Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Miami -- Back in the USA, or are we in Cuba???

Jane Bailey and family explore South Beach
 We said goodbye to the Celebrity Century on the 8th of November, and hello to Miami Beach in good ol' US of A. Our hotel, the Essex House, had an excellent location near the beach and right in the heart of the action in South Beach. We actually felt as if we were still in a foreign country. Spanish, not English, seems to be the first language here, and almost everyone who lives here came from a Spanish speaking country originally. As we walk the streets of South Beach, we hardly ever hear a language we can understand.

Exploring South Beach with the Baileys

  The Baileys (the British family from the cruise ship) had most of the day to spend in Miami before their flight back to the U.K., so we suggested they store their luggage in our hotel room while they roamed and explored the area. You have to understand that Anne had cancelled and rebooked our Essex House three times to get a better rate. (Obviously, the hotel already knew we were cheap.) When we checked in with the Baileys (and all their luggage), the hotel staff probably thought we were taking in boarders -- or, at the very least, charging them a storage fee for their luggage! At any rate, we shared an afternoon of laughter with this fun family.

Art Deco dominates the South Beach area
Here in South Beach, the dress code is shorts and flip-flops, and Art Deco is all the rage -- they have the largest concentration of Art Deco buildings in the U.S. Art Deco is an artform of the early 20th century that is simplistic, and almost machine-like with no frills, no ornate features.

We took an Art Deco walking tour to learn more about this intriguing architectural style that incorporates a basic nautical look (portholes, waves, fountains, etc.) with Egyptian and Mayan motifs. It turned out that our hotel was a stopping point on the tour, and a perfect example of classic Art Deco.

Versace Mansion where Gianni Versace was murdered

In many ways, South Beach is a typical beach town loaded with hotels, fun restaurants, shops, and lively nightlife. However, now that we had a better appreciation for the architecture, we could see that the Art Deco style really sets this town apart. That plus an undercurrent of something that feels dangerous (or maybe we have just watched too many episodes of CSI: Miami and Miami Vice!).

Gloria Estefan's Hotel (The Gardoza Hotel)
  On our last night, we took a bus to mainland Miami’s Bayside Marketplace, a colorful assortment of shops and restaurants lining the harbor ( a lot like Baltimore’s Inner Harbor). Anne tasted her first Mojito and Frank enjoyed a lime-adulterated Landshark beer (similar to Corona).  We ate Cuban-style fish with plantains as the sun set over the yacht-filled harbor and the backdrop of downtown Miami skyscrapers.

Winterhaven Hotel where Al Capone used to spend his winters

We had an uneventful flight home -- that is if you don’t count the loudmouth punk kid who was kicked off the plane in Miami for bad boisterous behavior, and the passenger who required a doctor’s care during the flight! At any rate, it’s good to be back home again.
Bayside Marketplace and Marina

Lazy, Crazy, Sea Days

Hanging out on the top deck
As excited as we were about cruising across the Atlantic, we both wondered if a full week at sea would eventually become boring. Well, we didn’t need to worry about that! We were constantly busy and really enjoyed life at sea.  Many days at sea were a bit scarier than 1st expected however, since we never saw another ship or any land for an entire week.  We imagined the mental state of some of the seafarers of days in the middle ages - Columbus, Magellan, et al.  It's not hard to understand the depressed, often mutinous thoughts of Columbus's men after months of spotting no land, or other ships.  You are quite "alone" and necessarily self-dependent out there in the middle of the Atlantic.

The ship's cooks show us how to do it
 Celebrity has a terrific Enrichment Series offering everything from art history to psychology to take your mind off the nothingness of the surrounding sea. Plus classical music sessions and cooking lessons! It was like taking several Adult Ed courses all in one week. It was so much fun, and we learned a lot too. Perhaps Columbus was a bit short on the diversionary entertainment aboard the Santa Maria?  What a long way we've come in sea travel.  

One day, we got a tour of the Galleys where we went behind the scenes to see how seafaring chefs prepare over 9000 meals a day. This is quite a feat involving over 1700 dozen eggs, 1400 pounds of chicken, and 45,000 pounds of fresh fruit!

On the less serious side, the Celebrity entertainment programs were much better than we expected. Performers included pianists, a violinist, and the ship’s own talented singers and dancers. It was a real pleasure to enjoy quality live entertainment on stage every night. Plus other entertainment was available all day (and night) long throughout the ship -- like a string quartet, a gambling casino, and various party bands. We even turned into party animals (LOL) dancing up a storm till after midnight at the 50’s and 60’s Dance Party. 

Maggie and John Grant (2 of our table mates)

We had assigned seating for dinner and were very lucky with our tablemates. John and Maggie were an older couple originally from Scotland, and the Baileys were a delightful family of four from the UK (with the most charming children: Bobbie 15 and Hannah 12). John was a real character, often leading us in sing-a-longs of Gilbert and Sullivan and other favorites -- our table was the loudest and happiest in the dining room.

John Grant and Anne celebrate
his 72nd birthday
John had been quite intrigued when Anne told him she had bought a flamenco apron. So, on the last night of the cruise, which was also John’s 72nd birthday, Anne surprised him by wearing the apron along with a flower in her hair (provided by Hannah). John immediately jumped to his feet and danced her all around the table right there in the dining room, in front of about 400 onlookers.  Pretty spry for a 72 year-old!

The international crew provided outstanding customer service that was both professional and personal. Frank loved practicing his Indonesian with our delightful and conscientious room stewards "Bambang" and "Hamka".  And our dining room servers, Darko from Croatia and Miller from Jamaica, joined in the dinner time fun.

We had beautiful weather for most of the trip and loved walking the promenades. We especially liked watching for flying fish. These amazing creatures shoot straight upward, out of the water and zoom across the waves flapping their "minature wings" for long distances; we saw some of them go as far as half a football field (150 yards).
Jane and Hannah Bailey (2 more of our table mates)

The last two days of our cruise, the weather changed as we picked up some remnants of Hurricane Thomas. The seas were really rough with waves of 10 - 12 feet. We had to be careful just walking around the ship, and at night it was like sleeping on a roller coaster. One older woman was knocked to the floor as we stood nearby; she was unconscious for a while, but thankfully, the medical team brought her around, and she was OK. Days after we had left the boat, we were still getting that sinking stomach feeling as if the earth was moving under our feet.

For our engineering friends out there (and the curious), the final tally of miles traveled on this cruise was 4934 nautical miles (1 nautical mile equals 1.15 land miles).



Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Canary Islands and Why Ship Excursions are Not for Us

Market in La Laguna
 We visited two of the seven Canary Islands - the islands of Tenerife and La Palma. In both ports, we decided to cast fate to the wind and try the ship excursions, something we have never done before. We’ll talk more about each individual tour in a minute, but the biggest problems with these excursions were our fellow passengers! Who are these people and why are they so angry? Unfortunately, they were almost all Americans, and listening to them you would think that being on a luxury cruise like this was some kind of strange and unusual punishment. Who knows what they were expecting from these excursion tours, but they complained about everything all day long. It was pretty disheartening, but we managed to have a good time anyway.

Our first port was Santa Cruz de Tenerife on the island of Tenerife, the largest island in the Canaries. For us, Tenerife was more modern and less appealing than La Palma. We visited La Laguna, considered the most charming city on Tenerife where we saw a church with a grand silver altar (made with silver from Mexico) and a fun market filled with stands selling all varieties of tropical fruit and an incredible assortment of fresh fish. Our guide, Jackie, was a nice person but could use some work on her guiding skills -- very disorganized and no sense of humor. (Now that Anne gives tours herself, at the Moravian Museum in Bethlehem, she is much more aware of this kind of thing LOL!) We did love some of Jackie’s pronunciations: our favorite was “aristo crazies” for aristocracies!

This was called the “Culture and Wine” tour, so you know what is coming next. The Bodega Alvaro in Tacorante was our favorite stop -- an old-fashioned place with floor to ceiling shelves of dusty wine bottles covering every wall.

Wine tasting in Tenerife
We were given free reign to help ourselves to a couple of glasses of Canary Island wine including a bland white, a so-so red, a very nice Rosado, and a wonderfully spicy, high alcohol concoction called “Ruda” (this one was so special it wasn’t even for sale!). All of these wines were served with a nice selection of tapas including thinly sliced ham and yummy little boiled potatoes that we dipped in a great spicy sauce. 
The next day, we docked at Santa Cruz de La Palma on the smaller, and much more interesting island of La Palma. We were dismayed to see some of the same complaining folks as yesterday including a trio from Texas who seem to have “Longhorns” embroidered on every piece of clothing they own, but this was a much better tour. Our tour guide, Robert, was excellent, and the island was beautiful.
Beautiful La Palma
First stop was the San Antonio volcano at the very southern tip of the island where we had a good walk around the rim of the volcano enjoying the strange geology and gorgeous views of the ocean. This island was much smaller with more vegetation (bananas, lots of colorful flowers) and sweet little houses painted in every pastel color from yellow to purple.
Colorful pastel houses on La Palma

Next stop (you guessed it): a winery. La Palma has all these old (and odd) grape varieties that were brought here years ago from countries like Portugal, Spain, and Italy. We tasted Listan (a bland white), Negromoll (a nice, powerful red), Sobra (a tasty semi-sweet white), and Malmsey (their famous white sweet wine) to name a few.

Walking the rim of the San Antonio volcano

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Flower Island of Madeira

Camara de Lobo
 Anne had arranged for a private tour with Daniel’s Taxi, and Daniel himself showed us the sights. Anne had also found another couple (via Cruise Critic) to join us: Joan and Rudy from Colorado. We have been wanting to visit Madeira ever since our French friends, Eric and Helene, had recommended it to us years ago. We spent a full day getting a good overview of this island paradise.

We began at charming Camara de Lobo, a small fishing village Winston Churchill was fond of painting. Yes, “Winnie” Churchill was a devout painter, and spent a lot of time here on Madeira. Then, we traveled up to the top of Cabo Girao, the second highest cliff in the world. The scenery of Madeira is constantly changing from crashing waves to dramatic inland mountains and from small black sand beaches (volcanic) to pine forests. But there is one constant: flowers and lush vegetation are everywhere!

Bananas are the biggest export, and we were amazed to learn that it takes about 1 ½ - 2 years for a banana tree to produce one big bunch of bananas (about 100 lbs.) and then it dies. It does however leave behind “daughter trees,” so the trees continue to self-propagate. Didn’t sound like a very profitable undertaking, but it is big business here, exceeded only by tourism.

We could go on and on about the fabulous viewpoints and stunning geography. This is extremely mountainous territory, and we saw stairways all over the island, steep stairs carved from the rocky mountainsides that locals still use to walk from place to place. Many of the hillside homes have no roads, so the only way to get to your house is to climb on foot!

We ate lunch in an outdoor cafĂ© surrounded by many Bird of Paradise flowers. We ate a local specialty called “espada,” a fish that is only caught off the coast here and in Japan. What makes espada unique is that it comes from 3,000 feet below the sea! (The poor things die on their way to the surface -- we guess they get the “bends” as they‘re pulled up). Anyway, the fish is served grilled with bananas, and it was delicious.

The beauty here is overwhelming with flowers everywhere: hibiscus, hydrangea, belladonna, bougainvillea -- and huge poinsettia trees grow wild! But Daniel also showed us the terrible hurricane damage. The island had received 7 times the normal rainfall, and when the hurricane hit, the water had nowhere to go. As a result, water, mud and huge rocks poured down these steep mountainsides. Daniel said it happened in seconds with no warning at all. We saw great swathes of boulders where homes used to be. Climate change is a scary thing.

Madeira is famous for its levadas, an extensive network of cut rock aqueducts or cement channels that carry water down from the mountains (to power electric turbines, to provide irrigation, and for drinking water). We only saw a small stretch of one, but we could see that following the levadas would make fabulous trails for hiking.

In case any of you were wondering, we did get to taste (and buy) some of the famous Madeira wine! Although we wish we had had more time to spend learning about this special wine. Oh, and this time, we had to turn our wine over to the “wine guy” when we got back on board the ship. Based on the number of bottles we saw passengers carrying onto the ship (us included), the ship must have one huge wine storage area!
Our little tour group: Daniel, our taxi driver (to the left) and Rudy and Joan (on the right) 

Monday, November 8, 2010

Malaga, the Moors, and a Man called Pedro

Entrance to the Alcazaba

Our first port stop was in Malaga, Spain. We were delighted with this seaside city in southern Spain with its craggy mountain backdrop and interesting historic sites. We wandered on our own beginning with the Alcazaba, a palace-fortress built by the Moors in the 10 hundreds. Moorish influence is strong here since the Moors occupied Malaga for about 700 years.

Reflecting pool in the palace of Alcazaba

The fortress is positioned on a steep mountainside so we wandered up stylishly patterned brick and stone walkways passing thru Arab keyhole archways and portals. The Palace sits at a high point overlooking the city, with beautiful gardens, fountains, and reflecting pools -- like a mini-Alhambra for those of you who have seen the Alhambra. The Moors had a thing for water; it was valued as the equivalent of “gold“ to them, since it was never available in abundance. A network of brick water troughs still channels water to all the plants and trees and fills the fountains and pools. 

Castel Gibralfaro with view of the harbor
 The Castel Gibralfaro sits even higher on the mountain peak. We took a taxi cab to the top and walked back down to the city (a good move!). We walked the old ramparts taking in the excellent views including one of our ship clearly visible in the harbor below. We also got a great top down view of Malaga’s impressive bullfighting arena. 

Goofing around at the Castel
 After descending from the mountain, we hiked across town enjoying the great vibe in the winding streets of colorful mansions and pretty outdoor cafes. Our goal was the Malaga Wine Museum. Pedro, the museum host, was very curt and not the least bit welcoming. We quickly toured the small museum after which Pedro poured us some Malagan wine. He really was quite rude, but I guess when he saw how interested we were in the wine, he started to warm up (or maybe it was because we bought a couple bottles!). The history of Malagan wine goes back to the Moors who made wine (even though the Koran forbids the drinking of alcohol). Malagan wines are fortified wines with alcohol levels of 18-19%. The dry ones are sherry-like, but the most typical wines are very dulce (sweet).

Pedro became such a good buddy; he even recommended his favorite restaurant to us, which turned out to be a wonderful suggestion on many levels. We don’t know if Pedro let them know we were coming, but the folks at La Garrafa treated us incredibly well. It was a cute wine tavern where we sat on little stools surrounded by wine barrels. We ordered several tapas (including giant meatballs made with hamburger and almonds - called “albundigones”, that were really good), and the staff added a free plate of excellent roasted peppers (maybe they thought we needed a veggie?). They must have thought we needed a sweet too because when we declined dessert, they brought us two slices of free cheesecake! Thank you, Pedro!!

Our lucky streak continued when we boarded the ship. The Celebrity rule is that any wine (or alcohol) purchased in a port must be stored by them until the end of the cruise (they really want you to buy your drinks on board). But no one said a word as they x-rayed our bags with the 3 wine bottles.

In the gardens of the Alcazaba

Anchors Away

The Celebrity Century (our home for the next two weeks)

We checked the Celebrity website first thing today, and it indicated that the cruise was definitely a “go” for us, but that we’d have a couple of hours delay because of those rudder problems they had on the previous leg of their trip. So, with sailing in mind, we taxied out to the port where we waited for our ship, the “Celebrity Century“, with the rest of the passengers. After about 3 hrs. in the terminal, we finally boarded the newly-repaired ship by 6:00 p.m. All the crew seemed in good spirits, and everyone has been quick to assure us that the ship was fully repaired.

The ship finally left the port of Barcelona at midnight. We hit some choppy water overnight -- the ship was rockin’ and a rollin’, but it really didn’t bother us. Today we have a sea day, so we are taking it easy seeing a movie in the theater, and hitting the fitness center. For those of you who have cruised before, you know that food can be a major problem. Food is so plentiful and deliciously presented aboard these ships, that one can easily and forgivably overdo the eating. The perpetual dieters (like us) are continually “sandwiched” between a medley of great tasting foods and maintaining enough activity to keep the calories from sticking. We are thankful for that fitness center, and the long promenades where we can walk the perimeter of this ship, and keep the body weight somewhat in check.

Frank in the onboard fitness center

When we were waiting to depart from Barcelona, we watched the crew loading pallet after pallet of supplies (mostly beer and other booze) on to the ship. What an operation that is! The port forklifts carry the pallets to the edge of the gangway, and then the onboard ship’s smaller forklifts pick them up and pull them into the ship‘s hull. Obviously, one guy’s territory ends where another’s begins.

We have an ocean view stateroom on level 5 this time which we are really enjoying. The views of the Spanish coast under a full moon were spectacular. However, although we will reserve judgment until the end of the cruise, we are thinking that we much preferred Holland American, the cruise line we had taken last year.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Tarragona, Beaches, and Dali (& Cava too)

We took a day trip to Tarragona which is about a 1 ½ hour train ride south of Barcelona. Thanks to our neighbor Clif ‘s recommendation (Thanks, Clif!), we visited this port city that was once the Roman capitol of Hispania. 

The Roman Aqueduct

Tarragona is a lovely city with great views of the Med and a remarkable variety of Roman ruins. It was especially interesting to see how the modern city has built itself on and around the tremains of the old Roman town. We began with the archaeological museum with its fabulous Roman mosaics and various items from daily Roman life. As always, we marveled at how creative and resourceful these ancient people were. Then, we checked out the many Roman ruins including the Roman Circus where the Romans held their chariot races and the Amphitheater where gladiators once fought.

We took a cab 3 km outside the city to the Roman Aqueduct (also called the Devil’s Bridge) . It was impressive, and we had hoped to walk on it; however, the site was closed for restoration. Lots of scaffolding surrounded the aqueduct, but it was still a magnificent sight.

The Beach at Barceloneta

We spent the next two days in a more relaxed mode strolling along the beaches of Barceloneta, a seaside resort about 10 minutes walk from our apartment. Barcelona is certainly a diverse city with medieval ruins, modern architectural wonders, and a beach too!

We also hopped a train down to the beach resort of Sitges (about 45 minutes south) where we enjoyed the small laidback town of whitewashed buildings that reminded us of Greece. The beach was lovely and the small shops were great for browsing.


Saturday was “Dali Day.” We had arranged to take an all-day tour to visit the Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres and also Dali’s home on the coast in Port Lligat (near the resort town of Cadaques). Dali was one wild and crazy dude! From the moment we first glimpsed the Dali Museum with its roof topped with giant eggs and gold figures that look like the Oscar statuettes, we knew we were in for something out of the ordinary.

The Dali Museum is almost a hallucinatory experience with all the bizarre surrealistic art and a good dose of Dali’s unique sense of humor. For example, a Cadillac on display in the huge courtyard “rains” inside the car if you put a euro in the money box. Initially, we thought that Dali must have been a lunatic; however, by the end of the day, we could appreciate his genius. He had great success not only in painting, but in sculpture, jewelry-making and even designed screen sets for Hollywood. A highlight of the jewelry room was a brooch with an actual “beating” red-jeweled heart.

Salvador Dali self-portrait

Dali was one of the few artists who became wealthy during his lifetime. He and his wife and soul mate, Gala, built a mansion on a gorgeous secluded harbor at Port Lligat. Just like the museum, the house reflects Dali’s playful style, but you also get a sense of the wonderful life he and Gala had together.
In many ways, Dali’s art seems like profanity on the canvas -- he took great joy in twisting classical works and themes in strange, shocking ways creating a surrealistic dream world all his own. He was quite a character that you might not take seriously especially with that ridiculous, pointed mustache. But his true genius was his creative energy and his simple, childlike humor. Who else would decorate his swimming pool with plastic images of the Michelin Man?

On our last full day in Barcelona, we explored another aspect of Catalan life: cava (i.e. champagne). The term champagne can only be used in France, so the Spanish sparkling wine is called cava. Our Wine and Cava tour took us into the famous Penedes wine region where we visited three vineyards. The first, Jean Leon, was a small exclusive place founded by the colorful character Jean Leon who owed the famous La Scala restaurant in Hollywood (with business partner James Dean) and hobnobbed with Hollywood starlets and even Ronald Reagtan and JFK.

Dali had a fetish for the Michelin Man!

Our second stop was at the Torres Winery, a huge almost factory-like operation but their Cabernet Sauvignon (with a hint of Tempranillo) was outstanding. The final stop was at Freixenet, the largest cava producer in Spain. (You may be familiar with Freixenet which is sold in the U.S. in a signature black bottle.) It was a fun day of wine-tasting out in the Tuscan-like countryside.

Wine and Cava Tour

This is our last day here in Barcelona (we think!). Our ship, the Celebrity Century, has been having some rudder issues. The Century’s previous cruise was aborted on the second day of sailing and all the passengers were forced off the ship and left to fend for themselves. The Century has been in dry dock for repairs ever since although we understand the ship is headed for Barcelona as we write this. As of the moment, ETA is 3:30 p.m. today (delayed from 11:00 a.m.).