A big change and a great thought

Good evening all. Hope everyone is safe at home (or in the case of my son and sons-in-law staying safe at work). We are doing well here and have had only one of our close friends contract the  virus and get sick and that person is doing well now.

A newspaper on a wooden desk - Changes coming in 2020Now to the big change. After much thought, stress and now relief we have severed our relationship with Expedia CruiseShipCenters of Redmond and started anew with Expedia CruiseShipCenters of Bellevue. It had become apparent over the last few months that as much as we were not happy in Redmond, the owner was not happy with us. So we felt this was a good move. We are THRILLED with the owner we will be working with in Bellevue. And he is OK with us working remotely from home which is what we really want to do since 80% of our clients have been friends and family who do not live locally. That doesn’t mean we won’t ever be in the office but just that there won’t be the pressure to be there and stare at the walls.

We discussed quitting travel consulting all together but I just LOVE helping people travel so we decided to see if we could find another place to land. We discussed leaving Expedia CruiseShipCenters completely but decided since we knew the systems and didn’t want to have to reeducate ourselves if we could help it, we would try and find an owner who saw things more the way we do. Our new owner in Bellevue absolutely does. We have had two long phone calls with him and our Zoom discussion yesterday lasted more than two hours as we got to know each other.

So if you have travel needs, just e-mail me at jbellomo@cruiseshipcenters.com or call my cell at 206-399-0846 and I can set you up. More about this change in the weeks ahead.

Best travel quote for these Covid times

The other day while out for one of my walks I was listening to the podcast, “The Daily” from the New York Times. On the weekdays they pretty much run in-depth hard news but on the weekends they post human interest stuff. Last Saturday they interviewed travel guru Rick Steves. You can hear it by clicking here. If you don’t feel like listening for an hour, then here’s the best travel thing I have heard during this entire Covid period in our lives, when everyone is either cancelling their travel or having their travel cancelled. This is what Rick had to say about all those travel cancellations:

It’s OK to cancel your travel plans. Just don’t cancel your travel dreams. —Rick Steves

That about sums it up for us. We know in our hearts that our August Galapagos trip is going to be cancelled. In fact the airline we are flying from LAX to Quito cancelled us (only on one leg of the return flight 🤫 which is weird) and we are just waiting for Celebrity to cancel our Flora cruise. But we still want to go there and will rebook it for sometime next year. It’s one of our travel dreams. We won’t lose those. You shouldn’t either.

Cities I love–part 2

About 12 days ago we were talking about cities that I love here in North America. If you missed it, you can just click here. I thought I would come back to talk about cities I love internationally. There aren’t as many as in North America but there are a few. If you didn’t see the first list then I will tell you that these are cities that we love, cities that we have either been to more than once or want to go back to again. They aren’t all the places we love. We have other places we love but they aren’t cities. For instance, we LOVED New Zealand and can’t wait to go back but we weren’t as impressed by Auckland or any other city there as we were with the rest of the country. We really want to go back but that’s a really long flight 😀. Another good example might be the Yorkshire area of England. We loved visiting there and spending time with our friends but even though Leeds and York were lovely, they aren’t a city we yearn to go back to. Going back to Yorkshire is another story—we can’t wait.

Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

Edinburgh, Scotland

We have been to Edinburgh three times. The first time way back in 2003, again in 2016 and then again a year ago this month. Each time we have stayed longer. We just love Edinburgh. I like it so much, I could live there. It is a wonderful mix of history and modern. There are miles of places for me to walk. Great restaurants and just a super small city. I want to go back again and again. Maybe part of the reason we love it is that Kathleen is of Scottish descent. Or that we love Outlander so much. We have just had a great time every time we have visited Scotland.

Panorama from the city Amsterdam in the Netherlands at sunset

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

We have only been to Amsterdam once but WOW! We were there for almost a week before we sailed on our British Isles cruise in 2016 and we loved it. At least I know I did. A lot. Amsterdam is downright gorgeous to me. Walking the canals and really any part of the city is a great way to spend time. It is also a photographer’s dream. There are great photo opportunities in every direction. Good food, great people (who all speak fluent English) and we got to stay at the best hotel we have EVER stayed in, The Banks Mansion. I would go back in a minute and when we look at European trips, if the cruise or the trip takes us near Amsterdam, you can be sure we will.

Barcelona from Santa Maria del Pi church, Spain

Barcelona, Catalunya, Spain

Like Amsterdam we have only been in Barcelona once but we were there (pre-cruise) for almost a week and it truly made an impression on us. I always tell people that Barcelona is like a city at a party—24/7. Again, great food, great people (who treat you wonderfully), a lot to do and so much to photograph. From the crowds on Las Ramblas to the incredible market, La Boqueria, to the free concerts in front of the cathedral on Sunday it rocks. When we talk to friends and clients about traveling in Europe I tell them the perfect vacation would be to spend a week in Barcelona and then take a cruise to our next favorite city and spend a week there. You would have a week of partying followed by a cruise to lots of Mediterranean ports and a week of peace in…

Romantic gondola ride near Rialto Bridge in Venice, Italy

Venice, Italy

One of the people that most affected my life was my Uncle Jack. He traveled (not as much as we do) and he always told me that Venice was the least favorite city he had ever been to. So when we went to Italy for the first (and only) time in 2002 I was prepared to be unimpressed. But instead, I fell in love with this amazing place. When we returned I told him that I had loved it and he couldn’t understand why. Took me a few years (and talking to others who either loved or hated Venice) to figure out why so many people had this love/hate relationship with Venice. It all comes down to WHEN you visit this city. My uncle had gone in the middle of July, the HEIGHT of the tourist season. The place is jammed with people slammed together just about everywhere. Long waits at restaurants, higher prices, packed markets and the canals that smell from the summer heat.

We on the other hand, visited in early November. The weather was still great (they had gallons of rain the week after we left) and there were no crowds. None. We walked the Piazza San Marco almost alone. No lines to go to the top of the Campanille. It was a city totally at peace breathing a huge sigh of relief at the absence of visitors. But we were welcomed everywhere in restaurants and shops that were still hungry to serve visitors. We had an amazing time and would go back (at the right time of the year) at the drop of the hat. One reason I can’t wait to go back is that I had not gotten as involved with photography and early morning photo walks then and I really want to walk the streets of Venice with my Nikon. What pictures I could take!

Sydney Skyline Panorama 1

Sydney, Australia

This is the city I refer to as the most photogenic city in the world. Everywhere you look there is a something amazing to shoot. And the Opera House seems to be in all of them. It’s amazing how many of my shots of Sydney it is in. As you can see in the picture above,  the cruise ship we were on (not the one in the photo) docked right next to that Opera House so you get to start shooting it as soon as you get there. We were there for four days post cruise in 2012 and it is a fantastic place. Again, great food, incredibly welcoming people and just plain fun, not to mention the best zoo we have ever been to (yes, better than San Diego). We had flown to Auckland for three days pre-cruise, sailed all along the southern coast of New Zealand visiting small cities and towns and then crossed the Tasman Sea to Melbourne and finally Sydney. We would love to go back.

Hong Kong Skyline Panorama bei Nacht

Hong Kong, China

We spent three days here after our 2010 South East Asia cruise on the wonderful Azamara Quest (I think this was probably my favorite cruise of our more than 25 cruises). This is the only city I really loved that I probably will never get back to nor do I now have any desire to go. When we visited it was just following the transition from English rule to Chinese and the place was a wonderful, bustling, interesting, photographer friendly city. Nothing like the demonstrations you see from there today. We were able to get around and felt totally safe all the time. Stayed at the second best hotel we have ever stayed in, The Langham. Rode to the top of Victoria Peak (where the photo above was taken) and had lunch at a truly authentic Asian restaurant, Bubba Gump’s Shrimp 😜. Maybe someday it will be safe to go back to this amazing city. We hope so.

That’s about it for our favorite cities…so far. I have high hopes for the months ahead. Even if our Galapagos trip is cancelled in July/August we are still hopeful our Christmas Market cruise down the Danube will happen in December. Before the cruise we will (at least we plan to) visit Lisbon, Portugal and I really think from all reports from friends who travel, that we will love it. Then we go to Prague, Vienna and Budapest while on the river cruise. We won’t be staying long in Vienna but we do have three days in Prague before we sail and then three days after in Budapest. Might just have to go back. You never know.

I have never felt salvation in nature. I love cities above all. —Michaelanglo

Me on TV

Screen Shot 2020-04-26 at 7.13.41 PMIn a post last week I mentioned that I was going to be interviewed on one of our local TV stations about travel because I am an agent. Thought I would share the final interview with you: CLICK HERE  It is the second video down on the page.

I should mention that Kelly interviewed me for about 40 minutes total and if I am lucky, I was on the air for 40 seconds but they did use a few pics of Kathleen and I from our trips that they had asked me about as well as quoting me in the attached article on the page.

If you know me, you know that nothing embarrasses me. Anything could happen to me on live television, and I sincerely don’t care. —Giuliana Rancic

Back to travel—Cities I love-part one

We have been having amazing weather so I have been out walking a lot the last couple of weeks. On my walks I try to come up with something to write and since it has been so long since I posted something good, fun and non-virus related, let’s get back to travel.

I have been seeing a ton of list making on social media: best albums, best songs, favorite food, etc. To be honest, I love lists. If you look up at the top of this page, you will see four menu items. One of them is Lists. Check it out sometime. It’s all the lists I have posted since I started this blog in December 2018.

Cities I love in North America

So, when I was out walking yesterday I was thinking about my favorite cities. For my purposes today, I am going to just list our favorites in North America (I’ll be back soon with the rest of the world). We have been to many of America’s great cities, big and small. We have liked all of them but the ones on this list are ones we have either been to more than once or would like to go back to someday. I am going to list them, not in the order of how much we like the city but in distance from home which means we start with…

Seattle SkylineSeattle, Washington

Yes, I know we live here but it is a city we love. A little less than I did a few years back but I still love the place. We live about 15 miles east and before Kathleen retired she worked right downtown (for most of her career) about two blocks from the Space Needle. At that time, one of us was in the city almost daily. We did theater, concerts, spent the night at hotels after those concerts and above all went in for some amazing food. Seattle has so many incredible restaurants and we love trying them. I should point out (as I have posted here not long ago) the city is no longer as safe as it once was and we think twice about when and where we go in the city. That’s sad, but I still love Seattle. I even have a completely separate website (My Seattle) that I created for friends coming here.

Downtown VancouverVancouver, British Columbia

After Seattle, the city we have spent the most time in since we started traveling together is Vancouver, BC. We made our first trip back in 1998 when Kathleen took me there for a wonderful birthday weekend. Since that time we have been back more than 50 times. We have gone less since 2005 when we met our best friends Bob and Judy who live in Chilliwack, BC, about 120 km east of the city. Before we met them, we probably went to Vancouver three or four times a year, but since then, maybe only once a year. But every time we go, we love it. I LOVE taking photos there. Many of my favorite photos in the last few years were taken in YVR (the airport designation for Vancouver and a common nickname). We will go back many times in the future and I encourage you—if you have never been there—go! Stanley Park, Vancouver Theater Sports, Granville Island, Gastown, Robson Street are all things we love and that you should not miss. Oops! I almost missed our favorite Italian restaurant—CinCin. We went there for our 20th anniversary last August and have eaten there at least 10 times. A great restaurant.

Panoramic view of the downtown San Diego skyline, CaliforniaSan Diego, California

Growing up in Southern California I spent a lot of time in the LA area (heck, I was born there—in Lynwood–near Compton) and Kathleen is from the Bay Area, right across from San Francisco but for some reason it turned out that our favorite California city is San Diego. I think the first time we went there together was for a business meeting I had to attend. We loved it. It’s a big city that’s really a bunch of small towns. From the Gaslamp District to Old Town, from Coronado Island to downtown, we love the whole place. Even losing our friends who live there…we still love it and look forward to going back. Great restaurants, nice hotels (even though we got kicked out of our room the last time because the Secretary of Homeland Security wanted three whole floors) and we have had pretty good luck with AirBnBs as well. Of course there is the world famous zoo and wonderful Balboa Park that surrounds it. One of my favorite things about San Diego is its waterfront. We have sailed into and out of San Diego harbor a number of times and it’s a great place to start or end a cruise. Besides as everyone knows, the weather is always perfect.

Sunset in Santa FeSanta Fe (and Albuquerque), New Mexico

Once we leave the west coast, our next stop is New Mexico. Yes, we know we skipped Phoenix, Tucson and Las Vegas but even though we seem to visit them regularly, if you told me I could never go back, I would neither cry or die. If you ask me where I want to go between coasts in the USA, the first place that comes to mind is Santa Fe. We have only been to New Mexico twice but both trips were favorites. The last trip was the best! Besides Santa Fe, we also got to see the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta (worth the entire trip) with good friends and then spend four days in Santa Fe. If you have followed my posts for awhile you know we love food and we have done food tours and cooking classes with the Santa Fe School of Cooking while there and loved them. Lastly, if you visit, DO NOT MISS Meow Wolf. It is a one-of-a-kind experience that’s beyond crazy and a lot of fun.

Toronto city skyline at night, Ontario, TorontoToronto, Ontario

One thing I pondered when I added Toronto to this list was this—do we really love the city or am I just listing it because we get to see our friends Tim & Perry when we are there? No, we love the city and Tim and Perry are just a big bonus. We have visited three times and loved all of them. I love walking in the Beaches area where Tim and Perry live (on the shores of Lake Ontario), they have amazing food all over the city (especially when you have two foodies to take you to find that food), a super art festival called Nuit Blanche that we got to attend and some beautiful places to see within a short distance (Niagara Falls, Port Hope, the Thousand Islands). We have even flown out of the coolest airport in the world (Billy Bishop International Airport) on the coolest airline in the world (Porter Airlines). You should try both. Billy Bishop is on an island right in downtown Toronto and Porter Air is a HUGE throwback to the 1960s and gold age of air travel. The flight attendants still wear pillbox hats and they serve you actual food.

Aerial panoramic sunset view of Charleston, South CarolinaCharleston, South Carolina (and Savannah, Georgia)

Even though these two cities are in different states, they is only about a two hour drive between them through some really cool country. And both of these cities exude Southern Charm. Why we even saw a performance by “the Southern Charmer” in Charleston. The entire area is known as the “Low Country” and when we visited we found that their reputation as amazing food towns was well deserved. There are also lots of things to see (old plantations, giant oak trees, Fort Sumter, Hilton Head beaches) and do besides eating…but I liked the eating best. That and the awesome photos I got on my early morning photowalks. I would go back to both cities in a minute but if I had to pick one thing to go back for, it would be the chicken and waffles at The Early Bird Diner just outside Charleston on the road to Savannah. They were absolutely amazing. I can still taste them in my mind. You can read about our trip to the Low Country on our website.

New York City skyline from roof top with urban skyscrapers before sunset.New York, New York

I debated about adding NYC but we have so many memories there and I would go back at the drop of a hat that I just couldn’t leave it out. We have been three times and I may be getting too old for the craziness but when last we were there in the fall of 2018 I did have some great experiences. New York is not a place I need to tell people about. Either you already know or you don’t care. I will mention some of my favorite spots and memories which include walking The Highline at dawn, taking an old yacht on an architectural tour around the island of Manhattan, doing a tour of the area around Ground Zero, taking a food tour of Greenwich Village and of course theater. We have seen so many great plays on Broadway that it is hard to remember them all. And the food…don’t get me started. Too much variety, if that’s possible. New York is not a city I can’t wait to go back to but I would be really sad if you told me I couldn’t go back there.

That concludes my list of North American cities I love…and would go back to. I would LOVE to hear from you about the cities you love in the comments below. Make your own list. Pass mine around. See what people think and where they would go if they could go to any city on the continent. In the next post (or the one after that) I will list my favorites from around the rest of the world. Watch for it.

When you tour as much as I do, you’re always on the road, and you tend to gravitate toward cities where you’re like, ‘Every time I’m in that city, the shows are fun.—Tom Segura

 

My TV interview

KK
Kelly Koopmans of KOMO-TV

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, I did an interview (on tape) with Kelly Koopmans of KOMO-TV. She tells me it will be shown next Friday so when it is available on the KOMO-TV website I will let you know.

Kelly is a pretty great interviewer and she made me feel like we were just having a pleasant conversation. We talked for almost 20 minutes and to be honest I didn’t even realize that we were doing the interview until about 5 minutes in. She also told me that out of that 20+ minutes of talking, she might end up using a minute or two on the air. That’s TV folks. You think you are the star and then you wind up on the cutting room floor.

One thing Kelly did, (a few days before we talked) was send me a set of questions/talking points she wanted to discuss. I did some research and added my opinions. Since I know she won’t put all of them in the report, I thought I would share them with you. The questions are in bold and my answers aren’t.

Can we expect a spike in prices once things reopen or will there be bargains to get people traveling again?

This will probably differ based on the kind of travel expense. My best guess based on what I am reading and seeing in future pricing is that we will see a lot of bargains as the travel industry tries to entice people to travel again. Even though the government may say it is OK to travel, many individuals may find have some trepidation about going out there again. It will definitely be slow to come back and hotels, airlines and cruise lines will have to really try hard to get it going again. 

How far out should you wait to cancel if you have a trip booked right now?

If you have a flight or a cruise booked that you don’t think will go, DO NOT cancel it. Let them cancel you. If you cancel, you may lose any deposit or payment you have made. Or you may only be able to get a credit that is good for a specific time. If they cancel you, you will either be able to get a refund or possibly a credit for future travel that exceeds what you would have paid for your current travel. For instance, if you cancel a cruise in June today, you may get your deposit back or pushed forward as a credit but if you wait until they cancel you, with most cruise lines, you could get a 125% Future Cruise Credit. 

Are summer and fall international trips off?

That’s one I can’t answer. As we all know, Europe was hit harder (for their relative size) than we were. Asia more so. And the CDC has banned cruises to and from the US until after July 24. Small countries (especially those in poorer areas of the world) may still have their doors closed because they were unable to deal with the virus as well as larger industrialized nations. A traveler’s best bet might be to think about in-state travel first, then inside the USA travel and finally international travel. We have a trip planned for August to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands which we are pretty sure will be cancelled. But we also have a European Christmas Market river cruise in December that I think we should be able to take.

Tell me about travel insurance… are all these changes  covered?

The best way to think about travel insurance is this: If you don’t have what is called Cancel for Any Reason insurance (which most people don’t because it is VERY expensive), then if the flight/cruise/attraction is open and running, your insurance will not cover reimbursement if you decide not to go because you are worried you might get sick or quarantined far from home. If you are sick or get the virus, then yes, you would be covered. Or if you are traveling and get sick, your insurance would cover your medical costs as well as getting you home.

If your flight is canceled do you settle for a voucher or can you get cash back?

Decide what is best for you. If your flight is cancelled, they have to give you a choice. If you cancel your flight, you might not have that choice. If you need the $$$ now, take the refund.

What are your rights as a consumer when it comes to changing or canceled  flights?

For domestic flights, as well as international ones departing or arriving in the U.S., you’re covered by the rules of the Department of Transportation. As it says on the DOT’s website, if your flight is canceled — no matter the reason — you are entitled to a full refund back to your original form of payment for the unused portion of your itinerary.

When your flight is canceled, you are entitled to a refund — no questions asked — according to the DOT rules. However, some airlines have been trying their hardest to convince travelers to go with a voucher instead of a refund – despite the rules. The airlines are doing this to maintain as much positive cash flow as possible.

If you’re offered credit for a future trip and would prefer your money back, the best course of action is to call an airline’s customer service desk. Cite the DOT rules and contract of carriage you agreed to when you purchased your ticket. If you’re still out of luck, consider a credit card charge back.

But either way, knowing your rights is the first step in getting what you want.

How far ahead should you book?

Depends on what you are booking. If you have a cancelled cruise, book the next one as soon as you can. I have clients cancelled in May who have already rebooked for next May. And those cruises are filling up fast. People are going to want to travel and many already have reservations for next year and the year after. For instance, we have a cruise booked for September 2021 and October 2022. But when it comes to air and hotel, 11 months is about as far out as you can book, so you can’t book next summer now anyway. 

Have you ever seen a time like this in your industry?

Since I have only been a travel professional for a little more than two years, I can’t say. As a traveler, I have NEVER seen anything like this. And it’s killing us not to be able to go anywhere. 

Do you think this will forever change the travel industry?

I truly believe the biggest change is going to be paying more attention when something like this starts up in another part of the world. We got off our last cruise on March 2. We went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. In hindsight, we should have skipped that one as the virus was a known factor in Asia (and Washington state) when we boarded. Other than that, I think things will be cleaner, more people will wear masks and wash hands…at least I hope we will have learned something from this. 

I have also heard that some cruise lines are also considering two huge changes. First, adding a walk-through fever checking station to their boarding procedure. Apparently this is quite common when boarding a cruise ship in Japan. As Kathleen just mentioned to me, this would NOT catch those that were asymptomatic but I believe it is a good step in protecting the rest of us. If you have a fever, you shouldn’t be cruising.

The other major change on cruise ships would (and should) be no one being able to serve themselves in a buffet. No more bread baskets (that will both kill me and save my waist line) on tables in the dining room, basically no more handling of food by passengers, only by crew with tongs and/or gloves.

So that’s what Kelly and I talked about. I just thought I would share. I would love to hear some of your comments in the space below.

Never make predictions, especially about the future.—Casey Stengel

When can we travel again?

JK333Want to know when we can travel again? Personally, I am not the one to ask, but I wanted to send you a very short post today (back later this week with a longer travel post) with a link to an article from the Seattle Times. We first saw it yesterday and it is all about “When can we travel again?” It is prognostications from a number of travel and virus experts including travel guru Rick Steves. You can find that article by clicking here. It’s a good read and might brighten your day if you (like us) can’t wait to travel again.

But apparently, I am the one to ask here in Seattle. This is the same topic that I will be discussing (via Skype) with Kelly Koopmans who is the morning anchor on KOMO-TV here in Seattle. Or at least I will be taping an interview with her this morning that will air sometime next week or the week after. I will post when I know the date. It will undoubtedly be on the web as well for those of you who aren’t local.

Kathleen wishes I could get a haircut before I do it, but we all know that won’t happen. Speaking of that, Kelly asked me to find one or two local clients of mine who had travel cancelled for this summer so she could get their reactions to that.. But my few local clients (most of my clients are friends and relatives who don’t live locally) said they didn’t want to talk on TV because “I am not going on TV. Not how I look after all this quarantine time!” Cracked me up but I know that for many people, it is the real thing.

So take a second and read the article and maybe it will give you some hope…because we all know we love to travel!

I love traveling. I hate jet lag, but I love, love, love, love traveling, to meet new people, to try different foods because I’m a big foodie. —Irina Shayk

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

 

Grand Cayman Crystal Caves

_8101850I love alliterations so you got that one as a headline. Of course it also relates to where we spent our next port day. After two days at sea (relaxing and socializing) we arrived at the island nation of the Cayman Islands (this is where I keep all my off-shore bank accounts 😜). Specifically, we came ashore in tenders on Grand Cayman Island. But not the town of George Town which is where we were supposed to come ashore. The winds were too strong for Reflection to get us on to the tenders (For the non-cruisers, these are small boats that ferry us to shore when there is no ocean pier and the ship has to anchor offshore.) So we had to go to the opposite side of the island and tender into a much smaller port, nowhere near a town.

_8101861We did have plans on Grand Cayman and we were still able to do everything we had set up. Our buddy Mike (the god of shore excursions) had set up a small group trip to the Crystal Caves, a relatively new attraction on Grand Cayman. On the way off the ship (while on the tender) I got to take the photo above which shows The Reflection in her best light. Then we got to the tender dock and I shot her again with some island color in the foreground.

We were picked up by a taxi hired by the tour company and whisked away to the Caves. We were a little early so our driver gave us a free tour of some of the sites of Grand Cayman. One of the things we saw everywhere on Grand Cayman were tiny cemeteries everywhere. It was like every neighborhood had one of their own. In our short drive to the Caves we passed at least nine._8102059

We finally reached the Crystal Caves (a new attraction on Grand Cayman since 2016). It is a fascinating system of caves. There are three main caves and because there was a threat of rain that day, we were not able to visit one of them. We were able to visit the Roots Cave and The Lake Cave. I took more than 200 photos of the caves and if I showed you all of them, we would be here all day and you would get sick of caves. If you are interested in more, I will drop the balance on my Flickr feed that you can access at right.

After our outstanding Crystal Caves tour (it lasted about an hour or so) we taxied back to the pier and headed back to the ship. On the way I took a few more photos to kind of give those that have never been to Grand Cayman an idea of what the island looks like.

The mystery is what prompted men to leave caves, to come out of the womb of nature.—Stephen Gardiner

Finally…Mardi Gras!

I’ve been teasing you long enough. We were actually still in New Orleans for Mardi Gras and yes we loved it. Had a superb day which started off with my taking the photo mentioned in my previous post. Please check it out if you have’t read it yet.

Pre-dawn photo walk

After I took that pic I walked around some of the same streets I had walked through the day before and a few others. First I hit St. Charles Street where the parades were scheduled for later in the day. At the corner of Julia Street and St. Charles, there were hundreds of people who had camped out overnight to save their places. Many had tents, sleeping bags and a few had charcoal grilles fired up and cooking breakfast. I watched an awesome sunrise and captured a lot of it. I will let the photos speak for the actual photo walk and be back with more narrative after the photos (with captions).

Later that day…

After my photo walk I headed back to the ship to shower, eat and convince Kathleen to come to a parade with me. Eventually she and I along with Bob, Judy & Mike walked up Julia Street to St. Charles Avenue to watch what we thought was the start of the Krewe of Rex parade. King Rex’s Krewe hosts the final parade before the end of Mardi Gras. Turns out the Krewe of Zulu’s parade (that preceded Rex) was a little late getting started and that put Rex a whole bunch late getting going. We stayed and watched a bunch of Zulu floats go by. The crowds were about 20 people deep going back from St. Charles Street and in that mess were some truly unusual and fun people watching the parade and celebrating Mardi Gras in a real New Orleans fashion.

After we watched the Zulu Krewe parade for a while, we headed back to the ship, got some lunch and around 4:00 pm Mike and I walked back out to get some authentic cajun gumbo for me and jambalaya for Mike. We both just had a small bowl because we still had dinner with our friends later that evening back onboard.

_8101812After we got back aboard but before we went to dinner I did a quick panorama of downtown New Orleans from the ship (it is below). Pay special attention to the skyscraper that is just to the right of center in the distance. (It is also the tallest building to the right.) When we did the HoHo bus tour it was another very sad building failure in the history of modern New Orleans. When we drove by the tower, all the bottom floor windows that were easy to see, were covered in plywood. It (The Plaza Tower) was built (according to our guide and the previously linked Wikipedia page) in 1964 and totally abandoned in 2002 due to a HUGE infestation of black mold. And even worse, it can’t be demolished because it is full of asbestos and imploding it would put a mile wide cloud of asbestos all over downtown New Orleans. So it sits there and probably will for a very long time. So sad. 

New Orleans Pano

This finished up our time in New Orleans which brought us a ton of fun, lots of walking, parades, Krewes, beignets and so much more. We are very glad we visited during Mardi Gras and we truly loved the city and the people we met there.

Mardi Gras, the drinking, the partying—that scared me. —Archie Manning

 

One photo I love

It’s 4:30 am on Leap Day and I am wide awake and sitting in the library on board Celebrity’s Reflection staring at an enormous tree hanging from the walls and watching eight glass elevators go up and down. Those of you who have sailed on S-class Celebrity ships know right where I am. (It’s a really cool tree.)

Since I can’t sleep I decided why not write about another, smaller part of our New Orleans story—so here we go. When last we chronicled our NOLA adventures, it was the evening of Lundi Gras, the day before Mardi Gras. The next morning was the big day itself so as usual (for me) I was up before dawn to get out and take photos. Now to be honest, photographically, this was one of the best and most productive photo walks I have ever had. As much as I loved the photos I had taken the previous morning, these were better. At least one of them was.

I am going to do something I have never done before. I am going to write a post about a single photograph. In the last few days since we left New Orleans, I keep coming back to this photo again and again. Over my years of taking photographs I have taken what I consider to be some pretty good pictures but this one, I think, is my best…so far. Of course now that I am building it up so much, you will see it and say, “What’s so special about this pic.😀” I hope that doesn’t happen. So here’s the photo (please look at it as large as possible and let it come all the way to full clarity—this is not a photo to be seen on a phone).

BestPhoto

 

This was one of the first photos I took that morning. It had recently rained but even better, workers from the city were out pressure washing the streets and had just moved on from this one. For those of you who know New Orleans, when I took the shot, I was standing at the corner of St. Peter and Decatur streets next to Jackson Square. I had stopped to shoot the reflections of the lights on the pavement when a taxi pulled up on Decatur and the cab driver got out and went to knock on the door of his early morning pick up. Looking through my viewfinder, I saw what I knew was going to be my favorite photo of this trip or maybe that I had ever taken. And I was right.

There is an artist I love named Edward Hopper. My favorites of his paintings are haunting, noir pieces that show something that just reaches out to me. I have always loved them. I love his colors, his use of light and dark, and how people in his paintings are often alone and isolated.

One of my biggest disappointments when traveling was visiting Chicago a few years ago and finding that his seminal painting, Nighthawks had been loaned out to a museum out of town and was not hanging in its home, the Art Institute of Chicago. I really wanted to see it. It’s one of my favorite works of art. I humbly submit that this photo is my tribute to Hopper. I loved the photo when I took it but when I got back to my laptop and opened it full screen, I realized how well it came together and how much it reminded me of his work.

Another thing I love about this photo is that it says something I truly believe about photography. It seems that everyone these days is a photographer and their number one camera is a phone. And even those who still shoot single lens reflex cameras like my Nikon, often shoot using nothing but the automatic settings on their cameras. When I go out to shoot early in the morning, when I am looking for that perfect light, when I look for this kind of photo, there is only one way to shoot—manual.

If I had put my camera in Program mode (Nikon D850s don’t even have an auto mode), then this photo would have been as bright as daylight. That’s what automatic modes strive for. Giving you light to make it look like it’s noon. Phones do that sometimes as well. When I teach photography at workshops, I try to convey this to students who struggle to understand light and using their cameras to capture what they are seeing, not what the camera thinks they want to see. This shot, taken in manual mode, was exactly what I was seeing and what I wanted to capture.

Don’t get me wrong, so much of this photo is not about my skill as a photographer but the total luck of everything coming together at one time. This is my photographic equivalent of a hole-in-one. You have to have some skill but you also have to have some luck. I will say that this is the shot I envisioned when we first decided to take this trip. In my mind I saw this shot of the lights reflecting off the pavement in the French Quarter. I just never new I would get lucky and find the focal point (the cab driver) to take this from a good photo to one I truly love.

There is so much more I want to say about this photo and why I love it but just let me sum up by saying that this photo is the reason I love taking pictures, the reason I get up out of bed at 5:00 am to roam the streets of the places we visit, the reason I will continue to take more…in hopes of getting another one like this.

Maybe I am not very human – what I wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house. —Edward Hopper