Archive for the Travel Category

If I Wrote John Heald’s Blog – Chapter 3, Part II

Posted in Blog, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on Saturday, 23 July 2016, by Stan

Glory_MahoganyBay

 

We went to the Punchliner comedy club (¡Hola, Pablo!) just about every night it was open. Mark Hawkins and Just June were our favorites. We enjoyed both of them so much that we saw several of their shows, both the PG and adult versions. For some of the comedians, I think a 30-minute set is too short. How about giving them 45-minutes?

My wife and I were blown away by the Playlist production “Motor City”. I always enjoy hearing songs from Motown’s heyday. The set was unbelievable and the way the cast interacted with the set was amazing. If I tried to describe it here, I’m not sure I could do it justice. If you are on a ship that features this show and you like Motown or even just great set design, you absolutely have to see this production.

And it didn’t stop there. As the “Motor City” finale drew to a close, the after party seamlessly began out in the Colors lobby with the band Resting Beach Face picking up where the show left off. Our ever-present CD Eric hosted and even got in on the action. Have you ever seen anyone use a passenger elevator as part of the show? Eric did. “Shout” will never be the same.

It took a few cruises but I finally got to sail on a ship that has a Guy’s Burger Joint. Over the course of the cruise I think I ate at Guy’s at least four times. The burgers were delicious! For me, it was the combination of the beef used and the grilled buns that made it so good. Plus you get to add your own condiments. Unfortunately, the realization set in mid-cruise that I could not continue to eat there every day. Consequently, because I spent so much time at Guys’, I didn’t get to try BlueIguana Cantina. Guess that will have to wait until next cruise. Anyone else want Carnival to extend BlueIguana’s hours?

Another thing discussed on Facebook quite a bit is live music. I had just finished relaxing on the lounge chairs on probably the hottest day of the cruise and was walking back to the room when I heard the Caribbean duo playing. A live band playing with a real, live, steel drum! YES! This is how I remember my earlier cruises with Carnival. Great music, deep blue sea, no land or other ships in sight, puffy white clouds, a packed Lido deck, people dancing, swimming, smiling, eating, and just having one huge party! Simply iconic. And now this image will join the others in my memory. Thanks, beards, (and John), for bringing back live Caribbean music!

As far as shore excursions go, we took an excursion in every port. On Grand Cayman we took a bike excursion on our own because Carnival did not offer any. Still waiting to hear back from the beards regarding my shameless plug modest request to test out any cycling excursions Carnival adds to their itineraries. Our excursion gave us the opportunity to get away from the resorts and see some parts of the island most visitors don’t get to see. And we had a delicious lunch, too! Sure would be nice if Grand Cayman used some of fees from all that money they hold to build a pier. Well, it looks like they’re going to do just that. But along with the new pier will come admitted “significant and irreversible environmental damage”.

Our next destination was Mahogany Bay, Roatan. I can see why Mahogany Bay is a favorite port with cruisers. Here again we booked a tour with a different company. One of John’s policies here on the blog is honesty. In that spirit, here is my honest assessment. After reading the reviews of what activities/stops one of the excursions actually made, I’m glad we opted for the non-Carnival tour on Roatan. Why? The Carnival tour we considered is called Top 10 Best of Roatan. Time in port is only 8 hours but you have to allow time to get off the ship and to get back on board an hour before sail time. So figure 6, maybe 7 hours on the island. And in that 6-7 hours, we are scheduled to see 10 of the best things Roatan has to offer, and that is including time to relax on the beach. In my opinion, that’s not enough time to enjoy each of the scheduled activities.

In Belize, we took the Jaguar Cave Zipline and Tubing Combo excursion with Carnival. Skies were very dark grey and rain did fall while on the tender. Our tour ran into problems just 5 minutes out of port when the bus broke down. Since this was a Carnival excursion, the company Carnival contracted with was able to dispatch another bus fairly quick and we were able to continue on. By this time it was pouring rain on the way to the site but at least we were safe inside the bus.

We enjoyed the zip lining and the tubing. Our group seemed to get along quite well on the tour. Some even conquered their fear of heights…and zip lines. As we saw each other on the ship later in the cruise, we would stop and talk. Surprise of the tour? Cashew wine. I’ll let you ‘digest’ that for a minute. We were given a sample during lunch and promptly bought a bottle.

At the last port on the itinerary, Cozumel, we booked the Amazing Secret River tour. We almost took a different Carnival tour but I’m glad we chose this one. This excursion is aptly named. It was simply amazing! Apparently while we were exploring the underground river, we missed a heavy rain shower. But another cell dumped on us later, this time while on the ferry from the mainland back to Cozumel, and continued while waiting in line to re-board the ship. We had a little over an hour between the end of the excursion and the last ferry back to Cozumel. We spent the time walking around Quinita Avenida in Playa del Carmen. Too much to see and not enough time to see it all. I would like to come back and visit more of Cozumel and Playa del Carmen.

Writing John’s blog is fun. In 2012, my five-year horizon did not include any cruises. Then our PVP contacted us. That led to booking a Baltic cruise in 2013 on Carnival Legend and my first attempt at writing the blog. Since then, we have taken four more cruises. Coincidence?

I just got a message that because of my work on John’s blog, I am being given a personal escort by Security, per John’s specific orders, to the front of the line for debarkation, with a special gangplank reserved just for me. They want me to be ready in 15 minutes. Wow! John really does take care of his guests! Wait a minute. Today is a sea day…

 

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If I Wrote John Heald’s Blog – Chapter 3, Part I

Posted in Blog, Travel with tags , , , , , , on Saturday, 23 July 2016, by Stan

Glory_MahoganyBay

Hello, my name is Stan. I am sitting here, fully clothed, writing John Heald’s blog today from our inside cabin aboard Carnival Glory. John is back in ex-EU England and will be joining the Carnival Splendor again in late July. I’ve sailed aboard Carnival Splendor twice with fond memories of both cruises. Thanks to Carnival Splendor, we found a new getaway destination: Cabo San Lucas.

How did I get to write John’s blog, you ask? Well, I figured Jacinta might want to help me now that she has settled into her new job. Anything to make life easier for her boss, right? Jacinta started on Carnival Glory as a bar waitress and her life changed on this ship. Glory is her favorite ship, so I asked one of the bar staff there to call her.

My intent was to turn on the charm. I started by greeting her in her native Romanian language. “Bună,” I said. Over the phone, I could tell that she was smiling. She returned the greeting but was not much impressed. She’s much smarter than to be taken in by flattery. I then texted her a photo of yak patties and ground yak to show to John. She chuckled but still wouldn’t crack.

Next I offered to buy John’s hemorrhoid cream. That stopped her in her tracks. Something in her voice let me know I now had her full attention but would need to do better. I sweetened the pot: “Ok, a one month’s supply.”

“You are getting warmer,” she replied, “but it will take a bit more than that.”

“Oh, alright. A year’s supply, then.”

“Done!”

She quickly gave me short but explicit instructions on how to post the blog, then, um, ‘suggested’ that the preceding conversation never took place. Mulţumesc, Jacinta!

In my first attempt at writing John’s blog I forgot to give a huge shout-out to our servers in the MDR on Carnival Liberty. This was back in 2013. Our head waiter’s name was Ben, from Grenada, I think. We had another team member from the Philippines, and one from Croatia. I have since forgotten their names. But we had so much fun with them. They worked together well and took very good care of us. One night, some of the waiters dressed in costumes for a dance. I was wearing a polo shirt from Jamaica. Our Croatian waiter came out with a dreadlocks hat on. Needless to say, that sparked a lively conversation between us. Since that night, whenever I tell friends about that cruise, I mention my Croatian brother from another mother. I also tell them that talking with him is the main reason why I now want to visit Croatia.

Speaking of visiting (and this has nothing to do with cruising but since I am writing John’s blog, I’ll bring it up anyway), I wonder if John has any connection to the town of Healdsburg in Northern California. Was the town founded by his early relatives? Has he ever been to Healdsburg? Does he know that Healdsburg produces several award-winning wines?

I miss John’s Q&A that used to appear here in about this part of the blog. Since we have no Q&A this time, let’s get right to our cruise.

Carnival Glory is on a Western Caribbean itinerary, sailing from Miami, Florida. Embarkation in Miami was our first experience with the assigned check-in. My understanding was that the check-in time was the time you would be allowed to check in AND board. I, and most of the other guests in line learned that the assigned time was for check-in only. Actual boarding would take place later by assigned groups and was a separate process. I wish I had known that. Well, now I know. I guess the intent was to smooth out the flow so there was not a small group of people checking in at noon, followed by an ever-growing crush of guests arriving last minute at the 3:00 pm cut-off time. Not sure how much more Carnival can do to get 3,000 people checked in and boarded in a rather short amount of time. There are already crewmembers roaming the line making sure guests queue up when and where they are supposed to.

When we did get on board, our first stop was our cabin, oops, stateroom. We hung out in our room until time for the safety briefing. Following the briefing, we made a beeline for Pizza Pirate. Seems like a lot of other guests had the same idea but since we were among the first in line, it didn’t matter how long the line was behind us. Eating our pizza on Lido deck as we sailed out of the Port of Miami was a treat. Why? Because that gave us the opportunity to watch a behemoth like Carnival Glory perform a pirouette in a relatively small space in the port as she moved away from the dock and navigated along the canal and out into the open ocean.

Having pizza also allowed us to pass the time while waiting for our luggage to be delivered to our room. But when we eventually did go back down to the room, our luggage still hadn’t arrived. That’s when we met Michael, our stateroom steward. We let him know the situation and that we had reservations for the Emerald Room Steakhouse in a few minutes. Michael sprang into action. Five minutes later he arrived back at our door, breathless, but with our luggage in tow. I told Michael’s supervisor how he went above and beyond what was expected but also want to thank him here. Salamat, Michael!

Glory is a very long ship. I know this because our cab, stateroom is the very first one on our deck, right up by the bow. The Platinum dining room, where we are seated for dinner, is aft. Way aft. There were a couple of times where I stood outside our stateroom door and looked down the corridor. It seemed to go on forever. You think Glory looks big from the outside?

Some of the many benefits of reading John’s blog and his Facebook page are the helpful tips from readers. A couple of months ago, someone shared on Facebook how they solved the perpetual luggage tag problem. We took their advice and ordered a set of these tags. They worked perfectly! Would these be useful to you? Even the porter commented that our luggage was nicely labeled. And I’m sure those tags made it a little easier for Michael to find our bags.

Elevator crowding happened most often on embarkation day. People did rush onto the elevator regardless of whether it was headed up or down. My guess is that with several of the elevators being used by the crew to deliver our luggage, everyone was anxious to get their cruise on, get to their cabin, or to Lido to eat, and had to do so using the few remaining elevators. Elevator crowding didn’t seem to be a problem the rest of the cruise.

On the last few cruises, I’ve been paying more attention to the artwork on the ship. I noticed that the pictures in the stateroom coordinated with the artwork in the stairwells. The nautical theme in the dining areas on Lido deck also stood out. Miniature sails and riggings remind you that you are indeed on a ship, even when you could not see the ocean.

Since this is John’s blog, you know this subject had to come up. Me, personally, I enjoy dressing up for the steakhouse and Elegant Night. But another reason why more and more people are no longer dressing up has occurred to me: suits and dresses take up a lot of space in luggage. And with the weight restrictions and fees imposed by airlines on checked luggage, people are choosing to pack as light as possible to avoid those fees. Extra articles of clothing are among the first items to be left behind at home. So while I’d prefer to wear a suit, this time a nice shirt and tie will have to do. Tuxedos? It’s been more than a decade since I wore one on board, mainly because I see so few other men wearing them.

Slider In the Emerald Room Steakhouse we were very well taken care of by Artem, Goran, Anna Maria, Julia, and Myroslava, all from Russia and Belarus. This time we took John’s advice and spoke with the chef before dinner to see if we could come up with a vegetarian meal for my wife. Chef Rajendra came through with flying colors. He made an exceptionally delicious dish of grilled vegetables. It was so good that I could’ve skipped the steak myself and eaten just the vegetables he prepared. Also, compliments of the chef, was a microscopic slider. Tiny, but very tasty. For my meal I had the tuna tartare, Caesar salad, and spiced rubbed 18 oz. rib-eye. All were excellent, especially the rib-eye! I did notice that in the steakhouse, not one man was wearing a tie.

Surprisingly, I got up and out on the jogging track twice during the cruise. I really needed to run after that fantastic meal in the Emerald Room Steakhouse. It was nice to see arrows painted on the track so joggers/walkers knew in which direction to run. Another nice thing was not having people stop in the middle of the track.

In the Main Dining Room, we were seated at a table for four. We only saw our tablemates once. And then only once after that somewhere else the ship. In effect, we had a table for two for the five nights we dined there. Which was just fine for us. One thing I want to know, though, is what happened to the bitter and blanc? It was not on the menu. Is it only served on certain ships?

Our wait staff was friendly and individually served us well. But for some reason, they didn’t seem to work together as a team. On previous cruises, there was much more interaction between our servers. That aside, our waiters do deserve a big thank you and a special mention to their supervisors. We were celebrating a special occasion one night. Apparently, unbeknownst to us, a special dessert had been prepared but we left a few minutes after the table was cleared and before they brought it out. They plated it and had it sent to our cabin, er, stateroom later in the evening. What a surprise to return to our room and find it waiting for us.

At the buffets on Lido deck, I saw again just how many people leave a LOT of food on their plates. I saw one plate – left out in the corridor outside of someone’s cabin – that had about 7 slices of different desserts from Lido – all untouched. I think a lot of it stems from people believing that it’s ok to leave food uneaten because they have already paid for it. My thought on that is their cruise would cost a lot less if so much food didn’t go to waste. Another reason might just be that their eyes are bigger than their stomachs.

Something John mentioned on Facebook not long ago was how he likes to walk down Promenade on Elegant Night and watch the guests having their pictures taken in the portrait studios. I didn’t think too much of it until I intentionally paid attention to it on the last Elegant Night. I have to admit; it was fun seeing everyone all dressed up. And everyone that we saw looked like they were truly enjoying themselves, smiling, posing away, creating one more memory of their cruise.

 

If I Wrote John Heald’s Blog…Again

Posted in Blog, Travel with tags , , , on Monday, 2 November 2015, by Stan
Heald2_Insp

Carnival Imagination at Ensenada, Baja California Norte

Hello, my name is Stan. I’ll be writing John’s blog today, fully clothed, this time from the Carnival Imagination.

Last time I wrote John’s blog, things did not quite go as planned. I’ll have a greater challenge writing the blog this time. That is because John is way over in the Caribbean aboard Carnival Dream right now, somewhere between St. Kitts and St. Maarten. I’m here in the Pacific in Ensenada, Mexico. So I can’t bribe, er, talk to Ketut. Jacinta is still learning her new assignment so I don’t want to involve her…yet. I know…I’ll ask Mrs. Heald!

Now, Heidi is even farther away than John is so how can I pull this off? And since we have never met, I would have to tread lightly to enlist her as a co-conspirator, I mean, ask for her assistance. My olive branch to Heidi was a gift, a prototype of something called the No Bloke Remote*. Five minutes after I got the delivery confirmation that Heidi received the gift, I received an e-mail from her containing everything I needed to know to post John’s blog.

What is a No Bloke Remote*, you ask? Let me explain by offering the following scenario: John is sent to the Fincantieri shipyards in Trieste, Italy, to give us an update on how our new Carnival Vista is coming along. During the week, he gets to go home and spend some time with Heidi and Kye. When he arrives home, he hugs Heidi and Kye, reads Kye a bedtime story, takes Breeze for a walk, does battle with the dishwasher, and plops down in his favorite chair to finally relax and watch a spot of television. Heidi, with a sly smile, hands him the No Bloke Remote*. It looks just like an ordinary television remote control, except it has a special feature. Heidi enters a short code into the remote, a code that husbands will never remember, like an anniversary, and the functions of the remote become scrambled. Entering a channel number increases the volume. Pressing the lower volume button turns the television off. There is no way to figure out what any button will do because the result is completely random. Thoroughly frustrated, John gives up, utters his trademark “Oh, ___” (you know the rest), and hands the remote back to Heidi. Heidi then enters the code again, and, of course, the remote works perfectly.

On that note, let’s get to the Q & A, shall we?

Oh, I guess we can’t do the Q&A. I am not at John’s computer. Moving on…

I hadn’t planned on cruising for at least another couple of years. But then we got a call from Carnival with an offer for past guests that I just couldn’t pass up. A short weekend getaway would be just what the doctor ordered. So here we are with Carnival Cruise Line once again. Our previous Carnival cruise became a reality in much the same way; a call from our PVP (thanks, Valerie!) – actually it was a postcard – promoting the Baltic cruises at a great rate. That Baltic cruise was the trip of a lifetime. I will never forget it.

This cruise has a few significant milestones attached to it: Carnival Imagination will follow the very same itinerary as the very first cruise I took 31 years ago. 20 years ago around this time we took our first cruise with Carnival aboard the Festivale. I will be celebrating a very special anniversary with my wife on this sailing.

Our CD on Carnival Imagination is Goose. Goose, as it turns out, has been the CD for almost half of my Carnival cruises.

Our onboard plans are that we have no plans. The only things I have on my onboard agenda are food-related: try the Mocha Chocolate Getaway (John, why did you have to post that photo on your blog?), and have Eggs Benedict in the Main Dining Room for breakfast Saturday morning. Usually we have breakfast on Lido deck, even on sea days. I can’t remember the last time we both had breakfast in the Main Dining Room. Since Saturday is a sea day and we both need to relax, I think we’ll head for the Main Dining Room and let Carnival continue to spoil us.

Figuring out what to do while in port posed a bit of an issue. I have been to Ensenada a few times before now and wanted to do something different while here this time. I wonder, dear reader of John Heald’s blog, what do you do when you are at a port you have visited many times? Do you visit the same restaurant or bar or beach each time? Do you take the same excursion? Or do you try something new?

We ended up planning a fish taco tasting tour. Legend has it that the fish taco was born right here in Ensenada. What better place, then, to do such a tour?

Starting off the tour was a visit to La Bufadora via the La Bufadora Adventure shore excursion. I first was introduced to the market at La Bufadora in 2009. Back then, a storm brewing in the Pacific forced an itinerary change on our Mexican Riviera cruise and we ended up in Ensenada instead of Puerto Vallarta. It was on the Bufadora Kayak shore excursion that our guide stopped at the open air market on the way back to the ship and told us to try the fish tacos next to the parking area. So we wanted to try the tacos again and put them to the test. The place is called Lidia’s.

Vendors were offering samples of churros hot off the fryer as we walked down the market. Of the half dozen or so samples we tried along the way, we found the best churros at the last vendor on the right, at the bottom of Restaurant Blanquita, right before you reach the blow hole itself. They were even better than the ones we tried in 2009, which until today we thought were the best we had ever had.

At the end of the tour, we elected to be dropped off downtown where we went in search of a place called La Guerrerense. La Guerrerense popped up on an Internet search for fish tacos in Ensenada. It is near the dock so I decided to include it as part of the tour. When we found it, we were disappointed to learn that they only make tostadas and ceviche. No fish tacos. So off we went a couple of blocks up and decided to try a restaurant called Mariscos Playa Azul.

Our final stop on our fish taco tasting tour was a small stand simply called Fish Tacos Ensenada, or Tacos de Pescado de Ensenada. Fish Tacos Ensenada was listed by the Street Gourmet LA blog as the number one fish taco in Ensenada. We’ll soon see if we agree with that claim.

How did each taste? Which place makes the best fish tacos? You’ll have to wait until I can write the review.

From Fish Tacos Ensenada, it was a casual stroll past the shops and stores back to the ship. But we couldn’t leave Ensenada without a stop at Hussong’s for nostalgia…and a taste of their margaritas. Supposedly the margarita was invented at Hussong’s. I wanted to go straight to the source and try the original.

Each of my cruises to Ensenada has provided fond memories. The very first one may not count: we had to anchor off the coast because high winds damaged the only tug boat they had in port – this was before modern ship thrusters were invented – so we couldn’t get off the ship. I learned firsthand that even cruise ships aren’t immune to Mother Nature, thus don’t always make it to their intended destinations. On the second trip I visited Hussong’s and Papas & Beer. As a young twenty-something, I thought I had found the world’s greatest party. My fourth visit found me off the beaten tourist path at Haliotis, a restaurant highly recommended by locals. A friend that cruised with me then showed me the best place in Ensenada to buy leather goods. Also on that fourth visit, I got to spend a few minutes talking about my beloved Jamaica with one of the ship’s crewmembers during his break. I enjoyed seeing how his face lit up when we started talking about his homeland.

Onboard again, we attended comedy shows on 2 of the 3 nights, (we were too exhausted the first night,) and the Playlist Production show “Divas”. I have to admit that some of the dancing in that show may have been too much for a PG rating.

Now it’s time for some of those frequently discussed topics from John’s blog.

In the Main Dining Room for dinner, our staff treated us very well, always smiling and happy to interact with us. Some guests frequently complain on John’s blog and on his Facebook page about the waiters dancing. I must say I completely disagree. Guests really enjoy the dancing on all of the cruises I’ve been on, many times joining in with the waiters. And the waiters themselves looked happy. A few of them were really getting into it, which made the guests get into it. At the end of the performance, the entire dining room burst into applause.

And here’s another hot topic here on John’s blog. Yes, that would be the dress code in the MDR, especially on Elegant Night. On our Elegant Night, I saw several men in T-shirts, one in shorts, and a kid in flip-flops. That was just in our corner of the MDR. It didn’t affect my dining experience, but I wonder why people do not dress for the occasion. I know that some men do not even own collared shirts, dress shoes, slacks, or even a tie. Should they not be allowed in the MDR for elegant night? Others may just not want to dress up. One thing that does bother me, and has for the past several years, is when a guy goes out with his date/girlfriend/wife, the lady is always dressed up while the guy looks like a slob. I saw this a lot onboard this cruise. (Kudos, women, for looking nice when dining out). But that’s not just on the ships; it’s on land, too.

Cabin door slamming is indeed a problem. On the second night of the cruise, I was sleeping extremely well…until around 2:30 am. That’s when some of the younger party animals returned to their cabins. You could hear them from way down the corridor. And then the door slamming started. Maybe the CDs should consider making an announcement to remind people to be quiet when returning to their cabin. It may not completely eliminate the loud talking or slammed doors but it will reduce it.

Ship-specific pins. In three words: Bring them back! Or at least let guests order them online through the Carnival store. It would be nice to have them sent directly to the ship for guests to find in their cabins on embarkation day, but if that is not feasible, mailing them would be good, too. Besides, I need to add to my collection.

Another topic that has come up a couple of times on John’s blog is the jogging track. Since I am writing the blog today, I thought I would add my thoughts. On every Carnival cruise I have been on, I have seen people walking around the track in the wrong direction against the flow of traffic, people stopping on the track itself stretching, taking selfies, talking, which causes a backup (and inflamed tempers), and people walking two or three abreast, making it difficult for joggers to get around them. I had to dodge a few myself. I would suggest that there be certain hours that the track can be used: 6:00am to 8:00am for joggers only. After that, open it to walkers and joggers. Post a couple of signs indicating the flow of traffic around the track. There’s currently only one sign up there now. I would suggest at least 4 big red arrows on the wall surrounding the radar dome: forward, aft, port, and starboard. Also post signs that there is absolutely no stopping on the track between the hours of 6:00am and 6:00pm. After 6:00pm, stop, talk, roll around, photograph the sunset, whatever you want to do.

Have any of you had experience with the wake-up call system? We arrived (quietly) back in our cabin after midnight on the final night of the cruise. We wanted to set up a wake-up call for 6:00am to be ready in time for debarkation. The automated system confirmed a wake-up call for “tomorrow at 6:00 am”. I wanted the call for this morning, not tomorrow morning. Wonder if the next guest in that cabin was awakened by that phone call. I suggest clearing the system at debarkation. And maybe switching to a new system that will allow you to set a same-day wake-up call.

Last, but not least, pizza. To be honest, I didn’t expect much. How good could pizza made on a ship be? But when we tried it, we found we actually liked it! We ended up stopping by the pizza station each day of the cruise. And we weren’t the only ones. Every time we went there, there was a line.

I could get used to writing John’s blog. If I could just convince the beards to sign me to a two-year contract – one ship a month for each of Carnival’s 24 ships. Hmmm. Works out nicely, don’t you think?

I need to send a huge Thank You to Heidi for her assistance with this blog. May the No Bloke Remote* forever be in her control. And a massive Thank You to Carnival Imagination for making breakfast available before we disembark.  Wow, an entire blog with no mention of underpants…or yaks. I’m off now to find out the meaning of the text message I just received that says my Sail and Sign card

* = There is no such gadget as the No Bloke Remote. I just made it up for the blog.

If I Wrote John Heald’s Blog…

Posted in Blog, Journalism, Travel with tags , , , on Wednesday, 6 August 2014, by Stan
Carnival Legend at Rostock, Germany. (c) Stan Thomas/Kanale Creations

Carnival Legend at Rostock, Germany

Hello readers of John Heald’s blog. My name is Stan and I am pleased to be sailing aboard Carnival Legend, particularly on this itinerary. I will be writing the blog today, fully clothed, as John has buggered off somewhere and hasn’t been seen since we departed Estonia last night.

Today is a sea day. We are sailing past Latvia and word among the crew is that John has taken an unadvertised, unannounced, um, shore excursion. (Hmmm. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen Calvyn, either. No telling where he could be.)

How did I gain access to John’s computer, you ask? Well, I tried bribing John’s trusty cabin steward, Ketut, but he flatly refused to cooperate no matter how much money I waved in front of him. But when I offered to clean John’s cabin, including picking up his underpants, within seconds the door to John’s cabin was opened, I was given the password to his laptop computer, angels began singing, and Ketut hasn’t stopped smiling.

Normally this is the part where John answers your questions. It looks like he did that before he ‘disappeared’, so let’s see what John’s got in the Q & A bag today, shall we? Off we go:

 

[Insert John’s Q&A here]

 

My wife and I travelled halfway around the world, taking nearly a day and a half to get to the Carnival Legend, our home for twelve days. In my six cruises with Carnival, this was by far the fastest embarkation we have ever experienced; well under ten minutes from the time we stepped off the bus in Dover, got checked in, through security, and to our cabin. It is amazing the amount of support and logistics involved in getting guests from various airports around London to the ship. Also as amazing were the personnel at the port dedicated to getting us all checked in and safely on board.

I am one of those who would prefer to get off the ship and go explore the city/country we are visiting. I do know a few people who would rather stay on board. Yes, the ship does provide ample activities to keep you occupied no matter what you choose to do on your cruise. But me, I’d rather go see and experience new places.

For this cruise we were seated with two other couples in the Main Dining Room. In our case it worked out very well. One couple is originally from India but now lives in the US. The other couple is from Ottawa, Canada. So we have three different languages being spoken at the table, three different lifestyles, but we learned we all have one thing in common: we love to travel. By the time we left Finland, it became a part of each evening’s ritual to share what we all had done that day.

One thing I’ve done on the last few cruises is ask our waiter why Carnival no longer serves the Baked Alaska flaming. I know why they don’t but the various responses the waiters give are hilarious, especially when they answer with a straight face.

As is tradition when I sail with my wife, we dined in the steakhouse; The Golden Fleece here on Carnival Legend. I had the lobster this time. While it was delicious, I think I’ll stick to the steak in the future. I’ll talk more about the steakhouse later.

We also took in a few shows in the Follies theatre and the Punchliner Comedy Club. It was at one of the comedy shows where my wife violated one of my cardinal comedy club rules; never sit in the front row. Yep, you guessed it. I got pulled up on stage.

I had noticed the designs and artwork inside Carnival Legend and initially thought it to be a mishmash of style. Then I saw the interview with the designer of the ship, John Farcus, on one of the cabin television channels. He explained that the ship was named first. Then he was able to design the ship around the name ‘Legend’, and came up with the theme of legends from around the world. Next day I started paying more attention, and wouldn’t you know it, it all made sense! It is nice to learn new things, even when you are on vacation.

We are still trying to get used to the sun not setting until 10:30pm, and trying to get used to 5 hours of twilight after that. It is pretty cool to stay up and watch the sunset, then watch the twilight…until you realize you have to get up in a few hours to start a shore excursion.

Now, then. This is my first trip to Europe. I was very excited about this itinerary and booked our trip based on the ports we are visiting, specifically St. Petersburg. Leading up to our departure, John’s timely posts about how he was putting together the shore excursions, visa requirements in Russia, etc., just whetted my appetite even more. In addition to the tours, my must-do list included trying food from six of the seven countries we visited, including England.

The descriptions of the Berlin Top 10 and 2-day Grand Tour of St. Petersburg covered most everything I wanted to see in the short time we’d be in those places so I signed up for those two well in advance. Though I prefer the warm weather, the Winter Wonderland excursion in Helsinki also sounded intriguing.

So far, we have explored:

Copenhagen – Here we took the Walking Tour of Copenhagen. Our guide was very knowledgeable and took time to tell us the history behind many of the sites we visited. Copenhagen was very busy with five cruise ships in port. Our walking tour did cross paths with the large crowds but also took us along side streets well away from the other groups.

I didn’t realize how many bicycles there are here. It would have been nice to have taken a bicycle tour of Copenhagen. (Dear beards: I am volunteering to test out any future bike tours Carnival may add to the shore excursion offerings.) One thing I really wanted to try but was not able to was an actual Danish. Our guide stopped at a bakery but only bought one Danish…to share amongst the entire group.

We happened upon a music festival that was getting started soon. Unfortunately, the ship would be leaving well before the festival ended so we could not stay to watch it. A highlight for me was learning the legend behind the Gefion Fountain.

Berlin – All I can say is Wow! Ok, I’ll say a bit more. The weather was perfect. The tour was perfect. Carnival chartered an entire train for Carnival Legend’s guests to take them to Berlin (kudos to Carnival for pulling that off), then arranged eight different tours once we arrived in Berlin. We took the Berlin Top 10 tour. This one takes you to see remnants of the Berlin Wall, the Holocaust Memorial, Checkpoint Charlie, and many other sites.

The train ride through the German countryside en route to Berlin was very nice. Henning, our chaperone from the ship to the train station in Berlin, took very good care of our group. Sylvia, our guide in Berlin, was fantastic. Not only was she friendly and knowledgeable about the places we visited and the history of Berlin, she, herself, is from the former East Berlin and shared with us her perspective.

A German lunch was provided. In the past, I did not like sauerkraut. That was until this lunch. And I am glad I listened to the voice in my head that told me to get an authentic curry bratwurst from a street vendor. My wife and I will definitely have to return to Berlin and spend a few days here.

Helsinki – Originally, we planned to do just the Helsinki Highlights tour. But my wife decided later to include the Winter Wonderland tour. Putting aside my dislike for cold weather, off we went to an indoor winter wonderland where our guide, Ritva, told us a bit about Finland along the way. After donning cold weather gear provided by Unique Lapland, we went inside a cavernous room chilled to -5 °C/25 °F, and darkened to resemble the polar night. There we were served a shot of Finlandia (what else?) vodka provided in a glass made from ice. We rode an actual sled pulled by a team of sled dogs, skied a very short course on tandem skis, tobogganed, and visited three ‘ice hotels’ shaped like igloos.

Returning back to the ship just in time for the Helsinki Highlights tour, we hopped aboard another bus and headed off to see these highlights. Our guide, Maria, narrated our trip and we had a few photo stops. I had never heard of Jean Sibelius, but after Maria taught us about him, I realized that I was familiar with his work. And at our last stop, a few minutes before the bus was due to return to the ship, we ran across a marketplace on the waterfront. Getting a chance to try reindeer meat in Finland was on my list of things I wanted to do, but with the tours we had scheduled and the short time we had here, the likelihood of finding any, let alone trying any, seemed highly unlikely. Sometimes wishes come true in the strangest of ways: what did one of the marketplace vendors have for sale? Smoked reindeer meatballs! Of course, I had to try them. Turned out they were among the best foods I have ever tasted! And the garlic sauce they added on the side made them even better. My wife found a street vendor that had some of the best veggie sandwiches she’s ever tasted.

St. Petersburg – There’s nothing like visiting a place in person to dispel years of school history book teaching and Hollywood movie stereotypes. We’re on the 2-Day Grand Tour and so far it’s far surpassed my expectations. It’s hard to believe we’re actually in a country that not very long ago we were not allowed to travel to. Many of the people we spoke to admitted that St. Petersburg was the main reason they booked this particular itinerary.

Natasha, our guide, was by far the best tour guide we have ever had on any of the Carnival cruises we have taken. Her knowledge was boundless. She was very patient and friendly. I wish there was a way to let her bosses know how good she is and how much her guests appreciated her professionalism. She led us on a whirlwind tour of St. Petersburg including Catherine Palace, the Church of the Resurrection on the Spilled Blood, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and much more. Oh, I can’t forget about the authentic Russian lunch with borscht, champagne, vodka, and Beef Stroganoff. After a couple of hours on the tour, I was starting to read a few Russian words such as restaurant, bar, bank, and stop. I would need a week of writing John’s blog to cover everything we’ve experienced on just the first day here. Highlights in St. Petersburg were many but among them were: getting to use the few Russian words I know, my wife finding a gift shop owner who knew American Sign Language, and meeting two guys from Africa. We really wished we had more time to talk to them.

Tallinn – By the time we reached Tallinn, I had come down with a cold. While visiting the old city and learning about the Russian and Swedish history of this city was interesting, all I really wanted was to go back to the cabin and drink some hot tea and sleep. We took the Jewish History tour, which included the old city. When we arrived back at the port and went shopping, we noticed the very high quality of the souvenirs in Estonia. Naturally, we bought several. The highlight happened in one of these shops: The proprietor spoke no English and I know absolutely no Estonian. Out of frustration I said, in Russian, “sorry, I don’t speak Russian.” Her eyes lit up and with a huge smile she responded with a torrent of words in Russian. I can’t explain it but it was if I was hearing her in English. That was an encounter I will never forget.

In all honesty, I was disappointed that no bicycling shore excursion was offered in Amsterdam. From what I’ve been reading, Amsterdam is a very walkable city. Exploring it the way the Dutch do – from a two-wheeled perspective – sounds like the best way to see the city. Obviously, you cover more ground on a bike and that is exactly what I want to do while in Amsterdam, where we will be day after tomorrow.

Since I’ve have a few Carnival cruises under my belt (and I still have John’s computer), I’d like to offer a few suggestions to the beards:

1 – On the Carnival.com site, add an “Insider Tips/Past Guest Picks” link on the Shore Excursions page listing things to do while in port, in between excursions, or at the arrival/departure port before/after the cruise. Example: “The Crazy Lobster in Cabo San Lucas is a few blocks from the marina and within sight of it. Easy walking distance. Excellent grilled steak, lobster, seafood, and traditional Mexican fare. Reasonable prices.” The legal beards can add a standard disclaimer that says these are ideas submitted by guests, not Carnival.

2 – Also on the Carnival.com site, make it easier to compare the Shore Excursions. Extend the descriptions on the Compare page so that you can read the entire description of each excursion without having to click ‘more’. Or, once you click ‘more’, have the description extend within the Compare column without opening a new page. As of now it takes forever because you have to: 1) scroll to find an excursion that interests you. 2) once you find it you have to click to get a full description. 3) then you either have to click the back button or click on Shore Excursions again and wait while the page loads all over again. This could literally take hours to read about all of the excursions if you have a slow Internet connection and are looking at a 7-day itinerary or longer.

3 – How about adding a ‘weather bug’ from Weather Underground or The Weather Channel on the shore excursion main pages on Carnival.com?

4 – In the Carnival Cap, er, Fun Times, add a section called “Cultural Tips” to the embarkation issue. Adding a few do’s and don’ts when visiting a foreign country on Carnival’s itinerary may be helpful. Example: In Russia, never turn down a glass of Vodka when it is offered. To do so is considered rude. Always drink it down all at once; do not sip. Pointing with the index finger, giving the ‘thumbs up’ sign, or the peace sign are considered insults in certain cultures.

5 – John has discussed this many times here in the blog. I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I agree with many others who would like to see a vegetarian entrée option or two in the steakhouse. (Yes, I know it is a STEAKhouse.) There are starters and salads that are vegetablist friendly (sorry, John’s computer is taking over), but no entrées. Myself, I love a good steak. But my wife is a vegetarian and though we enjoy dinner together in the steakhouse, I feel bad because she doesn’t have anything other than appetizers and salad to choose for her main course. John and I talked about this on his Facebook page and he offered a brilliant (where’s that option to turn off the ‘Johnisms’ on this computer?) suggestion. I’d like to take his suggestion one step further: How about putting a note on the online Steakhouse Reservation page that says if you would like a vegetarian option to contact the Steakhouse a day ahead of your visit to discuss preparing something to your liking? The same note can be placed on the reservation confirmation placed in the cabin.

Ketut just ran in and informed me that John has been spotted back on board. I had better sign off of John’s computer before

Caribbean Fantasy: Jamaica 2013 Wall Calendar

Posted in Calendar, Photography, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on Saturday, 10 November 2012, by Stan

Caribbean Fantasy: Jamaica 2013 Wall Calendar (c) Stan Thomas/Kanale Creations

Announcing the release of the Caribbean Fantasy: Jamaica 2013 calendar! This 12-month wall calendar features stunning images of Jamaica by photographer Stan Thomas. The calendar is printed on heavy card-stock paper and each one is individually shrink wrapped.

Order one for your home or office, or both!

Ready to order? Go to my Kanale Creations Calendar page and click the Add to Cart button.

Standard calendar: $17.95 each
Personalized calendar: $28.25 each

Domestic shipping: $2.70
International shipping: e-mail for rates

Tax: 8.75% California tax

If you are ordering a personalized calendar:

With the Caribbean Fantasy: Jamaica calendar, you can add your own special dates. Want to add birthdays? Anniversaries? Events? No problem, mon.

Examples:

February 3 – Joe’s Birthday

June 25 – Our 25th Anniversary

August 5 – Janet’s Baby Shower

October 15 – Chamber of Commerce Annual Dinner

You can add as many dates as you wish up to a maximum of 25. You can order as many calendars as you wish. However, due to the ordering process they all must be designed the same way. If you want to create another calendar using different dates, you must place a separate order.

Your order will be shipped to you directly from the printer. Sorry, no refunds on personalized orders.

Caribbean Fantasy: Jamaica sample images. (c) Stan Thomas/Kanale Creations

11 Days in Jamaica – Last Day

Posted in Blog, Journalism, Travel with tags , , , on Saturday, 25 August 2012, by Stan

Ocho Rios Sunset - (c) Stan Thomas/Kanale Creations

 

Sunday June 24, 2007

Today is our last day in Jamaica. After breakfast I decided to take a walk around Ochee. Since it was an early Sunday morning there were very few people out. It was nice and quiet. I had to force myself to slow down and really take everything in. For some reason I walked an extra block eastward toward A3 highway. I had never walked out on this street before during my previous trips here. Of course, everything was closed but I was still enjoying seeing all the businesses for the first time.

When I got to the highway, one of the newspaper persons was selling the Sunday Observer. I decided to buy a copy to read on the way back to the airport. It also gave me a chance to spend some of my Jamaican coinage.

Turning back northward, I walked up a street I had only driven by in the past. Everything seemed new to me although I knew all of it had always been there. I must have passed at least 3 churches on my short walk. Then I passed one in a tiny strip mall.

Why this particular church caught my attention, I do not know. Maybe God knew that the message from this one church is one I needed to hear. So I drew closer to the door.

The church was packed all the way to the back door. Although it was a typically hot Caribbean morning and a bit more humid than usual, it was still packed. There were four or five floor fans blowing full force. Parishioners fanned themselves with paper fans. I couldn’t help but think how many Americans are sitting in big, air-conditioned churches right now. Would they still come to church if it was 90 degrees/75% humidity outside with no air conditioning inside?

One of the ushers invited me inside. I thanked her, but declined, explaining that our group was leaving in about half an hour. Even though I was standing outside the door, I was not alone.

Inside the preacher was delivering his sermon, which could be heard from where I was standing. He was drenched in sweat, his clothes looking like he had just taken a shower in them. But he was undeterred by the heat. He was fervently preaching about love. “Love without action,” he said, “is deceitful.” He gave a few contemporary scenarios. Time had gone by so fast that I didn’t realize it was time to get back to the hotel already.

One of my regrets is that I had never been able to attend a church service while in Jamaica. We’ve always had to perform or leave on Sundays. Next year, if I am blessed enough to return to Ochee, I think I will try to attend a service at this church.

We loaded up the equipment truck and headed back to Mo Bay and the airport. I was glad see to that the stretch of road from Falmouth eastward was finished. It was good to ride on a smooth road for a change. We got to the airport, got our equipment and ourselves checked in, got through security, and waited for the boarding call.

Unlike last year, this time we had plenty of time after checking in. Some band members snoozed in the chairs downstairs while others shopped. I stopped in at Jamaica Farewell and bought my usual bottle of Sangster’s Rum Cream. Too bad you can’t get this stuff in the States. Well, actually you can, from a company called Jamaica Direct, but they charge a hefty shipping/courier fee. I went this route last year. Even with the shipping/courier fee, it was still worth it.

Jamaican Bobsled Cafe, Montego Bay - (c) Stan Thomas/Kanale CreationsFour of us were hungry, so we headed off looking for something to eat. One of the members said an employee at the Jamaican Bobsled shop told him about the café upstairs. So that’s where we went, the Jamaican Bobsled Café. They have several restaurants on the island. Arguably, the most famous one is on Gloucester Avenue in Montego Bay.

It was close to boarding time when we finished our lunch. We headed back to the terminal area. Once we found the gate, we found out that the plane was going to be delayed. Figures. So this edition of our Jamaica trip ends the same way it began, with a late plane.

11 Days in Jamaica – Day 10

Posted in Blog, Journalism, Travel with tags , , , , , , on Thursday, 23 August 2012, by Stan

Beach at Negril Treehouse Resort - (c) Stan Thomas/Kanale Creations

 

Saturday June 23, 2007

Two years ago we were able to stay in Montego Bay overnight before leaving Jamaica. We took a side trip to Negril and watched some of the cliff divers at Pirate’s Cave. We had a time constraint so we didn’t get to stay very long. That meant even though I wanted to try it, I didn’t get to jump off the rocks.

This year was different. This year we had all day Saturday off. I was determined to get back to Negril. Early in the week I started talking up a possible excursion to Mo Bay and Negril around the band. By Saturday, Dave, Rory, and Robert committed to going with me. It was going to be a very long drive from Ocho Rios all the way to the west end of the island and around to Negril. Chris and Papa Wilson answered the call yet again to drive us.

It was a kicked-back day, no rush, no reason to hurry. It was a good time to enjoy not doing much of anything. All of us at one time or another dozed off for a while. Chris pointed out some places of interest to those who were awake. He commented on the noticeably increased police presence on the roads. We assumed it was to catch speeders. (I later found out from The Gleaner newspaper that the police were adapting to criminals’ tactics; bad guys from one parish would come and do their dirty work in another parish. But, to make it easier to slip past the constables, they would leave their weapons in the parish where they committed the crimes. That way if they were ever caught, they’d be clean as far as weapons go).

As we rounded the western end of the island just past Mo Bay, Chris directed our attention to a massive construction site along the ocean side of the road. We couldn’t tell what it was going to be but his guess was another mega-resort. It looked like a small city. He said that it would be good for the residents of the town in that it would provide much-needed jobs. By this time we had been on the road for almost three hours. We did endure one traffic jam in Montego Bay due to bridge construction.

Soon we pulled into Negril. Chris again went into tour guide mode, pointing out all the hotel properties we passed. Sandals, Beaches, Riu, Hedonism II, Swept Away, Couples, and on and on.

There’s a spot that Chris and Papa Wilson took us to in ’05, just beyond what I refer to as ‘hotel row’. It’s called the Negril Treehouse Resort. This is where we stopped for lunch. We piled out of the van, stretched our legs, then made a bee-line for you-know-where.

The circular, open-air restaurant surrounds a bar. It sits right on the beach. On occasion, a beach-goer will walk in, still dripping wet, and order a drink or three. Chris and Papa Wilson took a table near the hotel side of the restaurant while the four of us sat on the beach side. I ordered Jerk Chicken, expecting it to be similar to what most hotels serve, i.e. ‘watered down’ for the tourist palate. I asked the waitress how spicy it was. She replied that the chicken itself wasn’t spicy, but they could add extra sauce if needed. She asked how spicy I wanted it. “Very,” I said.

Our meal arrived promptly. Beverages? Of course, Red Stripe all around. A dark-colored sauce glazed the chicken and there was a generous portion on the side. Again, thinking this was the ‘lite’ version, I brushed on the extra sauce like I was painting a fence. Then I took my first bite. Whatever image you have in your mind now is probably close to what happened. My nose started running, the thermometer rose, the steam whistle blew, but my head did not explode. I was in heaven. Yeah! Now that’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout! That’s how I like my Jerk Chicken! But this was a new taste I had not experienced before. I thought I knew Jerk Chicken. Now I have to rethink everything I thought I knew.

After eating, Dave and Robert decided to go walk around and get a little sand and water between their toes. Rory and I stayed and just kicked back. I did take a few photographs meanwhile.

Robert and Dave came back to the table. We got up and walked over to the gift shop. Outside was a policewoman with a machine gun slung over her shoulder. Once I again, I wondered why this did not make me at all nervous. If policemen in the States walked around with machine guns, I’d be nervous, but not here.

Our next stop was Pirate’s Cave. It’s just up the road a bit from the Treehouse Resort. Along the way, it felt like we crossed over into a wholePirate's Cave - (c) Stan Thomas/Kanale Creations new world. You leave the commercialism/tourist part of Negril behind. This section of Negril looks more like a smaller Caribbean island like Grand Cayman than it does Jamaica. Dave commented that what we should have done was planned to stay the night and just be beach bums here all the next day. Next time we may do just that. The vibe is certainly laid back here.

One couple was eating lunch out on the patio at Pirate’s Cave when we arrived. I looked around and did not see the cliff divers. We walked along the edge of the rocks, taking in the view of the huts off to the left, and the azure Caribbean Sea 3 stories below. The cliff diver must have either seen or heard us come in.

Diver at Pirate's Cave - (c) Stan Thomas/Kanale CreationsRobert and I were ready to jump. Rory and David said they’d be happy to just watch us. ‘Donovan’ – I’ll call him that because I forgot his name – gave us some instruction. Step out, no need to jump out very far. Keep your legs straight and your arms at your sides. Robert went in first. He came back up the stairs from the cave below. Looked easy enough, so I stepped up to the edge. I had come all this way just to do this. There was no turning back now. I looked out and jumped off. I picked up speed quickly and soon heard the rush of the air in my ears. Then I heard Donovan yell, “Tuck in your arms!” Obediently, I pinned them to my sides. I remember thinking, “I should have hit the water by now.” I finally did hit the water in what felt like an explosion. I had done it! What a rush!

Swimming back to the cave took a bit of effort because the water kept rising and falling. I climbed up the stairs and reported back to the guys. I was ready to try a dive now. Donovan had cautioned me earlier about diving and recommended that I jump first to see what it was like. He did two dives to show me how to do it right. I told him I was ready. I stepped to the edge again and…… “Man, that’s a long way down.” All the things that could go wrong started running through my head. What if I over-rotate? What if I don’t position my hands the right way? We didn’t have any more gigs to play so Lee couldn’t get too mad if I did get hurt. Ooh, getting hurt might hurt. So I backed down. The guys told me that was a smart choice. Still, I wanted to jump in again. I convinced Donovan to do a tandem; he dove while I jumped. Chris got it on film. Check one more thing off the bucket list.

Much has been said about Rick’s Café. All the hotels feature a trip to Rick’s where you can have dinner, see the famous cliff divers, and watch “the most beautiful sunset in Jamaica.” I asked Chris to drive us by there just to see what this Rick’s Café was all about. Rick’s was less than five minutes further up the road. We turned into the driveway. In the parking lot were 15 or more big tour busses and tour vans. Security guards were directing traffic. We looked at each other and told Chris to keep right on going. After the relaxing day we’d been having, the crowd here would have ruined it completely. Personally, I think Pirate’s Cave is much better place.

Chris drove out of the driveway and headed back the way we came. Robert turns to me and says, “So, Stan, where are we going next?” It made me feel good to know that everyone enjoyed the day. Chris and Papa Wilson deserve the credit for turning me on to Pirate’s Cave and the Treehouse Resort two years ago. Maybe I should start working on another trip for next year now.

Darkness had long since settled over the island by the time we got back to the hotel. Long excursion, a lot of driving, but a good time was had by all.