Slothing Around: Western Caribbean Ports

Our Getaway cruise included four stops in the Western Caribbean:  Roatan, Honduras; Harvest Caye, Belize; Costa Maya, Mexico, and Cozumel, Mexico.

First,  a comment on cruise line shore excursions vs. private excursions run by locals. Many cruisers  naturally gravitate toward the cruise line-sponsored excursions.  There is nothing wrong with these options. Not only do they boast easy-to-understand names like “Beach Break” , “Dolphin Encounter”, and “Extreme Adventure Tour”,  they guide cruisers toward appropriate activity levels (not soooooo fit?  Maybe the Superman zipline isn’t for you).  They typically accommodate any size travel group.  You can easily pay for the excursion using your onboard account. It’s easy to find our tour guide on the pier when leaving the ship. They also,  importantly, promise that you will not miss the ship.  All Aboard is generally about 30 minutes before sailing – if your excursion provider miscalculates, or there is unexpected traffic,  you could miss the ship if not on a cruise line excursion.

So what’s the downside?

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That’s right,  money.  Cruise line excursions generally cost anywhere from 30 – 100% more than those that can be found on land.

But money isn’t the only reason I generally choose private, local excursions.  The big one: you get a more private, local experience.  For example, our driver in Roatan took us by the house where he had grown up – and his 91 year old mother waved from her perch on the front porch.

Worried about missing the ship?  Choose one of the larger, trusted landside companies –  these are easy to research on  CruiseCritic.com’s ports of call boards,  or on TripAdvisor.  These companies wouldn’t stay in business long if their guests were missing their ships.  I’ve also found that the tour companies and various guides generally all know one another –  and they communicate about things like traffic.  Particularly in the Caribbean,  cruise passenger activity is a major economic boon.  Everyone is invested in you having a great time and no bad experiences.

Would I ever use a cruise line excursion?  Sure – particularly in a destination where few speak English, I would consider it,  because I’m nowhere near bilingual.

Anyway,  a review of our ports (well, 3 of the 4 anyway):

Coxen Hole, Roatan, Honduras

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View of Coxen Hole port from our balcony

We used Rony’s Tours to schedule a private driver for the day on a “Freestyle” tour,  selecting our own activities.  Rony’s website includes a number of group options,  which can be even less expensive,  but for $40pp we thought having our own driver was the best option.  Our driver, Cameron, was born and raised in Coxen Hole.  He had spent a number of years working on cruise ships, and also on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico,  but had returned to home to Roatan and now enjoys giving tours on a flexible schedule in his later years.

Our first stop was the Monkey and Sloth Hangout, which is as cool as it sounds.  The owner, Daniel Johnson, is a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, and all of the employees wore Steelers garb, which seemed odd in the steamy Caribbean but we went with it. We were arranged in groups with other guests, and quickly introduced to a two-toed sloth named Snow White:

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Sloths move as slowly as you think they do.  The caretakers did a good job of (slowly) carrying  and letting us hold the sloths –  when they settled into our chests, their long arms automatically tighted around our shoulders like a hug.  And they appear to be smiling and enjoying the experience, at least a little. They do have very long, sharp toes or toenails-  I think the way this place handled the animals was the right way, as we heard from  cruise passengers who went to different sloth encounters,  held them differently, and got scratches.

Next up were the Capuchin Monkeys.  We were warned to remove everything from our pockets, as well as all jewelry, hats, sunglasses, etc.,  as these guys are quite the little pickpockets.

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Monkey stare down

The monkeys liked to jump around their cage and onto guests’ heads –  they managed to scare one little girl in our group, although she was unharmed, she thought the monkey had bitten her ear.  If traveling with small children, remember that they are semi-wild animals, and can seem a little rougher than your pet puppy.

Next we visited the South Shore Zip Line Adventure Park for a suspension bridge eco tour.t7TYLejAT7eNoaTmHN7PSA

We crossed 8 different bridges,  which is harder than it looks as they are very bouncy.  Zipliners whizzed above our heads;  we had ziplined before and decided we didn’t need to repeat the experience.  Our guide spoke fast and walked fast, but we didn’t mind a little exercise at this point in our trip.  The trail is structured to go down the side of a mountain from point to point;  we were glad there was a truck waiting to drive us back up.   We learned a bit about the local flora and fauna, and saw some huge termite nests –   learning that these are literally “shithouses” (pardon my francais) –  termites live in nests built from their own dung.

So that, of course, made us hungry.  It was fairly late for lunch at this point, so we asked the driver to take us to nearby West Bay Beach, where we enjoyed french fries and the best kind of beer, a beaachfront beer:

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As the ship departed from Roatan, local musicians played lively Caribbean music as a sendoff:7%3wV78rRXyzQ6LwOVgQkg

 

Harvest Caye, Belize

Harvest Caye is one of Norwegian’s two private islands. Just off the cost of Belize,  the 75-acre eco-friendly resort was built at a cost of $50 million and includes swimming pools, beaches with loungers, water activities including standup paddle boards, kayaks, and pedal boats, a rope course, zip lines, shopping, restaurants, and bars.  Unlike most cruise line private islands,  food and beverage package drinks are NOT included for ship guests. All restaurants and bars are run by locals, to profit the local economy.

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Long-ish walk to the island; a tram is available

 

Visitors also have the option to take a ferry to the mainland, for additional adventures such as cave tubing, Mayan ruins, and private tours.

We chose to stay on the island for awhile;  it was a fairly cloudy, breezy day so we didn’t stay as long as we might have had the sun been shining.  The families in particular seemed to enjoy the large pool and pool area –  so much nicer than what you find on a ship,  with plenty of room for kids to frolic in the water.

Costa Maya, Mexico

Well, I said 3 out of 4;  this was our dud –  not due to any fault of the island, but due to the weather.  We awoke to stormy skies, but as we prepared to go onshore to visit Maya Chan Beach Resort, which we had read so many positive things about,  I checked my emails to find that the resort was offering optional refunds due to the weather.  Refusing to believe that our day could be ruined,  we made our way steadfastly down the gangway – and promptly got soaked from a torrential, windblown tropical downpour. We won’t melt!, I said.  But Husband convinced me that the prospect of a day at a beach resort in this weather was simply not too enticing.

Kudos to Maya Chan for a great business practice,  allowing guests to cancel when bad weather threatens – I’m sure that’s one reason they get such excellent reviews on both Cruise Critic and Tripadvisor.

We will try again, Maya Chan and Costa Maya!

The skies did clear in the afternoon, and Husband wandered off the ship for this nice photo:

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Cozumel, Mexico

Cozumel, an island off the Yucatan peninsula, is a tourst-friendly place.  Its southern shore is lined with  beach clubs,  roughly a 15-20 minute ride from the ships depending on where you are docked, and which beach club you choose.

Other shore excursion options here include a trip to the mainland to see famous Mayan ruins,  and swimming with dolphins –  an activity we had done with our 4 kids, about 7 years ago.

We chose to visit Mr. Sancho’s,  an all inclusive beach resort with food, drinks, pools, a waterpark, and beach loungers for $55 per person plus the cab ride on your own there and back.   We arrived fairly early, around 9:30 am.  Nothing says vacation quite like guacamole and a beer for breakfast!

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Our cab driver told us there were 7 (!) cruise ships docking in Cozumel that day, but Mr. Sancho’s never became overcrowded.  The cab driver and guards at the gate indicated that no one could enter without a prior reservation;  these are made online for a $5 pp refundable deposit. We were able to easily move from sunny seats to shady seats to a dining table without any trouble;  a friendly waiter brought us drinks and food from the menu wherever we sat, for a nice tip at day’s end.

The Cozumel port requires a long walk through a gauntlet of shops and services, including tour operators, jewelry stores, hair braiding, and Mexican crafts.

We resisted the temptation at most stores;  our only purchase was a definitely unlicensed, black market Mexican-style backpack bearing the Cubs logo for $15 (bargained down from $20).

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These bags were displayed all over the island, with every MLB/NFL/NBA/NHL team represented.  No doubt they’re made in China, but a fun reminder of our trip nonetheless.

Our Getaway cruise was just the getaway we needed.  Captain Roger Gustavsen ran a smoooooooth ship;  almost as smooth as his crooning at the Captian’s VIP party!  He entertained us with “Lady in Red” and “Wonderful Tonight” –  what a treat.   Here’s our sunset finale:

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Sea Days are Me Days: Onboard the Getaway

Cruise lines are quick to advertise all of the fantastic ports they visit.  On a typical Caribbean cruise, there are anywhere from 3 -5 port stops per week;  generally,  the ship arrives in port around 8 am and departs around 5pm,  so passengers get a full day to explore the island, visit the beach, or participate in an adventure such as ziplining or snorkeling.  Just don’t miss the ship –  unless you are on a cruiseline sponsored excursion, they won’t wait for you and you may have to figure out how to catch up with your belongings from a tiny island with sketchy communication.

I’ll cover the ports we visited on our Getaway cruise in my next post.  This one, however, is about what cruise itineraries label as “At Sea”.  Most cruises include at least one, and often 2 or 3, of these luxuriously lazy days,  when the only thing you need to plan is when, what, and where to eat.  You can’t get off the ship –   you and your 4000 new friends are going to spend the day together no matter what.  All ship services are open on a sea day, including  the casino and shopping, both of which typically close during a port visit.  Our sea day activities generally went something like this:

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wine + my kindle app = ahhhhh
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Husband loves the hot tub!
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we thought the guy at the table with Husband looked like a chubby Blake Shelton

Our Getaway cruise itinerary included a sea day on Day 2 (the first full day), and on Day 7 (the last full day).  In my opinion, this is perfect.  The first sea day allows passengers to sleep in, unwind and enjoy the ship, without the pressure of feeling like they need to explore a destination.  And the last day is for revisiting favorite activities, exchanging contact information with new friends, tipping the staff, and savoring those last moments of vacation (and packing, but we don’t like to talk about that).  The seas were as calm as a bathtub, making both of our sea days a relaxing pleasure.

Evening Entertainment

In the evenings, we enjoyed the ship’s wide-ranging entertainment.  Throughout the ship, it’s easy to find something to do just by wandering around.  Musical groups grace the atrium and several bars;  the casino is always open at night, and bartenders do their thing throughout the ship.

 

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In addition, there are scheduled entertainment options,  which differ each night. In the main theater, on several nights the ship presents an abbreviated version of  Broadway’s “Million Dollar Quartet”,  which tells the story of an impromptu recording session between Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. We saw this show on our last Getaway cruise and noted that the performer playing Jerry Lee Lewis was different – and we had been incredibly impressed by the one we saw last time –  so we opted to skip it this time.  He may have been just as good, but we wanted to keep our memory.

We did, however, take the time to see the NCL version of “Burn the Floor”,  the self-described “Ultimate Ballroom Sensation”, a “high voltage theatrical dance experience” with “jaw-dropping choreography”. Our description: “beautiful sexy people dancing around the stage with no plot”.  Honestly, both Husband and I took a little snooze during the show –  maybe because we sat in the back of the theater, it just didn’t capture our attention.

We also took advantage of a comedy show, starring Vince Acevedo, a Chicago-based Puerto Rican comedian.  There are up to three comedy shows a night, with the latest, at 11:00pm,  billed as the “adult” show –   in other words, some dirty jokes and swear words.  Vince’s comedy was not particularly filthy but genuinely funny – we had an unexpectedly good time.

Another favorite was “Howl at the Moon”, a dueling piano sing-along show.  The singers are multi-talented,  singing and playing songs by request, and often adding drums, harmonica, or guitar as well.  This show’s success does depend on the crowd, however;  the first time we went,  it was a little slow due in part to some of the song requests.  The second time we went, it was much more rollicking –  we find that people on cruise ships tend to “let loose” a little more than they might at home. On the last night of the cruise,  other performers from the ship’s various shows often crash the party and sing or perform with the Howl at the Moon musicians.

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Howl at the Moon on the Noregian Getaway

Another memorable entertainment experience was the “Ultimate 80s Party”,  held at Spice H2O,  on the top deck/rear of the ship under the stars.  Classic 80s videos played on the huge screen at the back of the deck:  Madonna, Michael Jackson, AC/DC, Cyndi Lauper, Bon Jovi,  etc. while we danced with some of our new friends. Some of the cruise director’s staff, who are responsible for keeping guests entertained throughout the ship,  dressed up in 80s garb and even performed the “Thriller” dance. Husband and I both grew up during the 80s and enjoyed the flashback.

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80s Party under the stars

We missed the “Glow Party”,  which is also held at Spice H2O –  it’s essentially a dance party where wearing white is encouraged, and blacklighting makes everyone look cool even if they are bad dancers.

Towel Animals

I can’t leave a discussion of the onboard pleasures of a cruise without mentioning a quintessential element:  returning to your stateroom to find that your room steward has not only performed a turndown service, but created a towel animal!  Here are a few that graced our room:  thanks Angelo!

 

 

 

Time to Getaway in the Haven!

It’s our second cruise on the Norwegian Getaway, the second ship in Norwegian’s Breakaway class of ships.  Built in 2014,  the Getaway houses about 4,000 passengers and boasts 28 dining venues, 15 bars, a spa, fitness center, waterslides, a ropes course, shopping, and wide-ranging entertainment which I’ll cover on another post –  it’s one of our favorite things about Norwegian Cruise Lines.

Now,   4000 is a big number.  There are also about 1600 crew members on board.  So it is, like you would expect,  a small-16 story floating city.  This was our 3rd cruise in Norwegian’s “Haven”,  a ship-within-a-ship concept that provides a quieter,  less crowded option with a small pool, hot tubs, and a private restaurant –  but still allows access to all the fun available on the entire ship.  The Getaway has about 80 Haven cabins out of roughly 1800 total, so it’s available only to a small percentage of passengers. The Haven costs more, but for me, there is value in the relaxed experience.

Haven Boarding

As Haven passengers,  you get some perks. This includes being one of the first to board the ship.  So,  we arrived at the Port of Miami pier via Uber around 11 am, dropped our bags with a porter, were whisked to a priority check-in (with no lines) , then to a small waiting lounge with other Haven passengers.  We barely sat down when a crew member arrived told us it was time to board! The entire time spent from Uber dropoff to gangway was less than 20 minutes.  An amazingly efficient process.

Once onboard, we were escorted to the 16th floor Haven lounge, where the ship’s Haven Concierge, Hanno Meyer,  gave us a quick talk about what to expect during the week.  The Concierge desk, located in the Haven, can help with restaurant and entertainment reservations, shore excursions and advice, shipboard account questions, etc.  One of Hanno’s best tips was to avoid using the included free, limited internet package for the first day (we were in Miami until 5pm anyway, with regular cell access), because the next day we could access an unlimited package for a very small upgrade price.  Since the internet connection onboard can be sketchy,  having a limited package is very stressful –  how long will it take for that email to load!?

Haven Cabin:

Shortly after Hanno’s introductory talk, we were able to access our room,  cabin 14140, a Haven Spa Suite.

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King-sized bed
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Looking back toward cabin door/ bathroom/closet
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Balcony
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Private jacuzzi in the Spa Suite

 

Haven Courtyard photos:

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Haven pools, private upper deck
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hot tub in the Haven (complete with Husband!)
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seating options in the Courtyard

 

Haven bar:

Next up: get that first drink!  We had the “Ultimate Beverage Package” included with our cabin. There are some limits to the package:  Any drink with a sticker price of more than $15 results in a upcharge of the difference greater than $15.  In addition, while the “UBP” as it’s called was included in our cruise fare, we did have to pay gratuities upfront on the package, about $136 per person for the week. Still, what’s fun about the package (in addition to, um, free unlimited drinks) is that you can try new things without worrying that you just wasted $12 or $15.  Christian, bartender extraordinaire in the Haven, prepares us an “Abraham Lincoln” below.  It’s got similar ingredients to a Manhattan, but the bong smoker he’s using gave the drink a cinnamon-toast taste.  This one was a winner:

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Norwegian’s cruises tend to attract a relatively younger crowd and a lot of families and multi-generational groups, due to the wide variety of activities available.  Our cruise was no exception, although travellng in late November probably reduced the number of school-aged children on board.  The Haven bar was populated regularly by a fun-loving,  young-adult-to-late-middle-aged crowd.  We enjoyed a predinner drink there most evenings!

The Spa

We visited the spa and I signed up for a 3-treatment Ionithermie package.  I’ve seen this advertised on several cruises;  it’s billed as a cellulite reduction treatment that will help you “LOSE 9 INCHES OR MORE!”  It involved algae and electrical stimulation of my chub.  Spoiler alert:  it doesn’t really work.  But we had onboard credit to spend, and I thought it might be worth a try.  Husband was approached by the spa’s cosmetic Doctor,   who offered a free consultation to “help him look years younger!”  Spoiler alert:  we don’t know if it worked, because it would have cost over $4,000.  More than the cruise!  LOL.   Cruise ship spas are lovely,  the people who work there are lovely, and they smell lovely. There are lovely photos of (probably airbrushed) body parts all around. But the spas are expensive, much more so than on land, and they WILL try to sell you something.  Buyer beware and all that.

However, our Spa Cabin did allow us access to a very cool feature of the Getaway:  the Mandara Thermal Spa room.  This room is only accessible by those who book spa cabins, or who purchase a weekly pass for $199pp (if purchased online before the cruise; $259 if purchased onboard). Spa Passes are limited in number.   It contains a large thermal pool with jets,  steam room, sauna, salt room, and a couple of dozen chairs including heated tile loungers that look out over the ship’s bow.  The spa is stocked with oranges and fruit-infused water, towels, and a locker room nearby. A nice place to Getaway, for sure. I didn’t feel it appropriate to take a lot of photos in the thermal spa,  but I did get this shot from a tile lounger looking out the front windows:

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Haven Concierge Desk:

The first day of a cruise is pleasantly busy and hectic,  with checking in, boarding, unpacking, and generally exploring the ship.  But it sets the stage for a great week!  An important first day activity is  revieiwng any reservations made previously, and, if you have concierge access,  getting their recommendations to set up the week.  They hear everyone’s feedback:  they know where it’s worth spending your precious vacation time!  We had met Hanno on our prior Getaway cruise,  but his whole concierge staff was fabulous and we definitely benefited from their advice.

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Hanno & staff at the Haven concierge desk.   You can’t tell here, but Hanno is nearly 7 feet tall and has to duck under the ship’s exit signs!

(not-so-secret note to Hanno:) We know, you like the Baltic itinerary better!  Try to enjoy the warm weather.

We are not cool enough for South Beach (but we had fun anyway)

The day after gorging ourselves on a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with the kids, Husband and I departed LGA to MIA bound for our Norwegian Getaway cruise.  Thanks(giving) to his Million Miler status,  one of our tickets was upgraded to First Class.  This is why Husband is awesome:  he gave me the seat.  Does he know me or what?  Happy wife happy life! The flight was short, so I would not have used miles for a first class seat,  but I have to admit it was comfortable and I enjoyed the flight.     Thanks honey!

We Ubered from MIA to our hotel, the Cadillac Miami Beach, located oceanfront in the mid-beach section of Miami Beach (about 1.5 miles north of the famed South Beach strip).  The hotel was newly purchased and renovated by Marriott as part of the Autograph Collection,  having opened about 8 weeks prior. The staff had a wonderful energy about them.  Thanks to Marriott promoting the new hotel,  we got a fantastic deal on a 2 night stay in an oceanfront room with a balcony.  We immediately enjoyed that ah-I’m-finally-on-vacation drink at the pool bar:

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Cadillac pool deck bar/restaurant
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Husband wears Sunglasses at Night

We’ve both had our share of stress over the past year, and this was our first lengthy getaway in quite awhile. Our cozy room led to a great night’s sleep after a hectic day.  I’m an early riser, and was greeted the next morning with this view:

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We greeted the day with a brisk walk along the oceanfront boardwalk on top of the dunes.  Other than that little burst of activity, we lounged by the pool and beach the rest of the day and were generally very lazy.  The pool was small,  but we had no problem finding a lounger.  We liked the artifical grass – it was less hot & slippery than pool tiles can be.

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We had a 7pm reservation at Gianni’s, the restaurant at the former Versace Mansion in South Beach.  The mansion, now called The Villa Casa Casuarina, has been converted into a hotel,  but anyone can dine at the restaurant in its courtyard.  To give you an idea,  a room at the hotel in January runs upwards of $700/night. This is a high-end experience,  so dress up and enjoy the service – it’s a great place for a special celebration, and we saw no less than 3 proposals take place!  Husband and I?  We’re just celebrating life and getting away from the daily grind!   We made reservations on OpenTable exactly 30 days prior to our preferred dining date – this is recommended during Miami’s winter high season.

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Gianni’s Courtyard with lit fountains in the background.
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Guests mingling in the central atrium of the mansion.

Now we come to the best activity there is in South Beach:  PEOPLE WATCHING. With its latin, party vibe,  South Beach is chock full of beautiful people doing beautiful things.  There may have been some fake boobs,  lips, and tummy tucks involved.

The Versace Mansion was just the start;  we made our way up fabled Ocean Drive to the Breakwater Hotel,  in front of which was a open-air  Cuban cafe with sidewalk tables called Havana 1957. The pictures below don’t really capture the vibe –  music coming from every direction;  open-top Ferraris coasting by;  couples (of all orientations) holding hands; scantily dressed dancers, bright colors and an endless energy.

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street life South Beach, view from our table at Havana 1957

We enjoyed a couple of “Ultimate Mojitos” –  these were very, very large and delicious drinks.  And we had a couple.  So the beautiful night was, shall we say, a little fuzzy  the next day.  We did get a kick out of a street performing magician,  who in addition to some great card tricks managed to remove both of our Apple watches without us even realizing it!  Glad he gave them back 🙂

Tomorrow:  We board the Norwegian Getaway!

Banker Chick Cruises

Ahoy!

My travel blog will cover all kinds of travels.  But I believe that cruises deserve a special mention, as they were really my introduction to international travel.

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A bit about my cruising history:

My first cruise was on Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Seas,  for my honeymoon in 1992 (the first one).  The islands we visited were Antigua, St Maarten, St Thomas, Martinique, and Barbados. The trip was booked through a  travel agent,  and I had no idea what I was doing.  The package price seemed right, that was all I cared about at the time.   But hey, we learn from our mistakes, right? Mistakes included:

  • Flying to Puerto Rico the day after our wedding, to catch the cruise that afternoon.  Only now do I realize how lucky we were that there were no delays.
  • Not spending any time in San Juan
  • Booking an obstructed view stateroom without a balcony / fresh air
  • Booking only cruiseline sponsored shore excursions
  • Thinking we would actually get a chair near the pool
  • Getting married to Husband #1 in the first place  (just kidding – I love my kids! I love my kids! Everything happens for a reason!  yada yada yada!)

Here’s the good thing though:  you don’t know what you don’t know.  I LOVED the cruise.  I’ll be the first to admit that cruising is not for everyone, and that it has its drawbacks.  If you are not a somewhat social person,  or if you need peace and quiet and isolation,  cruising is definitely not for you.  Buffets can be crowded and the food so-so,  you may wait for an elevator, seas may be rough, and casinos smoky. But here are the things about cruising that I fell in love with:

  • Unpack once,  see many destinations
  • Interacting with passengers and friendly crew from all over the world
  • Sailaway drinks,  watching an island recede into the distance while you imagine the next one
  • A friendly, low pressure casino –  $5 tables, and they don’t shoot you if you ask questions or make a mistake
  • The majesty of the dining room experience –  back in 1992,  this included dancing waiters and a set table and time each night, with the same cruise companions  (which could be a good or a bad thing depending on the companions!)  I’ve happily since moved on to “freestyle” cruising,  but still enjoy dressing up for a dinner experience even though dress codes have relaxed.
  • Evenings complete with included entertainment, many bars, and no need to drive home = the occasional hangover
  • Beautifully prepared food, especially desserts and yummy chilled soups
  • The overall friendliness of the cruising public.  Never have I experienced an elevator ride on a cruise ship without some chit chat –  where are you from?  I can’t believe it’s Wednesday already!  Did you enjoy xyz island?   I have yet to travel for any length of time as a solo,  but if and when I do, I think my first attempt will be a cruise.  It’s just so easy to meet people and make conversation, because you are all sharing the same experience.

Since that first cruise, I’ve been on (about) 15 more cruises.  This included a number of cruises with my children,  who always enjoyed the kids’ clubs,  ordering whatever they wanted from room service and buffets, bunk beds, and the arcade.  The majority of my cruises have been on either Norwegian Cruise Line or Royal Caribbean, although I’ve also taken a couple of cruises on RCCL’s sister line, Celebrity.  In the future,  I hope to try a luxury cruise line and European river cruising.

So:  The stage is set.  I look forward to posting about cruises, past and present.  Throughout this blog, I will label cruise-related posts under the category “Cruises”.

 

When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or ….you are really entertained

This was a day Oldest and I had looked forward to for months.  Not long after deciding that Scotland and Ireland would be our graduation trip destination, we also decided that we needed to do a Game of Thrones tour.  In fact,  I arranged our entire itinerary around this highlight.

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Originally, I had thought of spending a couple of days in Belfast,  because the GOT sites are all located in Northern Ireland. Between difficulty finding a direct flight between Inverness and Belfast,  and planning for further destinations in southern Ireland, we ended up flying into Dublin and opting for this tour:  Game of Thrones Dublin Winterfell tour –  as far as I could find, the only one originating in Dublin. I promise to return to Northern Ireland and visit Belfast!  This was a very difficult decision.

Oldest and I are both very big GOT fans.  I initially read the books in 2007-2008, during that dark and dreary winter following the banking crisis that seemed to last a dozen years, like in the novels.  Now,  I am a big reader, but I am not generally a fantasy fan.  While I read an average of 30-40 books a year, I have not read all of the Lord of the Rings trilogy,  nor have I read all of the Harry Potter books.  It’s just not my thing;  I prefer historical fiction and crime/murder mysteries. In fact,  I tried at least 3 different times to start the series,  and couldn’t get past the first 50 pages.  Eventually, though,  I plowed my way through about 1/3 of the book and –  ta da –  I was completely hooked.   Finally, after two seasons of the HBO series,  I ended up re-reading all 5 books to jog my memory about the minor plot points skipped over by the TV version.  That’s how much I enjoy it.

**Rant warning**   Finish the d*mn books, George R.R.! **End rant warning**

So, it was quite a thrill to see the setting for Winterfell:

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Castle Ward, the setting for Winterfell. They use a lot of CGI to make the walls look larger
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The yard at Castle Ward

Dress up like a Stark:

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Oldest trying to look mean
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Getting my Stark on

 

and meet two of the beautiful dogs that played the Direwolves Summer and Greywind in the HBO series.

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BEAUTIFUL, and patient, dogs
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Me and Thor.  He looks a little bored
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Oldest and friend Odin

 

Our tour guide Lady Aenne was extremely knowledgeable about both the show and the settings.

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Lady Aenne showing us THE STUMP that can is visible in the series’ opening scene

She was also a FAST walker.  Winter may be coming, but I was sweating my butt off, especially with the heavy Stark-esque cape I wore.  I ended up carrying it for much of the walking parts of the tour.

We enjoyed lunch at The Lobster Pot in Strangford,  which hosts the tour group daily with this hokey but fun drink menu:

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Pretty much everyone on our bus was also a fan (there are always a few bored but willing tag-a-long partners). We played a GOT trivia game, the winner of which was crowned “King in the North”, to whom we later bent the knee and swore our fealty. Of course!  Oldest and I thought we did fairly well on the 20-question quiz,  but this guy was on a whole different level –  he got all 20 questions right.  Impressive.  I swear fealty, milord.

The tour was a long day –  we met at 7:45 am, and returned to Dublin right around 6:00.  There was a fair amount of time on the bus, but the tour kept us entertained with behind-the-scenes videos,  the trivia game, and,  on the way home,  the first two full episodes of GOT.

I highly recommend this tour and   tour company, Game of Thrones Tours–  offering the only GOT tour choice out of Dublin, literally;  when I return to Northern Ireland I’ll eagerly try one of their “Iron Islands” tours from Belfast.

Next up,  we will return to the 21st century and – gulp- drive on the “wrong” side of the road!

 

 

 

Delightful Dublin

After 8 days in Scotland,  now it was time to revisit an old favorite:  Ireland!

We had  a ride to the airport through Inverness Taxi. A cheery, punctual driver picked us up in the morning for a ride to Inverness Airport.  It’s a small,  easy-to-navigate airport, and we encountered no security line whatsover.  The tiny LogainAir plane required a walk on the tarmac –  thankfully, again, it wasn’t raining.  We climbed up the stairs and performed a royal/ presidential wave as we embarked.

 

After a short, pleasant flight to Dublin Airport, we opted for a taxi into the city.  My research told me that this was the lazy person’s way out – the Green 747 Bus would have taken us within 1/4 mile of our AirBnB – but we didn’t care.   The taxi ride almost became embarrassing, however,  when we found out that the driver didn’t accept credit cards, and didn’t think he could make change for my €100 bill.  Having just now entered the EU, we hadn’t had a chance to break our larger bills yet.   Um,  you’re charming and all,  but I’m not giving you a €70 tip!  As I prepared myself to make a big old Jersey Girl stink, the driver magically found change.

Another mention of politics vs. World Cup fandom from the cab ride.  Although our driver was 100% Irish,  he supported England in the World Cup.  This, honestly, surprised me.  I could understand the Scottish having divided loyalties.  His explanation:  “they helped us with cash when we needed it in the recession, no one remembers that”.  I think he is referring to the post-2008 banking crisis.  Oh, and also he is a Liverpool FC fan, and several Liverpool players were on the England team.  Now THAT makes more sense!

We were too early to check in to our AirBnB: AirBnB Sir John Rogerson’s Quay , so we had a pub lunch down the street at the Ferryman pub.  Guinness pie –  always a favortie in Ireland.    Once again, the AirBnB proved to be a hit,  on the first floor with two nicely sized bedrooms,  and walkable to all our Dublin targets.

Our next stop was the Jameson Distillery on Bow Street.  We’ve both done the Guinness factory before, and Oldest recommended this instead.  We enjoyed the short tour,  which was less cheesy than Edinburgh’s Scotch Whiskey Experience.

 

 

After a brief history tour, we got right down to business with our free drinks at the bar.  There they conconted some excellent and varied cocktails using Jameson’s.  Oh, and the bartenders were cute (whoops did I say that out loud?)

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Drinking having commenced,  we wandered toward Temple Bar.  We got a kick out of finding the famous Temple Bar webcam and waving to Dearest Husband, who we texted to look us up, and then sent us a screenshot of us.  Technology!  Yay!

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Look!  there we are on the webcam!

We enjoyed an excellent dinner at Fade Street Social on Drury street, which Oldest had picked out on Yelp.   It was a definite foodie joint, and a welcome upgrade from the heavy fare we had generally been enjoying. The venue includes both an upscale restaurant and a more casual, loud gastropub.  Since the restaurant was packed, and even the gastropub booths were full, we ate at the tapas bar overlooking the open kitchen and enjoyed drinks while watching the staff prepare the tapas-style meals.   When a man in a leather jacket arrived toward the end of the evening, observing the chefs, having discussions with the manager, tasting the food as it was prepared, and generally seeming in charge,  we googled the restaurant (technology! yay!) and found that he was indeed the restaurant’s proprietor, Dylan McGrath, a star of MasterChef Ireland.

A great day/evening in Dublin ended fairly early because we needed to rest up for …. DUN dun dun dun DUN dun dun dun DUN dun dun dun DUN dun dun dun duuuuunnnnnn

(what the heck is that? find out in my next post 🙂)  When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or ….you are really entertained

The sun never sets on Inverness (in early July, anyway)

Having successfully located Nessie, we enjoyed the remainder of the day and evening in Inverness.  We gathered with locals at the Castle Tavern (located, unsurprisingly,  next to Inverness castle) to watch a very exciting World Cup match with England vs. Colombia,  which resulted in an English victory via penalty shootout.

8smaxMBsQGC3MB42GmoK8wWe wondered:  Do Scots root for the English team, as loyal members of the United Kingdom?  Or is it a rivalry based on a history of war between the two countries?  The answer we found, by asking tour guides and pub patrons, was both.  As we were educated by John Alasdair Macdonald, our Hebrideaen Explorer tour guide, Scotland’s history began well before its famed wars with southern neighbors and Hadrian’s wall. While today there is most definitely a Scottish identity, the history of the people inhabiting Scotland is not as clear cut.  In addition, many modern Scots, such as John, have spent time studying or living in England.  So,  our very unscientific poll revealed that while many Scots eagerly rooted for England’s opponent,  just as many cheered their UK brethren. We just enjoyed watching them.

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Dinner was  at the Black Isle Brewery, which we had walked past several times during our time in Inverness and always seemed lively & busy.  As the name implies,  this is a craft brew house, but with an organic twist.  We were a little bit beered out by this point so we chose the organic wine,  which was delicious.  Black Isle is also famous for its pizza, but Oldest is non-dairy so we chose a vegan pizza with pesto –  I will admit to being doubtful,  but it was delicious.  Highly recommended, and one of our better meals in Scotland, especially if you are growing tired of traditional pub fare.

After enjoying some traditional music at Inverness’ most famous pub, Hootananny’s, we took one last stroll along the lovely River Ness.  By this point in our trip, I had successfully “closed my rings” (Apple-speak for getting enough exercise) for 7 consecutive days, and I wasn’t about to stop now.  By now it was fairly late:  in fact,  it was midnight. And yet, off to the southwest,  was a bright glow.  Indeed,  this far north, and less than two weeks past the summer solstice, Inverness’ sky never really darkened, and it was as bright as day by 3:00 am.   If you travel to Inverness during this time of year,  bring an eye mask if you like your mornings dark!

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Timestamp on this photo is 12:01 am

Thus ended our visit to Scotland.  The country’s wild beauty,  combined with its residents’ fierce patriotism, heartiness, and charm, won us over completely.  We may not have become whiskey connoiseurs, but we will undoubtedly return.

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Finding Nessie

Our next day in Inverness found us checking off another bucket list item:  Loch Ness.  Although many travel advice blogs and comment board afficianados will tell you that Loch Ness isn’t  Scotland’s prettiest loch,  and that there are many better sights in Scotland,  and they may be right, it’s still LOCH NESS.  Come on.  Even as an American child growing up in the Midwest,  the mythology of the Loch Ness Monster captivated me.  Perhaps because I grew up before technology, I believed the storytellers and witnesses,  just as I believed in Bigfoot. A few decades, uncovered hoaxes, and the internet later,  I am clearly aware of the non-existence of these imaginary creatures.  But that doesn’t make it any less fun to look for them.

Prior to arriving in Inverness,  this day was completely uncalendared and free for exploration. But as we rode the train into the Highlands from Edinburgh, coming closer and closer to Loch Ness,  both Oldest and I realized that we could not deny ourselves the opportunity of Nessie hunting.  So we booked the 4 hour “Sensation” tour with Jacobite Cruises.   Departing from Inverness bus station, the tour included a cruise on the Loch, a visit to the Loch Ness Monster exhibition, and Urquhart Castle.

Another perfect day –  actually it was a bit warm and we both got a bit of a sunburn! – resulted in some pretty amazing photos:

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We learned that Loch Ness is Scotland’s second deepest loch, and contains more water than all the lakes of England and Wales combined.   And because of the high peat content in the soil,  its waters are very dark and murky.  With soft movement along the water’s surface, it is easy to imagine a large, dark form lurking just beneath.

And best of all:  WE FOUND HER! 😉

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Inverness and exploring the Highlands with a Macdonald (no, not a quarter pounder)… Warning: photo overload ahead!

After an active and lively 5 days in Edinburgh,  Oldest and I were ready for a little downtime.  We traveled via ScotRail train from Edinburgh Waverly station to Inverness.  The train was overcrowded, and the attendant a bit grouchy because people were putting their bags anywhere and everywhere.  We were grateful to have a seat, though, and the beautiful weather continued:

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After checking into our Airbnb in Inverness,  a lovely, 2-story, 2 bedroom attached home, (Inverness Airbnb), we enjoyed a relaxing walk along and through the islands of the River Ness.  No hills here on this walk!  At all!  My thighs thanked me.   Here are a few photos from our stroll:

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amazingly clear water!

Early the next morning, we were greeted by John Alasdair Macdonald, proprietor of The Hebridean Explorer, a private tour company based in Inverness.    Looking back,  Oldest says this day was a highlight of the trip.

John Alasdair Macdonald (I love saying all 3 names) spent time as a businessman in England before returning to his homeland to start his tour company and study for a Master’s in History.   He grew up speaking both Gaelic and English. Additionally,  he is a proud member of the fabled Macdonald clan.  A really interesting tidbit I found on the MacDonald clan,  courtesy of www.greatscottishclans.com:

 There are more than half a million Macdonalds worldwide, and a recent study suggests that one in four can trace their origins back to Somerled, the clan’s founder and “The Greatest of all Celtic warrior kings”.  Only one man has more living descendants:  Genghis Khan.

/returns from digression/

As we had a Loch Ness cruise tour booked for the following day,  I chose the “Hebridean Explorer Tour with Eilean Donan Castle”.  Unlike most Inverness day tours,  which  journey to the Isle of Skye and back,  this tour heads further north toward the Apple-cross peninsula. My planning thought process here was that we would return one day to Scotland, and spend a few days exploring Skye –  I wanted to do something that would give me a flavor of ‘wild’ Scotland, without the summer crowds expected on Skye.

As it turned out,  this choice was fortuitous –  according to John,  although it wasn’t his most popular tour,  it was the tour that would take the greatest advantage of the incredibly blue skies we enjoyed in Scotland.  He mentioned that he had been thinking about discontinuing the tour, because the views were frequently obscured by poor weather and required a disappointing re-route.  But then, on occasion,  he was blessed with a day like our tour day,  and was only too thrilled to explore the Applecross route.   Sadly,  it appears that the tour is no longer offered,  but I’m sure if you asked John about it he would be more than happy to set it up – and hope for great weather!

I truly wish I had taken more notes during our tour,  so I could do a better job of describing the day’s beautiful photos and telling you the exact route we took.  Then again,  more time spent on my ipad would have meant less time enjoying the incredible scenery.

I’ll let the pictures do the talking now.

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Our first glimpse of Loch Ness
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Eilean Donan Castle
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The drop below him was a good 60 feet.  I’m still a nervous mommy but managed to get a pic!
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The view and beautiful skies from Eilean Donan
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Eilean Donan Castle
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Viewpoint over Loch Carron in Stromeferry
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Near the shore at Sanachon
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The little seaside town of Sheildag was a favorite stop
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View from A896 between Sheildag and Torridon
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The Torridon Hills – made of sandstone
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Amazing viewpoint along A832 near Kinlochewe

I do know that we started off toward Loch Ness, heading through Drumnadrochit (it’s fun to try to say that in a Scottish accent –  spit out the “droch”), a town on the side of the lake and the home of the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition, which we would visit the next day.  Then we headed toward Eilean Donan Castle,  where we enjoyed lunch in the cafe, and up toward Torridon before heading back to Inverness.  The full tour took about 8 1/2 hours.

The historical tidbits offered by John Alasdair Macdonald definitely added to the trip.  We asked whether he rooted for England in the World Cup (spoiler: he did) which kicked off a long discussion about Scotland’s history.  Although modern Scotland is a part of the U.K., its history and people are a true melting pot of tribal Picts, Normans, Britons, and Vikings.    We also learned that in the 1790s,  after a rebellion of farmers,  Highlands clan lords forced people out of the highland plains and valleys in favor of sheep, which helped them afford their lordly lifestyle.  As a result,  the  majority of Scotland’s population to this day remains near the coasts.

The Hebridean Explorer tour was an outstanding day.  I cannot recommend John’s tour more highly.  Throughout the booking process, communication was top notch.  And the tour itself was memorable for our host’s knowledge, flexibility, and unbelievable scenery.

A note on my planning for Inverness.  I had considered several small group, multi-day tours, to take the most advantage of our short time in the Highlands.  In the end, I opted for booking our own lodging in Inverness for 3 nights, combined with a single day private tour, and  half day tour of Loch Ness.  There were several advantages to this approach, for us:

  • We chose our own lodging, and did not have to pack and move nightly to a new location.
  • We enjoyed a ‘downtime’ evening in our Airbnb, getting snacks from the grocery and watching a movie on our iPads
  • We slept late one morning
  • Our private tour was catered to our interests and tastes, allowing for plenty of interaction with our very knowledgeable guide.
  • We never had to wait for a line to use the toilet, or for lagging tour guests to return to a bus.

For us, even though it was not an inexpensive option, this was the right balance, Given our busy time in Edinburgh, combined with the fact that we were still only halfway through our vacation, we wanted to regain and retain some energy.  Because tomorrow…. we will be hunting monsters!