Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Sea Days ~ Sea Daze

barcellonaandconnie 054 We are now more than half way across the Atlantic Ocean as evidenced by the map on our television screen this morning.  (We are the little red dot under the “O” in Ocean.) This cruise is taking us across this massive body of water in seven days. . .seven long, glorious days at sea.

barcellonaandconnie 040 We once thought that sea days might drive us crazy.  Really, we thought, there’s nothing to see but sky and water and no choice about getting on or off the ship. . .how interesting could that be?

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.

barcellonaandconnie 053 Changing cloud formations and sea foam patterns can be nearly hypnotic.

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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.

barcellonaandconnie 044 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.

barcellonaandconnie 055 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

Celebrity’s Sue Denning: She’s Got Talent(s)!

Our Cruise Director has toured the world in musical theatre and since 2004 she’s been a part of the cruising world as both an entertainer and a Cruise Director.

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”).

barcellonaandconnie 019 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).

barcellonaandconnie 034 “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.

*****              ******
barcellonaandconnie 033 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

The Rock of Gibraltar: A Gem of a Substitute!

My one regret of our Spanish travels was not having enough time during our Costa del Sol stay to visit Gibraltar. We’d decided it was just a bit too far down the road to tackle. . . not to mention the guidebook’s warning about length of time to cross the border from Spain into United Kingdom territory.

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. 

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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!

barcellonaandconnie 022 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.

barcellonaandconnie 025  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.

barcellonaandconnie 032 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

Celebrity’s “Connie”: Solstice-ized and Sanitized

Happy Thanksgiving all from off the coast of Africa. . .

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.

solsticetransatlantic 001 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.

barcellonaandconnie 012 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.

barcellonaandconnie 011 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.

barcellonaandconnie 013 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.

barcellonaandconnie 014 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

Barcelona: Adios Espana

We begin the final phase of this Spanish Adventure tomorrow (Sunday) when we board our Celebrity Constellation cruise ship here in Barcelona bound for Ft. Lauderdale.

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.

barcellonaandconnie 003 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.
barcellonaandconnie 002 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.

barcellonaandconnie 008 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.

barcellonaandconnie 009 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

TP Thursday: Costa del Sol’s Signs of the Times

While on Spain’s Costa del Sol we’ve headed to the beach each day the weather has allowed for such an outing.  Sunday morning we decided not to be deterred by the threatening clouds and headed out for a walk on this stretch of beach with sand so fine it’s like walking on sugar crystals.   We passed but a dozen others along the way.

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?

malagamarbella 032

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:

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For other travel photos, head to Budget Traveler’s Sandbox, the creator of Travel Photo Thursday.

Costa del Sol: Dog Days of Autumn

malagamarbella 045 Our last full day on Spain’s Costa del Sol is living up to its name.

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.

malagamarbella 048 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.malagamarbella 047   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.malagamarbella 046

Monday, November 14, 2011

Spain’s Costa del Sol: Trading Places

malagamarbella 023
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.

malagamarbella 017 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.

malagamarbella 030
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.

malagamarbella 034 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.


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