Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Portland, OR

Following our weekend in Seattle, we spent a day and a half in downtown Portland.

We had booked Amtrak tickets ahead of time for $63 total, and the scenic train ride took about 4 hours.

Portland Marriott City Center 
This hotel is in the best location!  Very central, close to Pioneer Square, Mother's, Blue Star Donuts, etc.

Jake's Famous Crawfish -  This bar and restaurant has been around for a very long time, and many of the old fictures are still in use or on display.  Good food and nice place to stop for happy hour.  It apparently gets crazy busy for dinner, so happy hour might be your best bet to try it out if you don't want to wait.

Clyde Common - I kind of wish that we'd tried this place out for dinner because happy hour wasn't that enticing.  OK food and drink specials.

Mother's BistroOh. So. Good!  Happy hour is simply wonderful, and we ordered several different special drinks and items from the menu.  All of it was fantastic.  Mother's is a Portland institution, so you must visit!

Portland City Grill sits on the 30th floor so the view is fantastic. Seems to be quite the popular choice for both locals and visitors as the place was packed half an hour into happy hour.  We got there around 4:30 after walking from Mother's.  Good wine by the glass or bottle, tasty food, but let's face, the atmosphere and the views are what make this place so cool.  Highly recommend.

There's also a plethora of food trucks scattered around downtown that represent almost every type of cuisine that you could dream of eating.  You will not starve in this city!

Things to Do
Free Walking Tour - Secrets of Portlandia - At 11am, every day, rain or shine, Erik offers a free walking tour that is roughly 1.5-2 hours long. He is very knowledgeable and gave Portland some context. He explained the drinking fountains we saw all around the city, which reminded me of the fountains around Rome. It's cool potable water that comes down from the mountains and available to anyone who wants a sip.  He's personable, funny, safety-conscious, and is used to working with a mixed crowd.  You can't go wrong.  Just show up in front of the court house on Pioneer Square, and you're set!

Eat some donuts.  Really.  Voodoo donuts is this crazy popular place, but I had read reviews to visit Blue Star instead.  I can't compare the two since we didn't visit Voodoo, but boy was Blue Star good albeit a bit pricier than Krispy Kreme.

Willamette Valley, OR

On the hunt for great Pinot Noir, we spent 3 full days exploring several Willamette Valley AVA's.  I can unequivocally say that WV is far less commercial and pretentious than Napa (which we sill love) and the tasting prices reflect this.  The wines are still in the $25-75 range for most, so in that respect, it is similar to California.  What you will find, though, is that the people are super nice and love what they do.  A lot of the wineries started as farms, and you will drive through farm fields everywhere you go. It's beautiful.  And picturesque. And hilly - very curvy and hilly - so share your tastings!  Most of the tasting guides did ask us if we wanted to share, which implies that it's common practice in WV.

We booked Amtrak from Seattle to Portland ahead of time, and the cost was $63 for both of us. Much cheaper than flying!  There was free wifi on the train and pretty views, so the almost 4 hour ride didn't seem so bad.

AirBNB Room Rental  - this was our very first time using this website and booking a room (or in our case rooms) in someone's house.  I was a bit nervous to be sharing space with owners, but it worked out very well for us.  Three nights only cost us $312 total.  At a half mile from downtown McMinnville, it was a very easy walk to restaurants, cafes, shops, and tasting rooms.  There was plenty of parking available when we did have the car with us, but it was nice to have the walking option.  Our hosts were super friendly, and we did get to spend a bit of time with them on our last night, which was great.

Crescent Cafe (McMinnville) - The prices are on par with other places, and the breakfast was quite large.  Cute little cafe downtown.

McMenamin's Roof Top Bar at the Hotel Oregon (McMinnville) - We visited for happy hour (I know you are shocked).  Really good hard cherry cider and coffee rubbed burger. The roof top offers great views of the mountains. We walked down to the cellar bar before leaving, and it was a neat little dive bar reminiscent of days long gone by. If you have ever visited the basement restaurant bar at The Old Pink House in Savannah, this looks like a mini version of it. Very cool restored and fully operational hotel.

Subterra (Newberg)- There was no one else there but us when we walked in for happy hour at the bar.  Although the food was good, the happy hour menu was not the one that is posted on the website, which really rubbed me the wrong way from the start.  The small plates menu online indicates that some of the items are half-priced during HH - not the case when we were there.  Prices were $2 off. People, it's really NOT that hard to make sure that your website is up-to-date - put in a little effort! We ordered a couple things, which were good, but they definitely were higher than what I'd expect for HH.

Taste of 808 (Newberg)- We went straight here after leaving Subterra - they share the same parking lot.  The staff was nice, and the food was good and well-priced.  It's a mix of carry our and sit down, so this place is good for a quick bit to eat as you are moving around the wineries.

La Sierra Mexican Grill (Dundee) - Stopped here for lunch.  Quick service, good food options for lunch, and surprise dessert at the end.  Worth going to if you are craving some Mexican.

The Horse Radish - Several wineries recommended this place for lunch, and I see why.  There is a nice selection of sandwiches, and they are TASTY!  And big.  The hubs and I could easily have split one.

Left Coast Cellars - LCC ranks as one of our highlights of wine country, and it was totally unexpected.  We met a couple along our wanderings, and as locals and grape growers, they recommended stopping for a bite to eat at this place called Left Coast.  The name doesn't exactly draw you in, but the whole experience was awesome!  They have a little cafe with fresh made selections and a chef that is there to explain them to you.  The food was DELICIOUS!  We were able to pair our wine flight with the food to see how the different varietals and vintages held up to food, which was nice.  The people, especially Riley and Ivey, were super helpful and very attentive.  We loved our short time there and highly recommend it.

Bethel Heights - Cool place to visit, but our taste buds were too exhausted to actually taste much of the wine.  That's a first for us - our tongues were totally burnt out so we went to lunch.  It's a popular place, so I'm sure the wine is good.

St. Innocent - Interesting wine, but I'm not sure I'd push someone to visit here.

Witness Tree - Small, cute tasting room.  Nice wine selection.  One of the best Chardonnay's I had in Oregon - much more like the California oakiness that I prefer.  Neat place for a visit, and we heard good things about their neighbor, Cristom, so it would be a good opportunity to hit two good ones very close together.

Armamenta - This was our very first winery visit when we drove into the Valley from Portland, and the son was just opening up the tasting room for his mom.  He left when she came down from the house and offered us some cheese and crackers with our wine flight.  Darlene is such a welcoming host!  She explained the history of the winery and gave us some good insight of what to expect over the next couple of days.  Highly recommend this place!

Utopia - I love winery dogs, and you will be greeted by two cuties when you arrive.  Dan, the owner and winemaker, came down to greet us after his daughter unlocked the tasting room for us.  His wine is incredible, and this would be a great place to picnic - wonderful valley views and a bocce ball court.

Argyle - When I asked several people for sparkling wine recommendations, they all pointed us to Argyle.  We had a very nice tasting experience in their expansive tasting room and joined the Pop wine club.  Recommend!

Chehalem - It's unassuming with quality wine.  If you are looking for a quick tasting, you can easily get through the flight in 30 minutes with the friendly staff or sit enjoy your sips for an hour.

Willamette Valley Vineyards - This place is actually a tasting room in downtown McMinnville. You can stop here for a flight or a glass and just relax.  Very comfortable atmosphere. The wines are good, too.

White Rose - Whoa, this one ended up being pretty pricey in comparison to all of the other wineries we visited.  Expensive tasting, expensive (but delicious) wine.  Beautiful property.

Four Graces - The tasting room is in a converted house, and it's really quaint.  The back patio area is expansive and looks to be a great place for a picnic lunch.  They do have cheese and crackers for purchase in the tasting room.  Solid little winery.

Fairsing - Yet another beautiful place to visit with a new tasting room (house?).  Great wine, great views, friendly staff.  Very good rose.

Fairsing - LEED certified facility
Youngberg Hill - Youngberg Hill is also a bed and breakfast.  It's absolutely gorgeous, and I bet that it's a wonderful place to call home for a couple days.  One of the owners led our testing in the inn's carpeted living room.  Spacious and comfortable space that opens onto a large patio area overlooking the vineyards.  Recommend.

Ken Wright - The tasting room is an old train station in the town of Carlton.  Maybe we were too tired and full after lunch, but we were not at all impressed.  Skip.


  • Share tastings!
  • Takes lots of photos.
  • Do NOT trust your GPS.
  • Be prepared for very long driveways that are both paved and unpaved.  
  • Use a printed map as a guideline and then pay attention to the blue winery signage.  You will rely on that more than GPS at time.  When in doubt, call the winery to get directions!
  • Ask for recommendations from other wineries.  They will gladly give you suggestions for the rest of your day.

Seattle, WA

Disclaimer - we LOVE happy hour because we can try a bunch of different things rather than just two full meals.

The weather in Seattle in June is totally bipolar.  They had a heat wave in the 90s a week before we visited, and then our weekend required some creative layering to keep out the chill.  And be prepared for rain.  At least, like Florida, you see the sheets first and can gain some advanced notice.

Renaissance Seattle Hotel - my absolute favorite part about this hotel was the beautiful club lounge that had a Starbucks custom coffee machine available throughout the day.  Sweet!  The breakfasts were great, and the snacks in the evening were nice, too.  Great views of the city from the club floor.  The hotel sits atop a hill at the corner of 6th and Madison, so although it's not far from most places, expect to tackle some hills.  It's not as bad as San Fran, but there are some steep hills that all go down toward the water.

The Tasting Room - OK, so this place isn't REALLY a restaurant, but they do offer a small selection of food items to enjoy along with their wine flights or glasses.  The staff is friendly and knowledgeable, and there is a fair representation of different Washington wineries and their offerings. The Tasting Room makes for a lovely place to relax after a long morning of walking.  We visited on two different days in order to try more of the flights.

Blueacre Seafood - Based on a recommendation from our hotel concierge, we went to Blueacre, and it was quite tasty with a good happy hour selection.  Recommend.

Sazerac - Another happy hour option, and it was nice and close to our hotel, which meant we didn't get soaked by rain on our walk back to the Renaissance.  Try the pizza from the HH menu.

Market Grill (in Pike Place) - Our concierge recommended this little hole-in-the-wall sized eatery in the middle of Pike Place Market, and we are so glad we took his advice.  Copper River salmon was in season, and we had it grilled - freaking awesome! Great clam chowder, too!  Great stop for lunch.

List - This was seriously the best happy hour outside of our favorite Orlando haunts. Great wine specials, fantastic food, small atmosphere, wonderful service, and the gnocchi was absolutely the best!

Ivar's Pier 54 Fish Bar is a great place for a quick lunch. The cod used in the fish n chips was super flaky with no fishiness whatsoever. Clam chowder at Market Grill was way better, though!  Prices are good compared to some of the other places down the street (Alaskan Way), and the ordering process was more quick service than sit down - perfect when you don't want to spend a lot of time waiting.

Palomino - Palomino's happy hour is great!  The food is so yummy, and the drink specials are really good.  Would go back in a heart beat!

Things to Do
La Buona Tavola - Truffle Cafe - The hubs and I might possible be obsessed with everything truffle (the mushroom, not the chocolate), so when I saw that this was a place mentioned on Yelp, I knew we had to visit.  One of the reviewers suggested stopping by Beecher's Handmade Cheese and buying the Mac n Cheese there.  So we did.  And it was awesome.  When we arrived at the Truffle Cafe, a staff member oriented us with the store and sampling options.  There are tasting sticks available so you can try almost everything the store sells - sweet!  We ordered a wine flight and paired that with the different truffle oils and pastes over our amazingly creamy Beecher's treat!  Definitely recommend visiting the cheese place first and then the Truffle Cafe.  You can thank me later.

Beneath the Streets - This tour was recommended to us by our hotel concierge who had been pretty spot on with his restaurant recommendations, so we trusted his judgement when signing up for this tour.  The guy leading it was very knowledgeable, and the tour was truly fascinating.  You could almost picture the way things use to be before Seattle was raised up as a city away from the rising sea levels.  There is a good amount of walking and stairs, but nothing too terrible.  Glad we did this.

We could have done all the touristy stuff but just didn't feel like it on this trip.  We walked to the Space Needle but did not go up.  I also wasn't dying to see the locks or the city from the water.  We spent a lot of time eating and drinking and walking off all the food and wine:)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Napa Valley, CA

They say that the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem.  Well, sorry, but this is one addiction I'm OK keeping!  In fact, now that we've gone mainly paleo, wine is my ONLY vice, and Napa remains a favorite vacation destination!

*Remember to check your Winery Finder app for discounts and BOGO's at different wineries when you are driving around!

Rental Home
We were finally able to take advantage of our wine club membership with The Terraces and rented one of their houses for three nights with four other people.  The two houses are only available for rent by wine club members, so most people probably wouldn't even realize they have guest homes on property.  We loved the location because it was much further north than where we've stayed in the past - on Silverado Trail a quarter mile south of Zinfandel Lane.

View Coming in from the driveway to the right side of the house.
The house is beautifully nestled among the vineyard and has a huge wrap-around porch, wonderfully equipped kitchen, and 3 newly renovated full bathrooms.  The owners said that wifi will finally be installed within the next week - we just missed it!

Rows of Cabernet Sauvignon
Wineries - Napa
The Terraces - I'm totally biased, but I think everyone should visit!  Currently, tastings are $25pp or you can take a tour for $45pp.  While I was talking to Sharon, one of the owners, she said they may be raising their prices so check the website.  Newly learned fact: they lose money on tastings and make money on wine purchases.  In other words, check the prices when calling to book your appointment! While we were staying there, Terraces was bottling some of their wines.  What a neat experience! The bottling is done in a giant semi-truck trailer built AROUND the equipment.

Peju - Returned to Peju for another visit.  This time, our wine guide was Alan - the well-known singing entertainer.  The wines here are still solid - recommend a visit.  Tasting is waived with purchase and no appointment is necessary.

Black Stallion - Spent a bit more time here on our second visit.  I bought another bottle of the Viogner, and I'm sure you will find something here you like.  The tasting room is spacious and comfortable.

Madonna Estate - We stopped by Madonna on our way into Napa.  It's located in the Carneros region, so further south than Napa itself.  A big tour bus of about 30 people had pulled in right before us, but the tasting room staff accommodated us within a few minutes and took us to a different tasting room.  We appreciated the customer service.  The winery itself is cute, but nothing spectacular - same with the wines.  I ended up buying a Gewurztraminer that will be perfect for Thanksgiving, and it was unique enough for the Napa region that I couldn't pass it up.  It's not a wine you see often.  In summary, it's worth a visit if you are down in the area, but I wouldn't go out of my way for it.

Lava Vine - This place was recommended to us by a couple other wineries.  The website says that reservations are needed for groups of 7 or more, but that is not the case - it's groups of 6.  They were very busy when we walked in with our group of 6, and the guy seemed a little caught off guard.  He served us, but we kind of got an unwelcome feeling.  After the drunk tour group left, he admitted that he had his hands full with the group and had to monitor their alcohol intake.  Knowing that and seeing his demeanor change for the better, I'd say it's a cool little stop if you are up on Silverado Trail.  It's super close to Lincoln Rd in Calistoga.

Chateau Montelena - If you have ever seen the movie Bottleshock, then you know why we just had to go.  The property is absolutely gorgeous and has many opportunities for great photographs.  The wine, though, is not stunning.  We didn't buy anything here.  Go see it once and you're good.
Chateau Montelena - Calistoga
Chimney Rock - We visited Chimney Rock with a wine club member.  We didn't have a reservation, and it was super packed.  We were seated after a few minutes outside on the patio, and the wine guide was attentive - until she completely disappeared.  The wine member went in after about 10 minutes of no eye contact from any staff and asked if we could finish the tasting.  The tasting room had pretty much cleared out by this point, but the service still wasn't up to where it should be for such a high-end winery.  They did comp our tasting fees and found a white reserved only for a certain wine club level so we could try it - absolutely stunning! We bought the bottle right there and then, and the sour taste that I had in my mouth from the poor service dissipated somewhat.  Try with caution and make a reservation beforehand.

Rutherford Hill - Great views and interesting wines.  Located on Silverado Trail, it is a sister to Chimney Rock with less stuffiness.  It's a nice place for a picnic, but I wasn't bowled over by the wines.

Tank Garage - This new place absolutely blew us all away, and it provided the perfect reason why you can't ever judge a book by its cover.  Tank Garage literally sits just feet from Hwy 29 in Calistoga and looks like NOTHING from the outside except for an old garage.  It's not until you step up to the bar that you realize this place is legit.  Heath, our wine guide, explained that the winemaker will never replicate a wine - all of their releases will be different from the last.  There is a wine worth mentioning that is called Golden Era of Roller Derby, and this wine is freaking awesome.  It starts with a pineapple nose and front on the tongue before turning into banana in the middle and finish. Truly unique!  This is a quick, unpretentious stop - highly recommend a visit if you are up that way.
Tank Garage Winery
Envy - We started off a morning here - nothing like drinking wine at 10AM! - and the wine guide was so pleasant and chipper.  The wines are great, and our friend fell in the love with the late harvest dessert wine - the color is near gold!  It's a nice little tasting room and a neat place to visit.

Franciscan -  I had consumed a Franciscan Chard before the trip and instantly decided that I had to go there!  Unfortunately, we couldn't get in to either Rombauer or Markham, so Franciscan's Chardonnay kind of made up for it.  The wines are solid, but this winery definitely has a Mondavi-commercial feel to it.  I had no idea that they were part of a huge wine conglomerate, and that was disappointing to find out.  Visit if you like their wines or are curious about them.  Skip if you want small-winery service.

Paradigm - We met Mary Ann, the hospitality director, while hanging out at The Terraces.  A beautiful black lab greeted us when we parked and ushered into the very tiny tasting room.  The wine is good, and the property is cute, but it's a little pricey.  They do have an interesting rose if are into that - it's 100% Merlot.

Wineries - Sonoma
Buena Vista Winery - This was our first stop of the day, and I had super low expectations going in because I knew that it would be much more commercial due to its history as Napa's first winery. Well, I was right about the commercial part, but what I didn't expect was to love it so much.  The wines are great, and you get to taste while on your tour of the old facilities.  The new owners are very eccentric so expect to see the unexpected.  The sparkling rose at the beginning of the tour was fantastic, and I'm neither a sparkly nor a rose person.  I think that it's definitely worthy of a visit.
Buena Vista Winery
Nicholson Ranch - OK, so NR has a good story to it and they take a lot of pride in their wine making.  The tour and property are also nice.  The wine, though, is quite pricey, so just be prepared for that.  The views from NR are absolutely spectacular, so you may want to consider relaxing for a bit with a bite to eat and glass of wine.

Robledo - Famous for being the first latino-owned winery in the area, Robledo is a small place with a fantastic port.  Other than the port and the story, the winery underwhelming.  Consider skipping.

McKenzie-Mueller - Family owned winery with a tasting room that is literally in a garage - sometimes these are the best places!  The property itself is beautiful, and the wine carries wonderful qualities.  Definitely worth a visit if you are looking for a family-feel with absolutely no airs.

Torc - We booked a dinner reservation at Torc via Open Table following our Sonoma tour.  The food is excellent and the atmosphere interesting.  I wasn't entirely blown away, but I have absolutely no complaints whatsoever about this restaurant.

Carpe Diem - Oh how I love, thee!  Their restaurant and bar are back in service following the earthquake that shook down some bricks (and did a lot of damage).  Happy hour remains delightful (I swear that I dream about the truffle parmesan popcorn!) with a nice selection of apps and a constantly rotating happy hour wine offerings.

Gott's Roadside - It only took our fifth visit to Napa to try Gott's for the first time!  Every other time we have wanted to go, the lines were insane!  When we went for dinner Wednesday night, the location near Yountville was reasonably busy with almost no wait.  The selection of burgers is more than adequate, and I love that you can ask for a lettuce wrap instead of a bun - one of the only times I really tried to stay paleo on this trip.

Tour Company
Platypus - We broke form and actually hired a tour company to take us around Sonoma.  For $110pp (+ automatic 15% gratuity attached to groups of 4 or more), we had a great driver, comfortable van, cheese board, and picnic lunch for our full-day tour.  We were picked up at the Napa Valley Visitor's Center at 10AM and were so happy to learn that we were the ONLY people on that tour - we could have had up to 6 more people with us.  What a pleasant surprise first thing in the morning.  For me, handing over the planning reigns to someone else (our driver) was absolutely freeing.  I usually obsess over every little thing, especially when we have friends with us, and I didn't have to do that at all on this tour.  SO WORTH IT!  Besides Robledo, which was a bit of a let-down, the winery choices were awesome.  One other thing to note, they keep your records on file if you have used them before and also take notes of wineries you tell them you don't wish to visit.  This helps guests from repeating places they've already been to.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Negril, Jamaica - Couples Negril Resort

For my Spring Break this year, I had suggested a week cruise with a beverage package on either Celebrity or Princess, but the hubs wanted to do something we hadn't done in long time - an all-inclusive resort.  We also had not been to Jamaica in about 10 years.  I agreed.  After much research, I chose Couples Negril for their inclusions and great reviews.  We spent 5 amazing days there and met some really fantastic people!  Here is the write-up:

We used points on Southwest to fly direct from Orlando to Montego Bay.  We made it, but it was a clusterfuck of epic porportions.  Here are the things we learned the hard way when flying Southwest internationally:

  • CALL well ahead of the check-in time to make sure that the passport information for ALL members in your party is correct and complete.  Their website will NOT help with this part beforehand.
  • Addendum to the first bullet: make sure the information is good for BOTH ways.  Seriously, you'd think it would be automatic, but don't assume that.
  • TSA Pre-check/Global Entry privileges do NOT apply to international flights on Southwest.  Get to the airport earlier than normal.
Couples Negril has a shuttle bus that will take you to your resort.  It's about a 1hr 15min drive from Montego Bay assuming good traffic flow.

Resort - Couples Negril
Great wifi in most areas of the property.  

We were in room 2104 (Building 2, 1st floor), and it is in a great location.  Quiet but very close to everything - restaurants, gym, pool, beach, water sports area, etc.  The whole resort property isn't very big, but I loved our location!  The room was clean, good A/C, and serviced twice daily.  They will stock the minibar with whatever you want, and you are given two re-usable Couples water bottles on the first day that you can fill up anywhere that has water and ice.   Every room has a patio or balcony.
Room 2104

The propery is well-taken care of and feels like a home away from home.

The only dressy clothes you will need are for the reservation-only restaurant.  Other than that, everything is very casual.

On the beach, each of the chaise lounges have a floating mat that you can take out into the water.

There are four restaurants on property, one of which is a reservations-only.  No matter where you eat, all the food is fantastic.  Especially at dinners, there is a lot of attention to detail on presentation.  The wait staff are awesome!


It had been 10 years since we first dove, so we did a refresher SCUBA course in the pool first - $50pp and so worth it!  It's much cheaper than what you would pay here.  All daytime dives are included at no extra cost.  You can dive twice per day.  The dive boat is in really nice condition and all the SCUBA equipment is included and well-cared for.  You could go there with none of your own gear and be just fine.

If SCUBA isn't your thing, they offer snorkel trips, sailing lessons, waterskiing/wakeboarding, and kayaks. The ski boat looks fairly new and will pull you out of the water quickly - good amount of power.

Other options include trips off property to Margaritaville, shopping, the sister resort, and to the cliffs.  There is a sunset catamaran cruise that is 2.5-3 hours and is stocked with rum punch, Red Stripe, and some liquor and mixers.  Definitely a good time, and it leaves right from the beach.
View from inside the cavern - Sunset Sail

Amazing staff, uncrowded environment, lots to do, tasty food and drinks, and truly ALL-INCLUSIVE.  No tipping allowed, and 90% of the activities are free.  There are fees for night dives and snorkel trips,  Highly recommend this place!
Negril - known for its amazing sunsets

Friday, October 30, 2015

Rhapsody of the Seas (RCI) - Greek Isles

We started planning this enormously intimidating trip a year and a half out.  There is so much information to include that I also started setting up this post way early.  I'm a planner deep into my bones.

Cruise transportation
Public buses between the train station and port are €2, not €1 as stated on the Cruise Critic forums. Buses run very sporadically so you will need to plan on standing around waiting for a while. The shuttle runs far more frequently from port gate to the check-in area but still plan a little extra time.  Also, hold onto your bus tickets if you don't validate on the way there. They didn't check or ask for ours so we used them on the ride back.

We self-debarked with our luggage at 6:30am and got to the train station at 7:30. Our train left at 10. Next time I would book an earlier train.

The Ship
We booked Rhapsody of the Seas, 9-nights out of Rome, because of the excellent itinerary.  We booked the cheapest inside cabin (Category Q) because we wanted to spend more of our money in port and on the land portions of our trip.  Based on recommendations from friends, we booked through and were able to combine a previously purchased Next Cruise voucher (terms have since changed since 2012) and the CruCon incentives.  I put down the deposit of $250 in early April 2014 and received $75 OBC from CruCon and $100 OBC from Royal (NCV).  The next week, I bought our travel insurance, again using to search for policies.  Cost of the interior room including taxes and port fees for both of us was $1661.08.  Not too shabby for a 9-night!

The ship is older and smaller but was perfect for this trip as there were only two sea days. Service was fantastic, and food was very good overall. There were some misses but they didn't overshadow the generally good quality.

We were completely unprepared for the lack of television.  The same shows were set on a loop and shown EVERYday. They were only a couple other channels in English.  It was truly awful when we just wanted to relax before bed or while getting ready. Major fail.

The shows and live music were of high quality, but overall there wasn't a lot to do most times unless you wanted to play BINGO or trivia. It wasn't a high energy ship.

Souda (Chania), Crete, Greece
I was pleasantly surprised by this port. We took the public bus from port for about €3 per couple. It reminded me of a Greek cross between New Orleans and Key West. It is a big shopping area for olive wood and leather as well as olive oil-based products.  We had a nice lunch on the harbor at 4 Seasons.  This stop is very relaxed and easy to DIY.
Bus stop location from port to help you get your bearings.
Mykonos, Greece
Easy to do on your own, and you will find lots of jewelry and clothing shops here in this quaint little town. Just as photos show, the walls of the buildings are white-washed and the paths meander with no pattern.  The town was purposely built this way to discourage and confuse pirates and looters who would quickly become lost.  There are a lot of restaurants and bars with great views of the water. We had a fantastic lunch at Katerina's.

Santorini, Greece - A group of 10 of us formed up and booked NST Travel for a private tour of the island.  Highly recommend NST travel as a tour company.  We arrived an hour early for our tour, my mistake. Our guide, Elisa, arrived within 40 mins of my phone call although the bus did take a bit to arrive.  The van could easily fit 16-20 people so we had plenty of room for our group of 10. The Mercedes is almost brand new with cream leather seats- very comfortable! Tour cost €500 for group - €100 per couple.

The cable car to the top of the cliff after tendering in from the ship (the town of Fira) is €5 pp one way. ar: €5 pp one way. We took the cable car up with no problem and no wait since it was early in the morning.  Coming back the line was so long we decided to walk down the donkey path. It takes 20-30 mins and is not an easy walk.  I don't know that we would do it again because of dodging donkey dung, rough patches, and donkeys. We were quite sore and tuckered out from the journey down.

The winery, Venetsanos, was very good with gorgeous views. Oia, the postcard town, is really spectacular but the shopping is better near the port.  We had an incredible lunch at Skala, recommended by our tour guide.
View from Venetsanos Winery on Santorini - incredible place for wine tasting!
Athens, Greece - A DIY port!  I had read up on the X80 bus that runs from port and to the Acropolis. At €4 per person for a day of travel on public transportation, we couldn't go wrong.  As long as we'd planned well.  Which we did!  The only word of warning is that this bus doesn't run in the non-peak seasons.  I believe it will stop for the end of season sometime near the beginning of November. Also, plan extra time to get back to port as we must have just missed the bus and had to wait about 45 minutes for the next one to get back to the ship.

We bought our tickets into the Acropolis using our credit cards for about €11/12 each. It is definitely a must-visit but there is still a lot of excavation and restoration to be done. Be cautious of the very slippery marble throughout the site. Wear sturdy, comfortable shoes with good traction.

The Plaka is a wonderful place for shopping and eating. I bought a beautiful pair of  leather sandals at a shop there. It's a very cool place to walk around and enjoy the leisurely shopping.

Katakolon (Olympia), Greece - We booked a private tour for the four of us with Taxi Katakolon. Our tour was about 6 hours and included a stop off at ancient Olympia and Olympia Land Winery.  Total cost was 180 euro. Our driver, Takis, will take over for George, the current owner who requires major medical procedures. Takis is a wonderful guide and let us run our day. He took us to this cute bakery and bought a small box of pastry for us. The baklava there was the best I've had, but the pastry he sent with us was not spectacular.

Ancient Olympia is not labeled that well as far as telling you what you are seeing so you may want to preview information about it prior to your trip. Takis gave us a nice guidebook to use, but the large site can still be confusing.

Olympia Land Winery was €8 per person for the tasting, which included 4 wines and a small plate of snacks. The wine wasn't good at all but the winery itself is cute.

Kusadasi (Ephesus), Turkey - Our foursome joined up with another couple for Tour 5 by Ephesus Shuttle.  Emre was our tour guide, and he was so friendly and knowledgeable.  He made us all feel very comfortable right away, and was a fount of information throughout the day.  We had full control of our day, which is extremely important because many of the tour companies will take their tourists to a Turkish carpet demonstration/factory where they are subjected to hard sales tactics.  There was no pressure whatsoever from Emre to go to any of the outlets, which was completely refreshing.  At the end of our trip, we asked where we could get an authentic Turkish lunch, and he brought us to a restaurant he knows well right by the port.

Ephesus, only 18% excavated, is absolutely incredible! Words cannot possibly describe what a fantastic historical site it is, and I highly recommend including the Terrace Houses in your tour. There is so much to see and appreciate, and I think it would be great to revisit this site in 20 years after more of it has been excavated.  If you have a choice of cruises and Kusadasi is on the itinerary, take it!
Library of Celcus - Ephesus
A word about Turkish bazaars - they are NOT for the faint of heart.  I'm not particularly meek, but there is nothing I hate more than in-your-face shop owners.  In Turkey, they have no problem approaching you, and unless you are actually interested in something, don't go into their shops.  The sales tactics are less than trust-worthy, and it can be difficult to try to walk away.

Money Stuff
We bought €1000 to take with us from Wells Fargo in our home town.  The small fee is included in the exchange rate, but our bank always has foreign currency on hand so we didn't have to order, and there were no additional fees.  Be sure to keep euros on hand when you go ashore because several places we went to were having technical difficulties with their credit card machines.

Resources for Pre-Cruise Research
Rick Steves' 2013 "Mediterranean Cruise Ports"
Rick Steves' 2014 "Italy"
Rick Steves' amazing website:
Cruise Critic Port of Call Message Boards

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Rome & Venice - October 2015

We spent 3 days in Rome and 3 days in Venice pre- and post-cruise.  Here is the breakdown of cities, transportation, apartment rentals, food, sites/museums, etc.

Trains and Transportation
FCO airport to Rome: We used RomeCabs for a private transfer to our apartment. Great service and highly recommend. €55 total + tip

Getting around Rome: We bought a RomaPass, which allows free rides on public transportation during the period of activation. We didn't swipe our cards at all, though, and the drivers didn't enforce it. We paid for the cards but others may have been riding free.

Train Travel: We pre-booked travel via Trenitilia.  Be sure to book as soon as the dates become and be ready to buy the tickets at that moment.  Do not back out to the previous page, open in another browser, or think too long.  The price would literally go up a couple times within a few minutes because I was bumbling around the website.  So my advice is get on before your dates are available and play with the site so you are comfortable using it when you ARE ready to purchase.

We chose 2nd class on the short regional rides between Civi and Termini.  For the longer trip from Rome to Venice, we booked 1st class for more leg room.  The 2nd class options for the shorter rides were fine, but 1st class was nice to have on the long trip - nothing fancy, just more room to move.

Vaporettos: In Venice, we bought a 3-day vaporetto pass so that we could ride the public water buses around at a vaporetto stop right in front of the train station.  It was €40 each and totally worth it. We used the vaporetto to get from S. Lucia train station to the stop for our apartment.  Although somewhat of a pain, we were able to easily transport our luggage.  You do need to validate for each ride, and they were doing random spot checks.  Highly recommend buying a vaporetto pass for the length of time you will be in Venice.

Apartment to VCE airport: Our wonderful apartment owner set up the taxi service for us and gave use step-by-step directions on where to meet the driver and also included a map.  It was about a 20 minute ride and cost 46 euro.  It is the quickest way to get to Marco Polo airport.

We bought the Roma Pass, which includes use of public transportation and free entrance into your first two museums.  Look over the list to decide where you want to use it as some of the sites require reservations (like the Borghese Galleria). We chose Castel San Angelo and the Colosseum/Palatine Hill.

Pantheon Apartment (Via Acro della Ciambella, 9 00186 Rome) - Booked this apartment for 3 nights via  It is a few blocks south of the Pantheon. There is a wonderful deli right around the corner that we visited every day for cheese, salami, and fantastic cheap wine.  Our favorite happened to be €3,90. Unreal!  We think the name is Panini. The store owner speaks almost no English but we did fine with hand gesturing. There is also a bakery and gelato place within steps. Very easy to walk to Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, and pick up public buses from this location.

The apartment was perfect for two couples and is very secure - three locking doors to get into the building.  Very nice courtyard and washing machine.  There are two full bathrooms but the the shower on the first day was ice cold.  We all showered in the downstairs bathroom but was just fine.

A/C worked perfectly when used, and we were also able to get good breezes through the open windows.  We stayed in October, but I'd imagine that it would still be comfortable in the summer months.  Wifi was also very fast and reliable.

Would definitely recommend for the price.

Museums/Historical Sites
The Necropolis de Via Triumphalis tour that we booked ahead of time at the Vatican was awesome! Simply amazing to visit this active archaeological site under a parking garage. The tickets also included the Vatican museums.  We saw the Sistine Chapel, which was not as awe-inspiring as I thought it would be. St. Peter's Basilica, on the other hand, was absolutely beautiful.

Castel Sant' Angelo surprised the heck out of us. We thought it was just a fort, but the building was immense with unexpected art and frescoes at many a turn.  Very cool place to visit.

The Colosseum was everything I was hoping and more.  There is still a lot of restoration work in progress, but ignore the scaffolding and just appreciate the immensity of the building that has withstood a VERY long amount of time. Palantine Hill (included in admission) was also worth the trek on tired feet.

Finally, we visited the Galleria Borghese.  It was a beautiful art museum, but my favorite pieces were the Bernini sculptures, especially the Rape of Persephone.  It would have been better if we hadn't been so exhausted and feeling half dead on our feet. 13 euro entrance fee, and this visit MUST be booked ahead of time as they only let in so many visitors in 2-hour time blocks throughout the day.
"Rape of Persephone" by Bernini - Galleria Borghese
Other sites you will see just by walking around the city if you stay close to where we did are Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, and the Spanish Steps (not worth a trip out of your way).

Gran Caffe Cavour close to Palantine Hill was a random stop for us. It was the best meal we had and was perfect for lunch.  Fantastic food and great service.

4 Fiumi at Piazza Navona - my fettuccine con tartufo (truffle) was good but overpriced.  The food didn't meet my expectations.  So just "eh."
Gelato and candy shop near the Pantheon.  This picture says it all.  
Ca'Venexiana - Booked this apartment for 3 nights, and it sits right on a canal in the Dorsoduro neighborhood.  Jackie, the owner, lives in Massachusetts and was SO responsive to any questions I had. Her documents that she provides will help you with navigation in the city as well as personal recommendations for places to go.  I would say that she responded within 12 hours to any of my emails. She emailed me a welcome the day we checked into our apartment and arranged a taxi for us on the day we left. Her customer service is Ritz-level!

Kitchen is VERY well appointed; washer is small but mighty; water runs nice and hot; stocked with lots of DVDs and books; very cute courtyard that opens right onto a canal; fabulous location. There are so many cafes, bars, restaurants, and dessert places within a 5 minute walk. There are two vaporetto stops close by. Words cannot describe how wonderful this apartment is! Highly recommend!

Our favorite part of the apartment are the empty liter bottles that you can carry to a local wine shop and have filled with their house wines on tap for just a few euros each. You can't find this anywhere at home.

Pane Vino e San Daniele was just down the alley from our apartment.  We ate dinner here on our last night in Venice.  The hubs and I each had a glass of house wine, a buffalo mozzarella appetizer, and two entrees for about 50 euro.  Great price, but the food was fabulous!  I had the best mushroom risotto ever, and that buffalo mozz was to die for!

Museums/Historical Sites
I'm not going to lie.  Because Venice was the last destination following two weeks of travel, we were done with ruins and museums.  Venice was a great place to unwind and roam aimlessly.  There are many little wine and cicchetti bars where you select whatever you want from the counter in front of you, order your wine, and stand somewhere close to have a quick bite.  Super cheap and requires no planning.  Just elbow up to the counter and point to what you want.  You can go to several during your meanderings.

We did take the vaporetto to Murano to buy some items from the famous glass artisans.  There are a lot of little shops and factories selling the glasswares.  Definitely worth a visit.  Plan to spend a couple hours there and take whatever vaporetto you want as long as Murano is on the list of stops. neat little island to visit, especially if you are in the market for unique glass pieces.

Piazza San Marco is worth the visit.  Unfortunately, the line to get into San Marco church was really long the day the hubs and I were walking around, but our friends had gone in the day before and said it was beautiful inside.  Next time...  The outside is really fantastic to look at, and the piazza is a great place to people watch.
View from a vaporetto approaching Piazza San Marco.
General Tips
Wear your money belts and don't take anything from anyone (like a rose).  The hubs wore the belt that goes around the waist, and I had this one that tucked into my pants.  Both worked out very well and kept our credit cards and cash secure.

For the ladies, the eBags Piazza purse worked beautifully for me.  Plenty of room to carry what I needed for the day, and I was able to keep my hand on the zippers if I was in a crowded area.  It was great to tie my scarf around the strap or sling my jacket over the top if I wasn't using them.

I did a lot of research on "capsule wardrobes" before packing on this trip.  All of my bottoms were black except for my one pair of jeans.  I could mix and match tops and layer them over one another for extra warmth.  If travelling in the cooler months, take two scarves - you will find more in Italy:) We had washing machines at the apartments, and I took Dr. Bronner's soap to handwash clothes in our cruise cabin's sink.

Don't be afraid to step into a local place and gesture for what you want.  You will find that not everyone speaks English but are capable of elaborate hand-gesturing.