Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Preparations for China

The preparations for China are in full swing here at the Spusk house. Security for the house has been arranged. The paper and mail stopped. Visas have been secured. Currency has been exchanged. Neck pillows, eye masks, and blankets are ready for their 13 hour flight debut. Top ten things to see lists have been compiled and Learn Chinese podcasts have been downloaded. I think we even figured out the converter issues. We are very excited. I’m a little nervous – but then again I am always a little nervous! Here’s a basic outline of the trip. I am hopeful, but doubtful, we’ll be able to get on the internet while we are there and upload some photos and blog postings. Seems that the Chinese government isn’t too keen on the free exchange of ideas over the interweb. Here’s the basic outline of our tour for those of you following along at home:

Day 1: Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Depart USA. Depart just after midnight aboard your Air China 13 hour non-stop flight to Beijing

Day 2: Thursday, January 28, 2010 – Beijing Beijing International Hotel
Arrive early this morning in Beijing, China's historic and cultural capital. You'll be met by your guide and transferred to Tiananmen Square for a brief overview and a group photo. You will then proceed to your hotel in the center of Beijing, within short distance of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. After an orientation briefing by your guide, the rest of the day
is yours to explore Beijing on your own.

Day 3: Friday, January 29, 2010 - Forbidden City Beijing International Hotel
This morning visit the Forbidden City, located at the exact center of the ancient city of Beijing where it served as the imperial palace during the mid-Ming and Qing Dynasties. Known as the Palace Museum today, its extensive grounds cover 720,000 square meters, 800 buildings and more than 8,000 rooms. The Forbidden City is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world and was declared a World Heritage site in 1987. End your morning tour with a visit to an exquisite pearl factory and enjoy an included lunch. After lunch, the balance of the day is at leisure to explore Beijing on your own.

Day 4: Saturday, January 30, 2010 - Great Wall of China Beijing International Hotel
Depart after breakfast on a full day included excursion to the only man-made structure visible from the moon, the Great Wall of China. En route, view the Olympic venues, the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube, and enjoy a visit to the jade factory with a presentation and some time for shopping. The Great Wall follows a ridge of barren hills and stretches at least 3,750 miles (6,000 km). Construction of the Great Wall, which spanned more than two thousand years, began between the 7th and 6th century BC and continued through the Ming Dynasty. The wall was originally built of stone, wood, grass and earth, but during the Ming Dynasty, bricks were produced in kilns set up along the wall. The bricks were transported by men carrying them on their backs or by donkeys, mules and even goats, which had bricks tied to their heads before being driven up a mountain. Conclude your visit at the Sacred Way, an ancient road linking the Ming Tombs, the burial site of 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty. A massive stone archway, built in 1540 at the southern end is decorated with designs of clouds, waves and divine animals. Included meals: breakfast, lunch.

Day 5: Sunday, January 31, 2010 – Beijing Beijing International Hotel
Enjoy a day to explore Beijing on your own. Your hotel is centrally located in the heart of Beijing, close to major attractions, restaurants and shopping. We have booked a night market tour on our own. They’ll take us on a tour of the “street food” stands!

Day 6: Monday, February 1, 2010 - Beijing/Xi'an Xi'an Aurum International Hotel
After an early breakfast, transfer to the airport for your flight to Xi'an. Upon arrival, board your touring coach and drive to the site of the famous 2,200-year-old Terra Cotta army, among the most important archeological discoveries of modern times. More than 8,000 life-size ceramic soldiers, chariots and horses have been uncovered, but it's only a fraction of the total buried there to protect the tomb of the first Qin emperor. Each soldier is based on an actual person of the time, and all segments of Chinese society are represented. Learn more about this fascinating site during your visit to the Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, followed by an included lunch.

Day 7: Tuesday, February 2, 2010 - Xi'an/Shanghai Shanghai Broadway Mansions Hotel
Transfer to the airport and fly to Shanghai, China's most modern city, often called "Paris of the East." Upon arrival, take a ride on the world's fastest train, the maglev train. Then, visit one of Shanghai's oldest attractions—the Yu Garden and the Temple of the City God. Time permitting; indulge in some silk shopping after lunch. Proceed to your hotel for check in. Your hotel is located in the center of Shanghai, near the waterfront boulevard known as the Bund.

Day 8: Wednesday, February 3, 2010 – Shanghai Shanghai Broadway Mansions Hotel
Enjoy a full day at leisure in Shanghai to explore on your own

Day 9: Thursday, February 4, 2010 – Shanghai Shanghai Broadway Mansions Hotel
Spend a final day at leisure in Shanghai.

Day 10: Friday, February 5, 2010 - Shanghai/USA
Bid farewell to China as you transfer to the airport to board your return flight to the USA. Your exciting journey comes to an end as you arrive in the USA later today.

We are staying in LA the night before we leave and the night after we return. In 2007, when I went to Japan, I found it a big help not to have to worry about clearing customs and immigration in time to make a flight the night we arrive. Plus, it does seem to help with the time changes. So all in all, I think we are pretty much ready. A few more errands this week and then off we go!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Carnival Inspiration to Cozumel 12/10/09

Carnival Inspiration 12/10/09 – 12/14/09
I think the best recap of our December 10th cruise to Cozumel is Glenn's review of the trip that he posted on Cruise Critic.

Cruise Information:
Cruise Director: Josh Waitzman Cabin: R108 OceanView Mardi Gras Dining Room – Late Seating Waiters: Mohammed (Philippines) and Milan (Croatia) Maitre D’: George the Greek Travellers: Glenn and Angie
Living in Tampa, makes that port a great choice for cruises since you can look for deals, knowing you won’t have to also look for suitable airfare. We live about a 20 minute drive from the port and parked the car in the nearby garage by 12:15, expecting we would be onboard by 2PM. As we were headed to the parking garage elevators, we met a couple who told us that the ship wasn’t even in port yet and there was no boarding estimate. They were checking people in so we headed inside to do that. Checked our bags with a curbside porter and by 1:30 we had made it to the desk. However, no Sail and Sign cards were issued since the previous cruise hadn’t arrived yet. We were told to come back around 4PM and they would probably be boarding. We headed to Bennigan’s which is located in the Channelside shopping area. That place was crowded from many other passengers being in the same situation. They didn’t have adequate staff because normally the lunchtime crowd on a cruise day isn’t that big. Luckily my wife had brought the cribbage board, so we had a nice lunch , played cards and had a few beers. At 4:30, we headed over to the port and encountered a long line which wasn’t moving – plus it was cold and rainy. I checked with one of the Carnival staff who said they would begin the boarding process by 5PM. We headed back to Channelside to stay dry, and when we came back at 5PM the line was starting to move. Took awhile, but we were onboard by 6:30 with Sign and Sail cards. They handed out a letter to passengers at this time indicating the situation and that we would get a $15 on board credit since we had to buy our own lunch. I really didn’t expect anything, so I thought this was a nice gesture by Carnival since they didn’t have to give us anything. When we got onboard, they handed out cards indicating that the Mardi Gras dining room would be open seating starting at 8PM. We unpacked a little in our cabin and then headed to the dining room.
Thursday Night:I guess we technically had “Your Time” dining the first night – as did the entire ship. And it worked fine. We were seated at a “10 round” with other couples. The highlight of the meal was the smoked duck appetizer. It had some Thai-style noodles. Deliciousness. After dinner, we headed to the Welcome Aboard show. The singers and dancers were not very good. Kenny Miller was the comedian and he wasn’t very funny. Afterwards, we headed to the piano bar (Rhapsody in Blue). Barry is the piano guy – and we didn’t like his style. He didn’t play the piano much spending more time playing music from his CD player and changing hats. Plus, why is the piano bar the smokiest public lounge on the ship? There has to be better equipment for “eating” smoke. Hurt our eyes after awhile so by midnight, we were tired (and smoky) and headed to our cabin.
Friday - First Sea Day/Formal Night
We left out the room service breakfast card the night before and our breakfast and coffee were delivered by 8AM as we had asked. Very delicious smoked salmon, cream cheese and bagels. Did this every morning except debarkation and it worked perfectly. After a leisurely morning, we headed to the Safety Briefing which for us was the Paris Lounge. I can confirm they have changed the procedure. You no longer have to bring your lifejacket. It lasted about 30 minutes. Then to the Violins bar to catch the daily special of mimosas and bloody marys ($4.75) and then something called “Match Game” which was similar to the 70’s game show. The “contestant” they picked had some strange answers - but it was fun. Then we headed up by the pool to catch some deck games. It was a twist on musical chairs with a scavenger hunt which I hadn’t seen before. Started with 10 contestants and nine chairs. The assistant cruise director Matt would call out an item that they had to find and then return back to the chairs. Such things as a baby’s picture and a piece of fruit. And some more spicy items like three bikini tops and men’s swim trunks. It was funny to see how quickly men and women were willing to provide these!! I think this is like the “Quest” game they have on longer cruises. Later they had the Hairy Chest contest which was entertaining.
3PM we headed to the Love and Marriage show which was funny. My only complaint is that I wish they would mix up the questions. On Freedom, Valor and Inspiration they had 90% of the exact same questions. Now, they can lead to funny and unexpected responses, however I think they should be a little more creative. Mix it up a little and have the audience submit some questions. After this we headed to one of our favorite sea day activities: Afternoon Tea. And it was really great. We thought that the pastry quality had been greatly improved since our last trip on Inspiration and Valor. Prior to dinner they had the Captain’s Celebration along the Promenade. We only overheard the introduction in the Atrium so can’t provide much feedback on the actual event. A meet and greet with the Captain isn’t a reason I go on a cruise. They did announce $1.00 off all drinks from 5PM – 8PM. It was formal dinner tonight. And we met our great tablemates. Best we have ever had. Both first-time cruisers and my wife and I enjoyed helping them “learn the ropes”. Prime Rib and lobster were on the menu and that is what I ordered. It was very tasty and had great service from the waiters. After dinner we went to the late night comedy show with Kenny Miller. It was worse than the PG-rated on Thursday. Kenny told the audience he has been doing this for 17+ years. It might be time for a career change. We didn’t go to the main show “Shout” as it conflicted with the comedy. A little time at the casino and it was off to our cabin.
Saturday – Cozumel
We had a late morning excursion called the Amazing Race, so we enjoyed our leisurely room service breakfast then went to the pier. My wife and I were going through every thing we needed to leave the ship: Sail and Sign, photo id, money, credit card and water. We met with the excursion representatives on the pier and the first thing they ask us? Do you have your tickets? Guess what? We didn’t. But it was easily remedied by the Carnival excursion representative who straightened it out. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who wants to take this excursion. All I will say is that if you are a fan of the show, it pays great homage to it. Interesting clues and you definitely spend a good bit of time going back and forth around downtown Cozumel. Afterwards, we had a nice leisurely lunch of beef and pork tacos along with some delicious Cerveza Special (dark beer). So cheap – it was $25 US for both of us. Six tacos and six beers. And the best guacamole I have had. Did a little more shopping and picked up a nice bottle of white tequila. We kept looking for a special almond tequila we had found last time we were in Cozumel. We found one that was very close but more than we wanted to spend. So a taxi back to the International Pier, a little more shopping and browsing and then walked back to the ship. We went to the pool to cool off before getting ready for dinner. Before dinner, we tried the sushi and it was very good. After dinner, we went to the Variety Show with our tablemates. A marginally talented magician named Mark Miller and a very funny comedian named Diane Ford. Then to karaoke. Very fun and both of the men were great singers. I sang “Leroy Brown” pretty well – it is always a crowd pleaser.
Sunday – Sea DayOnce again, room service breakfast. It really spoils you but a great way to start the day rather than fighting the crowds at the buffet. We were told there was a “mandatory” Debarkation talk at 11AM. Normally, we wouldn’t go, but they said some of the rules in Tampa had changed – so we decided we best go. Well, it was a complete waste of time. The first 20 minutes were about today’s events, comment cards and gratuities. The cruise director spent a lot of time talking about how important it was to mark “Exceeded Expectations”. Then finally about 5 minutes on customs forms – and SURPRISE - there was nothing new from what we had seen on past cruises. This will be the last debarkation talk we go to. Needing a drink, we headed to Violins bar for the daily mimosa and bloody mary special. Then to the pool for something called the Extreme Lido Challenge. I originally thought this was going to be like something they had on Valor called Survivor challenge, but it ended up being some TV show music trivia. We arrived a little late, so maybe they had to cancel the original activity. We stayed poolside for the rest of the afternoon, then headed to the Fun Farewell Party at 5PM. This is the “replacement” for the captain’s cocktail hour. And we liked it a lot. They had the regular show band playing with a great singer we hadn’t seen before. It was too bad they didn’t play other places around the ship. The free cocktails were flowing and the waiters would automatically bring you another cocktail when your first was getting low - at least for the first 20 minutes. After that, our row seemed to get skipped and we had to ask the waiters to come. But it didn’t detract from the event. We enjoyed it. It wasn’t very crowded. Dinner tonight was “American”. Had the two best entrees of the cruise: Veal Parm and Short Ribs. We went with our tablemates again to karaoke. Didn’t sing this time as all the slots were full by the time we got there. And that rolled into the 11:15PM late night comedy with Diane Ford who was extremely funny. She had some great jokes – unfortunately nothing I can post in a public review. Had a drink at the Violins bar and then headed to the cabin.
Monday – Debarkation dayOur expected arrival was 7:15AM. During the night my wife and I were awoken by a loud clanking noise, but went back to sleep. Later, I looked out our window about 6AM and couldn’t see anything it was so foggy. And we weren’t moving. We had programmed the phone for a 7AM wakeup call so I went back to sleep. Then at 7AM looked out again and it was the same – foggy and we weren’t moving. It was clear we had been fogged in and that the loud noise we heard during the night was probably the anchor being dropped. There were no announcements or anything on the TV channels confirming, but it was obvious that we were going to have a late arrival. Just a matter of how late. We had planned to go to the dining room today so that is where we headed. Around 8AM, the cruise director confirmed that we were stopped because the port of Tampa had been closed due to heavy fog. So now we got to experience both sides of this kind of delay. We weren’t given any ETAs so we had a leisurely breakfast of eggs benedict. Tasty – but next time I will remember to get the hollandaise on the side since it was a bit crusted when it was brought to the table. We headed back to the cabin to get everything packed so we’d be ready if we had to vacate the cabins and wait elsewhere. Around 10AM, another accouncement was made that the port was still closed, and that once we did head into port, it would take approximately 4 hours to get there. Shortly afterwards, I looked at the TV screen “ship” channel and saw that the speed was increasing. 0.2 knots, 0.4 knots, 1 knot. Yeah!! We were moving. We decided to head up towards the Violins bar and play some cribbage while we waited. And they would be serving lunch in Lido starting at 11AM. So after a couple of games, we grabbed some lunch, then headed back to Violins for more cribbage. At 12:30, they asked everyone to vacate their cabins by 1:30. So my wife stayed to hold our prime window seat location, and I went to grab our luggage from the cabin. Then we got a new ETA of 3PM to be docked. We did self disembark and were off the ship and through customs by 4:30. Home by 5PM. Overall, Carnival handled this very well. The cruise director had continual updates throughout. The only thing I would have changed is to have more updates on the TV. They have about 5 channels dedicated to the cruise. You would think one of them could have a screen indicating the status of the ship instead of replaying the Hairy Chest contest.
Overall Rating: B+ Dining Room: A Food Quality: A+ Musical Shows: D Musical Entertainment Around Ship: B Comedians/Variety: B- Value: A