Tuesday, December 20, 2011

There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays

Or is there?

We celebrated Thanksgiving in a most untraditional way this year a couple of hundred miles off the coast of northwestern Africa aboard the Celebrity Constellation.  

And you know what? We had a feast and ‘family’ and football. . .so did we really need to be home?
Thanksgiving dawned a blue sky sea day during which we traveled between Gibraltar and the Canary Islands. It was easy to leave our Pacific Northwest traditional celebrations.

Food and Football

DSCF2144But when it came to the food and football fest usually associated with Thanksgiving, I can assure you, we had both. Just not in their usual trappings.

Turkey with stuffing and giblet gravy, glazed ham, seared ahi,  and penne pasta were among the entrĂ©e's on the dining room menu.

Jamie Petts, the ship’s Hotel Director, explained during my later interview with him, that because the ship’s roster is made up weeks in advance of the sailing, the passengers’ ages and nationalities are known and staff can plan on-board celebrations and special meals accordingly.

In our case, there were many Americans on board, so Thanksgiving menus were in order.  (Similar consideration is given to other holidays and national events in other countries, such as Canada Day and their Stanley Cup games, or even world-wide events like America’s Super Bowl.)

DSCF2217Food orders for our sailing had been made eight weeks in advance and shipped to the Constellation by container from Florida.

The ship’s staff made sure we had televised American football. But time zones put those games at the end of the day instead of the start, so kick-off for the last of the games was after midnight.

And  our ‘Family’


We had opted for ‘select seating’ on this voyage which allowed us to chose the time we ate dinner. Each night we sat with different folks who’d also selected this independent dining option. 

On Thanksgiving we were seated at a table for six. . .a group that hit it off so well, we dubbed ourselves ‘the family’ and made plans to meet again during the cruise to continue our conversations. (The ‘family photo’ above was taken during our second, more casual, get-together).

Our Thanksgiving family was made up of a couple who split their time between the United States and Ukraine and a generational trio of ladies from California, whose family’s roots are in Jordan. Our conversations covered world history, politics, culture, travel, food and was mixed with plenty of laughter.  I hope we keep our vows to keep in touch.

DSCF2276And we had two bloggers in its midst! Galyna Tate, (pictured here with her husband, William,) writes about her homeland, Ukraine.  I’ve been following her blog since our return – it’s entertaining and informative.  Just click this link and see for yourself: Galyna's Ukraine

We don't feel the need to be home for holidays. How about you? Where have you found yourself celebrating holidays?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Beyond the Podium–Speakers at Sea

DSCF2338We basked in those unstructured, don’t-need-to-be-anywhere-or-do-anything days at sea on our recent transatlantic repositioning cruise, spending much of our time as the photo reflects.

We didn’t carry the daily program with us, as did many, to assure that no  activity or event would be missed.

We were so laid back  that sometimes we didn’t make it to the few we planned to attend. We had one exception to our lackadaisical lifestyle . . .


Niki Sepsas,  a Smithsonian Journeys lecturer and one of the three speakers on board the Constellation.

In 2011 Smithsonian Journeys expanded its presence on Celebrity ships with speakers presenting enrichment lectures on 99 cruises traveling in Bermuda, the Holy Land,  the Mediterranean, the Panama Canal, the Antarctica and crossing the Atlantic.

Cruise ship lecturers generally fall into two categories. Those like Niki; destination speakers whose topics are travel focused on regions the ship is visiting, its history, politics, culture and arts or those related to cruising, and maritime history, including pirates, Vikings, Phoenicians, or Christopher Columbus and other early day mariners.
Our other two speakers focused on aviation and cloth; those Enrichment or special interest speakers who talk about topics passengers may find interesting.  Needless to say, our interest was in travel.

Entertainment and Enrichment

In introducing Niki Sepsas, a 31-year-veteran tour guide and freelance writer, who hails from Birmingham, Alabama, our Cruise Director Sue Denning told the hundreds of us gathered in the ship’s theatre, “It is very important not only to feed and entertain you, but to enrich you as well.”
DSCF2320And enriched we were!   Each day Niki offered an enormous amount of information using PowerPoint presentations filled with facts and photos.

Absorbing so much information about topics like  “Gods from the East – The Sword and The Cross”  and “Indigenous People of the New World”   almost overloaded our laid-back  brains.

Okay, so true confession: 

I’ve always wanted to be one of those speakers. . .well, at least until they start talking and then I think, “How can they possibly know so much about so many places?!”  It was a question, I decided to ask Niki over coffee one day . . .

“It takes about a month to put together a show with the research and then putting together the images,” he explained, adding that he’s got some 200 in his portfolio.

HAL 2009 cruise photos 058And as the world changes, so do the presentations. Take Madeira, for example.  His talk about that island was scrapped when Portuguese strikers prevented our stop there. Instead, he switched topics as quickly as the ship switched ports.  And I might add, his “Gibraltar: Rock at the End of the World”  was one of our favorite presentations.

His enthusiasm for travel was contagious. Our fellow cruisers gathered around him after presentations to continue the conversation. Doesn’t surprise us at all that he’s been booked by several high-end cruise lines well into 2012. (He’s already done 23 cruises in nine months. ) Did I mention that in his non-cruise life he’s still leading tours in the U.S. and far distant destinations? And that in his 'free' time he still writes?

I've decided I'll quit fantasizing about being a speaker, I think I make a much better audience member.

Note:  Niki has also written a novel, “Song of the Gypsy” (2003) set in his parent’s homeland, Greece’s Peloponnese. Take a look at it – it’s on the  Amazon carousel on our home page (subscribers need to click the link to get back to the homepage). And as with all books there, if you buy any of them we earn a few cents -- we have earned to date, $1.24! 

If want Niki  to speak to your group or organization, his contact information is on his web site: www.nikiwrites.com

Thursday, December 15, 2011

TP Thursday: Malaga–Anything to See There?

“But is there anything to see there? we are often asked about places we have been.

To our way of thinking, everything is to see there. And some of  most spectacular aren’t on a tourist map nor do they require entry fees.

Such was the case in Malaga, a city of more than a half million people and birthplace of Pablo Picasso, on Spain’s Costa del Sol.

All we knew about its Ayunamiento, or Town Hall, was that a bus stop we were looking for was near it and that it was located in the shadow of the towering tourist attraction, the Alcazaba (which means Citadel in Arabic).

When we reached the building constructed in the early 1900’s, its Neo Baroque exterior stopped us in our tracks with its beauty.


With such a stunning exterior we had to see the interior. . .

All visitors pass through a security screening/bag check.  When the security guard asked our destination, we responded, ‘Estamos touristas ~ solo veyamos’ (‘We are tourists – we are only looking’) with me pointing to my ever-present camera to emphasize the point.

And then we were greeted by the most magnificent sight:


The marble stairway leading to the building’s second floor is bordered by stained glass windows depicting scenes of the city’s history from its founding by the Phoenicians to the entry of Felipe IV. We’ve since learned they were made by the Parisian glass studio of Maumejean.


We missed the second-floor Hall of Mirrors, a room so beautiful that it is often rented for civil weddings because we didn’t know it was there until after I did some research for this post.


Even without the Hall of Mirrors, the building’s interior was stunning. Paintings – the fine art type – turned our stroll on the second floor hallway into a gallery tour. We perused a hallway lined with the framed portraits of all Malaga’s mayors.

And I can tell you it is the only City Hall I’ve ever visited that offers a bidet next to the toilet in its public restrooms, (or WC’s as they are called there)!

If you Go:  El Ayunamiento is located on Avda. de Cervantes, phone number 34 952 135 000, website (in Spanish) http://www.ayto-malaga.es   Although we had no difficulty entering the building and exploring the hallways on our own, I noticed at least one web site advises getting permission to visit in advance by writing protocolo@ayto-malaga.es

For more photos from around the world, head to Budget Traveler's Sandbox, the creator of TPThursday.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Art of Airline Safety

I am a white-knuckler when it comes to flying.
Always have been and I suspect I always will be.

Because of that, I am the one on the plane who listens to and watches the safety demonstration . . . even though I’ve got it memorized and I could give the safety demonstration. 

I am so bad, I reach under the seat to see if the life jacket the flight attendants says is there, really is. In fact, I really fight the urge to rip it out of its storage bag and blow in those little pipes to see if it really does inflate but suspect that would terminate my flight before it began.  So after the demonstration, I read the safety card. . .

And I read it over. . and over . . . and over . . . again.  

Other than the tips it offers to keep me believing I could save myself  - and others - in the event of a disaster, I’d never really thought much about that card or its history until I read a fabulous  article, “The Unlikely Event” by Avi Steinberg  in The Paris Review blog, Nov. 28, 2011.

Whether you are a traveler, an art fancier or a history buff, I guarantee, you’ll love this cleverly written piece. It was so good, that now I think I must buy a copy of his book, “Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian” which was published in October.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

So, who runs the hotel on this ship?

Think cruise ship. Think floating hotel.

While our  Captain got us to our ports of call and ultimate destination, someone else was taking care of the hotel side of operations. On our recent  Celebrity Constellation cruise that person was Jamie Petts, our Hotel Director.

DSCF2192 We’d seen Jamie several times on deck and at functions aboard our transatlantic cruise, and each time he was answering what seemed to us to be an endless stream of questions.  (As he was doing in this photo).

So, I almost felt guilty about my lengthy list of question as we sat down in  his office, just off the lobby’s Guest Relations counter, for an interview that I’d arranged prior to sailing.

I really didn’t expect to have the interview as he’d been rather busy the first few days of our cruise dealing with the ship’s sanitization after an outbreak of gastrointestinal virus on the cruise before ours. But he’d assured me that he had some time available. . .
Sure enough. The ship’s Events Coordinator called on one of our sea days and told me that my appointment with Jamie was set for 7 p.m. that evening. . .as in, long after an ‘8-to-5’ day would have ended.  But that’s not the way cruise ship life goes.

“You are on a ship for four months and off for two,” he said, acknowledging  that while on the ship he was basically on-call 24/7.   So a 7 p.m. appointment wasn’t unusual – for him, it was part of his work day.

DSCF2239As Hotel Director, I was surprised to learn, that he’s responsible for: Food and Beverage, Finance, Data systems, the Cruise Director, the Guest Relations Manager, the Assistant Hotel Director, the On-Board Marketing Manager, Restaurant Manager, Bar Manager Executive Chef and the 850 crew members who work in those divisions.

He assured me that I wasn’t alone, as most cruise passengers have no idea the scope of the job, “One of the funny things is that when the Hotel Director is introduced people  always say, ‘The cabins are really nice’ and there really is so much more than just the cabins,”  he said, with his ever-present grin.

He left his home in Canterbury, England, where he still lives, and joined his first ship 14 years ago in Sydney Australia. He’s worked for other cruise lines and held a number of on-board positions along his career path. Three years ago he joined Celebrity.

DSCF2334“This is a fantastic job!” he says, “Each morning I get up and I never know what my day will bring.  I love my interaction with guests and I am working with my family, my Celebrity family.” (Here Jamie was representing the officers in a bean bag toss competition with passengers.)

He’ll be leaving the Constellation soon. He’s starting his shore leave but don’t think he’ll be sleeping in when he gets back home. He’s about to become a dad and that will certainly make for some 24/7 days!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

TP Thursday: Amsterdam Autumn

A seemingly 'bad' flight connection can often be turned into a 'good' travel experience, such as our overnight stay in Amsterdam last October.  Unable to get from Poros, Greece to Seattle, Washington in a single day, we found ourselves with less than 24 hours to see as much of Netherland's capital as we could such a snippet of a stop. 
We marveled at the multitudes of late-night diners, shoppers, strollers and bikers as we wandered the lively streets into the late night hours. We reluctantly returned to our hotel for a bit of sleep before getting up early the next morning to continue our explorations of the neighborhood. The streets that had been filled with people only hours before were nearly empty as we strolled along the canals before heading back to the airport. 

This photo was taken not far from Anne Frank's home, now a major tourist attraction that sadly we didn't have time to visit.  We will get there one day - when we have more time than a 'bad' connection provides.

porosamsterdam2010 012

Travel Photo Thursday is your chance to travel around the world in a few minutes thanks to travel bloggers participating in Budget Traveler’s Sandbox project. Click the link and start your journey!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

D2G loses to Spain’s Tapa Temptations

Yes, that healthy eating we’ve been touting for the last year – our Diet to Go, or D2G – met its challenge in Spain’s Tapa Temptations.

osuna 021 So we said “Adios” to that eating plan and each night saddled up to a tapas bar to eat our way through several of the small plates that offered a variety of meat, fish and vegetable tidbits; some of the best food we’ve had on our travels.

Potatoes and bread  – those things we’ve bragged about eliminating (or greatly reducing) in our lives this last year, were key ingredients in most of the tapas we ate. And Spain’s famous rice paella couldn’t be missed. . .

When in Spain eat as the Spanish do. . .and we did! In a manner of speaking anyway. Each night we’d wait as long as our American appetites allowed (somewhere around 7 or 7:30) and we’d go in search of a tapas bar. Tapas bars, like restaurants, don’t open their kitchens for hot dishes until 8:30 in most cases, so we’d work our way through cold dishes and wind up the feast with a couple hot dishes.

Tapas are generally inexpensive. So were the many varieties of Spanish wine we quaffed down with them.

Our best tapa dinner was eaten in Osuna, that charming small town outside Sevilla. The restaurant Meson del Duque, (Plaza de la Duquesa, 2, phone 95 481 28 45) had been recommended a couple of times so on our last evening we waited as long our our American appetites allowed and we headed out for what would be the culinary treat of the trip
osuna 020 As usual ‘los Americanos’ (us!) were unfashionably early so we had the place to ourselves. . .which gave us time to visit with Jose, the owner, left, and Paco, the bartender, to his right in this photo.

osuna 018 Since their tapas weren’t on display and we weren’t sure what was available, we asked Jose and Paco to select some plates for us.

They served us a mouthwatering short rib that you could cut with a fork, a fish dish, a pork dish and shrimp with a presentation resembling the horns of bulls in an unbelievably tasty sauce.

osuna 019So good were the tapas that we fell further off the diet wagon and ordered dessert – again their choice. Need I say this chocolate morsel was good?

Our last night in Sevilla we dined at Casa Tomate ( on the 'tapa bar street' of Mateos Gagos 24, phone 954 220 421) and decided to try the combination plate of three hot and three cold tapas; to that we added a half racione (half order) of deep fried calimari. 

As we started to order a salad as well – thinking we’d need a bit more, our waiter politely told us we didn’t need it – we had ordered plenty.  He was right as the tapas plate alone had anchovies, meat balls, veggies, Russian salad and a potato torte (tortilla):

seville 035

If you've been following the blog the last few weeks, I know you are probably thinking, "And then they got on a cruise ship for two weeks and ate some more?"  Yes we did, but I should tell you that we logged some 7 - 10 miles walking each day on land and on the ship either worked out at the gym and walked or did both.

While in Spain we marked the first anniversary of our D2G.  It has been a success despite the eating we did the last few weeks. We weighed in today and Joel weighs five pounds less than he did last year and I am down 13.5 pounds. . .and now that we are home we are back on the D2G way of eating.

Note:  The D2G is based on the Glycemic Load Diet as developed by Seattle doctor, Rob Thompson.  His book of the same title can be purchased from Amazon.com

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Celebrity Life draws to a close. . . for now.

solsticetransatlantic 006 Another taste of Celebrity Life came to an end today.  And as it did, we wondered how a 13-night cruise could glide by as rapidly as has this one. 

We arrived in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida at 5 a.m. Saturday, were off the ship before 9 a.m.  – and will be home by noon Pacific time on Sunday, after spending a night at a Miami airport hotel to make the airline connection.

 (This beach in the photo above  is the first thing you see arriving in Port Everglades; the last land you see when setting out across the Atlantic from the port.)

After its rather unusual sanitized beginning, our cruise quickly got back to normal.  The only evidence of the previous outbreak of illness was the continued emphasis on hand washing and sanitation, elbow bumps replacing handshakes and extra sanitation in the public areas. (And by yesterday we were hugging new friends as we said goodbye – with a blatant disregard of ‘bugs’.)

The two-story library was the only part of the ship to remain closed for the cruise – sanitation of books is a difficult thing, we learned.

The ship’s doctor reported Thursday that only 21 on this cruise had been quarantined and those as precautionary measures. (There are nearly 2,000 passengers and a 1,000 crew members on board.)

barcellonaandconnie 024 Our cabin was spectacular, and Isabelo, our room attendant, took such good care of us that we were  spoiled by his attentiveness to detail.

We were so spoiled we actually looked into hopping aboard another Celebrity ship leaving Ft. Lauderdale and extending our adventure by another week.

We decided that might be considered excessive by some of you.  However, I must tell you that we were introduced to a couple who have been on the Constellation for two months! They were getting off today and hopping another Celebrity cruise. . . now that did sound a bit excessive.

barcellonaandconnie 057
The last few days were filled with farewells and celebrations were held, like the traditional crew goodbye (photo to the right).

But I couldn’t leave you wondering about that glass of champagne I had been dreaming about being handed when I stepped aboard.  As I said things don’t always work out as planned when you travel, but good things do happen along the way, such as my champagne.  What can I say, but. . .?

barcellonaandconnie 037 Cheers to Celebrity Life!


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