Off the ship—Great! Onboard—not so much continues

This has been a really fun cruise when we aren’t on board the ship. So let’s be positive to start with and tell you all about the great food tour we took in Santa Barbara. 

Food tour!

We had booked all but one of our shore excursions with private companies. And strangely enough, we are doing Food Tours in four of the seven stops. Santa Barbara was the first where I found a fabulous food tour company called Eat This/Shoot That. The idea wasn’t that you had to kill your own dinner but that you would shoot pics and post them to Instagram or Facebook of all the amazing food you were eating on their tour. Of course, you were supposed to eat them after you shot them and in two cases I completely forgot to shoot first and by the time I remembered, there were just the remains.

I found this tour company in an online search. (When in doubt, Google) and they normally did not due tours on weekdays except in the summer. But I persuaded the manager (Kayla–who was awesome) to do a tour if I could find enough people off our Cruise Critic Roll Call. Since they only take eight people on their tours, I thought that would be easy and it was. In fact, so many people were interested they ended up booking another tour after hours off the ship as well. 

Santa Barbara is a tender port and that means waiting for the tender (in this case a little more than an hour) and then a 15-minute lifeboat/tender ride in and then we walked to where we were meeting the tour. 

Our tour guides Christine and Bella were fantastic. I could list all the restaurants for you but I think I will just caption the photos. So see the great food we got below.

Suffice it to say, I would do that food tour again in a second. My brother and his wife were so impressed with one of the places, they are already making plans to drive up to Santa Barbara. The other places were equally as good. Here’s the list of places we went. You can see their pics below (don’t forget that you can click on the first one and it will open and then use your arrow keys or swipe to see the rest):

  1. Santo Mezcal
  2. SB Bier Garten
  3. The Valley Project
  4. Mony’s Taqueria
  5. Lucky Penny
  6. Figueroa Mountain Brewery
  7. Cutler’s Artisan Distillery
  8. McConnell’s Ice Cream

Back on the ship, sad things continued…

First, I need to do a bit of a retraction. In my post on Wednesday, I mentioned that I thought that Celebrity had created a third (basic) level of the internet that they were giving away for free. After some discussion with one of their tech support people it turns out that is wrong. They have always had two internet offers: Surf and Stream. Surf got you e-mail, websites, texting, etc. Stream got you just that. You could stream movies, do FaceTime, etc. The tech support guy tells me that they just renamed Surf to Basic and Stream is now called something else but darned if I can remember what. Either way, they still have the same programs they had before.

So having been on my other Celebrity cruises with the “Surf” internet package, I can remember that it was NEVER this slow. His answer to me was that Celebrity began giving away their FREE basic package to everyone but what they did not do was increase their bandwidth. So now we have almost 1500 people with internet on all day long. And if someone opens a web page on their device that has ads (let’s say) and they leave it on that page and walk away (like in their stateroom) then that continues to take up bandwidth as ads are refreshed on that page.

So the real story here is not that they created a newer, slower level of the internet but that they gave everyone internet and didn’t increase what they were giving away. Not only that, when I told the tech support guy that I couldn’t do Docusign documents (because the connection would time out) he suggested I upgrade to Stream (or whatever they are calling it now—the fastest one). So I did. Here’s what I got:

If you look back at my last post you will see that my speed with the basic program was .04 for downloading a page and .02 for uploading (like I do with this blog). For comparison, today we are in San Francisco and I am using my T-Mobile iPhone as a personal hotspot and here is what I am getting right now:

Seriously, my cell phone brings down data at more than 30 Mbps and the best Celebrity can do with their top internet offer is 1.05? We know of a lot of people on board who are flying back to the USA from Vancouver. Many of them purchased an e-Med kit because there is a required COVID test before you can reenter the USA. Those are monitored tests that are performed in a video chat online. These people are expecting to use Celebrity WiFi to do that test. GOOD LUCK! Thank goodness we are driving home.

Let’s talk food. We are eating breakfasts and dinners in one of their restaurants called Blu. It is for people (like us) in Aqua class staterooms. We eat breakfast and dinner there pretty much every day. And while the food has been fine and the service excellent, we are supposed to be on what is called anytime dining. Yet when we got on the ship we were told that could we please plan on coming to Blu between 5:30 and 6:00. Others were asked to come after 7:00. So without knowing in advance, we were back in early/late seating.

The food in the other venues we have eaten in is just sad. Especially the buffet. Cold pizza, sad salads with strange dressings (the Italian dressing is bright orange???). One sad thing is that Thursday was Cinco de Mayo. Now, I know it’s not a real holiday in Mexico but I would have expected something in the buffet for lunch. There were: chips with cheese on them. And some fajitas. But don’t ask for salsa—they don’t have any. It was just sad.

And I have been a little under the weather so I skipped Blu on Thursday and went up to the buffet to get a salad and a couple of pieces of pizza. Again, salad was weird and the pizza was cold. And I was hoping one of the servers would come around and asked if I wanted a cocktail or a beer or some wine. But no, I was there for 40 minutes or so and not one person approached me. Before everyone had a drinks package you had to swat those people away like flies. You were constantly being asked if you wanted a drink. Now since everyone has “free” drinks, no one asks anymore. This was truly aggravating when I could see about six or seven of the staff standing in a corner talking. As I told someone yesterday afternoon, “This is not the Celebrity I remember.”

Lastly, some of my readers will remember the good old T-Pool. For those who don’t know, this is an indoor pool on the Millennium-class ships that is in the shape of a cross. It is not for swimming. It has two big benches you sit on and jets push water up from underneath them. It is total relaxation and we have always loved using these pools.

Well, no longer. No more bubbles and the water was hotter than hell. Hotter than the two hot tubs that sit alongside it. The temps used to be just above body temp so it was really wonderful to spend some time relaxing in the pool. Now that is not the case. Most people we saw could not stand the heat and, like us, were out in about 5 minutes. They also have big faucets that pour water down into the pool that our buddy Bob (hi Bob) used to love to stand under. I think if he did that today, he would be boiled in minutes. We asked a pool attendant about it and were told that he had no clue there were jets under the benches or that the pool could be at a different temperature. Again, it’s just sad.

The next day on the cruise we had a stop on Catalina Island and I will do my best to get that up soon.

There is no sincerer love than the love of food.
–George Bernard Shaw

 

It’s a cruise—it’s always about the food

One of the biggest questions I get when it comes to cruising is…how was the food? And yes, I will fully admit to having consumed three times the number of calories I should have consumed over the last 10 days and probably gaining a good 10lbs but I promise that within two weeks I will have walked it off…because even though I worked out…the food was off the charts and I just could not resist it.

Before I start, just let me state up front that after 30+ cruises, we have had room service a grand total of once (maybe twice 😜). So if you are looking for reviews of room service, this is not the place.

Breakfast

On most of our cruises, breakfast would have been in the buffet but because we were in a Neptune Suite we got our own restaurant we could eat in for breakfast and dinner—Club Orange (Holland America’s colors are blue and ORANGE). We went there every day for breakfast except one. We went to the buffet to just get some granola and yogurt after having way too much dinner at a specialty restaurant the night before. The experience in the buffet was a good one but more about that later. (I should note that you don’t have to be in a Neptune or Pinnacle Suite to be able to eat in Club Orange, you can buy just a membership for—as of this cruise in February 2022—$50 per person, per day.)

Club Orange has some of the best breakfast food I have ever eaten. They have a HUGE variety. Three kinds of Eggs Benedict, as many omelets as you can think of, fruit, pastry, donuts, muffins, toast, skillets…you name it…I think they either had it or would make it for you. I fully admit to having any and all of the above mentioned breakfast food during this cruise. The team in Club Orange is the absolute best dining team we have ever been served by. From the second time we came into the restaurant they knew our names, they knew what we wanted to drink (for me it was coffee, a single espresso shot, a mimosa and maybe some extra orange juice to add to it) and how you liked your eggs. My coffee cup was never empty and the food…was spectacular.

Here’s some breakfast pics for you. I wish I had more to show you but darned if we didn’t eat all the food too quickly. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and feel free to look at these on your phone. That’s what I used to take them.

Lunch

While we ate all but one breakfast in Club Orange, we kind of moved around for lunch. There are so many great places to eat on board that it is hard to choose. Which made it a good thing that Club Orange did not serve lunch. Here’s where you can eat lunch on Nieuw Statendam and her sister ships:

  • The Lido Market Buffet. Located midships on Deck 9 (the Lido Deck) the Nieuw Statendam is a superb buffet with stations for just about everything. We went to the buffet when we made our one or two attempts to eat healthy. Grabbed a salad and a roll for lunch…and of course a couple of cookies or gelato/gelato pop. All the buffet was NOT self-service. You walked up to a station and either told them what you wanted to eat or just pointed. They did have some standard items (like Caesar or chopped salad, etc.). All the food we had for lunch in the buffet was fresh and excellent. The service was superb as well.
  • The Dive-In. A great place for a burger, a hot dog and fries. They have a variety of types. Ate there twice and truly enjoyed it. Have the Cannonball, skip the Gainer. Their fries are the second best on the ship and they have good Dive-In fry sauce. You will find the Dive-In on Deck 9, just forward of the buffet on the starboard side of the ship. Right next to it is the Gelato spot where you can get the best value on the ship. You have to pay for gelato (ice cream from the buffet is free), but it is only $2.50 for a cup that is probably half a pound of gelato. We only had it once but man it was good. I had a biscotti gelato with huge pieces of biscotti in it. Delicious. They also have gelato pops for $2 (although we heard these may be discontinued) which are just like ice cream bars on a stick with a coating and gelato inside. Tried one of those and they were awesome. Seth promised us another but we never got around to it.
  • New York Deli and Pizza. Just upstairs from the Dive-In on the port side of the ship is this deli/pizza place. We did not try the pizza but my brother and his bride did and they said it was quite good. We went up and Kathleen had a salad and I had a Rueben. I love Ruebens so this may the only place where the food I got onboard was not as good as a Rueben I could have gotten off the ship. And no fries there. Just chips. But still go try it. Great place to grab a quick bite.
  • The Grand Dutch Cafe. Down on deck three (the Promenade Deck) right at midships is an undiscovered gem of a place for lunch. I say undiscovered because we didn’t discover it until more than halfway through our cruise. Lots of other people did and now we know why. We had heard about it and wanted to go and since we were late getting back from Grand Turk we headed there as soon as we were on board. They serve lots of Dutch delicacies. For instance, I had a veal croquette sandwich. Kathleen had a wonderful melted ham and cheese sandwich. But the real star of the show were the French fries. They were amazing. How good were they? On subsequent visits, we always had them for dessert too. One other big plus is their selection of European beers. If you are a beer aficionado, this is the place for you.

Dinner…ahhhh dinner

When we bought the cruise we were part of a special HAL deal called Have It All. With that deal we got the cruise and some other perks. Two of those perks were dinners on two nights in two of their four Specialty restaurants. Since they had included two we decided to go ahead and purchase dinner in the other two just so we could tell you about them. See what kind of sacrifices I go through for my readers 😜.

I need to let you know that we never had dinner in the buffet nor the MDR (main dining room). If we weren’t having dinner in one of the specialty restaurants (five out of ten nights) we had dinner in Club Orange. But, I should also mention that the only difference between the menu in the Main Dining Room and Club Orange are two menu items (one appetizer and one entrée) that are available in Orange that are not in the dining room. And we only ate one of those during the entire cruise (it was Peruvian Chicken—one of my favorite meals of the entire cruise) so we really had much of the same food as the MDR.

Trying to figure how to handle telling you about the dinners. I think I will rate the restaurants we ate in from great to “just fine.” Also below each restaurant are the photos with captions from that restaurant when I can remember where and what they are. You know how that works—you can either be a photographer or a diner…choose one. I guess I could never be a food critic—too busy eating the food. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and since I took these with my iPhone, feel free to view them on yours.

  • Rudi’s Sel de Mer. This is HAL’s seafood restaurant created for them by Master Chef Rudi Sodamin. It is the most expensive extra charge on the ship. The voyage we sailed it was $50 per person. I have to say, it was worth just about every single penny. Photos are below but suffice it to say it was a dining experience I would not want to miss. Be aware that it is only available every night on HAL’s three Pinnacle Class ships but is available as a pop-up restaurant for one night on others…sometimes. They also have the coolest plates and you can buy them. WOW! More in the photos (loved them so much we brought one home). Oh and my brother would want me to mention the best side dish on the ship—Rudi’s ratatouille. I agree. Loved it so much we begged for the recipe and they printed it up for us. There is a Rudi’s cookbook that you can buy (but everyone in Sail with Seth got one as a gift from Seth) but the ratatouille recipe isn’t in it. If you want it, you either ask them or e-mail me.
  • Tamarind and Nami Sushi. Choosing between this Asian specialty restaurant and Club Orange as the next best option was really tough but this one wins by a lobster roll. We got to eat in Tamarind twice. Once because it was part of our Have It All package and once because my brother Steve won a drawing to have dinner with Seth from our Sail with Seth cruise. We went the first time with Seth himself and since he had eaten in Tamarind many times on previous trips we followed his recommendations. One thing about Tamarind is that it sits in the same room as Nami Sushi and you can order off either menu. The difference is that you pay one price for your entire meal in Tamarind but Nami Sushi charges à la carte. But you can order from both menus. My brother and I love sushi (as does Seth) but our brides not so much so this worked perfect. The sushi was amazing (my brother and I will agree that the lobster roll from Nami was the best bite on the ship), the dinner divine and the service incredible. Cocktails were not too shabby either. Here’s a great dessert tip: get the sorbet trio but tell them to skip the lychee and give you two scoops of the lemon-basil sorbet—you won’t be sorry. One last thing—this Asian restaurant, sitting above the wake of the ship may be the most visually beautiful restaurants we have seen on the high seas.
  • Club Orange Dining Room. This one was close. Really close. But Tamarind one by a hair (or a lobster roll). Otherwise the 5 nights we ate in Club Orange were AMAZING! Every night superb food, superb service and a pretty unforgettable dining experience. The team in Club Orange led by the amazing Wayan Suadnyana took care of our every need and made us love being in the restaurant. Imagine going to your favorite place to eat every night and they treated you like a local, like a regular. When this happens, it’s one of my favorite parts of cruising.
  • Pinnacle Grille. This is HAL’s signature steakhouse. It is on all their ships. Our dinner there was one of our two included dinners with our Have It All promotion. We (Kathleen and I) have eaten in the Pinnacle Grille on two other HAL cruises but I should state up front that we are not big steak people. We like ethnic food better than steaks but we have always enjoyed the food at Pinnacle. And it is in fourth place not because we didn’t love it this time, just that the other options were so much better. Pinnacle gives you some great steaks (my ribeye was a little fatty) and lots of super sides (don’t forget to order the clothesline of bacon when you first order or you will be adding it as you see others get theirs). One reason this fell to fourth in my rating was the service was really sporadic. We would have five servers all over us for five minutes and then they would disappear and we wouldn’t see anyone for another 10 minutes. A couple of times after they brought an entrée, we didn’t have something we needed that went with it (like a glass of wine or a steak knife) and there was no one to help. The manager of the restaurant was five feet away from us much of the time but with eyes glued to his phone and NEVER even glanced at anyone in the entire place. Lastly, leave room for the key lime pie. Delicious. Sorry only one photo from Pinnacle. My ribeye with onion rings.
  • Canaletto. This Italian restaurant is carved out of the buffet every night. This means they use a part of the buffet table area, put table cloths on those tables and do Italian food that is served to you (not a buffet). Kathleen and I had eaten in Canaletto on another HAL cruise in 2018 and loved it but the food was just not up to par this time. Now, by up to par, I don’t mean it was bad…it was just not as good as every place else we had to choose from onboard. Service was fine. The food was fine. Everything was just “fine,” if you know what I mean.

If and when we sail a Pinnacle Class ship again, we would go back to Rudi’s and Tamarind in a minute, skip Pinnacle and Canaletto and put the cost of those into another night at Rudi’s. And we would hope to win another night with Seth Wayne in Tamarind for sushi.

And I want to make one final food comment that really set the Nieuw Statendam food apart from 90% of other meals we have had on ships—spice. The cooks on NS were not afraid to use it. Most cruise fare is geared to middle American tastes. Steaks, chops, bland sides, etc. As I mentioned we love different and adventurous food. We do get that sometimes when we sail.

One of our all-time favorite onboard restaurants was the old Qsine on Celebrity ships before they corrupted it with that damn “Le Petite Chef” or whatever they call it. Turned if from a culinary experience to a tiny little piece of tripe (sorry for the rant–I truly loved Qsine).

HAL chef’s put spice in their food. My eggplant side in Tamarind was ordered “spicy” (could have ordered mild or medium as well) and it was spicy. Not “burn your mouth” spicy but delicious. They tried new things. They gave us incredible meals with incredible service. For years in the cruising world of so-called “big ships” (over 2500 guests) Celebrity has been the standard for food. Not anymore. You want great food—HAL gets the nod, at least on this ship.

 There is no sincerer love than the love of food
—George Bernard Shaw

Puerto Plata…was really hotta and other things

Can’t remember the last time I wrote two posts in one day but I thought that since we are on a sea day (for the non-cruisers that means no stops today) and have three ports in the next three days (Bonaire, Curacao and Aruba), I would get yesterday’s stop out of the way today, while I have some time to write. But I don’t want to overload you so I will post it tomorrow (which for you might be today).

Yesterday we were in beautiful Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic (DR). Kathleen and I have always been under the impression that we had been to the DR two other times because we had stopped at a small port called Labadie while on a Celebrity ship. Turns out we had the island (Hispaniola) right but the country wrong. Labadie is in Haiti so this was our second visit to the DR. But we had never been to this side of the country before.

The ship actually docks at Amber Cove which is just 13 kilometers west of the city of Puerto Plata. Amber Cove is a port developed by the Carnival Corp for all the ships under that umbrella to dock for this city. Imagine if Disney created the Caribbean without rides…you get Amber Cove. Lots of shops, pretty grass, clean and spic and span surroundings.

We were only in Amber Cove long enough to jump on a bus with our guide Rrrrafael 😜. He really, really rolled that first R. We were doing a tour (along with the Sail with Seth crowd) called “Flavors and Traditions of Puerto Plata: In partnership with Food and Wine magazine.” I am not sure why it has this title because we saw no one or heard nothing from Food and Wine magazine. What we did do was:

  1. Took the bus into Puerto Plata while Rrrrafel told us all about the city and the Dominican Republic.
  2. Stopped at the town square and walked around while Rrrrafel told us about the buildings and traditions of Puerto Plata.
  3. Went to a cigar factory/showroom where I was told that one person got to roll and smoke his own cigar. Being highly allergic to cigar and cigarette smoke/smell, I (and the rest of our pod of four) stayed outside while this part of the tour took place so I can’t say for certain that’s what happened.
  4. Went to a chocolate factory to see how chocolate was made and taste hot chocolate (like we were cold 😜) and a tiny brownie. Personally I consumed neither. Not a big chocolate guy. But I was told both were great.
  5. Had lunch at an outdoor restaurant where they had set up a buffet of rice, beans, chicken, tortilla chips, salad and your choice of water or soft drink. It was very “nice.” Not bad, not great. just “nice.”
  6. Toured the grounds of the restaurant where there were koi ponds, artwork and a variety of flora including orchids.
  7. Went to a rum distillery where we saw a film about how rum is made and how great that distillery is and then we got to taste some rum. Eight different kinds but if you poured them all in the same glass, you might have an ounce.

That was the tour folks. To me it was a typical overview of a city tour, Rrrrafel did a great job and because we were with Seth, we had some good old fashioned fun. And I loved it because I got to do my second favorite kind of photography (after general travel photo), street photography. I love taking pictures of interesting people with interesting faces or doing interesting things. I think I like to do this because I spent more than 50 years doing high school and college yearbooks as a student, a teacher and a rep for Jostens Yearbooks. I can’t sell them or use the ones I take in any commercial way because I would need a release from the people I shot. Still, I love taking them. My daughter tells me, “Dad, when you die I will look at these and wonder who the heck they are and should I save them because they might be family?” So I also take them to bamboozle her.

Here are some quick examples of what I mean. The captions will tell you a little more about street photography.  Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

After people see my street photography stuff, they often ask if I ask permission before I take the picture. I don’t. Mostly because they have no idea I took their photo. In all the pics above I was more than 100 feet away using a very long (300mm) zoom lens so they had no clue I was taking any photos of them. I do have a rule that if there are street performers and I shoot their picture, I always tip them. It’s the right thing to do. If I don’t have money for tips, I don’t take the picture.

Here are the rest of my Puerto Plata pics. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

When you see a panoramic photo in my shots, it is actually not done with my iPhone set on Pano. I take these with my Nikon. When I say I take “them” with my Nikon, the photo above that shows two ships (Nieuw Statendam and Rotterdam) on opposite sides of the pier is actually made up of 26 individual photos I took while standing in the same spot and turning my body almost 360 degrees. The two ships were actually parked at the pier right next to each other like you can see in the next shot. Then I open those 26 pictures (most of my panos are much less photos–the last one only has 16 photos) in Photoshop and merge them together. They create huge pictures that I could print up to billboard size. I have always loved taking them.

PS: Sorry about the headline. I couldn’t resist.

Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.  —Dorothea Lange

 

The PANDEMIC IS OVER!!! At least they think it is in Key West, Florida

We spent our first night after flying into Fort Lauderdale at the Le Meridian Hotel near the airport. It turned out to be a very nice place. Being about an hour late, Kathleen and I grabbed a very quick bite before I high-tailed it back to the airport to pick up my brother (Steve) and my sister-in-law (Jamie) and bring them back as well.

The next morning we were up early, off to Starbucks and then we hit the road to go down for a one night visit to Key West, Florida. Kathleen and I had been there in 2009 with our buddies Bob and Judy and had loved it. Today is a tale of what happens in 12 years—bad things.

The cute and quaint town we visited in March of 2009 is now kind of a drunken, slobbery, very expensive mess. Well, maybe not that bad but certainly different from what we had experienced. The really big news in Key West is that the pandemic is OVER! We knew that because when we were walking around downtown, shopped and ate in restaurants and besides the four of us we saw exactly two (YES TWO) people with masks on. So we guess it’s over. At least it is there. We were so careful to keep our N95 masks on all day, even in the humidity and we are hoping that was enough. We have to take COVID antigen test this morning in order to be able to board the ship tomorrow. Fingers crossed!

The experience wasn’t all bad. I did get two new Crazy Shirts (the greatest shirt in the world—I have about 30 of them and wear them pretty much every day), we had a wonderful dinner at a restaurant on Duval Street (the main drag) called Bagatelle. Food was amazing and service was great. Except for the lack of masks, it was about a perfect dinner.

The same cannot be said about our hotel. Key West is in high season and that means hotels are not only scarce but expensive. We could not find a single AirBnB. The hotel (The Gates Hotel) was more than $300 a night so we were only staying one night. When we arrived and tried to get into the lobby to check in there was a sign on the door that said something to the effect that “two hotels, one lobby” with directions to drive to the hotel next door.

Once we got in the correct lobby we found out that not only was the hotel more than $300, they tacked on an undisclosed “resort fee” of $40. This “resort fee” got us two bottles of water and some free but pretty slow WiFi. Then we headed to our room which was way around the back of the building in a different, motel-type building. We found our room but we had to walk across about about 15 feet of muddy ground to get to the door and sometimes you had to fight your way through a flock of Key West’s famous chickens. Once inside we found another sign that people in Key West think the pandemic is over as soon as we used the facilities. There was no soap. Seriously, in a hotel room that charged us more than $350 plus tax, there was no soap. Also no bath mat to step out of the shower on. So I get on the phone and call the office to see if we could get both. I called about 15 times over and over again for about 20 minutes and there was no answer. So we went off to dinner and I figured I would ask when we got back. In the meantime the person who had checked us in sent me a text asking if everything in our room was OK and I texted back that we did not have soap or a bath mat. She said she would send some right out. This was two days ago, we checked out yesterday and we still don’t have it 🙄. I can’t recommend this hotel less than I do.

But I did get in an early morning photo-walk the next morning and the best of what I took are in the slide show below. Hope you enjoy them. Got some great sunrises and pelicans and a few other subjects as well. (Click on the first pic and you can scroll through the rest.)

The next morning after a quick hit of Starbucks we were back up the overseas highway to drop our luggage at our AirBnB where we would spend the next two nights. That done we headed north to Wellington to have dinner with our friends Mike and Cathy. We had promised my brother who loves Greek food, a visit to our favorite Greek restaurant, Chris’ Taverna in Lake Worth. After an hour wait we were rewarded with an amazing dinner (just like always). Of course I had the octopus and it was maybe the best I have ever eaten. Plus it was great seeing Mike and Cathy. Kathleen and I will meet them for lunch on the day we get off the ship as we don’t fly back until early evening.

That brings us to this morning (Saturday) when we are happily ensconced in the AirBnB while doing our online-monitored COVID tests so we can board the ship tomorrow. So far two of us have passed, one is waiting for their proctor to come back and then Jamie will do hers and we are good to go. More tomorrow!

Laughter is an instant vacation.  —Milton Berle

 

 

My End of the Year Lists Begin Today with Food and Drink

With the end of this mixed bag of a year, I am seeing all the Top Ten/Bottom Ten of 2021 lists in every part of the news. I usually read the ones about movies and photos (there are lots about the latest music but it makes me sad when I have never heard of anyone on those lists 😂). If you have been following me for a while you know I love lists. I even have a page of nothing but lists I have made. Most were posts first and then added to the list page. Check them out sometime if you are new to the blog. You can expect these new ones to be added to that page as well.

This year I have decided to do my own set of Top Ten Lists. I am already doing my Top Ten Photos I Took in 2021 on Facebook and Instagram (I will post them here tomorrow). In that spirit I have decided to do a post about my Top Ten Things That I Loved About 2021. Then, when I started listing that Top Ten, I also thought about a bottom 10…or maybe 5. Then I started thinking about other lists from 2021 like my favorite meals or my favorite just about anything. But I decided that this could just go on forever. So I decided to do four lists (including my photos). First, the aforementioned Top Ten and then a Bottom Five of 2021. That leads us to this post,  The Top 5 things I ate or drank in 2021. And I was going to do them all in one post but I knew that would get too long so I broke them into four posts (for today the next three days) so I hope you enjoy them.

Food, Glorious Food!
My top five things I ate or drank in 2021

You know I love food and drink so here they are in no particular order. I had two of them in one meal and three of them within two days and the other two in the same week (Did you get all that?).

  1. Chicken Sandwich with slaw (Houstons restaurant in Irvine, CA)
  2. Wood-fire grilled artichokes (Houstons restaurant in Irvine, CA)
  3. Blue Coyote’s margaritas (Blue Coyote Grille–Palm Springs, CA)
  4. Sango De Camarón (onboard Celebrity Flora in the Galapagos)
  5. Fritada and Llapingachos (EB Hotel—Quito, Ecuador)

As you can see the first two things come from the same restaurant, Houstons. This is a small chain (11 outlets) of restaurants located across the US. I had first heard about them while listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Armchair Expert. The expert himself, Dax Shepherd, raves about them and my brother and his bride had been wanting to take us to the Irvine, California location for a while but we didn’t have a reservation the first time we went. But in April when we went to visit them for a few days, we stopped there for lunch right after we got off the airplane and based on the recommendation from Dax, we ordered the chicken sandwich.

Then, based on the menu description, we ordered the artichoke appetizer as well. Suffice it to say, these were both AWESOME! How much did we like them? Well, six days later when they took us back to the airport we had an early dinner ordered the same thing and when we went down to see them in October, we had lunch when they picked us up and dinner when they took us back to the airport and we ordered the same thing all over again. Yes, they do have other things on their menu but when something is this good and you don’t live nearby, get it! If you are ever in a place with a Houstons, go have these two dishes. You won’t be sorry.

I mentioned that I had three of my top five things within just a few days time. Well the first two were at Houstons and the third was the next day after both our visits to Houstons. We stopped by the Blue Coyote for margaritas. Blue Coyote is a restaurant in Palm Springs (my and my brother’s hometown) and we first discovered it years ago and then took Steve and Jamie a few years later. When I was a kid if you wanted Mexican food in Palm Springs, you went to Las Casuelas. They are still there but the tourists have taken over the place and it just isn’t as great as it used to be…so now we go to Blue Coyote.

We used to just order a round of margaritas but the last few times when we have been there with Jamie and Steve we have started getting a pitcher…they are that good. I do feel a little sorry for Steve because he is always driving and that means he only gets one (but not too sorry 😜).

The last two items in my list of food are both from our trip to the Galapagos in July. I had the Fritada and Llapingachos at the EB Hotel in Quito where we spent the night both before and after our visit to the islands. I ordered this the night before because it sounded good (it is a pork dish with potatoes and lots of other stuff) but it was so good, when we came back a week later I ordered it again—yup, still just as good and since I don’t know of anyplace to get it besides Quito, ordering it again was a no-brainer.

Lastly, Sango De Camarón is a traditional seafood stew with a plantain base and I ate that onboard the amazing Celebrity Flora while we were cruising through the islands. One afternoon Kathleen and I were looking at the menu for that evening outside the dining room and I told her I was sad because there were no real Ecuadorian dishes on the menu that night. I had learned on the four previous nights (plus the night at the hotel) that I LOVE Ecuadorian food. The maitre’d overheard me saying this and asked if I really liked the food from Ecuador. I said, “Yes I do!” So he said he would see what he could do. That night when we went to dinner—still no Ecuadorian food on the menu 😔. But the next night…I had already told our waiter what I wanted when the maitre’d walked up and said he was cancelling our order (of an octopus dish I knew I would love) and the chef had made a wonderful surprise for me. Being an idiot and looking a gift horse in the mouth, I told him that this sounded great but I loved octopus and I really wanted to have that entrée. He said to wait a few minutes and he would see what he could do.

About five minutes later he was back with an appetizer that was not on the menu. It was a big salad with a HUGE portion of braised and broiled octopus on top and tons of avocado (the avocado in Ecuador is amazing!). After eating that he brought me the regular octopus entrée I had ordered and set it down in front of me and then brought a huge bowl of something that smelled amazing. He set that down in the middle of our table (there were four of us) and said, “This is sango. It is a traditional Ecuadorian dish that is a seafood stew with a plantain and rice base.” So I had to taste it and it was AMAZING. If there was a kind of local seafood that was NOT in there, I would like to know what had been left out. There was shrimp, clams, mussels, different kinds of white fish, calamari, scallops and…octopus. The stew/sauce part reminded me of a very good risotto.

Sadly, because of Kathleen’s allergy to shellfish, she couldn’t eat any of it. And the better half of the couple we were eating with (Jamie and Catherine) said she couldn’t eat anything with tentacles. So it was up to Jamie and I do make that chef happy…and we did. We ate it all.

One of the main reasons I want to go back in 2024 is to have this dish again. The taste and texture were delicious but I think the thing that really made it special was the fact that just because someone had overheard me talking about my new love for Ecuadorian food, the chef had made me this wonderful dish that represented his homeland. Food experiences don’t get any better than that.

Eating is not merely a material pleasure. Eating well gives a spectacular joy to life and contributes immensely to goodwill and happy companionship. It is of great importance to the morale.

Elsa Schiaparelli

 

 

 

Food, food and more food!

Don’t worry. I still have more fauna and flora photos for you but right now I need to address the biggest question people have asked me  “How is the food on board.” So here goes. I promise to get to the other questions later. Many may have to wait until I get back to Quito, Florida or home.

Before we left we had read comments on the Cruise Critic boards about Flora that the food “wasn’t up to the standards of the rest of Celebrity’s ships.” And since we have been on board we have had discussions about the food with numerous people. Some expressed the same view.

So if you know me personally, you know I love to eat, I love to cook, I just plain love food. But I am an adventurous eater. My favorite food in the world is octopus. I will try just about anything once. I have eaten grasshoppers at Mariner games. Don’t get me wrong…I am not Tony Bourdain. He truly would have eaten anything. I do have some limits but mostly I like new things. And when I am a foreign country, I like to eat cuisine from that country or other nearby countries and cultures.

This is our 21st Celebrity cruise and I can honestly say that overall, this is the best food I have had on any of them. Have I had better meals on Celebrity? Yes. In the old United States Dining Room on Infinity, in Quisine or at The Porch or Lawn Club Grille on Reflection I have had some great meals. But day in and day out I have enjoyed the food here on Flora more than any other. Let me explain.

Breakfast, which is a buffet but in the dining room has been good. First I need to say that since the second day of the cruise, we have been greeted by every single person in the dining room (and pretty much every part of the ship), by name. I feel like I truly am a Celebrity. I guess that’s one of the good things about a small ship but these people try hard and are great at their jobs even on a smaller ship.

Back to the buffet. I should add here that post-COVID you walk around the buffet with a server and he/she puts food on your plate. (all crew are wearing masks). But what I love about that is if I want an omelet that is made to order, I get my other items, leave my plate with the server who helped me and a few minutes later, it appears at my table.

Plus, let me tell you some other amazing things that have happened while I was picking out my food. Geovanny and his wonderful bride Natalia have poured our water, grabbed us a cappuccino from the adjacent Discovery Lounge, put two croissants on my bread plate, brought me my marmalade and are waving to me as I walk back from the buffet area. And then they are back in no time to make sure everything is OK. It’s like a miracle and easily the best service I have had anywhere in the fleet or maybe in the world. And yes, it is a small ship but the dining staff (pictured below) is also small and you would never know it. I can’t say enough good things about them.

Not only is this the kitchen staff but the awesome guy on the right hand side is the head chef. And can he cook.

Back to the food. Lunch has been a buffet every day in the dining room. I should add that you can also go up to the Grille on deck seven for a burger, fries, quesadillas or guacamole and chips and a few other specials but we only did that one day. It was fine but not what I was looking for. We did LOVE the fries up there. The burger needed sauce of some kind. We didn’t go back. Not because we didn’t like it but because we can get that food at home. We wanted something different.

So each day in the dining room the lunch was a buffet (served the same as breakfast) each day with a different theme. We had Aztec (authentic Mexican), Spanish, Amazon (combining cuisines from countries on the Amazon River) and of course Ecuadorian. All had a huge selection of interesting food. There was also sandwich makings, a bunch of salads that fit the theme (I got an octopus salad on the Spanish buffet) and a carving station but I can’t tell you about it because the other dishes were so good I skipped it. I can get ham, turkey or prime rib in the USA or on any other cruise ship.

Dinner for us was always in the dining room. We usually ate with friends we had made on shore hikes, tender cruises or walks as well as people we had talked to at the hotel in Quito. This is a very friendly ship. You can get a table for two but there is never a shortage of parties to join in on. On two nights we were “supplied” with people to eat with. One night we were invited to join Captain Patricio and Chief Engineer Paul at dinner. We have eaten at the Captain’s Table on previous cruises but this was different. Usually it is you, the captain and about 12 other people. This time it was the aforementioned two and just us. That’s it. Keeping the conversation going was fun but the two of them were a joy to have dinner and great conversation with.

The next night was “Dinner with A Naturalist” and you get to join your favorite of the naturalists who lead our tours each day and have dinner with them. We we joined by one of our favorites (they all are really), Juan Carlos. A few minutes after Juan Carlos sat down, a gentlemen asked if he could join the three of us…Fausto. Fausto is the head of all operations for Celebrity in the Galapagos and that was a SUPERB dinner. We learned so much about both of them but also about all the things Celebrity is doing in the islands.

So the dinners were pretty much three courses; appetizer, entrée and dessert. For long-time Celebrity cruisers Flora even has the “left hand side of the menu” with all the standard fare (shrimp cocktail, steak, salmon, chicken, onion soup, etc.) but we never ordered from that side. We did overhear (at an adjacent table) people saying, “I am sure glad they have this side of the menu and we don’t have to eat the weird food.” Boy did they miss out. I love the “weird food.” So we have decided that what people were complaining about on Cruise Critic were the non-adventurous eaters.

Today as I was writing this I also realized I have done something on this cruise I have never done before…eaten fish every day. Sometimes twice a day. There are so many amazing ceviches, fish entrées, fish salads that I could not pass them up. And all (except the salmon on the right hand side of the menu) were done in an Ecuadorian style. That was it for me.

This style is also a lot lighter and healthier than our usual cruise fare. We leave the table feeling full but not stuffed. The food is healthier and more fish and vegetable based. This is how I try and cook at home and the tastes were fabulous. Ecuadorian sauces rock.

And the desserts (especially with Ecuadorian chocolate) are not to be missed. WOW!

One other very special thing happened last night (Day 6). On the afternoon before Kathleen and I were outside the dining room looking at the menu for that night. I was kind of sad because nothing looked totally Ecuadorian and/or interesting (I ended up having an amazing scorpion fish) when the Maitre d’ walked up and heard me complaining that there was no Ecuadorian options. He said if I really wanted to try some Ecuadorian food, he could make it happen. We thought nothing of it and I enjoyed dinner that night. The next night we were with our friends Jamie and Katherine and the waiter said he had a special surprise for me.

The chef had put an Ecuadorian appetizer on the menu for that night. But when we ordered I told our waiter how much I loved octopus (as did our dining companions) so all of a sudden we had a big octopus salad full of avocado and the amazing tomatoes we have been having all week. It was awesome.

But then when we ordered our entrées, he brought them (octopus and spaghetti with a beer-achiote sauce)…but then also brought…Sango! This is a dish we were told that is cooked in every Ecuadorian home. It is a fish stew with a base of plantains and rice. I cannot begin to tell you how awesome it was. It had shrimp, scallops, squid, cod and octopus (I have had octopus six times on this ship so I am VERY happy). Kathleen was not thrilled because it has shellfish so she couldn’t eat it but Jamie (our dining companion from Devon, UK—who loves beer, F-1 and futbol) and I loved it and between us we devoured two big serving plates. We were so much in a hurry to eat it I forgot to take a pic. But I did get the octopus salad.

Do I have any criticisms of the food? Just one. In the morning some of the items on the buffet that are meant to be hot, aren’t. At least by the time they got to the table. That’s why I have an omelet every morning because I can be sure it will get there hot. The potatoes, mushrooms, etc. that should be hot are often not. Other than that it was my kind of food. Lighter, healthier but delicious.

And I almost forgot one of our favorite food things on board. When you come back (twice a day) from your off ship hike, walk, Zodiac ride, when you get off the Zodiac and take off your life jacket, check in, get your cold towel to cool off and go up some stairs there are nibbles. Lots of nibbles. Usually little sandwiches but sometimes desserts too. One day there was even a bread snack with three kinds of bread (an incredible vegetable-topped focaccia) with almost perfect Spanish olive oil and Italian balsamic. I ate all of mine and Kathleen’s too. I included some pics of what you get when you walk back on. So much more than the lemonade or hot chocolate on most Celebrity ships.

Below are some pics from our meals. Check out the paella. Those prawns were bigger than my forearm! And delicious. Yum!

 

 

 

Off to Quito

Disappointing Flights

(Hope you don’t mind me posting twice in one day but I wanted to share a bunch of stuff that happened today.) As I mentioned in an earlier post, our buddy Mike took us to Miami Airport at 2:15 am so we could get there by 3:30 which would be the recommended three hours before our 6:30 am international flight on Copa Air. This flight had been hard to come by so we took what we could get even if it meant that we had to get up way before dawn.

If you have never heard of Copa Air, they are the national airline of Panama. Originally we had a non-stop flight on American Airlines but that was cancelled last weekend and the best we could do was a one-stop trip from Miami through Panama City to Quito. The good news was we still got to keep our business class seats on both flights. But that turned out to just be an OK thing as Copa Air’s idea of business class differs widely from what we have experienced in Business or First class before.

When we arrived at the airport we were so early that there was no place open to even grab a cup of coffee. In fact there was no place open at all. To grab anything. And to the best of my knowledge nothing opened before we took off at 6:38. On our flight we got two cups of really bad coffee, a ham and cheese croissant and a very dry granola bar. The seats were much like US domestic air FC seats. Fairly comfortable but certainly no place to lie back and sleep. I need to mention we were flying on a Boeing 737-8. You will see why in a minute.

Our flight from Miami to Panama City was just a little more than two hours. We arrived in Panama City in just enough time to get from our arriving gate to our departing gate. Once we reached our new gate, we boarded within minutes. And once on board we were pleasantly surprised to see full lay down seats in a section that looked like a true business class section. And this was on exactly the same 737-8 plane that we had just gotten off. Sadly, this flight was just about 90 minutes so even though we had the seats to sleep in, there just wasn’t time to sleep.

When we saw the seats we thought maybe we would get something a little better to eat and drink but that was not to be. We were offered a bag of pretzels, a small bag of cookies and a can of Perrier for me and a ginger ale for Kathleen. One thing I am very happy about is that we did not spend our own money to upgrade as Celebrity arranged our air. If you ever get a chance to fly Business class on Copa Air, give it a pass.

Quito!

We did it! We finally arrived in Ecuador and we have much to report if you are planning on cruising the Galapagos with Celebrity post-pandemic…at least for awhile.

When we landed in Quito we made it through customs in no time and with a minimum of questions. There was a temperature check and we had to show our vaccination cards but after they checked those, we headed to passport control. We were very lucky because our flight (which was not full) was the only international flight landing at the time and being in the front of the plane, we got to the health check and passport control very quickly. Our luggage took a little longer so getting through customs inspection (they didn’t inspect anything) took a little longer. Once on the other side of security in a very nice and clean airport we used the facilities and I was about to try and contact Celebrity here in Ecuador when a man walked up to us holding a Celebrity sign. Within minutes we were in the van and on our way to the EB Hotel.

Pre-COVID this was an 11 day trip with two nights and a full day in Quito before the Galapagos segment and then a day after in Quito as well. But due to the COVID conditions Celebrity wanted to keep us out of downtown Quito. So instead of the regular hotel they use (The JW Marriott–Quito) we were at the EB Hotel near the airport.

If you are coming, do not worry about it being near the airport. These three photos show you the area around the hotel.

We have been here for at least five hours and have not heard a single airplane.  By keeping us near the airport we will be able to go right back to the airport tomorrow morning for our flight to Baltra where we embark on Flora.

The hotel itself is modern, new and beautiful and the rooms rock. Here’s a quick tour of ours. It is easier to see the video if you click the headline at the top of the e-mail and read the entire post in a web browser.

As you can see. it is pretty darned impressive. A true suite which we did not expect at all. Kathleen says to tell the ladies that if you are staying here, the products in the bathroom are all very high quality so you don’t have to plan for those. And Celebrity left us some really nice water bottles, a bottle of horchata (a plant-milk based South American beverage) and a health goodie bag with a mask and a bottle of hand sanitizer.

After getting settled into our suite we found lots of info from Celebrity including instructions about the included dinner and breakfast as well as all the hoops we will need to jump through before we can get on the plane to Baltra and the islands in the morning. Here’s our schedule:

Breakfast is 6:30 to 10:00 either in the restaurant or via room service. But either way we have to have our luggage in the hall outside our rooms by 8:00 am when they will collect it for inspection by the Galapagos Agricultural Authorities. They are making sure we have no organic materials coming into the islands that could change the environment there. To be honest, I totally understand their doing this but I hate the idea of them going through my bag because everything BARELY fits in the small carry-on I am taking for this trip. I have to be VERY careful when zipping it up or I will either break the zippers or catch my clothing inside. But we did find out later that we don’t have to put out our carry-ons. That made me happy as I don’t want them messing with my camera or this MacBook Pro.

We are also scheduled (we don’t have our time yet) to be health-screened sometime between 7:00 am and 11:00 am. We will have to go to their health screening room, get our temp checked (mine has been taken twice today already) take an antigen test, provide proof of vaccination and be approved for our flight.

At 11:00 am they will load us into vans and move us back to the airport for the 90 minute charter flight to Baltra. I will give you a full report on that flight tomorrow if the internet connection on the ship is a good one.

Celebrity seems to have this all really well taken care of. We have seen some folk in the lobby area we know are on the ship with us and we met the head of sales and marketing (Susanna) for Celebrity Galapagos who will be sailing with us. But I also know that some poor folks won’t arrive until the last Copa flight in tonight at 11:30 pm and they will have to be up doing the same things we will have do to tomorrow.

If you are sailing on Flora while they are still doing their pre-cruise at the EB hotel, here’s a tip for you. Request a parking lot view. We have a pool view and it faces west. And the afternoon sun beating against the windows (even though it is only 60F something outside) has made our room really warm. I have the thermostat set to 18 C but the AC just can’t keep up with the sun and it’s 23C in the room right now. Love the view from here but wish it was a little cooler and hoping it cools down once the sun sets in the next 15 minutes.

Another note about the hotel; because of the lousy food on the plane we were ready for lunch when we got here and the restaurant in the hotel (Tabla Bella) makes superb food. Kathleen had a wonderful salad and I wanted to try two Ecuadorian appetizers. I got the empanadas (they were OK) and something called an arepa. It’s two pieces of masa stuffed with avocado (they LOVE avocados here), shredded, braised beef and cheese with a side of their wonderful avocado sauce to dip it in. Pics are below to make your mouth water.

Humid but fun Florida

 

Day 1

Our first day of travel started with a pickup by Century Car Service out of Seattle. We have used a variety of car services to get to the airport in the past but our neighbor and best buddy Lisa recommended these guys as people that she had used personally and when making arrangements for her team at Microsoft so we decided to give them a try. We are glad we did. Not only did our driver arrive on time but he called us the night before to verify the pickup time and advise us that our day to fly was going to be VERY busy so maybe we would want to get picked up 15 minutes earlier. That’s service. We said yes and when I went to open the garage door to watch for his 5:30 arrival at 5:15, he was already parked in front of the house.

At SEA in plenty of time, got through TSA pre-check in minutes and were sitting in the Concourse C First Class lounge in no time. Had a nice (if pre-packaged) breakfast before our flight and then off we went on Alaska Air to Fort Lauderdale. A totally full but thoroughly enjoyable flight. Great service, not too bumpy until landing and even then the Captain set her down beautifully.

Got our bags and called for our car service to pick us up. We were using Mike & Cathy Limos out of Wellington, Florida 😜. Seriously, we were picked up by Mike Priesman, one of our oldest friends and his new lady love, Cathy, one of our newest. We headed north with a dinner stop at what is probably my favorite traditional Greek restaurant outside of Greece, Chris’ Taverna. They serve my favorite food in the best way possible—incredibly fresh and it’s incredibly good. A bare minimum of sauce—my octopus was perfect, my trip complete—NOT. But it was really good.

After dinner we headed back to Cathy’s gorgeous house where I slept so darned well you would have thought I was on vacation 😀. If you are looking for a place to stay in South Florida, we highly recommend it. Great bed, super water pressure, lots of hot water, the owner/manager is a sweetheart but you have to watch out for the bellhop. He’s a little strange.

Day 2

After a wonderful nights sleep and a superb breakfast we were picked up by the Cathy & Mike Tour Company who took us to see the Jupiter Lighthouse. It’s a really pretty and very historical lighthouse in Jupiter (former home of Burt Reynolds and current home of Tiger Woods) just north of where we are staying. The still-functioning lighthouse is a great subject for photography and you can climb the 100+ step spiral staircase and step out onto the deck that runs all the way around the outside.

Only problem we ran into was…thunder and lightning. As soon as I got to the top and stepped out onto the platform, I heard the attendant tell the people behind me (Mike and Cathy) that, “Sorry, we have to send everyone back down because of the weather.” Of course I was already outside so I continued around the platform taking photos and that’s what you see above.

While I was shooting I could see the lightening not that far away and when the first huge clap of thunder hit I got myself off that platform in a big hurry. We were down and gone to the Visitor’s Center where they were kind enough to refund our admission even though I told them I had gotten up there for a few minutes. They said I should have been able to stay longer and it was very nice of them insisting on the refund. The lighthouse (on a non-stormy day) is a cool experience and I highly recommend stopping by if you are in the area.

Next up was lunch at Square Grouper, a fun hole-in-the-wall, right-on-the-water spot just across the waterway from the lighthouse. I got to try what I was told by Mike and Cathy is a Florida delicacy—Mahi Mahi sandwich. A big blackened Mahi Mahi fillet sandwich with cheese and grilled onions. It came with some of the best fries have had in years.

This about covered our day so far. Tonight we are going to a free concert in a nearby park and tomorrow doing a scenic boat tour on the Intercoastal Waterway. This tour company is awesome!

Anything for the quick life, as the man said when he took the situation at the lighthouse. —Charles Dickens

 

Family, Home and Wine

Yesterday I sort of detailed the first two days of our SoCal trip to see my brother Steve, my sis-in-law Jamie and their awesome family. Here’s the balance of the week. As I am writing this I am sitting at the gate for our flight home to Everett at John Wayne International. I won’t post it until tomorrow because I have never done two posts in one day and I don’t want to start now 😜.

Day 3–Family Day

Jamie has a BIG family. Beside their daughter and son, her Mom Pat lives with them. And then she has two brothers and a sister and all are married and have lots of grown kids. We have traveled with her sister and her family and will again in 2022. I have booked travel for her brother and his wife and they were supposed to join us on our river cruise that was cancelled last year. Saturday Jamie invited all these folks to dinner. Mind you, her brother who lives in Fresno and his family didn’t come down but her sister and her family from Huntington Beach and her brother and his wife from Poway were there as well as another of the cousins and our niece Cassie’s boyfriend Omar.

Food was outstanding as Steve grilled chicken and steaks and Jamie did her usual awesome job of making every side known to man. Her mom Pat (who I mentioned yesterday) put together one of her world famous cheese platters and others brought dessert and lots of wine. We all ate and drank and had an awesome time. I can say that I truly enjoyed myself, even helping Jamie’s sis-in-law Jill wash dishes. I think everyone had an absolutely wonderful time—I know we did!

Day 4–The ’55 to Laguna and back

Sunday was listed as a day of lounging around the house on our itinerary but since one of the places I really wanted to go was Crazy Shirts in downtown Laguna Beach (just up the coast) Steve rolled out their 1955 Ford Fairlane Sunliner and we set off on a drive from San Juan Capistrano, through Dana Point, Laguna Beach and almost up to Newport Beach. It was a great drive, the sun was shining and when you are in a car like this you get a lot of looks from those on the sidewalks. I do have to say though that sitting in the back of a 1955 convertible at highway speeds is an experience in wind velocity I am not quick to repeat 😀.

Day 5–Home and Wine

My sister-in-law Jamie was our travel agent/tour guide on this cruise 😀. She had texted us about a week before we were to come down with a complete itinerary with all kinds of things for us to do and see. Today was road trip day. First we were heading to my brother’s and my hometown, Palm Springs. We had two goals: to see the house we grew up in (which has been REALLY changed by the present owner since we sold it to them after our Dad passed a few years ago) and to have lunch at one of my favorite Mexican restaurants, The Blue Coyote.

The house looked fine but quite a bit different. Lots of new growth around the front yard. We had a kind of funny experience with the house. When we got to the house we parked in front to take a look and the current owner drove out of the garage and as he drove by us he gave us a real good and long look. Like this bunch of almost senior citizens was going to burglarize his house. After he left we drove up to the other end of the block and turned around to back past the house again.

In the meantime he had driven up the street but came back and drove into the driveway of the people across the street to tell the neighbor to keep an eye on us (criminals that we are 😜). We (Steve and I) got out of the car and went back to talk to him and the neighbor who is someone who has lived in the house since 1961 and had been our neighbor since then. He told the current owner he had nothing to fear as we had grown up in the house and had a valid reason for stopping. We hoped he would then invite us in but he had an appointment and hurried off after he knew his house was safe.

Then it was off to lunch at Blue Coyote where the food was great, the service superb and the margaritas…AWESOME! We have been there more than 10 times over the years and I think this was the best yet but that just might be the margaritas talking. A very nice couple from University Place (about half way between our place and our grandkids in Olympia, WA) took our photo for us.

After lunch and a quick turn around the town we were off to our final destination for the day—South Coast Winery in Temecula. It was much more than we expected. A really nice place where Jamie had arranged a really nice one-bedroom villa for both of us set amongst the grape vines. The place was very reminiscent of Tuscany and we arrived just in time to catch the last wine tasting of the day. We did five different wines including a port and to be honest, I wouldn’t buy any of them again. Pretty run of the mill. Nothing even close to what we had in Walla Walla when we went with our neighbors Jayesh and Lisa two summers ago. When we did that trip we ended up joining three wine clubs but I don’t think I would join one at South Coast.

But their rooms and the restaurant where we had both dinner and breakfast were excellent. After a quick dinner we both retired to our respective rooms, watched a movie and basically passed out after this VERY busy day.

I was up early the next day for my usual pre-dawn photowalk and WOW, was I rewarded. Not only did I get some really nice sunrise pics from the vineyard, just as I was about to head back to the room to shower and change for breakfast I saw ten hot air balloons launch from near downtown so I had to wait to see what they would do. What they did was to come right at us. Within 20 minutes I was literally surrounded by hot air balloons as you will see in my photos below.

After this excellent photo experience we were off to breakfast where they had some of the best chilaquiles I have had since New Mexico. Truly delicious. One of my favorite breakfasts. After breakfast it was back in the truck for a quick tour of downtown Temecula. It’s a historic city from the 1800s and we spent about an hour walking around. Saw a pretty awesome old Chevy too.

From there we headed south and then west so we could stop in northern San Diego County to see the blooming ranunculus. Now I had never seen ranunculus before but these (from somewhat far away) were nice. Nothing like the tulips in Skagit County (north of Seattle) but still nice. Then it was home to S&Js place so we could fly home on Wednesday (yesterday).

Since we had a 6:25 pm flight we got to spend the day with S&J before we headed north to the airport and a late lunch/early dinner or as we like to call it, dunch. And because we had LOVED the food at Houston’s on the day we flew in, we decided to stop there again. I mean it was THAT GOOD! And guess what we ordered? The exact same thing—artichoke appetizer and fried chicken sandwich. And they were still as great as I mentioned in my last post except that this time I remembered to take a photo so you could see them. The artichokes are grilled on a wood fire. When mine came to the table part of the stem was still burning. They are amazing. And what makes the fried chicken sandwich so good is the slaw that sits on top of the chicken—amazing.

After lunch S&J dropped us off, we waited the prescribed two hours, boarded and took off right on time, landed almost 20 minutes early, found a Lyft in less than five minutes and were home and turning off the lights by 10:15! Whew, I got tired just thinking about that.

To sum it all up, we had an AWESOME time. It felt so amazing to be traveling again. My sister-in-law Jamie is a fantastic SoCal trip planner and we ate and drank a lot more than we should. Oh, and we would do it all over again in a minute.

My ideal travel companions are my family.

Pharrell Williams

OMG! We are traveling!

It’s true! We are traveling. In fact as I write this we are headed for home later today after a six day visit with my brother Steve and his wonderful wife Jamie (S&J). We have been wined, dined, toured and traveled all over Southern California.

Day 1—Flying South

Let’s start with the flight south from Paine Field in Everett. Never had a flight that went so well. Just a dream. We did have a little bit of a hard time getting a ride to the airport. We tried Lyft first and no dice at 5:45 am. There was a guy at Bellevue who we thought was coming but then he found something closer. Finally we got a superb Uber driver who got us there in no time. And he drove a car with a stick shift. Shocking!

Once at the airport it was about seven minutes from the time we got out of the car until we were sitting at the gate. That’s the wonder of Paine Field. You can see the inside of the lounge between the two gates in the pic above. Boarding was beyond easy and the flight itself was about one third full.

We had paid a little extra for Alaska Air’s premium economy seats and on the Embracer jet we flew on, they were amazing. I am six feet, two and a half inches and I could fully stretch out my legs or cross them without a problem. So much so that I sent photos to my brother and other tall friends to say, “check this out!” See what I mean?

We flew into John Wayne International Airport in Orange County and Steve and Jamie picked us up. Another smallish airport (lots bigger than Everett but MUCH smaller than LAX). We were off the plane and out the door and in their truck within 15 minutes of landing. See what I mean about a great flying experience. We will find out if this continues this evening when we fly home.

After we were picked up we were headed out to lunch. Jamie had made reservations at a restaurant near the airport thinking it would take us a while for us to get our bag and find them but we were out so quickly,  we ended up sitting in the parking lot of the restaurant until they opened. We didn’t mind the early lunch since we had been up since 4:30 am and had coffee and some yogurt at 6:00 am at the airport. There is currently no food service on the plane if you are in economy.

The restaurant we went to was new to us but they had tried to take us there a few years ago and we had to leave because we didn’t know you needed reservations for lunch. We weren’t that worried about going there because it was “just a restaurant.” But then I started my pandemic walking and listening to Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert podcast and he went on and on about the chicken sandwich at a small chain of places called Houston’s and that was the same place we hadn’t gotten into. So this time we really wanted to try it.

We were so glad we did. If you ever find yourself in a city with a Houstons, go there. Order two things—the fried chicken sandwich and the artichokes if they are available. Later that day I said it had almost a perfect lunch because not only had I eaten the best chicken sandwich I had ever consumed, I had also eaten the most amazing artichokes I had ever scarfed down as well. How much did we like it? So much that we are going back for a late lunch/early dinner today before we fly home. What am I going to order? The artichokes and the chicken sandwich. 😀 Maybe I will remember to take pics this time.

After lunch it was back to their house to rest a little, have a little dinner and just get a chance to catch up with them and our niece Cassie and Jamie’s mom Pat (who we love—my brother has the best mother-in-law ever!). It was a great start to what would be a great trip.

Day 2—Doheny Beach and San Juan Capistrano

On Friday we pretty much stuck around the town where they live, San Juan Capistrano (SJC). You may have heard of the town—it’s where the swallows return every year in March. I started the day with a really long (for me–8.9 miles) pre-dawn walk that took me down to the world-famous Doheny Beach (The Beach Boys sang about surfing there). Got some great pics as I hope you will agree.

After a quick breakfast we were off to downtown SJC to tour Mission San Juan Capistrano, one of the 21 California missions that stretch from San Diego to San Francisco. It’s a beautiful historic building with gorgeous gardens so it was great for photos as well.

After the Mission tour we met up with some cruising friends, Eileen and Bob, who live in nearby Cypress. They had journeyed about 30 minutes south to visit with us and it was great to see them and compare travel plans, past travel (we sailed with them to New England in 2018) and just generally catch up. It was a great meal except for the service. Suffice it to say that after complaints to the management while we were there and a blistering letter to the owners by Kathleen after we got back to S&J’s, the manager fired our server. That’s how bad it was. It’s a story best told in person so ask us the next time you see us. The restaurant is called Mayfield (so if you come to SJC, give it a pass). Food was fine but to me that’s almost a negative.

After lunch it was more rest, relaxation, catching up and food back at S&J’s. One thing about going there is you get fed very well. The next day would prove that true beyond a shadow of a doubt. Come back tomorrow to find out more. My fingers are tired now 😀.

We live life in restaurants, it’s the center of social life, where we celebrate with family and friends, make new friends, travel without traveling, and of course, eat.

Philip Rosenthal