I want to finish up my comments about taking a cruise.

Reasons for going on a cruise –

  • You want to go someplace remote like Alaska or the Greek islands that you can’t get to otherwise.
  • You want someone else to organize your trip for you. You don’t want to be involved in the nitty gritty of planning.
  • You like the fact that the hotel room goes with you. There’s no unpacking and repacking.
  • You want to be able to eat often and a lot.
  • You want a whole bunch of your friends to vacation with you.
  • You are gregarious.
  • Reasons for not going on a cruise –

  • It is really expensive. There are a lot of extras over and above the quoted price.
  • You don’t want to vacation with so many other people.
  • You like the ability to go off the beaten path, have a more intimate experience with the place you are visiting.
  • You like the idea of something happening spontaneously.
  • You are interested in fine cuisine.
  • You find that planning a trip is almost as much fun as taking it.
  • That all being said, we had a really good time. The staff on the boat was excellent. I also think your experience depends on which cruise line you book with. Some cruises have a smaller number of people on them, some emphasize the cuisine, and others have celebrities. A lot of people think that cruising is the best way to vacation. It really all depends on your own personality and expectations.

    Cruise – Day Six, Ketchikan

    We arrive in Ketchikan early and have about four hours to explore this city. You really get a sense of how sparsely populated Alaska is when you find out that Ketchikan is in the top five population-wise. One thing it does have is a lot of is rain. It rains 90% of the time. With all the rain and there not being a whole lot of sunshine this far north in the winter anyway, it’s not surprising that there’s a high degree of alcoholism, domestic violence and suicide.

    We don our raingear and go out to explore. There are houses built on stilts and a rushing stream that flows through town. The water is teeming with salmon that are trying to go upstream to spawn. Apparently there hasn’t been enough rain in the last week so the water is not quite deep enough for the king salmon to make the journey. They won’t use the fish ladder because they are too big. So they are gill to gill waiting for the water to rise.

    There are also a ton of stores in Ketchikan. Selling stuff to tourists is a big industry. I’m not a good shopper but Karen and Peggy both got some pretty jewelry here.

    Later, back on the boat, we play trivia for a second time and win in a tie breaker. Most of us are afraid to stick with our answers if they disagree with John’s. We need to be braver.

    Dinner, show, bar, bed.

    Cruise – Day Five, Sitka

    Today we landed in Sitka. Sitka has a really pretty setting with lots of little islands off shore. Our ship had to anchor out in the bay as it’s too big to come into the dock. Of course, we anchored out there with the other ships. We got to take tenders from the ship into the dock. These tenders are our life boats. I’m not sure I would want to be saved if I had to spend much time in one. I think a better name for them would be toughs.

    We made our way onshore and went to see St. Michaels Cathedral which is a rebuilt Russian Orthodox church. It had many interesting icons. There were also lots of shops and a native museum. The best thing we did was to go to the Raptor Center which rehabilitates injured raptors. There were several bald and golden eagles, some hawks and an owl. We managed to get there between bus loads of cruisers and had the place pretty much to ourselves for awhile. It was really the best thing we’ve seen so far.

    Later we went back to the boat and whipped some ass at trivia. Actually John whipped some ass but the rest of the team was happy to accept the prizes which were umbrellas. I think we will do this again! It doesn’t cost anything and you might actually get something. After dinner we went to the show headlined by an amusing magician. It was a good day.

    Day Four – Hubbard Glacier

    First, I forgot to mention that yesterday morning we saw whales which was pretty cool. They didn’t jump out of the water or anything but we saw fins, spouts and tails. Today is Hubbard Glacier day. Our ship waits its turn to approach the glacier. There is one ship ahead of us. We have a naturalist aboard and he is telling us all about the glacier. As we approach there are chunks of ice in the water, like mini-icebergs. The Hubbard Glacier is advancing so parts of it calve off all the time. When we get closer we are able to see big ice sheets fall off. It is hard to get perspective though – a little piece falls in the water and the naturalist tells us it was as big as a house. We must be further away than it looks. The ice is an eerie blue color. This is a really interesting part of our cruise.

    We are at sea for the rest of the day heading to Sitka. What to do, what to do. Karen and George and Peggy have been playing bingo the last few days, so we try that. $20 a piece to play. Seems like a lot. (Later when George gets his bill, he realizes he has spent $120 playing bingo.) It’s not something I would ever do at home and I am making fun of the fact that we are doing it until I am within one letter of winning. But, alas, someone else wins. We play a little bridge, eat at the fancy restaurant with the whole crowd of Peg’s friends, and go to the show. Another cruise day done



    Today the seas were calmer and we headed for Juneau. Peg and Ted have a helicopter trip to the Mendenhall Glacier and Karen and George are taking a whale watching boat. I am still pretty knocked out from taking the Dramamine and take a nap after breakfast. We decide to let the bulk of the people get off the boat, eat lunch and then go ashore. The lunch lines are much shorter and tables are aplenty since everyone is ashore.

    Our plan is to tour around the city and meet Karen and George at 3 PM at the Red Dog Saloon. Boy, is Juneau crowded. There are 4 cruise ships docked and the streets are like walking in Times Square. There are lots of shops and some historic buildings. We look in various places and watch the floatplanes take off. We also think about taking a bus up to the glacier but it doesn’t look like it will work out time-wise. As it turns out, Karen and George are delayed and we never get to the Red Dog Saloon.

    So far I have spent my time feeling not so good or asleep. We should have booked some excursion but I was afraid a smaller boat would make my mal de mer worse and I continue to be paranoid about mosquitos. Everyone who has come back from their trips have been really happy with how they turned out. Stupid, Marymom! Tomorrow, I plan to get more involved!

    Tonight we had lamb chops that must have come from a giant lamb (or perhaps a sheep?) We are keeping the bartenders and the wine steward busy as we while away our time. Later we go to a show that features the Oosterdam singers and dancers. It’s quite enjoyable and I like the dancers especially the cute blond guy.

    On to the Hubbard Glacier tomorrow!



    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.