Food, food and more food!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Galapagos and Flora-Day 1: The story of the Grumpy Git

First, if you are reading this in an e-mail, please do yourself a favor and click on the headline and read it in a web browser. The photos look better and the formatting is the way I intended you to see it. If I could figure out a way to get WordPress to just send you a link and not the complete post I would.

This was written starting on Sunday but I haven’t been able to get it out until today (Tuesday). They keep us very busy. So it looks like I will be about two days behind from here on in.

It’s Sunday morning and I am going to start this post now while I have a few minutes. We are waiting in our Quito hotel lobby for our charter flight from Quito to Baltra where we will tender (Zodiac) out to Flora for our Galapagos adventure.

This morning we had to have our checked bags in the hall outside our hotel rooms by 8:00 and we went down for our health screening at 7:45. We had been told it was just an antigen (spit) test but it turned out to be a full PCR, up the nose, test. Our first one (if you can believe that) and now I get what everyone complains about. Not that bad but still brought a tear to my eye. Breakfast in the hotel did not live up to the two previous meals but I guess the chef has to sleep sometime and leave the food in the hands of his assistants…who kind of failed. It was just “fine” with our first cup of coffee being cold, my “Everything” omelette having nothing in it and no jam for the rolls and croissants but it was still satisfying and should get us through until we have a box lunch (I am assuming) on the plane…which we are off to in about 10 minutes.

Eight hours later

We are onboard and have been VERY busy. At this point, I am being what my friend Paul would call a “grumpy git.” I get that when things are off from what I expected, I find that I forgot something, or something does not go the way I had planned. Hopefully I will get over it.

Ten hours later

It is now 3:45 am and I am not over it. In fact, this is the worst night I have ever spent on a cruise ship or maybe on vacation, in my life. I have been awake since 1:30 am (went to bed around 10:00). I am sitting in a lounge on the top deck all the way forward. For a variety of reasons I am not able to sleep. Noisy stateroom, noisy ship. Horrible pillows–my neck aches. Ship is rocking and rolling. I sat in bed for more than two hours trying to get back to sleep before I just got the hell out of there and let Kathleen sleep.

For those of us who have this sleep affliction (although I have slept GREAT every night since we left home) of waking up and not being able to get back to sleep, this is NOT the ship to do it on. On most ships if I can’t sleep, I can get up and go find a quiet place to sit and do stuff like this (writing or working with my pics). But on Flora that is impossible. This tiny lounge at the front of deck seven is the only place I could find. All the public areas on deck four are in pitch black darkness with doors closed. I have not seen a crew member anyplace. This is one of the benefits/problems with a small ship I guess. But…this lounge sucks because it is playing what I call thump-thump (electronic music) at a volume level that is not helping my massive headache. Much of my grumpiness now is due to my lack of sleep and inability to find someplace to just sit and write that is quiet and warm. Where I am is cold and noisy. the ship is really rocking and being on the top deck all the way forward is not a good place to be so I will have to go down and see if I can find someplace better.

I found a spot on deck three. The chairs are really uncomfortable but at least the music is better and not as loud. So let me explain where things went wrong.

We did leave the hotel right on time and made it to the airport. This is where I have to add that if you don’t like waiting in lines, producing document after document then this cruise (at least for the next few months until the world returns to more normal times) is maybe not for you. I had to show my passport and other docs at least five times yesterday. That doesn’t sound like a lot but it does mean that I usually had to stand in a fairly long line to do it. I have also filled out at least four forms (that could easily have been sent to me as PDFs way before the cruise for me to fill out and bring with me).

(Note from Kathleen – BRING AT LEAST ONE PEN – YOU ARE GOING TO NEED THEM!) Some of those were health forms, others for all kinds of things like one promising to not do anything bad I while I am in the islands (future Flora cruisers should note here that you can bring absolutely no food to the islands. That includes pre-packaged granola bars—the penalties are pretty big so leave everything edible at the hotel or on the plane).

I think things really headed downhill when we got in the Zodiacs to head out to the ship. I am trying very hard to find a way to phrase this that does not sound like I am whining or don’t understand how the crew feels but I can’t, so I will just tell it as I see it. Please know that since you aren’t on the first cruise back like we are, hopefully some of this will not happen to you if you decided to do this cruise. But I digress.

The airport greeter

When we got off the plane as we headed into the terminal we saw our first Galapagos animal–an iguana waiting to meet us. Actually saw two. Once in the airport they had a really nice lounge ready for us to wait in until they could call us to take a short bus ride to the Zodiacs. I was all smiles. But this is where things started bothering me. I am not sure what we did or who we offended but somehow we always seem to be called last for every line. The cruise director came into the lounge and started calling numbers for people to board the bus and went through the all of deck five including the stateroom numbers on both sides of ours without mentioning ours. Then she did half of deck six. Then we were finally called in the next to last group. This played out poorly a little later on.

Since this was the first ship back post-pandemic the crew led by our gung-ho hotel director was really trying to celebrate the reopening. I totally get that. But that meant they wanted each of the Zodiacs to arrive by itself so the 12 or so people on board could be escorted into this hallway on deck 3 where they blew horns and danced and chanted about how happy they were to have guests back on board. If it had been any other circumstances, I would have thought it was great but to make sure that each Zodiac had group had a separate welcome, they delayed each one out in the water for almost 40 minutes.

What should have been a five minute ride to the ship (we were even told it would take about five minutes—we could see the ship) turned into a thirty+ minute ride. We were not prepared for that. No sunscreen, no hats, no water. They did try and make it interesting by taking us near the coast where we could see some of the local birds (pelicans, blue-footed boobies and a few others) but the entire time we were baking in the sun. I personally was totally frustrated because here we were seeing all these great birds and my camera was in my camera bag and I could not get to it. I had my phone with me but the photos I got with it did NOT make me happy at all.

After baking in the sun for all that time we finally got on board the ship around 4:00 and went through the welcome by the crew, were able to pick our carry-ons back up (they had been sprayed with disinfectant) and then the scheduling started. I tried to find a way to describe it but I think it is better to just show you the schedule and then give you some details. I should also say that this schedule is not printed anyplace on paper. If you don’t have a phone/tablet/laptop, you are out of luck. Again, another COVID thing? Not sure. Here’s the schedule for day one.

Let’s start with the first item. Because we were driven around baking in the hot sun on the Zodiac for almost 40 minutes (we knew this was what was occurring because our Zodiac driver kept radioing the ship to ask if he could bring us on board) we didn’t arrive in time to get anything to eat. So at this point it was the snack they gave us on the plane that was going to hold us until dinner which was supposed to be at 7:15.

As you can see there was a “mandatory meeting” at 5:00. So between when we finally got on board and got to our stateroom it was almost 4:20. In that time between getting on board and the meeting at 5:00 pm we are supposed to do the following: 1) Go to our stateroom, get settled and meet our stateroom attendant so they could explain how the room amenities work (we still have not met that person as of Monday morning). 2) Go to deck seven to attend the new post-COVID muster drill where we sat at a table with a naturalist (just the two of us) and had our life jackets explained to us. 3) Then go back to the stateroom and unpack and sometime before 5:00 find time to get something to eat. I have a video tour of the stateroom but I will have to publish it later. My laptop battery is almost gone. 

We were able to do most of that (other than eat) by 5:00 but just barely. So at 5:00 pm when the “mandatory” meeting was supposed to take place we are sitting in the Discovery Lounge ready to hear all the important stuff they needed to tell us. Strangely enough, we were sitting there alone. People started straggling in about 5:10 or so and the actual meeting we were there for did not start until pretty close to 5:30.

As you can see from the schedule this meeting was supposed to transition (in the same place) into a “snorkel safety briefing,” and it did. Then our hotel director (a very nice and well meaning guy) had another surprise planned for everyone. We stopped the meeting and went up to deck seven (top deck) so that we could sail away from where Flora had been anchored. The other Celebrity ship in the Galapagos (Expedition‚ which is not sailing yet) was off our port side and many of her crew were standing outside waving to us while the ship’s horn went off and the crew on the Expedition shot some water in the air from hoses on their back deck.

After that it was time to distribute the snorkeling gear so we went back to our stateroom to wait for them to call us down to pick it up. Again, we are one of the last staterooms called. But eventually I did go down and get my wetsuit, snorkel, mask, flippers and small life vest. You get to leave much of this stuff (other than the snorkel and mask) in a big mesh bag near where you get on the Zodiacs so that’s a good thing. Kathleen has decided that she is not going to attempt snorkeling so she didn’t get any gear. I am still not sure I want to snorkel either but I thought I better get the gear anyway, just in case. More about that tomorrow.

This might be a good place for me to talk about logistics. I like to be organized when I travel. I like things to be planned. When I don’t know how something is going to go, I worry. Right now  I am sitting here typing this and I am worried about what is going to happen at 8:45 am this morning. I guess I will find out (and I did…it went fine).

Hopefully I will feel better about this after I have done it and things will just come together but I am not at this point holding out a lot of hope. You will have to come back later or tomorrow to see how I manage all of this. I know I will be surprised. Of course the way I am feeling right now, I may not go at all.

Back to the schedule. After I got my snorkel gear squared away, it was 7:05 so we had missed the Captain’s Welcome Aboard Toast but we still needed to get to the excursion briefing. These briefings take place every evening. The cruise director (who is also a naturalist) explains what excursions are available the next day, their degree of difficulty and what we can expect to see. Then when she is done, you see one of the other naturalists and sign up for the ones you want to do. You sign up for one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Here is tomorrow’s schedule:

We have chosen to do Option 3 in the morning and in the afternoon Kathleen is doing Option 2 and I am doing Option 1.

So we again, since it is 7:05, think we are late (unavoidable since we weren’t called to get snorkel gear until 6:45). But we get to the Discovery Lounge to find we are almost alone again. There is an entertainer playing an out-of-tune piano loudly so we sit down to wait. Lo and behold we find out that we have not missed the Captain’s Toast…it still hasn’t happened yet. It is now around 7:20. They start the toasting. The captain (a very nice fellow) makes a nice toast and attempts to get us all to do the wave with our glasses held high. I am hungry, tired and have a headache and I am not in the mood. I just want to get this over with and eat dinner and go to bed. But no! Not only is the captain making a toast so is someone from corporate and so is the hotel director who tells us a long story which at any other time I would probably been moved by. Right then, I just wanted to be moved along.

Finally at around 7:40 we get to the briefing. The cruise director does an excellent job and we find out all about what we will be doing the next day (yesterday). We then get in line and sign up for what we want to do and finally it is time for dinner. At 8:00 pm (approximately). The last time we ate anything at this point is on the plane around noon. At home I have dinner ready at 5:00 and I can be adaptable but this is just too much.

We have dinner in the dining room (all that is available tonight). It seems very strange to sit in a ship’s dining room in shorts and sandals but that’s what we do. Most of the people there are similarly dressed but some have gone and changed. Where they are getting the clothes from is beyond me with the limitations of weight imposed for the flight from Quito to Baltra.

We sit at a socially distanced table for four (there were six chairs–more about the COVID restrictions later on) with a very nice couple (John and Laura) from Southern California. The service and food are Celebrity good (really excellent) but there are again problems with some things. No paper menus. Just like your favorite takeout joints at home, you scan a QR code with your phone. Only problem with that is we had four people at the table and I was the only one with a phone that had set up their internet account (free WiFi which you had to have to access the menu) so we had to pass my phone around. And to be honest even though I have a pretty decent phone, I have a really hard time reading menus and schedules on that size screen, even with my reading glasses on. All this does mean that I can post the URL links to the menus and you can see them.

I ordered a shrimp ceviche with avocado that was superb. My main course was listed as seafood rice but it was really seafood risotto. Lots of shrimp but no octopus (even though it was in the description). I wish I had taken a photo of it because it was beautiful but I just plain forgot. Kathleen had a beet salad and an excellent Ecuadorian  chicken dish. We both had Ecuadorian wine (she had white, I had red) and both wines were excellent. Dessert was a “buffet” of red, white and blue things because it was Independence Day. They had cupcakes and donuts and pies and ice cream, all decorated in red, white and blue. When I say it was a buffet, I mean that you could look at it but then you told your server what you wanted and they brought it to your table. Another COVID thing.

It’s almost time to go back to the stateroom and wake Kathleen and get started on what I hope will be a better day but I am not sure. So I will add a few pics at the top and see you tomorrow. Hopefully feeling better and with some amazing flora and fauna shots.

PS: Kathleen normally proofs these but she only got through half of this so I want to get this online so I am going to go with it as is. Please excuse any typos or grammatical errors. One should never proof and edit their own work. More photos tomorrow. I promise.

I’m a perfect example of the grumpy, old man. I’m really good at it.  –Ned Beatty

 

Two Italian Lunches

This episode of Jim & Kathleen’s Food Experiences will conclude the lunch portion of our show 😀. I am going all the way back to our very first international trip in 2002 for these two but they must be special if they stand out almost 20 years later.

Lunch in Venice—Eating with locals

It was November and we were ready to head to Italy, the home of half my ancestors. We had stops planned in Venice, Florence, Rome and Sicily. What the Italians call the “Golden Triangle” (plus Sicily where my family is from). Our first stop was Venice and it is there we learned a valuable lesson about eating in a foreign country—find where the locals eat AND then eat there.

We had spent the morning taking the vaporetto (if you haven’t been to Venice, that’s kind of a water bus) to the separate islands of Murano (where they make some really cool glass) and Burano (where they have some amazing and brightly colored houses I wanted to take capture photographically). Between walking around on both islands and the vaporetto ride to each of them, we didn’t get back to the main part of Venice until it was well into the middle of the afternoon and by then we were STARVING! Italians don’t do big breakfasts. Our typical breakfast in Italy was a croissant and coffee, maybe with some cheese or Nutella and some of the best coffee I have ever tasted. No eggs and bacon there. So when I say we were starving and it was 2:30 pm and we were STARVING.

Now the trouble was finding a restaurant that was open and that we would be able to get a decent meal in. Luckily for us, the vaporetto from the islands docks on the far side of Venice so you don’t get off (or at least you didn’t then) right into the touristy spots. If it had, we might never have had this experience.

Wandering around looking for someplace to eat we passed a bunch of places that had already closed. There were also small stand up bars where we could have gotten a small sandwich but we were looking for more than that. Luckily we almost got lost going down a small street (you can easily get lost in Venice) and saw a restaurant that looked open. When we looked inside the place was good sized but it was empty except for…about 20 gondoliers having lunch. We looked at each other and decided if this was where the gondoliers ate their lunch, it must be wonderful. And it was. We had not yet had an Italian specialty—spaghetti carbonara. If you have never had it think really great spaghetti with bacon, eggs and cheese. I have had it since then a few times but nothing can compare with that day. Of course looking back on the experience I often wonder if the carbonara was that good or if we were that hungry or if it was the entire experience of eating it in Venice in a restaurant with twenty very noisy gondoliers.

Lunch in Sicily—meeting Vito

About a week later we were exploring Sicily’s mountain towns looking for the final resting place of my great-grandfather in Corleone. Yes, my grandfather’s family comes from a town with the same name as The Godfather’s family. It was a Monday. If you have not been to Italy, finding almost anything open on a Monday is very difficult. This is especially true of restaurants.

We had risen early in our hotel in Monreale (just above Palermo) and headed into the Sicilian hills—a phenomenal drive as you pass walls and hill towns as old as the Roman Empire or the Moorish invasion. We found Corleone and headed to the cemetery where we not only found my great-grandfather’s grave but a man who claimed he could be my cousin who worked at the cemetery. By this time it was again about 2:00 and we wanted to find a place to eat lunch. Nothing was open in Corleone so we started heading back to the coast.

We passed through two or three small villages with nothing open. We were getting really hungry at that point. Plus, we really wanted to find someplace where someone spoke at least a little English so we could kind of know what we were ordering. All of a sudden we turned the corner into the tiny village of Masseri d’Amari and saw a big sign that said “Trattoria—Open!” By that time we didn’t care if they spoke English or not, we just wanted food.

When we got inside there was a HUGE seafood buffet all along one wall, a fairly empty dining room and two servers. One approached us and we asked if he spoke English. He didn’t and neither did the other. Since the buffet was all seafood we needed to know which dishes had no shellfish as Kathleen is allergic. We were about to abandon the place when in walked a huge man wearing all black with gold chains around his neck hanging down into a shirt that was unbuttoned fairly far down and showing a LOT of chest hair. Think Tony Soprano with a bunch of dark, black hair on his head. He saw us and walked over and said, “Hello, I am Vito. Can I help you out at all? I am visiting from New Jersey.” Seriously? We were in a tiny hill town in Sicily and we meet a Tony Soprano type guy with the name of Vito?

He was incredibly nice, told us what had and didn’t have shellfish in it and we grabbed a couple of plates from the buffet. After we had sat down at our table, Vito came over and asked if he could join us. We were thrilled to be able to talk to someone who spoke English and might know something about the part of Sicily we were in. As it turns out Vito knew a lot about that part of Sicily. He had grown up there. In fact, his family owned the restaurant we were in as well as most of the other businesses in town. We also found out that he spent about half the year in Sicily working on the family business and half the year in New Jersey. We asked him what he did in New Jersey and he REALLY said, “I work in waste management.” Unbelievable and kind of hilarious all the same time.

We had had a lovely lunch with Vito (who didn’t eat but just joined us to talk and order us the largest bottle of coke we had ever seen). When we were done we were both pretty full but Vito said, “You must have a cannoli. They are the best you will ever eat. The milk we made the cheese from was in the goat this morning.” We couldn’t pass that up so we said, “maybe just one.” Vito ordered and in about five minutes the server came out with two of the largest cannolis we still ever seen. They must have been at least six inches long and about an inch around and they were delicious!

That just about concluded our lunch experience except that when it was time to pay, there was no check. Now getting a check in Italy is pretty hard most of the time. The restaurants really don’t want you to leave. Seriously. It can often take 15 to 20 minutes after dessert is over to get the bill. But this time, there was no bill. I finally (after waiting a little while) asked Vito (since his family owned the place) if he could ask for it for us as we had to get on our way. He just reached down below the table and motioned with his hand so I could see it while saying, “Do you have 10 Euro? Just give it to me.” Far be it from me to turn down an amazing price on lunch or to not do exactly what this man told us to do 😀. And even after that, Vito insisted on walking us to our car and on the way introducing us to his brother who owned the local car dealership. It was a crazy day and we felt like we had found the true Sicily starting with Corleone and ending with Vito from New Jersey.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.  —Milton Friedman

Rick Steves guides us to lunch

Been severely tardy getting a post out lately but blame my daughter. For now I only have a finite amount of time for writing and for my birthday in December, my daughter gave me a one year subscription to StoryWorth. It is a very cool website that sends me a question to write about every week for one year. These are questions about me. For instance, since the first of the year I have written about what vacations were like when I was a kid, what my grandparents were like, something in my life that really surprised me, etc. At the end of the year they will print a book of everything I have written for my grandkids to know more about their grandpa. Kind of a history of me and my family. So each week I have been writing about my favorite topic, me 😜 and neglecting this blog.

Which brings us to another episode of Jim & Kathleen’s favorite food experiences. This time it comes with a big endorsement of the Seattle Area’s greatest travel expert, Rick Steves. If you love travel like we do, you have undoubtedly heard of Rick. When we decide to go someplace in Europe, we read Rick’s book about the city or country first. When we first started going to Europe we carried the books with us. Now we get them on Kindle so we have them on our phones. You can even download guided tours to use on your phones as well.

Lunch in Versailles

Don’t get me wrong. We don’t just follow Rick’s advice 100% of the time. For instance, we don’t always agree with Rick on lodging. Rick will stay in hotels with shared bathrooms—we won’t. We are just too old for that 😜. But when it comes to sightseeing, Rick gets it. If you ever decide to tour the great art museums of Europe, you would be crazy to do it without a copy of Rick’s book, “Mona Winks.” We have used it in the Sistine Chapel, the Louvre, the Ufzizi and others. He even puts a note in the book that you should tear out the chapter and carry it with you into a particular museum because the book is too big and heavy to lug around. And then when you get home, you send him the chapters you tore out and he sends you a new book. Pretty cool!

Rick also “gets” food. At least the kind of food we like. Food that is all about the region we are visiting. In that respect Rick is responsible for two of our very memorable food experiences, both at lunchtime, one in France and one in Italy.

Let’s start with France because that food experience happened first. We were on our second trip to Europe, on a two week ground trip that started with six nights in London, three nights in Scotland and five nights in Paris. While we were in Paris we did all the touristy things, the Louvre, Montmartre, Notre Dame and other Parisian must-see spots. One thing we wanted to do was take the train to Versailles to tour the palace and the grounds.

 

The palace is amazing. (That’s Kathleen at right, inside the Hall of Mirrors.) But when we went to see the grounds, it was FREEZING! It was a really cold day in November and we saw a little of the gardens before we decided we had to find some place warm to get lunch. We went into the village of Versailles and looked around and we were about to succumb to one of the touristy spots selling the touristy kind of  “French food” you would expect to find in a tourist village. But these places looked cheesy and they had people standing at their doors trying to get people to come in and eat. Not an optimum experience.

We suddenly realized that the Rick Steve’s guide we had with us not only had a section about the palace and gardens (that we had used to tour those places) but recommendations for where to eat. We knew that Rick would never steer us wrong on food so we looked up the downtown village of Versailles and he gave a strong recommendation to a tiny place (whose name I can’t remember—this was in 2003) on the main square of the town. The biggest endorsement was…this is where the locals eat. So off we went and had a culinary and cultural adventure.

When we walked in the door, the smells were amazing but the place was JAMMED! In fact there were only two chairs left open—right in the middle of a long communal table. Each side of the table must have seated 20 people and the two chairs were across from one another just about in the middle of the table. We looked at each other and thought, “What the heck!.” We were cold and starving and this place was warm and the food smelled amazing. I don’t remember exactly what we had but I do remember it was awesome. And the people on either side of us were very friendly. It was a wonderful lunch.

Lunch in Sienna

Six years later we were on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean and we had docked in Livorno which is the port for Florence. Since we had been to Florence before we decided to hire a guide and head to the hill town of Sienna. We consulted our buddy Mike, the god of shore excursions and he hooked us up with a driver and guide named Marco that he had used before and really liked. So we were really looking forward to an awesome day. We had prevailed upon some of our Cruise Critic roll call friends to join us as well.

We should have known that there would be a problem when Marco did not meet us but instead we were met by Francisco. Marco was supposed to be taking us himself as we had been told he spoke excellent English and lived in Sienna. Francisco, although a very nice man, barely spoke English and with me sitting with him in the front seat trying to translate, we headed off to Sienna.

We still had hopes that we would be met by Marco once we reached Sienna but that was not to be. After the two hour drive (during which Francisco got lost twice), upon entering Sienna, Francisco drove up a one way street in the wrong direction and when a car came down the other way, he had to back up almost all the way out of the city. He then hollered out the window, “Excuse me, how do I get to the Duomo?” But the real kicker came when we arrived in Sienna and Francisco told us he would meet us to take us back to the ship at 3:30, handed me a copy of Rick Steve’s Tuscany and said Ciao!

We were astounded. We had contracted for a guided tour of Sienna and we got a car and driver who barely spoke English and who got lost both coming and going. But we made the most of it. We grabbed the Rick Steve’s book and walked the city.

No one else in the group wanted Rick’s book so Kathleen and I took it and headed out to see Sienna.

All in all it was great day as the rain stopped and the city and its Duomo were a truly amazing sight. The Duomo has incredible etched and painted floors that are kept covered for most of the year. But at the end of August each year, they are uncovered for only two months. We arrived six days before they were to be recovered so we got to see what many never do in Sienna.

We had a great time following all Rick’s advice about what to see…but then lunch rolled around and we knew we would be OK because we had Rick along. Sure enough, we opened the guide and found a wonderful little restaurant below ground level that we never would have seen just walking around. Not only was it gorgeously decorated but the food was amazing. I think the best way to describe the experience is that it was unexpected on a lousy day. Again, I can’t remember what I had but I know one of the best things that happened on that entire trip was that lunch.

Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch. —Orson Welles

Lunchtime…again. This time in Italy

It’s been a couple of weeks since our last installment of Jim & Kathleen’s Food Experiences. In case you forgot, I had promised a running bunch of posts on our best food experiences from our travel life. You can read about breakfast in Vancouver here or lunch in Barcelona here. For installment number three (this one will be all about the food) let’s travel to Pontone, Italy with the best tour guide in the known world, Marcello.

To set the stage we were sailing on Celebrity’s Galaxy on a 15 night cruise round trip from Rome that visited the usual Greek islands, Istanbul and even ventured into the Black Sea to stop in Romania and Ukraine. We were on our way back to Rome when we stopped for one last shore visit, in Naples. Pre-cruise we had contacted the “God of Shore Excursions” Mike Preisman who had recommended we contact one of his favorite tour guides, Marcello Maresca. He told us that Marcello was like no other tour guide. That if we let him pick us up in Naples and give us a tour of what he later called, “My Italy,” it would be a day well spent. Mike was right.

The amazing Marcello

We contacted Marcello (we’re still friends on FaceBook and I hear from him all the time) and luckily he was available on the day we were there. We told him that we were more interested in Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast and Sorrento than we were in Naples, so he got us set up.

He was there on time and we headed off in his van. As we drove out of Naples, Marcello proceeded to tell us his philosophy of touring. “If you want to shop, don’t tour with Marcello.  If you want to see ‘his’ Italy, the real Italy, tour with Marcello.” BTW: When I say we, there was Kathleen and I and four other friends we had met through our Cruise Critic roll call including Marybeth and Anne we have become friends with and cruised with in SE Asia.

We made stops on the way to lunch at lots of places where we saw incredible views, stopped in shops where only the Italians shopped and laughed at the other cruisers trying to navigate the Amalfi Coast in one of those huge busses. Oh, the places we could go that they couldn’t. Speaking of driving the Amalfi Coast, even though Marcello is the ultimate tour guide, he has this crazy habit of driving the coast road while looking back at us to talk. Scared the hell out of us but I guess he drives that road so much that he can do it blindfolded.

First stop was a tour through three villages surrounding Sorrento. These were towns that no one stops in because they don’t have the reputation that Sorrento has. But they show what Italian life is like now. I would tell you all of Marcello’s views of Italy today but it is best experienced firsthand from his mouth. So my advice? To see the real Italy and the real Amalfi coast, go to Naples and meet Marcello.

After driving the villages around Sorrento and then into Sorrento itself (where true to his word we saw a bunch of tourist trap shops) we headed down the Amalfi coast stopping whenever Marcello thought we could have great picture opportunities.

We did not stop in the tourist trap towns of Positano, Amalfi and Ravello but did stop on either side of them to take in the view and we drove through the multitude of tourist trap shops with goods from all over. The only semi-shopping stop we made was at an overlook outside of Positano where there was a fruit stand selling local fruit.

After we had driven through Ravello, Marcello announced that it was time to see the real Amalfi coast and we headed up into the hills to the village of Pontone. This village had not changed in more than 50 years. He told us we would have lunch in a wonderful outdoor restaurant where we would be the only patrons other than locals. A restaurant that grew all the food that they served, baked their own bread and everything was made to order.

After a quick tour around the village set high on a hillside we sat down to lunch. And “OH MY GOD, WHAT A LUNCH!” Those of you who know me, know how much I love Italian food. And I have to say without a doubt that this was the BEST Italian food I have had since my Italian grandmother passed away when I was a freshman in high school.

The meal started with an incredible antipasti. Bruschetta, zucchini squash blossoms and so much more. Check out the pictures above and make sure to click on one and watch the slideshow to see them in all their glory. Wonderful red and white house wines by the pitcherful were refilled every time we got near running out. Once we had gorged ourselves on the antipasti, out came the pasta. Three kinds. First a gnocchi that was wonderful, then a ravioli with cheese inside and cooked with arugala and finally a wonderful mixture of pasta shells, beans and pumpkin. We were in heaven. And a very full heaven by this point but wait, there was more. As if we had not had enough to eat on the cruise. Out came the desserts. On one plate we each had a piece of apple tart, a chestnut mousse and a incredible lemon dessert that was like lemon mousse and lemon pie combined. All this was accompanied by our choice of a melon liqueur, a fennel liqueur and our favorite (but not by much) lemoncello. It was wonderful. And this was lunch? What do they serve you for dinner?

The happy group just before we dug in. 45 minutes later we waddled back to the van to visit Pompeii.

After we had thoroughly gorged ourselves (did I already use that word? Gorged is the only word I can think of that describes how we felt), we were back on the road over the mountain to Piedmonte and then on to our tour of Pompeii.

To me, that’s what an incredible dining experience is all about. Awesome company, wonderful ambience and incredible food. We are hoping to go back there when we stop in Naples again in October 2022 and again see Marcello’s Italy.

People will travel anywhere for good food – it’s crazy. —Rene Redzepi

Let’s do lunch…in Barcelona

Here’s the second of my posts about our most memorable food experiences during our travel together. Since we started with breakfast last time, I thought we might try lunch this time. And if there is a memorable lunch, it’s the one we had at a marvelous restaurant in Barcelona, Spain—La Rita.

Part of the reason this experience was so good was the contrast to what had happened the day before, during our first full day in Barcelona. We had done a lot of touring and after we finished touring Gaudi’s Casa Mila, Kathleen decided it was time to eat. We had previously decided that lunch would be our big meal of each day as Barcelonians don’t eat dinner until well after 9:00 pm and that is just too late for us. It also seems that on every trip we have one really bad food experience and this lunch was to be that experience.

Poor planning on my part had put us in a part of the city that I had not done my research on any restaurants (which I usually do). So we wandered looking for something on a menu that not only looked good but that we could fathom what it was. As most of you know, I am a pretty adventurous eater but my lovely bride isn’t as much. Especially when it comes to fish that we don’t know (she has shellfish allergies).

After turning down a number of places due to their limited menu we finally found a small Italian place who had items on their menu (pastas, etc.) that we recognized. But after we were seated we found that those items weren’t available at lunch when only a fixed-price menu (two course for 8 euro) was served. We had a choice of four appetizers and four entrees. We both went with the simple side salad as our appetizer and I had the calamari as my entree while Kathleen chose what the menu called “beef higado.” The waiter mimed to us that this was a part of the cow that came from somewhere near the flank. We kind of assumed (you know the saying) that it would be flank steak or something close.

After the waiter had brought our salad I suddenly realized that where he had been pointing on his body to indicate the part of the cow the meat came from was a little higher than the flank. So I got out my iPhone and did a quick Google search that revealed (just as the entrees arrived) that higado is LIVER. Now Kathleen likes most beef but not liver and since she doesn’t eat calamari, swapping was out of the question. Besides the liver problem, my calamari was awful–over-breaded with no sauces or even lemon and served over a bunch of poorly cooked french fries. Needless to say we got the check and got the heck out of there with most of our lunch consisting of our appetizer salad and a fairly decent roll. (Looking back on it, this was OK as we got PLENTY to eat for the rest of the week.) So that was our not-awesome lunch experience that brought us to the next day.

Since we had such a bad experience the day before, I tried really hard to wind up in a part of Barcelona that had one of my well-researched restaurants nearby. It is important to note (that I kind of mentioned above) that even though we had experienced late dinners in Italy and France on prior European trips, Spanish restaurants serve dinner latest of all. Many don’t open until 9:00 pm for dinner. That means we would be eating at 10:00 and that’s something we just can’t do. So we had previously decided that we would eat our main meal at lunch and just snack for dinner. Today we promised ourselves we would lunch in one of the restaurants we had previously found online—La Rita. Now, websites promise a bunch but seldom deliver on it. La Rita and it’s sister restaurant (where we ate lunch the next day) came through for us big time.

We arrived as they opened at 1:00 pm (lunch time in Barcelona is 1:00 to 3:30). If we had been even 10 minutes later we would have had to wait at least 20-30 minutes. The place filled up in minutes and mostly with what looked like locals. Lunch exceeded our expectations on every level. The food was outstanding. The service cordial and quick. The menu (available in English) excellent. 

Kathleen started with an appetizer vegetable pie with mushroom sauce. I got to taste and it was wonderful. I had a “vegetable stack” of red peppers, mushrooms and eggplant that was topped with melted manchego cheese. Ooooh la la!

For our main course, Kathleen had the a lamb tangine with couscous, raisins and pine nuts. I went for one of the best pieces of duck I have ever had in my life with mango and raspberry. I wish I had kept taking photos of the food but I just got too busy eating to shoot pics.

For dessert Kathleen can’t remember what she had but I struck it rich with one of the most outstanding desserts of my lifetime, the Catalunyan national dessert. I am still not sure what it is called but it consists of a coffee/nougat ice cream, floating in a wonderful dark chocolate sauce covered with custard. I did some Googling and found that it might be Mato de Peralbes.

People, believe me when I tell you, you have never had anything like this. A few years later we went to a San Francisco restaurant that had a similar dessert called “Slap Your Mama.” It was so named because if you ate it for the first time you wanted to “Slap your mama” for not every having served it to you before. This was the same kind of experience. If I was from Barcelona and had never eaten this dessert, I would have slapped my mama.

Can you tell Kathleen enjoyed her lunch?

So from a lunch of some of the worst calamari and liver to this one at La Rita it made a huge difference in our feelings about Catalan cuisine. I truly believe that this lunch ranks in the top ten meals I have eaten in my lifetime. It was scrumptious. Or maybe it was the contrast to the day before.

And I should mention that the service and the ambience were outstanding. And here’s the good news, unlike our breakfast place (The Elbow Room in Vancouver, BC) that has since closed, you can still eat at La Rita. We plan on going there again the next time we are in Barcelona (in 2022).

I should add that La Rita is part of a restaurant group. A group is different than a chain—a chain is a bunch of identical restaurants but a group is owned by one set of owners but they are all different. The next day we ate at another of their restaurants, La Fonda. Food was on the same par but the experience was better at La Rita.

Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.—Orson Welles

Let’s start with a sarcastic breakfast in Vancouver


If you saw my post from a few days ago you will know that I am going to start writing about our best food experiences over the 23 years that Kathleen and I have been together. Most of them have taken place all around the world so they kind of relate to travel.

To start organizing my memories, I made a list of my favorite dinner, lunch and breakfast experiences. So let’s start at the beginning of the day with breakfast. I love eating breakfast in a restaurant but we seldom do. Even on trips we often have breakfast someplace normal. For instance we spent five days in Barcelona and I am ashamed to say that we ate breakfast every day at a Starbucks a block from our hotel. I know, it’s sad. But in Barcelona there is so much great lunch and dinner food that we needed to watch our caloric intake.

Another reason we don’t have an amazing record with breakfast while on the road is that it is often hard to find a great breakfast place. If you Google “best breakfast in XXXXXX city” you really don’t get great places. I have actually seen Denny’s and IHOP show up as the best restaurant in random US cities. Now I have nothing against you grabbing a Moon over Mihami or a Rooti Tootie Fresh and Fruity, but that’s not for us.

To give you an idea of what I mean, my favorite thing to eat for breakfast is a dish called “Tom’s Favorite Breakfast” served at Lola, a Tom Douglas restaurant in downtown Seattle. The dish changes seasonally but always has octopus in it. So as you can see, I have strange taste when it comes to breakfast.

But this series is less about food than it is about eating experiences. And we have a doozy of a food and travel experience to start with. Sadly, this takes place in a restaurant that is no longer open, Vancouver BC’s Elbow Room. There is talk that it may be revived in another location someday but for now, it is closed.

Kathleen and I first discovered The Elbow Room on our second or third trip to Vancouver sometime in the late 90s. The restaurant first opened in 1983. I had read someplace that if you were looking for an unusual place to have breakfast in Vancouver  you had to try The Elbow Room. We went and we loved it. Not because of the food (which was PLENTIFUL and also delicious) but because of the experience.

The Elbow Room was a one-of-a-kind place because just going in the front door, you needed a very thick skin. Let me give you an example. On our first visit, we walked in and the server we encountered pointed at a table. Didn’t seat us, just pointed. A few minutes later he came by with water and asked if we had seen the specials on the chalkboard before we came in. We said we hadn’t and his response was, “Then go back out and read them!” Then he walked away without saying anything else. At this point (because we had heard about the place in advance) we knew we were in for a bumpy but fun ride.

Sure enough when he finally returned to the table, he brought us coffee and took our order. And along the way we had overheard him insulting or being snarky to pretty much everyone else in the place. He was the king of snark. It was truly fun to watch people who came in after us and had no clue what the place was about get insulted and mocked. Some were aghast and others got it in a few minutes.

When our waiter came back with our food we asked for more coffee. He pointed at the pot across the room (almost behind the counter) and said, “Get it yourself!” We had a good laugh over that one…after I got us more coffee. BTW: Not that it matters but every waiter working there has been flamboyantly gay except the one time when we were “served” by one of the owners (he’s the fellow on the left in the linked video below) who was just cantankerous even though he called himself a flaming queen.

The photo at the top of this article (taken during our best experience there ) is proof. The restaurant itself was a huge supporter of the LGBTQ community and even had a musical written about it. I have searched the web to find a copy of the “rules” of The Elbow Room which were printed on the back of the menu. They all pretty much came down to this: if you are thin-skinned and can’t take a joke, you are in the wrong place. You can kind of read them in this shot of their big blackboard. *8 always cracks me up.

If you would like to see what The Elbow Room was all about, Kathleen found this really cool short video. Warning, it has some salty language…but that’s The Elbow Room. You can click here to watch the short film from the National Screen Institute of Canada.

Besides the fun, the food was superb and this was our first of many visits to The Elbow Room. But the best experience didn’t come until June 2017. Our good friends Paul and Gail, from Leeds, England had flown in so that they, us and 14 other Martini Mates could take an Alaskan cruise together. P & G had flown in early and we had picked them up at YVR (airport designation for Vancouver) and went to tour Vancouver for a couple of days before doing the same in Seattle. On our second morning there we told them we had to have breakfast at The Elbow Room. Being the fun friends that they are, they loved it. Even when our waiter (you can see him in the photo above with Paul and I) started referring to Paul (who some may think of as vertically challenged) as Papa Smurf.

I cannot remember a single breakfast when the company has been so good, the service so snarky, funny and truly unique and the food so delicious. It’s one of those times I will remember. Especially since The Elbow Room is now gone. We will miss it.

There are different kinds of humor, some is sarcastic, some introspective. Introspective fit my personality better.—Rita Rudner

Rita would not have done well at The Elbow Room.

Writing about travel & food experiences

Herb Farm
One of our ten best dining experiences was when we took our (adult) kids to the world-famous Herb Farm.

While walking today I was listening to my favorite podcast, Armchair Expert. The interview I heard today was with author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love). During the interview she talked about the fact that she loves to write. She loves writing more than doing just about anything else.

Well, I love to write. Not as much as Ms. Gilbert. Other things come before that for me: family, photography, cooking and travel. But since the pandemic started there has been nothing special to take photos of, only a few visits from the kids and of course no travel. I have been focusing on cooking. While cooking is fun, there are only so many dinners for two that stretch my creativity. And our freezer is BEYOND FULL of leftovers. I could stop cooking for three weeks and we would not go hungry.

So hearing Ms. Gilbert talk about writing with host Dax Shepherd (who is also a television/movie writer as well as an actor and host of one of the top podcasts) made me realize that I need to write more. But what to write about.

Then over on Instagram I met a fellow blogger who loves traveling and cruising as much as I do. He lives in Great Britain and we have been keeping up a correspondence on his blog, this blog and Instagram. He told me that I inspired him with my daily Instagram travel photo to start going back through his travel experiences and posting photos on Instagram. Which in turn has inspired me to think about how I could do the same thing with writing.

Stay with me here…I have a little bit further to go here…I am going to explain what you will see on this page in the weeks to come. Remember that podcast I mentioned? Well I listen to it every day. And two days before Ms. Gilbert was on, I heard an excellent interview with Samin Nosrat. She is a food columnist with The NY Times Magazine and the host of the Netflix show, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. She and Dax got into a discussion about dining experiences. Not just cooking or eating, but eating experiences.

I got that. I understand exactly what eating experiences are. How they are different than just food. They are about the entire experience which might include getting to the restaurant, why that particular restaurant, obviously the food and the service. Over the years so much of our travel has involved food. I spend more time researching restaurants than I do hotels. Maybe because on a city visit, you are in just one hotel, but you get to eat three times a day. In every one of those meals on the road and here in Seattle, we are always looking for great food but more than that we are looking for food experiences.

Octopus in Rhodes
One of my favorite lunch experiences was marinated octopus in a taverna after we got lost in Rhodes, Greece.

So here is what this is all about. As I finished my walk (where I had listened to Ms. Nostrat) I begin to make a list in my mind of the greatest food/dining/lunch experiences we have had both here and on the road. You know how much I love my lists and this one just kept growing and growing. So my new goal is to write about those experiences in a series of short posts over the next few weeks. I hope to post twice a week with a new one. If you love travel and you love food, I hope you will like the stories.

I always encourage people to get out there, travel the world, see new things, experience new people, experience new food, experience new culture. What happens is that helps you to grow and be your best self.
—Karamo Brown