First-time Cruising

I admit it: cruising has never been high on my travel list. I understand the appeal for many people, but I had my reasons why I steered clear. Recently, however, several factors came together to nudge me onboard. Like a good traveller, I tried to set aside my preconceptions and be open to a new experience.

After eight days at sea, I had compiled a stack of notes too long for one blog, so I’ve broken the topic up into two. This first entry will discuss the basics: general comfort and atmosphere, stateroom, food and beverages, computers onboard, and staff. I’ve assigned a letter grade for each category and included jottings about whatever caught my notice, good or bad. Since this is my first cruise, I’m not sure whether some things are specific to the cruise line (Norwegian) or common to the whole industry, however, one of my travel companions has cruised before and we were able to compare experiences, which gave me some context.

General Comfort & Atmosphere  Decor ranged from bright and colourful to garish in some areas (e.g., purple, orange, and silver in one lounge). Staterooms were calmer and more tasteful. Twelve elevators seemed sufficient to transport everyone at most times, except when large crowds came through at the same time (e.g., when the theatre shows let out, there might be short waits). Pools were small but adequate, since surprisingly few people actually go in. Staff were vigilant about keeping youngsters out of the adult pool (bonus if you’re an adult, not so much if you’re underage and trying to sneak in).

It could be hard to find quiet spaces outdoors, as there was almost always loud music broadcast. Even in the upper-deck “quiet zone” you could still hear it.

Grade: A-

Stateroom  Our room in the cheapest price range was excellent, more space than we expected , bed large and comfy, everything clean and in good repair, TV remote didn’t work probably due to a dead battery. Despite it being an inside cabin, it was quiet and had no smells. I am not claustrophobic, so having an inside cabin (no window) didn’t bother me.

Pet peeve: toilet set into bathroom at an angle that made sitting on it straight impossible, I had to sit sideways. Awkward and uncomfortable. (I know—too much information!)

Grade: A

Food  We did not eat in the paid restaurants but tried all the included (free) eateries. Food was plentiful, available nearly round the clock, and of solidly good–not brilliant–quality. Full disclosure: I’m not much of a foodie when it comes to savouries. For me, the main dishes were fine. However, my companion–who has cruised before–was not impressed, especially when she compared to her previous cruise on another line.

Pet peeve: French fries were universally crap. Thin and cold, like they salvaged them out of the trash bins of the closest fast food joint. Come on, folks, I know you can do better than this.

Grade: B

Desserts  Given their central position in my solar system, desserts form a separate category. Sadly, most were based on the “pretty but virtually tasteless” model. What my companion has aptly christened “sweet goo.” Comes in a variety of colours and shapes, sometimes shaped like cake, sometimes in a bowl, but always the main “flavour” is sweet. I stopped eating these after one day, having sampled enough to know they would all follow this pattern.

Bonus point: what saved desserts from a D grade was the crepe bar, where the chef hustled up fresh crepes with your choice of toppings. Yum.

Grade: C-

Beverages  The expected restrictions (pay as you go alcohol and soft drinks) aside, beverages did not impress. Watery, sugary “fruit” drinks and unsweetened ice tea were on offer at meals, plus coffee & tea.

Pet peeve: fruit drink bar. Fresh fruit and veggies aren’t expensive–they provide racks of them at every meal. But if you want those same fruits and veggies freshly squeezed and blended, you have to pay. That’s just stupid.

Saved from C- by unrestricted palatable water and ice.

Grade: C

Computer  Internet available but expensive. I wonder how long they’ll hold out on this one, considering that the grubbiest little cafe onshore anywhere now provides FREE wifi and people expect it.

Pet peeve: the onboard Internet cafe computers do not provide any programs for general use e.g., Word. They only allow paid access to Internet.

Grade: D

Staff  In general, I found the staff to be excellent, very friendly, helpful, and efficient. 

Bonus point, bumping this grade from A to A+, goes to the Washy-Washy Lady* who turns an incredibly dull but vital task into a bouncy moment of song-and-dance fun. For me, and, I’m sure, everyone else on the cruise, it will be her face, voice, and cheery greeting that stays in memory.

Grade: A+

*For you fellow cruise neophytes, the Washy-Washy Lady stands at the main door of the central dining room with a spritzer full of hand sanitizer, encouraging and assisting everyone to cleanse their hands before eating. Our WWL was a smiling, ad-libbing, entertaining individual who, I’m sure, had a night job headlining at some Philippine cabaret.

To be continued.

 

Talk May Be Cheap, But Travel Talk is Beyond Price

I love it when people share their travel experiences with me.

I have read that the Internet is replacing one-on-one discussions with those you actually know in favour of anonymous opinions online. Probably it’s true that when Jill wants to get more information about a movie or a restaurant, instead of phoning James to hear what he has to say, she likely turns to Google. It’s fast, it’s free, and hey, 1,257 reviews by total strangers can’t be wrong, right?

I admit that I read those 1,257 reviews, too (okay, maybe not all of them). But I value the reports from my friends and even from casual acquaintances much higher and I take the trouble to seek them out.

On a recent trip, I spent 20 minutes with a taxi driver as he conveyed me to the airport. As often happens, he was an immigrant and quite happy to talk about his homeland, Croatia. As he described the blue of the Adriatic Sea, the historic streets of Dubrovnic, and the beauty of the islands, I was captivated. I had never thought about visiting that area before, but now, I was eager to learn more.

By coincidence, I soon had two more chances to share the experiences of people who were familiar with Croatia. At a dinner party, I met another immigrant who, with a little encouragement, was equally eager to rhapsodize about his native country. Following that, I met up with some friends who, I remembered, had travelled through eastern Europe recently. Had they visited Croatia? Yes, indeed, they had, and the conversation revolved around their impressions (also favourable).

By asking a simple question or two, I can open up a world of first-hand knowledge and experience.

So have you travelled anywhere recently?

What’s your favourite place that you’ve travelled to?

Were you born here? Tell me about the place where you grew up.

From the ensuing discussion, I learn much more than I can from online reviews.

First of all, people that you speak to face-to-face will almost certainly be honest. Anonymous online reports, not so much. They should always be taken with a grain of salt, because you never know whether a review has been posted by someone who was paid to say good things, or, on the other hand, by someone who holds a grudge. When you talk to someone, their genuine enthusiasm or disappointment comes through clearly.

Secondly, if it is a friend, I know that person and her or his tastes, so I can judge the information in that context. If, for example, I know Jill is a budget traveller who always seeks the least-expensive option, I’m likely to pay attention if she describes something as “value for money.” If James is the kind who likes pampering and feeling everything is taken care of for him, I might not expect him to enjoy a “roughing-it” adventure weekend in the desert that his girlfriend talked him into.

On the flip side, by listening, I learn more about my friends. How people react to travel—especially challenging situations—is very revealing. When James tells me about that adventure weekend and chuckles when describing the giant creepy-crawly in his tent, I may have to reassess my opinion of him and his travel tastes!

Finally, their experiences open my eyes to travel ideas that may never occur to me. When I go online, I have a specific destination in mind. When I talk to people, I’m open to any travel idea they care to share with me.

So talk to your friends, and even strangers, about their travels. What they have to say is—as MasterCard would put it—priceless.

Have you received a priceless piece of travel information from talking with friends or strangers? I’d love to hear about it.

Wild Animals I Have Annoyed

Elephants are majestic and beautiful. The babies can even be cute, with those little trunks and mischievous eyes, hiding between Big Mama’s massive legs. Awwww.

Elephants can also be very, very scary.

It was my second trip to Africa and I had already seen a lot of elephants. Elephants tearing up trees for lunch. Elephants bathing in rivers and rolling in the wet mud. Elephants playing or trundling across the horizon on elephant business. I had been extremely close to some of those pachyderms. Not that I approached them, but often when I stopped at roadside to watch, their meanderings would bring them near. They would continue doing whatever it was they were doing, clearly aware of my presence and about as concerned as if I were a small, harmless mammal, which is probably what I was from their towering point of view. They seemed like gargantuan but amusing vegetarians.

I had read all the safety tips for safaris and I never, ever left my car. So long as you’re in your car, the guidebooks say, the animals see you as a part of it and, since they have long since learned that cars don’t do much other than chug along well-worn tracks, they view you as neither prey nor predator and, consequently, of little interest.

As I drove slowly down one of the backroads of Kruger National Park, my car topped a hill. Below, about a hundred metres away, a herd of elephants was crossing the road. I stopped the car to enjoy the sight and to stay a non-threatening distance away. The group consisted of cows and their offspring of various ages.

As the parade wound down, the tiniest calf of all scuttled across, followed by the largest cow. I guessed that she was the matriarch of the group, bringing up the rear to make sure no one was left behind or nabbed by lions in her absence.

Maybe she was feeling especially protective of that newborn calf, or maybe she didn’t like the way my car was perched above them on the hill. Whatever it was, she turned in the road to face me.

Oh, crap, I thought.

All the signs of an elephant preparing to charge flashed through my mind. Direct stare: check.  Ears flapping: check. Trumpeting: check. Trunk swinging: check.

Double crap.

I threw the car in reverse and began backing up just as she charged. It is nearly impossible to drive rapidly backwards down a narrow, winding road while keeping terrified eyes on an elephant that is looming ever-larger in your windshield. Within moments, I missed the track and backed firmly into a thorn bush.

The elephant pounded up to the bumper of the car and stood there, swaying with menace. She stamped her feet so close that I was sure she was going to mash the hood. I wondered briefly if the damage waiver on the rental car covered crushing by angry elephant. She backed up and made repeated short charges at the car, trumpeting furiously all the while.

I remembered every detail of every photo and video I’d seen that demonstrated the destructive power of the great grey beasts—the tusk thrust through a window, the rolling of a VW Bug to the edge of a precipice, the flattening of a sedan when an ellie chose to make a joke out of reclining upon said vehicle.

I shouted to my companions: “Get down, and don’t look her in the eye!” as if the challenge of our puny gazes could incite this behemoth to any greater wrath.

The matriarch was shortly joined by a second, smaller cow, which ran around the melee, calling excitedly. I thought perhaps this was Big Mama’s teenage daughter, come to join in the fun of terrorizing tourists. Luckily, she provided a desperately needed distraction for the murderous matriarch. After what seemed like an eternity of close and hostile action, Big Mama turned away for a quick tete-a-tete with her daughter. Instantly, I slammed down the accelerator to send the car past the two elephants, and shot off down the road, in the opposite direction to the herd, needless to say.

Shaking with fear, I spent the next couple of hours reciting nonsensical expletives and repeatedly reminding my companions that we had actually just been charged by an elephant, like it would have somehow slipped their minds.

Do I still think elephants are majestic and beautiful and sometimes cute? Absolutely. Would I go to Africa again on safari? In a heartbeat. Do I want to see wild elephants up close and personal? Not on your life. But I wouldn’t trade this memory for a month of free nights in a calm, safe resort hotel.

Have you had a frightening encounter with wild animals while travelling? I’d love to hear about it.

NOLA & All That Jazz

louis_armstrong_restoredNew Orleans. Why does that name draw me? I’m not really a city person, yet I’ve always wanted to visited NOLA.

I definitely associate it with the exciting history of American music, for which I blame Ken Burns and his excellent series, Jazz.

Maybe it’s the hint of Mardi Gras that seems to linger in the air all year round. There’s the possibility of exotic Cajun food and French pastries to tempt, plus the proximity to natural habitats of bayou and mangrove that promise bird species for me to add to my list.

Since this will be a winter trip, the warm climate appeals; although I don’t expect to be swimming outdoors in December, I do hope to escape subzero temperatures for a while. I also like the idea of visiting an antebellum plantation.

The visit to NOLA will be a few days tagged on after the end of a cruise out of Tampa, not a huge amount of time, so I’m happy to focus just on the city and nearby.

I started by doing quick online research on the average Dec/Jan temperatures in that area. Double-checked that I wouldn’t have to worry about hurricanes at that time of year (whew!). I also used Expedia to compare the cost of flying into Tampa/out of NOLA versus Tampa in/out—it was actually slightly cheaper, hurray!

Next stop was my local library to pick up any available guidebooks. As it happened, they had only one on the shelf, but luckily, it was a good one: the 2016 edition of Moon’s New Orleans.

In its pages, I discovered that NOLA is the home of the Jazz National Historical Park, run by the U.S. National Park Service. According to Wikipedia, “…created in 1994 to celebrate the origins and evolution of jazz….The Park provides a setting for sharing the cultural history of the people and places which helped to shape the development and progression of jazz in New Orleans.” They actually have “ranger-musicians” who perform and educate visitors. How cool is that? They also offer a free brochure outlining an 11-stop tour of jazz history sites in the city and you can download an MP3 version of tour narration to listen to on your own mobile device. Historic education embracing modern technology. Go, U.S. National Parks! (DYK?—it’s the 100th anniversary of the USNPS. Happy birthday, you wonderful Park People!) The Jazz National Park moves onto my “must-do” list for this trip.

Thinking about a boat trip into the bayou, I scanned the guidebook’s list of tours, but didn’t see one that really grabbed me, so I Googled “birding tours Lafayette” and found The Atchafalaya Experience, which seems to tick a lot of my boxes: small tours, experienced, knowledgeable guides, philosophy of getting out into the bayou in a quiet boat and seeing what there is to see on that day, rather than chasing down ‘gators or specific creatures. I know that December likely won’t yield as many species as a spring or summer trip, and I won’t complain if I’m chilly or damp. On the up side, mosquitos probably won’t bother us much!

My companion, who has visited NOLA on business before, was keen to select our accommodations in the city, so I acquiesced gracefully; after all, I do 99% of the travel planning/booking, it’s good to let go the reins once in a while. He chose the Hotel St. Marie for its location (just off Bourbon Street), price (moderate), and streetside balconies, while I liked the reams of positive reviews on TripAdvisor. Let’s see if she lives up to her reputation.

Whenever I hit a new destination, I have to check out bakeries, pastry shops, and chocolate emporiums. I have a sweet tooth, but I have very high standards: pastries and chocolates that are merely sweet don’t cut it. They must have rich and satisfying flavours. A beautiful presentation doesn’t hurt—but I’ve had too many fancy cakes and bon-bons that were all looks and no taste to fall into that trap. In NOLA, I’ll be visiting Blue Frog Chocolates, Sucré, La Boulangerie, and Le Croissant d’Or. Good thing I have some walking tours ahead to work off all that sugar.

Speaking of walking tours, I’ll round out my time in southern Louisiana with at least one of those plantation tours. Not very politically correct of me, I know, but I will mitigate my guilt by choosing the tour of Laura, which focuses on the history of the plantation’s women, both free and enslaved. I’ll never be hungry again!

Anyone planning a trip to NOLA? Let me know what you are looking forward to doing, seeing, or eating.