Thursday, December 31, 2009

Cruising into 2010 - Happy New Year!

Each new year brings the promise of new destinations. . .new deals. . .new discoveries. . .new friends who share a passion for travel. . .books to be read. . . and maps to be studied.

We've been watching certain Australian/Asian cruises for several months now -- by monitoring the fluxation of prices on a variety of internet sites, such as CruiseCon, and Vacations to Go, from whom we receive emails regularly announcing sales and deals from all cruise lines. Then when a particular cruise really hits our fancy we turn to our friends at a web-site where we remain anonymous while obtaining price quotes on that particular cruise from cruise specialists from throughout the country, who respond to our request.

And yes, the prices do differ - sometimes by hundreds of dollars for the same cabin categories. We thought this balcony cabin was a great deal at $125 per night on Holland America's transatlantic crossing last spring; and friends, using a different agent, booked the same cabin 10 doors down for $100 per night.

Our continuing recommendation to friends who are new to cruising - sometimes heeded and other times not -- is to get quotes before booking your floating adventure. We've saved money and had on-board credits, shore excursions and parties as result of shopping around. In fairness, sometimes the quote is no better than that given by agents we have dealt with in the past, in which case we end up returning to the agency we've previously used. . . but we have found deals by shopping around.

Before we book any cruise we routinely refer to where we find a comprehensive report by Cruise Critic staff on ships, and extensive cruise ship reviews by fellow cruisers and information on the cruise line industry and ports of call. keeps tabs on all aspects of the industry and in a recent update noted that 15 new cruise ships will be debuting world-wide in 2010 in cruise lines ranging from Holland America and Costa to Norwegian and Cunard.

For cruise bargain hunters like us, they predict cruise deals will be harder to nab as prices are heading back up to pre-2009 levels. Sounds like there will be deals in the shoulder season and for last minute (gotta fill the boat) bookings.

for now we continue to ponder prices and cruise destinations. As the year goes along we hope to hear from you about your travel plans and recommendations. Here's to 2010!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Vegas "Deal-ing"

We are taking a Vegas sunbreak thanks to Expedia ( dealing up some good prices on packages. We'll fly round-trip, on Alaska Airlines ( from Seattle, staying four nights at Wynn for $808 - total package price for two. It was a winning hand for us.

We probably should have tried one of the new City Center hotels ( the $11+ billion, 68-acre mega-development on the Las Vegas Strip between the Bellagio and Monte Carlo, but decided to stay loyal to Wynn, where we have consistently had great service, enormous rooms with floor to ceiling windows that provide expansive views such as the one I added to this post. (For those not familiar with Vegas, that space-age like structure at the bottom of the photo is the entry to the Fashion Show Mall.)

City Center began its phased in open this month so we do plan to explore the hotels there: Aria, the hotel/casino with 4,004 guestrooms, 16 restaurants and 10 bars and lounges; the non-gaming Vdara Hotel and Spa, which brought a total 1,495 new suites to the Vegas inventory; and the Mandarin Oriental, a combination of 392 guestrooms and 225 residences - and six restaurants.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Seattle: America's Most Literate City

Seattle, our neighbor to the west, has reclaimed the title of America's "Most Literate City" it was reported in today's Seattle Times newspaper. In an annual survey that has been conducted since 2003 by Central Connecticut State University, the Emerald City has reclaimed the number one spot. Seattle was first in number of bookstores per 10,000 population and fourth in library usage.

It's worth visiting the Seattle Public Library because of its architectural fame alone. If you find yourself in town, make it a point to drop by and explore the structure. Another stop for book lovers is The Elliott Bay Bookstore, ( the near legendary independent bookstore, that for decades has been located in the city's southcentral Pioneer Square area. This spring the store will be relocating to a new Capitol Hill location, on 10th Ave. between Pine and Pike. Although the location is new, the building is vintage Seattle; built in 1918 and complete with squeaky wood floors. The new location will have space for a cafe and author's speaking area.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Countdown to 2010 Olympics

Washington State is as giddy over the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympics as are our friends to the north. Those in our tourism industries are hoping to catch a bit of the spotlight as it sweeps the Pacific Northwest landing on the host city, Vancouver B. C.

I noticed the Bellwether Hotel ( about 50 miles to the south of Vancouver in Bellingham, WA is in the spirit, offering an Olympics package: At the Gold level your three-night stay for two persons includes a personal town car service to and from Vancouver and other goodies, starting at $6,300. The Silver will get you the same length of stay in an Executive waterview room and a daily shuttle starting at $1,320. At the Bronze you also stay in a waterview room but you are on your own for transportation. That starts at $669.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Cruise News: Cunard's World Cruise

One of our favorite website's Cruise Critic ( reported last week that a couple from Leeds, England who had been guests on the high-end Cunard cruise lines world cruise in Jan. 2008 had sued the company because of the bad weather they experienced along the way, the sleepless nights they had experienced and for resulting health problems. They had paid nearly 100,000 in US dollarsfor the cruise.

A Yorkshire Court awarded them $80,000US in refund and additional $36,000 in damages. Need I say Cunard is appealing the judgement? Read the article on Cruise Critic for details of the couple's complaint. Any one who's ever cruised will find it good for a chuckle.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Austin: Strolling through History

It is easy to stroll through history in Austin, with only a word or two of caution: sidewalks are uneven in places as mighty Oak tree roots have shifted cement slabs in certain sections over the decades. The town also has a strange way of sloping sidewalk handicap access points at a street corners - making it easy to trip over curbs in places you thought should be flat. And sidewalks sometimes have stairways and elevated sections in them. This is only worth mentioning because there is so much history to see on a simple walk through town that it is hard to pay attention to the surface on which you walk.

The Historical Commission has done a thorough job of telling the story of Austin's buildings by posting signs on those of historical significance. Stop by the Visitor's Center on 6th Street and pick up a brochure if you don't want to set out on an uncharted course of exploration.

Among our favorite historica buildings were The Driskill Hotel ( just off Sixth St. and The Austin Club ( on Ninth St. The hotel, built in 1886 by cattle baron Jesse Driskill, has 189-guest rooms in its Historical and Traditional wings. We began our weekend days with breakfast in its cafe/bakery and ended them sipping locally brewed beer in its bar. The Christmas season kicked off while we were in Austin so the enormous lobby with its columns and marble floors had a centerpiece tree that stretched to the ceiling. We found its food and beverage prices reasonable, if not on the inexpensive side for a luxury hotel; a tumbler-sized glass of fresh squeezed orange juice was $4 and a pint-sized brewskie $5.
Three blocks away, The Austin Club, is housed in the one-time Millett Opera House, built in 1878 by Captain Charles Millett. Over the years the Opera House has hosted legislative sessions, political conventions, dances and roller skating. The building is now owned by the Austin Independent School District and is being leased to the private club.

The Club's website offers a link to the history of the club and the building. One of the stories it features is that of "Priscilla" the Third Floor Ghost. As the story goes, Priscilla, was an opera singer who fell to her death from a catwalk above the stage on the night prior to her wedding. Periodic Priscilla sightings have been reported by both guests and employees over the years.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Keep Austin Weird

There's an unofficial slogan they use around these parts, "Keep Austin Weird". They have it on bumper stickers, key chains, shirts and other tourist items. It didn't seem that weird to us until we spotted this great pig-mobile parked downtown on a Sunday afternoon. A speaker I heard joked that he had spotted a bumper sticker in Houston that read, "Keep Austin 150 miles from Houston".

Monday, December 7, 2009

Austin: Hook 'em Horns

Texans are known as enthusiastic football fans. So much so that a book Friday Night Lights was written about their high school football mania and subsequently led to a television series in the U.S. We had our own taste of Lights Saturday night when the University of Texas at Austin Longhorns met the Nebraska Cornhuskers in their Big 12 championship game. As West Coast Pac-10 football fans we thought we knew football fan support . . .wrong!

The Texas Horns, as they are called, 'hooked 'em' in the final second of the game with a field goal. Score: 13-12. We were standing (three deep) as tables and booths were packed in Champions in the Courtyard by Marriott when the magic moment occurred. As the football passed through the uprights, I am sure seismologists thought it was an earthquake when a city-wide cheer swept through the area - with an epicenter in our cafe/bar.

We strolled through a very quiet campus Sunday morning and these two statues to the side of their enormous Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium caught our attention. One shows the longhorn as a calf being greeted by a young girl depicting the joy and learning ahead of them and at the opposite side of the courtyard is their mighty longhorn mascot.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Austin: A chilly reception

That title refers only to the weather! My earlier post of 300+ days of sun and December temperatures in the 60's is not to be believed. They were anticipating snow yesterday, yep y'all, snow. Thursday night they announced schools would be shutting down at noon - just in case. Joel reports seeing a few flakes. However, the sun finally reappeared and the temperatures continued to drop. Last night's temperatures were predicted to be 24 - 35-degrees.

Locals we've chatted with more than make up for the chill outside. They are warm and welcoming and more than ready to visit. Tourist bureaus everywhere could learn from this city whose unofficial motto is "Keep Austin Wierd". We've seen an ecclectic mix of cowboy, urban hippie, business folks and visitors as we've bundled up in long johns and layers of clothing to explore this pedestrian-friendly Capitol of the Lone Star State.

Tonight the town welcomes Christmas with songs and celebration. Christmas carols will be sung on the steps of the Capitol. It was refreshing to see a Christmas tree in the chamber of the House of Representatives. Instead of arguing about symbolism, as our state does, here they are celebrating the state of Texas with each representative having an ornament on the tree with a scene depicting the area they represent. For example, Tyler, known for its roses, has a beautifully decorated globe with red roses on it.
And none of this Happy Holidays - this morning the man in front of me at Starbucks turned and wished me in no uncertain terms a "Merry Christmas!"

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Cattle, cowboys. . .and wine?!

We know its reputation and claim to fame is live music, but the fact that Austin is in the heart of Texas still conjours up images of the ol' Wild West. . .cowboys and cattle, blue jeans and boots with spurs. Wine country didn't really come to mind.

But a bit of research prompted by a recent article in the New York Times took us to the web site of the Texas Wine Trail ( Austin's location is perfect for wine country exploration through the Texas Hill Country, which is home to some 24 wineries. While we won't have time to explore the trail, we'll make it a point though to sample some Texas vino while visiting some of Austin's wine bars like Cork & Co. or Max's Wine Dive. With names like that we can't pass them up.


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