Saturday, August 1, 2009

New Travel Blog!

I've setup a new travel blog that will be the ongoing home for all of our adventures as we attempt to visit 7 continents, 100 countries, and all 50 states in the USA.

Here's the link: www.paulandlibby.com

Friday, April 17, 2009

Cruise Review

This is my attempt at a cruise review. Before dealing with the particulars of our experience, I thought it worth reminding you that any review is really nothing more than a series of idiosyncratic opinions strung together. That is to say, these observations are only “true” insofar as they reflect my beliefs and experiences honestly. As a frequent traveler and repeat cruiser perhaps I've acquired some degree of connoisseurship, much as one develops an “eye for art” or “nose for wine” with experience? Maybe so. Nonetheless, take anything I say with the proverbial “grain of salt.”


Embarkation

Embarking in Barcelona was quick and efficient. We arrived at the port by taxi around noon and dropped off our luggage. We proceeded through security, checked in without any wait, and boarded the ship. From the time we arrived, we were eating lunch in the Windjammer Cafe within 30 minutes.

Ship

Overall, Brilliance of the Seas is tastefully appointed and well maintained. I was especially fond of the ambiance created by its decor, which felt a wee-bit more nautical and a little less Las Vegas than other ships we've sailed on previously. It's also very much a Royal Caribbean ship, complete with the saucer-shaped Viking Crown Lounge and towering, multi-story Centrum (see photo). Indeed, you can clearly see the evolution of the line's ships, dating back to the Sovereign of the Seas (which now sails on the Pullmantur line as simply the “MS Sovereign” and was in Barcelona on embarkation day).


This was our first voyage on one of RCI’s Radiance-class vessels. I'd admired them from afar and had always heard good things about them (seem “spacious,” extensive glass provides “lots of vistas,” etc.). I think those comments are generally true (with some minor exceptions). That said, I wasn't struck with the same sense of “awe” that I'd experienced when sailing on Navigator of the Seas (with it’s multi-story interior promenade, ice skating rink, and the like). Not that this is entirely a bad thing. Brilliance is more refined and understated. She's an elegant ship.

We especially liked the Art Nouveau inspiration in the casino (although the casino was a little small with [worse] coin-operated machines – a hassle making it not worth my while). We also enjoyed the Schooner Bar (always a favorite on RCI) and the Colony Club area (which is unique to the Radiance-class ships). The gym (plenty of machines and not crowded) and spa were both nice, as was the solarium pool area (especially useful in the frequently less-than-warm weather on this voyage).


My only complaint with the ship's layout was the Windjammer Cafe. While the food was decent enough, it lacked adequate seating. In fact, RCI made regular announcements to encourage people not to dawdle at tables. Perhaps this is less of an issue on warmer cruises when outside tables or poolside dining are preferred options? Nonetheless, this is the one area of the ship where I would have appreciated more spaciousness. To avoid the crowds and get a table alone, Libby and I were forced to either go at off-peak times (early or late) or eat outside in frequently chilly, windy, and sometimes wet weather.

Cabin

We had cabin #8504. It was an oceanview stateroom on deck #8 near the bow of the ship. We really liked the d├ęcor of the cabin (navy blue accents with medium toned wood trim). It was also sumptuously spacious. If a regular oceanview stateroom on Brilliance is approximately 170 sq. ft., this cabin must have been 15-20% larger. The extra room is equivalent to the outside area on a balcony cabin... only it was added floor space inside the cabin. Very nice!


Best of all, we'd only paid for an inside stateroom (and at a very low price at that). That’s right, we were upgraded to the outside (with a “retail value” nearly double what we'd paid per person)! This is the second time in the past two cruises this has happened to us on Royal Caribbean. I'm not sure why, but I'm not complaining.

Our only two quibbles with the cabin: a curtain rather than a door on the shower stall and it lacks Internet access.

Dining

Overall, we enjoyed the food aboard Brilliance of the Seas.

Starting with the buffest, the Windjammer’s food consistently ranged from acceptable to good: usually fresh, well-prepared, and at the right temperature. Breakfast consisted of a typical selection of both American and English breakfast staples. Lunch included a variety of salads (prepared and of your own creation), sandwiches, a number of warm dishes (which were most likely to be at or below par), pizza, and burgers / hot dogs, and cookies/desserts. Dinner in the Windjammer was a bit more upscale and less crowded. On offer were usually a selection of appetizers, antipasti, sushi, main dishes (usually from the dining room menu plus additional items), a “pasta your way” station, carving stations, and desserts.

We tried both specialty restaurants: Chops ($25/pp, which was excellent) and Portofino ($20/pp, which was uneven and thus missed the mark). Since I reviewed them in detail at the time, I'll skip repeating myself here (click on links above for details). Overall, we enjoy specialty restaurant dining and wish RCI would embrace the concept further. I'm happy to pay for a better experience.


Meals in the main dining room were enjoyable. We had a few dishes that were excellent, such as the lamb shank and the garlic prawns. I can't say anything was “bad”... though a number of dishes were mediocre. The portion sizes are modest (though you’re free to order as much as you wish).The dining room staff was very accommodating: from moving us to a table for two (which was confirmed before our cruise and then “unknown” once aboard) to ensuring that Libby regularly had coffee ice cream for dessert. Our waiter, Ozgur from Turkey, was especially friendly, efficient, and eager to please.

Note: if you’re interested in “My Time Dining,” which we observed but didn’t try, read my response to a reader’s question.

Entertainment

Gordon, the Cruise Director, was awesome. Without a doubt, he was the best we've ever seen: personable, humorous, and very talented. Overall, we also thought the nightly entertainment was better than any other cruise. We had a nice variety and nearly every act was good (if not great). Of course, this isn't Broadway or the West End. But, it was more than sufficient for 45 minutes to an hour of light entertainment in the evenings.


Shipboard activities were the usual cruise fare and generally not appealing to us. We basically only attended the port lectures, which were enjoyable if not particularly captivating. We would have gone to the art auctions, but they conflicted with the aforementioned lectures. We did make it to an art seminar (a kind of review of “Modern Masters” sold by Park West) and briefly observed a few cooking demonstrations. Otherwise, we amused ourselves frequently by reading or (in my case) writing for the blog.

Ports

Access to new and interesting ports of call (in the form of what I call “travel tapas”) is the reason we go on extended cruise vacations. In fact, we base our cruise selection decisions almost exclusively on the itinerary. For us, ports make or break the cruise.

I've included a brief synopsis below for each port (with links to individual blog entries):

Barcelona, Spain—a wonderful city and excellent departure port. Do yourself a favor and spend some time here before or after your cruise. Enjoy some tapas and your favorite Spanish beverage (wine, sangria, or beer). See the Modernista architecture. If you like art, visit the museums. People watch on Las Ramblas and then stroll through the Bari Gotic.

Palermo, Sicily—we love Italy (this was our 5th and most brief visit to the country, but our first time in Sicily). We could happily go back again tomorrow. We mostly visited churches. I especially recall the mosaics, which were exquisite. Oh, and get a cannoli, they're fabulous in Sicily!

Athens, Greece—one of the highlights of the trip. Sure, we got stopped by the fake police. So what? We spent a number of happy hours walking in the footsteps of the great philosophers of Western civilization. For us, it doesn't get much better than that.

Rhodes, Greece—our first experience with the islands of Greece. Not the most exciting port of call, but we passed a happy and enjoyable day on this isle (which, I might add, is tauntingly close to Turkey... another country we very much want to visit). Based on this sample, we hope to spend more time exploring Greek islands in the future.

Limassol, Cyprus—this was probably the low point in terms of ports. Our fault. We should have planned better rather than just exploring the port city (which has little in the way of attractions, including the very forgettable Limassol Castle). It did make for a relaxing day to prepare for our next port: Egypt. And, it was a short stop on a Sunday anyway.

Alexandria / Cairo, Egypt—this was the highlight of the trip! What it what I expected? No. Did it exceed my expectations? Yes. Sure, it was nice to see the Pyramids, but I can't say it was a transformative experience. Honestly, it's hard to be contemplative when constantly being hounded by the merchants from Rent-a-Camel and Papyrus-n-Things. More interesting to me was contemporary, modern-day Egypt. I'd like to better understand its people and culture. Egypt is definitely worthy of another visit.

Valletta, Malta—we loved this gem of an island in the Mediterranean! We visited (all too briefly) both Valletta and Mdina. We were captivated by its history, charm, and unique character. (Indeed, this is what we'd hoped Gibraltar would have been more like last summer.) If you have the chance, go to Malta!

Shore Excursions

We opted for two shore excursions provided by Royal Caribbean: “Cairo & The River Nile” in Egypt and “Mdina & Historic Valletta” in Malta. Both tours were well organized and on balance worth the time and money. In general, we’re not big “shore excursion” people, as we prefer independent exploration. That said, I’d recommend taking a tour organized by the ship in Egypt (read details of what to expect here). In Malta, it’s not needed (especially if you have a full day) or if you only wish to explore only Valletta. But, for the $43/pp., it provided an efficient means of sightseeing.

Disembarkation

Disembarkation went smoothly. The day before, we were assigned colored luggage tags and given assembly locations and times. Somewhat inexplicably, Libby and I ended up in one of the groups earliest off of the ship (6:55am). This was a minor inconvenience as we really had no place to rush off to because we were staying on in Barcelona for two more nights.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Cruise Information Now Online!

Sorry that it has been a while since my last update. Now that we're home, we're starting to settle back into the normal rhythm of life. For me, that's sans blogging... which is a hobby I only induldge when traveling (or perhaps when I'm retired in 25 or 30 years [checking 401k performance...]... err, make that 40-50 years).

Here's my first batch of informational updates from the cruise:

Main Dining Room Menus (for nearly all days of the cruise)
Cruise Compass (for all days of the cruise)
Port Explorers (for all ports)

I plan to start posting actual pictures of the ship and ports in the next day or two. I'll also post my "official" cruise review. Once those are posted, this blog (in terms of active updates) will sadly be coming to an end.

Then it will be time to start planning our next adventure (probably our annual journey to London).

Sunday, April 12, 2009

In Atlanta...

We are catching an earlier flight home. We got lucky, and I was ableto get us confirmed on the 4:33 instead of 8 whatever. Once again, it is good to be "Delta Boy."

Saturday, April 11, 2009

More "Cruise Question" Answers

I had a few additional cruise questions that I wanted to answer.

Any "happy hours" on the ship?

None that I saw, but they did offer the usual "drink of the day" special.

Did RCI host a "welcome back" party for past cruisers?

Yes, there was a "Crown and Anchor" party that we were invited to (on Saturday night between the first and second seating) that we did not attend. I suspect, though I don't know for certain, that a seperate reception was also held for Crown and Anchor members above "Gold" status. We also had a Cruise Critic get together hosted by Gordon, the Cruise Director.

How was the casino?

It was ok. I prefer the one aboard NCL's Jade. I can't really "deal with" slot machines that still operate on coins. It's too much of a hassle for my small stakes gaming. I like to be able to print out a ticket and move on... otherwise, I feel like I just need to play until the money is used up so I don't have to carry around a pocket full of coins. (As you can tell, I'm not a gambling man by nature.) They did have penny (and I believe nickel) slot machines. The first night also had lower table minimums. We played a little video poker on one sea day and that was about it.

Barcelona: Good to the Last Croquete

The day started out with torrential rain and thunderstorms. Fortunately, the rain subsided by 8am. We were out and about by nine, heading back to Montjuic to visit the Joan Miro Foundation. We were familiar with Miro's work, having viewed it in a number of collections around the world. For some reason, I've never come to love it (or even particularly like it). I'd hoped this was be a transcendent experience much like my visit to the Chagall Museum in Nice (or my unexpected discoveries of Ellsworth Kelly in San Francisco, Jeremy Moon in London, and Blinky Palermo in Munch). Yet, while I came away feeling better informed, I was still unmoved. Libby felt likewise. Oh well.

Next, we went to the Boqueria Market for browsing and lunch. Yum! This place is on par with my beloved Borough Market in London. It's positively a cornucopia of fresh meats, seafood, and produce. Gigantic Serrano hams (photo below). Chorizo by the mile. Mountains of ripe fruit. Oceans of fish and crustaceans. If only our kitchen were packed into my suitcase!


After lunch, we visited the church of Santa Maria del Mar and the Modernista masterpiece of the Palau de la Musica Catalana. By late afternoon, we'd finished sightseeing and headed for shopping on the upscale Passeig de Gracia. And, guess what? Libby bought another handbag... a TOUS from the “Cubik” collection this time, a Spanish brand with (we learned) boutiques in the United States. Who knew? Who cares (hopefully Libby won't read this, lest I get in trouble for that last comment)?

Tonight dinner was at Qu Qu. More tapas. All were good, including the Qu Qu house wine (a quaffable rioja at only 7 euro per bottle). We grabbed a sweet treat and a coffee on the way back to our hotel.

Now it's time to finish packing and get ready for bed. We fly home early tomorrow.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Barcelona: Art, Rain, and Tapas

Today, we went up to Montjuic and visited the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. Here's a view from the outside of the museum:


We'd intended to tour the Joan Miro foundation's museum, but we detoured thinking we'd pop in to briefly check this other museum out first. Well, it turned out to be better than we expected. The Romanesque and Gothic collections (especially the Romanesque) were excellent. What made the Romanesque works particularly interesting was the display: the painted interiors of 11th and 12th century churches were actually removed (I assume to preserve them) and then reconstructed on life-size wooden supports that mimicked, for example, the apses of the churches from which they'd been removed. I don't recall every seeing anything like this, at least not on this scale. It made for a unique and interesting display. The “modern” collection, however, was largely forgettable aside from some interesting Modernista decorative arts.

By the time we left the museum, it was nearly 1pm. So, we opted to return to central Barcelona in search of a quick snack and a stroll through La Ribera and the Bari Gotic. Ideally, I'd hoped to visit the Boqueria Market, which I've heard is a gourmand's paradise. Unfortunately, the weather (rain, again) and religion (most shops closed for Good Friday) conspired against us. So, we mostly wandered about, getting ever more soaked, only to be met with “closed” signs at each destination.

We returned to the hotel by 4pm to dry off. We left again around 5ish for dinner (tapas!). Tonight we ate at Ciudad Condal, another cerveceria / tapas bar.


We enjoyed classic dishes such as patates braves, calamari, “Russian salad” (a form of “tuna salad” really), and croquetes. We also had a really uniquely prepared artichoke dish: hearts, sliced paper thin and deep-fried. For dessert, we picked up something from a local pastry shop near the hotel. And, I enjoyed a wonderful cafe con leche. Oh, how I love coffee in Europe!

Not sure of our plans for tomorrow. It will likely depend on the weather.