Wednesday, December 22, 2010

12.12.10 Carnival Legend Cruise by Angie

On December 12, 2010, we headed out on the Carnival Legend on a cruise to Grand Cayman, Honduras, Belize and Cozumel, Mexico. We left the house at 10:30 am and arrived at the port by 11:00 am. We got through security very quickly, were handed a boarding card and were on board within an hour. The boarding card process was a huge improvement. Before it was a cattle call where everyone just stood in line. Yes, there was some pushing. Now, everyone is divided into groups so there is a much more manageable number of people actually going onto the ship at any one time.

We headed up to the Lido deck to check out the buffet. The weather was cold and rainy so we found a table inside and filled up on hamburgers, hot dogs, and nachos. We stayed at the table people watching for a while and then decided to check out the ship. We found the enchanted forest-a cool little corridor off the main theater.

We also saw all the shops and little bars. The layout of this ship is very nice because we could walk from end to end on the main floors. On other ships, the kitchen is in the middle so you reach a point where you have to go up or down to get where you want to go.

At 1:30 pm, we were able to go to our cabin. It was great. We had a balcony cabin on the back of the ship. The balcony was a little longer than those on the side of the ship and we had a great view for pulling out of port. Glenn had the room decorated for my birthday and another friend had sent wine and bar coupons. It was very fun. Our luggage arrived right away. Just as we finished unpacking it was time for the muster drill. We didn’t have to take our life jackets, but we did have to go to the actual lifeboat stations.

After the muster drill, we headed up to have drinks at the bar near the adults only pool. They had two flat screen tvs playing the football games so we shared a bucket of beers as we watched the game and pulled out of port. We also met up with some people from Cruise Critic and had a very nice time.

We got ready for dinner and headed down for the martini tastings at what would become “our” bar on Deck 2. We met a really nice couple from Georgia and had a lot of fun. By the time our dining time of 8:15 pm came, the ship was rocking and rolling pretty good. A bottle of gin had even flown off from behind the bar. We went to our table. It was a booth – quite tight for two giants. We tried to make the best of it, but in the middle of the main course, I just wasn’t feeling well so we headed back to the cabin.

It was a very bumpy night. The ship’s movement was so severe it was difficult to sleep and a couple times we even slid around in the bed. I forced myself to get out of bed just before noon on Monday. I was still feeling a little punkish, but thanks to medicine and acupressure bracelets, I didn’t actually get sick.

We went to the cooking demonstration at the Golden Fleece Steakhouse.

It was very impressive. They prepared a three course meal and even passed out samples for everyone to taste. After the demonstration, we had a nice meal in the dining room and then went to a wine pairing seminar back in the steakhouse.

The sommelier did a really good job of explaining the differences in the wines and how different foods impact the flavor. It was really fun. Then it was tea time! Tea time is one of my favorite activities on board. They sent up tea cups and little plates. Then the waiters come around with a cart filled with special desserts and little sandwiches. By this time, the ship was starting to calm down so I really enjoyed it.

We switched tables for dinner and ended up with a great couple from Tampa. They were so much fun and we hit it off right away. Since I had been sick the night before, they brought out the special cake that Glenn had arranged. It was so nice.

After dinner, we were looking all over for something to do. We went to the karaoke, but it was Christmas themed and the first two singers we saw were a 10 year old and a very sad rendition of Favorite Things. We hit the casino and looked around for some live music, but none was to be found so we just headed to the cabin.

Tuesday, we were scheduled to dock in Grand Cayman. Glenn and I were not planning to get off the boat since the tender trip there is at least half an hour and I still wasn’t feeling one hundred percent. It turned out it didn’t matter because the seas were too rough anyway to set up the tender operation. We decided to check out the gym. It was great! We got in a little work out, but then the real treat was the steam room and amazing showers. It was definitely a highlight. After that, we went to lunch in the dining room – another one of my favorite things to do. We spent the afternoon hopping between karaoke, the casino and then we had to get ready for Chef’s Table.

Chef’s Table is a new experience onboard Carnival ships where up to 16 people get a special tour of the galley (kitchen) and then have a 7 course meal prepared by the head chef onboard and his sous chefs. It was magnificent. We started in the kitchen with a very detailed and very interesting tour. We got a great understanding of how the cruise kitchen works. We also had champagne and appetizers: tuna tartar, beef tenderloin tacos, duck confit dumplings, and a phyllo square filled with avocado mousse. The duck dumplings were incredible and the beef tenderloin tacos just melted in my mouth.

After the tour, we went to the disco where a large table had been set up on the dance floor.

Then seven amazing courses accompanied by white and red wine followed:

Salmon Tartar

Fire Roasted Tomato and Poblano Chile Bisque
The soup was poured in tableside.
Rock Shrimp and Apple Beignets

Chopped Mediterranean Salad

Chilean Sea Bass

Aged Filet Mignon

An incredible dessert plate

The Chef came out before each course and explained what we were eating and how we could prepare one of the components of the dish at home – usually one of the sauces or a condiment.

 It was well worth the $75 a person and we had a wonderful time. After that great dinner, we headed back to karaoke, then discovered the piano bar. We had a great time at the piano bar. Singing our hearts out until 2:00 am.

Wednesday, we docked in Mahogany Bay, Honduras. We purchased a package through the ship to go to the Carnival owned beach. The beach was nice and we got a couple chaises with a clam shell and some beach floats in our package plus the ride on the chair lift to get there.

We had no illusion that this was an authentic island experience. We were pleased to discover one of bars served all the local beers, ceviche, and whole fried red snapper. All three were delicious! The ceviche was so fresh and the whole fried fish was amazing. We met a really fun couple from the other Carnival ship that was in dock and had a great time laughing and telling stories. The water was too cold to really swim so we headed back to the ship. We went to the previous cruisers’ party and had our free drinks and free appetizers. After dinner, we investigated the live band karaoke, but Glenn didn’t like any of the songs. The ship had started rocking again and I wasn’t feeling too well so we made it an early night.

Thursday, we docked in Belize. We had to tender to shore. After surviving the most unorganized tender/tour situation I have ever seen, we made it on our bus to cave tubing. It was an hour bus ride to the site. On the way, the tour guides gave us a tour of Belize City and a lot of background about Belize. When we got to the site, we had a nice forty minute walk through the jungle carrying our tubes. Our guide would stop to tell us about the plants and trees we were seeing. At the river, it was very organized and they had a great system for getting everyone into the water. Then we took about a 45 minute float through the caves. It was really neat.

The caves were beautiful and it was such a unique experience. After the tubing, we had some local food and beers and then headed back to hang out by the pool. We hit the steam room and the great shows at the gym again. We ended the night at the Piano Bar once again.

Friday, we docked in Cozumel. We slept in pretty late so we had breakfast at the buffet. Then we got stuck in the elevator as we were trying to get down to the pier. We felt the elevator fall and then it was pretty clear we were stuck. I freak out a little (okay, a lot). But someone answered when we called. Glenn then offered me some water. I think my reaction was, “What are you thinking? We don’t know how long we are going to be in here? We need to ration and there’s not a bathroom!” Then I decided to get out the video camera to document what was happening. At this point, the electrician who had been on top of the elevator since we called said in a slightly annoyed tone, “It’s okay! It will just take a few minutes. It’s okay.”

Clearly, our conversation and video making had just pushed him over the edge. After about twenty minutes, we were free.

Glenn and I hired a taxi at $20/hour to take us around the island. We headed first to the undeveloped east side. It was amazing. It felt like we were on a completely different island. The cost was rocky and we hardly saw any people.

We stopped at Coconuts for some giant margaritas and fish tacos.

Then headed to the Bob Marley Rasta bar for some local beers.

After that, we went to Mr. Sancho’s beach club where we lucky enough to get to have another whole fried fish. SO GOOD!

After the beach club, we set off to find the house we are considering renting in 2012. We didn’t have the address but our taxi driver found it and talked to the groundskeeper for us so we got to walk around and check it out. We were so relieved it looked exactly like the pictures online and we are excited about renting it in 2012. We got back onboard and headed up to the pool to finally enjoy some sunshine.
He said it was okay. We headed down to dinner. After dinner, the piano bar was closed so we went to see the juggling show. It was actually pretty good. After that, we played our favorite games in the casino aka made a donation and then listened to the guitar player for a little while. That was a nice change on this ship – two of the musicians played the guitar. It was fun to sing along. Then we went to the Medusa’s Liar Night Club. The DJ was rude and had weird taste in music, but a couple of songs that Glenn and I know from Dance Central came on. We did the routines that they do on the game and everyone thought we were amazing dancers! LOL! It was great!

Saturday was our last sea day. We slept in – just making it to breakfast in the dining room then headed up to pool to enjoy the sun. We went to lunch in the dining room and then had a little trouble finding something to do. The ship was pretty dead – no live music, no activities other than trivia. We went to the casino, sat in the enchanted forest and then went to the final afternoon tea. After that, we headed back to the cabin to enjoy our balcony, a bottle of wine and watch the sunset.

Dinner the last night was very good. The waiters kept up the tradition of singing every night. After dinner, we made our rounds: Lobby bar with the guitar player and Medusa’s Night Club. We decided to skip the piano bar because the ship was docking pretty early.

Sunday, we got up, packed and were off the ship and home by about 10:00 am.

Overall, it was a great vacation. I wish the weather had been better and the ship had more activities, but we met some great people, had some good laughs, and we do it again tomorrow!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

12.4.10 Christmas at Disney

We decided to take a three days and celebrate Christmas at Disney World this past weekend. We originally had just planned to go on Sunday through Monday, but Saturday morning we were too excited. We got online and got a Priceline room near the parks and headed over.

We checked in, walked over to Downtown Disney and began the task of getting to the Parks. There’s no transportation directly to the parks from Downtown Disney so we hopped onto a bus to the Disney Beach Club resort. We found a happy surprise in the lobby – a gingerbread carousel! It was really neat and actually turned.

We walked into Epcot. Since the theme of the weekend was “Things we have never done”, the first order of business was ordering one of those frozen cocktails in France. I can see why they are so popular! My Grey Goose frozen lemon drop martini was delicious! We worked our way around the world. We stopped in Germany for some beer and pretzels. Then we headed out to the fountains to hear the Gospel Choir.

They were fantastic! After the gospel choir we headed back to the American Theater for the Candlelight Processional. Usually, Glenn and I make fun of the people who line up hour in advance for the free concerts in Epcot. In this case, we could see why. It is an incredible concert. The orchestra and the chorus are fantastic. They sing portions of about fourteen different songs. Interspersed with the songs is a celebrity reading the Christmas story. We really enjoyed it.

After the Processional, we headed over to Norway. We had reservations at the Princess dinner. It was quite a scene. The Norway restaurant has an appetizer buffet, a la carte entrees and a dessert sampler. We also received a professional 8 x 10 of us with Belle. The appetizer buffet was really good. Lots of meats, smoked fish, cheeses and vegetables. Our entrees were also really good. As you are eating, the princesses work their way from table to table. It becomes a little bit of frenzied pace as you take a bite, swallow quickly, smile for a picture with a princess and repeat. We had a really good time though and I am so glad we went.

After dinner, we went over to the Magic Kingdom. We got there just in time for the Electric Street Car parade. WE LOVED IT!! It was all the old floats and even the old music. We ended up with a terrific place to stand! We even were part of the parade at the end because we were near the beginning of the route.

 We followed the parade as it wove through the park and Glenn finally got his ride on the railroad coaster and I got to see the fireworks while I waited for him.

Sunday morning, we got up bright and early and headed to check in at the Pop Century Resort.

We got on the first bus to Epcot since our tour began at 9:45 am. Glenn surprised me with tickets to the Yuletide Fantast Behind the Scenes Christmas tour. It was so much fun. We got to go into the World Showcase before it opened. The tour guides talked about how Christmas traditions had developed in different countries. It was so nice to be the only people in the World Showcase.

 Then we headed to the Grand Floridian to see the Gingerbread House, the Victorian decorations and sample the gingerbread. Here’s Glenn sampling one of the roof shingles.

We also went to the Magic Kingdom. We got there just in time for the morning parade!

So we got to see that as well. The highlight of the tour was when we headed to the Christmas warehouse. There’s a crew of twenty-five people who work full time year round to make sure all the Disney properties are decorated for Christmas. Some things we learned on the tour:

- Disney moved to artificial trees about five years ago. They wrap a single string of lights around each branch and then hard wired the ornaments to each branch as well. This ensures that each branch can be removed fully decorated.

- The trees and garlands are stored full decorated and that design will last for five years.

- Since the design must last for five years, the Disney buyers purchase five years of replacement ornaments at one time.

- The trick is storing bows is to put bubble wrap in the loops to keep them looking fresh.

- The decorating of the properties begins in November during third shift.

- They make their own ribbons from authentic fabric for places like Animal Kingdom Lodge and Fort Wilderness Lodge.

- Even though there is a tree and decorations at America in Epcot, the early colonists would not have celebrated Christmas. Christmas celebrations arrived with the Germans settlers in Pennsylvania.

We really enjoyed the tour. It was a good mix of historical information and then insight into how Disney prepares for Christmas. We also received a limited addition pin! It was so much fun.

After the tour, we headed to Mexico to try out the new tequila tasting room. We sampled the cucumber and avocado margaritas, the crab tostadas and guacamole. Everything was so good! The avocado margaritas were amazing! They are served frozen and the creaminess of the avocado makes it seem like milkshake!! SO GOOD!

We left Mexico to head to MGM Studios. Once again, we stumbled into the beginning of the Celebrate Block Party! It is a great parade with lots of dancing and stunts! We went to the Lights! Camera! Action! car stunt show. I was really impressed. We had never been before and it was a lot of fun. What was not a lot of fun was Sounds Dangerous with Drew Carey. It is the worst attraction EVER! You basically just sit in the dark and listen to mediocre quality sound. It was very disappointing. The real reason we were at the park was to check out the Osborne Light Spectacular! It is amazing and one of my favorite ways to celebrate Christmas.

It really is incredible! This year they added some hidden mickeys and even more lights.

Monday, we headed over to Animal Kingdom. The tree outside the park is one of my favorites.

 The ornaments are incredible. We had seen the zebras hanging from the ceiling in the Christmas warehouse on the tour so it was fun to see them in action at the park. Glenn headed over to ride Everest. Then we went to the Festival of the Lion King show.

 I can’t believe we have never been. It is fantastic - lots of acrobatics, a fire twirler and great singing and dancing. We really enjoyed it. Then we took the train out to Rafaki’s Planet Watch.

 It’s a nice 5 minute train ride to a conservation station where you can learn more about the animals in the park and how the staff takes care of them.

After one more ride on Everest and some snacks, we headed back towards Tampa. Every time we have driven to Disney World, we have passed a huge sign for Dinosaur World. I always say I want to go there and this time we actually stopped.

 From the road it looks like a collection of huge paper mache dinosaurs. When you get there, it’s a collection of huge dinosaurs made of Styrofoam.

 I LOVED IT!! It’s more dinosaurs than I ever knew existed! We saw all the dinosaurs – even though Glenn tried to trick me into taking a shortcut that would avoid half the park. He was a good sport. Pulling out of Dino World, we saw a sign for a local winery. We were intrigued so we followed the signs. We ended up at the winery.

 They make blueberry wine. It was surprisingly pretty good. They also make fusion wines with 80% grapes and 20% local fruit. We did the tasting. It was a lot of fun and we even bought a couple bottles. Then we headed out to the Red Robin. I had never been to one and Glenn hadn’t been to the new one by us. It was really good.

Our weekend definitely accomplished our goal s of celebrating Christmas and trying to do things we have never done before. It was a fantastic weekend!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Cajun Cafe Beer Festival November 2010

In mid-November, Glenn and I headed to the Cajun Café Beer Festival. Cajun Café is a great restaurant in St. Petersburg with fantastic food and great location. We were really impressed with this festival. It is unique because the owner doesn’t use one particular distributor and spends the year stockpiling interesting micro-brews. He also invites some of the local Home brewing clubs. It was really cool to get to see some of these passionate beer makers and try their beers:

The festival was well laid out. Each table had six to fifteen beers to taste.

The tickets also included a fruit and cheese plate and a Taste of Cajun Café plate – gumbo, red beans and rice, crawfish cornbread. Yum! Plus the band was so fun!

The beer festival highlighted a few of the beer trends:

- Super hoppy beers: I think this trend may be ending – thankfully, but it seems like breweries were completing to see how much they could out-hop each other.

- High alcohol – We had trouble deciphering between the 13% beers. They all had a very sweet, alcohol taste.

- Aging in a bourbon barrel – The fest had two bourbon barrel ales – Windmere Reserve and a local home brewer’s version. The Widmere Reserve has nice flavor, but we were impressed with how the home brewer was able to produce a very balanced smooth beer.

- Sour beers – I hadn’t tasted a sour beer before and the Festival had a couple stunners. It reminded me of sitting back in the back of bus on the way to Washington DC eating sour balls until we burned the insides of our mouth. The highlights were Zuur and the Cascade Creek Northwest Style Sour Ale. The Cascade Creek was the best at the Festival. It was smooth, full bodied and a great palette cleanser.

We picked up the best tip – a pretzel necklace. A lot of the beers had very strong flavors – sour, hops, and powerful stouts. We definitely needed a palate cleanser after some of those.

We will definitely go again.