Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Jan 24 - 25 New Orleans

Glenn and I decided to head out on a one-night only trip to New Orleans last weekend. The only research I did was to make reservations at Commander's Palace, Emeril's, and August. 

We took the first flight out and landed in New Orleans at 8:40 am. We grabbed a cab ($33 for two from the airport) and headed to the Intercontinental. We noticed bleachers set up outside the hotel and realized that my failure to do more advanced research meant I neglected to note that it was marathon weekend. Yep, the marathon ran right in front of our hotel. More on that later. 

We were lucky that our room was available and we checked in. Then we hopped on the street car and headed to the Garden District. We had about an hour before our Commander's Palace reservation so we wandered around the cemetery and found a self-guided tour online to learn more about some of the houses near the restaurants. 


Then it was brunch time. Commander's Palace has a jazz brunch where a trio of jazz musicians walk around the restaurant planning classic songs and taking requests. Our meal was very good. Glenn had a pecan scone appetizer, goat tamales,  and the strawberry shortcake.   I had a tasso ham and shrimp appetizer, the fish,  and the bread pudding souffle. The souffle was so light and fluffy. 

Pecan Scone

Shrimp Appetizer 

Bread Pudding Souffle 
After brunch, we headed toward the French Quarter. We had solicited suggestions on Facebook for places to try so we tackled the list. We visited New Orleans classics, a bar that turns, heard French Quarter musicians, discovered Frenchman's street, and found an awesome cocktail bar. 

Pat O'Brien's

Sazarac at Carousel Bar at Hotel Montelene 
Bar Tonique 
Then we headed toward Emeril's for our 6 pm reservation at the Food Bar. The Food Bar is a counter overlooking the kitchen. It was so much fun to watch the chefs prepare the meal right in front of us. 

The highlights of the meal were the fish taco appetizer, the beef wellington, and the smoky kale salad. 

Sunday we woke up to the sounds of the marathon. So we got an early start and headed toward Cafe du Monde. 

We walked around the French Quarter a little more. I tried (and loved) PJ's King Cake blend coffee. Then we headed toward August - a John Besh restaurant. We got there a little early so passed some time on the slots at Harrah's. 

We tried and really enjoyed all the classic dishes: Truffle gnocchi, Trout, Shrimp Etouffle, and deconstructed banana pudding. 

After brunch, we boarded the Hop On/ Hop Off bus. I love these buses. I think you get a good overview of the city. It was a beautiful sunny day. We were really interested in the Magazine Street area near the Garden district and definitely want to explore there more on a future visit. 

We decided to hop off at Mardi Gras World. We weren't sure what to expect, but it was so interesting. It's a working warehouse that prepares floats for 22 out of 50 of the Mardi Gras parades. 

We really enjoyed learning more about Mardi Gras and the float preparation. 

We took the bus back towards our hotel, had a great oyster Po'Boy at the Acme Oyster Company,  and had one last fancy cocktail at loa before heading to the airport. 

Overall a great weekend! 

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!