Birds, birds and…gators?

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

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Benny’s on the Beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 1 in Boynton Beach, midday photo walk

Day 2 in Boynton Beach, early morning photo walk

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

Mardi Gras Trip—Days 1-3 in Sarasota

Shame on me for not posting sooner on this trip but to be honest, we have just been really busy. Plus, this is the non-cruise part of the trip. The really interesting stuff starts on Friday when we sail away on Reflection to Mardi Gras.

Monday morning we (Kathleen, our good buddies Bob and Judy and I) were picked up bright and early (6:00 am) and driven off to SeaTac to catch Alaska Air flight 770 to beautiful Tampa, Florida. It was a totally boring flight (which is a very good thing) and we arrived just a little early (but of course that means that our bags took forever) and after grabbing our rental car we were off.

Just a little disappointed in the rental car we got. I had asked for a large SUV that would seat five people with luggage for five people going on a cruise. What we got instead was an Infiniti SUV that is big but if you put luggage for four people in it, it only has room for four people There are six seats in the car but two are only for tiny children or contortionists. But if you have the back row of seats set up as seats, there is no place to put luggage…and we have a lot of it. We had hoped to be able to take our friend Mike to the ship with us on Friday but now he can hopefully go with his neighbors Barbara and Hans who are also joining us on this cruise. If they can’t take him, I may have to go swap rental cars. Tampa only had this one that was big enough to fit us all, that wasn’t already reserved for someone else.

We arrived at our AirBnB fairly late (Tampa traffic was the cause) and after going to dinner it was pretty much come back here and sleep. The place we are in is nice enough but the host has a lot to learn or maybe this is the standard for AirBnBs in Florida. Don’t get me wrong, the house is very clean, very nicely furnished and HUGE! You can see the listing for the house (with lots of pics) by clicking here. The only real problem is that this particular AirBnB bills itself as “Secluded luxury with heated Saltwater Pool & Spa” but the spa is NOT working. Water won’t get over 72 degrees and we have been contacting the owner every day since we got here. The pool isn’t heating up either but during the day it is in the sun so it does warm up to 74 or so. We are now down to about 6 hours of possible time to use the spa before we leave and still nothing is being done. I suppose it could be worse but that’s one of the reasons that we chose this place, because Bob and Judy like a good hot tub experience.

We were also kind of surprised that there was nothing in the house when we got here. Not even bottled water. We have never stayed in an AirBnB that didn’t at least have that and coffee. This place had neither. But maybe that is just the way AirBnBs are in Florida. We have stayed in AirBnBs (like Salt Lake City) that had an entire breakfast, bottle of wine not to mention bottled water ready for us when we arrived.

Enough about our first world problems, Tuesday was all about us driving up to Ana Maria Island for a visit with a bunch of Canadians. It is a total coincidence that I suggested that we go to Sarasota pre-cruise because when Bob mentioned that to his cousins that live in Ontario, they said they would be wintering on Ana Maria Island, a short (well with traffic, a long) drive away. So in the morning we headed north to visit Bob’s four cousins and to meet up with Bob’s brother who had driven down from their winter perch in Myrtle Beach, SC. We had a true family reunion going on where not only were Kathleen and I the only non-relatives but we were also the only non-Canadians. We had a great time and I assumed my usual roll as the group photographer (samples below).

Today (I am writing this on Wednesday) I took a pre-dawn photo walk on St. Armand’s Key and Longboat Key and then after breakfast we headed off to The Ringling. The Ringling is Sarasota’s biggest attraction besides shopping and the beach. It is the former home of John Ringling of circus fame. On the property is an art museum housing his private collection (he’s been dead since the 1930’s so he doesn’t need it), his actual home (kind of a junior San Simeon) and my favorite part, the circus museum. The circus museum features an ENORMOUS miniature circus from the heyday of circuses, the 1920s-1930s. It is truly amazing and if you are in Sarasota, make sure and stop by and check it out. We only wish we had had the grandkids with us. They would have loved it.

Also toured the bottom floor of his house (they charge you more to go upstairs) and three of us toured the art museum as well. And we all had a little lunch on the property. When we got back to where we were staying I had nothing special I needed to do (except text our host again about the lack of heat in the spa and pool) so I thought, why not do the first post of this trip.

Tomorrow we are off to our friend Mike’s house in Boynton Beach, to spend the night, before we drive to Fort Lauderdale on Friday morning to board Celebrity’s Reflection, a ship we stepped off of last June in Dublin, Ireland. I will keep this going as we go and whenever I have enough photos that I want to post them.

Pre-dawn photo walk

The Ringling in photos

My best vacation is somewhere I could hide, somewhere warm and not a lot of people around. —Derek Jeter

 

 

Last day in South Florida

Morikami Pano
A panoramic photo of the Morikami Gardens

Just a quick post with some photos before breakfast. We will be boarding Allure of the Seas at 10:30 am and I am writing this in Mike’s family room at 6:30 while Kathleen is getting ready to go.

Yesterday was a really great and relaxing day. Mike does volunteer work at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens where he is an information specialist (a fancy name I am giving him for the guy who sits at a desk by the entrance and answers questions). The gardens are beautiful and the weather cooperated while we were there.  Big, fluffy clouds on a nice blue sky let me take some great pics while we toured.

After Morikami we headed north on Highway 1 along the coast. We drove by the infamous Mar-A-Lago Country Club (that you-know-who owns) and then a little further before we stopped at Benny’s on the Beach (a really cool restaurant on a pier perched over the Atlantic) for a delicious lunch. After that it was north to Palm Beach where we stopped to buy some postcards (yes, we still send those—I’m very retro, 😀 so sue me) to send to the grandkids and other friends and relatives. Speaking of retro, we got the postcards at a little drugstore that Mike had been to before that was a total throw-back. Even had a little luncheonette. Reminded me of an old Woolworth’s.

Then it was back to Mike’s where we watched a little college football until Mike’s neighbors Barb and Hans came over to see us. We had sailed with Barbara and Hans on a two week South East Asia cruise from Singapore to Hong Kong (one of our favorites) in 2010. It was great to see them. We always have a lot to talk about. Then it was dinner out at a Cuban-American restaurant and that was it—a really nice day.

Here are the pics I promised you and you will get our first report on Allure either later tonight or tomorrow.

It doesn’t matter how much I think I know about Florida, it still flips me on the head every time. It’s just an absurd, eclectic place, and the stories that can come out of that place just never stop.—Matt Passmore

On the road…again

RCI_AL_Drone_DJI_0061_RET_CMYKSometimes I think we are the living embodiment of the Willie Nelson song. Or if you are my age, the Canned Heat song. But then we spend a few days with our good friend Mike Preisman and I realize that as much as we travel, he travels more. And he writes about his travels even more than I do. I linked his website above. It is worth going to before you travel has he has probably been where you are going.

I mentioned Mike because we are in humid and hot South Florida staying with Mike before we board Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas tomorrow. I may have mentioned that I am not a big fan of the Caribbean but we are taking this cruise to learn. Almost all of the cruise lines out there do what are referred to in the trade as FAM (familiarity) cruises from time to time. These kind of cruisers give travel agents a chance to see a ship and learn about a cruise line while on a cruise. They aren’t free (nothing ever is…) but we do get a very nice discount and there are some nice perks. Of course we still had to pay to get down to humid south Florida, but it’s still a bargain.

It especially helps if you have great friend who will put you up a few days before the cruise as well. We are staying with one of our super Martini Mates, the aforementioned Mike Preisman. And besides getting to see him, we were able to see some friends who we met on our first Celebrity cruise through the Panama Canal in 2004, Bert and Annette. We had lunch with them at their country club (a really swanky place) and just a great time talking about all we have been doing since we last saw them five years ago when we had lunch in the same place.

So tomorrow (Sunday, October 6) we board the Allure of the Seas at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. This is our first time on an Oasis Class ship. The Oasis class are the largest cruise ships in the world. Only one ship sailing has more cabins than Allure. When the ship is at maximum capacity she can hold 6,314 passengers and more than 2140 crew members. That’s 8,500 people on one ship. For me that three times the size of the town where I spent most of the 90s, Leavenworth, WA.

We will board tomorrow morning before most of the other passengers so we can do a ship’s tour that will let us see some of the staterooms and suites before others come aboard. Our FAM group is composed of about 30 Expedia Cruise Ship Centers travel consultants and people from their sales department. During the week, on the four sea days (out of seven) we will have classes from 9:00 am to noon and then from 2:00 to 4:00 pm every day. The coordinators from Royal will not only talk about the ship we are on, but all the other Royal ships in the fleet. And I am sure we will have plenty of time to see all the public areas on this ship…which means you will get to see a whole bunch of photos this week.

At least I hope you will because we have free use of Royal Caribbean’s Voom internet which is (according to their marketing) the fastest internet at sea. So if it really works (they say you can stream Netflix) so we shall see. If it is that fast, you will get daily updates all week, so be ready. This will be your chance to find out all about the biggest ships at sea.

We hope it all goes better than our last cruise on Royal’s Ovation of the Seas when we took our grandkids (and their parents) to Alaska in July. And since we are doing this cruise by ourselves, this will be much more about the ship. We are seeing shows almost every night, have planned a shore excursion in one of our ports (St. Kitts) and want to try as much as we can while onboard. I should mention that our other two stops on this cruise are San Juan, PR, a port we have visited twice before and Nassau in the Bahamas. We have no interest in those ports so we will probably stay on the ship. I may get off and walk around in San Juan as their old town is really quaint and picturesque.

Be ready for some posting this week while we take you cruising on Allure of the Seas.

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. —Zora Neal Hurston