Nieuw Statendam—some final thoughts

We have just about covered everything I wanted to from our 10 night cruise on Holland America’s Nieuw Statendam to the Southern Caribbean, so this will be my last post on this trip. Just want to sum it up and give you some final thoughts on the best and the worst parts of the cruise.

Before I get deeper into the overall review it is VERY important to note that this cruise was deeply affected by COVID. In all I think it came down to two things, one good and one bad, that affected us and everyone else on the ship.

First, COVID gave us the dreaded masks. We had never sailed fully masked before. Even though we took a cruise in July 2021, it was on a very small ship (Celebrity Flora in the Galapagos) where everyone on board was fully vaccinated and we would be getting off on only one inhabited island (where we did wear masks). So for that cruise, no one masked up onboard except the crew. I should also say it was pre-Omicron. Wearing a mask everywhere on the ship meant that we probably spent more time in our stateroom than we have ever done before simply because we could be there without our masks on.

The good part of COVID was that there were less than 925 guest on board a ship that has a full capacity of more than 3,500 passengers. That meant no waiting anywhere, from embarkation to shore excursions. You could find a seat in any show. And with almost 900 crew members on board (a full complement), service was amazing.

The Best

So many things to name. We pretty much loved it all but these are some of the stand outs. I lifted some of these directly from the evaluation I sent to Holland America (HAL).

  • Pre-cruise: HAL was VERY specific about exactly what we needed to do to board the ship whether it was about check in times (they mean it), COVID protocols (they mean those too) and COVID testing.
  • Embarkation: Being in a Neptune Suite we were given “Priority Check-in” which means that we got to arrive at noon, the earliest check in. In our case I dropped off the rest of our foursome (my bride and my brother and his bride) and I took the car back to the airport rental car center. Then I grabbed a taxi back to the port (total time from drop-off to return was less than 20 minutes) and we walked in the door. From there we saw a very nice lady to show her our vax card, negative COVID test and signed our health questionnaire. We were then given a tiny receipt and had to show that to get on the ship. Start to finish 20 minutes. Our room keys were on our door.
  • Stateroom availability: Our suite was available as soon as we were on board. So we dropped and unpacked our carry-ons and headed to lunch at the Dive-In. No lines anyplace and lots of service. I think we were asked by at least four servers what we wanted to drink. While we were at lunch I went down to the stateroom to grab something and found…our luggage, already in our stateroom on the bed. Amazing.
  • Stateroom: You can read all about it by clicking here. And since I did that page with photos, I processed a video tour you can see by clicking here.
  • Muster Drill: YEAH! This is all virtual now. Well almost. As soon as you turn on the TV in your stateroom, the muster talk comes on. You watch it and then sometime after 1:30 you head to your lifeboat station (ours was the Main Dining Room) and check-in and get your key card scanned. That’s it! This is another benefit of COVID. Hopefully masks will go away soon and the NEW muster drill will stay. Actually I kind of like being served at the buffet too.
  • Food: I did an entire post on food. You can see it by clicking here. A quick summary is this: It was AWESOME! DELICIOUS! FANTASTIC!
  • Ports: We missed one (Half Moon Cay, HAL’s private island) due to weather. The sea and wind were too rough to tender in–this turned into a sea day. Then we visited Grand Turk, Puerta Plata in the Dominican Republic, Bonaire, Curacao and Aruba. Loved Grand Turk and Bonaire. Thought Puerta Plata and Curacao were “fine” and sad that Aruba has turned into just another commercialized cruise port. Links are to my posts about each of these ports.
  • Shore excursions: We did Holland America Shore excursions in all ports except Aruba (Kathleen stayed on the ship, I walked around for a short time) where my brother and his bride did one. All the excursions we went on were all “fine.” In the case of two of the shore excursions, when they were a late or had to deviate from what we had been told they would be, they refunded our money even though we had still been able to go. Classy.We got two of them for free with the Have It All program.
  • Entertainment: In the evenings you could usually find us at BB Kings Blues Club or one of the other venues on the Music Walk. Sometimes we would go for the music and sometime for the comedians. There were three on board whose names I cannot remember but I do know they were HILARIOUS! We did not go to any of the “big shows.” One of the reasons was because they were so few people on board there was only one show a night and they alway seem to coincide with dinner (7:30 most nights). Also we aren’t much into these shows as we have seen so many of them so many times. We do want to add that the one show that is not to be missed in the big theater is the BBC Planet Earth presentation with live music by the Lincoln Center quartet. The video parts of the presentation are on the big circular screen and just amazing.
  • Sail With Seth: As you may remember, we were “Sailing with Seth” who is Holland America’s Brand Ambassador and an old friend. Here’s what we told HAL on the evaluation we sent:”We were part of the Sail With Seth group. I can’t tell you how incredibly awesome your Brand Ambassador Seth Wayne is. He has kept cruising alive for these last two horrible years. We felt like we were taking a virtual cruise each and every time he posted or was live on Facebook or Instagram. What an amazing person to have as the spokesperson for your company. On this cruise he was the epitome of what a host should be taking great care of us and just being Seth. He is the ONLY reason we decided to take this cruise. We are long-time Celebrity cruisers and had planned to restart after the pandemic with another Celebrity cruise, but Seth has kept us going for two years so when we heard he was taking a group on Nieuw Statendam, we jumped on it. When we sail with HAL again, we will always try to be part of a Sail with Seth group. You are so lucky to have him.” If you ever get a chance to Sail With Seth, do it!
  • Disembarkation: Was about as smooth as it gets. It was a little late while the ship was cleared by the port. But once we were cleared, I was able to walk off with my carry-ons, take a taxi to the airport, pick up a rental car and get back to pick up Kathleen, Steve and Jamie. We always end up having to get a car when returning to Fort Lauderdale because the nonstop Alaska Air flight we take home doesn’t leave until 6:05 pm. It works well for us because two of our favorite people live about an hour north of FLL so we drive up and see them, have lunch and head back. Great way to spend the day.

The Worst

This one is easy. Of all the things we had going on during this cruise, just about all of it was perfect. About as good as a cruise in the Caribbean can be. But one part of the trip just sucked—the internet. We got HAL’s middle cost Internet/WiFi package as part of the Have It All program. Their basic program is pretty much e-mail and texting. Their middle program is those two things and some additional websites like FaceBook, Instagram and Cruise Critic. I was able to do this blog as well. The speed on this plan was INCREDIBLY SLOW! And of course every time I signed on I would get an advert from HAL to “Move Up” to their top tier of internet. Finally I got totally fed up with the speed so I sucked it up and bought the top plan. Then came the shock.

Nothing got faster. If anything it got slower. And this was with the ship at one third capacity. I can imagine how slow it would have been with a full ship. So after trying for a couple of days and not seeing a single improvement from the $10 per day I had upgraded to, I went to ask the Neptune Suite concierge who I could talk to about it. She said for the suites, she was the person to talk to.

I explained my problem and she said that the top tier internet is NOT faster, it just gives you access to other websites. I am not sure what sites you would get besides what you already had but I know what you can’t do with the speed you have. You can’t watch any kind of video. I did find that I could download a video to watch later. I like to watch videos on my iPad when I ride a stationary bike in the gym so I wanted to download a couple of more episodes of a show I was rewatching. It took 3.5 hours to download a single 43 minute episode. And that didn’t count the number of times it just stopped and I had to start all over again. I finally got the episode to download by doing it overnight when no one else was using the internet. I was also told by the concierge that I could use Skype or FaceTime but with that speed, there is no way. BTW: I wanted to check the speed of my connection with a speed test but she told me that those sites were blocked 🙄.

If you have ever been on a Royal Caribbean ship you know what really fast internet at sea is all about. Their Voom product is as fast as I have here at home if you buy the streaming package. On RCL we were able to watch Netflix, FaceTime with the grandkids and I could upload this blog in seconds instead of the 30 minutes it took to upload my photos.

The bottom line is this: I would NEVER pay for internet on this ship. I don’t remember it being this bad when we were on Westerdam a few years ago so maybe this as an aberration. We can hope so. It was the only thing that drove us nuts during the entire 10 days. I know, first world problems 😜.

The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.  —Oscar Wilde

Puerto Plata…was really hotta and other things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Surprising Grand Turk and some other stuff

After missing our first port (which should have been HAL’s private island, Half Moon Cay) due to weather conditions and not COVID, our first stop became Grand Turk Island. Grand Turk is the Turk part of Turks and Caicos. This was our first time on this island so we had no clue what we were in for.

On past cruises we hardly ever do ship’s shore excursions but using HAL’s Have It All program, we not only received a drinks package, two nights in specialty restaurants and complimentary Wifi but we were able to sign up for some HAL shore excursions for free. With that said, we chose “Charming Grand Turk by Open Air Tram.” This was just one of those overview tours where we would see the island and hear from a guide who would tell us a little about the island, their country and its history.

Sometimes things go wrong on a cruise and you just hope it’s not a big deal. This turned out to be one of those times. We had arrived at the correct time for the afternoon tram ride and after they signed us in they told us that the morning tram group had not come back yet and we would have to wait 15 minutes. No biggie. But the 15 minutes turned into 30 and then almost an hour. The shore excursion team offered us a full refund or we could wait another 15 minutes. In fact the tram never showed up (they might still be there 😜). Some people chose to take refunds and headed back to the ship. We had decided to wait the full hour and then take the refund.

But when an open air bus (not our tram) came in after their second tour, the HAL shore excursion people asked the guide if he would take us. We were totally impressed with their efforts and he agreed to tour us around. We were thrilled because he had a higher and larger open air bus than the tram would have been, which made it much easier for me to get the photos I ended up with (that I am thrilled about). The shore excursion manager did her job that day, totally coming through for us. Not only that, when we got back to the ship and checked our accounts we found that she had reimbursed us for the entire tour because it was late and we handled it so well. Going above and beyond—HAL’s service is blowing us away.

Once we got out on the road with our guide Nate we knew we were in a very fun tour. He was hilarious. He had two teenage girls working with him and they took great care of us as we drove all over the island. We learned a lot about Grand Turk and its history (for instance, did you know this where John Glenn landed after his first orbit of the earth?). Nate was also great about stopping for photos. I am going to tell you a little more about Grand Turk in the captions of the photos below. 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 pictures on a phone. Please…

Not sure what more I can tell you about Grand Turk but I will say that this cruise is almost making me like the Caribbean. (For those new to this blog, this has NEVER been one of my favorite places—too warm, not a beach person, etc.) We loved Grand Turk, we had a great day in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic yesterday that I will write about later this afternoon or later this week and the weather has been near perfect. Yes, it has been hot when we are out and about and I think wearing a mask makes it about 10 degrees warmer but I am writing this on a sea day, sitting outside on our verandah. The temperature is 79 degrees Fahrenheit, the seas are flat as a lake and the breeze is awesome. I could get real used to this, really fast. We are already talking with our buddy Seth about doing another Sail with Seth in a warm climate. We will keep you updated in case you want to join us.

One more thing to mention about the Sail with Seth part of our cruise. This morning he arranged a special Coffee with the Captain just for the group and the captain verified that there are 895 passengers on board and a little more than 800 crew members. That means we have almost one crew member per passenger. No wonder the service is so awesome!

There’s definitely healing properties to being in proximity to the ocean and that breeze. There’s something about that Caribbean climate and humidity.   —Johnny Depp

I May Have a New Favorite “Big” Ship

Many of you know that we are long-time cruisers with more than 30+ cruises in our past. And of those, 20+ have been on Celebrity Cruise line ships. While we have sailed on Holland America before (this is our fifth time), I thought their ships were “fine.” Like in, “that place is just fine.” We always liked Celebrity ships better. Until two things happened. First, Celebrity put all their money into the new Edge class of ship and stocked it full of their “revolutionary” infinite verandah staterooms. (To be honest, this is just an outside stateroom with a window that opens and closes…and not always at your discretion). They also made it so that a great deal of the people on the ship had certain areas they could not get into. For instance, the only forward looking spot (to see what’s in front of the ship) on an Edge class vessel if you are not in a suite is…the gym. That’s just wrong. Sailing into Stockholm or through the Panama Canal I can’t even imagine not being able to take pics from around the entire ship.

As I said in the headline, I may now have a new favorite “big” ship. I put those quotes around it because to be honest, this ship is not that big. In October 2019 we sailed on Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas which is TWICE as big as the Nieuw Statendam. But let’s talk about why I am loving this ship. BTW: Celebrity Flora in the Galapagos will always be our favorite small ship.

First, the design is better than any I have seen on a HAL ship before. Everything is  just beautiful, without a hint of gaudy. The crew and the service have been amazing. Easily an equal to any Celebrity cruise we have taken before. Of course that may be because of our reduced passenger load but as of now, just about every waiter/server/manager/etc. that I have come in contact with more than once…knows my name. Seriously. (BTW: Correction needed. We had been told that there were only 750 or so passengers on board but we found out that there were actually 900. 750 of us departed Fort Lauderdale on Sunday while the other 150 or so were already on board from a previous cruise.)

I have loved all the public rooms we have been in and since I showed you our stateroom yesterday, here’s my shots from around the ship. 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…

Yesterday we were in Grand Turk where I took some pictures that were so good they really surprised me. I did not think there would be anything that great to shoot in Grand Turk—but there was! And today we spent most of the day in the company of our buddy Seth and some of his Sail With Seth group touring Amber Cove and Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. More about that and our visit to Grand Turk tomorrow, because thankfully—we have a SEA DAY and I can get some more photos processed and some more writing done.

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.    —Steve Jobs

On Board the Nieuw Statendam…it’s AWESOME!

Yesterday (it’s Monday right now and will probably be Tuesday before I finish this), we sailed on Holland America’s (HAL) Nieuw Statendam from Fort Lauderdale (FLL), Florida. After two really great nights in our FLL AirBnB we got to board in the first group. We had heard that HAL was being really being a stickler about boarding times due to the pandemic and we were no exception. Our time said noon and at 11:15 I dropped Kathleen, Steve and Jamie off at the port and took our rental car back to the airport. A quick cab ride back and we were ready to board right on time.

BTW: Before we went I did an early morning photowalk around Fort Lauderdale’s Riverwalk and here’s some pics from that morning. 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…

Our home for the next 10 days

Check-in took less than 15 minutes and would have been faster if you took out all the COVID stuff. As soon as we got on board our rooms were available so we went to drop off our carry on luggage and to unpack those. I am not sure if I mentioned this but originally we had a verandah stateroom on deck six. About two weeks before the cruise we got an e-mail asking if we wanted to upgrade to a Neptune Suite. Neptune Suites are the second highest level of suites on the ship and the cost to upgrade was amazingly reasonable so we grabbed it. The suite is AMAZING! More than 350 square feet (which is big for a cruise ship stateroom, with a monster bathroom and a huge living space. Here’s some pics to show you what we are living in for the next ten (now nine) days and…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…

You always hear folks say, “I don’t need big room or a verandah because I am never it in.” This is true until you get a stateroom/suite like this. Then you are in it because you have everything you need. And on this cruise (and others for awhile) this is the only place we can walk around without our masks on. And because it’s just awesome!

I will drop some photos in my next post of the rest of the ship. Here are some facts about this particular cruise. First, due to COVID there are fewer than 750 cruisers on board. This is on a ship built to hold 3,214 passengers when at full capacity so to say that things feel empty is an understatement. I will say that there are some events (the Blues Club we were in last night) that can get crowded but we are doing our best to stay in our little pod of four.

We were supposed to have six ports of call on this cruise but that got tossed out the window yesterday when we could not land at Half Moon Cay, (HAL’s private island). This was NOT due to COVID but to high winds. Half Moon Cay is a tender port (that means they drop life boats and ferry you in from the ship) and the winds and seas were just too high to put those in the water safely, so we skipped that port. I will give the activity staff high marks because they quickly adjusted and found lots of things for people to do. BTW: If you are a trivia buff, this cruise is for you. I think there is trivia scheduled about every three hours along with lots of other activities.

Still have five ports scheduled and as I type this we are tied up at the pier in Grand Turk. We (the four of us) are going off around noon to do a HAL shore excursion. We got two free with our cruise and this is one of those. Grand Turk will allow us to get off and just wander around.

Tomorrow we are in Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic, then a sea day, then we hit Bonaire, Curacao and Aruba in that order, on successive days. Then it’s two sea days and we are back in Fort Lauderdale. So far, everything is going great. More on the ship, the activities and the food in my next post.

The purpose of our lives is to be happy.   —Dalai Lama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laughter is an instant vacation.  —Milton Berle

 

 

We are trying to travel again…

Just a quick note tonight. We are at the start of what we hope will be a really great 14 night vacation that we booked to make up for losing our European trip in December. When that trip got cancelled we immediately looked for someplace else to go. We didn’t want Europe because at that point things were going south there pretty quick and we have a big Mediterranean cruise planned for next autumn.

So one of the first people we asked for advice was our good friend Seth Wayne. Long time readers of these posts may remember that Seth used to be a meteorologist in Seattle and we met him on Twitter because of our mutual love of cruising. He also had a travel show on KOMO radio and I was often one of his guests to talk travel. Two years ago, Seth left his job at KOMO-TV as the morning weather guy and became the Director of Communications and Brand Ambassador for Holland America (HAL) cruise line. Since then (minus the pandemic) he has been on a HAL ship. From time to time he does a special Sail with Seth cruise where he is on the ship with a group of folks and there are all kinds of additional activities that he runs for the group. So I called to ask him when the next one was…and he said, “Hey, come with me to the Southern Caribbean on January 23rd!”

So even though I am NOT a fan of the Caribbean, because it was Seth and because we hadn’t been anyplace since our July trip to the Galapagos (which is forever for us) we jumped on it. And then came Omicron. So for the last two weeks we have been following all the news to see what was going on with the virus and cruising.

Yes, we have heard all the CDC stuff about cruising but I still totally believe that being on a cruise ship is by far the safest way to travel. Sure you can drive, but eventually you have to stop and eat or sleep. You could fly but when you do, you have no idea if the person next to or in front of or behind you is vaccinated or willing to keep their mask on correctly for your entire flight. But when you cruise, you know that every person on board has been fully vaccinated and wears a mask except when eating or drinking. Not only that but you can’t board without a negative COVID test whether you are vaccinated or not.

So last Saturday we went and got ourselves a Kaiser PCR test to be sure we were safe to fly south. We passed with a NEGATIVE result (which is kind of weird…to say that it’s a bad thing to be POSITIVE) and then we quarantined at home (no market trips, no restaurants, etc.) until this morning when we were picked up by Century Car Service and whisked off to SEA-TAC airport for our flight to Fort Lauderdale. I would love to say that everything went perfectly and it almost did except for the one hour delay to replace a knob in the cockpit But we finally got here and we even had time for a quick dinner at the hotel before I ran back to the airport to pick my brother Steve and my sister-in-law Jamie who are back traveling with us again. (They haven’t gotten to go anyplace since we came home from Ireland in June 2019) And now I am sitting in bed at the Le Meridien Hotel in Dania Point, FL writing this post.

Our cruise does not sail until Sunday and between now and then we are going down to Key West tomorrow, then back up to Wellington to have dinner with our buddies Mike and Cathy and then an AirBnB back here in Fort Lauderdale so we can do another COVID test before we sail on Sunday.

The big message here is to get ready for some more photos and posts as we spend the next two weeks out and about in Florida and the Caribbean.

In the Caribbean the temperature never changes, the sun just goes down.      —Kris Marshall

 

2021 Top Ten (could be anything)

Over the last few days I have written about my five best food experiences of 2021, my 10 best photos I took in 2021 and my five biggest downers of 2021 so today, let’s get to the good stuff to close out the year. So here are the 10 best things I loved in 2021. BTW: Unlike my photos which I numbered, this group is in no particular order (except the NUMBER ONE which is down at the bottom).

Walking all year

It’s funny that I am choosing to write about this first. I guess it’s because I haven’t been able to do it for a week (as of today) and that’s killing me. Too much ice and snow outside keeps me indoors. I am going stir-crazy but I know if I slip and fall then I might not be able to walk for weeks. It has been a big part of my life this year. So far in 2021, I have walked 1,466 miles (that’s 2,359 kilometer for our Canadian viewers). If I had just kept going and not come home I could have walked to my childhood home in Palm Springs and then to my brother’s place in San Juan Capistrano. Or I could have walked back and forth to our friends in Chilliwack, BC almost six times. Can you tell I love my walks? (BTW: I know how far I have gone because I use the wonderful app, Map My Walk from Under Armour. )

Going to Southern California twice to see Jamie and Steve

This was supposed to have been the year that the four of us went to Europe (for the third time) together and did a bunch of other stuff. But we “made do” with visiting my brother and sister-in-law in Southern California…twice. Great weather, lots of fun, family, food and superb activities organized by Jamie made these visits at least a good substitute for Europe. Not really, but we did have fun. We even went to the historic Musso and Frank Grille in Hollywood for dinner.

Stopping to see Mike and Meeting Cathy in June

We had so many schedule changes for our Galapagos trip in July that we were thrilled when it all finally worked out and we ended up  flying through South Florida to get to Ecuador. Thrilled because this gave us a chance to add on a couple of days to see one of our best friends and fellow Martini Mate Mike and to meet the new love of his life, Cathy, in person. We had an outstanding time, Mike even got up at 2:00 am to take us all the way to the Miami airport (WHAT A FRIEND!) and we LOVED Cathy. So it really stands out as a highlight for us. Even better, we get to see them again (I really hope) in three weeks.

Getting to go back to Canada in September

Over the last 15 years we have spent a lot of time in British Columbia. Specifically Chilliwack, BC. That’s because that’s where our friends Bob and Judy live. And in case you missed it, since the start of the pandemic, Canada had closed their border. That meant that even though we could FaceTime to talk, we hadn’t seen them in person from the day we got back from our Mardi Gras cruise (March 2o, 2020) until we finally got to get tested, get the Canadian entry app, show our Nexus cards and get in to see them in September. That’s a long time not to see someone you are used to seeing at least every other month. If all works out and it doesn’t snow again, we may go up again next weekend!

Going to Seaside with family in August

Every summer (or at least three of them) we have rented an AirBnB type place with our grandkids (and their parents). This year we went to Seaside, Oregon. I can’t tell you how much I cherish that week with them. We play games, go to the beach, local attractions, make meals together and watch special movies in the evenings (Star Wars!!!). Can’t wait until August 2022 to do this again.

Ted Lasso–forever

I know. It’s a television show. But I love television and it is the best television show ever made—in my somewhat humble opinion 😜. There is not a single episode where I don’t laugh, cry and exult in these glorious characters. I have watched each and every episode at least four times and some even more. We watched their Christmas show on Christmas Eve and will every Christmas Eve from now on. I listen to two podcasts about the show every week during the season. I still listen to Brett Goldstein’s “Films to Be Buried With” podcast every week.  I follow all the actors on Instagram. I have downloaded every song Hannah Waddingham has recorded that wasn’t from a West End musical. I watch every YouTube video about the show that YouTube throws at me—and that’s a lot. I have my Richmond FC scarf and I am ready to root for Ted and the Greyhounds again next summer. I am a total fanboy and completely obsessed. The show just speaks to me. When it comes to Ted Lasso, I am never a goldfish (you only get this if you have seen the show—go watch it!).

Getting fully vaccinated and staying that way with boosters

This isn’t the highlight of the year but it led to everything else we did. Do you remember when the vaccine was first introduced and so many people (like us) were clamoring to get our hands on our first shot…and then our second. We got our first one at the end of January and our second in mid-February. Then in mid-July I was in our local Kaiser (our HMO) clinic and they said they were throwing away vaccine every day because it was defrosted and people weren’t showing up to get it. I just don’t understand the anti-vaccination crowd. We know friends and relatives of friends who are part of that group and they are normally intelligent people. Please explain this because I can’t. I just know that I have had three, full potency shots (I take an injected auto-immune drug weekly so I got a full shot for my third and not a booster) and Kathleen is boosted.

Storyworth–all year long

I think have mentioned Storyworth on this site before but here’s a quick explanation if I haven’t. For Christmas 2020 my daughter gave me a one-year subscription to Storyworth. Since then I get an e-mail every week with a single question about my life. Either my past, my opinions or my relationships. Each week I answer the question and they keep them and at the end of the year (now) I order a pre-paid, printed book of all of the stories so that my grandkids can know about their Grandpa and how he got this way 😜.

I am currently in the process of editing my book (that’s the cover above) and I will order the printed version for myself next week. Once I see my printed copy, I will order two more, one for each of the grandkids. This has been a wonderful experience. I have learned so much. Over my lifetime I have been in therapy a quite a few times, but writing these stories had been more therapeutic than any of that. It does get a little dark sometimes but it’s really brought back some good and not-so-good memories. And yes, I guess I am verbose. The average Storyworth book is about 250 pages. I am over 450 at this point. Can you tell I have loved the experience?

Retiring from Jostens Yearbooks after 39 years last June

To be completely honest, this was not supposed to happen until 2022. I love even numbers and I really wanted to get to 40 years with Jostens and my own company, Koobraey Productions. But COVID did this in as well. Yearbooks have been changing every year of those 40 years and I still found things to write and teach about but when the pandemic hit and things were NOTHING like they have ever been before, it was just enough to push me to walk away. Jostens and Koobraey have been a great place to be self-employed for those 39 years and there isn’t much I would trade for the friendships I have made during that time.

It was a career I never expected (I was supposed to be a history teacher) but loved and did quite well with. From the day I started in 1982 until last June 14, I loved a lot of it. The six months since retiring (I am still in my “funtirement” job booking travel with Expedia Cruises) have been so busy I can’t figure out where I used to fit this job into my life.

Going to the Galapagos on Celebrity’s Flora in July

Being honest, this is number one. I mean not only was it the BEST thing we did in 2021 it may be one of the 10 best experiences I have ever had in my life. It is definitely the best trip/cruise/adventure we have ever done. We loved it so much we are going to do it again in 2024 to see the Inner Loop islands. I find it very hard to put into words what this adventure meant to us. Not only was it the first time we got to really travel after the shutdown, it was so much more than I ever thought it would be.

For me, the biggest excitement was the photography. The Galapagos are a photographer’s heaven. After a year of not shooting much of anything other than grandkids (which I love shooting) it was like I got all caught up in a week. Certainly equal to the photography were the amazing people we met on Celebrity’s Flora. There is no way I would go again and not go aboard that ship. It made the trip so very easy not to mention being the best place ever to come back to at night. Every single crew member we met was amazing. The guides, the crew in the dining room, the chef who made me sango, the officers and we were especially lucky to have been sailing the week that Celebrity’s resident scientist, Ellen Prager was onboard. I was never much for science but going to this incredible place and talking to Ellen and the guides she trains really got me excited about it. I leave you with a special gift to close out 2021, a slide show of my best photos from the islands. Happy New Year!

 

Whether it’s the best of times or the worst of times, it’s the only time we’ve got.

Art Buchwald

Going home…kind of

As I write this I am sitting in an AirBnB in Palm Springs. Tomorrow night is my 50th high school reunion. For those of you who don’t know me personally, I grew up in the tourist-haven of Palm Springs way back in the 50s, 60s and 70s. So here I am back in my hometown with my bride, my brother and my sister-in-law. And I am kind of bummed out about the reunion because my best friend from high school that had been planning on being there had to turn around and head for home to deal with a medical problem 😔.

But we actually have been on the road since Wednesday. We flew down from our favorite airport, Everett, Washington (PAE) to John Wayne International in Santa Ana, CA where my brother picked us up. We got to see a bunch of friends we had cruised with (who just happened to be my niece and my sister-in-law’s sister and her husband and daughter and my niece’s boyfriend) when they all came over for dinner. We had a great time and my sister-in-law is an awesome cook and an award-winning baker and I may gain back all the weight I lost for the reunion before we go home.

My sister-in-law is also a great activity planner. Yesterday we drove two hours through Los Angeles traffic to visit the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. For a film buff like me, it was awesome. It is fairly new (opened just a few weeks ago). Lots of great stuff about how movies are made, about the Oscars themselves, about just everything and anything about movies. We spent three hours viewing all the exhibits as well as having a quick bite in their cafe and checking out their rooftop viewing area. It was wonderful. There were a lot of artifacts that you would know from movies.

Then we did a very cool drive up Hollywood Blvd and back down Sunset Blvd while waiting for our dinner reservations at the historic Musso and Franks. It was an outstanding dinner. Great bread, great drinks, 1050’s stuffed celery, pasta, steaks and the nightly special, chicken pot pie. The real reason to go to Musso and Franks is the experience. You sit in booths that have appeared in movies and books for years. Who knows who has sat in this booth before us.

Dinner at Musso and Franks

Today was all about getting to Palm Springs. We headed out about 11:00 am and have been here since 1:00. Stopped for a quick lunch and then it was off to head out and hopefully see my old nephew Sean who owns a vinyl record store in nearby La Quinta. Unfortunately, he was off on a record buying trip to Los Angeles so we missed him. Finally after a pretty long wait we were able to check into our AirBnB. This particular AirBnB experience has not been a great one so far. The place looks great in the pictures but not so much in reality. Tomorrow night is my reunion. More later and maybe some desert photos.

You can never go home again.

Thomas Wolfe

Quick (well not that quick) Updates

Just dropping in with a couple of things I have seen in the last few days that I wanted to share…and a comment on my writing.

Follow up to my Seattle post

If you read my last post you know that I am really unhappy with the state of the city we live closest to—Seattle. This morning this was in The Seattle Times:

If you have been here, you know that the number two (after the Space Needle) tourist attraction in the city is Pike Place Market. It’s now a haven for drug users, panhandlers who are aggressive and lot of other problems. This happened yesterday (October 4). Everyday brings new reports of problems. If you are coming to Seattle in the next months, be VERY careful.

Cruising is the safest way to travel right now

Earlier this week I saw an excellent article by Gene Sloan about cruising. Gene used to be the travel editor at USA Today. He now writes for the website, The Points Guy. (If you aren’t familiar with The Points Guy—the site is all about the best way to use points and mileage rewards but also covers major travel stories.) The story he wrote is all about why cruising is probably the safest way to travel right now. His reasons include the fact that most cruise lines are requiring everyone on a cruise to be vaccinated. They are, in many cases, requiring masks to be worn as well. The people who are on these cruise ships have agreed before sailing to these rules. There’s no discussion about vaccinations and no fights about masks. If you are onboard, you have already indicated you will comply. If not, they put you off at the next port.

Contrast that with some places in the USA where many are unvaccinated, won’t wear masks or think COVID is a government conspiracy. Or airplanes where people who won’t wear masks fight with the flight attendants. So I get where Gene is coming from and I couldn’t agree more. You can read the entire article by clicking HERE.

It’s October!

Of course you knew that, but it is really exciting to us because now we can say that we are traveling this month…and next month…and the month after too. Sadly not until the very end of October and November but we are still traveling.

Later this month (on Kathleen’s birthday–October 27th) we are off to Southern California for a few days. The big reason we are going is my 50th high school reunion in Palm Springs on October 30th. Happily, it also means we get to see my brother and his family as well as spend a couple of days with them in Palm Springs.

Then on November 30th (see what I mean about the end of the month) we are flying to Europe! First up, five days in Lisbon, Portugal. Never been there before but can’t wait to go. Then we fly to meet my brother Steve and his wife Jamie in Amsterdam to stay at our favorite hotel in the world…The Banks Mansion. We stayed there in 2017 when we did a British Isles cruise and can’t wait to go back.

That part of our trip is on our own—not a cruise ship or tour group in site. But after we leave Amsterdam we come under the care of Viking River Cruises as we fly to Prague for a three day pre-cruise visit. Then we move on to Nuremberg, Germany for another one day pre-cruise visit.

Then the cruise starts. We board the Viking Long Boat Atla in Regensburg, Germany for an eight day cruise to visit the Christmas Markets in the cities on the Danube River. We stop in Passau, Germany, Vienna, Austria, Krems, Austria and then finish in Budapest, Hungary. Of course I will be blogging it all so you can follow along with us as we go. Expect a whole lot of Christmas!

Being verbose

A while back my best buddy Bob told me that I was verbose. I answered him in a post that you can read by clicking HERE.

If you don’t feel like going back to read it, here’s the definition:

Why do I bring this up now? Because I know I write that way. I mean this post was supposed to only be a quick look at three topics. And here I am at 713 words so far (WordPress keeps track of it). But about three months ago I heard a great quote about being verbose and I had to share it for those of you who read my ramblings. It is below. I had originally heard it attributed to Mark Twain but I found that it wasn’t but it does sound a lot like me.

I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.  —Blaise Pascal