ENOUGH ABOUT CRUISE SHIPS!

The mainstream media (and now the general populace as well as the US State Department) just tick me off. I have just about had it with these organizations and government entities  making cruise lines the major focus of all that is bad in the current Coronavirus (Covid-19) epidemic. Every single morning when we wake up we turn on the TV to check the news and the lead story is always—”Cruise ship gets quarantined!” or “State Dept. warns people to stay off cruise ships.” And I hear people saying things like, “Cruise ships are nothing but human petrie dishes.” As a cruiser and a travel professional, this drives me crazy. Here’s a typical story:Screen Shot 2020-03-10 at 1.01.09 PM

So I started thinking what percentage of cruise ships have been affected. So far, (after doing numerous Google searches) there has been Covid-19 cases on two ships—both from the Princess line. I am not saying this is the fault of Princess Cruises, just that this happens when crew members change ships and some from the one ship that had an outbreak moved to the other. When  they moved, Covid-19 was not even a known problem at the time. That could happen at your job, your hospital, your kid’s school, etc.

There have been other ships that authorities have suspected carried passengers or crew that had the virus but having now gone back through numerous news reports I can only find confirmed cases on the original Diamond Princess that was quarantined in Japan and now the Grand Princess currently docked in Oakland. That’s two ships with a total of a little less than 9,000 total people (passengers and crew) on board. There were other ships mentioned in news articles. Some were even denied landing in ports. For instance, Holland America’s Westerdam was stopped from entering a number of ports in Asia during February but it turned out they had 0 cases on board. Screen Shot 2020-03-10 at 1.02.54 PM

The most ridiculous thing to me about all of this is that this is a MINUSCULE percentage of cruise ships (as you can see from the screenshot below that I took from an Excel spreadsheet I just put together). I listed each cruise ship from the major English-speaking cruise lines. I left out those that predominately service just the European market like the Spanish-based Pullmanter (with four ships) or the German-based Mein Schiff/Tui (with three) or the small expedition lines like Ponant or National Geographic. But, just looking at the cruise lines that are considered mainstream in the USA, here is the breakdown.

Screen Shot 2020-03-10 at 12.46.24 PM

Notice anything? Like the fact that there have been Covid-19 outbreaks on TWO ships and there are 227 cruise ships in the major companies fleets? (If you would like a copy of the Excel file which lists every ship from these lines and how many passengers and crew are on those ships, click here.)

Since all this started, I have been asking people I meet in everyday life how many cruise ships they think there are currently sailing the oceans of the world. They never get near the number 227. For instance, today I was at Kaiser’s Redmond clinic, the dentist, Trader Joe’s and Costco (where there was still a HUGE run on toilet paper 😆).

At each place I went, I got into a discussion about the Covid-19 virus (that’s all anyone is talking about anyway) and the fact that I was on a cruise ship last Monday morning. (One person hearing this actually took a step back when I told her that 🙄).  In each place after they reacted to my being on a cruise ship, I asked them, “how many cruise ships do you think are currently sailing?” Of the four people I asked today in person, most said something like, “60?” or “100?” Just to see what I would get in a quick online poll, I just texted every person in my text list that I am friends with or related to. Some of those are major cruisers, others have not cruised at all. Guesses were all over the map. A few went crazy and said 4,500 while most, when I limited them to English-speaking ocean cruise lines (no river cruising involved), said 150-300. One non-cruiser said 225 (well done).

In actuality there are (as you can see in the chart above) 227 ships that carry a little more than half a million passengers at any one time. When you add in the crew members on board those 227 ships the total number of people on cruise ships at any given moment is just under three quarters of a million. And of all those people, less than 200 have the Covid-19 virus. If I were a mathematician, I would give you a percentage. Maybe one of my readers will tell me what that is. I can say that if there are 227 cruise ships, and only two of them have proven to have Covid-19, then that’s around 2%, right?

The media loves to pick on cruise ships. They know that they get miles and miles of headlines by making it sound like if you go on a cruise ship, you are going to get sick and die. Cruise ships are a great target and easy to cover. I just wish they would stop. There are hundreds of thousands of people whose income relies on cruise ships. This is killing them. Would I take a cruise right now? Depends on the cruise. We have four more scheduled this year. We are planning on going on all of them as of now. Our next one is at the end of April. Should the Covid-19 panic still be going on, we may cancel that one. It’s not a biggie, just San Diego to Vancouver with a very good friend but rumors are swirling that Vancouver may not allow ships to go there…which is ridiculous, so we may decide to skip that one. In August we are scheduled to go to the Galapagos. If that cruise was this week, I would go in a minute.

Ok, I will get off my soapbox now. I am just tired of reading and hearing about this. And I should say that what really set me off on this topic today was seeing a subReddit last night where a guy said he just broke up with his girlfriend and was going to kill himself by going on a cruise and catching the Coronavirus. Give me a break!

So the pie isn’t perfect? Cut it into wedges. Stay in control, and never panic. —Martha Stewart

But what about the cruise?

To finalize our Mardi Gras trip I figured that I should tell you about the cruise and give you some general impressions both good and bad. So let’s get started.

_8101855We sailed on Celebrity’s Reflection. This was the same ship we sailed on last June on our Ireland/Iceland cruise. We liked it then and we liked it this time. It is not Celebrity’s newest ship but it is the newest in their Solstice class and since we refuse to sail on the newer Edge class, it is the newest of Celebrity’s ships we will sail on (we will actually sail on a newer ship—the Flora—when we go to the Galapagos this summer but that doesn’t really count as a big Celebrity ship, more of a large yacht). We now know Reflection pretty well.

Let’s start with embarkation. We had driven down from Sarasota the day before to stay with our friend Mike (mentioned a bunch for the last few days) and on Friday (February 21) we headed to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale to board Reflection. The plan was for us to put gas in the rental car, then I would drop Kathleen, Bob & Judy at the cruise port, return the rental car at the airport (about 10 minutes away—without traffic) and then take a taxi back to meet them at the pier. So much for plans. First, I could not find a single gas station (by looking on my GPS) that was within 10 miles of the cruise port (on our way there) so when I got off the freeway to look, the entrance to the port was right in front of us. So change of plans already. I dropped everyone (and the luggage) off at the port and went in search of gasoline before heading to the airport.

How did I try and find a gas station close to the port? I asked my trusty Garmin GPS where the nearest gas station was. It told me there was a Shell station approximately eight tenths of a mile from the port in a northeast direction. So I said great, punched the button and she (we call our GPS an untypeable name) gave me directions to this station. The only problem with her directions was that this station was eight tenths of a mile from where I was…if I could FLY! Since I had to drive, it meant I had to leave the port, go over a bridge and drive about six miles in horrible traffic to get there. By the time I had the gas in the car and was turning it in at the airport a 15 minute trip had turned into a 45 minute trip. I was fuming. But then I reminded myself I was on vacation and I was about to board a cruise ship and I felt a lot better.

Celebrity has a brand new terminal in Fort Lauderdale and it is very nice. This was the first time we had used it. Embarkation was very easy and we were onboard within 30 minutes of me getting out of the taxi (you all know that I prefer Lyft but it the quickest one available in the airport was 15 minutes) and having lunch in the buffet within 45. After that (because of my late arrival), our stateroom was ready. Originally we had booked an Aqua class stateroom but the folks who had booked Aqua with us were unable to join us for a variety of reasons so with other friends on board and wanting to eat dinners in the main dining room with them, we changed to regular verandah stateroom 6244. If you haven’t been on a Celebrity cruise, here’s what it looked like when we boarded.

We have stayed in this type of stateroom before and have enjoyed it. Our only complaint before has been the lack of storage. Those cupboards above the bed are kind of worthless as they are just big, open cabinets. But we recently read on the Cruise Critic boards about some great baskets/bins you could get at a Dollar Store that were collapsible for putting them into your luggage and then fit perfectly into these cupboards when unfolded. They worked SUPER. And since they only cost a $1.00, by the end of the 10 days they were not doing that great, but we just left them behind. One other thing about the stateroom. On the first day we met our stateroom attendant, Kam and he turned out to be one of the best we have ever had.

Enough about the stateroom. Let’s move on to the important stuff—the food. Usually we would do most dinners in the main dining room with friends at early seating. This time since we were stopping in New Orleans and might be having dinner at odd hours while there, we decided to opt for Select Dining. This means we didn’t have a set time for dinner, but we could make a reservation, especially since we were a party of 11 and those tables are rare. So I made a reservation for the first night and I even called earlier in the day to verify that we were good to go. I was told we were all set. But when we arrived at the dining room, they had no record of it and told us it might be as much as an hour until they could seat us. No one was willing to wait an hour so we kind of split up. We (Kathleen and I) went up to the buffet where we had a really nice steak (for me) and pork chop (for K). Bob and Judy joined us and even thought we don’t usually eat dinners in the buffet, this was very good.

Our party at the Lawn Club Grille
Lawn Club Grillers: Allen, Hans, Mike, Mickie, David, Bob, Judy. Kathleen, Me, Barbara and Terry.

The rest of the week this was our dinner schedule, a real mix. We had dinner in the dining room most nights. We also had a late snack in the buffet on our two nights in New Orleans since I was either coming back from being off the ship or heading back out to take pictures of the evening festivities. On another night we had dinner in the Lawn Club Grille which is Reflections outdoor specialty restaurant. That about covers our dinners.

As far as the quality of the food and service, we give the Lawn Club Grille incredibly high marks. I am not a steak person but I had the best ribeye steak I have ever had. And the service was outstanding. In the buffet, we were totally impressed with the selection (even a lot of outstanding Indian food which we had never seen before), food quality and the service, although sometimes it was hard to find a member of the bar staff to take a drink order or get us a glass of wine.

The dining room on the other hand was pretty much mediocre. Maybe we just expect too much but after twenty Celebrity Cruises their menu is very tired and needs to be refreshed. Most nights, there are at least two dishes on the menu that we have seen for 15 years and they weren’t that good the first time. And the service was not up to Celebrity standards either. Most nights it was OK but a couple of them it took forever to get served. We had menus in minutes, then it took 20 minutes to get appetizers and another 35 minutes after that to get entrées. That’s just not Celebrity like.

IMG_2347We did lunch most days in the buffet and enjoyed it. We also did a special hamburger lunch back at the Lawn Club Grille as well as a sea day lunch at The Porch, Reflection’s outdoor seafood restaurant. It was EXCELLENT! Enjoyed all the food and outstanding service. I love their seafood tower (at left) and their sangria, although I did think the lunch we had in the same place in Iceland in June was better.

Breakfast was usually a muffin (or two or three) and latte/Americano in Cafe Al Bacio or the buffet for something more substantial if we knew we were going to be out until late.

OleksiiMoving on from the food, we can’t say a lot about the entertainment. When we are on a cruise, our predominate evening preference is socializing with friends. Most nights would find us at the Elite (a higher level of Celebrity loyalty program) reception before dinner and then in the World Class Bar after dinner. One of the highlights of our June cruise in Iceland had been meeting Oleksii, the most amazing bartender in the world in that World Class Bar (a very special bar that is affiliated with a particular world-wide bartending contest). Well, one of the best part of this cruise was seeing Oleksii again. When he first saw us he just about jumped out from behind the bar to come and give us a huge hug. When we left him on the last night of the cruise, he gave Kathleen a kiss on the cheek and I jokingly said, “What no kiss for me?” and I got one myself😆.

We also had a great time with Oleskii’s bartending partner, Santos. Both of these amazing  guys taught an outstanding Mixology class one afternoon that we took and LOVED! In fact, Santos took video of it and you can see it by clicking here. It’s hilarious. You can see Kathleen and I shaking cocktails like crazy.

To sum up, the Reflection is a wonderful ship, sparkling clean with an awesome crew. Since this was our second time on board, we would clearly sail on her again and again…except for the fact that we (after 20+ Celebrity cruises) don’t have any other mainstream Celebrity cruises booked. We are sailing Celebrity’s Flora in the Galapagos but that’s one of their expedition cruise ships. We doubt we will be sailing on one of their ships again (unless coerced by friends 😀) in the future. Our next cruise is on Holland America and after Flora, we are doing a river cruise with Viking followed by a Viking Ocean cruise in October 2021. If we like Viking, we probably will make them our mainstream line of choice. I will explain more in a later post.

One last thing—I can’t write a cruise review without mentioning Coronavirus. Covid-19 on cruise ships is all the people on the news are talking about. We had no problems with illness whatsoever. In fact, if anything, the virus made everyone more diligent in doing things like washing hands, not touching faces and Celebrity cleaning. Personally, I have come home from every one of our last six cruise trips with some kind of virus. Either a cold or the flu with fever. So I was determined not to get sick this time and I was extra vigilant. As many of you know, I don’t do elevators on cruise ships. I use the stairs to try and help with warding off all the calories I am eating. I did this again this time but I can honestly say that I never touched a stair rail. I was consciously aware of doing it. And it worked. I came home healthy and now almost a week later, I still feel great.

Oops, I almost forgot the BEST part of the entire cruise—sailing with our friends. Of course Bob and Judy (who we see a lot as they live just north of us in BC) that we traveled this entire trip with. But beyond them, it was great to see our close friend Mike. We were totally thrilled about two months before the cruise when Mike told us his neighbors Hans and Barbara would be joining us on this cruise. We had sailed with them on one of our favorite cruises back in 2010, when we went from Singapore to Hong Kong. We see them just about every time we are at Mike’s. They are two of our favorite people. Hans is an amazing guy who is absolutely hilarious and Barbara and I always seem to be able to find something to talk about. Also joining us were two of our newest Martini Mates, David and Mickie. There is a long story about a unicorn, a horse, a cruise director, etc. but I won’t get into it here. And two of Mike’s other neighbors who we had not met before joined us as well—it was great to have Terry and Alan along. Just for giggles, here’s a bunch of pics of all of us having a great time.

Old and young, we are all on our last cruise.—Robert Louis Stevenson

 

Grand Cayman Crystal Caves

_8101850I love alliterations so you got that one as a headline. Of course it also relates to where we spent our next port day. After two days at sea (relaxing and socializing) we arrived at the island nation of the Cayman Islands (this is where I keep all my off-shore bank accounts 😜). Specifically, we came ashore in tenders on Grand Cayman Island. But not the town of George Town which is where we were supposed to come ashore. The winds were too strong for Reflection to get us on to the tenders (For the non-cruisers, these are small boats that ferry us to shore when there is no ocean pier and the ship has to anchor offshore.) So we had to go to the opposite side of the island and tender into a much smaller port, nowhere near a town.

_8101861We did have plans on Grand Cayman and we were still able to do everything we had set up. Our buddy Mike (the god of shore excursions) had set up a small group trip to the Crystal Caves, a relatively new attraction on Grand Cayman. On the way off the ship (while on the tender) I got to take the photo above which shows The Reflection in her best light. Then we got to the tender dock and I shot her again with some island color in the foreground.

We were picked up by a taxi hired by the tour company and whisked away to the Caves. We were a little early so our driver gave us a free tour of some of the sites of Grand Cayman. One of the things we saw everywhere on Grand Cayman were tiny cemeteries everywhere. It was like every neighborhood had one of their own. In our short drive to the Caves we passed at least nine._8102059

We finally reached the Crystal Caves (a new attraction on Grand Cayman since 2016). It is a fascinating system of caves. There are three main caves and because there was a threat of rain that day, we were not able to visit one of them. We were able to visit the Roots Cave and The Lake Cave. I took more than 200 photos of the caves and if I showed you all of them, we would be here all day and you would get sick of caves. If you are interested in more, I will drop the balance on my Flickr feed that you can access at right.

After our outstanding Crystal Caves tour (it lasted about an hour or so) we taxied back to the pier and headed back to the ship. On the way I took a few more photos to kind of give those that have never been to Grand Cayman an idea of what the island looks like.

The mystery is what prompted men to leave caves, to come out of the womb of nature.—Stephen Gardiner

Finally…Mardi Gras!

I’ve been teasing you long enough. We were actually still in New Orleans for Mardi Gras and yes we loved it. Had a superb day which started off with my taking the photo mentioned in my previous post. Please check it out if you have’t read it yet.

Pre-dawn photo walk

After I took that pic I walked around some of the same streets I had walked through the day before and a few others. First I hit St. Charles Street where the parades were scheduled for later in the day. At the corner of Julia Street and St. Charles, there were hundreds of people who had camped out overnight to save their places. Many had tents, sleeping bags and a few had charcoal grilles fired up and cooking breakfast. I watched an awesome sunrise and captured a lot of it. I will let the photos speak for the actual photo walk and be back with more narrative after the photos (with captions).

Later that day…

After my photo walk I headed back to the ship to shower, eat and convince Kathleen to come to a parade with me. Eventually she and I along with Bob, Judy & Mike walked up Julia Street to St. Charles Avenue to watch what we thought was the start of the Krewe of Rex parade. King Rex’s Krewe hosts the final parade before the end of Mardi Gras. Turns out the Krewe of Zulu’s parade (that preceded Rex) was a little late getting started and that put Rex a whole bunch late getting going. We stayed and watched a bunch of Zulu floats go by. The crowds were about 20 people deep going back from St. Charles Street and in that mess were some truly unusual and fun people watching the parade and celebrating Mardi Gras in a real New Orleans fashion.

After we watched the Zulu Krewe parade for a while, we headed back to the ship, got some lunch and around 4:00 pm Mike and I walked back out to get some authentic cajun gumbo for me and jambalaya for Mike. We both just had a small bowl because we still had dinner with our friends later that evening back onboard.

_8101812After we got back aboard but before we went to dinner I did a quick panorama of downtown New Orleans from the ship (it is below). Pay special attention to the skyscraper that is just to the right of center in the distance. (It is also the tallest building to the right.) When we did the HoHo bus tour it was another very sad building failure in the history of modern New Orleans. When we drove by the tower, all the bottom floor windows that were easy to see, were covered in plywood. It (The Plaza Tower) was built (according to our guide and the previously linked Wikipedia page) in 1964 and totally abandoned in 2002 due to a HUGE infestation of black mold. And even worse, it can’t be demolished because it is full of asbestos and imploding it would put a mile wide cloud of asbestos all over downtown New Orleans. So it sits there and probably will for a very long time. So sad. 

New Orleans Pano

This finished up our time in New Orleans which brought us a ton of fun, lots of walking, parades, Krewes, beignets and so much more. We are very glad we visited during Mardi Gras and we truly loved the city and the people we met there.

Mardi Gras, the drinking, the partying—that scared me. —Archie Manning

 

Crazy Lundi* Gras

If you read yesterday’s post you know that we sailed into New Orleans after coming up the Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico. We arrived on Sunday night but Kathleen and I decided to stay on board, mostly because I wanted to be up very early to do my usual early morning photo walk. Kathleen (and others in our party) were a little concerned with my safety walking around what is supposed to be one of the craziest cities in the world during their craziest festival. To be honest, I was a little worried as well.

My first early morning photo walk

While I have photo walked before dawn in many, many cities around the world (from Amsterdam to Victoria) without any problem at all, as I left our stateroom on Monday, Kathleen said, “That camera isn’t worth dying for.” YIKES! I hadn’t even thought that way until then. But I am happy to say that not one single time did I even feel the slightest bit threatened and that was all probably because Mardi Gras was going on. Even at 5:30 am, there was a heavy police presence just about everywhere in the city. I felt totally safe and since we were in New Orleans for three nights, I was able to get in two wonderful early morning photo walks. Here’s my pics from my early morning walk (with captions of course).

One quick thing about my photography. If you are looking at this page in an e-mail, please click the link and go to the web on a computer or a tablet before you look at the photos. They just aren’t anywhere nearly as good when you see them tiny or in an e-mail where they have been condensed to fit. If you are on a tablet or computer and you see the grouping below, you can click on the first photo and it will open in a larger window that you can then click or type on the right or left arrows (onscreen or on your keyboard) to scroll through. That’s the best way to view them. Make an old photographer happy and check them out that way…please.

Midday touring with our group

After I finished taking my early morning photo walk I headed back to the ship to shower, change, grab some breakfast and then we (myself, Kathleen and our friends Bob, Judy, David and Mickie) headed out to tour New Orleans for a few hours. Originally we were just going to walk around and look at the sites but I had sat down for breakfast in the buffet with a very nice couple who were going to take the Hop On/Hop Off (HoHo) bus and had a brochure they let me look at. That sounded even better to me than just walking around willy-nilly.

We found the bus outside Harrah’s Casino (where we were told, they don’t do gambling—which is illegal in Louisiana—they do gaming 🤔) and after a short wait we…hopped on. The bus had 19 stops all over the city and we had a great guide to start with. In fact all three guides we had that day were excellent. They knew their stuff and you could hear them clearly—those are the qualities of a great guide. The busses were comfortable but at the end of the day I had two huge quibbles with the bus company. First, they told us when we boarded that because of the Mardi Gras parades that evening that it would be a shortened day for them. Usually they would run the busses until 5:30 pm but because of the parades, they would be stopping at 3:30 pm. Now I totally get that but what I don’t get is them still charging full price for a reduced day. The trip is a little spendy already ($39 per person) but to have it cut by 2 hours should have triggered some kind of discount, don’t you think?

The other thing I wish they had done better was put more busses on the street for what is probably their busiest day of the year (they don’t operate on Mardi Gras itself). We found ourselves waiting way too long for busses after 1:00 pm when we only had a short time to get on and finish the entire loop. Both those things taken into account, I would recommend the tour because as we have found in many other cities where we have done these kind of tours, these HoHo busses are a great way to get a quick overview of the city and find out a little about the history and current events.

We rode the bus through uptown, the Garden District, past Storyville (the birthplace of jazz) and back around to the French Quarter, where we hopped off so we could get our first bite of famous New Orleans tourist food—the beignets at Cafe Du Monde, a city landmark. The line to get in and sit down for beignets was about a mile long but the takeout line was much shorter so we opted for that and within about 10 minutes we were scarfing down our beignets. If you have never had a beignet, it’s a square donut without a hole, that is COVERED with powdered sugar. For the takeout window, they just pour about a cup of powdered sugar in a bag, toss in three very hot beignets and you shake them like crazy to spread the sugar around. This is NOT food for those that don’t like or can’t eat sugar. And it’s not something I would eat anyplace else in the world. My doctor (and dentist) would shoot me. But WOW! They were so delicious.

I should note that by this time we had picked up two fellow travelers who were part of our Cruise Critic Roll Call group, Melody and Les from Colorado Springs. Bob and Judy had decided to continue on with the HoHo bus tour and skip the beignets (they have a lot more will power than I do) so Melody and Les were a welcome addition to the group. After our beignet snack I led the group down past St. Louis Cathedral to Bourbon Street so they could see some of what I had seen before dawn. There were two huge differences between my pre-dawn walk and this one (around noon). One, the streets were CLEAN! Amazingly so. Nothing like the incredible amounts of trash I had seen that morning. Secondly, the streets and the balconies above them were now full of people. Those on the street were hollering up to those on the balconies to throw them beads.

In case you are unaware, beads are the currency of Mardi Gras. Beads and other things you can wear around your neck are thrown from the balconies of Bourbon Street, from the floats in the parades and from just about everywhere else. When I had walked these streets in the early morning, it was hard not to step on thousands of discarded strings of colorful, plastic beads. Beads aren’t the only things they throw. There are tiny frisbees, lighted necklaces, light-up wands, beer cups and when they are done throwing everything in them, they throw the bags that used to be full of all that stuff. Coming back from Bourbon Street or any of the parades it is not surprising to see people with hundreds of strings of beads around their necks.

On our few blocks walk down Bourbon Street, Kathleen and the rest of the folks in our party caught their first beads thrown from a very fun group of yodelers on a balcony (see  them in my pics below). Between that and doing some shopping we spent about an hour walking in the French Quarter before standing in line for far too long to get on another HoHo bus. This bus took us out of the Quarter through Treme and downtown and finally back to Harrah’s where we disembarked and headed back to the ship for (I was hoping) a nap 😜. Below are the pics from this foray into the craziness that is Lundi Gras and the rest of our HoHo bus ride.

If you want more info about the Hard Rock Hotel collapse (above), click here.

Evening walk with Mike to see King Rex and some parades

After heading back to the ship, we grabbed a quick burger, fries and a beer (the only thing open for lunch by then) at the Mast Grille before going back to our stateroom for me to download pics and Kathleen to collapse. Later on (around 5:30) I went to meet our friend Mike to head out to do some evening exploring and picture taking.

*One of the things I did not know about Mardi Gras before doing pre-trip research was that the day before Mardi Gras (which literally means Shrove Tuesday) there is an entirely different festival going on down by the river called Lundi Gras. And the big highlight of Lundi Gras is the arrival (by train) of the king of Mardi Gras, King Rex. At 6:00 pm, they back a train into the area near Lundi Gras, the King (with trumpeters and a Grand Vizier) comes out onto the train platform and greets his adoring fans. Then he is escorted to the Lundi Gras stage where he is met by the actual mayor of New Orleans who reads a proclamation that states that the mayor relinquishes control of the city until midnight on Mardi Gras to King Rex and until then, it’s party, party, PARTY (like it hasn’t been before)!

Just a side note: I was always under the impression that Mardi Gras was just the day before Ash Wednesday when in actuality is starts with the first parade on January 6th (the feast of the Epiphany) and lasts until Mardi Gras day itself. During that time there are more than 75 parades all over Louisiana. I was shocked. You can already see next year’s schedule by clicking here.

So after Mike and I took pics and movies at the welcoming of King Rex, we met up with a friend of Mike’s (a native of New Orleans) also named Mike and his wife Cindy and two of their friends who told us a whole lot about Mardi Gras and their city on the way to the Krewe of Orpheus parade. They were awesome and gracious hosts of their city which they are clearly very proud of. Mike is part of the Krewe (the groups who put on the parades) of Bacchus and their parade had been the night before. After about an hour of shooting pics of the parade, I was just about done so I thanked them for their hospitality and left them (and our Mike) to watch the balance of the parade while I headed back to the ship to be ready for the actual day of Mardi Gras the next morning. Below are the pics from our evening foray into the crazy Lundi Gras streets of New Orleans.

One last thing I learned from Mike’s friends Mike and Cindy: All of Mardi Gras is totally self-funded by the Krewes who put on the parades. They raise money all year long to do the parades and to contribute to charity. They even pay the city back for the cost of security and policing. Really impressive and a real boost for the city.

I had one of the best nights of my life at Mardi Gras. —Cenk Uygur

Up the Mississippi…to Mardi Gras

Mississippi MapFrom this point on in reporting our Mardi Gras journey, I am going to be a little behind. Today is Ash Wednesday and we have left the Mississippi behind. On Sunday we sailed up the river to New Orleans, arriving at around 6:30 in the evening. We have been there since then (until 10:30 last night) and that has been 2.5 days of non-stop craziness. Suffice it to say that I have a ton of stuff to share but because of internet and computer charging glitches, you get the post today about our trip up the river last Sunday.

_8100856Just after 10:00 am on Sunday, we started seeing the sea dotted with oil rigs. According to Wikipedia (the source for everything you need to know, right? 😁) there are more than 4,000 of them. We only saw about 400 or so, but it seemed like they were everywhere. As we approached the mouth of the Mississippi, it was getting close to noon.

_8100867
The first land at the mouth of the Mississippi River

About that time we saw a very unassuming little stick of land jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico. That was it. The start of (or the end depending on where you are starting from) the river.

For the next six hours or so we would slalom our way up the muddy Mississippi to New Orleans (see the map above) with lots to see on the river as well as on both sides. I think the best thing for me to do is to add the rest of my good river photos (I took about 500) and let you read the captions which will kind of detail our trip.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Mississippi River and the way of life in these small river towns. —Daniel Woodrell

Birds, birds and…gators?

Sitting in the Sky Lounge on Celebrity Cruise Line’s Reflection, having just had an appetizer lunch with three glasses of champagne, I thought this would be a great time to write a quick update on our trip leading up to the cruise.

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Benny’s on the Beach

Thursday we spent most of the day driving south and east from Sarasota to meet our buddy Mike at Benny’s on the Beach in Lake Worth. We had eaten there with Mike when we were down in October and knew our friend Bob would love it. It’s a very cool beachside restaurant that juts out over the Atlantic and you sit in a screened-in dining area and eat pretty darned good food.

After lunch we headed back to Mike’s place in Boynton Beach where we would spend the night before our cruise on Friday. Judy wanted to see some alligators (doesn’t everyone when they come to Florida), so Mike took her (and me) down to the Wakodahatchee Wetlands, a really super wildlife preserve run by their local public utility district. I had been there with Mike before when we were visiting him in 2009 but thought I could get some more great photos of the flora and fauna—and I did! At least I like them. The photos I took on my afternoon visit are below on top. Scroll all the way down to see pics from the next morning (which I think are much better.)

The best part of this unspellable and unpronounceable wetlands is that it’s free to get in! That meant I could go back the next morning just before dawn and get some of the same great pics but in my favorite early morning light that I love.

I set out at 6:00 am (sunrise was at 7:05) and walked all around taking some photos in the gorgeous early morning light. Many of my readers are late sleepers, so this is my contribution to you. I get up and find the great light so you can sleep 😃. Below you will find pics of the park with the birds identified. At least they are identified by a general consensus of all present (with lots of searching online). If you have better knowledge than we do, please let us know in the comments.

After the early morning photo walk, it was back to Mike’s to shower, eat breakfast, load the car and head south to the cruise terminal. Our plan was to get close to the cruise port, find a gas station, fill up the rental car pre-return, drop Kathleen, Bob and Judy (as well as all our luggage) at the cruise port and then I would take the car back at Fort Lauderdale (FLL) airport. After dropping it off I would catch a cab or a Lyft back to the port and we would all board together. Should be easy, right?

Not so much. First, there isn’t a gas station within about five miles of the cruise port…OR the airport (they are only about 10 minutes apart) so as we got off the freeway coming South, the cruise port gates were right in front of us. So I went ahead and dropped everyone off and then went in search of gas before I could return the car. (BTW: I know I could have purchased the “return empty” option from the rental car company but I hate giving them back a ton of gas and trying to guess how much to put in each day so I don’t give them a bunch back.)

So there I was at the port with an empty car (no people, no luggage and NO gas) to return so I plug “gas station” into my GPS and it finds me a Shell station less than a mile away. I think, “WOW! That’s close—GREAT!” Only problem was, it was less than a mile as the crow flies, not as the car drives. It was on the OTHER side of a large body of water. Getting that  distance from the cruise port took me about 30 minutes because it was actually about four driving miles away. And getting back to the airport there was a BUNCH of construction so what should have taken me 20 minutes quickly stretched to 40. I finally got back to the airport, dropped the car and went looking for a Lyft. Problem was that even with Lyft Pink (which is supposed to get me priority pickup) it was 20 minute wait. So I did what I hate to do and took a taxi.

Why do I hate taxis? Because of their meters. I got picked up and we had not even left the airport and the meter already said $10. My quote for Lyft was only $12.00 all the way to my destination. Because of traffic, this cab ride cost me almost $30. But we did finally get there. Everyone was thrilled to see me and I grabbed my carry-on luggage, my bride, my friends and we got onboard.

Before I say anything about the ship (which will wait until tomorrow), I want to put in my photos from the Wakodahatchee Wetlands.

Day 1 in Boynton Beach, midday photo walk

Day 2 in Boynton Beach, early morning photo walk

I never for a day gave up listening to the songs of our birds, or watching their peculiar habits, or delineating them in the best way I could. —John James Audubon

Thoughts about coronavirus (Covid-19)

Panic2Yesterday I had an e-mail exchange with a good friend about the coronavirus (Covid-19) situation. He was a little worried about it because of all the current news coming down about cruise ships. Not necessarily about the cruise we are both going on next week, but for the long run. Believe me, I have heard some of the same things from other friends who cruise. Plus being someone who sells cruises and is going to be boarding a cruise ship a week from Friday, I have been hearing a lot lately. To those people who are worried and asking why I still want to cruise, here are some things to think about:

  • The quarantined ships we see in the news predominately sail in Asian markets and the cruises on those ships are being sold and marketed primarily to Asians.
  • There are a few Westerners who take those cruises because that is when they can cruise but our news media knows that we relate better to people who look like us, so they cover people from US, Canada, Great Britain and Australia. This makes it look like there are bunch of Westerners on board when there are actually very few. The fact that pretty much every news item I have seen on television is the same woman from the Princess ship who has been diagnosed with coronavirus.
  • The ships with problems originally sailed and visited Chinese ports before anyone knew there was a coronavirus (Covid-19). That’s why we are seeing so many people on that Princess ship that have contracted the virus. You should note that there have been no other ships with that number of cases. That’s because there is a 14 day incubation period and it is barely 14 days since this all started.
  • Driving to an appointment this morning and listening to news radio, there was a spokesman from the CDC who stated that all current US cases were either someone who had been in China in the last three weeks or was closely related (spouses and children at this point) and living with someone who came back from China in that time frame..

So I am still going on my cruise next week. We did receive an e-mail from the cruise line saying that they would be doing some extra screening when we boarded but friends boarded that same ship yesterday and they let us know that the only “extra screening” they received was asking them if they had traveled in China within the last month. That works for me.

I tend to stay with the panic. I embrace the panic. —Larry David

 

Lamenting learning loss

LearningYou have to love a headline that is also an alliteration. But there’s an explanation below. (Warning, this isn’t really a travel post—big announcement on that below—but more of a quick personal thing.)

When the year started I did what I always do—set some goals. It’s a yearly ritual. Some are always the same, like exercising every day, others change. For instance, I always have the goal of losing weight (don’t we all have that one 😀) but this year I decided to change that one and just do “eat healthier” which meant cutting out red meat and switching to a predominately plant-based diet. And doing my usual Dryuary (not drinking in January). It worked. We are eating a lot healthier. Tonight when our older kids come for dinner will be the first red meat I have since December 30 (except for one of Mason’s mini-corndogs). I had other goals as well that had to do with work, travel, etc. Still working on all of them.

But the one that I totally missed was learning. One my goals for the last five years that I have failed miserably at is setting up a day each week that I can schedule (and stick to) for learning. I am supposed to be semi-retired after all—I should be able to do this. Usually that learning has to do with one of three things that I dearly love: travel, photography and cooking. This year I am also taking up videography so that I can better document our travels, especially in the Galapagos this summer.

Kathleen got me a GoPro Hero8 for my birthday and I am ashamed to say that it took me until yesterday to even look at it with videos running and books open. And I still have a ways to go before I will feel comfortable shooting and editing videos. Sadly, I have scheduled at least five full days to watch videos and read books to learn how to use this new camera but had to put each and every one of them aside because of work or personal things getting in the way.

I also feel bad that I haven’t been shooting pictures this year. Haven’t take a single shot with my Nikon since sometime in October that wasn’t pictures of family (mostly grandkids) and that’s just not me. I even did this after I took a photo class with the incredible Scott Kelby in late November. One of Scott’s tenets is practice, practice, practice shooting pictures. I just haven’t been doing that. Part of this I blame on the weather. We have had measurable rainfall every single day since November 30th until today. We are WATERLOGGED and that just doesn’t lend itself to taking a camera out shooting. Plus, I have taken photos of just about everything there is in Redmond.

Banner five dogs celebrating carnival, halloween, new year wearing pirate hat, blue wig, red mask, cape and doctor costume. Isolated on white background..But good news (here’s the travel stuff)! We are leaving a week from tomorrow for a two week vacation in Florida, New Orleans and the Caribbean. This is our first big trip of what will be a year of memorable travel. We fly on Monday the 17th to Tampa (with two of our best buddies, Bob and Judy) and then spend three nights in Sarasota, a city I have been to but Kathleen hasn’t. After Sarasota we head south to Boynton Beach to meet up with another close friend, Mike. Regular readers may remember him as we stayed at his place for three days in October when we cruised on Allure of the Seas.

Then comes the highlight of the trip when we (along with Mike, Bob, Judy and other friends) board the Celebrity Cruiseline ship Reflection (the same ship we sailed to Iceland last June) to sail to New Orleans where we will be moored at the Julia Street Cruise Terminal for three full days during…Mardi Gras. Yes, we know it will be a zoo, but we can’t wait! After Mardi Gras we sail down to Grand Cayman (where we will tour some really cool caves) and then to Cozumel, Mexico where we will practice our snorkeling. We want to kind of know what we are doing when we go to the Galapagos in August so I can snorkel with the penguins and sea lions. By the time we get there, I need to really know that GoPro so I can take it and shoot underwater. Hopefully all of this will take place in beautiful (AND WARM) weather.

For me this trip means non-stop photography. I have been planning my New Orleans photo walks for weeks. And the same in Sarasota as well. So watch this page for daily reports on our travel. I will try to not be verbose (since I will be traveling with my #1 reader who says I can be verbose that shouldn’t be too much of a problem) and stick to some great photos and an overview of the trip.

Hopefully when I get back, I will be able to schedule that one day each week when I can just learn. Can’t wait.

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. —Mahatma Gandhi

Why do people expect this?

Confused Man.Just finished this and realized that one of my most loyal readers will say I am being verbose and on this subject, I plead guilty. I’m just trying to understand this one thing that frustrates me no end—always has.

I need to write about something I have never understood. People asking or worse, expecting, travel agents to give them money or something else of value for booking their travel for them. Travel agents already work for clients for free.

This last week I received an e-mail from a very nice person asking me about a cruise. She had waited until the last minute (a Viking Ocean cruise this summer—these are usually sold out a year in advance) and wanted me to see if I could find her a stateroom—that maybe there was a cancellation. She did give me the exact date of the cruise and exactly the kind of stateroom she wanted, which I appreciated.

I called Viking and spent about an hour on the phone with them while the excellent customer service rep tried to find me the exact stateroom she was looking for on a sold-out ship. He was able to find a stateroom in the same category she wanted but before he could grab it, another of their customer service reps grabbed it for a client who had money in hand. Boo! We almost had it. But my agent did promise to check that cruise on a regular basis between now and when it sailed in July and let me know if there were any cancellations. The last date for people to cancel with a full refund was approaching and often if staterooms are going to open up, that’s when they will do it.

I got back to the client and told her everything that had happened and that we would continue looking. She was very appreciative and I told her that I would contact her if anything came open. In the meantime she promised to send me all her passenger info so I could be ready to book it if they called, so we didn’t lose it again. Sounded good to me.

But the next morning there was an e-mail from her asking me, Jim, to clarify/confirm: You do offer the Viking-allowed OBC, correct?” I wasn’t sure what she meant by that so I asked her to clarify. She got back to me with this: “Viking is strict with its agents, as I’m sure you know, limiting how much “rebate” they are allowed to give to their clients.  The most above-board thing that agents tend to do is give OBC up to the limit Viking allows – which varies by voyage.  Some agents also do provide additional $$ in the form of cash rebates, but that is not technically allowed under Viking’s policy, and the agents who do it are (obviously) paying it out of their own proceeds.  So, I never expect or ask for any cash rebate, since it’s technically against Viking’s policy.  I’m content to stick with the maximum OBC per voyage (it’s based on length of voyage.)”

Well I had heard about Viking’s OBC rules but I had never looked into this policy because I don’t believe in giving clients cash or on-board credit back. In the travel industry, this is a standard practice that I have never understood. Some of my best friends go looking for it and that saddens me as well.

At our agency, we make 38% of the 15% commission that pretty much every cruise line pays. The other 62% of the 15% the cruise line pays goes to our franchise owner for him to run the business. That means on every $1000 dollars of travel I handle, I get $57. So if you buy a $10K cruise I get $570.

That would be great but most cruises we sell are around $3-4000. And the cruise lines have this nice little thing called NCF (non-commisionable funds) which are parts of the cost of the cruise that we don’t make commission on. We also don’t get commission on taxes and port fees which can be a significant cost as well. (Last year I had a $1500 cruise that had almost $1000 of NCF and port fees on it). I think I made $30 on that one. Took me a bunch of time because the client was a first time cruiser. On those, I might make $100 if I am lucky (after expenses). Any OBC you get from us that is not directly from Viking (or any other cruise line) comes out of my pocket. If I give every client back even $100 OBC, I end up averaging less than $100 per cruise booked. Since from initial contact to the client returning from their trip, I spend about 20-30 hours working for that client, that means I make $4 to $5 an hour.

So why do I do this? Because I love travel, I love cruising, I love helping people plan travel and in general I like doing all of that really well. And luckily for my bride and I we have enough money coming in to let us do that. (I have another business that helps).

Before we started doing this, we used a travel agent (who is still a close friend) for more than 20 years and I never once asked her for anything off on a cruise or any OBC. She would always send a bottle of wine, a fruit plate or some flowers to our stateroom, she would give us cool Disney stuff to give to our grandkids and once passed on an Azamara bathrobe, but I never expected anything from her other than the superb service and knowledge she brought to our traveling. I knew that any OBC came right out of her pocket and that she did great work for us. She took care of us.

There are lots of online agencies that will give you almost half their commission back. I know of one that on a Viking cruise they will normally give $1000 OBC if you book a suite. But those agents are employees making close to minimum wage. Most have never taken a cruise let alone traveled outside the country. If they research a cruise for you, they are getting paid whether you buy it or not. If you get into trouble while traveling, good luck trying to get a hold of a particular agent for changes or problems. You just get to explain your entire problem again. And if you are on your trip, can you call that agent on their cell phone for help? I doubt it. My clients can…and I could call my old agent.

I do have a question for all of you as you look for a TA that will give you OBC. When you go to a doctor, dentist, lawyer, etc. in order to avail yourself of their expertise, do you ask them for a rebate?  If you sell something or provide a service,  or when you do whatever it is that you do for one of your customers or clients, do they ask you to give them money back? I wish I had thought of this when my I had my rotator cuff surgery a few years back. I should have asked my surgeon for some of the $20K that surgery was worth. (That sounds pretty ridiculous, right?) Why do people do this with travel agents. I just don’t understand.

My clients use my services because we have travelled extensively and I can make recommendations on cruises, staterooms, tours, restaurants and hotels. Your primary goal of using an agent should be the same reason I did for 20+ years of traveling. Because when things go wrong, she was there. When things went bad with a flight at Heathrow and she found us seats home or when we wanted to book a “cheap cruise” on a cruise line I now never recommend, she told us that we wouldn’t like the cruise line we had chosen (we went anyway) and she was right—we hated it but she never said “I told you so.” I do the same thing for my clients.

Lastly, I love doing things for my clients but I want the things I do to be more than “money they are expecting.” I like sending clients wine or getting them a dinner at a speciality restaurant. But I do that as a special gift so they will enjoy the cruise even more. I truly believe when you don’t expect something, you like it even more.

So if you can explain to me why this goes on, please do.

If you accept the expectations of others, especially negative ones, then you never will change the outcome. —Michael Jordan