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

Humid but fun Florida

 

Day 1

Our first day of travel started with a pickup by Century Car Service out of Seattle. We have used a variety of car services to get to the airport in the past but our neighbor and best buddy Lisa recommended these guys as people that she had used personally and when making arrangements for her team at Microsoft so we decided to give them a try. We are glad we did. Not only did our driver arrive on time but he called us the night before to verify the pickup time and advise us that our day to fly was going to be VERY busy so maybe we would want to get picked up 15 minutes earlier. That’s service. We said yes and when I went to open the garage door to watch for his 5:30 arrival at 5:15, he was already parked in front of the house.

At SEA in plenty of time, got through TSA pre-check in minutes and were sitting in the Concourse C First Class lounge in no time. Had a nice (if pre-packaged) breakfast before our flight and then off we went on Alaska Air to Fort Lauderdale. A totally full but thoroughly enjoyable flight. Great service, not too bumpy until landing and even then the Captain set her down beautifully.

Got our bags and called for our car service to pick us up. We were using Mike & Cathy Limos out of Wellington, Florida 😜. Seriously, we were picked up by Mike Priesman, one of our oldest friends and his new lady love, Cathy, one of our newest. We headed north with a dinner stop at what is probably my favorite traditional Greek restaurant outside of Greece, Chris’ Taverna. They serve my favorite food in the best way possible—incredibly fresh and it’s incredibly good. A bare minimum of sauce—my octopus was perfect, my trip complete—NOT. But it was really good.

After dinner we headed back to Cathy’s gorgeous house where I slept so darned well you would have thought I was on vacation 😀. If you are looking for a place to stay in South Florida, we highly recommend it. Great bed, super water pressure, lots of hot water, the owner/manager is a sweetheart but you have to watch out for the bellhop. He’s a little strange.

Day 2

After a wonderful nights sleep and a superb breakfast we were picked up by the Cathy & Mike Tour Company who took us to see the Jupiter Lighthouse. It’s a really pretty and very historical lighthouse in Jupiter (former home of Burt Reynolds and current home of Tiger Woods) just north of where we are staying. The still-functioning lighthouse is a great subject for photography and you can climb the 100+ step spiral staircase and step out onto the deck that runs all the way around the outside.

Only problem we ran into was…thunder and lightning. As soon as I got to the top and stepped out onto the platform, I heard the attendant tell the people behind me (Mike and Cathy) that, “Sorry, we have to send everyone back down because of the weather.” Of course I was already outside so I continued around the platform taking photos and that’s what you see above.

While I was shooting I could see the lightening not that far away and when the first huge clap of thunder hit I got myself off that platform in a big hurry. We were down and gone to the Visitor’s Center where they were kind enough to refund our admission even though I told them I had gotten up there for a few minutes. They said I should have been able to stay longer and it was very nice of them insisting on the refund. The lighthouse (on a non-stormy day) is a cool experience and I highly recommend stopping by if you are in the area.

Next up was lunch at Square Grouper, a fun hole-in-the-wall, right-on-the-water spot just across the waterway from the lighthouse. I got to try what I was told by Mike and Cathy is a Florida delicacy—Mahi Mahi sandwich. A big blackened Mahi Mahi fillet sandwich with cheese and grilled onions. It came with some of the best fries have had in years.

This about covered our day so far. Tonight we are going to a free concert in a nearby park and tomorrow doing a scenic boat tour on the Intercoastal Waterway. This tour company is awesome!

Anything for the quick life, as the man said when he took the situation at the lighthouse. —Charles Dickens

 

The best laid plans…are made to be changed

If you may recall from my last installment we found out that we are going to be able to take our July 4 Galapagos Island cruise on Celebrity’s Flora. We had heard about all this on a TA-only Celebrity webinar that we watched three weeks ago tomorrow.

Of course the very first morning after the announcement we wanted to get all our plans set up. We had originally planned on flying from Seattle to Los Angeles on Alaska Air (our hometown airline) about three days before we were flying to Quito, Ecuador. While in the area we would see my brother and sister-in-law and spend a couple of days doing LA fun stuff. Then we would board our flight to Quito on Friday July second, spend a full day on Saturday touring Quito with Celebrity before heading to the Galapagos themselves on Sunday. We were also scheduled to spend an extra day in Quito after we visited the islands.

But Celebrity has wisely decided that even though most people on the islands are vaccinated, the COVID situation in mainland Ecuador is not a good one. So they have shortened our trip from 11 days to nine. That was OK with us as this trip is all about the Galapagos.

But now we had to redo all our flights because we would be leaving out of LA a day later than we thought and coming back a day earlier. So I got on the phone with Celebrity (they had booked our Quito flights as part of our package) to find out when the new times would be so I could change our other arrangements that would get us to and from LAX.

Besides the fact that they told me they couldn’t be sure of anything for a least a week, when they finally sent me the itinerary, it had changed a WHOLE BUNCH! We had originally been scheduled to fly on Copa Air (the national airline of Panama) from LAX leaving at 11:30 AM and arriving in Quito at 9:30 pm our time. We had about a 2 hour layover in Panama City which was OK for us.

The new schedule had us leaving LAX at 2:30 AM!!! And then we had an almost nine hour layover in Panama City, still taking the same Panama to Quito flight we had been on originally that got us in at 11:30 pm. Now I fully realize that some people like flying red-eye flights but we are not two of those people. That would mean missing a night of sleep as we would have to stay up to get on the plane and then even if we were in Business class and had lay-down seats, by the time we got to sleep, we would be landing not to mention the really long layover in an airport we don’t know in a country that still has major COVID problems. At our age (seems like I say that a lot 😜) we would be wiped out for about two days of the cruise. So this flight was out for us.

I jumped online and started looking for flights either from LAX or SEA but no dice. Either we left really early in the morning (like 2:30) or the previous afternoon and would have to spend the night in an airport, there was basically nothing. We were just not sure how this was going to work out so I decided to take my daily walk and see if just getting out would give me an idea. Walking often does that.

Sure enough, I came up with an idea that Kathleen actually liked 😁. My idea was, let’s find a non-stop flight to Quito from someplace in the United States, fly to that city the night before and then fly to Quito the next morning. Now we had to pick a city to fly to that had a non-stop to Quito. The airlines made that easy because you can really only fly to Quito on a non-stop from very few airports. We were kind of limited to Houston, Atlanta or Miami.

When I said Miami we both looked at each other and said, “YES!” We decided right then and there that this was the way we wanted to go. One of our best friends in the world, the god of shore excursions, Mike Preisman lives just north of Fort Lauderdale and we will pretty much take any reason to go and visit him. Plus, since the last time we saw him (March 2020) he has met and fallen head over heels for his new lady friend, Cathy. And even though we have met her on FaceTime we really want to meet her in person…and now we will. So we will spend three days with them and have fun in sunny, hot and humid Florida. Not only that, Mike is such a great guy he volunteered to pick us up in Fort Lauderdale and drop us off three days later at MIA.

Our flight from MIA to Quito is only four hours. I always forget that Quito, Ecuador is just about directly south of Miami, Florida and it’s in our Central time zone. This makes for a nice medium length flight. And because we had been cancelled on this cruise last year and chose to rebook it, we had some bonus dollars to spend which we used to upgrade to Business Class on American Airlines. The other thing we love is that this flight leaves and gets in at a “normal” time. We fly out at 8:30 am and get in at about 12:30 pm. Our sleep cycle should stay intact and we should have an awesome cruise.

One of the things I love about the flight (Kathleen seems kind of unimpressed) is that on our way down we are flying on a Boeing 787. We have never flown on a Dreamliner before and I am really looking forward to the experience. On the way home we just get a 737…boring. But by then we will be so thrilled about the trip to the islands we have just completed (or so exhausted) that we won’t care what plane we fly home on.

Once in Quito, we will be spending the night at the EB Hotel (at least as of now that is Celebrity’s plan) which is near the airport. Then the next morning (Sunday the 4th) while you are prepping your fireworks and barbecues, we will fly from Quito to Baltra (the main air gateway to the Galapagos) via chartered air. We are then on the ship/boat/yacht for seven nights before flying back to Quito, spending the night and then flying back to Miami, spending another night with Mike and Cathy and then home on the 13th.

We are pretty much all set now. We do have to find a place near Mike and Cathy’s to get a COVID test within 96 hours of flying to Quito. Once we have that we will be given another test before we board the ship and another when we get off the ship. The 96 hour one has to be the nose swab but the two on the ship are the spit-in-a-tube type.

The entire crew as well as all passengers are required to provide proof of vaccination. We have also been told that 98% of the people living on the islands (there are only about 25,000 people living there) have been vaccinated as well. Besides, once we get on the ship/boat/yacht we won’t see another human that isn’t part of our cruise until the next to last day when we stop in the only town on the trip. The rest of the time all the stops are just to see flora and fauna.

Speaking of flora, our ship/boat/yacht is named Flora and we have found out that she NEVER docks. We take a zodiac-type tender out to board her and we do the same when leaving or doing any shore excursion. Plus Flora is built to never drop anchor. To not disturb the sea floor she was designed with a system that uses the propulsion system to stay in one place in the water. Pretty cool.

You can be sure that we will be sending you updates and photos from the islands so watch this space for a complete virtual tour of your own. All of that dependent on the quality of their internet connections and the amount of time I have to write and process photos. If you would like to see some amazing shots from a crew member of Flora check out Marvi Cordova on Instagram. She is not only a crew member but an incredible photographer. I plan on asking her lots and lots of questions. I stole the photo of Flora at the top of this post from her.

The only thing I like about air travel is it gives me time to read.

Jane Lindskold

Last day in South Florida

Morikami Pano
A panoramic photo of the Morikami Gardens

Just a quick post with some photos before breakfast. We will be boarding Allure of the Seas at 10:30 am and I am writing this in Mike’s family room at 6:30 while Kathleen is getting ready to go.

Yesterday was a really great and relaxing day. Mike does volunteer work at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens where he is an information specialist (a fancy name I am giving him for the guy who sits at a desk by the entrance and answers questions). The gardens are beautiful and the weather cooperated while we were there.  Big, fluffy clouds on a nice blue sky let me take some great pics while we toured.

After Morikami we headed north on Highway 1 along the coast. We drove by the infamous Mar-A-Lago Country Club (that you-know-who owns) and then a little further before we stopped at Benny’s on the Beach (a really cool restaurant on a pier perched over the Atlantic) for a delicious lunch. After that it was north to Palm Beach where we stopped to buy some postcards (yes, we still send those—I’m very retro, 😀 so sue me) to send to the grandkids and other friends and relatives. Speaking of retro, we got the postcards at a little drugstore that Mike had been to before that was a total throw-back. Even had a little luncheonette. Reminded me of an old Woolworth’s.

Then it was back to Mike’s where we watched a little college football until Mike’s neighbors Barb and Hans came over to see us. We had sailed with Barbara and Hans on a two week South East Asia cruise from Singapore to Hong Kong (one of our favorites) in 2010. It was great to see them. We always have a lot to talk about. Then it was dinner out at a Cuban-American restaurant and that was it—a really nice day.

Here are the pics I promised you and you will get our first report on Allure either later tonight or tomorrow.

It doesn’t matter how much I think I know about Florida, it still flips me on the head every time. It’s just an absurd, eclectic place, and the stories that can come out of that place just never stop.—Matt Passmore

On the road…again

RCI_AL_Drone_DJI_0061_RET_CMYKSometimes I think we are the living embodiment of the Willie Nelson song. Or if you are my age, the Canned Heat song. But then we spend a few days with our good friend Mike Preisman and I realize that as much as we travel, he travels more. And he writes about his travels even more than I do. I linked his website above. It is worth going to before you travel has he has probably been where you are going.

I mentioned Mike because we are in humid and hot South Florida staying with Mike before we board Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas tomorrow. I may have mentioned that I am not a big fan of the Caribbean but we are taking this cruise to learn. Almost all of the cruise lines out there do what are referred to in the trade as FAM (familiarity) cruises from time to time. These kind of cruisers give travel agents a chance to see a ship and learn about a cruise line while on a cruise. They aren’t free (nothing ever is…) but we do get a very nice discount and there are some nice perks. Of course we still had to pay to get down to humid south Florida, but it’s still a bargain.

It especially helps if you have great friend who will put you up a few days before the cruise as well. We are staying with one of our super Martini Mates, the aforementioned Mike Preisman. And besides getting to see him, we were able to see some friends who we met on our first Celebrity cruise through the Panama Canal in 2004, Bert and Annette. We had lunch with them at their country club (a really swanky place) and just a great time talking about all we have been doing since we last saw them five years ago when we had lunch in the same place.

So tomorrow (Sunday, October 6) we board the Allure of the Seas at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. This is our first time on an Oasis Class ship. The Oasis class are the largest cruise ships in the world. Only one ship sailing has more cabins than Allure. When the ship is at maximum capacity she can hold 6,314 passengers and more than 2140 crew members. That’s 8,500 people on one ship. For me that three times the size of the town where I spent most of the 90s, Leavenworth, WA.

We will board tomorrow morning before most of the other passengers so we can do a ship’s tour that will let us see some of the staterooms and suites before others come aboard. Our FAM group is composed of about 30 Expedia Cruise Ship Centers travel consultants and people from their sales department. During the week, on the four sea days (out of seven) we will have classes from 9:00 am to noon and then from 2:00 to 4:00 pm every day. The coordinators from Royal will not only talk about the ship we are on, but all the other Royal ships in the fleet. And I am sure we will have plenty of time to see all the public areas on this ship…which means you will get to see a whole bunch of photos this week.

At least I hope you will because we have free use of Royal Caribbean’s Voom internet which is (according to their marketing) the fastest internet at sea. So if it really works (they say you can stream Netflix) so we shall see. If it is that fast, you will get daily updates all week, so be ready. This will be your chance to find out all about the biggest ships at sea.

We hope it all goes better than our last cruise on Royal’s Ovation of the Seas when we took our grandkids (and their parents) to Alaska in July. And since we are doing this cruise by ourselves, this will be much more about the ship. We are seeing shows almost every night, have planned a shore excursion in one of our ports (St. Kitts) and want to try as much as we can while onboard. I should mention that our other two stops on this cruise are San Juan, PR, a port we have visited twice before and Nassau in the Bahamas. We have no interest in those ports so we will probably stay on the ship. I may get off and walk around in San Juan as their old town is really quaint and picturesque.

Be ready for some posting this week while we take you cruising on Allure of the Seas.

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. —Zora Neal Hurston

 

Martini Mates Forever

I have written in the past about the Martini Mates but I am just not sure I have written about them on this site. So here’s a short bit of explanation about who we are and a sad bit of news about one of our best friends—a Martini Mate.

Back in 2005 we booked our second Celebrity Cruise on Infinity that would take us on a short repositioning trip from Vancouver, BC to San Francisco, CA. As is our habit, as soon as we booked the cruise, we joined the Cruise Critic roll call (click here if you don’t know what that is) for it. Little did we know how life changing joining that roll call would be. There were about 100 people posting on the roll call but one day (about six months prior to the cruise) we started discussing the Martini Bar on Infinity. Now none of us were big fans of martinis but it was fun to discuss all the different kinds that X serves in its many martini bars throughout their fleet.

During that discussion someone suggested that we (everyone on the roll call) start calling ourselves the Martini Mates. This caught on and pretty soon we were all a bunch of Martini Mates. By the time we all arrived in Vancouver for the cruise, a bunch of us who had done a TON of posting felt like we were good friends. Many of us gathered the night before the cruise for a pre-cruise cocktail party that was organized by Carol Preisman who is the wife of the god of shore excursions Mike. We met in the bar at the Sheraton Wall Center hotel and when I walked into the hotel, Carol came up and I put out my hand to shake hers. She said, “I’m from the South honey. We don’t shake, we hug.” And she did. And I did. And I made a friend who lasted from that day until last night when we lost Carol.

Carol would always say that she wasn’t sure why she and I were friends. Neither was I. We were pretty much the opposite of each other. She was a conservative, reserved Southern Belle of the highest order and I was a liberal, loud, ex-hippie from California. And we became friends. And every time we saw each other or she would introduce me to someone, she would say, “Not sure why Jim and I are friends…but we are.”

Of course there were many Martini Mates on that cruise but for some reason, six of us stayed Martini Mates. We still correspond with others from that 2005 cruise. We have sailed with some of those people as well. Over the years we have added more folks to the Martini Mates but the six of us were the core—Bob, Jude, Mike, Carol, Kathleen and me.

Those four people have been a huge part of our lives since the day we met them. We have sailed with Mike and Carol at least eight times and done a couple of land trips with them as well. They have stayed at our place and we have stayed at theirs. Yes, we were closer to Bob and Jude but that’s just because we were geographically closer since they lived in BC and Mike and Carol lived in Florida but the six of us were still the best of friends. And when we were able to travel to all the parts of the world together, we felt like no time had passed between trips.

When we returned from the original trip in 2005, Carol wanted us all to be able to have a place to keep talking to each other on the original Cruise Critic roll call so she started the Martini Mates “friends of Cruise Critic” board that we still post on to this day. This morning it was filled with love for both Carol and Mike.

I am posting more photos than I usually post because when I went to look for them, I found so many that I loved of us with our Mates all over the world. Bob and Jude never did the really long and adventurous trips—Bob hates to fly. But we still went everywhere together.

This morning after I had found out about Carol passing I took a long walk and was thinking about all the places we had been with Mike and Carol. Besides the initial Martini Mate foray in 2005, we sailed with them to Alaska twice, to SE Asia from Singapore to Hong Kong, through the Panama Canal in 2014, to the Baltic a few years before that, on the eighth voyage of Solstice in the Caribbean and Hawaii.

So that’s kind of a short history of the Martini Mates. The Mates suffered our first huge loss when Jude passed away a few years ago. Today we lost Carol. And she will be missed but I like to think that she is undoubtedly in a heavenly Martini Bar, sipping her chocolate martini with Jude and another of our group, “The Straw.” She and Jude are rolling their eyes as “The Straw” (that’s a whole other story) tells the story of how she became “The Straw” for the 1 millionth time.

We love you Carol and will miss you. I wish I could see you right now to give you that hug because you taught me that “we don’t shake hands, we hug.”

Our best shore excursions ever

After writing a few days ago about shore excursions it brought me to create another list. If you have checked out our page of lists (see the menu above) then you know I love to rank and list things. So here is a quick list of our favorite shore excursions that we have taken in our 20+ years of travel. In a couple of days, I will do the same thing for our least favorite shore excursions.

Touring Amalfi with Marcello

MarcellaBack in 2006 we took a cruise that was billed as the “Exotic Mediterranean” by Celebrity Cruises. It was a 14-night cruise from Rome to Rome on their ship, Galaxy. It’s funny that this shore excursion took place on the same trip with two of our worst. To prove a point though, the two that will be on our worst of list were cruise line sponsored shore excursions on that cruise while this one was a trip we found on our own or rather from the “god” of shore excursions, our good friend Mike Priesman.

Before I go any further I need to tell you about Mike Preisman. We first met Mike and his wife Carol on a short repositioning cruise onboard Celebrity’s Infinity in 2005. Mike likes to see the world. He likes to take incredible shore excursions. Since 2005 we have taken a number of cruises with Mike and Carol which means we got to share shore excursions with he and Carol. When we weren’t sailing with them, we would read about whatever great shore excursion they had done on the cruise we were about to take and take that one. In my top shore excursions list, five of the top eight were either with Mike and Carol or someone they had recommended to us.

Mike had given his strongest recommendation to us that when we docked in Naples, we had to tour with Marcello. He was right. Marcello not only took us on an incredible tour that included the Amalfi Coast, the hills above it and Pompeii but he has stayed in touch for all these years. We are still Facebook friends and I still continue to send him notes and good wishes until now as does he to us. Our day with him was magical from the time he picked us up until the moment he dropped us off. He started by telling us that if we were looking for shopping and highlights, then we were on the wrong tour. He was going to show us “his Italy,” and he did. The highlight for me was lunch in a tiny Italian bistro, high in the hills above Sorrento in the little town of Pantone. The place was amazing but the food was so much like my grandmother’s cooking that it took me right back to my youth being in her kitchen. Sitting outside in the fall sunshine on that day is something I can see just like it was yesterday. For me, that day was as close to perfect as shore excursions get.

Touring Bangkok with Tong

TongAs fun and perfect as touring with Marcello was, four years later in Bangkok we were actually touring with Mike and Carol as well as other friends and we met the effervescent Tong of Tong’s Tours. We were on a cruise aboard Azamara Cruiseline’s Quest (I think this is my favorite cruise I have taken) and Mike had found all our tours and everyone of them was amazing but our two days with Tong knocked our socks off. First she picked us up in her fully pimped-out van (tuck and roll leather), and then she gave us the best-smelling, coldest wipes to help with an incredible hot and humid day. She took us to the Palace, to temples, to the floating and the train market. Through all of it, she kept us in stitches with our hilarious and enthusiastic descriptions of everything Thai. Even today I can remember the reverence she had for her aged king. It was a superb two days for everyone there.

Inverness with Ian

img_4991In August of 2016 we sailed on Celebrity’s Silhouette from Amsterdam on a two week British Isles cruise that included the Edinburgh Military Tattoo as well as a bunch of other great ports but the one that really stood out for us was our tour of Outlander sites with Ian. From the battlefield at Culloden to the cairns on the cover of Donna Gabaldon’s novels, Ian knew it all. (That’s him at right in a pic from a Culloden battle reenactment) His knowledge and expertise about all things Scotland was wonderful. He truly entertained and educated us and took wonderful care of us. One big example of this: As we were getting off the ship two of our friends were talking to Ian before we arrived and they told him about a problem I was having with my Nikon. I had somehow gotten a huge piece of dirt on my sensor. I had done the auto cleaning routine a number of times but it just did not work. Every photo I took had a huge blotch on the right hand side that I would have to Photoshop or crop out of every photo. Ian asked me about it and I told him I hoped to find a camera shop in Edinburgh the next day. Just after lunch, we were on our way to a historic priory and we swung off the road into a parking lot. He led me into what might have been the largest camera store I have ever seen…in the absolute middle of nowhere. They had hundreds of thousands of dollars of cameras and lenses on display and a complete service department who promptly cleaned my sensor. Outstanding! And I hadn’t even asked him. That’s the kind of guy he was.

Touring the Panama Canal control room with Roberto

CanalAnother Mike Preisman special! So we are on a Panama Canal cruise (our second) with our Martini Mates (which includes Mike and Carol Preisman) and Mikes sets up a tour with a guy in Colon, Panama. Turns out the guy has connections.

This, for me, was the absolute highlight of our tours off the ship on this cruise. Mike had arranged another great tour (maybe one of the best we have done with him and that is saying a lot). We were touring with Roberto from Robtad’s Tours in Colon. Our previous canal crossing had not stopped in Colon.

This time we had the entire day in Colon and we really wanted to see the canal itself, close up. Not only the current canal but also the new construction of the canal that should have been already finished. When Roberto picked us up he took us directly to the Gatun Locks where he had a wonderful friend (who was like his brother) who worked as a lock master at the canal and he had arranged for us to actually walk across the canal gates and tour the Gatun Locks control room. Talk about a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Every single person we met in Panama that day were some of the nicest folks we have ever met. We also got to see monkeys, the new canal and so much more. What a day!

Touring Villefranche with Sylvie

SylvieAnother Mike Preisman recommendation was the amazing Sylvie who we met while taking a Western Mediterranean cruise on Celebrity’s Century in 2007. This was one of our favorite cruises and we loved most of the ports (you can keep Gibraltar) but our day in Villefranche with Sylvie was the best. She picked us up early and took us to the market in Nice, then on to a superb lunch in the hilltop town of Eze and finally a complete tour of the entire country of Monaco. She drove us on the entire race track which really gave me some street cred yeas later when I became a Formula 1 fan. (We’ve been on three tracks and I am always looking for more.) The day was fantastic and we would go back out with Sylvie anytime.

Harv & Marv whale watching

WhalesWe will finish up the Mike Preisman arranged shore excursions by touching on the best shore excursion of all our six (soon to be seven) cruises to Alaska. We were sailing once again on Celebrity’s Infinity but this time on a reunion cruise of the original Martini Mates to Alaska. Mike has arranged for the four of us (Mike, Carol, Kathleen and I) to go whale watching. I know…whale watching. What’s so special about that? Well, we were on a boat with just the four of us and two other people. Just six of us. And we moved fast. We went looking for whales while Harv (or Marv–not sure which we had) monitored the radio. The minute that he heard someone had spotted whales, we were off. And we saw some amazing whales that day. But to me, the most amazing thing that happened that day was before we went to look at the whales and the seals and the sea let ions, the boat stopped off a Juneau neighborhood and we saw a woman in a kayak paddling towards us. She came up next to our boat and handed a box to Harv. Harv blew her a kiss and handed us some of the best chocolate chip cookies I have ever had. That was his wife and  she brought out freshly-baked cookies for us. Now that’s service. And a really special day.

Akaroa on our own

AkaroaIn January of 2012 we headed south, way south to Aukland, New Zealand to cruise on Celebrity’s Century from Aukland to Sydney, Australia. We had a lot of really awesome shore excursions with some really great friends but the day that was the most memorable was Akaroa. We had originally been scheduled to visit Christchurch that day but six months prior to our arrival, Christchurch was hit by a massive earthquake. So we were informed that we would be stopping in the sleepy sheep-ranching village of Akaroa. We scrambled to find something to do there. First we decided to take a harbor cruise in the morning (we were the first ones off the ship), then had what I still remember as the best hamburger I have ever had and finally went with some friends to a working New Zealand sheep ranch where we helped sort sheep, shear sheep and were invited into the sheep rancher’s home for tea. It was such a typical Kiwi thing to do. It made our day.

Jet boating in Acapulco 

Of all our favorites, this last one is the only ship-sponsored shore excursion in the bunch. It happened in Acapulco on our first Panama Canal cruise back in 2004. We both count it as a great shore excursion because it’s probably the most exciting one we have ever done. The jet boat drive with our guide Walt, through a mangrove swamp (really stinky) was one of the many highlights of this trip. We still remember (more than 15 years later) Walt whipping his hand around over his head as he pulled the boat in a tight circle. It was so much fun we really wish we had done it over and over…except we didn’t. We piled back on the bus and headed to a…turquoise factory for a sales pitch that wasted an hour of our touring time. See what I mean about cruise ship sponsored shore excursions. But think how great the jet boat part must have been to outweigh the turquoise factory.

How about you? I would love to have some comments about your favorite shore excursions. Later this week I promise our worst…and there were some doozies—one that almost killed us!