Quick Shots

Viking almost catastrophe follow up

Tonight just two quick things I want to share. The first is an awesome story about Viking Cruise Line’s ship that ran into trouble last week off Norway. If you missed it, I wrote about it late last week. Their crew and the whole company stepped up big time. You can click here to read the article. Worth the few minutes. Warning thought, it is a harrowing account. I would not have wanted to be on that ship. But I would have been thrilled by the way the crew onboard handled things.

Watching a big ship sail down a tiny canal

MeyerWerftAll through 2008 we were anxiously waiting the building and launching of Celebrity Cruise Line’s Solstice. This was not just a new ship, this was an entirely new class of ship. We (Kathleen and I) along with our Martini Mates were booked on Solstice’s 8th cruise in early March. So leading up to the launch we watched her being built at the Meyer-Werft shipyard in Papenburg, Germany. They had web cams all over her and we checked every day to see the progress. We would try to figure out where our staterooms were and how the rest of the ship was coming together. Finally, after waiting for months, they had the “roll out.”

They call it a roll out because the ship literally has to roll to the sea though some pretty tight places. We watched that journey on webcams and from people posting photos taken along the way. When ships roll out from Meyer-Werft they are quite a ways from the open ocean. It is really quite a site to see a GIANT cruise ship in a tiny little canal floating through farm lands. I bring this up because it happened again this week. It wasn’t a Celebrity ship but a Royal Caribbean ship. Their new behemoth, Spectrum of the Seas, is really something to see. And she was captured in a really cool YouTube video being towed out to sea. You can watch it all by clicking here. It’s one of those things that I find fascinating and you might too. It’s only a little over a minute.

We are all travelers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend. — Robert Louis Stevenson

 

Odds and Ends

Going to touch on three topics tonight.

Topic 1: Viking cruise ship problems

VikingAs usual the day all the Viking ships problems went viral I got a ton of texts and e-mails from both my new-to-cruising friends and my non-cruising friends telling me things like, “See, that’s why I will never (or won’t go again) cruise.” Or, “You aren’t still going to cruise are you?” Well of course we are. Here’s why.

First, sailing off the coast of Norway at this time of the year is kind of like sailing in the Caribbean during hurricane season. You takes your chances. The folks on those cruise, if they did their homework or had a great travel agent to warn them, would not have taken that cruise without knowing it could be rough. These folks wanted to see the Northern Lights on this cruise. They took a chance. BTW: If one of my clients told me that they were extremely subject to motion sickness, I would have advised skipping this one. There are other cruises they might now want to take at certain times of the year as well. And global climate change is making those “times of the year” vary from historical norms. Kathleen and I have been through winds higher than that but thankfully always on a ship with fully functioning engines. Our first time through the Straits of Messina we had 60 knot winds and in the Tasmin Sea we had some amazingly heavy seas. I will address how Kathleen beats her motion sickness in a future post.

Second, if you haven’t seen the follow-up, the cause of the engine failure was lack of oil. So why didn’t the sensors tell them they were low on oil? Because the ship was rocking so much that the sensors were registering incorrectly. Still no excuse for pure stupidity on the Viking engineers part but I am sure it’s the kind of thing that won’t happen again.

Lastly, when I got a note from someone who said, see what happens when you cruise, “I am never cruising again.” My first reaction was to check the traffic stats for their particular city in the last week. I found that more than 30 people had been killed in their regional area. While that is sad, my question to them is, “Were they going to stop driving?” I doubt it. But in a storm situation when no one suffered more than minor injuries, they were going to stop cruising? Not that logical. And all those Viking passengers got their money back as well.

Topic 2: An absolutely excellent and awesome article about one of my favorite travel people

StevesArticleIn case you missed it last Sunday, the NY Times weekly magazine had a really long and really in-depth article about one of my favorite people, our local travel expert, Rick Steves. (Click here to read it.) We have seen Rick speak a few times and his office is just north of us. He even performed with Seattle Men’s Chorus a few years back. He didn’t sing but he did tell some great travel stories between the songs. It was fun.

We love Rick and often follow his travel advice. His books on touring and museums are the best. He even has books about cruise ports in Europe. We love his restaurant picks as well. His book helped us find a superb place in a basement in Sienna once. Great food! If you are touring museums or taking walks in cities in Europe, have Rick with you either on his app or one of his guide books. He rocks. The article is worth a read. It kind of defines why travel is so important.

Topic 3: Cruise lines need to do a better job of getting in front of stuff like the Viking thing.

Whether it’s something as crazy as the Viking news earlier this week, norovirus or an unscheduled cruise cancellation, the cruise lines need to get out there with what is going on a whole lot faster. In this day and age of constant social media posting, things often end of looking a lot worse than they are but when people post about them and nothing is said by the cruise line involved for 12 hours or more, it looks bad and it gives social media control of the issue.

The same is sometime true when you are on a ship as well. Things will happen, there will be alerts or schedule changes and you won’t know what happens for hours. For instance, on our last cruise a port was cancelled. It was obvious from where we were when we woke up that we weren’t going to the port we missed. On the ship’s television map, we were far beyond it. And outside our windows, we couldn’t see land, which meant we were at sea. Yet there was no announcement about the change in course until around 10:00 am of that day. Pretty obvious by then that we weren’t going to the port.

Just an aggravation when I was just a passenger but more so now that I am a travel professional.

Wherever you go, go with all your heart. — Confucius

Martini Mates Forever

I have written in the past about the Martini Mates but I am just not sure I have written about them on this site. So here’s a short bit of explanation about who we are and a sad bit of news about one of our best friends—a Martini Mate.

Back in 2005 we booked our second Celebrity Cruise on Infinity that would take us on a short repositioning trip from Vancouver, BC to San Francisco, CA. As is our habit, as soon as we booked the cruise, we joined the Cruise Critic roll call (click here if you don’t know what that is) for it. Little did we know how life changing joining that roll call would be. There were about 100 people posting on the roll call but one day (about six months prior to the cruise) we started discussing the Martini Bar on Infinity. Now none of us were big fans of martinis but it was fun to discuss all the different kinds that X serves in its many martini bars throughout their fleet.

During that discussion someone suggested that we (everyone on the roll call) start calling ourselves the Martini Mates. This caught on and pretty soon we were all a bunch of Martini Mates. By the time we all arrived in Vancouver for the cruise, a bunch of us who had done a TON of posting felt like we were good friends. Many of us gathered the night before the cruise for a pre-cruise cocktail party that was organized by Carol Preisman who is the wife of the god of shore excursions Mike. We met in the bar at the Sheraton Wall Center hotel and when I walked into the hotel, Carol came up and I put out my hand to shake hers. She said, “I’m from the South honey. We don’t shake, we hug.” And she did. And I did. And I made a friend who lasted from that day until last night when we lost Carol.

Carol would always say that she wasn’t sure why she and I were friends. Neither was I. We were pretty much the opposite of each other. She was a conservative, reserved Southern Belle of the highest order and I was a liberal, loud, ex-hippie from California. And we became friends. And every time we saw each other or she would introduce me to someone, she would say, “Not sure why Jim and I are friends…but we are.”

Of course there were many Martini Mates on that cruise but for some reason, six of us stayed Martini Mates. We still correspond with others from that 2005 cruise. We have sailed with some of those people as well. Over the years we have added more folks to the Martini Mates but the six of us were the core—Bob, Jude, Mike, Carol, Kathleen and me.

Those four people have been a huge part of our lives since the day we met them. We have sailed with Mike and Carol at least eight times and done a couple of land trips with them as well. They have stayed at our place and we have stayed at theirs. Yes, we were closer to Bob and Jude but that’s just because we were geographically closer since they lived in BC and Mike and Carol lived in Florida but the six of us were still the best of friends. And when we were able to travel to all the parts of the world together, we felt like no time had passed between trips.

When we returned from the original trip in 2005, Carol wanted us all to be able to have a place to keep talking to each other on the original Cruise Critic roll call so she started the Martini Mates “friends of Cruise Critic” board that we still post on to this day. This morning it was filled with love for both Carol and Mike.

I am posting more photos than I usually post because when I went to look for them, I found so many that I loved of us with our Mates all over the world. Bob and Jude never did the really long and adventurous trips—Bob hates to fly. But we still went everywhere together.

This morning after I had found out about Carol passing I took a long walk and was thinking about all the places we had been with Mike and Carol. Besides the initial Martini Mate foray in 2005, we sailed with them to Alaska twice, to SE Asia from Singapore to Hong Kong, through the Panama Canal in 2014, to the Baltic a few years before that, on the eighth voyage of Solstice in the Caribbean and Hawaii.

So that’s kind of a short history of the Martini Mates. The Mates suffered our first huge loss when Jude passed away a few years ago. Today we lost Carol. And she will be missed but I like to think that she is undoubtedly in a heavenly Martini Bar, sipping her chocolate martini with Jude and another of our group, “The Straw.” She and Jude are rolling their eyes as “The Straw” (that’s a whole other story) tells the story of how she became “The Straw” for the 1 millionth time.

We love you Carol and will miss you. I wish I could see you right now to give you that hug because you taught me that “we don’t shake hands, we hug.”

Our worst shore excursions ever

Disapoint copySo in case you missed it, a couple of days ago, I listed our favorite shore excursions of all our 25+ cruises. Now the bad ones. Its funny that all but one of them were cruise line shore excursions that were in one case dangerous and in the others just terrible. The real theme of this post is disappointment.

Horseback riding in Hualtuco, Mexico

So this one was the closest we have come to being injured on any of our cruises. It was our first Celebrity cruise, through the Panama Canal and we stopped in the beautiful little town of Hualtuco in Mexico. We had decided to go horseback riding on a ship’s excursion. Happily, it was limited to only 12 people. Sadly, 14 people took the tour. The extra two were crew members who decided they would like to join us. As soon as we got there the people running the stables had a problem. They only had 12 horses. They had us all stand around a corral and they told us which horse to take. When they found a nice one for Kathleen, one of the guys helped her up on to that horse which promptly decided to lay down on its side. Since this was pre-hip replacement, she was able to scramble out before the horse put its full weight on her. Disaster avoided. We thought.

Then before they assigned me a horse, they ran out of horses. The two people that were left horseless were a very nice lady who had decided not to go and…me. The man running the stables said something to one of his workers who brought down a huge, black horse and the boss indicated that horse was for me, I guess since I was biggest person on the tour.

I did my best to get on the horse but that horse did NOT want to be ridden. I am not now nor have I have ever been a horse person but I got up on the horse. They put the horses in a line to head to the beach and I was in the middle of the line on a horse who was really mad about being ridden. He kept biting the horse in front of mine and the horse he was biting kept kicking him. Finally he got tired of being kicked so as we walked a trail  through a bunch of nasty, prickly bushes he took off through those bushes at a gallop. I had a heck of a time staying on. When he finally stopped, I got off as quickly as I could (kind of fell off, really) and when the guys from the stable caught up with us, I told them I would walk back to the stables. They could keep their big, nasty horse.

When I got back to the stables there were a couple of young ladies working there who were from Canada. They asked me what had happened and when I told them my story, they say, “You rode El Diablo? Even the boss won’t ride El Diablo.” Suffice it to say that when we got back to the ship and lodged a complaint, we got our money back from the cruise line. Had a nice rest of the day in the village and haven’t been horseback riding again since.

Ship’s shore excursion in Constanta, Romania

Ship’s shore excursion in Odessa, The Ukraine

I am grouping these two together because they happened on the same cruise on two successive days. We were on a Celebrity Galaxy cruise back in October 2006 that was called “Exotic Mediterranean” because it went to Istanbul and then into the Black Sea for two stops. It was the first time that a cruise ship, any cruise ship, had ever stopped at these ports and they were NOT ready.

In Constanta, we  (52 of us on a great big bus) were first taken to a church (within sight of the ship). It was an interesting church but there were no pews or seats and we were told a choir was going to come in and sing for us. Sure enough, a choir made up of seminarians joined us. We thought, great they are going to sing a song for us. No, we were told that they were going to sing for us…for an hour. While we stood there. We snuck out and sat on the steps of the church until they were done as did most of the group. Then we reboarded the bus to head to a winery for a wine tasting.

When we got to the wine tasting (after a long bus ride) we met a group from the ship coming out. They told us we would have a choice of tasting wine or having a bottle of water. They said, “Take the water!” We did. Smart move on our part.

After the “water tasting” it was off to do some local shopping and have lunch on our own. The bus drove us another our back into the city where we pulled up outside a really big building. We were told that there were shops in the building that the city of Constanta had specifically invited to open for visitors. Guess what shops were in the building? If you said American-based stores like Gucci, Armani, Rolex, Banana Republic, etc. What was in the building was a second-world country’s idea of what an American mall of that time would be like and it was sad. If we did want to go shopping, we would have wanted to see some Romanian products, made by locals. Not what we got. So we tried to find someplace to have lunch and try the local cuisine. But no luck. Guess what kind of food was in the “American mall?” If you said American chain, fast food, you win. KFC, McDonalds, you name it but with prices three times what they charged back home. Not what we had in mind. Pretty much that was true for everyone on the bus.

By this time, it’s around 1:00 pm so a lot of us went back to the bus and asked how soon we would be heading back to the ship. The guide from the ship said we were “lucky enough” to be there to eat and shop until 4:00 pm. THREE HOURS! We asked the guide how far it was to walk to the ship (we had been driven all over the place so it was impossible to tell on our own, and this was pre-iPhones so we had no GPS not that there would have been coverage in Romania) and were told we were miles away from the ship and there was no way to walk. We were also told that because of the type of port we were in, it would NOT be advisable to try and take a cab (also pre-Uber). So we were stuck. Some of us tried walking away from the “American mall” to local stores that served locals but in many cases we were either asked to leave or ignored when we tried to buy something. It was spooky. After an hour, many of us just went back to the bus, got on and sat to wait. At 4:00, with the entire bus full we headed back to the ship. The bus had gone about three blocks when it drove over a hill and there was the ship. It had been about a 20 minute walk away the entire time.

We had hopes that the next day in Odessa in The Ukraine would be better but wishful thinking on our part. About the same kind of day except in different venues. We did get a local lunch in a local restaurant but the “lowlight” of the trip was the Odessa Art Museum. They were doing their best to protect the painting from light and fading. To do this in a “low-cost” way, they covered each painting with a towel stapled to the top of the frame. Seriously. To see the painting you had to walk up to it and hold up the cloth and peek underneath. The rest of the day was about at that level. And again, the worst part was that if we were someplace we would rather skip, we were stuck. We couldn’t leave until they said it was time to go.

These two days, in succession were almost too much to take. Thankfully they followed two incredible days with a private guide named Gem in incredible Istanbul. We basked in the glow of those days while being bored to tears in these two ports.

Heat in Portland, Maine

This one was on our last cruise to New England on Celebrity’s Summit. Sadly, it was on a private tour that I had arranged. We were touring in October but the temperature was more like July.

The heat wave we had encountered in Boston (the high there on October 9 was 86) got worse in Portland. It only got to 84 in the shade but the sun was blisteringly hot (my guess is about 92). We had scheduled a food tour (Old Port Culinary Walking Tour) with Maine Foodie Tours. That turned out to be a HUGE mistake. First, when I booked this for our group of eight, we were told that our party (of 8) would be the only people on the tour and SURPRISE there were eight other people on the tour. The tour started at 10:00 AM when we all met at a local wine shop. We were hoping to have wine but the tour never went inside. Instead we moved to the back of the building next door, a spice shop. The shop was supposed to have AC and it might have but we couldn’t tell. 16 of us were crushed into a space about 8 feet by 10 feet where we had to stand for about an hour while we first tasted a tiny glass of mead (honey wine) and then some of the worst macaroni and cheese I have ever had with tiny bits of lobster in it to put some of the spices from the shop on. In the meantime our guide told us some fun Portland and food facts. When we were done eating (by now it is at least 11:00 am) our guide said you can now look at the rest of the store while I do the dishes…DO THE DISHES! On our time?

Most of us went back outside and walked down the street as it was about 90 inside the shop which faced the full sun while our guide cleaned up for about 25 minutes. By now it is almost 11:30 and we have not been offered water (even though some of the spices we tried were pretty spicy) and it is HOT and we were off to our second place. On the way our guide (who somehow had no clue that most of her tour were seniors and perishing in the heat) just took her sweet time getting us to the second place.

And that friends is as much as I can tell you. My bride had heat exhaustion and she and I abandoned the tour and took an Uber back to the ship. Our friends went on with the rest of the tour and told us later that the food was mediocre and that even though we had started the tour with very little food, at the end there was a ton. So much that they couldn’t even eat it. One of the things everyone was looking forward to was the lobster rolls but by the time they got to where they were served, they were too stuffed to eat them.

We have done food tours in more than 10 cities including two here in Seattle, one in NYC, one in Amsterdam, one in Québec and others in Portland, Oregon, Sante Fe, Savannah and Victoria, BC. This was the worst. It was so bad that I refused to take money from the other six people who were touring with us. I had paid for the tickets in advance so I am stuck but I couldn’t in good conscience charge them.

One of the only good things about this tour was that since it wasn’t a ship’s tour, we were able to walk away and go back to the ship when things went south.

Wannemude–Berlin

We were on a Baltic cruise off of Celebrity’s Eclipse and it was a WONDERFUL cruise. The ports were amazing and there were lots of them. On our fourth day, we pulled into the cute little port of Warnemunde, Germany. This is the port where about half the ship did what we did (a six hours round trip on a bus to tour Berlin for 5 hours). The other half either wandered around Warnemunde or Rostock (a nearby town) or went to tour a nearby castle. We chose Berlin because we wanted a taste of the city to see if we would want to come back later. We do that a lot. Use our cruise stop to decide if the port is someplace we would want to do a land vacation. We were traveling with Mike and Carol Preisman so we had booked with a large private tour company, for this and the next four ports after it. The only problem with this port was that because of the distance, they had to combine a bunch of small tours into a one big bus…oh no!

On the three hour trip in we had a guide who thankfully did not think he had to fill up the entire time with info. He did however tell some really bad jokes. But when he did talk it was often to tell sad and pathetic jokes that we think, due to the language difference, never quite had a punchline. We knew they were jokes because he kept announcing he had another joke for us. We all groaned. He did the same on the way back.

When we got to Berlin about half of us were arbitrarily moved to another bus (about the same size) and we headed off with another guide (a Frenchman named Yves) to see Berlin. I need to mention that our entire day in Berlin, it POURED rain. If it wasn’t pouring, it was steady. All day long. It made for a dreary day.

As far as I am concerned we got off on the wrong foot with this guide immediately when Yves told us that he was taking us someplace not on our itinerary, the Olympic Stadium. Now if we had wanted to see the Olympic Stadium (looked pretty much like every other stadium) we would have asked to see it or made sure it was on our itinerary. But we were not given a choice. We spent almost an hour driving to it, stopping for a few minutes in front of it, driving around the back of it, stopping to take pics (not a single person got off the bus to take pics) and getting back to the tour. Now if you had asked almost any of us, we would have skipped the Olympic Stadium and spent the time at Checkpoint Charlie (which we drove by at 35 mph) or any of our other stops.

After the Olympic Stadium it seems like we spent the rest of the time before our 2:00 pm lunch driving around avoiding construction. This was in no way the fault of our guides but certainly the detour to the stadium was. And what is it about Olympic Stadiums? Our Helsinki guide pulled the same thing on us.

Our tour said, “Time for lunch.” The one thing it didn’t say was a decent place for lunch. While other people from the ship who were not on our tour got great German food for lunch we were dumped in a spot with no choices at all but tourist fast food. Not at all nice places. The kind of place I would never go to here at home.

We did get to see everything else on our itinerary which included the Charlottenburg Palace (from the outside when we returned), the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, the Tiergarten and Victory Column, the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, the site of the Hitler Bunker, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust Memorial), Potsdamer Platz, the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, Gendarmentmarkt, Unter den Linden, Bebelplatz (Book Burning Memorial, Humboldt University, State Opera House), Neue Wache Memorial, Museum Island, and Alexanderplatz (TV Tower and Red Town Hall). We did see all of these…many at about 30 mph through rain-streaked windows. Other places we got out for a quick picture and back on in no time. At more than three sites only Mike and I got off the bus and shot photos and everyone else just stayed on. We promised to share. One thing that really bugged some people on the bus was that the guide took us to many of these out of order. Now we understand they did that in order to avoid traffic delays but he never announced where we were going or in what order.

We had the same bus set up on the way back and we arrived back at the ship at 10:40 pm. Our only stop on the three hour drive back was at a truck stop for a 10 minute “comfort break.” This meant no dinner (not that we were in any way in danger of starving to death) but it would have been nice if we had stopped at the same type of place we stopped in the morning that had food other than candy bars and ice cream.

Helsinki, Finland

On the same Baltic cruise, four days after Berlin, we did the last large-group shore excursion we will ever do. That morning we sailed into the port of Helsinki, Finland. If we had to skip one port, this would have been it. Even as much as I did not like Berlin, Helsinki was a bore. Again we were on a big bus. We drove to a church, to a square in front of a church, to another Olympic Stadium, through downtown, the Sibelius monument (which would have been pretty cool for about 20 minutes, not 90)  and that was about it.

Here’s the thing. We spent 45 minutes at the Olympic Stadium (What is with guides and Olympic Stadiums?) and driving by and hearing the entire history of Helsinki and Finland. The guide was like the elderly lady in the old medical alert commercial, the one that’s fallen and she can’t get up, except that this guide was talking and she couldn’t shut up. Seriously, she started talking from the minute we got on the bus until the minute we got off. And when we did get off for what was supposed to be a scheduled full hour of free time in downtown Helsinki that had shrunk down to a very short 15 minutes at the local farmer’s market due to our unscheduled Olympic visit. We might have really liked downtown Helsinki if had had more than 15 minutes there.

So for us, it’s not just the ship’s shore excursions that are a problem, but in many cases, it’s the size of the group. Even the last two of our least favorite were private tours, but they were BIG tours. Big tours where we were captives. Keep that in mind when booking your future shore excursions.

Our best shore excursions ever

After writing a few days ago about shore excursions it brought me to create another list. If you have checked out our page of lists (see the menu above) then you know I love to rank and list things. So here is a quick list of our favorite shore excursions that we have taken in our 20+ years of travel. In a couple of days, I will do the same thing for our least favorite shore excursions.

Touring Amalfi with Marcello

MarcellaBack in 2006 we took a cruise that was billed as the “Exotic Mediterranean” by Celebrity Cruises. It was a 14-night cruise from Rome to Rome on their ship, Galaxy. It’s funny that this shore excursion took place on the same trip with two of our worst. To prove a point though, the two that will be on our worst of list were cruise line sponsored shore excursions on that cruise while this one was a trip we found on our own or rather from the “god” of shore excursions, our good friend Mike Priesman.

Before I go any further I need to tell you about Mike Preisman. We first met Mike and his wife Carol on a short repositioning cruise onboard Celebrity’s Infinity in 2005. Mike likes to see the world. He likes to take incredible shore excursions. Since 2005 we have taken a number of cruises with Mike and Carol which means we got to share shore excursions with he and Carol. When we weren’t sailing with them, we would read about whatever great shore excursion they had done on the cruise we were about to take and take that one. In my top shore excursions list, five of the top eight were either with Mike and Carol or someone they had recommended to us.

Mike had given his strongest recommendation to us that when we docked in Naples, we had to tour with Marcello. He was right. Marcello not only took us on an incredible tour that included the Amalfi Coast, the hills above it and Pompeii but he has stayed in touch for all these years. We are still Facebook friends and I still continue to send him notes and good wishes until now as does he to us. Our day with him was magical from the time he picked us up until the moment he dropped us off. He started by telling us that if we were looking for shopping and highlights, then we were on the wrong tour. He was going to show us “his Italy,” and he did. The highlight for me was lunch in a tiny Italian bistro, high in the hills above Sorrento in the little town of Pantone. The place was amazing but the food was so much like my grandmother’s cooking that it took me right back to my youth being in her kitchen. Sitting outside in the fall sunshine on that day is something I can see just like it was yesterday. For me, that day was as close to perfect as shore excursions get.

Touring Bangkok with Tong

TongAs fun and perfect as touring with Marcello was, four years later in Bangkok we were actually touring with Mike and Carol as well as other friends and we met the effervescent Tong of Tong’s Tours. We were on a cruise aboard Azamara Cruiseline’s Quest (I think this is my favorite cruise I have taken) and Mike had found all our tours and everyone of them was amazing but our two days with Tong knocked our socks off. First she picked us up in her fully pimped-out van (tuck and roll leather), and then she gave us the best-smelling, coldest wipes to help with an incredible hot and humid day. She took us to the Palace, to temples, to the floating and the train market. Through all of it, she kept us in stitches with our hilarious and enthusiastic descriptions of everything Thai. Even today I can remember the reverence she had for her aged king. It was a superb two days for everyone there.

Inverness with Ian

img_4991In August of 2016 we sailed on Celebrity’s Silhouette from Amsterdam on a two week British Isles cruise that included the Edinburgh Military Tattoo as well as a bunch of other great ports but the one that really stood out for us was our tour of Outlander sites with Ian. From the battlefield at Culloden to the cairns on the cover of Donna Gabaldon’s novels, Ian knew it all. (That’s him at right in a pic from a Culloden battle reenactment) His knowledge and expertise about all things Scotland was wonderful. He truly entertained and educated us and took wonderful care of us. One big example of this: As we were getting off the ship two of our friends were talking to Ian before we arrived and they told him about a problem I was having with my Nikon. I had somehow gotten a huge piece of dirt on my sensor. I had done the auto cleaning routine a number of times but it just did not work. Every photo I took had a huge blotch on the right hand side that I would have to Photoshop or crop out of every photo. Ian asked me about it and I told him I hoped to find a camera shop in Edinburgh the next day. Just after lunch, we were on our way to a historic priory and we swung off the road into a parking lot. He led me into what might have been the largest camera store I have ever seen…in the absolute middle of nowhere. They had hundreds of thousands of dollars of cameras and lenses on display and a complete service department who promptly cleaned my sensor. Outstanding! And I hadn’t even asked him. That’s the kind of guy he was.

Touring the Panama Canal control room with Roberto

CanalAnother Mike Preisman special! So we are on a Panama Canal cruise (our second) with our Martini Mates (which includes Mike and Carol Preisman) and Mikes sets up a tour with a guy in Colon, Panama. Turns out the guy has connections.

This, for me, was the absolute highlight of our tours off the ship on this cruise. Mike had arranged another great tour (maybe one of the best we have done with him and that is saying a lot). We were touring with Roberto from Robtad’s Tours in Colon. Our previous canal crossing had not stopped in Colon.

This time we had the entire day in Colon and we really wanted to see the canal itself, close up. Not only the current canal but also the new construction of the canal that should have been already finished. When Roberto picked us up he took us directly to the Gatun Locks where he had a wonderful friend (who was like his brother) who worked as a lock master at the canal and he had arranged for us to actually walk across the canal gates and tour the Gatun Locks control room. Talk about a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Every single person we met in Panama that day were some of the nicest folks we have ever met. We also got to see monkeys, the new canal and so much more. What a day!

Touring Villefranche with Sylvie

SylvieAnother Mike Preisman recommendation was the amazing Sylvie who we met while taking a Western Mediterranean cruise on Celebrity’s Century in 2007. This was one of our favorite cruises and we loved most of the ports (you can keep Gibraltar) but our day in Villefranche with Sylvie was the best. She picked us up early and took us to the market in Nice, then on to a superb lunch in the hilltop town of Eze and finally a complete tour of the entire country of Monaco. She drove us on the entire race track which really gave me some street cred yeas later when I became a Formula 1 fan. (We’ve been on three tracks and I am always looking for more.) The day was fantastic and we would go back out with Sylvie anytime.

Harv & Marv whale watching

WhalesWe will finish up the Mike Preisman arranged shore excursions by touching on the best shore excursion of all our six (soon to be seven) cruises to Alaska. We were sailing once again on Celebrity’s Infinity but this time on a reunion cruise of the original Martini Mates to Alaska. Mike has arranged for the four of us (Mike, Carol, Kathleen and I) to go whale watching. I know…whale watching. What’s so special about that? Well, we were on a boat with just the four of us and two other people. Just six of us. And we moved fast. We went looking for whales while Harv (or Marv–not sure which we had) monitored the radio. The minute that he heard someone had spotted whales, we were off. And we saw some amazing whales that day. But to me, the most amazing thing that happened that day was before we went to look at the whales and the seals and the sea let ions, the boat stopped off a Juneau neighborhood and we saw a woman in a kayak paddling towards us. She came up next to our boat and handed a box to Harv. Harv blew her a kiss and handed us some of the best chocolate chip cookies I have ever had. That was his wife and  she brought out freshly-baked cookies for us. Now that’s service. And a really special day.

Akaroa on our own

AkaroaIn January of 2012 we headed south, way south to Aukland, New Zealand to cruise on Celebrity’s Century from Aukland to Sydney, Australia. We had a lot of really awesome shore excursions with some really great friends but the day that was the most memorable was Akaroa. We had originally been scheduled to visit Christchurch that day but six months prior to our arrival, Christchurch was hit by a massive earthquake. So we were informed that we would be stopping in the sleepy sheep-ranching village of Akaroa. We scrambled to find something to do there. First we decided to take a harbor cruise in the morning (we were the first ones off the ship), then had what I still remember as the best hamburger I have ever had and finally went with some friends to a working New Zealand sheep ranch where we helped sort sheep, shear sheep and were invited into the sheep rancher’s home for tea. It was such a typical Kiwi thing to do. It made our day.

Jet boating in Acapulco 

Of all our favorites, this last one is the only ship-sponsored shore excursion in the bunch. It happened in Acapulco on our first Panama Canal cruise back in 2004. We both count it as a great shore excursion because it’s probably the most exciting one we have ever done. The jet boat drive with our guide Walt, through a mangrove swamp (really stinky) was one of the many highlights of this trip. We still remember (more than 15 years later) Walt whipping his hand around over his head as he pulled the boat in a tight circle. It was so much fun we really wish we had done it over and over…except we didn’t. We piled back on the bus and headed to a…turquoise factory for a sales pitch that wasted an hour of our touring time. See what I mean about cruise ship sponsored shore excursions. But think how great the jet boat part must have been to outweigh the turquoise factory.

How about you? I would love to have some comments about your favorite shore excursions. Later this week I promise our worst…and there were some doozies—one that almost killed us!

 

 

 

Why we don’t take cruise line shore excursions

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Two days ago I wrote all about Cruise Critic and why if you cruise, you should be on Cruise Critic and on the roll call for your particular cruise. Today is the follow up and it’s all about shore excursions. If you aren’t a cruiser, a shore excursion is what you do when  you arrive in a port of call on your cruise. You have a number of choices. Of course you can stay on the ship. (We often do that when we go to Alaska because we have been there six times and have pretty much done all the shore excursions we want to do.) Or you can arrange a private tour or you can take a cruise line shore excursion. When we go to a new port we have never visited before, we ALWAYS do some kind of tour to see as much of the port and area around it as we possibly can in one (or if we are lucky) two days.

The other day someone on our current Ireland/Iceland cruise roll call posted about shore excursions. This is what they said:

We are new to sailing cruise line X and I see that everyone is booking excursions through other sources besides cruise line X. Are there issues with the excursions that cruise line X offers? The cruise line X excursions look so much more adventurous than most of these sightseeing trips, which is why I’m asking.

This was my answer to this person’s post:

We stopped doing cruise line tours after our fourth cruise for the following reasons:

First, when you take a ship-sponsored tour you only get to tour as fast as the slowest person on your 55 passenger bus. Many times we would be done with the attraction and be ready to get back on the bus when the last person had just gotten off.

Second, There is no room for any spontaneity on a ship’s tour. They must stick to their schedule. When we are on a private tour with just our group and we see an interesting place, we can just ask the guide to stop. If we go someplace that is on the schedule and it turns out to be boring, we can just ask to leave. When you are on that 55 passenger bus, you go where they want and when they want and there is no chance to change anything.

Third, one of the biggest complaints that experienced cruisers have about cruise line shore excursions is that they often include shopping stops that no one on the bus wants to make. They are stopping for the shopping because the store, factory or attraction they have added to your tour is paying them to do so. I can’t even imagine a private tour guide that we have hired stopping anyplace that we didn’t want to stop.

Lastly, the cruise line shore excursions are very often more expensive than the private ones we book. As a travel agent we have a number of shore tour options that are outside the ones from the ship. Many of these are tours with local guides that take you in small groups to see just what you want to see at much less cost than going on the ship’s tour.

So how do we tour? We do it privately. The pic at the top of this post is from an amazing private tour we had in Bangkok a few years ago that was planned completely by a close friend. Only eight of us in a van touring all over Thailand. More about private shore excursions later this week.

 

 

If you cruise…use Cruise Critic

cruise-critic-logo-vectorThis entire post is just to let you know about Cruise Critic before I write about something that came up on our current Cruise Critic roll call. I realized that some of you may not know what a Cruise Critic roll call is.

If you are a reader who doesn’t cruise, then you may not know what Cruise Critic is so I need to explain how important it is that if you cruise, you find out about it. If you take a cruise and don’t go and find the Cruise Critic website then you are NUTS! It will change your entire cruise. It is an amazing website that houses just about every piece of info on cruising that you can imagine but beyond that it also has forums about every aspect of cruising and Roll Calls for every cruise that sails. Cruise Critic is where you can go to meet the people who you will be cruising with before you cruise with them.

Why do this? Well for us it will show you the main reason we cruise. Up until we joined the agency, we both worked in places that are not conducive to socializing. Our neighborhood where we live has a lot of turnover so other than our immediate next door neighbors, we don’t have a lot of close friends here either. It is because of these two things we don’t have a lot of friends at home that we socialize with. We do have family and our best buddy Bob (about a hundred miles away) but that’s it for us.

We cruise to meet people. To socialize. Cruise Critic helps us do that. It lets us meet a lot of great people (like just about every close friend we have) before we cruised with them and many of them have become life-long friends. We have friends from all over the world that we have met through Cruise Critic. It’s how we met other great friends who have come to see us and we have visited them. On our next European trip we are staying with our British friends…who we met on a Cruise Critic roll call for our Baltic cruise back in June of 2013. I guess it makes sense that we find our friends through Cruise Critic since we found each other online as well.

I can’t say enough about how valuable we have found Cruise Critic. I should mention that you can also meet people on your Cruise Critic roll call that you can share private shore excursions with and we highly recommend this. See my next post for more about this topic in greater detail.

The main part of the Cruise Critic website that we use are the conversation boards where people who love cruising trade info. There are conversation boards for just about every cruise topic, destination and cruise line. There is hardly anything that has to do with cruising that you can’t find out about. If you are a regular reader you know that I often do quick research to find out things for clients. Like which veranda isn’t really a veranda or which bathroom is widely hated by everyone who sails on a particular ship. If you have a question that you can’t find an answer for, just post it and someone will come to your rescue.

The other part of Cruise Critic that we use most of the time is the roll calls. For most every cruise that is going to sail, there is usually a “roll call.” That’s a conversation board about just that cruise. It is a place to plan excursions with others going on your cruise, trade cruising advice and just get to know the people you are going to be sailing with for a week or two.

Some roll calls are fairly dead. Hardly anyone posts. There is no activity whatsoever. This is especially true for Alaska cruises because these are often the first cruise many people take and they haven’t discovered Cruise Critic and roll calls yet. Also, some cruise lines are famous for having better roll calls than others. Because we often sail Celebrity, we are lucky enough to have some awesome roll calls. But when we have sailed other lines, not so much. Length of the cruise can make a difference as well. Shorter cruises have less active roll calls.

Others roll calls are huge and take over your life. In 2016 we did a British Isles cruise that had more than 5,000 posts by the time we sailed. We planned a bunch of activities including a sail-away get together for 200, a pre-cruise dinner for 50 the night before we sailed, buses to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo for 156 roll call members and lunch on the last sea day for more than 100. See what I mean by taking over your life. That particular roll call is one of the reasons I realized that I should pursue a “funtirement” job in travel.

So now you know all about Cruise Critic and the roll calls. So my next post will make a little more sense. It’s coming soon.

 

It’s never too early—NEVER!

TravelPlanning.jpgSorry I haven’t posted in a week. Shame on me. It’s been a busy week with my grandson’s birthday in snowy Wenatchee and our traveling buddy Holly coming north to visit. But I was back in the office again today trying to figure out how to help out an old friend who was looking to take his family of five on a cruise this summer. Here’s their story.

About a week ago this old friend (who is also a client of mine in my other life) sent me an e-mail that said, “My wife and I are thinking of taking an Alaskan cruise all by ourselves and we thought that maybe you have cruised to Alaska and could give us some recommendations.” Immediately after slapping myself on the side of the head for not having told him that we were now in the travel business and that we had cruised to Alaska six times, I offered to help him set it up. So armed with three possible cruises for him out of two different ports, I sent him some numbers. He got back to me right away. Forget Alaska.

He and his wonderful wife had decided that maybe they would take their three teenage kids along after all and not to Alaska but to the Mediterranean. Someplace he had seen an ad for Norwegian (NCL) Cruiseline’s Epic and wondered if I could check on prices for that ship. Of course I could. In fact, I came back to him later that day with pricing on a suite that would fit all five of them or two adjoining/connecting staterooms on the sailing of the NCL Epic he was interested in. After some questioning and answering back and forth they reserved the two side-by-side verandahs that connected. They would take one the the kids the other. We booked their flights through the cruise line and we were good to go…until my friend asked, “Have you been on the Epic?” I replied that I had not but I had been other NCL ships. He was worried about what a friend had mentioned to him about the stateroom bathrooms being “different” on the Epic. I assured him they were the same as every other cruise ship stateroom bathroom. They had to be… didn’t they? Of course as it turns out, they weren’t.

Early the next morning I was lying in bed at about 3:30 wondering, “What if he was right? What if there is some problem with the bathrooms.” I decided to post on the NCL boards on Cruise Critic and see if I could find anything about the Epic bathrooms. When I got to the NCL boards the first thread I see is, “Why does everyone hate the Epic so much?” Yikes! All of a sudden I knew I was in trouble. So I did some more searching (the Internet is a wonderful thing) and found this video that will show you the problem. Or this video which I like even better. Aren’t those bathrooms the stupidest thing you have ever seen? And they definitely would not work for three teenagers when two of them are  17 and 16 year old boys and the other is a 14 year old girl. Not a chance. BTW: I also texted my personal cruise expert, Seth Wayne who told me he and Jason had cruised on the Epic. They had a great cruise but the staterooms were HORRID! (The capitalization was his.)

So we cancelled that cruise. And I went off looking for others that fit my friend’s time frame (June 22-July 15) and the destination they wanted (the Western Mediterranean). I first tried Royal Caribbean (RCL) and they have one of their bigger ships, Oasis of the Seas sailing that route. That ship would be PERFECT for his teens. Lots to do.

The only problem was that there are currently only around 70 staterooms (out of 2742) that are still available. That’s almost five months before the cruise. And none of those fit what we needed—two adjoining staterooms that connected. You see we needed connecting because if parents traveling with kids don’t have connected staterooms, then they are required to have an adult in each stateroom and that wasn’t going to happen. I was able to find them a Star Class suite but the difference in price between the two staterooms on Epic (bad bathroom or not) and the Star class suite on Oasis of the Seas was a little more than $10,000. But it did come with a Royal Genie (I promise to explain this in a future post) and a whole bunch of other cool stuff. But it was still way outside their budget.

Today I booked them in two connecting staterooms on Allure of the Seas for June…2020. And that my friends is the point of this tale of woe. Book early. Book with a refundable deposit if you are worried that you can’t plan that far ahead. But BOOK EARLY! Many of the big cruise ships going to Alaska this summer are already filling up. We (Kathleen and I) have cruises this summer (one to Ireland/Iceland and one to Alaska with the grandkids) that we booked more than 18 months ago. We also have one booked for February 2020 from Fort Lauderdale to New Orleans during Mardi Gras as well as a Christmas market cruise with Viking River Cruises in December of 2020. And I am sure that we will book another on the day it becomes available for the fall of 2021 as well.

Can you still sail on a cruise ship this summer? Of course you can, but you will need to be flexible with your dates and the kind of staterooms you want. If my friend and his wife had been traveling with just the two of them, I could have easily found them something but when you threw in the short time until the sail date, the particular staterooms they needed and trying to book them on a teen-friendly ship, the pickings got really slim. You may find some staterooms open after final payment is due when those staterooms that aren’t paid for or are part of a group being held by a travel agent are released. But if you absolutely want to take a vacation at a particular time, to a particular place, with a particular bunch of people, BOOK EARLY! 

I think three-to-five years ahead minimum. I have a short-term plan, a five-year plan and a decade plan. —Steve Garvey

Beyond frustrated or why I hate Costco

Frustration.jpgOn Thursday a very nice young lady called the agency and said she had driven by and seen our sign and could someone help her with some questions she had about taking a cruise. Actually, the cruise wasn’t for her, it was for her 70+ year old Mom and Dad and two of their friends who would be visiting her this summer from Japan. They wanted to take a cruise-tour to Alaska and since she (nor they) had ever cruised, she wanted to come in and discuss it. I told her “we are here to help.

About two hours later she came in and we had a very nice talk. I found out a bunch of stuff about what her parents and their friends were looking for in the way of a cruise. I told her that I thought I had all the info I needed and that I would have some options for her before this weekend was over.

This morning she e-mailed me some additional comments and we went back and forth with questions and answers until she used that horrid word that I have learned to hate…Costco.

I have a huge love-hate relationship with Costco. I have been a member forever. We probably spend thousands of dollars there every year. We get all our gas there, we get most of our grocery staples, most of our meat, all our paper goods and a bunch of other stuff from them. Heck, my son has worked at Costco for almost 20 years. But when someone mentions them when talking about travel, it drives be nuts. Especially someone like this young woman.

Her question was typical, “I see that if I buy the cruise from Costco, they will give me a Costco gift card for $350. Can you match that with a discount?” The answer is no, we can’t. And we shouldn’t. Costco uses travel as a loss leader and another way to serve their membership. It’s the way Costco pretty much does everything. The prices are lower to us because they make much of their money selling memberships and they make a bunch more selling prime space in their stores to companies. You know that big line of products on the left when you go into a Costco? The companies that make those products pay Costco to be there. As well they should. It’s prime real estate and the fact that their product is there and not on a shelf in the back means they will sell a BUNCH of extra product.

But Costco should not be in the travel business. Not because they compete unfairly (which they do) but because the people you are dealing with when you buy travel from them don’t have a clue about what they are selling.

If you think about it, Costco people seldom have a clue about what they are selling  product-wise. My son is in the “Majors” department. That’s the one that sells TVs, computers, etc. He knows that stuff. He ought to after almost 20 years. But if you go into his department when he isn’t there, you might end up talking to a new employee that started last week about exactly which TV or computer you are going to buy. Now this if just fine if you know exactly what computer you want. If you know how much RAM, whether you want a traditional hard drive or an SSD or one of many decisions you need to make to buy a computer. If you are ready to make the purchase and have done all your research and you feel like you are an expert—buy it. But if you have no clue about computers, and if you are a smart buyer, you either wait until my son is there (LOL) or you go someplace that knows about computers.

This is even more true when it comes to cruises. If Costco wants to sell car rentals and flights and hotels, that’s fine. Those things really don’t have many variables, while cruises do. If you are going to rent a car, you rent a car. You know what a Ford or a Honda are. If you want to book a hotel and you see a Hyatt on an online website, then you pretty much know what you are getting (although a good travel agent would know about good restaurants and sights near a hotel that was just as nice.)

When you buy a cruise from Costco you are buying it either online or from someone on the phone. If online then you better know exactly what you want stateroom-wise, exactly which ports you want to go to, exactly what perks you are getting, which dining plan you want, etc. Cruises have hundred of variables. But if you don’t, you are in trouble. And this nice young lady who came in to buy her parents a cruise said exactly that, “I don’t know anything about cruises.” If she decides to buy one from Costco online, she will be in trouble.

Let’s say she decides to make a phone call and talk to someone instead of buying her travel online? Will she talk to someone who knows all about cruising? Probably not. In fact my guess is that she will probably talk to someone who has NEVER been on a cruise. Not one. Sure, they may have read some brochures or studied the websites of the cruise lines they sell but have they sailed 20+ times? No. They work in a big phone room (you can’t go to your local Costco and book a cruise—you can only do it online or on the phone), where the next person who calls gets the next employee who is free to answer.

Of course this means when you call back because you need to make a change or something is a problem, forget trying to deal with the first person you talked to (“Can’t I talk to Joe, I really liked him so much when I called last time.”), that person may not even work there any longer. If the turnover at the Costco travel phone room is anything like the turnover at your local Costco, who knows who you will be talking to and what their level of expertise is. And imagine that this nice ladies parents (who, according to what she told me, speak Japanese predominantly) have a problem in boarding or anywhere along their way and they try to call Costco for help. They will get connected to the next person who answers the phone. Then they will get to explain their problem all over again. If they book with us and there is a problem, they will call me. I will know their circumstances and I will deal with the situation. And if I am not here, Mark

I have written before about my friend Seth Wayne. Next to Rick Steves he is probably Seattle’s number one travel expert. When it comes to cruising he even knows more than Rick. Before Kathleen and I got into the travel business he pretty much did not use a travel agent. He and I had discussions about this and his feeling was that he knew more than 95% of the travel agents he had met. As his friend and someone who he discusses travel with a lot, I agree with him. But that isn’t true of all travel agents and he knows that. That’s why when he found a travel agent who knew as much as he did, he started trusting him with his travel instead of booking it all online. (That would be me.)

You see Seth could book online if he wanted to because he is an expert. He knows if he is going to book a cruise, exactly what he will get from a particular cruise line (after 65+ cruises he should) and he knows exactly what to ask for if he buys it online. I have a lot of friends like Seth because we travel and cruise so much. They know what they want, they could book their travel themselves. But they don’t anymore—I do. Because they know that besides knowing as much as they know about travel, I have the time to look at all kinds of options and catch things they might miss. Not because they don’t know those things but because they are so busy they would have missed them. Sometimes they catch things I miss and they call me and I get them what they caught.

This nice young lady who called me actually told me, “I don’t know anything about cruising.” Should she book online or with Costco? You tell me. Will her parents have a great cruise if she books online or with Costco? Maybe. Will it be as good a cruise as it would have been if I booked with my expertise and the combined expertise of my fellow agents in our office? Probably not. If they have a problem, will they have someone they have met face-to-face to stand up for them, to fix things, to make things right—NO!

When I started this rant, I thought this will help with my frustration but it hasn’t. I have e-mailed the young lady and told her we needed to talk before I did any options for her parents. I had to do this because after being burned recently by a prospective client who had me do hours of research to find just the right cruise for her husband and his father, they went off and bought it at Costco. That is crushing. And I have resolved to never do that again. So as soon as someone mentions the C word, I stop working altogether until I can have a discussion with them. That’s where I am now. I have tried to reach her to no avail and have left her messages and e-mails but have not heard back.

Too many people today know the price of everything and the value of nothing. —Ann Landers

You aren’t bothering me…really

IMG_4119Over the last few days I have been working with two different clients on two different trips. One has me looking for a Caribbean cruise, first for next Christmas and then when that proved way too expensive and hard to find, one in February of 2020. The other was looking for a short cruise to Cuba.

I did most of the planning by going back and forth with e-mails. They would ask questions, inquire about alternate cruises, ask about travel insurance, different types of staterooms and other types of questions. I would send replies with new options for them. In all, I would guess that I exchanged at least 10 long e-mails with each of these wonderful folks.

But the one thing that both of them had in common was that they started every e-mail by apologizing for asking for so many options, for so many changes. On almost every e-mail reply the first line was, “Sorry to be bothering you with this,” or “I hate to ask you about a different option.” I just want to make one thing clear…you aren’t bothering me.

I have had this happen before with close friends. One of my best traveling buddies asks me about airfare and always starts by saying, “only when you have time.” Another very close friend spends a lot of his time looking at travel arrangements to have me book them. When I ask why he did all the research he said, “I didn’t want to bother you.”

If I was bothered by people asking me to find out about different types of travel, I wouldn’t be doing this as my “funtirement” job if I didn’t love looking for travel. I am at a point in my life where I don’t really have to do this job. And I really do love it…most of the time.

Sometimes because I look so hard for different options, I find something truly important. As an example, in looking for the Cuba cruise for these clients I discovered that if they went to Cuba after March 18, the overnight cruises were much shorter than after. The March 18 cruise (and those before that one) have an overnight in Havana. They arrive at 8:00 am on day 1 and then don’t leave until 3:00 pm on day 2. After the March 18 cruise, they arrive at the same time but leave Havana at 6:00 am on day 2 so even though they get a full day and an evening on the island, they don’t get a second day.

We also looked at another cruise that did an entire day in Havana and then sailed away at 5:00 pm and then did an entire day on the south side of the island in Cienfuegos from 8:00 to 5:00. But I also read a lot of reviews by other travelers that had been there that one of the things they loved the most was the evening time in Havana and this cruise didn’t give them that. And I found other options. They ended up getting the exact cruise they wanted along with all the visas and travel insurance they need.

I loved finding that kind of stuff. Digging to find the best thing for the clients. See the smile on my face. You aren’t bothering me…really

I like bothering people and stirring things up. –Tim Daly