But what about the cruise?

To finalize our Mardi Gras trip I figured that I should tell you about the cruise and give you some general impressions both good and bad. So let’s get started.

_8101855We sailed on Celebrity’s Reflection. This was the same ship we sailed on last June on our Ireland/Iceland cruise. We liked it then and we liked it this time. It is not Celebrity’s newest ship but it is the newest in their Solstice class and since we refuse to sail on the newer Edge class, it is the newest of Celebrity’s ships we will sail on (we will actually sail on a newer ship—the Flora—when we go to the Galapagos this summer but that doesn’t really count as a big Celebrity ship, more of a large yacht). We now know Reflection pretty well.

Let’s start with embarkation. We had driven down from Sarasota the day before to stay with our friend Mike (mentioned a bunch for the last few days) and on Friday (February 21) we headed to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale to board Reflection. The plan was for us to put gas in the rental car, then I would drop Kathleen, Bob & Judy at the cruise port, return the rental car at the airport (about 10 minutes away—without traffic) and then take a taxi back to meet them at the pier. So much for plans. First, I could not find a single gas station (by looking on my GPS) that was within 10 miles of the cruise port (on our way there) so when I got off the freeway to look, the entrance to the port was right in front of us. So change of plans already. I dropped everyone (and the luggage) off at the port and went in search of gasoline before heading to the airport.

How did I try and find a gas station close to the port? I asked my trusty Garmin GPS where the nearest gas station was. It told me there was a Shell station approximately eight tenths of a mile from the port in a northeast direction. So I said great, punched the button and she (we call our GPS an untypeable name) gave me directions to this station. The only problem with her directions was that this station was eight tenths of a mile from where I was…if I could FLY! Since I had to drive, it meant I had to leave the port, go over a bridge and drive about six miles in horrible traffic to get there. By the time I had the gas in the car and was turning it in at the airport a 15 minute trip had turned into a 45 minute trip. I was fuming. But then I reminded myself I was on vacation and I was about to board a cruise ship and I felt a lot better.

Celebrity has a brand new terminal in Fort Lauderdale and it is very nice. This was the first time we had used it. Embarkation was very easy and we were onboard within 30 minutes of me getting out of the taxi (you all know that I prefer Lyft but it the quickest one available in the airport was 15 minutes) and having lunch in the buffet within 45. After that (because of my late arrival), our stateroom was ready. Originally we had booked an Aqua class stateroom but the folks who had booked Aqua with us were unable to join us for a variety of reasons so with other friends on board and wanting to eat dinners in the main dining room with them, we changed to regular verandah stateroom 6244. If you haven’t been on a Celebrity cruise, here’s what it looked like when we boarded.

We have stayed in this type of stateroom before and have enjoyed it. Our only complaint before has been the lack of storage. Those cupboards above the bed are kind of worthless as they are just big, open cabinets. But we recently read on the Cruise Critic boards about some great baskets/bins you could get at a Dollar Store that were collapsible for putting them into your luggage and then fit perfectly into these cupboards when unfolded. They worked SUPER. And since they only cost a $1.00, by the end of the 10 days they were not doing that great, but we just left them behind. One other thing about the stateroom. On the first day we met our stateroom attendant, Kam and he turned out to be one of the best we have ever had.

Enough about the stateroom. Let’s move on to the important stuff—the food. Usually we would do most dinners in the main dining room with friends at early seating. This time since we were stopping in New Orleans and might be having dinner at odd hours while there, we decided to opt for Select Dining. This means we didn’t have a set time for dinner, but we could make a reservation, especially since we were a party of 11 and those tables are rare. So I made a reservation for the first night and I even called earlier in the day to verify that we were good to go. I was told we were all set. But when we arrived at the dining room, they had no record of it and told us it might be as much as an hour until they could seat us. No one was willing to wait an hour so we kind of split up. We (Kathleen and I) went up to the buffet where we had a really nice steak (for me) and pork chop (for K). Bob and Judy joined us and even thought we don’t usually eat dinners in the buffet, this was very good.

Our party at the Lawn Club Grille
Lawn Club Grillers: Allen, Hans, Mike, Mickie, David, Bob, Judy. Kathleen, Me, Barbara and Terry.

The rest of the week this was our dinner schedule, a real mix. We had dinner in the dining room most nights. We also had a late snack in the buffet on our two nights in New Orleans since I was either coming back from being off the ship or heading back out to take pictures of the evening festivities. On another night we had dinner in the Lawn Club Grille which is Reflections outdoor specialty restaurant. That about covers our dinners.

As far as the quality of the food and service, we give the Lawn Club Grille incredibly high marks. I am not a steak person but I had the best ribeye steak I have ever had. And the service was outstanding. In the buffet, we were totally impressed with the selection (even a lot of outstanding Indian food which we had never seen before), food quality and the service, although sometimes it was hard to find a member of the bar staff to take a drink order or get us a glass of wine.

The dining room on the other hand was pretty much mediocre. Maybe we just expect too much but after twenty Celebrity Cruises their menu is very tired and needs to be refreshed. Most nights, there are at least two dishes on the menu that we have seen for 15 years and they weren’t that good the first time. And the service was not up to Celebrity standards either. Most nights it was OK but a couple of them it took forever to get served. We had menus in minutes, then it took 20 minutes to get appetizers and another 35 minutes after that to get entrées. That’s just not Celebrity like.

IMG_2347We did lunch most days in the buffet and enjoyed it. We also did a special hamburger lunch back at the Lawn Club Grille as well as a sea day lunch at The Porch, Reflection’s outdoor seafood restaurant. It was EXCELLENT! Enjoyed all the food and outstanding service. I love their seafood tower (at left) and their sangria, although I did think the lunch we had in the same place in Iceland in June was better.

Breakfast was usually a muffin (or two or three) and latte/Americano in Cafe Al Bacio or the buffet for something more substantial if we knew we were going to be out until late.

OleksiiMoving on from the food, we can’t say a lot about the entertainment. When we are on a cruise, our predominate evening preference is socializing with friends. Most nights would find us at the Elite (a higher level of Celebrity loyalty program) reception before dinner and then in the World Class Bar after dinner. One of the highlights of our June cruise in Iceland had been meeting Oleksii, the most amazing bartender in the world in that World Class Bar (a very special bar that is affiliated with a particular world-wide bartending contest). Well, one of the best part of this cruise was seeing Oleksii again. When he first saw us he just about jumped out from behind the bar to come and give us a huge hug. When we left him on the last night of the cruise, he gave Kathleen a kiss on the cheek and I jokingly said, “What no kiss for me?” and I got one myself😆.

We also had a great time with Oleskii’s bartending partner, Santos. Both of these amazing  guys taught an outstanding Mixology class one afternoon that we took and LOVED! In fact, Santos took video of it and you can see it by clicking here. It’s hilarious. You can see Kathleen and I shaking cocktails like crazy.

To sum up, the Reflection is a wonderful ship, sparkling clean with an awesome crew. Since this was our second time on board, we would clearly sail on her again and again…except for the fact that we (after 20+ Celebrity cruises) don’t have any other mainstream Celebrity cruises booked. We are sailing Celebrity’s Flora in the Galapagos but that’s one of their expedition cruise ships. We doubt we will be sailing on one of their ships again (unless coerced by friends 😀) in the future. Our next cruise is on Holland America and after Flora, we are doing a river cruise with Viking followed by a Viking Ocean cruise in October 2021. If we like Viking, we probably will make them our mainstream line of choice. I will explain more in a later post.

One last thing—I can’t write a cruise review without mentioning Coronavirus. Covid-19 on cruise ships is all the people on the news are talking about. We had no problems with illness whatsoever. In fact, if anything, the virus made everyone more diligent in doing things like washing hands, not touching faces and Celebrity cleaning. Personally, I have come home from every one of our last six cruise trips with some kind of virus. Either a cold or the flu with fever. So I was determined not to get sick this time and I was extra vigilant. As many of you know, I don’t do elevators on cruise ships. I use the stairs to try and help with warding off all the calories I am eating. I did this again this time but I can honestly say that I never touched a stair rail. I was consciously aware of doing it. And it worked. I came home healthy and now almost a week later, I still feel great.

Oops, I almost forgot the BEST part of the entire cruise—sailing with our friends. Of course Bob and Judy (who we see a lot as they live just north of us in BC) that we traveled this entire trip with. But beyond them, it was great to see our close friend Mike. We were totally thrilled about two months before the cruise when Mike told us his neighbors Hans and Barbara would be joining us on this cruise. We had sailed with them on one of our favorite cruises back in 2010, when we went from Singapore to Hong Kong. We see them just about every time we are at Mike’s. They are two of our favorite people. Hans is an amazing guy who is absolutely hilarious and Barbara and I always seem to be able to find something to talk about. Also joining us were two of our newest Martini Mates, David and Mickie. There is a long story about a unicorn, a horse, a cruise director, etc. but I won’t get into it here. And two of Mike’s other neighbors who we had not met before joined us as well—it was great to have Terry and Alan along. Just for giggles, here’s a bunch of pics of all of us having a great time.

Old and young, we are all on our last cruise.—Robert Louis Stevenson


Misery, trains and automobiles

Sorry to have to start this with a complaint but the one thing I really did not want to happen on this vacation, has happened…again. I am sick. All day yesterday (Saturday) as we transitioned via train and then car (driven by our dear friends Paul and Gail) I felt like I was getting a sore throat. Tried to pretend it was because I was around smokers and all the people on the train who used too much perfume. But by the time I went to bed, I knew…someplace about four or five days ago I had found a way to catch a cold. Woke up in the middle of the night with all the usual symptoms. I guess if there is a bright side to this, it’s that I should be over before we get on the ship a week from Monday. On the bad side…so many things.

As those of you who knew me from before I started posting on this site, on our last big vacation in October, the same DAMN thing happened. I got sick. It was on a cruise ship. And it pretty much messed up our vacation. All the most vivid memories I have of that trip are about being sick. I despise being sick when I am not at home. I feel miserable but I am stuck just living through it without the comfort of my own bed, my own illness rituals and just being able to be miserable. I am sure you know what I mean, don’t you? For instance, when my head gets so stopped up I can’t breath and I am at home, I go in the garage and ride my stationary bike for a while and it breaks things up. Or when I just don’t want to deal with people, I can go hide in my room.

When you get sick on vacation, you still have to do what’s planned and soldier forward. And being sick when you are with friends is even worse since you don’t want to infect them…or Kathleen (it’s probably too late to think about that—DAMN! I sure hope she can miss this one) You just hope it’s a light one and you can get through it but since this is the first time I have been sick since October, I am not sure I will get that lucky. I just wish I knew how to avoid this. I am a religious hand washer, can’t remember the last time I got close to anyone that I could tell was sick (other than my grandkids about three weeks ago) and I do just about anything I can think of to not catch this and now for the second major trip in a row, I am sick. Like I said, DAMN!

OK, complaining over. And please don’t fill the comments with cures, sympathy and/or ways to avoid this in the future. We all know, there is no way to avoid a virus. You get it or you don’t. On to travel.

Besides starting to feel this coming on, yesterday was a pretty great day. We were up early in the morning to catch our train from Waverley Station in Edinburgh down to York in England where we are to spend the next few days with the aforementioned Martini Mate buddies, Paul and Gail. We first met them on a Cruise Critic Roll Call back in June 2013 and we have sailed together three or four times since then. When we did our last Martini Mates reunion cruise to Alaska in 2017, we picked them up at the airport in Vancouver, BC and toured almost a week, first in Vancouver and then at our place in Redmond, before the cruise. We had such a great time and they have been wanting to show us Yorkshire (as they have shown other Mates) so this trip gave us the opportunity to see them and stay in their lovely home where I am writing this now at 5:00 am.

First a couple of notes about our train trip. I was worried about getting our luggage on the train. One of our fellow TAs at our agency that travels even more than we do (hi Marjorie) suggested that I just look for a porter who would help me get them onboard and then give them a nice tip. We checked the day before we were to board the train and were told that “Waverley Station has no porters!” so I would have to struggle with them on my own. Thankfully our train originated at Waverley so I had plenty of time to get all five bags on. We were in first class so this also meant we didn’t have to struggle for seats as they were reserved. Suffice it to say, it all worked out…getting them on the train.

A quick note about First Class on this train (can’t speak for others). It’s almost funny but when we sat down in our FC seats, (which were very comfortable) we found a beautiful menu detailing the breakfast we could order once the train was under way. I wish I had taken a picture of it. It showed our food being prepared and served in a truly first class manner (table cloths, linen napkins, silver service). Now the reality: After we left Waverley, two very nice guys came through with a coffee pot and a cart with tubs of yogurt and ice-cold, cellophane-wrapped danish (worse than what you get on Celebrity) and that was it. Kind of false advertising? Not only that, but we were in the second car of three first-class cars. Our car’s restroom was out of order so we went through to the first car to use theirs. That was fine but then after using the facilities, Kathleen discovered there was no running water in the loo. Which is great after she had completely soaped up her hands to find that there is no way to rinse them off. Kathleen always carries wipes with her so she got to wipe off all that soap—fun (where’s that sarcasm font when I need it). Other than those two things (which were more funny than irritating) the train ride was great…for about half of it. When we first boarded, we pretty much had the entire coach to ourselves with only two or three other people until we got to Newcastle and then it started filling up—first with some really posh folks headed to (we later learned) a big horse race in York and then it became standing-room-only when a huge crowd of footballers got on to head to London for a big match that will happen later today. From that point on it was almost impossible to move around at all. The train staff kept coming on the public address system to apologize for the overcrowding but that didn’t help if you needed to use the facilities or move around at all.

It did help us having the soccer guys onboard because when we went to get off in York, a bunch of them were standing in front of the luggage area where our five bags were. I excused myself and told them we needed to get the bags out (which had others luggage who had boarded after us, on top of our bags) and the guys immediately asked if they could help the old people 😀. I (smartly, if I do say so myself) offered that I would get the really heavy ones as I didn’t want anyone hurting themselves with their weight. Well they took this as a challenge and said, “You just get off mate, Neil and I will get you your bags…” and so they did. Placed nicely on the platform in York. Outstanding!

I hope I didn’t make it sound like the train trip was bad, it was just funny how different the advertised First Class was from the actuality of it. We loved the train. I was totally geeking out about train travel in Europe, which I love. We had free, speedy WiFi and comfortable, reserved seats. It was truly a great trip.

Which brings us to York where Paul and Gail were waiting on the platform to greet us and start our tour of their Yorkshire. They had made an awesome sign Gail was holding up with our names and the details of our upcoming tour and it’s upstairs in the bedroom where Kathleen is sleeping or I would take a pick and toss it in here.

As soon as we had put our luggage in the back of their car, we were off to do a walking tour of York, one of the most medieval of British towns, a true walled city. The photos I will add at the bottom of this post will tell a better story so make sure and check them out and view them as a slide show so you can see my captions. After touring York and having a nice lunch (hard to find a place that sells sandwiches on a Saturday—really) we were back to the car (the walk took a lot out of Kathleen—she was wearing the wrong shoes and it killed her back and hip) we were back to the car and off to Harrogate.

HarrowgateMuch of this week we will be playing by ear as we are trying to dodge the weather. Paul and Gail have some great plans—some of which will work better if dry and others not so dependent on weather. After four days of glorious sunshine in Edinburgh our weather luck ran out in Yorkshire when the skies kind of opened up. Since we had seen this coming Paul had headed to Harrogate to take us to a truly British institution, Bettys (no apostrophe—really) Tea Room. Bettys is celebrating it’s 100th birthday this year, so I guess they really are an institution. Amongst our Mates they have become almost legendary because you really can’t say you have had the entire Martini Mate experience until Paul and Gail have taken you to Bettys for a Fat Rascal (think really, really good scone…but bigger). Between that and some proper English tea, we were all set except for the obligatory Harrogate picture frame photo. Others who came before us (Mike and Carol) had posed in the same spot, so we we had to do it too.

Then it was off to Knaresborough to see their castle (as Paul said, “Every proper English town has a castle”) and some great views from the castle’s parapets. The pictures do a better job of explaining this. After some time there we stopped by a beautiful old, British hotel where Agatha Christie had disappeared to for a few days in what might have been a mid-life crisis. It was all the scandal at the time. Google it. Really. The hotel was truly lovely even though we couldn’t see some of the historic Agatha stuff because they were having a wedding in the room where we needed to be. (How rude—didn’t they know American’s were coming to see things?) I thought I should just go in and wish the bride and groom a wonderful marriage and take the picture I wanted but I was terribly underdressed so I skipped it (much to Kathleen’s relief).

After that I think our two good friends realized how exhausted their American Mates were so we headed back to their place to get settled in before going out to a late dinner at a wonderful Greek restaurant, not far from their house. Originally Paul was going to grille and Gail had made some great salads so we would eat at their place, but as I said…we go with the weather here and Paul really didn’t want to grille in the rain. So it was out to Greek last night and (weather permitting) a nice grilling tonight after a day of touring…to be determined by…the weather.

PS: One piece of good news health-wise: my knee is doing MUCH better. Hardly any problems with it at all…or the cold has me so worried that I am not noticing it. 😀

Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. —John Ruskin