Lately I have been doing a lot of planning for our upcoming trips. We are currently snowed in so that gives me time to catch up on a lot of things. Since I have been doing this I thought I would give you a little insight into how I plan travel.
First we decide where we want to go. Often this is spur of the moment. In the case of booking our next trip, our cruise on Celebrity’s Reflection to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, we decided to do this trip almost three years ago when we were onboard Celebrity Solstice sailing to Alaska with our Martini Mates. We booked it because we wanted to go to New Orleans (one of the few US cities on our list that we haven’t been to yet) and going during Mardi Gras is a big bonus. So we started planning this that long ago.
When we first book a cruise or decide we are going to go someplace, I make a list of everything I need to do for that trip. I will usually do this in my packing program (Packing Pro) that has a place for tasks as well as packing lists. This includes booking the cruise and flights to get there. Then I get on my Mac and go the King County Library website and search for all the travel guides they have about that place. I place them on hold and they ship them to my local library.
When I tell people I do this, they ask why don’t I just buy the books in paperback or Kindle editions? Because nothing gets out of date like a travel book. That’s why people like Rick Steves and Fodors, Blue Planet, Top Ten and Frommers do a new/update about most places every year. Hotels, restaurants, tour companies all open and close so why should I spend money to buy them when our library does a great job of keeping up. I have about six books on the Galapagos, Portugal, Budapest, Vienna and Prague in the house right now and all of them are 2018 and 2019 editions. If I like one a bunch and want to refer to it again and again, then I will buy it. Usually the Kindle edition because then I can have it on my phone when we are traveling.
About this time is when I do my preliminary research. I am looking for the best part of town to book pre and post cruise hotels (or in the case of a land trip, just hotels) as well as trying to find out if we want to rent a car or rely on public transportation and if we need restaurant reservations to get into the places we would love. I will usually get books from the aforementioned Rick Steves (great for restaurants and tours but he and I never agree about hotels), Frommers, Fodor, Lonely Planet, Top Ten and Eyewitness.
I won’t read every page in the books but I will peruse all of them to see what they mention as top destinations, lodging and restaurants. If a few mention the same places as being great, they usually are. At that point if I am going to do hotels, I then check with friends who I know have traveled to that place. My first stop is ALWAYS the website of our good friend Mike Preisman. Mike not only picks great places, he does a great job of giving you his opinion of them and has really great photos of them as well. I know from experience if Mike liked a hotel, I am going to like it and it will be a good value. And I can be sure his photos will show me what a hotel room really looks like.
After checking with friends, it’s time to book hotels or, in some places, AirBnBs. Before I do that, I will have looked at every actual hotel website as well. Then I have my travel agent do the booking 😜 (that would be me).
11 months before we travel (especially true for international travel) I start looking for airfare. We have been very lucky in that up to this point when we travel internationally we have been able to use miles/points to buy all our tickets since our first two trips. Getting those can be a challenge because there is less and less availability than there used to be. More people with more miles competing for the same seats. That means I start as early as I can. We are going to Europe for a river cruise in December and the hunt for air will start in early February. In case you don’t know this, 11 months is usually the earliest you can book a flight.
Another thing we have to decide before we book a flight is where do we want to go before we go where we want to go. I really did mean to type that. Many times we are taking a cruise but we may want to go someplace else first. For instance, last summer we were taking a cruise from Dublin to Iceland and back. But it was just an 11 day cruise and Europe is way too far to go and use our valuable miles to just take an 11 or 12 day vacation. Plus since we are semi-retired we can spend more time away from home. So as we planned this trip, we decided that instead of flying directly to Dublin, we would fly to Edinburgh, spend four days and then a train to York and six days with our Leeds buddies before we flew to Dublin for the cruise. We have to decide all that before we book air. Lots of research.
Once the cruise is booked (if this trip involves a cruise) and the airfare purchased and hotels reserved, I start with the sites we want to see. We do a lot of research on those as well using notes I made from the books (Kathleen and I share notes on our Apple devices about our trips), websites (especially Mike’s) and other recommendations on what to see. Then I create a Google map. I have done one for every major trip we have taken. I put our lodging on the map first and then all the places we want to see while there. I use a different layer for every city on the same trip. So for instance on our Mardi Gras trip we are going to Sarasota and Boynton Beach pre-cruise and then New Orleans, Costa Maya and Cozumel. So each of those places has its own layer with all the places we want to see. To get an idea of this, you can click here to see this one.
Once we have seen where everything is, we start planning our day…or I do. Kathleen seems to like where I decide to go and she does contribute places she wants to see if I have missed them.
All the way through this process I have been adding these to my TripCase app on my phone. You can find the one by clicking here. It keeps track of everything I book. Some of it automatically. For instance, when I buy my air, I just send the confirmation e-mail to TripCase and the schedule is automatically added. It places everything in one place for that trip and, when we are traveling, everything is in once place and as long as I have synched it while we have internet access, I don’t need to have access again to get to all my info. One of my favorite Canadian readers told me about it and I can’t thank her enough. It has been awesome.
All this time, if we are going on a cruise, we are posting on the Cruise Critic Roll Call for the cruise trading info and getting suggestions about things to see and do and having people ask if we want to share tours and day trips.
At this point, we are just about ready to go. The only other thing I sometimes do (if we will be doing any driving) is stop by AAA and grab some actual paper maps (yes, I still use those—it gives me a better overview) of where we will be driving as well as put all the places we want to drive through into our Garmin GPS (yes, I still have one of those because I like it better than my phone).
I welcome your comments or questions on this process. I should add that we have lots of friends and relatives who travel with us who rely on us to plan the trips and we are happy to do so. The fact that I love doing this is one of the reasons I love being a travel agent. And I love planning travel for anyone and everyone.
My father’s plan was, we were going to grow up and travel the world.
—Philippe Cousteau, Jr.
Just want to say that I don’t believe in New Year’s Resolutions. What I do believe in is New Year’s goal setting. So I have been doing mine this past week and things are looking good. Of course like everyone else I know—I would love to lose weight. And I have a continuing goal of learning new things. I want to be a better photographer, a better cook and to get better with technology. And I have to find a way to deal with logins and passwords 😜. They are my nemesis.
But the one goal both Kathleen and I have this year is to TRAVEL! To lots of places. If you have been following this blog during 2019 you will know that we lost two of our beloved Martini Mates. After losing Carol and Sandra, Kathleen and I decided that we should not put off some of the travel we kept saying we would do…someday. So far this year we have the following planned:
Late February/Early March—Sarasota, Florida and a Celebrity cruise to New Orleans for Mardi Gras
One of the few major cities we have not been to in the US is New Orleans. We were looking for a way to go there and spend a few days and see the city. When we heard about this cruise we thought, what a great way to see it. Then we heard that it was going during Mardi Gras. After our experience going to Edinburgh during the Fringe and Military Tattoo we thought AWESOME!
Just so you don’t think that we are nuts to go to New Orleans on a cruise ship, we are there for almost three full days, docked right downtown just blocks from the Mardi Gras parades. And yes, we fully realize that there will be crazy crowds and it will make it hard to get into restaurants but anytime we want to, we can head back to the ship and get away from it all. Besides New Orleans and Mardi Gras we also get two other ports, a cruise and we are going with a bunch of friends.
Pre-cruise we are going to Sarasota, Florida with our buddies Bob and Judy. The cruise is only 11 nights so we could not see just flying all the way to Florida for just those 12 days. Since we had been to the Keys a few years back pre-cruise we were looking for someplace else to explore. About five years ago I spent three days in Sarasota teaching a workshop and I was really impressed so we decided to go there first, then rent a car and drive down to the Fort Lauderdale area the day before the cruise. We will stay with our awesome buddy Mike pre-cruise and then he is coming with us on the cruise as well.
Late April—Pacific Coastal cruise from San Diego to Vancouver, BC on Holland America’s Koningsdam
You may remember that our good friend Seth Wayne (the guy who I did all the radio shows with). Well, he has left KOMO television and radio and taken a position with Holland America Cruises as their new Director of Communications/Brand Ambassador. In that new job he will be doing a lot cruising and this is one of the ones he will be on so we thought, why not run down to Southern California, see my brother and his wonderful bride (who is now RETIRED) and then sail to Vancouver and take the train home from there.
Besides the fact that we will be onboard with Seth, this will be a learning cruise for us as Koningsdam is an entirely new class of ships that we have never been on so we will love that part. It’s only a four night cruise but it should be a lot of fun. And I forgot to tell you all the exciting new ports we will visit between San Diego and Vancouver, BC. That’s because there aren’t any. On those four nights, we only stop once—in Seattle. LOL
Late July/Early August—Quito, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands
This is the BIG trip of 2020! We are flying down to Southern Cal again to see my brother and his bride for a few days before we fly Copa Air through Panama City to Quito. We are there for two nights before we fly out to the Galapagos Islands and board Celebrity’s tiny (only 100 passengers) ship, Flora. On Flora we will sail around the islands for seven full days, only getting off on Zodiacs with naturalists as our guides. I have started following Marvi Cordova on Instagram. She works on board Flora and take the MOST AMAZING PHOTOS of the ship and of the wildlife on the islands. If you want to see what we will be seeing and what I will be posting to this blog, check out her gorgeous photos.
Late September—Pacific Coastal cruise on Celebrity Eclipse with Bob and Judy
We are always looking for a chance to get away and a chance to get on a cruise ship. When it leaves from Vancouver or Seattle, that is really a big plus because we don’t have to fly anywhere. And we are always looking for a reason to sail with Bob and Judy. This five night cruise does stop in a few places—like Astoria, Oregon, Seattle and Victoria. But since we don’t have to fly at all, this one will give Bob and I a chance to get our tuxedos out of mothballs and formal around a little bit. We like that kind of thing. 😀
Early December—Our first river cruise on Viking to see the European Christmas Markets
This is one we have been planning for quite awhile. You have to if you want to sail with Viking because they do sell out quickly and early. We are going with our traveling buddies my brother Steve and his bride Jamie. Jamie’s brother and sister-in-law are also coming along.
We start with three nights before the cruise in Prague, then we join the boat (and it is a boat because it is small enough to go ON a ship) in Nuremberg, Germany where we will visit our first Christmas Market, the oldest of them all. Then it’s on to Regenburg and Passau Germany, Krems and Vienna Austria and finally we finish in Budapest, Hungary. We spend two nights after the cruise in Budapest and then we are deciding where to go next because we will NOT fly all the way to Europe for less than two weeks. It just isn’t worth it to us to go that far and spend that much on airfare and then stay for less than that. We are still debating between three days in Paris or three days in Lisbon.
We would love to have anyone out there who wants to, to come and join us on any of these trips. You can make your own arrangements or call your favorite travel agents (that would be us, right). We promise lots of FUN!
So that’s it! It’s quite the year and I am sure that in between these major trips we will fit a few smaller ones like a hockey excursion to Chilliwack, BC or a wine sojourn to the east side of the mountains. You know us, we hate sleeping in our own beds.
Wherever you go, go with all your heart.—Confucius
Seasons Greetings to all! I have been working on this post for a few days now and I thought I would try and get it online before the new year. I am starting the actual post on December 22 but probably won’t finish it today as we are headed to our Christmas tradition this afternoon—Seattle Men’s Chorus. The concert isn’t until tonight but we always get a hotel room downtown, go out to dinner and then hit the show—it’s our holiday tradition. We have done this now for more than 10 years. If you live near Seattle (or even if you don’t) you should get here around Christmas to see the Chorus.
Picking this up again on December 27. Looks like I will finally get it online tomorrow, the 28th. We had a super Christmas and we hope you did as well. Spent Christmas Eve with our adult kids here at our place and Christmas Day with my daughter, son-in-law and my grandkids. First time I have spent Christmas with my daughter in 20+ years. Long story.
But enough about now, let’s look at last year. Here they are, the best and worst of our travel year in 2019.
Best of Travel-2019
Best dinner companions—Our grandkids, Mason and Maylee on our Alaska cruise on Ovation of the Seas. Can’t begin to tell you how great it was to introduce our grandkids to cruising. In all likelihood, they won’t go on another cruise for quite a while…unless we take them. But every night (except one) we sat next to them in the dining room and had their undivided attention and they had ours. We kid that Kathleen’s arm was bruised from Maylee poking her and saying, “Grandma K, Grandma K, Grandma K”. That’s not only funny but pretty much a true story. I loved getting Mason to try new foods like escargot. He is not the most adventurous amongst us but by the end of the week he had moved totally to the adult menu and had escargot two more times.
Straight on at Reflection
Best cruise—Reflection from Dublin to Iceland and back. We had the best time on not only this cruise but on the almost two weeks that preceded it. From our four days in Edinburgh, to our week with Paul and Gail in Yorkshire, to our 11 night cruise from Dublin to Irish ports and to incredible Iceland, it was outstanding. We were thrilled that after the disappointments of our New England cruise in October 2018, Celebrity cruises came back big time with this one on Reflection.
Best tour guide you can hire that we used in 2019—Birkir Mar in Reykjavik. We found Birkir on Tours By Locals. If you need a guide in Reykjavik, let me know and I will get you Birkir’s info. He was outstanding.
We had our last tea out at Bettys in Ilkley
Best tour guides you can’t hire that took great care of us this year—Our long-time Martini Mates, Paul and Gail who took us everywhere in Yorkshire and the Lake District of England. We have never had so much fun and toured some many places in one short week. It was the best part of our awesome almost-a-month trip in June. We would do the whole thing again in an instant…but sorry, you can’t. They only do tours for their close, personal friends. We are so glad they are ours.
Most incredible child we spent time with that was not our grandchild—Paul and Gail’s granddaughter Jemimah. This girl can write stories and then act them. She can even get her grandparents to play parts in them. Quite the accomplishment for one so young. Meeting her (after hearing so much about her) was a true highlight.
This is our tour guide Frank
Best storyteller—Frank (Dobby the House Elf?) at Stirling Castle in Scotland. When we were in Edinburgh we took a bus tour north to see the Kelpies and Stirling Castle where were led on the castle tour by Frank (who we think looks like Dobby the House Elf from the Harry Potter books) and it was OUTSTANDING! If you are in Edinburgh, the Kelpies and this castle are well worth the trip. But ask if you can wait to take the tour with Frank, it will be worth the wait.
The look outside our stateroom verandah into Central Park in the front half of the center of the ship
A small pano from the top of the ship
Biggest travel surprise—how much we liked the floating behemoth, Allure of the Seas on our FAM cruise in October. We were certain we would hate the BIG ships. Just didn’t think that cruising with 5,998 other people would work out that well, but it did. Royal Caribbean has figured it out on these BIG ships. Too bad they haven’t yet on some of their others.
Best meal on a trip—lunch at the Porch on Reflection—amazing seafood. If you sail on Celebrity’s Reflection or Silhouette, you have to try The Porch. It’s a little outdoor specialty restaurant on the side of the Lawn Deck. just to the right of the Lawn Club Grille facing forward. The seafood is amazing and you can eat as much as you want. They have a seafood tower that includes so much shellfish you won’t believe it. It’s almost worth taking a cruise just to eat there. We are going back in February and can’t wait. Of course having the gang above with us made it that much more fun.
Best sangria we have ever had—during lunch at the Porch on Reflection. Maybe the food wasn’t that good 😂 (it was!) and it was just the Sangria talking but this was DELICIOUS and memorable! And they just kept it coming—so BEWARE! It sneaks up on you. Can’t wait to go back and get more of this as well.
Best video blog about a place we were going—The Broonford’s video blog about Edinburgh. If you go to Edinburgh without seeing Tony’s YouTube videos, you are nuts. We learned so much from him before we went and we are still watching them sometimes because Tony is just a hoot. I wish he had them for every city we want to visit.
Sunrise. There were about 20 people at the top when the sun came up.
Best travel experience—climbing Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh before dawn. One of the experiences I learned from Tony on The Broonford’s video blog was that a great thing to do in Edinburgh was to climb the mountain/hill known as Arthur’s Seat. Alright, at just under 900 feet, it’s really not a mountain but it does tower over downtown Edinburgh and to an average guy like me, it feels like a mountain. Hopefully you all know by now how much I love getting up before dawn (way before dawn) and going out to take photos. Especially when we are on trips. So I set a goal to climb Arthur’s Seat after hearing Tony Broonford talk about it. It was cold! It was windy! REALLY WINDY! And I had injured my knee just a few weeks before so I was wearing a brace…and shorts, but I did it! And I have some amazing pics as well. I would do it again in a minute.
Best cruise on a ship we hated—Ovation of the Seas to Alaska with our grandkids and their parents. Ovation just doesn’t understand Alaska yet. And they don’t understand taking 5,000 American to Alaska as opposed to sailing around in Asia with nothing but Asians on board. It’s an entirely different experience and last summer, this ship’s first in the Alaska market, they failed. Sold out, but failed. But the cruise was AWESOME for us because of the company we kept. Having the grandkids with us for an entire week was wonderful.
Best reunion—spending three days with our friend and fellow Martini Mate Mike at his place in Boynton Beach. We had not seen Mike since his wonderful bride and our dear friend (another of our Martini Mates) Carol had passed away earlier in the year. Although we have had some political differences in the past few years, we have been able to see past those and stay friends. When we decided to take the Allure cruise we e-mailed and asked if we could stay with him pre-cruise. Thankfully he said yes and we had three great days running around the Boynton Beach area with him (not to mention a bunch of great meals at some outstanding restaurants). We can’t wait to see him again when we spend one night pre-cruise with him in February and then he joins us on that cruise.
Worst of Travel-2019
Most disappointing evening: Going to a Mariner Spring Training game in March in Arizona and freezing so bad we had to leave after the third inning. I can still feel that wind blow. In Arizona! In March! Are you kidding me?
Biggest travel screw-up I did—booking a jeep ride in Sedona for the day after we we supposed to leave. We did get our money back but we missed the jeep ride. Then got stuck in traffic on our way to a horrid dinner. I knew being able to book the exact time we wanted to take the tour was too good to be true when I only did it online about three hours before the tour. I should have known better. I will next time. And we won’t travel again without dinner reservations. That’s about the only time we ever argue on trips—when we haven’t planned in advance. I know that some of you will think this ruins spontaneity, but we can always cancel plans if something else comes along but that night in Sedona, the restaurants were PACKED and we ended up in a place I would never have eaten in if we had planned it. (BTW: If you go to Sedona, plan a lot of extra time to drive to dinner. Around 4:00 pm, the traffic goes from bad to stopped.)
Getting the flu on Allure of the Seas, a cold at Paul and Gail’s and having a bad knee for all of it. After our Allure of the Seas trip, someone at our travel agency where we work remarked that they wouldn’t cruise with us because I was always getting sick. And this year it felt like that really happened. The worst was the Allure version of the flu. At least four members of our Allure travel agent class came down with it and two had to be hospitalized. Thank goodness, that wasn’t me. It did seem like I caught everything when we traveled this year but I think that is because I am no longer spending a lot of time in schools (for my real job) and I don’t get exposed to as many germs until I travel.
Saddest experiences of 2019
Worst cruise ship we sailed on—Ovation of the Seas. They just don’t get it. See above under Best Cruise on a ship we hated.
Losing four traveling friends this year.
We lost two of our Martini Mates who passed way too soon. Carol and Sandra will be so missed. Our Martini Mates have been reduced by three (including our beloved Jude in 2014) in the last five years and much to our trepidation and consternation, they were all women. What’s up with that? Our travels will never be the same without these wonderful friends.
We also lost two of our closest friends who we had traveled many, many places with since 2016, who just stopped talking to us, blocked us on social media and cancelled future travel plans with us and we still don’t know why. We miss them but have no clue what we did to make them do that.
Try celebrating the best and not the worst. —Rob Manuel
This afternoon Kathleen and I headed into downtown Seattle to KOMO radio where we met up with our good friend and KOMO-TV weather guy and KOMO radio travel expert Seth Wayne. A year ago today we were getting off Explorer of the Seas after celebrating his 40th birthday with 61 of his closest friends (which we are proud to be part of) so it was only fitting we meet up with him today to talk travel.
Seth does a weekly travel radio show on KOMO radio that you can listen to by clicking here at 4:00 any Sunday. It is also available via Tune-In by asking Alexa to “play KOMO Radio 1000.” She will grab the show for you from Tune-In.
Seth tapes the show earlier in the week and sometimes tapes more than one to be broadcast when he is traveling. Today was a day like that. We taped two shows, one on apps for travelers and the other on general travel topics (how to pick the right cruise, travel insurance, having a passport) and we had a great time doing it.
Tentatively the apps for travel show will air this Sunday, September 22nd at 4:00 on KOMO radio and the general travel show at the same time on October 12. I would love to have you tune in for either of them. I would also love to tell you that they would both be available as podcasts but that would be wrong since the people who do the podcasts at the station are kind of slow adding the shows…like a year behind. But never fear, if you are doing something else on Sunday (like watching the end of the Seahawks game) I will endeavor to tape it and put it online for you next week.
In the meantime, I promised on the air that I would put the list of apps we talked about as well as the ones we didn’t get to on this site. So if you click here you can go to the page where those apps are listed. Some will have links that you can go right to the app when I can find them. Otherwise, just search the App Store of your favorite phone or tablet.
I like to discover new things, and I’m always testing new apps. –Francois-Henri Pinault
Think you can do that? Visit every country in the world? Do you even know (without Googling it) how many countries there are in the world? I will save you some time—there’s 193. Late last week I was checking my Twitter feed and I saw a post from Conde Nast Traveler’s website about a guy (Sal Lavallo—that’s him at right) who actually visited every single country in the world. All 193 of them. WOW! (I want his frequent flyer miles!)
So I checked out the article. It was great. Instead of a typical travel log or interview, Conde Nast Traveler asked this great guy 193 questions. One for every country he visited. I read every one of them and I loved them. Sal is the is the kind of guy who I would love to meet and I would love to travel with. The article that you can read by clicking here is worth a look. And the best part is, it reads fast.
You can find out all about his life and his journey in bits and pieces by reading just a few of the 193 questions. You can learn some cool stuff like, which country has the best tap water or what was his worst mistake. Or the most unusual place he slept and the hardest country to get into. I am betting if you start, you will finish. It’s that good.
Were you ever bored? There was always something new to see and learn.—Sal Lavallo, the man who visited all 193 countries of the world.
So in case you missed it, a couple of days ago, I listed our favorite shore excursions of all our 25+ cruises. Now the bad ones. Its funny that all but one of them were cruise line shore excursions that were in one case dangerous and in the others just terrible. The real theme of this post is disappointment.
Horseback riding in Hualtuco, Mexico
So this one was the closest we have come to being injured on any of our cruises. It was our first Celebrity cruise, through the Panama Canal and we stopped in the beautiful little town of Hualtuco in Mexico. We had decided to go horseback riding on a ship’s excursion. Happily, it was limited to only 12 people. Sadly, 14 people took the tour. The extra two were crew members who decided they would like to join us. As soon as we got there the people running the stables had a problem. They only had 12 horses. They had us all stand around a corral and they told us which horse to take. When they found a nice one for Kathleen, one of the guys helped her up on to that horse which promptly decided to lay down on its side. Since this was pre-hip replacement, she was able to scramble out before the horse put its full weight on her. Disaster avoided. We thought.
Then before they assigned me a horse, they ran out of horses. The two people that were left horseless were a very nice lady who had decided not to go and…me. The man running the stables said something to one of his workers who brought down a huge, black horse and the boss indicated that horse was for me, I guess since I was biggest person on the tour.
I did my best to get on the horse but that horse did NOT want to be ridden. I am not now nor have I have ever been a horse person but I got up on the horse. They put the horses in a line to head to the beach and I was in the middle of the line on a horse who was really mad about being ridden. He kept biting the horse in front of mine and the horse he was biting kept kicking him. Finally he got tired of being kicked so as we walked a trail through a bunch of nasty, prickly bushes he took off through those bushes at a gallop. I had a heck of a time staying on. When he finally stopped, I got off as quickly as I could (kind of fell off, really) and when the guys from the stable caught up with us, I told them I would walk back to the stables. They could keep their big, nasty horse.
When I got back to the stables there were a couple of young ladies working there who were from Canada. They asked me what had happened and when I told them my story, they say, “You rode El Diablo? Even the boss won’t ride El Diablo.” Suffice it to say that when we got back to the ship and lodged a complaint, we got our money back from the cruise line. Had a nice rest of the day in the village and haven’t been horseback riding again since.
Ship’s shore excursion in Constanta, Romania
Ship’s shore excursion in Odessa, The Ukraine
I am grouping these two together because they happened on the same cruise on two successive days. We were on a Celebrity Galaxy cruise back in October 2006 that was called “Exotic Mediterranean” because it went to Istanbul and then into the Black Sea for two stops. It was the first time that a cruise ship, any cruise ship, had ever stopped at these ports and they were NOT ready.
In Constanta, we (52 of us on a great big bus) were first taken to a church (within sight of the ship). It was an interesting church but there were no pews or seats and we were told a choir was going to come in and sing for us. Sure enough, a choir made up of seminarians joined us. We thought, great they are going to sing a song for us. No, we were told that they were going to sing for us…for an hour. While we stood there. We snuck out and sat on the steps of the church until they were done as did most of the group. Then we reboarded the bus to head to a winery for a wine tasting.
When we got to the wine tasting (after a long bus ride) we met a group from the ship coming out. They told us we would have a choice of tasting wine or having a bottle of water. They said, “Take the water!” We did. Smart move on our part.
After the “water tasting” it was off to do some local shopping and have lunch on our own. The bus drove us another our back into the city where we pulled up outside a really big building. We were told that there were shops in the building that the city of Constanta had specifically invited to open for visitors. Guess what shops were in the building? If you said American-based stores like Gucci, Armani, Rolex, Banana Republic, etc. What was in the building was a second-world country’s idea of what an American mall of that time would be like and it was sad. If we did want to go shopping, we would have wanted to see some Romanian products, made by locals. Not what we got. So we tried to find someplace to have lunch and try the local cuisine. But no luck. Guess what kind of food was in the “American mall?” If you said American chain, fast food, you win. KFC, McDonalds, you name it but with prices three times what they charged back home. Not what we had in mind. Pretty much that was true for everyone on the bus.
By this time, it’s around 1:00 pm so a lot of us went back to the bus and asked how soon we would be heading back to the ship. The guide from the ship said we were “lucky enough” to be there to eat and shop until 4:00 pm. THREE HOURS! We asked the guide how far it was to walk to the ship (we had been driven all over the place so it was impossible to tell on our own, and this was pre-iPhones so we had no GPS not that there would have been coverage in Romania) and were told we were miles away from the ship and there was no way to walk. We were also told that because of the type of port we were in, it would NOT be advisable to try and take a cab (also pre-Uber). So we were stuck. Some of us tried walking away from the “American mall” to local stores that served locals but in many cases we were either asked to leave or ignored when we tried to buy something. It was spooky. After an hour, many of us just went back to the bus, got on and sat to wait. At 4:00, with the entire bus full we headed back to the ship. The bus had gone about three blocks when it drove over a hill and there was the ship. It had been about a 20 minute walk away the entire time.
We had hopes that the next day in Odessa in The Ukraine would be better but wishful thinking on our part. About the same kind of day except in different venues. We did get a local lunch in a local restaurant but the “lowlight” of the trip was the Odessa Art Museum. They were doing their best to protect the painting from light and fading. To do this in a “low-cost” way, they covered each painting with a towel stapled to the top of the frame. Seriously. To see the painting you had to walk up to it and hold up the cloth and peek underneath. The rest of the day was about at that level. And again, the worst part was that if we were someplace we would rather skip, we were stuck. We couldn’t leave until they said it was time to go.
These two days, in succession were almost too much to take. Thankfully they followed two incredible days with a private guide named Gem in incredible Istanbul. We basked in the glow of those days while being bored to tears in these two ports.
Heat in Portland, Maine
This one was on our last cruise to New England on Celebrity’s Summit. Sadly, it was on a private tour that I had arranged. We were touring in October but the temperature was more like July.
The heat wave we had encountered in Boston (the high there on October 9 was 86) got worse in Portland. It only got to 84 in the shade but the sun was blisteringly hot (my guess is about 92). We had scheduled a food tour (Old Port Culinary Walking Tour) with Maine Foodie Tours. That turned out to be a HUGE mistake. First, when I booked this for our group of eight, we were told that our party (of 8) would be the only people on the tour and SURPRISE there were eight other people on the tour. The tour started at 10:00 AM when we all met at a local wine shop. We were hoping to have wine but the tour never went inside. Instead we moved to the back of the building next door, a spice shop. The shop was supposed to have AC and it might have but we couldn’t tell. 16 of us were crushed into a space about 8 feet by 10 feet where we had to stand for about an hour while we first tasted a tiny glass of mead (honey wine) and then some of the worst macaroni and cheese I have ever had with tiny bits of lobster in it to put some of the spices from the shop on. In the meantime our guide told us some fun Portland and food facts. When we were done eating (by now it is at least 11:00 am) our guide said you can now look at the rest of the store while I do the dishes…DO THE DISHES! On our time?
Most of us went back outside and walked down the street as it was about 90 inside the shop which faced the full sun while our guide cleaned up for about 25 minutes. By now it is almost 11:30 and we have not been offered water (even though some of the spices we tried were pretty spicy) and it is HOT and we were off to our second place. On the way our guide (who somehow had no clue that most of her tour were seniors and perishing in the heat) just took her sweet time getting us to the second place.
And that friends is as much as I can tell you. My bride had heat exhaustion and she and I abandoned the tour and took an Uber back to the ship. Our friends went on with the rest of the tour and told us later that the food was mediocre and that even though we had started the tour with very little food, at the end there was a ton. So much that they couldn’t even eat it. One of the things everyone was looking forward to was the lobster rolls but by the time they got to where they were served, they were too stuffed to eat them.
We have done food tours in more than 10 cities including two here in Seattle, one in NYC, one in Amsterdam, one in Québec and others in Portland, Oregon, Sante Fe, Savannah and Victoria, BC. This was the worst. It was so bad that I refused to take money from the other six people who were touring with us. I had paid for the tickets in advance so I am stuck but I couldn’t in good conscience charge them.
One of the only good things about this tour was that since it wasn’t a ship’s tour, we were able to walk away and go back to the ship when things went south.
We were on a Baltic cruise off of Celebrity’s Eclipse and it was a WONDERFUL cruise. The ports were amazing and there were lots of them. On our fourth day, we pulled into the cute little port of Warnemunde, Germany. This is the port where about half the ship did what we did (a six hours round trip on a bus to tour Berlin for 5 hours). The other half either wandered around Warnemunde or Rostock (a nearby town) or went to tour a nearby castle. We chose Berlin because we wanted a taste of the city to see if we would want to come back later. We do that a lot. Use our cruise stop to decide if the port is someplace we would want to do a land vacation. We were traveling with Mike and Carol Preisman so we had booked with a large private tour company, for this and the next four ports after it. The only problem with this port was that because of the distance, they had to combine a bunch of small tours into a one big bus…oh no!
On the three hour trip in we had a guide who thankfully did not think he had to fill up the entire time with info. He did however tell some really bad jokes. But when he did talk it was often to tell sad and pathetic jokes that we think, due to the language difference, never quite had a punchline. We knew they were jokes because he kept announcing he had another joke for us. We all groaned. He did the same on the way back.
When we got to Berlin about half of us were arbitrarily moved to another bus (about the same size) and we headed off with another guide (a Frenchman named Yves) to see Berlin. I need to mention that our entire day in Berlin, it POURED rain. If it wasn’t pouring, it was steady. All day long. It made for a dreary day.
As far as I am concerned we got off on the wrong foot with this guide immediately when Yves told us that he was taking us someplace not on our itinerary, the Olympic Stadium. Now if we had wanted to see the Olympic Stadium (looked pretty much like every other stadium) we would have asked to see it or made sure it was on our itinerary. But we were not given a choice. We spent almost an hour driving to it, stopping for a few minutes in front of it, driving around the back of it, stopping to take pics (not a single person got off the bus to take pics) and getting back to the tour. Now if you had asked almost any of us, we would have skipped the Olympic Stadium and spent the time at Checkpoint Charlie (which we drove by at 35 mph) or any of our other stops.
After the Olympic Stadium it seems like we spent the rest of the time before our 2:00 pm lunch driving around avoiding construction. This was in no way the fault of our guides but certainly the detour to the stadium was. And what is it about Olympic Stadiums? Our Helsinki guide pulled the same thing on us.
Our tour said, “Time for lunch.” The one thing it didn’t say was a decent place for lunch. While other people from the ship who were not on our tour got great German food for lunch we were dumped in a spot with no choices at all but tourist fast food. Not at all nice places. The kind of place I would never go to here at home.
We did get to see everything else on our itinerary which included the Charlottenburg Palace (from the outside when we returned), the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, the Tiergarten and Victory Column, the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, the site of the Hitler Bunker, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust Memorial), Potsdamer Platz, the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, Gendarmentmarkt, Unter den Linden, Bebelplatz (Book Burning Memorial, Humboldt University, State Opera House), Neue Wache Memorial, Museum Island, and Alexanderplatz (TV Tower and Red Town Hall). We did see all of these…many at about 30 mph through rain-streaked windows. Other places we got out for a quick picture and back on in no time. At more than three sites only Mike and I got off the bus and shot photos and everyone else just stayed on. We promised to share. One thing that really bugged some people on the bus was that the guide took us to many of these out of order. Now we understand they did that in order to avoid traffic delays but he never announced where we were going or in what order.
We had the same bus set up on the way back and we arrived back at the ship at 10:40 pm. Our only stop on the three hour drive back was at a truck stop for a 10 minute “comfort break.” This meant no dinner (not that we were in any way in danger of starving to death) but it would have been nice if we had stopped at the same type of place we stopped in the morning that had food other than candy bars and ice cream.
On the same Baltic cruise, four days after Berlin, we did the last large-group shore excursion we will ever do. That morning we sailed into the port of Helsinki, Finland. If we had to skip one port, this would have been it. Even as much as I did not like Berlin, Helsinki was a bore. Again we were on a big bus. We drove to a church, to a square in front of a church, to another Olympic Stadium, through downtown, the Sibelius monument (which would have been pretty cool for about 20 minutes, not 90) and that was about it.
Here’s the thing. We spent 45 minutes at the Olympic Stadium (What is with guides and Olympic Stadiums?) and driving by and hearing the entire history of Helsinki and Finland. The guide was like the elderly lady in the old medical alert commercial, the one that’s fallen and she can’t get up, except that this guide was talking and she couldn’t shut up. Seriously, she started talking from the minute we got on the bus until the minute we got off. And when we did get off for what was supposed to be a scheduled full hour of free time in downtown Helsinki that had shrunk down to a very short 15 minutes at the local farmer’s market due to our unscheduled Olympic visit. We might have really liked downtown Helsinki if had had more than 15 minutes there.
So for us, it’s not just the ship’s shore excursions that are a problem, but in many cases, it’s the size of the group. Even the last two of our least favorite were private tours, but they were BIG tours. Big tours where we were captives. Keep that in mind when booking your future shore excursions.
Why do you cruise? This is something that always comes up. When we are with friends who do not cruise (like our next door neighbor who we love anyway) and we tell them that we cruise, we get a look. A look that is almost like we have told them we are swingers. Well, not that bad but close. And I know that I have a lot of non-cruiser friends out in the Twitterverse and in Facebookland so I want to address that today by telling you why we cruise. (WARNING: I may get verbose here.)
We haven’t always cruised. When we got together back in 1997 we did road trips (Yellowstone, Oregon Coast, etc.) and then we did our first big overseas trip to Italy in 2002 followed by the British Isles and Paris the next year…all on land and air. In the meantime, we tried cruising by going to Alaska on Holland America and a HORRIBLE Carnival cruise to Mexico. But what really got us into cruising was that while we were planning our European trips the value of the dollar changed dramatically. A hotel we had booked in Venice for $175 a night became $225 a night between the time we booked it and nine months later when we stayed there. The price of the room in euros hadn’t changed but the exchange rate between euros and dollars certainly had.
So we said, let’s try cruising again. Once you pay the price, you know the price and it stays that way. Our travel agent at the time, the amazing Norma Jean had told us we would HATE Carnival and not to go. She was right. It didn’t fit us. It was great for some but not for us. This time (three years later) she suggested Celebrity. So we booked the Panama Canal in 2004 and sailed. And we LOVED it! We met new friends—some we are still friends with today and had both an amazing time visiting four countries and seeing the canal as well as sea days with more stress-relieving relaxation than I ever knew I needed.
So that’s how we got started. Here’s why we still cruise and have done more than 25 since then and have four others already booked.
You only have to unpack once
This is the first reason that most people who cruise think of when they are asked why they cruise. When we did Italy we each carried 22 inch suitcases and we stayed in five different hotels. We lived out of those suitcases, then we packed them up and moved them on to the next place by air or by train. To be honest, it’s a pain. We did the same thing this last fall in our pre-cruise trip through Canada, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York. Five different cities, packing and unpacking. Then we got on the ship, unpacked into the closet and dresser and we were good to go! HEAVEN!
Your hotel moves every night
If you choose your cruise line well, then every night after you tour a city or an island you come back to a hotel that you love. You have dinner at that hotel, you sleep in the bed you slept in the night before and while you are asleep, the hotel moves to another city or island or town that you can explore the next day. And then you do it all over again. And if you get too tired touring the places on shore, you can stay on board, or there might be a sea day so you can relax. You can go to the spa, take a cooking class or just read a book knowing that the next time you wake up, you will be someplace new.
Cost is set
As I mentioned above, once you buy a cruise, you know what your vacation will cost. A bunch of cruisers just thought, “Not my cruise, I added a bunch of stuff.” And that is true. The cost of a cruise can go up after you sail…if you buy services or things that cost extra while you are onboard. But it is YOUR choice. You don’t have to have that manicure in the spa. You don’t have to go to the speciality restaurant, you don’t have spend an additional cent. A good travel agent should be able to tell you to within a $10 how much you will spend to take a cruise including the price, the gratuities, any tours you want to take or anything else you would like to do. If you go over that, it’s your choice.
Everything is included
So on those land-based vacations we took, we could budget for a certain amount for food. But then we would get to the restaurant and see something on the menu that was more than we had budgeted and since we would probably never get back to this place again, we spent the extra to get it. On a ship, everything you need to survive is included. And on some ships, everything you want to survive is included (think alcohol here).
Planning is easier
This is my favorite. As a travel professional I have done complete land-based trips for clients that you could not fit a single day of the plan on a sheet of paper. There were so many variables. Train tickets, hotel reservations, restaurant reservations, tours, shopping time, etc. When I plan a cruise, I book the cruise, check the ports, book a tour in each one and I am all set. I know where I am going and how I am going to get there. Yes, I could do all that and keep track of it all while I was traveling on land but it’s just too much hassle. I will take a cruise any day.
Easier to disconnect if you want to but also easier to connect if you have to
You have such a better choice with cruising when you want to be able to disconnect from work, your home or the world in general. If you don’t want to hear from anyone, you turn your phone to airplane (cruise ship?) mode and you are all set. The same can be said if you need to stay connected. It’s easier to stay in touch on a ship. There’s WiFi where you need it, you don’t have to search a city for a Starbucks.
It’s a super value
Cruising can be an awesome value. I just had a client come in looking for a longer (more than 20 night) cruise with a base fare of $100 per person, per night. I wasn’t sure I could get him anything that low but lo and behold, I found him a 35 night South American adventure up the Amazon for $97 per night per person. Try going from Buenos Aires to Fort Lauderdale with 25 stops in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Aruba and five other stops in the Caribbean by air, staying in hotels and eating in restaurants for that price. Good luck!
Cruise ships come in all shapes and sizes
So you might want to cruise but you don’t think you want to be on Behemoth of the Seas. We get that. There are cruises on ships that have under 100 passengers and cruises on ships with more than 5,000. There are cruises where the ship itself is the destination. There are cruises where the destination is everything. There are cruises where you could be busy every second and ones where you can do nothing but relax for 22 hours a day (you have to eat sometime).
I saved this one for last because while it is not the reason we started cruising, it is the reason we still cruise. We have made about 90% of the close friends we have in our lives while on or planning a cruise. My two best friends in the world are both Bobs and I met them both on cruises. We have sailed with both Bobs numerous times and we have cruises planned with them in the future. Because of cruising we have friends in England (hi Paul and Gail), Italy (hi Marcello), New Zealand (hi Charlotte, Warwick and Daniel) and Toronto (hi Tim and Perry) and lots of other places. We have been to see some of these folks, we have toured with others, we share memories on Facebook with others.
Both Kathleen and I worked in jobs where there weren’t a lot of people nearby (in my case, my nearest coworker lives more than 65 miles away) or in our age range (most of Kathleen’s coworkers were 20-30 years younger than her) so we have made almost all our friend cruising.
Plus, cruising is a great way to get together with friends without anyone having to host or cook or clean. Many times we have considered renting a cabin or a condo with a bunch of people but then who has to do that stuff. Sure you can share expenses but what about dietary wants and needs. Or handicapped access for someone in your group. If you all go on a cruise together, everything is taken care of for you. It’s been a while (other than a working cruise to Alaska last year) when we have not sailed with at least 10 people that we have sailed with previously. We are part of two groups of cruisers (The Martini Mates and The Silhouetters) who cruise with each other all the time. It’s awesome. We stay in touch on a daily basis on Cruise Critic (more about that in another post), Twitter, Facebook, texting and e-mail. That’s how we plan all those cruises.
So that’s why we cruise. We don’t believe it’s for everyone, but we do think everyone should try it. When we did that Panama Canal cruise in 2004, Kathleen was worried that this Type-A personality guy would go nuts on the six sea days (frankly, so was I) but I now LOVE sea days. And when people ask me my favorite cruise destination, I always have the same answer (always will)—the ship.
I subscribe to a ton of daily travel e-mails. So many that I can barely keep up with them. Today in my inbox was a cool list from a reader’s poll on Condé Nast Traveler website that inspired me to toss it out to you with some notes of my own. You can see the original article with all their comments by clicking here but this is the list of the best small cities to visit in the USA (under one million people).
Best small cities in the USA
15. Santa Barbara, California
14. Newport, Rhode Island
13. Palm Springs, California
12. Napa, California
11. Portland, Maine
10. Key West, Florida
9. Greenville, South Carolina
8. Asheville, North Carolina
7. Monterey, California
6. Sedona, Arizona
5. Sarasota, Florida
4. Alexandria, Virginia
3. Savannah, Georgia
2. Sante Fe, New Mexico
1. Charleston, South Carolina
I see a lot of these lists. I don’t think I have ever seen one I agree with as much as this one. We have been to a number of these small cities and loved them all. I will make some notes about those. In the meantime I need to add the ones we haven’t been to yet, to our list of future places to go. So far we have not visited Alexandria, VA (other than a quick stop on the outskirts while visiting Washington, DC), Asheville, NC, Greenville, SC and Newport, RI. I have been to Sarasota (and loved it) but Kathleen hasn’t so I never count a place as visited unless we both go.
Some thoughts on the other small cities:
Number 15–Santa Barbara, CA and Number 7–Monterey, CA. We haven’t been to either of these places in years. They were both part of our Mom-to-Mom tour we took years ago. We flew into Oakland and visited Kathleen’s mom in San Leandro (near Oakland) and then drove all the way down the coast (staying in both these towns) to visit my Mom in Number 13–Palm Springs, CA. We loved them all but we haven’t been back to Monterey or Santa Barbara in years. Maybe it’s time.
Number 13–Palm Springs, CA. If you know me, you know this is where I grew up. Lived here from the time I was four years old until I graduated from high school (Palm Springs High class of 1971) and went off to college and then moved back for a couple of years after college. My parents lived there until they passed away a few years ago so we have spent a LOT of time there over the last 20 years since I met Kathleen visiting them. I suppose I see Palm Springs from an entirely different point of view than I would as just a place to visit. We were last there in March of last year when our Toronto buddies, Tim and Perry were visiting for some sunshine so we went to meet them.
It has also been awhile since we visited Napa, CA (Number 12) and Key West, Florida (Number 10) but when we did we had a super time. If I had to choose which one to go back to first, I would pick Key West. Our visit was only three days/two nights but we really had a great time. But then we were visiting with our buddies Bob and Jude so that may have been it.
Lastly in the last two years we have done some major touring in all of the top three. We did a week long trip to New Mexico which included Santa Fe (Number 2) and also got to see Albuquerque as well…during the Balloon Festival…which was incredible and if you ever get a chance to attend—do it! Plus we have friends in New Mexico (Hi Mary and John) who took us so many places and made so many great recommendations. If you ever go to Sante Fe, make sure you go to Meow Wolf. I wish I could describe it but the morning we spent there was nothing less than surreal…and fun. Check out their website with that link.
Lastly, just a few short months ago (it seems like a few but it was May 2017) we spent a week touring theLow Country and visiting Savannah, GA (Number 3) and Charlestown (Number 1) and would go back in a minute. Loved both places a bunch. Click the Low Country link and see what we did while there. We can highly recommend just about every single place we went while we were there and we loved the food.
I just realized that I skipped Portland, ME (Number 11). I think that because we were really only there for about half a day on our New England cruise last October and it was hot, humid and horrid. Kathleen almost wound up with heat stroke. Who would have guessed that it would be almost 90 degrees in Portland, Maine in October? We need to give the place another chance. Just not sure when.
So, what small cities have you been to that you loved? What would you go back to? What would you have skipped? Where is the next small city you wan to visit? Let me know in the comments.
When you look at a city, you know, it looks so unique. You feel this kind of uniqueness, you know, and especially if you go from a big city to a small city or if you go from one country to another. Cities look very different, often. They even feel very different. You know, and they are, of course. They certainly are.—Geoffrey West
I love lists! It’s the end of the years so the magazines, newspapers, websites are all featuring best of 2018 lists so I am in hog heaven right now. So today I am posting my first list. Besides posting them here as a post, I have created a special page where they will always exist. See the main menu above.
Places we have been together
So let’s start my lists with a personal one…countries that Kathleen and I have visited. To get on this list, we have to visited this country on the ground (that means changing planes doesn’t count) and together.
USA (of course we were born here)
Canada (Our home away from home. We have so many friends there.)
Italy (Our first overseas trip to find my ancestors)
Vatican City (Ok, we know it’s tiny, but it is a country)
England (Part of our second major trip in 2005)
Scotland (Part of our second major trip in 2005)
France (Part of our second major trip in 2005)
Aruba (Our first real cruise through the Panama Canal on Celebrity’s Infinity)
Dominican Republic (One of our few Caribbean cruises on Celebrity’s Infinity)
Greece (Part of an amazing “Exotic Mediterranean” cruise on Celebrity’s Galaxy)
Spain (Part of an amazing Western Mediterranean cruise on Celebrity’s Century)
Monaco (Ok, we know it’s tiny, but it is a country)
British Virgin Islands (One of our few Caribbean cruises on Celebrity’s Solstice)
Singapore (Maybe my favorite cruise ever on Azamara’s Quest)
New Zealand (Part of a wonderful cruise on Celebrity’s Century)
Belgium (Visited on our Baltic cruise on Celebrity’s Eclipse)
Guatemala (Our second trip through the Panama Canal on Celebrity’s Infinity)
The Netherlands (Almost a week here before our British Isles cruise on Celebrity’s Silhouette)
This summer we will be back in Ireland and adding Iceland to this list. And of course we have been back to a bunch of these places numerous times. And there are many we would like to visit again.