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September 23, 2010

Spain Part 2

Air travel being thoroughly covered in my last post I thought I'd move on to the rest of the transportation options. Except what, really, can be said about train, tram and taxi travel? Well, actually quite a bit when you compare it to the pitiful collection of public transportation options we have available to us in Phoenix. Yes, I know, we just got the light rail up and running for which I am encouraged and grateful. But it's still pretty useless to anyone who was hoping to increase their drinking and decrease their chances of going camping with Sheriff Joe by using public transportation to get home. Not so in Barcelona, where the array of options to avoid a DUI are varied and plentiful.

I love being able to walk or ride around a city without worrying about where to put my car or how I'm going to get home after a glass or two of wine. Barcelona has buses, trams and a subway that are all accessible with a minimum of walking. Taxis are also plentiful and relatively inexpensive although not as dirt cheap as the T-10 pass. For roughly 7 euro you get ten rides on any of the public options. With few exceptions we used the Metro almost exclusively.

Two of our days were spent utilizing the Hop On/Hop Off bus (www.hopon-hopoff.com) Having used this type of tour service in other cities I knew it to be an easy way to see the best of the sights if you have a limited amount of time. Since Karen and I decided against visiting Montserrat with the rest of our group, we thought the tour bus would be the best option for us to see the city without having to navigate the subway routes. There was a tour bus stop right outside the hotel, in fact. Our front desk clerk was more than happy to help us by offering discount tickets for the tour bus. Unfortunately, in order for us to get the 2 euro discount we had to travel by subway all the way to the central station at Place de Catalunya. Only after he sold us the coupon were we made aware of this fact. By the time we got to the station, located the kiosk, purchased our pass and then waited in line for 30 more minutes I would have gladly paid the extra 2 euro to get on the bus right outside our hotel! So, word of caution: Don't bother trying to shave a few euro off your ticket, it's more trouble than it is worth.

Karen and I used the bus as both a sightseeing vehicle and also a convenient way to bar hop through the city of Barcelona. We were taken to or by all the most popular attractions as well as several of the concentrated areas full of restaurants and pubs. Our plan was to meet the rest of our friends at a place called Cal Pep, located in the Born district, later in the day. We showed the address to the bus driver and asked to be notified when we reached the stop closest to our destination. By accident or design, we may never know which, the driver motioned for us to exit the bus almost immediately. Armed with our map we set off for Cal Pep. More than an hour later we were still walking. I'm thinking the bus driver took his opportunity to be rid of us.

We were at the waterfront and after walking quite a distance with no real idea whether we were nearer or farther away from Cal Pep, we walked into a pub to ask for a taxi. The bartender gave us a rather curious look and told us to just stand outside, a taxi would be along straightaway. Previous attempts to flag one down were fruitless, but we went back on the street again, still drunk and laughing hysterically. Impulsively, I stuck out my thumb whereby a taxi screeched to a stop right in front of us! "Take us to Cal Pep!", we cried, and he roared off, made a U-turn, crossed over the intersection and stopped. Karen and I looked at each other and screamed with laughter. He had taken us only about five hundred feet!

The next day all six of us boarded the tour bus and as we traveled around the city Karen and I marveled at the beautiful sights and architecture. "Uh, girls, didn't you take this route yesterday?", Joanie asked. Well, yeah, we did but..... somehow managed to miss a great deal of the scenery. Go Figure.

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Spain Part 3

A Day at Freixinet

Prior to leaving for Spain we discovered that cava, the Spanish sparkling wine, was produced in an area just outside Barcelona and easily accessible by train. I researched and then booked a tour for us on our first full day in Spain. This would require a 45 minute trip by train to the winery so I also downloaded the train schedule there and back. Our tour was scheduled for 11:30 am and meant a departure from Barcelona Sant train station by 10:30 am. Our plan was to get up, find some breakfast, find the train station and head out. We agreed to meet in the lobby at 9 am.

Kristy and I were sharing a room and she had her netbook with her. Kristy likes knowing where she is and where she is going at all times and it was no surprise to me when she wanted to confirm the train schedules and departure times. I crawled into bed while she tapped on the keyboard. After a few moments she became agitated and upset, informing me that the train will take us to the winery but the return would be a problem. Seems her information showed only one train leaving the town of Sant Sadurni d'Anoia (where the winery was located) at 7:30 pm that evening. Furthermore, it also stated the fare was 15 euro. Since I had already researched this prior to our trip and had the schedules in my file, I thought perhaps we could take another look at it in the morning or even ask the desk clerk. With that, I fell asleep. Kristy, however, was distracted by both the uncertainty of our plans and also the loud celebration taking place directly under our hotel room window. She forgot to set the alarm.

Loud banging on the door the next morning got us up in a hurry. Both of us overslept and our travel companions were not happy. Kristy told them of her concerns with the train schedules so while we frantically got ready to leave the others checked with the desk clerk. According to the clerk, the trains were reliable, regular and still cheap. In 20 minutes flat we were racing into the lobby apologizing profusely to everyone. Breakfast was out of the question at this point, we were barely going to make our train. Cranky, tired and hungry, we all hurried to the station, got our tickets and boarded. Our first full day together and we started out on such a sour note. Luckily I packed some granola bars in my bag and we shared them all around.

By the time we reached the winery we had all recovered from the mad dash and good humor had been restored (the coffee and Baileys helped that along quite a bit. I just LOVE that you can get a shot of liquor with your coffee in the mornings in Spain - I think the world would be a much happier place if Starbucks offered a little nip along with our vanilla latte.)

We toured the winery and I was both pleased and disappointed with the tour. It was only 6 euro, so the price was certainly right. But a good deal of the information was delivered via strategically placed videos, so as we walked through the first part of our 'tour' we stopped at 4 or 5 blank walls where we watched how the cava is made. After that we were taken to the areas of the winery were the casks were stored and the bottles aged. All in all it was a good experience and worth the time if you can spare it.

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After the tour we were taken to the tasting room and each given a glass of cava. Any other tastes could be purchased for a nominal fee. By this time it was after 2 pm and not only had we not eaten, we were drinking on our empty stomachs. We needed lunch.

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The small town adjacent to the winery surely had a cafe or other restaurant we could find, so we set out on foot based on the gift shop clerk's directions. Suffice it to say, we were wrong. There was absolutely nothing even closely resembling a restaurant anywhere near the winery. We walked the streets which were eerily empty and quiet. The whole town seemed to be away. I spied a small hotel and hurried ahead to see if they had a restaurant. Yes, they did but were only serving brunch at 25 euro per person. Famished or not, that was too steep for anyone's budget, so we kept walking.

Joan and Nancy saw a flyer stapled to a pole announcing a festa taking place "just up ahead." With a solid destination in mind we all trudged uphill toward the rumored party. Karen was lagging further and further behind and I knew she would have a difficult time going much further. Frankly, I wasn't going to be able to continue much more myself. As we rounded a corner onto a small square we saw tables, chairs and umbrellas with people all around! A cafe! Like a horse to the stable I picked up speed thinking our search was over, but the other gals wanted to continue looking for the party.

I looked over at Karen and declared our food search over, at least for us. The other girls disappeared around the corner while Karen and I seated ourselves at the Cafe de la Plaza. The waitress arrived and we asked for menus. She informed us in halting English that they were done serving for the day. The look on our faces must have touched her heart, because she then said "Ham sandwich?" "Yes, yes, we will have a ham sandwich!! And wine, can we have wine too?" Although we asked for two glasses of white, when she brought the bottle of rose to the table we were too grateful to do anything but thank her.

After she brought our sandwiches we attempted to tell her how we came to be at this cafe. As I talked and gestured my story, the entire patio of other patrons listened in. "Quatro amigas, si? festa, si? bye-bye, bye-bye," the last said with me waving dismissively to the empty street. Our waitress laughed good naturedly as she poured the wine. Just then, the other four girls popped around the corner and made their way toward our table. The entire patio - Karen, me, the waitress and everybody within earshot - burst out laughing. The festa, it seemed, didn't start until later. More ham and cheese sandwiches were brought out, more wine was poured, and we all declared our humble lunch the best sandwich we'd ever had.

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Spain Part 4

Cook and Taste Cooking School

After arriving in Spain we had a few hours before our first activity. Joan made advance reservations for us at Cook and Taste Cooking School (www.cookandtaste.net) for an afternoon session including a shopping trip to the Boqueria market on Las Ramblas. We were to meet at the school, shop for our supplies at the market and return to learn how to make authentic Spanish dishes. I was very tired from the flights and opted to take a nap. Kristy also wanted to stay in the room and rest. The rest of the girls set out to explore the city.

The school is located in the heart of the Gothic Center, a maze of narrow streets, high walls and long passageways. After considerable searching Kristy and I were unable to find the school! Remembering that I had a global phone (courtesy of Verizon) I called and gave the instructor, Teresa, our cross streets. She told us to stay put and she'd come get us. All together again we set out for the market. (Karen was not interested in the cooking instruction and took herself for a tour of the old streets and shops.)

I love going to markets in foreign countries. The festive atmosphere and lively colors combined with the unusual presentations of foods is a feast for the eyes, ears and nose long before the tastebuds get involved. Teresa was a charming and informative guide through the maze of fruits and fish and ham. She knew many people and stopped often to procure for us samples to taste. She also helped us select our small purchases to bring home such as olive oils, vinegars and tinned fish. She guided us back to the school where there were another 8 people waiting to join us.

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Our menu consisted of gazpacho, Spanish tortilla, paella and crema catalan. Teresa asked for volunteers and two by two we donned aprons and carefully followed her patient instruction. Kim and I were in charge of the creme brule, a dish I had never made before and Kim had only attempted once. Our first task was to separate 14 eggs. As Teresa got the ingredients ready for the rest of the meal Kim and I set about cracking eggs and cracking jokes. In very short order we had lost count of our eggs and couldn't remember how many were in the bowl! One of the other guests tried to save us by counting the egg shells and someone else attempted to count the yolks. Eventually we had to confess to Teresa our failure. She didn't wave it off either, like I would have done. Apparently the egg count is very important in creme brule. Who knew? Anyway, we figured it out and continued with the meal prep.

One of the guests was in charge of pouring the wine and he did a great job of keeping everyone's glass full. Kristy chopped onions, tears streaming down her face, and declared that she was 'so sad' which cracked everyone up. Joanie was given the task of scissoring off the legs of the shrimp and placing them in the paella pan. Nancy helped with the tortilla and learned how to flip it over in the pan. While Kim prepared the creme brule I peeled and sliced figs for the ramekins. Presently all but a few of the guests were on the cooking side of the long counter, mixing, chopping and slicing. Olives and sliced peaches were passed around as appetizers while we cooked and talked.

First up was the gazpacho. Blended tomatoes were topped with aoli, hazelnut pesto and cheese. The tortilla was next, served on thick bread that had been rubbed with fresh garlic and ripe tomato. Seafood paella was dished up for everyone with a large shrimp adorning each plate and for dessert, the fig crema catalan. We ate everything from the soup all the way to the last spoonful of dessert. Teresa was a master at keeping us all focused on our tasks and making sure everything was cooked to perfection.

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It was a truly memorable meal and a great way to spend our first day in Barcelona.

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September 24, 2010

Spain Part 5

Eating and Drinking in Spain

Our experiences with the food in Spain were varied and ranged from exceptional (such as our meal at Living Barcelona 1925) to mediocre (anything we had along Las Ramblas.) What was as memorable as the food was the range of service we received. It was a 50/50 gamble whether our server was going to be friendly and accommodating or rude and indifferent. Some of the worst were those located in the more heavily tourist populated areas including Las Ramblas, Placa Reial and Placa de les Olles. I have traveled to Spain before and my recollection then was that there were either really friendly people or very rude ones - no middle ground. This trip seemed to support that first impression.

Some of our waiters flat our ignored us, others sneered and one made a point of showing me on the bill that there was no "service charge," indicating that we should be sure to give him a tip. The bartender at Los Tarantos in Placa Reial was a jerk (and his wine sucked, too) and the entire staff at Cafe del Mar on Ibiza was so obviously trying to take advantage of us that I did something I have never done in my life - I skipped out on my bill.

I don't even feel remorseful about it. Here's what happened. We had heard that Cafe del Mar was THE place to go watch the sunset and it was quite the scene each evening when everyone clapped and cheered as the sun went below the horizon. Our plan was to have cocktails at the bar, find a nice place for dinner and then go out clubbing. We dressed ourselves up all pretty and got to the cafe well before the big event. Of course we were hoping to sit on the patio with an unobstructed view of the horizon and there were several empty tables scattered around the patio area. The hostess refused to seat us, however, because we couldn't commit to a full meal. We wanted drinks and perhaps appetizers but were not prepared to spend the entire night there plus, it was too early for dinner. She directed us instead to the open seating closer to the building. We ordered a pitcher of sangria in anticipation of sundown. Since we had a complete view of the patio we could observe the other guests - not a one of them was eating dinner.

The sangria was served in a regular sized pitcher but it poured barely six small glasses of sangria. It was pale pink in color too - not the deep ruby red of good quality wine. What was left in the pitcher was a big glob of ice and lots of apple slices. The cost? 25 euro! We had been ripped off in a big way. Our bill was delivered at the time the pitcher was brought out as well, leaving no question that we were to pay as we went. Joanie ordered a martini and her bill was also presented to her with her drink. I went to the inside bar and ordered a bottle of their house wine at 18 euro. The bartender told me I could be seated and it would be served to us, which it was. No bill accompanied my wine. Our waiter never returned, either. So, when we were ready to leave rather than hunt down the waiter I simply left. I don't care where I am - poor service is poor service.

We had some great experiences too. The day that Karen and I took our wild bus ride around the city began with lunch at a small side street tapas bar close to La Sagrada Familia. I am sorry I didn't record the name of the place. It was around noon - a little early for lunch still but when we walked inside we were greeted with a friendly welcome and an invitation to be seated at the only table on the sidewalk. I asked if we could have tapas and the (cook? chef?) said he would fix us each a plate and bring it outside. Knowing that this could go either good or bad, Karen and I opted to take our chances with the chef's choices.

The young waiter set us up with white and red wine and in very short order we had two different plates with a variety of tapas. The chef came out from behind the bar several times to chat with us, bringing more and more food until we were completely stuffed. Locals passing by would stop and talk with us for a moment, offering welcomes and greetings. We sat there for more than three hours and in the end, it was one of our more expensive meals but also one of our most memorable.

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Another extraordinary meal was at a tapas bar called Golfo de Bizkaia. We had been shopping and walking through El Born when we happened upon this gem of a place. Well decorated and well lit, you could see the food from the window and everything looked marvelous. The good looking waiter was young, slender and very hip. He was unfailingly polite and explained the concept to us. We would each be given a plate and could select from any of the dozens of tapas lining the glass cases, eating as much as we wanted for 1.80 euro per piece. The tapas all had toothpicks and we were to save them for counting at the end of our meal. He recommended a delicious white wine to accompany our tapas meal - Talai Berri. The restaurant is small, and most everyone stands anyway - the better to grab a tapas as it comes fresh out of the oven! It was way fun and for the rest of the weekend speculated on how we could duplicate it's charm and recipes back home.

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Our meals on Ibiza were, by and large, nothing to write home about. We were in the wrong section of the island for great food - everything seemed to cater to young adults with lots of fried foods, cheaply priced and cheaply made entrees and menus that varied little from place to place. Breakfast one morning at Itaca boasted a meal of canned pork and beans, hard fried eggs, limp bacon and sausage that, so help me, was a pork casing stuffed with bread. The one bright spot on the long row of beach front bar and grills was Ibiza Rocks.

Ibiza Rocks is an open air bar with tables that face the ocean. Our waiter Lawrence was extremely nice and an excellent front man for the establishment. He recognized that we were American and asked us to please let him know how we liked the food. When asked why, he said this: Americans have the highest expectations for service and quality. We have available to us every different kind of food in the world and we know quality. If his restaurant can please us, he said, then he could please anyone. He went on to tell us that the food in his restaurant is all made from scratch with nothing bagged, canned or frozen. He explained that his ingredients were simple but quality. With that we ordered a variety of food and drink, and we were highly pleased with our meal. So much that we returned for lunch the next day after our snorkel adventure. And that was the day the ice cube fell out of my pants.

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Continue reading "Spain Part 5" »

Spain Part 6

Clothing On and Off

Before leaving for Spain my girlfriends and I talked endlessly about what we should bring/wear/pack. I wrote a blog entry about it and I thought I'd compare my advance preparations to what we really needed.

First of all, shoes. I shopped for and found two pair of sandals that were designed for walking. One was a pair of Noats and cost $150. The other was a pair of Aerosoles that I found on clearance for $14. Both served me extremely well and were versatile enough to go with everything I brought. Joanie also purchased a pair of Aerosoles on clearance and wore them exclusively without any trouble at all. I was afraid we would look very out of place in Barcelona with our 'sensible shoes' but, in fact, the opposite was true. I made a point of looking at the shoes of the locals to see what they were wearing. Virtually everyone in Barcelona had on flat, well made walking sandals. At least, everyone on the subways and the sidewalks and the long stretches of beach and in town. Their clothing reflected the casualness of the shoes and most everyone was wearing casual dresses and slacks. Some were in shorts but not many. We fit right in and I never once felt oddly dressed.

I could have dispensed with my sweater and both long sleeved shirts, it was warm day and night and my pashmina worked fine to cover my shoulders. Unfortunately, it also shed; every item of clothing in my suitcase had red balls of cotton on them. I neglected to wash the thing before we left - a rookie mistake to be sure.

It was supposed to rain but didn't so the umbrella was added weight, however, the day after we left and several days after THAT it rained so much the airport was shut down. We got very lucky with the weather I think. It was simply beautiful every single day. The humidity was another matter entirely. I gave up trying to use a blow dryer and let my hair curl at will. An interesting oddity: In some of the bar rest rooms on Ibiza there were coin operated combination flat iron/curling irons attached to the walls. For a couple euros you could do your hair after a day on the beach. Nice!

We each packed a small, thin beach towel and they came in handy for our beach days and on the snorkel boat. I purposely packed one that had seen better days and left it in the hotel room, along with the two books I'd read en-route.

Ibiza is all about the beach during the day and the clubs at night. Although we never did get to any of the huge discos, it was fun to sit at the beachside bars later at night and watch as the young girls walked by in their clubbing attire. Some of the party-goers were dressed in costumes, others were wearing 60's style outfits for Pasha's Flower Power night. All were high gear, ready to party until sunrise.

Spain, like most European countries, doesn't have a big issue with topless women on the beaches. I would estimate about a third of the women, all ages and sizes, went topless while sunbathing or splashing in the water. I noticed that they didn't walk around topless. Once they were done sunbathing or even just walking up to the restrooms, they put their tops back on. I also noticed that there was no ooogling going on, even by the young tourists. If they were pleased to be in the company of topless women on the beach, they kept it to themselves. So when my mom asked me if I really went half naked on the beach, I told her when in Spain......

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March 28, 2011

Then and Now

Ten years have passed since our first group trip to Rocky Point. Not only has the town changed (for the better) but our trips have evolved as well. A "Then and Now" list to mark the passing of a decade seems to be in order!

Then: We had limited vacation time, so we cheated out our Thursdays with half-work/half-vacation days, arriving in Rocky Point around 5 pm
Now: Hell with work, we are on vacation! The entire party arrived by one pm. We had our drink on by 3, and were hungry by 5. The restaurant was a little surprised to see us before the sun even set over the horizon.

Then: Our first night consisted of dinner at La Cuerva, music, dancing and huge amounts of margaritas followed by a massive party at the beach house that didn't end until the wee hours of the morning.
Now: Dinner at La Cuerva was a more subdued affair; we were REALLY hungry! We ate, paid the mariachis to go away, and got back to the house before sundown. By ten pm we were all happily in our beds.

Then: Bleary eyed and seriously hung over, we'd wage wars on who would get the coffee first.
Now: We wised up and had two coffee pots running continuously as we woke up in moderately good humor and with enough courtesy to wait for the next pot to brew.

Then: With mostly single party guests, amorous encounters were inevitable and subject to good natured speculation over breakfast.
Now: With mostly married and/or serious relationships in attendance, the only gossip centered on who went to bed the earliest.

Then: The TV Room was converted into a Karaoke Room and we all took turns belting out horrible renditions of favorite 70's and 80's ballads.
Now: The TV Room was the "quiet" room where we retreated to watch a movie, read a book or knit a rug.

Then: The Malecon was a conglomeration of fish vendors, dive bars and open-air trinket shops. We could sit at any of the balconies all day long drinking cheap margaritas and watching the boats drift by on the ocean.
Now: The Malecon is being vigorously upgraded with covered sidewalks, expanded parking areas and upscale restaurants. What used to be roof-top seating has been converted to second stories complete with finished walls and shade covers. Just try to find a $2 margarita now.

Then: We brought every scrap of food we wanted to eat down with us and ventured out to the restaurants and taco stands only for atmosphere and what we liked to call "adventure dining."
Now: We shopped for and purchased ingredients for dinner on our last night at the local Super Lay Grocery, spending a whole $27 for 18 people. It was delicious, too.

Then: Sad, broken and starving dogs roamed the streets looking for a handout or a safe place to sleep.
Now: Sad, broken and staving dogs cruised the beach front imploring the residents of the magnificent homes to take them in or at least give them a scrap of food.

Then: Spring Breakers from the US colleges converged upon Rocky Point bringing money and energy to the town; the tourism dollars from the month of March would carry the residents through the brutal summer months when NOBODY came to visit.
Now: The US has effectively shut down Rocky Point as a spring break destination causing a serious problem with their economy. Everywhere we went tourists were few and far between. No parties were being hosted and nothing was happening in any of the local bars.

Then: Places like Manny's, Pink Cadillac and JJ's were rocking with US patrons enjoying the Mexican atmosphere and lifestyle.
Now: Manny's closed and reopened under new management, the Pink Cadillac, JJ's and other long time venues are suffering and the vendors on the Malecon begged us to visit their establishment. Offers of free tequila, free appetizers and other perks were being shouted at us from all sides of the beach front walkway. We chose Senor Amigos and had the top floor all to ourselves.

Then:
Villa de Ensueno was a huge, well appointed beach house with lovely accommodations and adequate cooking facilities.
Now: Villa de Ensueno has upgraded each and every room with more beds, better amenities and luxury appointments. New appliances, fresh paint and even new deck chairs were scattered about. The newly renovated barbeque area was the nicest touch.

Then:
Rumors of drugs, deaths and kidnapping from the border all the way to the beach kept many of our friends from taking the trip with us.
Now: Rumors of drugs, deaths and kidnapping still circulate the local US newspapers, keeping many of our friends and most of everyone else from traveling to Rocky Point. Still no sign of the bad guys.

Then: We hired a mariachi to come to the house for an hours worth of Mexican singing.
Now: Not only did the same mariachi join us (ten years in a row!) but we had a massage therapist on hand for one hour massages on the patio and two intrepid beauties from town stopped by to give us discounted beach-side pedicures.

Then: For Happy Hour we played a rendition of an old baby-shower game using tiny clothes pins and a prize of a Louis Vutton travel bag.
Now: We played the same game but upped the challenge with four no-no words, two off-limits gestures and a prize of an Ipad and an Ipod Nano. We used mardi-gras beads instead of clothes pins and, just like a feverish pro basketball game, the last two minutes were full of screaming, fancy footwork and an upset worthy of a sports commentator. No, I didn't get the Ipad.

Then: We went out to the clubs for a night of dancing, followed by a stop at the strip bar.
Now: Dancing was just as fun at the house and the strip bar sounded fun but, well, probably just as well to stay at the beach house and flash each other randomly for free.

Then: "Long Term Relationship" meant finding a man or woman to share life, love and dreams with.
Now: We realize that we already have a Long Term Relationship with each other and finding a significant other only enhances the love and friendship we share.


July 21, 2011

Cruising aboard Carnival's Paradise part 2

Cruises are about two things; entertainment and food. Yes, you get to stop at lots of great, exotic locations but considering that most of your time is going to be spent aboard ship, the cruise line has to excel in both those areas. If I had to rate Carnival on it's food, it would be a sorry C-.

There was food, and plenty of it. It just didn't meet my expectations in quality. Breakfast, in particular, was a let down. Choosing to eat in the dining room meant being seated at tables with strangers if you came alone or with a small-ish party. That in itself would not be a problem for me but on one day I was seated with people who were clearly not getting along and another time with a family of five - three children under the age of 4. Not that the kids were a problem, but I wanted a bloody mary with breakfast and didn't want to make the little family uncomfortable. The food was bland, presented poorly and, if Mrs.Unhappy was to be believed, the pancakes were previously frozen and then thawed in the steam tray. Most laughable were the hash browns - small disks deep fried into what I thereafter referred to as "potato pucks." One morning I asked for nuts with my oatmeal and was told there were none. Yet when I dumped my raisins into my bowl I could see small pieces of pecans. That's not only lazy but dangerous. Later, I saw bowls of pecans on the breakfast buffet. My large family was routinely frowned upon as we all arrived in the dining room without planning ahead. That's obviously a no-no.

Lunches were offered at the buffet or outdoor grill only, so the day I spent aboard while we were in port at Catalina I had to do the buffet. Did I mention that the worst dining option on a ship is the buffet? I honestly can't think of a single item I had that was worth writing about.

I tried the sushi bar one afternoon. After locating it in the corner of the casino I stood (wheeled) in line with everyone and got my order. It was awkward trying to get condiments and the little dishes for wasabi while scooting/hopping/dragging myself along the counter. The girl behind me was too impatient to wait or help me, so she cut me off by reaching around, helping herself to condiments and causing my wheelchair to block everyone else from ordering. I hope she got sick. The sushi was fine but unremarkable.

I did not spend a lot of time attending the onboard entertainment. My sister and I wanted to play one of the trivia games but when we arrived it was clear we were the only two participating so we left. My aunts and mom said the shows were wonderful. We spent most of our time on the Lido deck. Even though I couldn't walk, with assistance I could get into the pool. Imagine my surprise when I was lowered in by my brother - the water was ice cold and salty! We later found out it was ocean water, pumped in through a filter. I noticed not many adults swimming in the pool and that might have been why. It was too uncomfortable. Since I wasn't going to use the pool there was no reason to have a lounge chair in the sun either. Two things I was looking forward to the most, sunning and swimming, were huge disappointments.

The casino was one of the deciding factors in selecting this ship because my dad loves to go to the tables. Unfortunately, it wasn't open all the time and the one game we all wanted to play - Texas Holdem - was computerized. No dealer. Took the enjoyment right out of having a casino on board plus no free drinks! With the price of alcohol aboard ship so high I was hoping to score a drink or two if I played the slots a bit. No chance.

The two pre-teens in our party had a ball at the childrens parties and activities. The lone teenager, Amy, tried to make friends at the teens club but found it hard to infiltrate the small cliques of girls and boys so she gave up and entertained herself by reading and swimming. My four year old niece didn't want to spend any time at the youngsters area; consequently it was very difficult to keep her occupied. (She loved pushing me around in my wheelchair though, so we did that a lot.)

My two aunts and my mom made good use of the on board shows and entertainment and loved it all. I went to a comedy night which was fun but skipped the rest of the nighttime shows.My brother Bob and his friend Hans reported that somewhere on the ship they stumbled upon a band playing music and during the show all the drinks were free! We looked but never found it again.

The cruise newsletter could have done a better job of promoting the different activities on board. I think we may have attempted to go to more if we had more information on where, what and when. For instance, I really wanted to hit the library first thing and get a few books for the cruise. I went several times but all the cases were locked. It was only on the second day that I found out the short one-hour time that the library would be staffed.

I took advantage of the spa several times during our cruise, in spite of (or maybe because of) my limitations. On my first visit I booked a pedicure, explaining up front that I had a severely swollen foot and sprained ankle. To my surprise, they were more than willing to accommodate me and the technician took extra care to rub my foot with an anti-inflammatory cream. The next morning my foot was much improved and the purple bruising on all my toes didn't clash too much with my new pink toenails! On our last day at sea the spa greatly reduced their prices and offered packages at deep discounts. I went back for a massage, exfoliation and facial. Again, the therapist took a lot of time to work on my foot. One sour note - they tried to sell me very pricey items from the salon that I felt were way out of my budget and made me uncomfortable to try and deflect their sales tactics. My sister in law and niece both went to the spa for services and reported good experiences.

The activities aboard ship were available if we wanted them, but ultimately all we really wanted to do was sit together and talk. On one such evening we parked ourselves on the Lido deck and proceeded to play a game Paul and I devised some years back. Starting with the letter "A" the challenge is to recall a song that features a girls name corresponding to the letter. Once you come up with one, you must sing it - or at least as much as you can remember. By then everyone else joins in and you have a small chorus. The game was such a hoot and my family so enthusiastic about it that eventually all the other cruisers sitting near us were playing along. Imagine the surprise of the couple seated behind us who were secretly playing along and came up with a song we hadn't thought of yet. My entire family turned and pointed, shouting, "SING IT" to the hapless man, with the rest of the Lido deck erupting into gales of laughter. Oh, and woe was the person who shouted out a name with no song, because we then chanted "chug, chug, chug" until he or she drained (or at least, gulped) a drink. Good times!

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