Speciality Restaurants…one is truly special

Vista has four specialty restaurants. Unlike most cruise lines, you get to eat there for free. No charge! But you have to make a reservation—in advance. Everyone gets four guaranteed—one in each restaurant. Unlike Viking, where you could get into one of their two specialty restaurants almost any night you tried. We tried to get another reservation for Toscana, but we couldn’t. We really wanted it, but all they could offer us was 8:30 p.m. on the last night of the cruise. We were not doing that one. So the message here is: if you want to eat in a particular restaurant on a particular night, be online on the day you can make reservations at midnight EST and make them. I was lucky enough to get ones that worked well for us.

Before telling you about the four of them, I want to reiterate the Steve Test from yesterday’s post.

The Steve Test

After our disastrous Celebrity Millenium cruise in May of 2022, my brother Steve came up with a way to rate food and restaurants on a cruise better than I have ever been able to do it myself. From then on, I have called this the Steve Test. Here it is: If you eat in a food venue on a ship, be it the main dining room, buffet, grille or a specialty restaurant, and that restaurant were near you once you got home, would you go there again?  

That’s pretty simple. I think it is the best way I have ever heard of to rate food on cruise ships, and I will rate each venue (and, in the case of some of them, by the dish or meal) using the Steve Test.


Ember (I keep wanting to put an S on the end of it and name it EmberS) is a new restaurant that is only onboard Vista. On Marina and Riviera, you get the French Bistro, Jacques, named after Oceania’s menu-planning chef, Jacques Pepin. So we didn’t get high-end French food; we got slightly higher-end Applebees food. Check out the sample menu on the Oceania website , which will give you an idea of what we ate that night. I had the lobster roll appetizer (mostly bread, very little lobster), salt-crusted beetroot salad (it was “fine”), the pork chop (Mine was OK but the sauce was watery, Mike’s was tough), a side of “potato dippers” with no dip??? Not sure what that was about. I finished up with the fried Beignets (dry as a bone with very little sauce underneath them). All-in-all, it was a very unimpressive meal.

Even though it wasn’t my favorite meal on board, I do want to thank the maitre’d Raja (also the head of house in the Aquamar Cafe during the day) for taking such good care of us. When I made the reservation, I could only get a table for five and another for two. When I saw Raja in the Aquamar in the afternoon, he came up to me and addressed me by name and told me he would have a table for seven ready for us that night—that is service!

My Steve Test Rating: Not a chance. Worst of the four specialty restaurants. Just not impressed at all. Would I go again—nope, I don’t eat at Applebees. Never have, never will. How bad was it? I didn’t even take a photo. Go down and eat at almost any American restaurant. You will see just what the food looks like. I can’t wait to try Jacque’s on Riviera. They should replace Ember with it as soon as possible.

The Polo Grille

This is Vista’s steak house. I need to say upfront that I am not a steakhouse person. If I want a steak, I will grille my own. We don’t eat that much beef—balsalmic ribs on Christmas Eve, etc. But I can count on one hand the number of times I have ever ordered a steak in a land-based restaurant…in my life.

I thought this was the most impressive restaurant, ambience-wise. High on deck 14, with wrap-around windows and low lighting, it is beautiful if you come in pre-sunset. We barely got here in time to see the sun disappear. We didn’t appreciate that this was the only restaurant where they didn’t have a table for seven for us. They basically just pulled up another chair to a table for six. This made eating a little painful. The number of dishes they brought to the table would not fit on the table. Sides had to be quickly scooped onto entrée plates. And don’t stick your elbows out, whatever you do. Here’s a link to the menu on Oceania’s website. I had the escargot, no soup or salad (None of the selections appealed to me), the rack of lamb (they were “fine” as rack of lamb goes), the truffle parmesan fries and the roasted asparagus spears. For dessert, I had the Polo Quartet. This is a small sample of all their best desserts. It included their chocolate fudge brownie, key lime pie, Bailey’s cheesecake and Granny Smith Apple Crumb Pie—the best part of the meal.

Here are some quick pics of some of what we ate.

My Steve Test Rating: Since I don’t eat at steakhouses, I am not the one to ask about the Polo Grille. My brother loves steakhouses and often orders a good steak. I will let him give the rating on this one—I just texted him. He said he would go back, but it would depend on how much it cost. So I asked him if he had to choose between the Capital Grille and Polo, which would he choose if the prices were close. He said Captial Grille—hands down. Maybe compared to Sizzler 🤪?

Red Ginger

Red Ginger is Vista’s Asian restaurant. Before we went, if I told someone we were going on Oceania, they would tell me that I would LOVE Red Ginger. That it was the best Asian restaurant they had ever eaten in. Having eaten there, I wouldn’t say it was the best Asian restaurant I have eaten in, but it was very good.

The ambiance in Red Ginger and Ember (located on Deck 5) is nowhere near as good as in Polo Grille and Toscana. Mainly because you can’t see the ocean. But that’s OK. The food made up for it. If you have been to Red Ginger, you know that their most loved dish is a watermelon and duck salad. I am sure it is wonderful but I despise watermelon, and Kathleen is highly allergic to duck, so we didn’t even try the dish everyone raves about. And I am not a big soup fan, either. So that meant I got to try three appetizers instead of a soup and salad course. Yummy! Here’s a link to the Red Ginger menu. So you can see what I didn’t eat.

I started with a special appetizer that isn’t on the sample menu featuring my favorite food—octopus. I followed that with the spring roll and then the crisp ginger calamari. I think the pic of the ahi was Steve’s, but I am not sure. My entrée was an easy choice as they had soft-shell crab on the menu, a dish I have loved since I had it in Bangkok. Theirs was excellent. I finished it all up with a steamed ginger cake. All-in-all, a wonderful and tasty meal. Here are a few photos from around the table.

My Steve Test Rating: I would eat there on a monthly basis if this place were nearby. Just about every dish was better than what we get when we go out for Asian food. The local place has much the same type of menu, but Red Ginger just seemed to up the game on every dish. For example, instead of calamari, they gave it a slight twist and added a bunch of ginger. Nice touch.


Way up on Deck 14 aft, on the opposite side of the ship from the Polo Grille, sits one of the best Italian restaurants I have ever been to. Usually, we don’t go out for Italian food. That’s because I make a lot of Italian food. So I went to Toscana expecting another great Oceania meal. What I got was a wonderful Italian dining experience. One that I would put up against any place we have eaten in our four trips to Italy.

It wasn’t just the food (which was amazing) but also the service and the bread and the olive oil and balsamic pairings (by the wonderful Massimo from Milano) and so much more. This was more than a meal; it was the way I want to be treated at every restaurant I ever go to. Viking Ocean has an Italian restaurant called Manfredis. Toscana and Manfredis should never be mentioned in the same sentence (shame on me for doing it here).

They will blow you away from the moment you arrive. You sit down; they bring you one of the most amazing bread services I have ever seen. Then they put bowls of superb parmesan cheese (big hunks of it) on the table for you to share. Massimo comes by to pair any of seven or eight incredible olive oils with any of five or six balsamic vinegars to dip your bread in. Then, the wonderful sommelier comes over and recommends some great Italian wine. While you are sipping that, your server takes your order. When you tell him that you would really love to try the lasagne, but you don’t want to eat an entire order of it, and a few others around the table say the same thing, he says he will take care of it. Later in the meal, four entire orders of lasagne show up for the seven people. We all say we will try a bite, but when we finish dinner, there is very little left.

Let’s get on with the rest of the food, though. Click here to see the Toscana menu. I started with the stuffed artichoke. It was just fine, but it was the only thing I had that night that I wouldn’t order again. Then I sampled (devoured) the lasagne and topped it off with my entrée—the best dish I had on the entire cruise on Vista, the Agnello Arrosto.

Seriously it was that good. Here’s the description from the menu: “roasted stuffed lamb loin, spicy soppressata sausage, spinach, aubergine stiletto, tomato jam.” That sounded amazing to me when I read it, but to be honest, it was all about the sauce. I would give my right arm for the recipe for that sauce. But everything just came together for that dish. I can’t say more great things about it.

How good was it? I didn’t even have dessert. I didn’t even think about dessert. What I really wanted for dessert was another serving of roasted lamb, which was beyond amazing. When you do another Oceania cruise, forget the other specialty restaurants. I will book Toscana for four nights and order the lamb. Maybe the photos will make you even hungrier.

My Steve Test Rating: If this restaurant were within 100 miles of here, it would be our “celebration restaurant.” It is the kind of place you go for your birthday or anniversary. If it was within 30 miles, I might go once every other week if I could afford it. I have to try and find out how they make that sauce. But it was more than just than just that one dish. It was the entire experience. I would sail on Vista again to have that Toscana experience one more time. 

I think that about covers food on Vista. If you have any questions about the food or the restaurants, please ask away.

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





It’s All About the Food

As is the case on so many cruises, it’s all about the food. There is something about being able to eat out at a restaurant every single night during a vacation, and they never bring you the check (except for drinks).

Within the cruise industry, it is common knowledge that Oceania is known to have the “best cuisine at sea.” Is this true? My judgment is that I expected too much and that 90% of their food is better than 90% of the food on other cruise lines. Other lines we have been on have had some dishes or meals that have stood out over the years. The original United States Dining Room on Celebrity’s Infinity was amazing, as was Qsine before Celebrity ruined it with their stupid Petit Chef. Some meals in Club Orange on Nieuw Statendam were as good as anything we ate on Vista. The grille on Viking Sky is better than the Waves Grille on Vista. But all in all, Vista has better food overall.

The Steve Test

After our disastrous Celebrity Millenium cruise in May of 2022, my brother Steve came up with a way to rate food and restaurants on a cruise better than I have ever been able to do it myself. From then on, I have called this the Steve Test. Here it is: If you eat in a food venue on a ship, be it the main dining room, buffet, grille or a specialty restaurant, and that restaurant were near you once you got home, would you go there again?  

That’s pretty simple, right? I think it is the best way I have ever heard of to rate food on cruise ships and I will rate each venue (and, in the case of some of them, by the dish or meal) using the Steve Test.

Please keep in mind that the Steve Test Ratings below are my ratings. Steve will (I hope) chime in with a comment about what he thinks passed his test.

Editor’s Note: Since this is about the food, I struggled to figure out how to cover it. I didn’t want just to list things we ate. So let’s take it venue by venue. And sorry, but I don’t have the menus for every restaurant, but my buddy Mike will when he does his review. I am more about taking “pretty pictures,” and Mike is about remembering that you want to read the menus. I will post a link as soon as his review is up. Is it done yet, Mike?

The Grand Dining Room

This is the best place to start. We ate dinner here our first three nights and never went back. It wasn’t that we didn’t like the food. It was because they had just about the same food in the buffet, and when we went to the buffet, we didn’t have to dress up and put on hard-sole shoes. We also found that dinner took so much longer there. If we went to dinner when the dining room opened at 6:30, we never got out of there before 8:30. Sometimes that is fine, but when you are going to bed at 9:00, it leaves you stuffed and feeling bloated when you are trying to sleep. We also found that we ate too much. We would be seated; they would bring out some bread to keep us going while we went over the menus. They would take our order and bring more bread. We would eat it. They would bring the appetizers…and more bread. Then the same thing through the salad course, the soup course and finally the entrées. The only course without bread of some kind was dessert. And yes, I have absolutely no self-control when it comes to bread of any kind. So we switched to the buffet for dinner.

I will say here that the dining room food and ambiance were far superior to Viking Ocean or pretty much any cruise ship dining room we have eaten in for quite a while. Here are some of the dishes we had in the Grand Dining Room. I tried to remember what they were, but it’s been two weeks. I will mention if they were either exceptional, bewildering or just bad. Don’t forget; if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping.

We also had breakfast in the Grand Dining Room once because they serve lamb chops for breakfast, and we all had to try that—because we all love lamb—at least Steve and I do. Here’s the pics on that.

My Steve Test Rating: Nope, not special enough. Nothing really stood out. If this restaurant were next door to my house, I wouldn’t go back.

The Terrace Cafe

In the buffet, we found pretty much the same food as the dining room but in a more relaxed setting, and we also found (much to our surprise) that we ate less. For one thing, a lot less bread. We would all go grab a salad or some sushi, have that, and then instead of eating bread and waiting for the next course, we would just walk back and get an entrée or two. When we were done with that, we went back and grabbed a dessert. And all of it was excellent food.

We did have a couple of quibbles. First, the desserts were always cold. Even cobblers and bread puddings that should have been served warm were kept cold on purpose. It ruined a bunch of very good desserts. Second, sometimes, they would repeat menus/theme evenings. The last two nights had the exact same menu, and we actually think that some parts of what was available that evening were just leftovers from the night before. Sadly, this is what their parent company, Norwegian Cruise Line, is doing with their top-tier Haven product. They have the same menu every night in their Haven dining room, so why not migrate that idea to Oceania? It would also be nice if they had a couple of other large tables. With seven of us, we had only two tables in the buffet where we could all fit. Steve and Jamie would often go up and save one of those two big tables so we could all eat together. Other than those three rather minor things, we loved the Terrace Cafe.

The thing I really loved the most, Terrace, was the service they gave our buddy Jocelyn, who was walking with a cane. Almost every time she would go to get some food, she would come back to the table with no plate in her hand…but she would be followed by a server or maitre’d with her plate in their hand. I loved how they took such great care of her—heck, of all of us.

My Steve Test Rating: I would go back…for certain items and for the amazing selection of things. There was never a night (not even when we had the same menu two nights in a row) that I couldn’t find something I really wanted to try.

I also need to mention one amazing meal that we ate in the Terrace Cafe. Other than our night at Toscana, this was the most memorable food I had on board. I wish they had done this menu again and again. I would have eaten there every day. It was a Mexican-themed lunch. And the Chocolate Mole’ Braised Short Ribs were the second best dish I had on the entire cruise…from any Vista restaurant. It is really hard to get a chocolate mole’ sauce to work. So many chefs try it but Vista’s chef hit the ball out of the park. That plus there were a lot of other great Latin-American dishes as well.

My Steve Test Rating: If I could get this dish at home, that would be the only restaurant I would ever eat in again. Well, maybe not the only one, but I would get really fat if I could drive to this within an hour.

The Aquamar Cafe

My incredible Poke Bowl

This is a new eating venue for Oceania (or so I think–please correct me if I am wrong) and other than the design (open-air to the outdoors) it is one of my favorites. The idea is healthy alternatives for breakfast and lunch. We never ate breakfast here but I can tell you, when these guys do healthy lunch, the knock it out of the park. We ended up eating lunch here at least eight days out of 15. Maybe more. They had a poke bowl that knocked my socks off. Easily in the top three things I ate onboard. They also had some of the best sweet potato fries with chipolte mayo. Only problem was, you had to order them again and again because they never brought enough 🤪. The crispy chicken burger was Kathleen’s favorite. I had it once and really liked it but it was really hard for me to eat there without having that Poke Bowl. Here’s a few pics.

My Steve Test Rating: I could eat lunch at the Aquamar Cafe every day for the rest of my life. If it were next door to my house, I might never go anyplace else. Oceania hit it out of the park with this restaurant for lunch.

Waves Grille

On the opposite side of the ship from the Aquamar Cafe was the Waves Grille. They were really two restaurants in one. At lunch, they served burgers, paninis, one specialty dish (paella, chili, BBQ chicken, etc.) and had an ice cream counter. In the evenings, they turned into a great little pizza place with some pretty great pizza.

As a grille at lunch, I wasn’t impressed. Nice place (very crowded), burgers were OK. Paninis were “fine.” Fries (thick steak fries) couldn’t hold a candle to the sweet potato fries in the Aquamar Cafe. You could get the ice cream at the buffet, and the two times I had the specialty dish, I was unimpressed.

But at dinner, their pizzas were excellent. They do New York style, but the crust was a little too thin for me. But the choices were excellent, and one of our favorite parts was that you could order a pizza and have it delivered to the buffet next door. One night, we decided to do a pizza night, but there is not a single table that would hold seven of us in the Grille. So we took up our regular table in the buffet (just inside the door to the grille) and ordered one of every kind of pizza they made. They gave us a number, asked where we were sitting and brought us every pizza…and a BBQ beef flatbread that was WONDERFUL!

My Steve Test Rating: For lunch—FAIL! I would not go there for burgers. The grille on Viking Sky was far superior. But for dinner, their pizza was really good and that night was one of the most fun meals we had. That said, I probably wouldn’t go back there either—I make better pizza 😁.

That’s going to be it for today. What’s left here are the four specialty restaurants on Vista. I have some work to do today, and I want to get this post online. So tomorrow morning, I will hit those and then the final review and comparison.

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

Vista’s Culinary Center—two of us took a class

This is a short bonus post for anyone who, like me, likes to cook. Vista has a culinary center on deck 14 forward that ranks with any facility that I have ever taken a cooking class in.

Prior to the cruise, I signed up for the only cooking class available in the online reservation section for our cruise. I had hoped to do a few classes, but the one I ended up taking was all that was available for pre-cruise booking. We later found out from the instructor that there are usually spaces left for some to book on board and that there are cancellations as well. So, if you aren’t able to reserve the class you want or as many classes as you want, check with the reservations desk on Deck 5 when you are on board. Happily, the one class I signed up for, Cathy, signed up for as well—so I had a cooking buddy.

The cost for the class was $79, and that included two hours of instruction by our amazing teacher, Noelle, cooking and having fun, as well as eating what we made. To say that this class was well organized, that the facility was impressive and that the instructor was excellent would all be a gross understatement. All those things were true.

Our class was called “Lovers Together” or something like that. Cathy and I kept teasing Mike and Kathleen that they better come up and keep an eye on us. But the “Lovers” the class description referenced were the wine pairings—when wine and food are “Lovers.” I know—stupid marketing speak. Just say Wine and Food pairings.

I would guess by now you get the fact that this class and facility were top-notch. Forget the fact that we are on a ship; I would take classes here (at a great price) at sea or on land—just an amazing experience. If you like to cook, take a class on an Oceania cruise. You won’t be disappointed. Another great thing about these classes is that Noelle had three assistants who would set us up with everything we needed for the next course and clear out our refuse from the previous course while Noelle would have us come forward for instruction.

Here are some photos I took (with my phone) of the culinary center, the food we made and the class itself. I put captions on these so you will know what you are seeing.

After photography, cooking is my second favorite hobby and I love experimenting and taking cooking classes. These were great. The instructor was super helpful and answered all our questions including helping us with possible substitutions. That’s a great teacher—willing to adapt.

Be back tomorrow or Wednesday with my final review.

I’m not a chef. But I’m passionate about food – the tradition of it, cooking it, and sharing it.   —Zac Posen


Charleston: Bad Bread On My Great Sandwich

Let me explain the headline here. Imagine my day yesterday was a sandwich with moldy bread but a great piece of BBQ brisket in the middle. That was my day in Charleston.

When I finished writing up yesterday’s post to finalize NYC, I headed upstairs, and while Kathleen was in the shower, I heard what I believed to be the pilot boat outside our verandah. So I grabbed my camera and went out to shoot photos. What I saw might have been a harbinger of what our day would be like—two tugboats—actually pushing and pulling the ship. In all our years of cruising, I have never seen the wind so bad that it took two tugboats (one pushing, one pulling) and the ship’s thrusters to get us on the dock. Added to that bad wind was driving rain. And I was going to go out and walk in that as soon as we docked.

Here was our plan at that point. I had rented a mini-van from Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Their office was 1.9 miles from the cruise terminal. I was going to take a walk with my camera on a beautiful sunny day, get the car, and then come back and pick everyone else up for a day of planned activities. Then, at the end of the day, I would drop everyone off, return the car and walk back to the ship.

Problem one: It was not a beautiful, sunny day. The rain was coming down sideways, and the wind was at (according to the ship’s info on our TV) 34 knots. But I had a job to do, and I was going to do it. So I grabbed the big golf umbrella that Oceania puts in every stateroom, and I headed out to go get the car. The walk was not pleasant. The umbrella reversed itself in the wind about every 10 steps until I got away from the port, where I was better protected from the wind. By the time I got less than 500 yards from the ship, I was pretty much soaked from the waist down. The spray from cars going by hitting big puddles didn’t help either. But I mustered on. And after a long, wet, dreary slog, I got to the car rental place. Except the sign at right is what I found.

I had made the rental car reservation with Enterprise in February when Mike and I were planning excursions. We each took some ports, and I had taken Charleston because we had been here before and loved the city. In all the time since April 28th, when the sign in the window states that this office closed…permanently, you would have thought that Enterprise would have bothered to let me know this pretty important fact? Did they? NO! In fact, they had sent me an e-mail reminder about my rental two days prior showing this address. In fact, if you go online to Enterprise right now, you can still book a car at this address. WTH???

To say I was upset with Enterprise at this point was probably one of the biggest understatments of this century. I was screaming, cursing, soaking wet, standing in front of a closed store. So I call the number on the sign. I was put on hold by their automated system for five minutes and then told that their voicemail was full and hung up on. Did this three times before I finally decided to call their 800 number, which put me in touch with another Enterprise agency about a 20-minute drive away from where I was. Notice I said drive.

At this point, I have to give this Enterprise agency (they are a franchise) full credit. Their manager jumped in and sent an Uber for me, got me to her store, had the car I had reserved ready and waiting and had me on my way back (a 30-minute drive) to the ship in no time. By now, it has been almost two hours since I set out, and I am just getting back to pick up the rest of the gang—minus Kathleen, who had caught Jocelyn’s cold—and get started on our day.

Our original plan had been for me to drive the group downtown, where we would grab a horse-drawn surrey and take the tour around the older parts of the city and the waterfront. Not only had we lost the time to do this, but the horse-drawn surreys were covered to protect people from the sun, but those covers would do nothing to stop us from getting soaked by the wind-driven, sideways-falling rain. So we bagged that idea, and I drove the group around the old section of town that Kathleen and I had visited in 2016.

Our plan for the day continued with an early lunch at Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ. When I was here in 2016 to teach a workshop, I met James Roller, a great guy who owns and runs a website called DestinationBBQ.com. He is something of an authority on the vinegar-based BBQ that is all around this state. I asked him then what BBQ place was the best in Charleston, and he said, “Hands down, it’s Rodney Scott Whole Hog BBQ.” So I went and tried it, and he was right! I mean, this place has a James Beard award for BBQ. That has to say something. And I love going to eat someplace that someone tells me is the best, and it is. So, when I came back with friends to Charleston, I had to take them there. If you go, and you eat meat, you should go there too.

We had the MOST amazing lunch. To me, this lunch was the best thing I ate on the entire trip. Or at least it tied with our meal in Toscana (on the ship) for the best meal. It was so good I have to describe it to you. I ordered the two-meat combo, and the two meats I chose were the “whole hog” and the brisket. Each order comes with two sides and a slab of cornbread. I got the collared greens and the onion rings. Topped that off with a local IPA, and I was in HOG HEAVEN! The meat was melt-in-your-mouth, and the sides were perfect. If you are ever in Charleston, this should be your one must-eat place…unless you happen to be a vegan.

Our next stop was a drive out of town to the Magnolia Plantation. We had booked three different 45-minute tours there in advance. The first started at 1:00 p.m., and we arrived right on time. The first tour is entitled Slavery to Freedom. We met up with our guide for this tour, the wonderful Vanessa (who had recently moved here from Seattle), and she shared with us the life of slaves on the Magnolia Plantation from the mid-1600s through the present day. I am ashamed I did not get a photo of Melissa, but my buddy Mike did, and I will let you know when his review comes online in about three weeks or so. That way, you can see what she (and the other guides I forgot to take photos of) look like. Her tour was definitely the best of the day as she did a presentation, and then we toured four historical slave/free man quarters. See my photos below.

From there, it was on to our tour of the plantation house. The photo of the outside of the house is here because we weren’t allowed to take photos inside. Our tour guide was Millie, and again, you will have to wait for Mike’s review to see what she looks like. (BTW: I will post the link when Mike’s review is done, so you if follow me, you will get it when it is ready.) It was a very nice tour, and Millie (a retired teacher) was an excellent guide. The house is very nice.

Our last tour started just outside the house when we boarded a tram and were taken on a tour of the grounds to see how they farmed rice in the 1850s when the plantation was in full production. It was a nice tour, but since the driver who did the tour was two cars in front of us, I never got his name. This tour was just “fine,” and we all decided that if we were to do the tours again, we would skip this one. It’s just not enough to see beyond some swamp and some far-away baby alligators.

At this point, our plan was that I would drive the rest of the crowd back to either downtown or the ship, and then I would go and return the car and walk back. Well, you know I couldn’t walk back. This presented another problem. We were 28 minutes from the ship, the rental car return was 25 minutes from the ship, and I needed to have the car back by 5:00. We left the plantation at 3:55. YIKES! Not only that, but if I got the car back by 5:00, they would give me a ride back to the ship. After that time, they would be closed, and I would be on my own. Needless to say, it was one of the longest, most stressful drives of my life. I did get the group back to the ship, knowing full well that I was going to have to turn around and go back out to the rental agency. And as we drove to the ship, we just happened to notice that the road I had to drive back out on was SLAMMED WITH TRAFFIC! I was not in a good place. The ship wasn’t sailing until 6:30, but I was beginning to doubt I would be able to get back in time. I was sure I would never get back to the rental agency by 5:00, so I would be on my own to find an Uber to bring me back to the ship. While waiting at a light on the way back, I checked, and the nearest Uber could not even get to the agency to pick me up for 45 minutes, and the ride would cost (surge pricing at rush hour) $64.

But thanks to the Apple Maps app that routed me around all the traffic on some back country roads that made me think I was lost the entire time, I made it to the agency at 4:58. They had their van going out with the incredible Linda driving it, so she took me back to the ship. And she even found a way to get me back on board by 5:45. She is my Charleston hero. I was sure I was going to have to call my friend who lives in nearby Mount Pleasant and get him to let me spend the night and then fly to Miami today. Thank goodness that didn’t happen.

So now you can see why I said yesterday was like a moldy bread sandwich with great filler in between. Our lunch and tour were excellent, but getting there and getting back were not.

With all of this going on, I did manage to get some pics so here they are. 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…

That about covers one of the MOST STRESSFUL DAYS of travel I have ever not had the pleasure to experience. Loved the lunch, liked the plantation, and I will NEVER rent from Enterprise Rental Cars again. The idea that they never told me that location closed or that they are still showing it open on their website is just WRONG!

Just a quick note about the rest of this review of our Oceania Vista cruise. We are on our last full day today. We are at sea, headed to Miami (where it is predicted to be raining and 99 degrees—how fun) tomorrow to disembark. After we tell Mike and Cathy goodbye (they live in South Florida, so they just need a car ride to get home) we will execute a plan to get the rest of us to the Fort Lauderdale airport at different times. I will also be renting a car there (but thankfully from Avis—and you can believe I checked on it) and driving. Steve and Jamie to catch their 2:51 flight back to Orange County, and then Kathleen, Jocelyn and I will grab lunch before we return the car and get on our 5:40 p.m. Alaska Air flight to Seattle.

My plan is to finish the review at home, where I will do a quick post on disembarkation (probably tomorrow at the airport) and then, sometime in the next few days, do a major post (with photos) about the public rooms on Vista followed up by my last post summing up and reviewing the cruise itself with a comparison with Viking Ocean. I hope you will stick around for the last couple of posts.

Charleston is one of the best built, handsomest, and most agreeable cities that I have ever seen. —Marquise de Lafayette



Kind of Sad Shelburne

Update to yesterday’s Cape Breton post

First, I need to update yesterday’s post and give you the right contact info for our incredible guide, Dan the Man. After looking at Dan’s business card and talking to Mike, it appears that Mike booked the tour with Blackwell Tours, but Dan just contracts with them. He has his own company, Sydney Adventure Tours. His name is Dan McKinnon. Do Dan a big favor and book him on his own website (that’s the link in red). That way, he and his family get the total amount you pay for the tour as well as any tip you give him. And, of course, I know you all tip your guides very well 😁. Also, if you book him there, you are guaranteed to get Dan. If you book with Blackwell or through a company like Viator you can get any guide they contract with. You want Dan.

Shelburne—the little village that couldn’t

Yesterday, we were in the tiny village of Shelburne, Nova Scotia…for about 20 minutes. In fact, I think the time we stopped there was less than the time we took to tender in from the ship. Okay, I am exaggerating. But not by much. But even in his daily talk, our cruise director said that Shelburne “is a cute little village you can see in under an hour.” He was right.

We arrived off Shelburne around 11:00 a.m., and the ship had the first tenders running into the port within minutes. Most people, like us, had lunch on the ship and let those who wanted to rush in get off before we went down to get on the tender. We headed down around 12:30. Kathleen decided to stay on board (I should have stayed too.)

Once we got to the port, we did a kind of cool thing that might be the best thing that happened yesterday. Mike had found a FREE app called PocketSites. You download it to your phone, and then it gives you free walking tours of thousands of ports around the world. Now, this isn’t going to work for big ports like Barcelona or Athens, but it might have a neighborhood walk you could take in some of those places. BTW: If you don’t want to use the app on your phone, you can also do it online. Their website explains how it works for the town and for you, the user. Besides the app is free, there are no ads. They make their money from towns that want to post tours of their attractions.

We had all downloaded the app, and when we arrived, we just started walking the route. At each historical site, we could see a photo (to make sure we were at the right place), and there was a description of what we were seeing. Some of the sights had some in-depth stuff as well. As I was reading one aloud to some of our party, a local woman walked by and asked me to repeat what I said about a particular place and then told me, “Really? I had no idea that was what it was used for.” So, the app really knows its stuff.

The entire tour of Shelburne has 24 stops. When we got off the tender, we were right in front of number 11, so we started there. The entire tour took us under an hour. Mainly because there really was not that much to see. There are a lot of historical buildings painted with really interesting colors that date back to the 1700s. There are two pioneer museums, but both charged admission so we decided to skip them. The buildings that housed them were pretty small, so we weren’t sure of the value. Others I spoke to after we got back on board had done the museum and told me we were right to skip it.

The locals did try really hard to make everyone feel welcome. A few dressed in period costumes and led tours. I kind of felt sorry for my fellow cruises who purchased walking tours here in Shelburne from Vista. They, too (like the folks who paid to get in the museum), probably did not get their money’s worth. I felt bad for the village because if cruise ships coming there were supposed to boost the city economically, it wasn’t working. There were very few shops and restaurants, and most were empty. Especially since the ship had arrived so late and people had eaten lunch before they left the ship. Usually, when I get back on a tender, there would be all kinds of people holding bags of stuff they had purchased in port. Yesterday, I saw one person with a small bag who told me she bought two small bars of homemade scented soap. Most people who got off walked the waterfront, took some photos and went back on the next tender.

And speaking of photos, I had hoped to get some super photos in Shelburne based on pictures I had seen. Sadly, many of those photos I had seen were taken from a boat in the middle of their small harbor. I didn’t have a boat, so those wouldn’t work. Not to mention the fact that the skies were the blankest shade of white. Nothing flattens out a day of photography like flat, white skies. Here are the few I feel comfortable showing you. 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. They are that sad.

Pizza Night on Vista

Last night (after our Shelburne adventure), we decided to have a pizza party. In the evening, Vista’s Wave’s Grille (where you can get burgers, paninis and hot dogs during the day) turns into a pizzeria. So we decided to grab our usual table in the back of the buffet and have a pizza night. It was awesome. We started with salads from the buffet. Then we headed to the pizzeria to order. They make eight different pizzas and will customize those for you. So we ordered seven of them, plus a BBQ beef flatbread (that was amazing), some Chianti, and a beer for Mike, and we had a great meal. I have never tried so many different kinds of pizza and I have never been so stuffed. But everyone agreed it was a superb way to do dinner. Just something to think about doing on Vista.

Unless you are a pizza, the answer is yes, I can live without you. —Bill Murray


Montreal: Food Tour and Church Show

I’m up very early today (our third on the road). We boarded Oceania Vista yesterday, and I haven’t adjusted to the AC in the rooms. With my sinuses, that means I get up when I can no longer breathe through my nose. But enough about me. I promised you more about Montreal.

Following my pre-dawn photo walk (see previous post), we had a complimentary breakfast at our hotel. We had a two-night stay at the Homewood Suites by Hilton Downtown. It sat right at the base of Chinatown, just across a roaring freeway from Old Town. At least we were on the eighth floor, so the noise didn’t bother us that much. The breakfast (we ate there both days) was OK—your typical free hotel food. Which was OK; we had a bunch of food headed our way.

At 10:30, we grabbed Ubers. I wish there was a better way to order an Uber. We needed a larger car because there were seven of us. We knew that we couldn’t all fit in one car, so we ordered two of their XLs. Those are supposed to fit up to 6 people. What we got this morning (for four of us) was a Mazda that barely fix four, and I had to climb over seats to sit in a third-row seat that was designed for a child of about eight years old. Not a grown human. Yet my brother got a full-size van that could have easily fit seven, but they were already gone by the time we got ours. There needs to be a way to see the kind of car you are getting before you say OK.  Maybe there is, but I don’t know what it is.

On to the food tour. We met our guide, Eric, of Secret Food Tours of Montreal, at Guillaume Bakery in the Mile-End section of Montreal. Eric was a great guide and had quite the tour planned for us. We started off with a brioche from the bakery, which was delicious. I might have even voted it the best thing we had. While we ate it, Eric told us all kinds of cool facts about his city and quizzed us to see how much we already knew. Great brioche, fun facts and trivia—I’m in!

Our next stop was Drogheria Fine, where we got to sample some excellent gnocchi. Eric told us what was really important here was their world-famous (or at least Montreal-famous) tomato sauce. The gnocchi were only a delivery system for the sauce. Not only that, the place only does take-away in paper cups with chopsticks. Either way, the gnocchi was delicious, and the sauce was pretty good (I like my Italian grandma’s sauce better).

From there, we were off a long walk to the Green Panther restaurant. This place has a fully vegetarian menu, and we sampled a pita sandwich made with jackfruit. Even though Kathleen and I don’t eat a lot of meat, which means I cook a lot of veggies, the jackfruit sandwich did nothing for me. It’s easily my least favorite food on the tour. And the very long walk it took to get to that restaurant left Kathleen and Jocelyn worn out before we even got to the fourth place out of six.

Our fourth place was St Viateur Bagels. Montreal is (we were told) famous for its bagels, which are not boiled but baked in a wood-fired oven. Eric wanted us to sample bagels right out of the oven, and they were delicious. The ones coming out of the oven when we walked in were sesame seed (again, not a favorite of mine), but my bite was very good. The bakery provided an excellent photo opportunity of the bagels being moved around the HUGE wood-fired oven.

Next up was Poutineville. Guess what the specialty of this place was? If you guessed poutine (Canada’s favorite comfort food), you would be correct. For those who have never had poutine, it is a beef gravy (this one had lots of Montreal Smoked Meat in it) poured over french fries (which, in this case, were kind of wimpy) and topped with cheese curds. As I mentioned, gravy and smoked meat were delicious—the fries were kind of flat.

Our last stop was a tiny Italian deli-type place called Caffe Grazie Millie, where we sampled espresso and some outstanding cannoli. I LOVE cannoli, and they have four different types of filling. I chose the traditional ricotta, and Kathleen had the limoncello. We each took a couple of small bites from our three-inch long cannoli and swapped. I still go with the traditional. It was excellent.

Here’s the food tour pics I promised above. Please don’t drool on your device of choice. 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…

Completely stuffed, we again grabbed Ubers back to our hotel, where I did a bunch of photo-processing, and Kathleen took a quick nap as we had tickets for a performance of Aura at Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal. I would love to show you photos of the actual show, but they don’t allow photos during the 20-minute-long performance. If you check out their website, you will see the kind of laser-light show we got to see. It was truly amazing and very beautiful. Our entire group said they would recommend it to those coming to Montreal. I was able to take a few photos before the show, and they are below. If you come back tomorrow you can see a lot more photos of the inside because Mike, Steve and I went back the next morning for a photo shoot. We were late getting there before the performance so we didn’t have time to really take photos then.

Whew! That was one long day. But a good one. We would do just about everything again (other than the Uber rides) and highly recommend it to anyone visiting Montreal. The food tour was a little long for those who aren’t regular walkers. Eric told us it was 1.6 miles, but my walking app said it was closer to three. Just keep that in mind if you decide to go.

I love Montreal. I love the people, I love the history.
—Stephen Thompson

Food! Glorious Food—the Top 5 things I ate this year

As the year comes to a close, I have decided to make my Top lists again. Today—the top five things I ate in 2022. Later this week, the top things to remember (good or bad) and finally, the top ten photos I took this year. Let’s get started.

Number 5—The french fries at The Grand Dutch Cafe onboard Holland America’s Nieuw Statendam

One January day on our “Sail with Seth” cruise, we returned after lunchtime from a very nice shore excursion tour of Grand Turk island. We really didn’t want to go up to the buffet because it was less than four hours until dinner, and let’s be honest, buffets are just too tempting. I know, I always say I will “just get a salad,” but then, “Oh, that pizza looks good—I’ll just have one piece,” or “I’ll need a roll with this salad.” You get the idea.

As we were getting back on the ship, we walked by the Grand Dutch Cafe, which is located directly across from the Guest Services desk on deck three. They do sandwiches, croquettes, soups and desserts. We decided that would work best because we could each get one thing, and that was it. Besides, they had a superb selection of Dutch and Belgian beers. So I ordered the veal croquette and Kathleen a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, and we sat down at a table (You order at the counter, but they bring the food to you at your table.)

A few minutes later, the server brought out my croquet and apologized to Kathleen that her sandwich wasn’t ready yet, but he wanted me to have my croquet while it was still hot. And to make up for it taking so long, he thought we should try their French fries, so he brought us a dinner plate full of nothing but fries. Well, we really didn’t want to eat that much, but we had to try them, so we each bit into one…gave each other looks of incredulity, and then ate another…and another…and another. In the meantime, Kathleen’s sandwich came, and we finished her sandwich and my croquette…and all the fries.

A few minutes later, our server came back over and asked if we would like something for dessert, and we looked at each other, smiled, and I told him, “YES! Could we have another order of those fries?” They were that good. I need to add that we had a week left on the cruise, and we had those fries (as a side dish and as a dessert) at least three more times.

Number 4—Lunch in Athens, Greece, with our guide George.

On our full day of touring Athens before we departed on our Viking cruise, we did a six-hour tour with the amazing George from Tours By Locals. George took us to a bunch of places, including the Acropolis, the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldiers and the original Olympic stadium. But the best place George took us was…lunch. Early in the day, he asked if we wanted to have lunch or tour all day. We all voted to finish up our tour with lunch; if he would recommend someplace wonderful to eat.

Our incredible guide—George.

George (that’s him at left) said he knew just the place. He took us to a wonderful, family-run restaurant in a working-class section of Athens and said this is the place. We sat down at some tables pretty much across the street from the restaurant, and the owner came out and told us what was available for lunch. George recommended letting the owner bring us what he thought would be good. So that’s what we did, and that’s what he did—brought us some amazing Greek food. And he brought a TON of it. He kept bringing course after course after course. All of it amazing, all of it delicious. I wish I had photos of everything that he brought, but either we ate it too fast (at the start), or it was in another course that we forgot about. If you are ever in Athens and you want the ultimate Greek food experience, tour with George.

Number 3—Beer and pretzels at Valley House Brewing in Duvall, Washington.

This one happened by accident. My brother Steve and sister-in-law Jamie were here in June so Steve could help us do some stuff around our new home. One afternoon we decided to drive east to the little town of Duvall for lunch instead of into downtown Redmond. Duvall is a cute little town that is actually closer to our place (in the amount of time it takes to get there) than downtown Redmond is. We had looked online and found a winery that we thought would be great for lunch, but when we got to Duvall, we could not find the place, nor did we see anything else that looked interesting. One of the four of us found Valley House Brewing on their phones (not me, I was driving), so we went there.

Like the french fries I wrote about in Number 5 above, we found the world’s best pretzel. The beer itself was really great, but the pretzel was worth going back for. It came to the table HOT (burn your fingers hot 😜) and had just the right amount of salt. It tore apart perfectly and almost melts in your mouth. To top it off, it comes with two different sauces to dip it in; an outstanding honey mustard (my favorite) and a superb beer cheese. This is the kind of pretzel that you want to go back for again and again, and we have. But it’s been a while. Now I really want one. Guess I will just have to wait a couple of days/weeks/months.

Number 2—Pizza in Europe.

I was going to try and pick a specific place we got pizza, but two really stood out. First, I took a tour (Kathleen was too tired from COVID to go along) in Naples that was all about pizza and the pizza there was amazing. Of course, it should be; that’s the birthplace of pizza when we stopped at Solopizza, which has been in business making pizzas in Napoli since 1977. To be honest, I would have preferred we stopped someplace that had been there since 1797 but no such luck 😜. I did get to go into the kitchen and watch them make pizza which was eye-opening, and it changed the way I now make pizza. I also learned that in Naples, the rule is “one pizza, one person.” Everyone at the table for eight I was sitting with thought this was crazy, but when we finished the meal, we counted the pizza pans they had brought ours out on, and there were seven empties, so we got close.

After Naples, I thought that would be it for great pizza mostly because that’s where pizza was born but also because the pizza on our cruise ship was just OK. Nothing wrong with it but nothing great either. Was I ever wrong? About a week later, we docked in Monaco and were off on our longest tour of the cruise. We started in Eze and then went to Nice and finally wound up back in Monaco, where it was now almost 2:00 pm, and we still needed to eat since we left on tour at 8:30 am. Kathleen and I were famished, so when the guide stopped in front of the Monaco cathedral and just kept rambling on, we headed up the street to find food. There we found the simplest pizza you can buy and easily the best of the trip. We topped that off with our favorite beverage of the trip, an Aperol spritz, and we were in heaven. I can’t begin to describe how great this pizza was. It truly has changed the way I make pizza.

Honorable mentions:

Before we get to my number one food of 2022, I want to honorably mention these dishes that didn’t quite make it into the top five: the incredible anchovies in Monterosso in Cinque Terre, Italy, the soft-shell crab, Norwegian waffles and seafood buffets on Viking Sky, the lemon-basil gelato in Vernazza, also in Cinque Terre, the lobster rolls at Tamarind restaurant on Nieuw Statendam, the pintxos open-faced sandwiches we had for lunch in Barcelona with our guide Olga and lastly, the ratatouille at Rudy’s Sel de Mer restaurant, also on Holland America’s Nieuw Statendam.

My sister-in-law Jamie read this, and since they travel with us most of the time, she nominated some additional honorable mentions: Soppressata sandwich from Molinari’s deli in San Francisco (this was from our SF food tour—which was on a day I had completely blocked from my mind because later in the day, Kathleen tripped and fell on a bad sidewalk and we spent six hours in the emergency room), cannoli from the same SF food tour, the Peruvian chicken we had in the Club Orange Dining Room on Nieuw Statendam and the spicy arancini from Victoria, BC food tour. My brother was nice enough to include my Grilled Antipasto Vegetable platter (one of my summer specialties, pictured above).

Number 1 has to be the Dark Chocolate Amarone Cremoso onboard Viking Sky.

Let me first state here that I have never been that much of a dessert guy. I prefer carbs to dessert any day of the week. And when it comes to dessert, I (unlike my daughter) prefer fruit in my desserts. I love pies and crisps and cobblers. And I have never been that big a chocolate person—until now.

On our second night onboard Viking Sky, we went to their Italian specialty restaurant Manfredi’s. The food was fine. I was not too fond of the calamari appetizer, I thought the steak was poorly cooked and much too thin to be a true Florentine bistecca, but I did like the risotto with escargot. But then we got to dessert. My normal choice would have been the lemon cake they had on the menu as I love almost any lemon dessert but the name of the one chocolate dessert caught my eye.

One of our favorite types of wine is a deep, rich red from the Veneto region of Italy—Amarone. When I saw that word in the name of this dessert, I thought it must be an ingredient, and I had to try it. This turned out to be both a great and a bad thing for me to do. Great, because it was the best thing I have eaten this year and bad because I fell in love with this chocolate dessert and soon discovered that pretty much anything the pastry chef on Viking Sky did with chocolate was amazing, so I had to try it all. A few nights later, I found it on the buffet, and that’s where the photo came from. Suffice it to say; I had to have it again.

How much did I love it? So much so that when we got home, I did Google search after Google search until I found the recipe on another cruiser’s blog. She had begged the pastry chef on another Viking ship for the recipe (as I should have done) and was nice enough to share it. Since we got back, I have made it three times and still have two pieces of it in our refrigerator. It is incredibly thick and rich. Almost like a fudge (but definitely not!), it is very expensive to make. To do it right, you have to invest in some fairly pricey 70% cacao chocolate and a few other wonderful ingredients. But if anyone reading this wants to try it, I will happily send you the recipe. It’s going to become my go-to chocolate dessert for the rest of my days.

That’s it! My culinary adventures in 2022. Watch out later this week for more Top of 2022 lists. I hope to have the other two done by New Year’s.

All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.  —Charles Schultz

Beautiful Barcelona

After our fun ride in from Tarragona and our lunch at La Rita, we got a decent night’s sleep on the first bed I had been comfortable on in 21 days. The next morning all six of us had been scheduled to do a 5-hour tour of the city, and the Gaudi highlights with Olga from Tours By Locals. Sadly, my brother had eaten something that did not agree with him so he and Jamie stayed at the hotel, and the rest of us set off for what was to be an outstanding tour. It was outstanding, primarily because of the excellent Olga.

I know I have mentioned Tours By Locals before, as we used two of their guides previously on this trip, Hans in Amsterdam and George in Athens. Both of them were great. I have used them on many occasions, but Olga may have been the best guide they have ever sent our way. To start with, she was 10 minutes early. I love early. I got a call from the lobby saying that our guide was there. As soon as Pam and Dave were downstairs, Olga’s driver pulled up in a wonderfully spacious Mercedes van. It was so GREAT not to be stuck in a “luxury motor coach.”

Kathleen and I with Olga on the roof of Casa Mila.

When I first contacted Tours By Locals a month previous, it had been hard finding a guide that either wasn’t already booked or could accommodate some of the things we wanted to do because of the festival going on for the entire time we were in the city. On the other hand, Olga was completely willing to work with me on setting up a tour that would incorporate the best of Barcelona. That’s what I love about Tours By Locals; the guides will work with you to see the things you want to see. When you go to Barcelona, some of the things most people want to see are the works of revolutionary Antoni Gaudi, the most famous of which is La Sagrada Familia. We knew upfront that the church would be completely closed to anyone but locals, so seeing the inside was not an option. Olga made suggestions of things we could see that would be a good alternative, and I liked them all. We decided to do Gaudi’s Casa Mila, Park Güell, see the outside of the La Sagrada Familia and then tour the old town. Olga said she would try and throw in some surprises along the way.

La Pedrera—Casa Mila)

When Kathleen and I were here in 2007, we toured the beautiful La Pedera—Casa Mila building. The building is an entire block made up of two condominiums totally designed by Antoni Gaudi (who designed La Sagrada Familia) as well as many other one-of-a-kind buildings throughout Barcelona. We wanted to see it again and make sure that the rest of the group also got to see it. Kathleen had no problem touring this building in 2007 and thought she could still do it because when you did the tour, you took the elevator to the top of the building. And then you walked down and did the tour on the way.

Olga told us that this had changed since we were there last (what hadn’t 😜?) and that now you walked UP the stairs and then exited by way of the elevator. This just wasn’t going to work for us. So Olga jumped into action as soon as we got there, and in no time, Kathleen and I were going up the original apartment elevator (not open to anyone but employees) to the top floor to start our tour down. I wish I had taken a photo because it was one elegant elevator. It even had a Gaudi-designed, hand-carved wooden bench that Kathleen got to sit on while we went up. This is what makes local guides so good. They know the people to talk to (because Olga toured there constantly), and they know what can and can’t be done with the right request. We were blown away.

We had an awesome time touring the building. I am going to let the photos and the captions tell you the rest of the story. 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…

Park Güell

Our second stop on the tour was the beautiful Park Güell. This is another of Gaudi’s masterpieces that was originally built out in the country north of Barcelona, but over the years, the city has grown to swallow it up, and it is now almost in the city center. There is so much to see there, but I will just let you see it in my photos. Enjoy.

La Sagrada Família

Even though this incredible church was closed to non-locals due to the current festival, Olga wanted us to see it close up from the outside so she could explain the building and the significance of the art on the outside. You can’t believe the art on the outside of La Sagrada Família. Maybe you will have you see my photos. If you get bored with all the closeups, please feel free to jump out, but I did pair this down from more than 200 photos. 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…

The old city of Barcelona

Our next stop after the incredible La Sagrada Família was to head downtown (in HORRIBLE TRAFFIC) to the oldest parts of Barcelona. We walked by the original cathedral, which dates to the 13th century, while Olga pointed out a lot of truly remarkable sights. We saw a piece of art by Pablo Picasso that he drew with his usual minimalist style.

About this time, we were starving. So Olga recommended we try pintxos. If you have never been to a pintxos restaurant, it is almost worth a trip to Barcelona just to try it. Olga took us to her favorite place, Bilbao Berria Barcelona. Pintxos are topping of every kind placed on slices of awesome bread, and they put different colors and styles of sticks into the stack. The stack includes either cold or hot toppings. Hot ones might include melted cheese, roasted tomatoes, sausages, and serrano ham and the cold ones include cheeses, veggies, and so much more. There are even dessert pintxos. These are all set up on a number of buffet tables, and you choose what you want. Then after you eat them, you put the stick into a small metal container on the table, and when you are done, they count the sticks (different prices for different colors) and give you your check. Five of us ate a BUNCH of these, and the total bill was less than $80 and that included a bottle of wonderful Catalan wine. An amazing value, and every one of them is delicious. Here are some pictures from this part of the tour.

After lunch, we walked from the cathedral campo towards another campo where Olga was hoping she had a surprise for us, and she did. Hopefully, you remember a couple of posts ago when I wrote about the human pyramid building contests in Tarragona. Sadly, I could not see any of the actual pyramid building itself when we were there. I only got to take photos of the parade before the competition, which got rained out.

But when we walked around the corner in Barcelona, there it was, a castella (the Spanish name for the human pyramids) right in front of us. We got to watch this team (who were doing a demo, not a competition) build a three-story high human pyramid. Just look. It’s amazing.

A walk on my own

After watching the amazing human pyramids being built, our tour time was over. Olga had released our driver when it got to five hours, but she stayed with us to walk the other Kathleen, Dave and Pam to Las Ramblas to grab a cab and walked with me as I headed back to the hotel about four miles away. I wanted a few more photos to show you the huge crowds and incredible craziness that is Las Ramblas, the main tourist street in Barcelona. Here’s my last set of pics for Barcelona. 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…

That about did it for our day in Barcelona. It so far exceeded my expectations and gave us a wonderful end to this incredible 29-day adventure that had started in August in Amsterdam. I guess you could say that when it comes to European cities, we went from A to B on this trip. I have one more trip-related post for you. Hopefully, I will have it up by tomorrow. It will be my review of the entire cruise and what we loved and didn’t love on Viking Sky. Then after that, I promised a post on how I shoot my photos. I so appreciate all the comments I have gotten on them. They are my pride and joy. If you want to see more of my pics, please follow me on Instagram (jimbellomo13) or Facebook (Jim Bellomo) where I post a single travel photo every day. Just one. Or you can see a lot of my photography that I sell here on my Picfair site.

Barcelona is my life, and I do not plan to leave.   —Gerard Pique

The Best Day of the Entire Trip—Cinque Terre

The day after we took our day off in Rome was absolutely the best day of the whole trip from Amsterdam to Athens to that day. The ship was docked in Livorno, Italy, which is the port for Florence. And about 95% of the passengers on board were headed to either Florence itself or the Tuscan countryside and Pisa to see the Leaning Tower. We, on the other hand, had decided to do our own thing.

As I said about Rome in my last post, you can’t see Rome in one day. I also believe you can’t do justice to Florence in one day. If you really want to see the Uffizi or the Academia, you need half a day in each. That leaves no time for the Duomo, the baptistery, the Ponte Vecchio, or so much more that is Firenze. Besides, we had been there before. So we opted out. But sadly, that was the only place that Viking was offering tours to. So we created our own.

About three months before the cruise, I started looking for someplace else to see in the general area of Livorno that we had not seen. We had never seen the Leaning Tower and the rest of Pisa, but that was a two-hour tour, and we would be in Livorno for two days and would see that on the second day. So where to go? I searched maps and Cruise Critic for ideas, and in doing that, I looked up the coast, and lo and behold—Cinque Terre. We had heard so much about it but had never been there, and we really wanted to see it, but for some reason, Viking does not do any tours in that direction (although it took us the same amount of time to get there as it did to get into Florence). That meant I had to find us a tour. So off I went to Google, and the first tour that popped up was a “Tour to Cinque Terre from the Port of Livorno” by BellaItalia Tours. That sounded like just what we were looking for, so I contacted them.

Like most tours, this had one price—the price of the tour. Actually, there were two possibilities—a tour with a driver who got you there and got you off on your way into the first “land” and then picked you up and took you back to the ship after you finished touring everything. The other option was a driver AND a guide. The driver got you there, but the guide accompanied you throughout the day from village to village telling us all about them on the way. We wanted to do this because we were looking for someone to walk us through the entire thing.

If you got the driver and the guide, the price was just about 800 euros for two people. But if you could find more to join you, the price went down because you were paying for the car, driver and guide no matter what. Up to 8 people could come along. To find someone else to join us (the other four in our party had never been to Florence, so they were going there), I went on Cruise Critic to our roll call (click here if you need Cruise Critic and Roll Calls explained) and found Corky and Larry from Maui who said they would love to join us. This meant our price was basically cut in half. And not only did that make this tour a bargain, but we made two great friends in the process.

As soon as the ship had been cleared by the port authorities, we were off and looking for my name on a placard being held by our guide, the amazing and hilarious Luigi. And he and our driver (Alessandro) were waiting right where they said they would be, we jumped in their Mercedes van, and we were off. What joy it was to ride in a van and not a “luxury motor coach.” It meant that there were two of us to a seat, with plenty of legroom and Luigi giving us non-stop play-by-play as we drove along.

On the way, we got to see some things we hadn’t expected, like the famous marble mountains of Carrara. I suppose if I had thought about it, I would have realized that the Carrara marble that makes up so many buildings in the Mediterannean or our very own tile floors at home comes from a huge mountain of marble. The mountains are magnificent to look at, as you can see in this small gallery. 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…

A little while after passing through Carrara and some amazing hilltop towns on either side of the AutoStrada (Italian for freeway), we reached La Spezia, a coastal community that is the gateway to Cinque Terre. You climb far above it and that puts you about even with those hilltop towns, so here are some views from the hill above La Spezia and some hilltop towns we had seen between there and Carrara. Don’t forget; they can be viewed as a slide show.

As soon as you have seen La Spezia go by, you go over the hill, and you are looking down at the first of the five “lands” of Cinque Terre (literally translates to “five lands”), Riomaggiore. It’s a beautiful little village built into the side of a very steep hill. Alessandro dropped us off, and we walked down into the town itself. We would next see our illustrious driver at the other end of Cinque Terre. From this point on, our transport was the Cinque Terre ferry. Luigi led us down through the town, pointing things out to us as we went. We all took a much-needed restroom break and then met Luigi to board the ferry to move to the next land.

Luigi was a font of knowledge all about the region. We all learned a lot, especially that we should wait for the fourth village, Vernazza, to get gelato because they had the best, then have lunch at the end of the journey in Monterosso because they had the best food. We liked that—eat dessert first.

The second stop on our visit was to the village of Manarola, which might have been the most picturesque. The photo at the top of this post was taken there. Luigi was more than thrilled to help me find my shots because he said we had something in common. His real vocation in life was a guitarist, and he loved it. He told us it was “his art.” And he said photography was mine. I truly appreciated his interest, and from that point on (he had this conversation with Kathleen on the ferry while I was outside taking photos) he took me to what he thought would make great pictures…and he was right.

The ferry to the next of the five lands (actually four because the ferry does not stop in the middle land of Corniglia as there is no place for it to dock—it is only accessible by train) comes just about every hour, so once we landed in Manarola for instance; we had an hour to take photos and look around before we got back on the next ferry and left for Vernazza.

Vernazza was the village where we heard about the awesome gelato, and again, Luigi proved to be correct. He had advised me that if I truly wanted to try what the locals loved, I would have basil gelato (seen at right). So I did, and it was wonderful. Kathleen had lemon, and when we put the two together…perfection. Vernazza was a great village for photography, so again, I took more shots until the hour went by and we boarded the ferry for Monterosso.

Monterosso was the final village and is the most commercialized of the five. It has bigger hotels, sandy beaches, etc. It also has amazing food, and this was where Luigi said we should get lunch. He was all set to drop us at a restaurant to fend for ourselves when we insisted he join us for lunch—our treat, which he did. He said that like the gelato I had tasted, the people of the five lands believed their basil was better than any other basil in the world and therefore, their pesto sauce was the best anyplace—hands down. So, of course, we had to try it. The traditional pesto pasta is improved in Cinque Terre by the addition of potatoes and green beans to the mix. This came about when they started making pesto at a time when those things were plentiful, and the recipe stuck.

Besides the pesto, there was one more thing I wanted to try while we were having lunch. It is something that Rick Steves had mentioned in his Cinque Terre video—fresh anchovies. Rick said that if you come here and order them fresh, you would be amazed how little they would resemble the anchovies you see on a pizza or a caesar salad and he was right—almost. I ordered (with Luigi’s help) “Tris di acciughe del marinaio” or Lemon, salted and stuff anchovies. The salted looked very much like what we put on pizza but bigger. It tasted like you might think but much less salty. Luigi told me that this is what it should taste like when brined, but it is much saltier when we get it because it has sat for weeks in a can on its way to America.

Then there was the stuffed version, filled with some rice, some veggies and who knows what, but it was delicious. But the winner of the three was anchovies marinated in lemon juice and olive oil. I could eat those every day, all day long. Delicious.

After we finished lunch, we walked around Monterosso for a while longer before we walked up a hill (thankfully much less steep than the one we walked down in Riomaggiore) to the top of the village to be met by our faithful driver Alessandro and transported back to the ship. This was around a nine-hour trip from ship to ship, but I have to say I enjoyed every minute of it.

This brings me to the subject of shore excursions. One of the reasons Viking appealed to us was that they included a free shore excursion in every port. But we are just not sure if that is a selling point anymore. After our day in a van with a guide and being able to move at our own pace, we think if (probably when) sail with Viking Ocean again, we will book our own shore excursions again. We had pretty much always done that in the past until COVID came along, and you couldn’t book a lot of private excursions. Now you can again and we likely will. It is so much more personalized, and you meet incredible guides. We had done three tours on this entire trip with private guides (in Amsterdam with Hans and Athens with George), and those were the best tours. Far better than being put into a “luxury motor coach” with 26 other people and a guide who is just a monotonous voice in your “whisper headset.” This really hit home with us after touring all day with Luigi and Alessandro. Luigi became a part of our group. Just look at the photo at the top of this post. Don’t we look happy? Cinque Terre—what a day. And here are the photos from that day. 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…ESPECIALLY THESE!