IS A CRUISE FOR YOUSE?

TODAY’S RECOUNTS

Day One and Two

John and I have just returned from a Holland America Alaskan cruise through the inland passage. We left and returned through Seattle. The cruise was in celebration of my sister, Peggy’s, 60th birthday. She had a whole load of friends coming from the Chesapeake Bay area and we connived our good friends, Karen and George, to come too. We had a lot of fun this past week and it was special to be with my sister during her birthday week. But is cruising for you? There are pluses and minuses.

First of all, we had a great evening in Seattle except for Alaska Airlines losing Karen’s luggage. That was very stressful. But I think I’ll use a separate blog entry to blast Alaska Airlines. We had an evening of wine and small bites. First we went to Maximillian’s in Pike Street Market. We had a happy hour special of mussels, fries, tarte flambé and wine. Actually, it was our lunch. Nothing cost more than $2.95. It was really good. Later at the Marriott Harborside we sat in the bar area and had small plates from Todd English’s The Fish Club restaurant. We enjoyed a small flatbread pizza, little Kobe beef cheeseburgers, crab cakes and crispy scallops with tuna tartar. We all give the two dining experiences an A.

In the morning we are off to the boat, er, ship. We never quite got the hang of the nautical language and were always going aft when we should have been going fore. And drinking port instead of going left. Getting on the boat went smoothly and we had our first experience with cruise food on the Lido deck. For breakfast and lunch, you have to go around cafeteria style with a tray and select the things you’d like to eat. It sometimes is very crowded and it is hard to find a table. The food is so-so. I think the reason people think cruise food is so fabulous is because you can eat it non-stop. With so much of the food needing to be pre-cooked, you ended up with fish overdone, meat tough and vegetables overdone. Also, especially at dinner, the food often arrived lukewarm at best. It’s really difficult serving 1800 guests plus the crew. I’d give the food a C or C-.

We went to our room which was compact but with plenty of storage space. The bed was really, really comfortable. You had to stay tidy or the room could become a disaster fast. People say the room doesn’t matter because you spend most of your time away from it. But if you are like me, and need a respite from the onslaught of people, the room is important.

We sailed at 5 PM and were at sea the whole next day. It was really rocky. I had to take Dramamine. It made me so sleepy. I took a big nap the next day and missed the fun of bingo and trivia. I really thought there should be more things to do when the ship was at sea. Plus the things that you could do usually had an entrance fee or involved buying something, i.e. art auction, blackjack tournament, bingo, slots tournament. This is not a cheap way to travel.

So Day One and Day Two were not the best for me. Feeling sick and sleepy. But I hope for better things on Day Three when we visit Juneau.

Monterey, California

Last night we went to a new venue for live music called “Monterey Live.” It’s in downtown Monterey and has live music of different genres every night. It’s an intimate setting with tables where you are served drinks and small bites of your choosing. If you are planning on being on the Monterey peninsula you might consider checking out their website to see what’s being offered.

Right next store to Monterey Live is the refurbished Monterey Hotel. Originally built in 1904, the interior has been redone in its original Victorian style. Our room at $150 was reasonable for being right downtown in Monterey. You are within walking distance of the old part of Monterey and there are lots of restaurants and shops nearby. A couple of caveats, though. Our room was on the 4th floor and there is no elevator. That’s a lot of steps. The king size bed with its ornate headboard took up almost all of the room, really, there was hardly any room to walk around it to the bathroom. Our window which opened onto the fire escape and the street had no screen. There’s also no air conditioning but that’s not really a problem in Monterey. It is very noisy. Between gulls screeching, trucks going by, road repair, garbage emptying and the other people in the hotel just talking at a normal pitch, sleeping was intermittent. The water in the shower tended to vacillate between hot and less hot.

So you’re thinking, why would I stay there? It’s got a great location. It’s not outlandishly expensive. The breakfast room and continental breakfast are nice. It’s kind of cool staying in an old refurbished hotel. If you are considering staying in this hotel, make sure that you ask for a room facing away from the street and on no higher than the second floor unless you are in really good shape.

Wine Tasting 101

The first time we came to California on a vacation, we wanted to go up to Wine Country and do some wine tasting. We picked up the brochures at a visitor’s center and figured our route. Oh, here’s one that opens at 9:30! So if we go there and allot 1/2 hour we could be at the next place by 10 and hit maybe 5 or 6 before lunch. Then maybe the same or more after lunch. What a fun day! Okay, so what you learn is that if you try to do that much, you are going to be blotto by the end of the day. And remember, you are driving your car. Plus after 3 in a row you won’t be able to taste anything anymore. You will end up with a fuzzy dry tongue. Two in the morning and two or three in the afternoon is more than enough.

Years ago, it was free to taste wine. Then Napa started charging and now Sonoma does too. My recommendation would be if you are going to pay for a tasting, pay more and get the really good stuff. For instance, at Chateau St. Jean if you get the $10 tasting instead of the $5, you get to taste fine reserve wines. You can sit outside and they’ll bring them to you or you can sit in the big leather chairs and munch on some grissini while they ferry the wine back and forth.

The fellow behind the reserve bar at Benziger suggested this way to taste wine to impress your friends. After the wine has been poured swirl it casually for a while. Then hold it up to the light. Next, put your nose totally into the glass for a big whiff. Finally, take a sip allowing the wine to stay in your mouth a bit before swallowing. With your best bullshitting face, remark, ah, this wine is totally approachable. Means nothing and you haven’t given yourself away if you really don’t know anything about wine.

The Uffizi, Room 2, Florence, Italy

There is no way to make one entry about Florence. The primo place to visit for art is the Uffizi which means offices in Italian. You enter on the first floor but that’s just the business end. If possible, and you are visiting in the tourist season, get tickets ahead of time. Otherwise, you are going to spend a lot of time in line. Okay, you’re in. Stop at the first floor and get an audio tour. You can share one between two people but, really, I would get one for myself. Now the trek to third floor. Don’t bother with the second floor. There is an elevator but you need to be infirm to use it. Huff, puff, you arrive at the third floor and surrender your ticket. Now, not all the rooms are open and you usually enter at room 2. This is the Giotto and the 13th century room. Okay, three big Madonnas. Don’t just walk through. There’s a lot to be learned here. First of all, look away from the large paintings and look at the smaller ones. Wow, you’re looking at stuff from the 12th century. And no, they didn’t know how to paint, it was a time when painting was formalized. The features are flat, the background gold, and the secondary figures are small. But as you look around the room, things start to change. How exciting is this, to stand in a room where you see the beginnings of the Renaissance. By the time you get to Giotto’s Madonna, the figure is much more natural and appears to be sitting on her throne. Yes, there are still little angel figures floating in a background of gold, but Mary is solidly sitting. There’s a little perspective going on here. Her body seems real under her cloak.

Some of the most exciting paintings in the Uffizi are the ones where you can see a transition from one age to another. Stop saying to yourself, yeah, altarpiece, altarpiece, let’s get to the Botticelli’s. This is where it all starts. Spend some time in Room 2.

The Bridge of Sighs

And now we have come full circle from the title of today’s blog. The Bridge of Sighs is an enclosed, elevated bridge in Venice erected in the year 1600 to connect the Doge’s prisons with the inquisitor’s rooms in the main palace. The name “Bridge of Sighs” was invented in the 19th Century, when Lord Byron helped to popularize the belief that the bridge’s name was inspired by the sighs of condemned prisoners as they were led through it to the executioner.

And while you’re in Venice, one of the items on the list of top 50 things every foodie should do, brought to my attention by the Braisinhussy, is to have a Bellini cocktail at Harry’s Bar in Venice. Although I haven’t had a Bellini there, I have been to Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari where Bellini painted the Virgin and Child with Saints Nicholas, Peter, Benedict and Mark in the sacristy. This stunning altarpiece has Mary wearing her usual blue cloak and Bellini’s signature rosy pink dress underneath. The Bellini drink was so named because of the similar intense hue. If you have time when you are in Venice, have the drink and see the altarpiece. If you only have time for one of these, see the altarpiece.

Burgundy

Since we are talking all things French today, I thought I’d open a new category called “travels.” Last summer we spent some time in the Burgundy area of France. We headquartered ourselves in Beaune at the Hotel de la Poste. Beaune is a lovely town with an easily accessible “old town.” A must see is the the Hôtel-Dieu of the Hospices de Beaune, a hospital from the Middle Ages, built in 1443 to care for sick residents of the town. The building itself is beautifully preserved with an incredible multicolored tile roof. We had a fantastic meal at Bernard Morillon where foie gras was served in a gingerbread crust.

Probably the most fun thing we did was a spur of the moment picnic. We spent part of the morning going from one little shop to the next buying cheese, sausage, bread and wine. Off we went to the countryside, found a roadside table in Puligny-Montrachet and ate our picnic. Then we went to area wineries for tasting. At Chateau Mersault we took a very expensive tour and tasting. A better tasting was in Volnay where we just happened upon a small cellar and had the owner show us around herself.

On a more practical note, we found a laundromat and had the fun of figuring out how to do French laundry (not the restaurant!) Also, at a bike shop, there was a laptop where you could access the internet. Most everyone was helpful and nice and a stay of at least two days in this area is a good investment of vacation time.