (some blatantly ignoring the “please don’t stand on the seats” signs to take photos over the railing). We offloaded at the base of the main street and decided to find a spot for lunch courtesy of Yelp and Foursquare. The highest recommended place was a Thai restaurant at the end of the main road so we walked the few blocks and enjoyed some pretty tasty food at Thai Terrace. We split spring rolls and spicy fried tofu as appetizers, I had a nice green curry and Thai iced tea. After lunch we walked back to the ferry and headed back to the city.

We arrived back at Pier 1 and walked up the Embarcadero along the water up to the attractions around Fisherman’s Wharf. Along the way we sampled some tasty chocolate at TCHO where we had just missed the 2pm tour, looked like it would be fun to do another time. We made a quick tour around the crazy tourist-iness that is Pier 39, saw the sea lions, and walked up around the old Del Monte Cannery and Ghiardelli Square. We stopped at historic Pier 45 which had a fun antique arcade that we walked around (and where I got my customary souvenir penny) and outside along the water we got to enjoy an impromptu Blue Angels airshow as they were practicing for their shows later this weekend for Fleet Week.

We decided to try out Bistro Boudin at the famous Boudin Bakery for dinner. Social media was divided on the quality of the restaurant, some said it was a tourist trap, others said the food was great, overall I think I would lean towards the first opinion. The sourdough bread was very good (as expected), my mom got to have one of their famous bread bowls with crab and corn chowder, Jeremy and I each had a pretty tasty local beer (Anchor Steam), but the main dishes were rather bland, and not worth what you paid. On the bright side, we did have a great view of Alcatraz and the water at sunset from our table.

Port of San Francisco sign and the ferry clock tower at twilight

After dinner we decided to go back to the Marketplace to acquire some desert before heading home. We hopped on the F electric street car all the way back to Pier 1 and went to Ciao Bella Gelato for dessert (mint chocolate chip, honey pecan, pistachio gelatos and lemon sorbet were enjoyed by the group, all good). We walked out to the back of the terminal to catch a view if the night skyline and lit bridges and “Port of San Francisco” sign and then headed back to the car.

Tomorrow, we get to explore Alcatraz and meet up with some Williamsburg friends for dinner in Palo Alto, with I’m sure some more stops in between.


California trip – day 6 – Pacific Coast Highway

So today was another travel day, this time from Napa back to San Francisco, with a significant detour via the Pacific Coast Highway. We started off the day at a breakfast spot recommended to us by our AirBnB host Matt, called Cafe Sarafornia in Calistoga. According to its sign it has the “best breakfast in town,” and I must say, it was quite tasty. It was the pretty much standard diner breakfast menu, French toast, pancakes, egg scrambles, but some dishes, like the eggs Benedict I ordered, had a “California twist” such as guacamole added to the dish and bacon substituted for the ham. After filling up we walked around a little downtown, explored a cute converted train depot where they had taken the old train cars and turned them into tiny shops, and then began our road trip for the day.

We set off on route 120 and drove it towards the coast until it ended. We passed through Sonoma county, with its seemingly endless vineyards, followed by Menodino county which was a lot of farmland, particularly cow and sheep pastures. Mendocino stretched all the way to the coast and there we met up with Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway.

First view of the Pacific Ocean

The PCH is a beautiful, and very windy drive, you weave in and around the coastline getting glimpses of huge rock formations by the ocean along the way. We stopped at Manchester State Park which had a picnic area but also beach access, and my mom and I both had our first touch of the Pacific ocean (after multiple attempts to not get soaked by the incoming waves). There was a lot of cool driftwood along the beach as well as a lot of washed up plant life. The predominant organism that had washed up looked like giant firehoses with a circular root base, not sure what it was but it definitely looked weird. After our lunch of meats and cheeses we were back on the road for another few hours, stopping every once in a while for photos at particularly interesting spots. Somehow about an hour and a half outside of San Francisco we inadvertently got off the PCH which we realized after we stopped to get gas, but it was for the

Mom and I at the Pacific Ocean after almost getting soaked by a wave. (Photo courtesy of Jeremy)

better as it was approaching the end of the day and we were ready to get to the house so we hopped on the main highway into the city.

Our AirBnB home here (a “Hidden Gem that’s Close to it All!“) is what you’d think of as a typical San Francisco town home, up on the top of a steep hill (which requires some crazy maneuvering to park). It is listed as an “artists’ home” and it delivers, there are some very unique bits of art around the house. There are two large and one tiny (with bunk beds) bedrooms upstairs and the bathroom, kitchen and living/dining area are downstairs.

Once we got everything inside and we were settled in I poked around a bit online to see what our dinner options were but in the end we opted to order pizza. The highest recommended place that delivered to us was Goat Hill Pizza, who were known for their sourdough crusts. We ordered a ham pizza for the guys and a mushroom and spinach pizza for the girls (yay for online ordering). Both pizzas were quite tasty and we enjoyed them with a bottle of California merlot we had bought at the grocery store earlier this week. After dinner we all poked around online a bit (yay for free wifi) and then headed to bed.

To check out all of the Pacific Coast Highway photos, visit the Flickr set.