Wednesday, January 7, 2015

December 2014 Holiday Cruise

We decided to take our time heading to Fort Lauderdale for our 11 night cruise on the Celebrity Equinox. On Saturday we drove to Naples. On the way we stopped at Alpine Steakhouse which had been featured on DineIns, drive ins and dives for its turducken. The place was very cool. The turducken was pretty good but it as covered in gravy so we had a hard time deciphering the different birds. 

Then we checked in to the Inn at Pelican Bay. We thought Pelican Bay was a body of water but really it's an office park. While the location was a bit surprising, the hotel was great. The lobby was gorgeous and our room was very nice. 

A large outdoor mall is within walking distance so we headed over there for dinner. We chose The Pub. It had a great beer selection and the food was good. We had the calamari and the wings. We headed back toward the hotel but stopped for one. Ore beer at Taps. We were delighted to see it had Goose Island Bourbon County stout on tap. This is a limited release beer so I was very excited to get to try it. In the morning we took a 20 minute walk to the beautiful beach. Then we headed to Miami for a ship inspection of the Regal Princess.

Turns out the Regal Princess was in Fort Lauderdale. Oops. Good thing the ports are only 30 minutes apart. We had a nice lunch and tour of the ship. The ship was beautiful  and we were really impressed with the unique dining spaces and the huge buffet. 

After the ship tour, we headed to check into our hotel. I navigated us to the wrong one.  Two hotels named Holiday Inn Express Fort Lauderdale Cruise make things a little confusing. We finally found the right hotel. It was also within walking distance of a lot of restaurants so we headed to a sports bar - Duffy's -to watch the rest of Sunday football. We headed back to the hotel early to try for a good night'a sleep. Monday we went for a walk go the beach and then headed to the port!!

The check in process was very easy and we were sitting in Bistro on 5 within an hour of leaving the hotel.

The Equinox -  The ship is large with many lounges or public spaces.  We really like the decorations for the holidays.  

We have an Aqua class cabin so we eat at a special restaurant called Blu and have access to an area of the spa with a special steam room and shower plus showers and heated lounge chairs.

The first night dinner in Blu was fantastic: corn velouté, ahi tuna, filet mignon, beets and the service was great.
Filet Mignon

Activities - We attended trivia, a lecture on the ship's recycling programs, a meringue dance lesson.  This ship also has a live hot glass show that is really interesting to watch. The glass makers sculpt and blow glass into some amazing shapes.

Bars - The Gastropub is brand new and no other ship has it. It's a great beer bar with a solid beer list. 

Santos, the bartender, is fantastic. He enrolled in a very rigorous training program for bartenders called World Class. I don't think we ordered a drink by name. We would just walk up and say something refreshing or something with bourbon. 

The Molecular Bar is another great bar. The bartenders use foam, liquid nitrogen, and unusual fresh ingredients to make unique cocktails.

The ports

Grand Cayman - You have to take a tender into Grand Cayman. Because it's limited how many people can leave the ship at one time, the ship hands out tickets. Our plan was to have a leisurely breakfast and then to head ashore around 11 am. Usually by that time, the ticket system is finished and anyone can go ashore. Well, we were surprised it was going to still be an hour wait at 11 am so we decided to just stay on board and have a relaxing day on the ship.

Cartagena, Colombia - We arranged a private tour for the two of us through Dora the Explorer. We visited a church on a high hill for a great view of the city. 

Our guide told us every year there is a big festival where people climb the hill carrying the statue of the Virgin and there's a contest for the fancy dress the Virgin will wear. He also pointed to the small silver baby boy charm he had given the Virgin as a token of appreciation for curing his son. We also saw the fort, the San Pedro Cathedral, the  Old City and a shopping district in the new city. The Old City reminded us a lot of San Juan, Puerto Rico with the Spanish architecture. I was surprised to learn Colombia was 70% Catholic and all the public schools are Catholic. If you want non-religious education, you have to go to the private schools. The country is very rich from the gold and emerald mining plus a good climate for agriculture. After our tour, we had a relaxing day at the indoor spa followed by trivia.

Colon, Panama -We took the Panama Canal tour through the ship. It was incredible. We transited two of the Canal's locks on a ferry boat. This up close view of the locks and gates was really impressive. 

We even touched the wall of the Panama Canal. I was surprised how narrow and small the locks are. It's really incredible to see all the rock the engineers had to cut through to build the canal. I am in awe of the engineering it took and that the canal has stood for 100 years. Some estimates say as many as 40,000 people died building the canals. Malaria was a big problem. They originally thought it was caused by ants so they would leave bowls of water by their beds to drown the ants which just magnified the problem.

Puerto Limon, Costa Rica - We took an excursion through the cruise line called Rainforest Extravaganza. It was terrific. We started the day with a one hour drive through Costa Rica. Then we stopped at Veragua Rainforest Research and Adventure Park. The Park has zip lining trails,  but we visited the research side and the animal exhibitions. We saw a great collection of frogs, butterflies, and snakes. We took a short tram ride through the canopy and walked to a waterfall.

 Lunch was a plate of great Costa Rican food and of course, we tried the local beer. Then we got back on the bus to the Tortugero canals. We saw iguanas, birds and a SLOTH!! We had also seen sloths during the drive, but the viewing in the canal was awesome because the sloth was moving around in the tree and I could zoom in on his face with the binoculars provided by the ship. Then it as a drive back to the ship. It was a full day, but I can really appreciate the biodiversity of Costa Rica. I was impressed to learn that the money all has pictures of animals or plants rather than people.

Belize City, Belize - We decided to do the cave tubing. 

Belize City is a port where you have tender - take a smaller boat to shore. The tendering process was chaotic. When we finally go to shore and had all our people together (it took 2 hours or so), we boarded a school bus for an hour drive through Belize. The cave tubing itself was great, but all the transportation and waiting led us to the conclusion we would not do it again. The first time we took the excursion on a Carnival cruise and it seemed to go much smoother. 

Cozumel, Mexico - We have spent a lot of time in Cozumel. This time we decided to do a tequila tasting at Discover Mexico. 

The tequila tasting was really well done. I learned a lot about tequila. Then we explored Discover Mexico including a required 20 minute stop in the gift shop. There was also a video, an art museum, and a very large collection of scaled building from Mayan Temples to the current landscape of Cozumel. We joked it would make a great mini-golf course. The iguanas seemed to like it. 

After lunch, we watched a presentation of an ancient ritual where men climbed a pole, tied a role around their waist and swung all the way to the ground while the elder stood on top and played music. 

I was very concerned about how the Elder would get down. 

Holiday activities

Christmas - The ship is beautifully decorated. Christmas Eve they led caroling in the atrium and had a special holiday show in the theater. Christmas Day Santa arrived and led a parade through the ship and handed out gifts in the main atrium. 

Glenn and I upheld our tradition of wearing our Christmas pajamas. 

The crew got a big laugh about it.

Glenn's birthday - We went to the specialty restaurant Murano and had a lovely meal. Glenn had a great pork belly appetizer and an incredible salad with bacon, fried egg, spinach, and truffle. 
Pork Belly

I had a scallop Wellington and a tomato and mozzarella salad. Our main entrees were version and Dover sole. Glenn said the venison was the second best dish he ever had. We had a dessert sampler that was very good and the sommelier did a great job pairing wines for us.  We spent the east of the evening in the casino hoping for a little birthday luck.

New Year's Eve - The ship held an awesome deck party with a party band and a DJ.  Center stage was a large ice sculpture with the year. At midnight, the Captain broke up the 4 and then it was replaced with a 5. 

Our favorite bartenders even shared their secret stash with us to celebrate. 
Sebastian and Santos

Overall, it was an incredible cruise. We had a wonderful time and the most fun with the crew. We'll remember it as the best bartenders, room stewards, and great excursions. Can't wait for our next adventure.  Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Kicking off December by Kicking Butt

Glenn and I love the amazing race so we signed up for Funk~N~Impossible Mission - a mix between a scavenger hunt and the amazing race. We had a blast! We got clues via Facebook and then had to figure out the clue and then race to the location outlined in the clue. We could complete missions like pretending to run into an invisible wall or starting a flash mob or doing a Michael Jackson dance to get time off the clock. We did all the missions and ran a pretty good time - so much so we got SECOND PLACE!! 

After the race, we went to Cassis in downtown St Pete for Lunch. 

The food and service was fantastic. Then we went to Rapp Brewing - a brewery we have been wanting to try. 

We were so impressed! 

Sunday, we work on things around the house and watched football. Overall - a great weekend. 

Thanksgiving! Christmas! Birthdays!

I headed up to Indiana the Sunday before Christmas because my grandmother was in the hospital and I wanted to hang out with my mom while she kept watch at the bedside. 

(Side tangent - It's really incredible how health care works. The doctors, nurses and techs counted on my mom being there as the coordinator of care. She had to update each doctor on what the other doctor said and then update the nurses as well. We joked that we would demand that everyone get together in one room at the same time and we were locking the door until they spoke to each other. It's pretty crazy.) 

Anyway - Glenn flew up Wednesday night. My mom took the early shift Thursday morning so we could hang out with our niece and nephew. It was really fun. 

I took the afternoon shift and we had a nice dinner of ham, risotto and green beans. 

Friday, we moved my Grandma to rehab. Saturday we got to have "First Christmas". Glenn and I won't be going back to Indiana for Christmas so we got to celebrate. My mom bought my niece a Frozen microphone and the highlight of the way was definitely watching her sing the Frozen soundtrack - especially at the end when she re-enacted the Do You Want to Build a Snowman so realistically we thought she was actually crying. 

On Sunday we had a laid back Christmas morning. It was a great visit!! 

November: The Pre-Holiday Highlights

November was a lot of fun. Both Glenn's brother and sister were in Orlando in the first part of the month so we got the chance to drive over and share a meal with them. 


Of course, anytime we go to Orlando - we usually stop at Two Henrys Brewery on the way home. 

We spent one Saturday at the India Festival in Tampa. Glenn spent 6 weeks in India in 2010 for work so it was fun for him to see a little bit of that culture. Plus the food was really really good. 

Most of our Sundays were spent on the couch watching football. 

We got up bright and early one Saturday to run/walk the Busch Gardens 5K. It was a great race! Lots of animals along the route plus a flamingo at the finish line. We ran intervals so I really pushed myself. 

October: Big Changes

October was a really pivotal month for us. I had my last day at my union job - 10.10.14.

 It was really difficult to say goodbye. Knowing I could keep up with my co-workers eased the transition, but I was still sad to go. I decided to pursue my travel business full time. When I think about the future -I want to be able to work from anywhere. The things I love to do: help people, problem solve, help people figure out what they really want, and travel just happen to all come together into a profession where I can work from home.  I was astounded that as I told people of my plan - the response was incredibly positive, very supportive and more than once someone said, You are living the dream. I really am and I am grateful. 

The weekend of the 11th we signed up for a University of Chicago lecture series on the environment, communication and cannabis. All three lectures were really interesting and we met some really nice people. We also had a ton of fun playing Cards Against Humanity at our friend Cindy's house. 

The week of the 12th - Laurel and I scouted the Tampa Bay Bridal Show so I could pick up some tips on my presentation. Then later in the week, I went on my first travel agent trip to visit Sandals Emerald Bay, Beaches Turks and Caicos, and Sandals La Source. I learned so much about these great resorts and made some wonderful new travel agent friends. 

The rest of the month we just relaxed until Marisa and Bob's wedding! My parents were also invited so we had a wonderful weekend celebrating the happy couple. The wedding was perfect and the reception was a blast. 

 Prior to the wedding, we were able to sneak in a little visit to the Museum of Science and Industry. The Behind the Scenes tour was really well done. 

On the way back to the airport, we had a great brunch with Jon and Jackie at our new favorite spot - Au Cheval and then we made a stop at the Lagunitas Tap Room 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

10.3.14 A weekend cruise to the Bahamas

Today's post is from Glenn 

Returned today from the three night and was so impressed with this ship. Had a great cruise. The crew was so friendly and the cruise director staff so much fun. Overall I give the cruise an A. 
Some individual impressions:

Cabin - We had 3508 Oceanview (Forward Starboard). Very spacious and was impressed with all the storage space. The only negative and I imagine it is the same in all cabins is the extremely tight space in the shower. One false step, and you are taking a header towards the sink!! I am 6' 4" and had a very challenging time. Our cabin steward Mark was so attentive.

Dining - Mixed reviews depending on the venue. Most surprised by the Park Cafe. It was a great place for embarkation lunch (no crowds) and I loved the selection of salads, sandwiches and carved meat (although they never seemed to have the "famed" roast beef when I stopped by). Even great little breakfast sandwiches. It was located in the Solarium - a great covered pool. 

Main Dining Room was excellent. 

First time on any ship for My Time Dining and was a little nervous on how it would work. Was surprised you could make reservations ahead of time for the whole cruise. So we had "unassigned late seating" at 7:30 each night - and one night moved it up to 6:30 based on that day;s events we wanted to attend. Had the best assistant waiters and bar waiters on any cruise. Food in MDR was overall very good. Usually the waiter's recommendations panned out except for the bay scallops which were tasteless morsels of rubber doused in butter. But had an amazing beef tenderloin dish the second night. The finest beef dish I have had on a cruise.

I'll be as kind as I can on the Windjammer buffet and the Coco Cay BBQ lunch. 

They are truly uninspired. For as much work and planning seems to go into the MDR and Park Cafe (and I assume Chops), the buffet lacks much creativity except for the small hidden station of Indian which more often than not was not replenished. Food quality wasn't terrible in Windjammer - but I could have closed my eyes and guessed what dishes were waiting for me: Lasagna, stroganoff, nachos. The food at Coco Cay was worse. Luke-warm ribs, chicken and burgers. Very little flavor. I wish they would have offered some sort of spicy BBQ sauce for those that like some flavor. Didn't ruin my day of course. 

Live Music - Lots of opportunities to see bands and performers. The NEXUS band was my favorite. They were usually in the Centrum most evenings. 

The lead singer has an amazing voice. We stayed one evening for the piano entertainer (Beau??) in Schooner Bar. He was talented but instead of singing real words to any songs he made them up. There also was a band that mainly played in Boleros which was excellent. The last night they were playing all sorts of different traditional dance songs (like Waltz and Tango) for this group that were very accomplished dancers. As an aside, this cruise I saw the most amazing dancing from passengers. Really inspiring me to take some classes. 

Other Entertainment - Marc Walker is an exceptional cruise director. Funny and informational at the appropriate times. His staff always looked like they were having fun. I don't know his name but the Entertainment Manager led a very infectious deck party which is now the most impressive deck party I have seen on a ship (Norwegian Star has led that category). The trivia contests were very challenging!!

Embarkation - Very smooth. Waited in a line for about 15 minutes before getting to the counter. One tip. If they suggest you go to the non-Crown and Anchor dedicated lines, they may be right. We went to the Platinum line and then saw people who were behind us in security boarding the ship. It seems this sailing has lots of repeat cruisers which made those lines loner. But I also heard the CD say there were over 1000 first-time cruisers. In any regard, the premium lines aren't always shorter.

Debarkation. Woke up at 7:15 to our arrival. Quickly packed our things, and we were out in the parking lot by 8:20 (skipped breakfast).

Overall, a wonderful cruise. If you have any questions, feel free to ask.

Quick note from Angie: They also had one of my favorite activities - a silent dance party. In the night club - every one got head phones to wear and you could tune in to one of the two stations that the DJ was planning. It is so fun to see people rocking out ... to no music.