Wednesday, November 30, 2011
But, after trying our first transatlantic cruise a few years ago, we were hooked. That sea and sky are pretty interesting. . .in fact, we find ourselves often doing nothing but watching them for hours at a time.
Our days have begun on our deck waiting for the sun to rise while sipping coffee. I should note that we are re-entering the U.S. east coast time zone by turning our clocks back six hours, an hour at a time, which makes early rising much easier and our days a bit longer, which is great.
Changing cloud formations and sea foam patterns can be nearly hypnotic.
Our days have glided by smoothly and rapidly- as we’ve focused on what I call our Body, Mind and Soul Program. For the body, we’ve gone to the gym and worked out for an hour each morning, then headed off to a lecture (we have three lecturers on board – all with fascinating topics) to improve the mind, and then it is time to replenish the soul from a lounge chair overlooking the sea. From there we head to afternoon coffee, which leads into cocktail hour, dinner and whew, we find anther day has simply disappeared.
For those of you thinking that wouldn’t be enough to keep you busy, let me assure you that our Cruise Director Sue (see earlier blog post) and her staff provide us a daily page-long list of activities for those who need to keep busy.
For instance, a sample from the list includes: attending a movie, taking an on-line computer class, learning how to scrapbook, learning a new language using Rosetta Stone, taking a dance class, attending a culinary demonstration, playing bingo, joining in a trivia game competition, listening to any of a half dozen entertainers performing throughout the ship, bowling on XBox Kinect, or entering a Texas Hold’em Tournament. There’s also a lengthy schedule of parties and dances, if you can fit them all into your schedule.
Today is the first storming day we’ve had at sea (a rain squall moved our morning coffee, lunch and most activities indoors today) and if it doesn’t get worse it is almost an enjoyable experience providing a rocking of the ship. . . the kind that encourages a nap right after the morning’s lecture.
Monday, November 28, 2011
Cruise Directors (for those not familiar with this form of travel) are the folks in charge of entertainment and activities; the things that keep passengers busy on long days at sea such as those we are now enjoying as we cross the Atlantic Ocean on our Celebrity Constellation (“Connie”).
Cruise Directors are the ones who appear in elegant dress to announce the evening’s theatre entertainment. (as is Sue in this photo). They appear on the ship’s television channel to tell you about special events and activities.
They are, you might say, the cheerleaders; the persons that passengers are sure to remember.
Although we’ve now sailed on a number of cruises, I’ve never met a cruise director until this sailing. Sue is one of the folks on board that Celebrity had arranged for me to interview while on the cruise.
And I’ll tell you about that chat in the next post, but now I want to tell you about my first meeting with Sue – last week, long before the ‘official’ interview took place.
We met in one of the women’s bathrooms on the day after we’d sailed from Barcelona.
I had been outside the bathroom as she whipped past me, high heels clicking, with heavy rubber gloves on her hands carrying a bottle of cleaner and sponges. There was no one else around – I’d been waiting for Joel to return from the men’s room.
Not quite believing what I’d seen, I followed her inside and there found her scrubbing a toilet.
“Aren’t you are Cruise Director?” I asked (as any good reporter would do).
“Yes, luv, I am,” she replied in her heavy English accent, without missing a swipe.
“And, uh, you are cleaning toilets,” I somewhat stupidly added.
“Yes, luv, I am,” she replied. And then she added that our staff had been working so hard to eradicate the gastrointestinal virus that had struck during the last cruise (see my earlier post) that I could rest assured I was on the cleanest ship on the ocean.
I reminded her of that meeting when we sat down for the formal interview yesterday. She was quick to clarify she hadn’t been doing it for notoriety. (I knew that as there had been no one else had been around other than another staff member who was also cleaning the restroom.)
“If I don’t do it, I can’t expect my team to do it,” she explained, noting that the Herculean task of sanitizing the ship on that Sunday had required that musicians, entertainers and revenue partners all join in on the cleaning that continued for the first couple of days of the cruise.
“This is a family and this is our house,” she said of the ship and its crew, “We want to keep it safe and clean for all of us.”
So I’ll tell you more about Sue in the next post, but I can tell you that I knew after our first chance meeting, she’s a cruise director I won’t soon forget.
Saturday, November 26, 2011
So when our captain announced Tuesday evening that a Portuguese planned strike would prevent us from going to Funchal, Madeira and we would be stopping in Gibraltar instead, I did a happy dance around the cabin.
American writer Paul Theroux, in his Pillars of Hercules says, “Gibraltar is just a conspicuous pile of limestone, to which distance adds enchantment.”
Maybe that has always been the case with me. I’ve been enchanted by the place because it was so far from my world. . .I remember being introduced to ‘the rock’ in those Prudential Insurance advertisements during my childhood and it seemed light years from anything I’d ever visit. Of course, I’ve always wanted to see those famous apes who inhabit it. . .whatever the case, I’ve always loved the rock.
I was so excited about our visit that I was out on the deck by 6:30 a.m. – a time still so dark that the Big Dipper looked as if it were sitting on our railing. The waterway was filled with brightly lit ferries and freighters.
Our ship, already creeping in at a snail’s pace began a gradual turn to the right just as daylight was arriving and as we turned, the The Rock of Gibraltar came into view.
It was magic, I tell you, pure, unadulterated travel magic!
We walked nearly 10 miles during our time in Gibraltar. We traveled the length of the town’s Main Street, with its colorful Christmas decorations and stores offering every product imaginable. We were headed to the Botanical Garden and considering a ride up the cable car to see the apes when all of a sudden the little buggers appeared right on the street in front of us – saving us the time and effort to go up to visit them.
The story is that these apes, Barbary macaques, were brought here by the Berbers from North Africa in the 1700’s. They were pets.
Spain ceded Gibraltar to Great Britain in the 1700’s and Sir Winston Churchill is quoted as saying of them, “As long as the apes remain, so will the British.” It seems to be true as the apes continue to entertain tourists in this place that continues to be a British colony.
Leaving Gibraltar – sailing between The Pillars of Hercules at sunset– one on north Africa’s coast, the other being Gibraltar was as magical as our arrival. I am already thinking I must return.
A Navigational Note: It is Saturday morning and we’ve been on the ship for nearly a week. We left Tenerife, in the Canary Islands last night and that was the last land we will see until next Saturday when we arrive in Fort Lauderdale, having crossed some 3,400+ nautical miles of ocean. We’ve been advised we will have ‘slow or no’ internet access during the crossing at times, so I’ll write more when possible.
The sea is smooth, the temperatures a most welcome 73-degrees. Today reminds us of why we love transatlantic cruises. I took this photo this morning while having morning coffee on our deck – the sea and sunrise couldn’t have been better
Thursday, November 24, 2011
I’d been thinking about that chilled glass of champagne on the silver tray – the one the staff member would hand me as I stepped aboard the ship last Sunday afternoon.
That experience, last spring, was my first impression of Celebrity’s Solstice ship and it had set the standard for my expectations for the Constellation. We are heading back to the United States aboard “Connie, an older, smaller ship than the one we sailed in the spring, but one that has been refurbished, ‘solsticized’, to feature “Solstice class” amenities.
That glass of champagne – as well as the chilled bottle of champagne and roses that would be waiting in the room – is standard fare for Concierge Class on this cruise line.
But as I have written before about experiences on this trip, sometimes what you expect and what you get are two different things.
Boarding in Barcelona
We knew something was up when we were greeted at the port by women in health-care smocks squirting sanitizer on the hands of arriving passengers before we went through the security gate, the first step in check in.
Another pair squirted more sanitizer on our barely dry hands as we entered the check in line, where additional staff were wiping down the check-in counters as each guest completed check-in.
Somewhere along the line we were handed the letter explaining that on the previous cruise, from Istanbul to Barcelona, a number of passengers had been stricken with a gastrointestinal illness. . .the ship was undergoing extensive sanitization as a result. Tips for washing hands to for preventing illness were printed on the back.
And as a result of that process, we were told, boarding would be delayed and’ once on board, our rooms would not be available until 5:30.
We were offered unlimited amounts of canned pop and bottled water, potato chips and other packed treats. We waited with other guests in a makeshift waiting room-- better recognized as the baggage claim room of the terminal -- for three hours in our case.
When called to board ( 3 p.m. for us) we were again given another round of hand sanitizing as we left the room.
As I stepped aboard the ship that is our floating home until December 3rd, instead of that champagne I’d been thinking about, I got another dollop of hand sanitizer.
We did get to our room at 5:30 and found it a no frills, pretty bare basics place: bed and paper cups. Our weary – but cheery --room attendant explained that not everything had been sanitized and would arrive the next day.
It is now Wednesday (and with luck I’ll get this posted on Thursday) and our room is back to normal. We got the champagne bucket Sunday evening, the bedding on Monday and flowers Monday evening. Paper cups were replaced with glasses. Our ice bucket is filled.
Enhanced sanitation continues though as everyone is well aware we will soon be at sea for seven days -we are still receiving generous dollops of hand sanitizer at every turn.
We are secure in the knowledge that staff members worked their tails off to make sure the ship is as clean as it can be. Our cabin attendant, Isabelo, began his work day Sunday at 5 a.m. and ended it at 10:30 p.m. (Makes our wait time rather insignificant by comparison.)
We popped the cork on that champagne Tuesday evening and I had that glass of champagne I’d been dreaming of. . .we lifted our glasses to “Salud!” (Health!) and Isabelo!
I should note our adventures didn’t stop with boarding; on Tuesday afternoon our captain informed us that the Portuguese had announced a strike for Thursday so our stop in Funchal is cancelled. Stay tuned for where we ended up going. . . we are entering an area of the world with sporadic internet connections. . .
Saturday, November 19, 2011
We’ve already vowed to return to Andalucia, the area where we spent most of this trip; there are far too many towns like tiny Osuna just waiting to be discovered by us. We’ll likely not return to the Costa del Sol as it was a bit too touristy for our travel tastes. It was a nice contrast though to the interior towns of Seville and Osuna.
And speaking of contrasts, we are now in Barcelona, a metropolis of 1.6 million people. Our hotel is in the Barri Gotic, or Gothic Quarter. We’ve strolled through the area on previous cruise ship stops, but as is our only complaint with such stops, they usually don’t allow us to see a city at night.
So we are soaking up the ambiance of the night as we stroll our ‘neighborhood’ streets - a warren of medieval twists and turns past buildings that date back to the 15th Century.
It is interesting to be back in a big city especially one that is known for pickpockets and theft. Our Hotel Colon, provided a security checklist for us upon arrival that included tips for street safety – jewelry, money and all non-essentials are left in the room safe each time we venture out – night or day.
And days have been spent strolling the famous pedestrian street, La Rambla, where the flower stalls were a bright contrast to a rather gray morning yesterday.
La Rambla gets its name from a seasonal stream that once ran here; rather hard to imagine this busy walkway was once a stream.
The only thing that might have been brighter were the fruit displays inside the Mercat de la Boqueria, the sprawling municipal market just off La Rambla, that is a highlight of a trip to Barcelona.
We’ll ease into leaving Spain as we will visit Alicante and Malaga before we head for the Atlantic Ocean. That is a good thing. . .it will be hard to leave this fascinating country.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Not far from our place we happened upon an 18th Century torre, or tower; once a bastion of security for this stretch of coastline. Its doors were locked so couldn’t explore its interior but gun holes visible in the exterior stonework set our imaginations soaring. What might have been the battles fought there?
A bit further down the deserted beach we happened upon another sign of the times, this one a bit more modern but none the less it let the imaginations soar:
For other travel photos, head to Budget Traveler’s Sandbox, the creator of Travel Photo Thursday.
The Mediterranean sun called out for a long morning stroll. As we walked towards Marbella our relaxed pace and the slow-paced beach activities could best be described as one of those memorable Dog Days of Autumn.
We watched dogs play in the ocean. Then sipped cafe con leche at a beachside cafe and watched the waves wash over the brown sugar sand.
The water was so clear we often paused to remark on rocks, shells and the shifting sand. We also pondered how a week could have slipped past as rapidly as this one has done.
We have a bit more sunning to do this afternoon, a final cocktail hour with our friends, dinner at one of the many nearby beach cafes, and then it will be time to pack.
Our friends fly back to London tomorrow and a few hours later we board our train for Barcelona, to begin the next phase of our Spanish adventure.
We’ve enjoyed this beach getaway - even with its few days of rain - and now that the sun has returned, we understand the draw of the Costa del Sol.
Monday, November 14, 2011
We are ‘at home’ this week in Spain’s trendy, modern tourist mecca, the famously over-built Costa del Sol, that stretches for miles along the southern coastline.
Home is a three-bedroom, three-bath unit with kitchen, dining area, living room and deck (with a to-the-side view of the Mediterranean Sea) at the Marriott Marbella Beach Vacation Club.
We are here, because we quite literally, traded places.
Three years ago, after a lifetime of saying, ‘We are not timeshare people!’ we purchased a timeshare in Hawaii – a Marriott property – and this year traded one week of our unit there (the small hotel-room-sized side, known as the 'lockoff' in timeshare lingo) for a week here in our spacious Spanish digs. The only cost involved was for the paperwork and administration fee of $169 – a miniscule amount in comparison to renting the same unit for a week.
The trading option helped us when we planned this trip. We designed the itinerary to give us a taste of the old historic Spain, such as we found in our hotels in Sevilla and Osuna, and this stay to experience the hip, modern tourist area on this over-developed, but strikingly beautiful, bit of the Costa del Sol.
We’re based on Playa Elviria, not far from the coastal town of Marbella. We’ve spent our time exploring nearby towns as Joel maneuvers our 'delivery van' to nearby cities and sites. We return in time for siesta at the pool, beach or room. We’ve eaten meals out and at home. Shopping for groceries at municipal markets, super markets and even at a roadside fruit stand has been easy and fun.
Our weather hasn't lived up to the area's name though. Costa del Sol, the Sun Coast, has been cloudy the last couple of days, with occasional bits of blue sky. It has rained a couple of times today, so we've been somewhat housebound but with this much space - that has not been a problem. And sunshine is predicted to return tomorrow!
Photos: Top: A view of Marbella’s beach, our living room, our unit (bottom floor) and one of several pools on this Marriott property.
Saturday, November 12, 2011
Those of you following along on our Spanish travels last heard from us saying we were off to meet friends who were flying to Malaga then drive to our current location, Marriott’s Marbella Vacation Club.
Sounded pretty simple when I wrote it. . .but as we’ve learned with travel, not every experience is what we think it will be.
The plans were determined weeks ago: we’d meet at the Avis Rental Car counter in the Malaga airport after they had collected their bags. We’d gone so far to find a map of the airport on line and located the rental counter – before leaving Kirkland.
A friend in Kirkland had flown into the airport a couple years ago and told us it had been a snap. So. . .
. . .we spent the night in Malaga and caught the high speed Metro train out to the airport. A snap.
The Avis rental car counter we were first told was downstairs in the secure arrivals area - a place accessed only by those with airline boarding passes; then we were told it was in the garage area with the cars. Our friends’ flight was a bit delayed so we decided to wait outside the secure arrival gate and catch them as they came through and all four would find the rental car.
Their side of the story is that just before that gate where we were waiting (and where we'd been told every arriving passenger walks through, there was a huge sign saying “Go no further, rental cars downstairs” so we waited outside the gate and they waited downstairs. And we waited. . .and waited.
Finally I dug out the directions for using our cell phone and successfully used my Seattle Verizon phone (which was programmed to make international calls) to call an English cell phone from Spain. Our friends answered and said they were at the rental car kiosk – but we thought they were at the one in the garage. . .Avis was the last rental car agency in the garage so think of a couple of football fields to access it. As we set off to where we thought they were, we chatted again by phone.
And then the phone quit working. I would dial their number and the phone showed, “No Access Emergency Calls Only”. They could call us, but got voice mail. We were still football fields apart.
Joel rented the car and began putting our bags in it only to realize it was too small for our bags, let alone for two more people and their bags.
Thus began an hour of switching cars, and setting off in search of our friends (this is a large airport with three terminals); they’d decided to search for us and we had the Avis counter clerk on alert for ‘friends’. Our friend got to the counter we’d been at minutes after we set off searching for him. . .it was just luck that we saw each other across the crowded garage as he was returning to his starting point.
A few hours later than planned we set off in our larger car. . .well, make that truck. (We’ve seen several bread and laundry delivery vans that look just like us):
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Spain comes to life about 7:30 each evening. Strolling to cafes, tapa bars, shopping and visiting all begin following the afternoon siesta. But even with people beginning to reappear, we often found ourselves on deserted plazas or taking routes that lead us down empty cobblestone streets in both Seville and Osuna.
The Main Square in Osuna, a gathering place for young and old in the daytime sun, emptied at sunset when the autumn chill made it too uncomfortable to sit around visiting. But it's emptiness made it the perfect place to fall under the spell of Spain's enchantments.
Travel Photo Thursday is the creation of Budget Travelers Sandbox so be sure to take a look at all the photos there. And I am posting this on Wednesday evening in Spain as Thursday will be a travel day - hopefully it is Thursday somewhere or will be soon. . .
Monday, November 7, 2011
“So, what about Osuna?” I asked Joel as we surfed the Web prior to this trip.
We wanted a place somewhere between Seville, where we spent the first four days of our visit and Malaga where we will meet friends later this week. We wanted a place that could be reached by train or bus.
I was looking at a web site called Inns of Spain when a photo similar to the one below made me suggest Osuna:
The photo is of the lobby/courtyard of La Casona de Calderon – a 17th Century noble family’s home in Osuna that has been converted into a hotel with 15-en suite guestrooms and a restaurant. A visit to the hotel's website and I knew I wanted to stay here even though we knew nothing - then - about the town in which it was located.
The rates for this time of year were so reasonable that we decided to splurge and booked ourselves a Junior Suite at 270E for three nights.
Elena Calderon, along with her sister Aurora, three years ago opened the hotel in this mansion that has passed through generations of their family. She greeted us and showed us to our ‘room’. When Joel said, “This is a junior suite?!” she answered that we'd in fact been upgraded to the suite – we'd call it a casita, a small house!
So here is our ‘suite from the outside (yes, the whole thing is ours)’:
No doubt about it, we've found an Andalucian treasure.
[ “Where are you going?” the bus driver asked. “Osuna at 11,” I answered.]
And 30 minutes later at precisely 11 a.m. we were off on our second phase of this Andalucian Adventure.
Osuna is located an hour and a half from Seville, nestled into the Sierra Sur foothills; an agricultural and university-town.
Signs remind visitors that we are in one of the towns on “La Ruta de Washington Irving.” (Irving’s “Tales of the Alhambra” is set in Granada but begins with his trip from Seville to Granada through the Andalucian countryside.)
We came here not for the town, but for the hotel that called out to us during an internet search back home several months ago. More on the hotel in the next post. . .today is about the town; a place quite popular as a base for hunting and fishing trips in the surrounding areas.
Although Lonely Planet’s “Spain” guidebook devoted a portion of a page to the town it didn’t prepare us for the enchantments that it held. Enchantments, remind me of Don Quixote’s travels – so it seems fitting that we are under their spell in a hotel that is on Plaza Cervantes, named for the author of the fictional character.
The first thing we noticed was that prices here are so incredibly inexpensive that we pause each time a bill is presented. . .”It can’t be THAT cheap, can it?” we ask ourselves. (For example, two caffes con leche (cafe lattes) with a large glass of fresh squeezed orange juice was 3.5E this morning - $5.)
We’ve wandered cobble-stone streets racking up double digit miles on the pedometer passing blocks of mansions dating back to the 1700’s; a church built in the 1500’s, a university with centuries of history. Plazas, fountains, squares; gathering places for young and old.
And then there’s the olive oil factories that fill the air with the smell of olives and olive oil. Those, too, will be written about later.
And then there’s the Roman ruins. . . We are headed out to see them this afternoon – obviously way too much to see and do!
Note: We’ve enjoyed using our Spanish – limited as it is – but it wouldn’t be necessary to speak the language to visit this area.
The photos in order: from the bus arriving in Osuna, one of the many “Ruta” signs in town and a view from the university parking lot out over town – the large building in the distance is a hospital.
Saturday, November 5, 2011
Our routing was an overnight flight from SeaTac that arrived in London at noon (about 4 a.m. our body time). A significantly long layover there gave us plenty of time to travel from Heathrow to Stansted Airport some 60 miles away for our three hour flight on Ryan Air flight to Seville. . .
We were awake and ready for night life as I mentioned before but found ourselves sitting on our balcony sipping a glass of wine at 2 a.m. with the three street cleaners who came by providing our entertainment.
We awoke yesterday at 11:30 a.m. But getting into the swing of Seville life we dutifully took a siesta and then headed out for the night. To bed at 1 a.m. The days and nights are now falling into a pattern of day and night, night or day.
Sunday is another travel day. We leave this town of just under 800,000 people with far too many places that we still didn’t have time to get to; but are eager to begin exploring Osuna, population 45,000, some 90 miles away. Tomorrow we travel by long distance bus – a journey that will take only two hours to complete. We will arrive in time for siesta and then it will be time to start exploring. . .
Hasta Osuna ~
Friday, November 4, 2011
The sun has returned momentarily and is shining during the afternoon siesta hour; I write this post while drying out my shoes and feet that got dampened in this morning’s rainstorm.
We arrived in Sevilla (seh-VEE-yah) during the normal dinner hour – 10 p.m. – Tuesday evening. However, we quickly learned that rainstorms curb the late night activities. The tapas bars in our neighborhood were closing at 11:30 p.m. so by the time we got to our hotel, dumped the luggage and headed out, we had time for some wine, cheese and olives and called it a day.
The rain which welcomed us Tuesday, let up Wednesday and returned full force last night and this morning.
Seville is spectacular – even when soaking wet. (The photo is of Giralda Tower and Seville’s Cathedral – we are a few blocks from here – this was taken the night we arrived.)
We had had a tapa-sized taste of this Andalucian town four years ago when during a day-long cruise stop in Cadiz we hopped a train and headed here. I noted then in my journal that the city called out for us to return. We are glad we did.
Writer James Mitchner may have described it best when he wrote, “Sevilla doesn’t have ambiance, is ambiance.”
Our ‘home this week is in the historic Santa Cruz district at the Hosteria del Laurel, a family-owned hotel, bar and restaurant on the Plaza de los Venerables (the vulnerable). Our spacious corner room overlooks orange tree shaded tables and the one-time Hospital-de los Venerables (retirement home for priests); today a.n art gallery.
The old concrete walls don’t conduct wi-fi so posts will be somewhat limited – and dependent upon visits to the neighborhood Starbucks.. .yes, they have several locations here.