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.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Napa Valley, CA

Sadly, my fourth visit to Napa was nearly ruined by a cold-turned-sinus infection that completely took out my senses of smell and taste.  Worst.  Timing.  Ever!  Thank goodness for a great husband and four wonderful friends who saved the trip for me.  Well, them, and the beautiful landscape that makes Napa my favorite vacation spot.

Here's a rundown of the trip.

Rental Home
This 3-bedroom, 2-bedroom farmhouse located about 7 minutes from Oxbow Market is quiet and perfect for 6 people.  It has been updated and re-decorated and was well-stocked with supplies needed for a relaxing stay.  Unfortunately for future vacationers and the homeowner, David LaMonica, one set of neighbors complained to the county after a very loud party night from guests staying there at the time.  It has been removed from VRBO, but it would be worth a look if you would like David's contact information.  He is hanging onto the house for "family and friends."

Wineries - Napa
The Terraces - Love, love, love Terraces!  If you visit, I promise that it will be one of the most laid-back experiences you will.  Tours are usually conducted by Monica (the hospitality manager), Emmy (new blood to the team), or Dominic (the winemaker).  Both the wine and the hospitality are fantastic!

Peju - Another favorite of ours.  Great reds, beautiful tasting room, lush garden.  We had a great wine guide in Scott, an older gentleman with a fun personality.  This continues to be a winery I highly recommend.

Jamieson Ranch - Unfortunately, the mini horses were recovering from an illness so our friends didn't get to meet them, but our visit was relaxed and enjoyable.  Our friends agreed that JR is a great start to the day, and after the weekend, it was among the top of the list of favorites for them.  This winery is technically in American Canyon, not Napa.

Black Stallion - This was a quick stop on our way back down Silverado Trail.  They were getting ready to close and only giving splashes of wine to guests rather than a full tasting.  I would really like to revisit this place because the tasting room was nice, and the back patio area had a lot of seating. Very laid back atmosphere, and I hear that the wine was good.

Mumm - Sparkling wine was a special request from a couple members of our group, so I planned a stop at Mumm on Silverado Trail. It felt a little stuffy to me, but the two ladies enjoyed their bubbly.  I would stop by again if I was in the area and had time.  It was a little tough not to be able to try anything.

Whitehall Lane  - There was something about this visit that turned us off.  I think there is a changing of the guards that caused there to be a little tension in the air, but the wines were good.  They were generous enough to let us eat lunch on their grounds before our appointment was scheduled, but I think I've had my fill of Whitehall for a while.

Merryvale - We first visited in 2008, and our friends were looking for a quick stop before our scheduled appointment with Terraces.  We brought them to Merryvale since we couldn't remember much about it, and there was a deal on the winery app.  My husband didn't enjoy the wine, and in the short time I had some working taste buds, it wasn't good at all.  The facility is beautiful, though, and boasts a LARGE (read 23K gallon-sized) barrel that has a round table and chandelier in the center for special tastings.  Really a gorgeous facility, but don't go there for great wine.

Wineries - Sonoma
Gloria Ferrer - This last-minute decision turned out to be a nice way to start the day for our little group.  From what I hear, the bubbly is quite good, which I'm sure I'll discover when we open our group-consensus vintage.  Sicky me was still quite happy to enjoy the scenic back patio and the laughter of friends while I stared longly at the pretty bubbles.  I would recommend this as a nice way to start your Sonoma day.

Ledson - We had a different guide from our last two visits, and he was fine.  He tried a little too hard, but the wine is still good according to my husband.  If you go for a visit, have your camera handy and plan to share with someone else as the winery app gets you three free bonus pours on top of the six you already get.

Gundlach Bundshu - Gun Bun was a recommendation from our server at Eiko's.  What a neat place!  The grounds are stunning and vast, and the tasting room is welcoming.  Whoever does their merchandising is spot-on with their offerings.  Great clothing options, neat gifts, and clever logos.  I hear the wine is good, but I didn't see "spectacular" written on anyone's faces.  I think most would enjoy a stop here.

Deerfield Ranch - We wanted our friends to see a wine cave so we brought them to a place we had visited previously.  They enjoyed it, and I still love the living room set-up in the center of the cave.

Eiko's - This a neat sushi restaurant right in downtown Napa.  Great menu, comfortable lounge seating near the bar, and a terrific server in Brooke - she is amazing!  Ask for her if you can.  We stopped by both Friday and Saturday evenings for dinner.  Our group ordered the table-side s'mores from the dessert menu.  Holy cow!  It was almost as bad as not being able to drink wine because my family knows how much I love a good s'more.  Homemade crackers and marshmallow, roasted over smoldering wood. I want to go back when I can actually taste it!

El Dorado Kitchen - We ate brunch on the back patio.  Everyone seemed to really enjoy the food, and it looked fantastic.  I'm sure my brioche french toast was good because my husband said so:)  Really neat place if you are looking for a cool restaurant with good food in downtown Sonoma.

Cadet - Cute little wine and beer bar that we stumbled up on in downtown Napa.  Great wine selection and few different app options would make for a nice stop to get off your feet.

Sunshine Foods Market (boxed lunches) - I've heard many times that Oakville Grocery is another option for picnic lunches, but we returned again to Sunshine because we had a good experience last year.  Definitely worth a look if you are wanting to picnic somewhere.

Suggested Tour Route - Silverado Trail
Because of the location of the wineries, this would make for a great day of tasting: 1) Rombauer with a picnic breakfast, 2) Scheduled visit at Terraces, 3) Mumm for sparkling, and 4) Black Stallion.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Carnival Conquest - Southern Caribbean

Used Park N Go near the Ft. Lauderdale airport and port.  We prepaid this time, and it was $69.77 for our 8-day cruise.  Again, super convenient, quick and friendly service.

Food - Delicious!  Everything was prepared correctly, and the food was great on this boat.  Loved the ceviche available at Fish N Chips.  My favorite breakfast was the huevos rancheros from the Blue Iguana grill.  Guy's Burgers were a little hit or miss, and we missed the Tandoor.  The chefs working the Taste Bar in the evenings were entertaining, and the food quite tasty.

Service - Amazing!  Service was quick and friendly throughout the entire cruise - vastly different than our experience on Splendor last November.

Entertainment and Things to Do - OK, not great.  Good variety of Dive In Movies, and the stage shows were alright.  If you are looking for a more vibrant atmosphere with more things to keep you busy, the Carnival Breeze is your best bet.  If you're looking for relaxed socializing or reading a book, the Conquest will give you that.

Ports of Call
St. Kitts - A member of our group booked a private catamaran tour with Blue Water Safaris. The snorkeling at the cove was a pointless stop as there was nothing of note to see, but the rest of the excursion was really quite relaxing.  Our group of 36 enjoyed the lunch, open bar, and beach stop at Nevis.  I think next time I would explore the mainland.

St. Maarten - We took a taxi to Orient Beach on the French side for $7pp each way ($28 total per couple).  A member of our group had visited the Aloha Beach Bar on a previous trip, so that's where we went.  $16 got us two lounge chairs, an umbrella, and 2 free rum punches/beer.  The place is very welcoming and clean, and the owner, Nat, is a hoot.  We split the chicken wrap for lunch - yummy!  Others in our group had the calamari and shrimp app and really enjoyed that, too.  The water is beautiful there, and it makes for quite a relaxing day.  There are a lot of beach bars to choose from, so I wouldn't be adverse to trying out another one next time.

San Juan, PR - We had a short port day and decided to stay in town for sight seeing and wandering.  We took our small group to Casa Cortes since I loved it so much the first visit.  This is a great place to eat fantastic chocolate creations and get out of the heat for a bit.  Highly recommend a visit!

Grand Turk -  We love GT for its very chilled out, relaxed vibe.  If you want to walk off the ship and grab a lounger, that's easy!  If you want to visit Margaritaville, you can do that, too, but be prepared for high prices on everything there.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Carnival Splendor - Southern Caribbean

We saw this cruise early and were intrigued by the really unique itinerary so we booked at a great price of $1000 for both of us including taxes and port fees for our inside room.  What was different for us about this particular sailing was the repositioning aspect of it - San Juan to Miami.  We flew into San Juan from Orlando on Southwest and rented a car from Miami back up to Orlando.

Like the San Fran and Napa trip of 2012, I was in a boot for another stress fracture.  This put a pretty big damper on some of our plans.  I had really wanted to hike the rain forest in Puerto Rico, but that didn't happen this trip.  Guess we'll need to make another trip back when I'm not hobbling around:)

Hotel in San Juan (2 days pre-cruise)
The Renaissance La Concha in Condado.  We used the hubs' Marriott points and stayed two nights for a total of 60,000 points.  Very nice resort, good location, a couple of pools, and right on the beach.  Across from the hotel is a great breakfast joint - Pinky's.

Pinky's - Really great place for breakfast in Condado.  We went both mornings and had different items each time.  It was all fantastic!  Prices are attractive, too.

Casa Cortes - If you love chocolate as much as I do, stop at this place for dessert or a mid-afternoon snack.  Can't wait to go back to try more of their menu offerings!  This place is downtown Old San Juan,

Restaurant service: Painfully slow almost every night.

Steakhouse: Worst steakhouse experience we've had - bad service, food mediocre relative to our usual steakhouse meals.

Common areas and room always really clean.

Entertainment: Laughable.

Overall, we enjoyed our cruise, but the service just wasn't good.

Ports of Call
St. Croix
We had an island tour scheduled with a friend of a friend, but a medical emergency of a friend in our tour group changed our plans quickly.  The beach is pretty and the plantation ruins cool, but the hospital visit was a unique part of the tour that none of us were expecting.  I definitely want to go back and re-do this port.

Sadly, the boot I had to wear on my foot did not allow me to go with the rest of my group on the Sheppee Pirates of the Caribbean tour.  From the pictures I've seen along with the commentary from the hubs and our friends, I'm really glad I didn't attempt this tour.  In fact, if you have any physical limitations at all, not a good swimmer, and adverse to cold water, don't choose this tour.

Instead, I joined up with a smaller group and took the Discover Dominica tour with Exodus.  Normal price is $50pp (same price for the same tour through Carnival), but the group leader negotiated down to $40pp for our group of 10.  Definitely recommend this tour if you are unable to do strenuous activities.

We had a heck of time coming up with something to do here that did not require knowing some French and need euros so we took the usually-avoided ship excursion through Carnival - The Historic St. Pierre tour.  So NOT worth it!

I set up a private tour with AJ Meddy for our group of 6 and chose the West Coast Half-Day.  It was $32pp.  We had a great day with this tour company and would definitely use his company again.  Very personal service from the beginning, and we really enjoyed the tour guides he set up for us.  Very nice guys!

Grand Turk
LOVE this place as a beach day!  So easy!  Walk off the pier, and BOOM, you're there.  Next time we'll wander down to Jack's Shack, I think.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Carnival Freedom - Eastern Caribbean

Booked this last minute as an Inside Guarantee, which was a first for us.  Usually we like to pick our inside room, but the price was significantly higher to do that.  Total cruise cost for both of us together was $807 for 8 days.  Not too shabby!

Park N Go (Ft. Lauderdale) - Reserved ahead of time at $6.99 per day, payable when leaving the lot. Free shuttle.  Service was fast and convenient.  Only thing that caught us off guard was having to leave the key with the attendant.  We also learned on the way out that there is a pre-pay option.  Would definitely do that next time.

The inside guarantee paid off for us.  We ended up in 7441, the same location we would have booked ourselves.  To us, inside is great because we'd rather spend our money ashore.  Our ninja-like cabin steward was very attentive and friendly, and the AC worked just fine.  Since Lido is on 9 and the Promenade on 5, deck 7 was perfect.

The Freedom was blessed with many of the 2.0 upgrades, which was fantastic.  Alchemy Bar had a wonderful list of martinis and specialty cocktails, and the Red Frog Pub was our time-killing location of choice.  I don't think I've ever played shuffle board so much!  Alchemy was never busy, and the Pub always chill.

We went to a few of the shows in Victoriana Lounge.  One of the best shows I have seen on any Carnival ship is "88 Keys."  Definitely go if you are on this ship.  Late-night, we enjoyed the Dive-in Movies on Lido.  I finally got to see both "Divergent" and "Maleficient".  They have fuzzy blankets available at the towel station and popcorn ready at the Red Frog bar.  Nothing like watching a great move under the starts with a nice Caribbean breeze.

Debarkation at the end of the trip was much slower than what we are used to.  At times, brunch and dinner service was very slow.  The fourth night, we were assigned to Yatna's section of the Anytime Dining room - Chic.  We requested him ever night after.  If you have the opportunity, ask for him by name!  He was fantastic.

The ship visited Nassau on the last day.  We didn't leave the boat and enjoyed the nearly empty ship - open lounge chairs every where and no lines for food. So relaxing!

We reserved the Sun King Steakhouse as soon as we walked onto the ship.  The food was the best we have ever gotten in a Carnival Steakhouse.  Everything was fantastic, and my filet was spot-on. Definitely worth the $35pp.  Look for the cooking demonstration offered at the steakhouse - sometimes on the first sea day around noon.  It's free, and the best part is the food you taste.  The sample sizes are actually pretty nice.

Tea time - it's now a "been there, done that."

The Freedom has a fish & chips, Guy's Burgers, and Blue Iguana Cantina.  We did not visit the fish & chips, and on the last night I heard they served ceviche.  Crap!  Maybe next time.  Guy's burgers and fries speak for themselves.  YUM!  The Blue Iguana tacos are delectable!  The meats are all wonderfully seasoned and the tortillas made right there.  Fantastic!

As mentioned, dinner in the main dining room started off slow, especially on formal night #1.  Like, painfully slow.  The food was consistent, so no complaints there.  The service speed definitely picked up for us when in Yatna's section.

Ports of Call
St. Thomas - We visited Sapphire Beach again this trip for some beach time and snorkeling.  We got off the boat as soon as we could and hopped into a taxi with 3 other couples.  We were some of the first people to get to Sapphire.  We reserved our lounge chair for $9.  The no-see-ums were terrible, so you definitely want to keep yourself and your stuff up out of the sand.

After an uncomfortable entry into the water, we donned our snorkel sets and were the first ones out in the water besides two people on paddle boards.  We swam about 75 yards out to the sea grass to find the turtles.  I think they were just waking up.  We saw 4 of them before heading the coral reef on the right side of the bay.  The reef is mostly gray and yellow so nothing spectacular on that note; however, I did get a little too close and uncomfortable with the resident barracuda.  I saw him out of the corner of my eye about 6 feet away, and started backpeddling.  He couldn't have cared less about me.  On the swim back, we  saw our spotted ray.

We only hung out there for another 45 minutes are so before heading back to port.  Carnival now has ship excursions to Sapphire, so it got really crowded.  Our cab driver back was great!  I asked if he could be reserved ahead of time, and he gave me his card.  Highly recommend him: Gary Winchester,  All taxis are regulated so the round-trip total for 2 people is $40 to Sapphire from port.

Verizon service never picked up for us, although I was told that all texts and data were free there. Too bad I couldn't even get a second of service.

San Juan - Because we are staying in Puerto Rico for a couple of days before our Fall cruise, we wanted to spend this port-time exploring and getting familiar with Old San Juan.  We toured both forts in the city - $5pp covered both entrances.  There is a LOT of ground to cover in those forts and on the streets, so wear cool clothing and very comfortable shoes.

Based on a recommendation from a friend, we ate lunch at a diner-style counter with a bunch of locals - Cafe Manolin.  Great food at fair prices (fair considering it's in the touristy area).  For example, my shrimp mofungo with rice and beans and a couple slices of sweet plantains was $7.95.

There is a hop-on hop-off bus that goes through the city, which can save a lot of walking.  Definitely take advantage of that if traveling from one fort to the other.

Antigua - We WERE going to follow this plan: Valley Church Beach for the day.  Here are the directions if you'd like to get there via bus ($1.50 pp each way): Walk straight off the pier and turn right once you get to Market Street.  You will continue down Market St for about 10 minutes.  When you come to the giant statue of a man, take the fork in the road to the right.  The bus station will be behind a white building on your right.  Let the bus #22 driver know you want to get off at Valley Church Beach.  Two chairs and an umbrella will cost $20.

Instead, we did this: Gordon's Tour #1 for $40pp with a minimum of 4 people.  Gordon picked us up promptly from the boardwalk right after walking off the pier, and we were on our way from a wonderfully narrated tour of the island.  Last time, we saw Antigua by sea.  This time it was from a completely different perspective.  Gordon is super friendly and very knowledgeable.  Highly recommend booking with him.  We ended our tour at Valley Church Beach and had lunch at The Nest.  Food prices are a little high since they are the only place there, but do accept credit card or cash.  The water here is a milky blue so don't waste your time trying to snorkel.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Napa Valley, CA

Just home from a quick 3-day spin around Napa and Sonoma.
  • If you can, download the Winery Finder app on your smartphone.  There are some interesting deals out there for a lot of different wineries (2:1's, upgraded tastings, extra pours, etc.).  Please note that, unlike a couple years ago, these deals require a public check-in and photo on either Twitter or Facebook.  I was not happy with this change since we never post about a vacation until we are safely home.  In the two instances we used the app, I deleted the post on Facebook soon after.
  • We had to stay in two different hotels due to SpringHill being booked up for the NASCAR events Friday night.  
SpringHill Suites Napa Valley - There are probably some that will argue that this hotel is too far south to be convenient to wine country; however, we really enjoyed the hotel itself as well as the location. It is easy to get to either Sonoma or Napa, and it's closer to the airports (we flew out of Sacramento).  VERY clean, very quiet.  For those interested (we didn't have the time), they have a pool and beautiful fire pit.  If you stay here, Devlin Rd is a nice shortcut off the main highway that will alleviate a couple minutes in traffic.  Just turn right out of the hotel onto Devlin then make a right-hand turn onto Soscal Ferry Rd - that will get you where you need to go.  We'd stay here again.

Napa Valley Marriott Hotel & Spa - If you are going to wine country purely for wine tasting and plan to be gone through the day, I wouldn't stay here.  The grounds are beautiful and very resort-style, but we couldn't enjoy it with how long we were gone.  We literally only slept here and had breakfast in the Elite/Platinum lounge (thanks to the hubs traveling so much).  For the price, it's not worth it to us to stay here, although I will say it's a little more convenient to the Napa wineries.

Rombauer - If you like heavily oaked wines with a lot of vanilla and butter on the finish, Rombauer is the place to go.  Even if you don't like that style of wine, you will love the picnic grounds and the view from the ledges of the hill.  The landscape is top-notch lush, and there is plenty of space to picnic before or after your tasting.  We picked up pre-ordered boxed lunches from Sunshine Food Market (below) and grabbed a picnic table here.  Unfortunately, the tasting room is a belly-up to the bar type of place that was busy when we walked in.  It took several minutes for us to be acknowledged and were about to leave until a gentleman called us over to his tasting table.  Definitely recommend as a stop.
View from one of the picnic areas at Rombauer.
Markham - We were introduced to Markham in our off-time from pouring at a past Party for the Senses at Epcot during the annual Food & Wine Festival.  Markham's Chardonnay hits the buttery spot for me, but it's not nearly as oaky as Rombauer.  We usually have a bottle in the fridge because we can buy it at Total Wine.  The tasting room is lovely and the staff is attentive.  Recommend.

Jamieson Ranch - I would never have gone to Jamieson Ranch if a tour hadn't been set up for us by a good friend of ours who works in the wine industry.  It is at the very base of Napa (2 miles from SpringHill Suites), and the property is just absolutely stunning and inviting.  So happy we had a chance to visit here! We had the complete experience here - tour, tasting, cheese plate, honey tasting, and mini horse visit.  This is the kind of winery that you can visit with either your honey or a group of friends and have a really nice time. Plenty of indoor and outdoor seating and hospitable staff.  The wine is great, and we bought a bottle of their port-style dessert wine, the only style we drink.  They have a fantastic Viognier and a few wonderful Pinot Noirs.

Now, a little tangent.  We spent a little over two hours here and got a really nice tour of the property and facilities.  Something that I did not expect was a visit from their mini horses.  These sweet creatures have been rescued and then trained as therapy horses.  They are not much bigger than a large dog and can enter health-care facilities to visit patients.  The work that Jamieson Ranch is doing with the horses is amazing, and I love the story behind them.  They have a brand dedicated specifically to this initiative called Light Horse.  Highly recommend a visit here!
Sweet Jane - one of the therapy horses.
View from our spot on the porch.
Peju is one of our favorites, and we visited here again on our first winery stop.  Last year we took home a couple bottles of Zin.  This year, we took home a couple bottles of Syrah.  The staff friendliness can be a little iffy here, but we still really like this place.

Whitehall Lane was also a repeat for us, but this time we had a private tour set up.  We spent a good amount of time with one of the tasting room staff, Jeff Bailey, and had the opportunity to meet Tom, Jr, the owner's son who has a big hand in the business.  The wines here are quality, and the tasting room is small but comfortable.  Always a nice little stop, and it's right up the road from Peju and right down the road from Sunshine Food Market.

The Terraces - I will never forget the Christmas at my old wine shop, Cork & Olive, when we were tasked with making up 25 baskets with bottles of Terraces wine for one of our customers.  There were baskets EVERYwhere in our little store.  That was in 2008.  Fast forward to last week, and we FINALLY got a very up-close and personal look at The Terraces.  We spent a good amount of time viewing the gorgeous hill-side property - old stone winery shell constructed in the late 1800s, a stone outbuilding where they are making balsamic vinegar for the wine club, peach trees, honey bee boxes, vines, guests houses.  It's 130 acres of pure beauty.  The wines are terrific, and the hospitality director and winemaker are really nice and knowledgeable.  Highly recommend a reservation!

Thomas George (north of Sonoma - Russian River Valley) - As we were driving south on Westside Rd, we decided that one of the wineries might make for a good stop.  Wine tastings are done in their caves, and they have a great selection of Pinot Noirs.  It's a small, comfortable atmosphere on a beautiful property.

Ledson (Sonoma) - We still regret not buying that 2006 Zin from our 2012 trip, so this time we swore that if we liked it, we were buying it.  We walked out with a couple great selections after going through a tasting with Tom, whom we had met on our last visit.  The property and mansion are gorgeous and were featured as the cover on my Facebook page for quite a while.  They specialize in Zin, but have a killer Chardonnay that we almost passed on until Tom insisted that it fit the exact description I gave him of my preferred Chard style.  I should have known to trust him after the 2012 visit, but I really do now.  He was SPOT on, and I'm glad he challenged me on it.  Highly recommend!

Moshin (north of Sonoma - Russian River Valley) is right down the street on Westside Rd from Thomas George and was a last second recommendation from our wine industry friend via text.  The staff was very nice, the wines are solid, and the labeling clever.  I wish that we'd been able to meet the owners, but neither of them were on property at the time.  It's a neat little place that makes for a nice, quick stop.

Tasting Rooms
Flora Spring - We visited based on a recommendation from Whitehall Lane.  In a nutshell, the tasting room is neat, the wines good, and the prices insane.  Would not go back.

Girard - Went with a winemaker we met at an industry party so we didn't have to pay, which was great since I wasn't completely blown away.  I think if I'd had a more uninfluenced tongue by that point in the afternoon, it might have been a better experience.  If the mood strikes, we might pop by earlier in the day next time we are in town.

Spann (Sonoma) came pretty highly recommended on Yelp, so we decided to swing by here on our way out of Sonoma.  Glad we did.  The tasting bar is inside the entrance of an art gallery, and we had a really nice conversation with the gentleman pouring for us.  The wines are pretty good, and it was one of our better tasting room experiences.

Grace's Table Because we liked Grace's so much in 2012, I bought a certificate so we could have dinner there.  We ordered the cornbread with lavender butter that I'd read about over and over again on both Trip Advisor and Yelp.  Whoa, just whoa!  I really, really wish I could replicate that at home!  If you go, please try it!!!  The hubs had a really tasty burger, and I had the scallops over corn risotto.  Both were quite yummy!

Sunshine Food Market (Picnic Lunch Box) - I had read that there were nice picnic places at Rombauer, so we ordered our boxed lunches the day before so we could just pick them up and go.  The hubs had a full box with the Sioux-Z-Q sandwich and Pesto Pasta Salad, and I had a light box with the Tri-Tip sandwich.  We didn't have room for the chips or cookies because the sandwiches, pasta, and fruit filled us up.  I will definitely order from them again if we are looking to picnic.

Bounty Hunter BBQ was a happy hour snack stop for us.  We shared the $10 sampler.  Awesome!  It's right downtown Napa, over the bridge from Oxbow Market.

Carpe Diem - We enjoyed the happy hour selection so much in 2012, that this was our last stop before heading to our airport hotel.  We had a lot of different food, no wine, for a nice price.  We had the following: Harissa Fries, Truffle Popcorn, shot of soup, Quack N Cheese, and the mushroom flatbread.  So good that my mouth is now watering thinking about it!

One Other Thing...
A very scenic drive can be had by driving down Westside Road in the vicinity of the Russian River Valley. Things to consider before making this jaunt:
  • Drive it before you begin wine tasting for the day. The narrow road and tight turns can be a little hairy dead sober. And watch out for the cyclists.
  • Read over the route map carefully before driving down Westside. We still got turned around where Eastside and River roads converge. Thankfully I had a Sonoma wine country map, tiny as it was, with us. We definitely ended up going in the wrong direction for a while on River Rd.  
  • Stop at some of the wineries along the way.  They are so quaint, and the properties are beautiful.
  • Don't expect to keep a cell phone signal throughout the drive.  Our signals (and GPS) kept going out on us.  Not fun, especially when were lost.