Friday, October 30, 2015

Wednesday, October 28, through Tuesday, November 17, 2015: The Cruise:

Becky, Barbara, and I took the 5:00 AM hotel shuttle to the airport without incident. 

At the airport, we hustled through security aided by our Trusted Traveler status with Homeland Security, and waited to get on the plane for the first leg of our journey to Rome.  Becky's sister Wendy joined us at the airport, having been driven there by her husband, Kai.  The United plane was supposed to leave for Newark at 7:00, but was a half hour late.  It was no big deal since we had a scheduled 3-hour layover in Newark.  The flight was fine.  When we got to Newark, we immediately headed for the fancy lounge for free food and booze. 

We had to take the Sky Train to get to a different terminal, and by the time we arrived at the lounge they advised us that we should head back to the original terminal in about 20 minutes!  That was a little short, so we cheated and stayed 30 minutes.  The next leg of the journey (also United) also started 30 minutes late but we actually arrived in Rome about 30 minutes early---after a flight that was uneventful---except that we noticed how the on-board service has gotten poorer since our last trip.  That is, the wine was served out of a box, and they were stingy with it at that, and the dinner was turkey meatloaf.  It was tasty but skimpy and certainly down-scale.  But we survived.

After arriving at Fiumicino Airport (Rome) we breezed trough immigration and customs,

and looked for the driver who was to take the four of us to Civitavecchia.  We went to the assigned meeting place, and waited.  After an unreasonably long time, Becky called the service, and was told the driver was late because the plane was early.  He (Andrea) finally showed up and we took the 45-minute drive to the Hotel Traiano where we will stay until Saturday morning when we board the ship (the Celebrity Silhouette).

We checked into the hotel at about 9:00 AM, and the girls proceeded to plan the day.  My part was easy, since I planned to rest while the girls were off exploring.  The hotel is nice, though not at all fancy, and the staff is very accommodating.  The have cable TV in the room with a zillion channels.  But the one I want to watch---Fox News---is not free.  They were not sure how much it would cost for us to access that channel, so we decided to go without it.

The girls returned from exploring, and dinner was announced for 5:30, to be picked up at the nearby pizza place (after a stop at the market across the street for some wine).

Pizza in Italy is nothing like pizza in the States, so ordering from the available stock was interesting.  I ended up with two pieces of (vegetarian) pepperoni.  In Italy, "pepperoni" refers to the various peppers that are the body of the pizza.  It turned out to be quite delicious, by the way.  After dinner, and a lengthy pick-up conversation with some people from Atlanta (Vicki and Claude) who:  (1) will be on our cruise, (2) have been on a zillion Celebrity cruises and know all the tricks to improve the odds of getting free or low-cost goodies, and (3) are more than happy to tell you about all of the foregoing, we finally hit the hay.

It was a pleasant sleep, but we're still adjusting to the time change (there's an 8-hour difference between Williams and Civitavecchia) so we were up at 3:00 AM chatting about things.  And Becky was texting some friends of ours from Denver who just happened to be in Williams, were having problems with the water heater in their motor home, and were seeking advice about local repairmen. 

Ah, the technology today.  Becky also responded to a "How Was Your Stay" inquiry from the Four Points Sheraton Hotel, and let them have it!  The Assistant Front Desk Manager ended up offering her a free stay in a junior suite next time we need a hotel.  She accepted, and told him it would not be until next November (when we're planning another river trip in France).  That appeared to be OK.  Becky cc'd everyone on the hotel's email list to makes sure we weren't forgotten. .

We got to the breakfast room promptly at 7:00 so we could eat and the girls could catch their train to Rome for the day's sightseeing.  One of the highlights was to be a tour of the tombs under the Vatican.  On the train they met a woman, Jane, who worked as a tour guide at the Vatican.  She led them straight to the appropriate place. 

The girls had a wonderful full-day visit in Rome.  There was shopping (Wendy and Barbara bought scarves), taking an official tour of the coliseum, climbing the Vatican church dome, etc.

I stayed back and vegged out.  That's my idea of a great time.  The gang returned, exhausted, but ready to head for dinner at a nearby restaurant.  Someone in the group of Celebrity passenger had arranged for a group dinner at Ristorante Da Baffone, about a 15-minute walk away from our hotel. 

It turned out to be fabulous.  For a fixed price of $30 per person, we had all the mussels and Prosecco we could eat and drink, plus veal, shrimp, calamari, garlic bread, and a dessert which I didn't hang around to have.  I had planned to stay on my diet on this trip, but it's already gone to hell.

Early the next morning, Saturday, we went to the local market and bought a bunch of wine.  Technically, one is not allowed by Celebrity Cruises to bring more than one bottle of wine onboard, so we devised sneaky ways to smuggle the extra bottles.  It turned out to be easy.  Andrea took us all to the ship.  We arrived a bit early and had to wait an hour or so before boarding.  It was no big hassle.  Once on board, we had to wait two hours before our staterooms were ready.  So we hung out, explored the ship, and had lunch.  Though nice, the staterooms are much smaller than I had expected.  We decided that we need to book suites if we ever take another Celebrity ship.  The ship itself is very posh.

We had the mandatory survival drill on the ship, which, thankfully, no longer requires us to carry out life vests to our assembly area.  While we cooled our heels in the assigned area, we learned that the people sitting next to us, Tom and Mary, were long-time RV full-timers.  It later turned out that their cabin was right next to ours.  Weird.

My checked bag had not arrived at our room before we left the harbor at 5:00, so I inquired as to its whereabouts and was told I had to retrieve it where we had got on the ship.  Down there, they gave me the bag and told me it had probably been held up because of a violation of the wine rule, but they didn’t do anything about it when all was said and done---so we prevailed after all.  In addition to its main dining room, which is free, the ship (The Celebrity Silhouette) has several “specialty” dining rooms which charge $45 per person per meal to eat in them.  That seems like a rip-off, so we have decided to eat in one of them only once during the trip---to celebrate our anniversary (though on November 11th, not on the 10th).  We also decided to splurge on a special “chef’s dinner” at one point, and we bought a 7-bottle “package” of moderately-priced wine, that we can draw on when we dine.  Supposedly, that will save us a bundle.  We’ll see.
Our first stop on the cruise was Livorno, which is considered the gateway to Florence, Pisa, and other parts of Tuscany.  We had arranged to spend the day with our “Italian son,” Francesco Gigante, his parents, Antonietta and Bernardo, and their family friend, Silvia Rutigliano.  Silvia could not make it after all, due to her father’s illness, so Micaela, one of Francesco’s cousins, joined us in Silvia’s place. The four of us took the shuttle bus to the plaza in the center of Livorno, where we had arranged to meet the Gigantes.  

They all drove down from Florence, which is their home.  We had not seen the Gigantes in five years and we had a wonderful reunion.  The eight of us piled into two cars and drove to Pisa.  Wendy had never seen the leaning tower so we had to make the obligatory stop there.  After that, we did a walking tour of the actual town of Pisa, which is delightful, and we had a wonderful lunch at Ristorante Galileo, a favorite restaurant of Francesco’s.  It was hard to say goodbye and return to the ship.

The next stop, on Monday, was in France, at Toulon, considered the gateway to the Provence region.  There, we had arranged for a tour of, essentially, three wineries, to introduce us to the region.  The wineries, Domaine de Sainte Roselyne, Chateau Font du Broc, and Chateau St. Martin, were all dazzling, but the second one was truly awesome.  It was built in 1979 by a verrrry rich Frenchman who designed the entire property to appear to be several hundred years old.  And it worked.  We had a ridiculously expensive lunch at a restaurant (Le Logis du Guetteur) which overlooked the entire valley of  Les Arc sur Argent, .  It was an altogether terrific introduction to the Provence region.

The next stop, on Tuesday, was Barcelona, Spain.  Becky had been there 40 years ago, and told us it was amazing.  She was right.  Our tour was by bus, with an excellent guide.  One of the highlights was a tour of Park Guell, a local gigantic landmark with an interesting history---dating back to 1915.  The park involved a lot of walking up and down slopes so I passed on the park and relaxed while others huffed and puffed.  I did enjoy the city, itself, immensely.  The architecture seems very French (a lot of ironwork on the balconies, for example) and the city is obviously quite sophisticated.  The bus toured the area where the 1996 Olympic Games took place.  Very well done.  And we had a stop at a nearby overlook with a magnificent view of the city.

Wednesday, our stop was at Palma de Mallorca.  Palma is the capital of the Island of Mallorca, which is part of Spain.  We had a bus tour of what seemed like the entire island.  The tour was very extensive and very illuminating.  My overall view of Mallorca is that it is very beautiful, very upscale, and very expensive.  It is quite obviously a playground for people of means.  The guide said many wealthy Europeans hop over there for weekends as a matter of course.  And it seems well worth it.  It is a gorgeous place.  After seeing the Bellver Castle and buying goodies (Mallorca pearls, for example) in Valldemossa, and visiting a few other places, we had a late lunch (the four of us had delicious Paella and Sangria) at a shore side restaurant (Mar Y Sol Restautante) in Port Soller. 

After lunch, we went to the City of Soller in which a highlight for me was the church in the town square.  The church was built in the 17th century.
We returned to the ship, realizing we had two sea days before we had to tour another place.  While the tours were fascinating, they were tiring (for me at least).
Thursday morning, I slept in (sort of).  Then Barbara and I had room-service breakfast on our balcony, followed by trivia. 

We were joined by some guys who were not as knowledgeable as we hoped, and we did not do terribly well.  It can be said that they were more certain than they were correct.  Becky and I had lunch in the dining room.  Our favorite waiter, Okayasa, served us. 

In the early afternoon, we attended the first lecture by our friend, Harry Murphy.  His topic was the early days of the movie industry, and his presentation was terrific.  There are to be several more follow-up lectures by him during the trip and we look forward to them.

Late Thursday afternoon, the Captain announced that we  had sped up so we could pass through the Strait of Gibraltar in daylight, enabling us to see the famous rock.  It didn't look as I had imagined.  I'm told my viewing angle was wrong. 

Friday was another day for trivia.  Barbara and I do fairly well, especially when we are by ourselves, as we were today.  But we have yet to come even close to winning.  Later, there was another lecture by Harry Murphy, this one about the famous women in films.  He spent most of the time with a detailed history of Marilyn Monroe.  Very interesting.  While the girls are doing their athletic things, I am doing crossword puzzles and Free Cell.  I’m loving it.  That evening, Harry and his wife, Debby, joined the four of us for the first of the scheduled three formal dinners.  It was fun spending time with them.

Saturday was another tour day.  We docked at Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, and met our tour guide, Javier, a young native of Tenerife.  The focus of this tour was the Teide National Park.  Tenerife is a very volcanic island, and Teide is its principal volcano.  The park is comprised of the lava from many eruptions over the centuries.  The area is very hilly, but it otherwise has the look of a moonscape.  There is very little rain and nothing seems to grow there except a little scrub here and there.  It is fascinating. 

The very winding road to and from the park has very large pine and eucalyptus trees below the tree line, and a great number of homes built into the hillside.  It’s not as wealthy an island as Mallorca, but still quite nice.  Factoids:  The Canary Islands were so–named because of the wild dogs (cane, in Latin) that inhabited the islands when first conquered by the Spanish.  And the birds that inhabit the islands were named canaries, after the islands, not the other way around.  The tour ended with a terrific lunch at El Telegazo, which did a great job of feeding a lot of tour groups. 

At the end of the lunch, Becky talked the owner into selling us some of the wine from their vat.  Becky had brought several water bottles along to use for transferring wine, to assist in smuggling the wine aboard the ship.  It worked.  The tour of Tenerife was terrific overall.
Saturday evening, we left Tenerife for our straight shot to Ft. Lauderdale.  We are facing seven “sea days” before we hit land again.  We will also experience a time change every two days, because we need to gain back the hours we lost when we flew to Rome.  This is the fun part of the cruise because we have no tours to take and no requirement to do anything we don’t feel like doing.  So we will likely eat and drink too much.  Sunday was another formal night.  Before that, the ship hosted a reception for newlyweds and anniversary celebrants.   It was very corny but they served us champagne and cake, and we got our picture taken with the cake. 

The newest newlyweds were married on October 26 and the longest weds were celebrating their 69th anniversary.  Pretty impressive.  A runner-up had been married 66 years ago, but there was a catch---her husband died 60 years ago.  Becky and I even danced (briefly).
Sunday afternoon there was a talk by a travel agent who gave us the scoop on cruising---what the travel agent can and can’t do, and what the secret rules of the cruise lines are.  It was revealing, and made us feel better about the agent we used for this cruise. 

The girls did spinning and zumba classes.  Barbara and I did better at trivia, but we still got swamped.  We skipped the restaurant and had dinner at the buffet.
Monday there was more zumba and spinning, and another talk by Harry Murphy.  This one was about Westerns.  We had lunch in the dining room and Becky and I played Rummicub in our room during the afternoon.  Tuesday was our 30th anniversary.  After trivia and lunch, we went to one of the lounges to listen to a guy playing and singing Beatles music. He was not that good. 

We had dinner in the dining room again.  We deliberately saved our big anniversary dinner for Wednesday, when a fancy ($$$) “Chef’s Table” is scheduled to take place in one of the specialty restaurants.

Wednesday involved more spinning, more Harry Murphy (this one was about blockbuster movies) and a lecture about upcoming cruise trips.  We are looking to do another transatlantic cruise in 2017.  We also played more Rummicub, but in the buffet restaurant instead of our room.  Becky continues to beat me consistently.  Wednesday evening, we attended the Chef’s Table dinner. 

This is a special event that is very limited as to the number of participants.  In our case, the number was six.  Shortly after it started, a seventh person joined us---a lady who was obviously both well-known to the staff and well-heeled.  Regina “leaked” that she had recently bought a Bentley sedan.  I joked that she could pay for it by earning some extra money as a Uber driver.  No one laughed.  The event started off in the wine cellar with French champagne and some hors d’oeuvres of unknown origin or description.  We then took a tour of the kitchen with the Executive Chef, a delightful Jamaican gentleman named Denton. 

That was followed by our taking seats in a private room in the Murano Restaurant.  Very posh setup.  The menu was very different---everything from a canapé consisting of a little ball of a combination of Lobster and Escargot to a dessert of Crepes Suzette, with a different wine with each course.  The very nice fellow (Cory) sitting next to me initially described himself as a government employee.  On probing a little deeper, he admitted that after a short career in the Marines he was now an employee of the Department of Defense, involved in law enforcement.  Further probing, after more wine, revealed he was a sniper (at least that’s what he told me).  His wife is a dentist.   We were accompanied at the table by one of the ship’s officers, a Canadian who had spent a lot of time at sea.  The event was wonderful. 

The next morning, we received a fancy Celebrity Cruises recipe book that weighs nine pounds.  We aren’t certain we can take it home and still stay under the weight limit for airline baggage. 
One evening at sea, I decided to try my hand at Blackjack in the casino.  My seagoing record is plus $65, earned while on our way to the Baltic a couple of years ago.  The first night on this trip I won $40.  The second night, a little later, I won another $25.  On the third night, I lost the $40.  The third night, another few days later, I won back the $40 and added another $5, for a net winning of $70.  Then I quit for the rest of the cruise.

Thursday featured another drubbing at Trivia, and another presentation by Harry Murphy---this one was specifically about Casablanca and Citizen Kane.  Very interesting.   Late in the afternoon, the ship stopped to investigate a sailboat just floating in the middle of the Atlantic---with its mast having broken off and its sails dragging in the water.  A team of crew members was dispatched to check it out.  They returned after a few minutes and we resumed steaming toward Florida.  The captain made a cryptic announcement to the effect that there were no survivors in the sailboat and the Coast Guard would be informed of its location and status.  He did not say whether there were any bodies on the sailboat.  On an earlier day, he had mentioned in a briefing that the law of the sea required that any vessel must do whatever it takes to help another vessel at risk.  It seems we had met that requirement.  

Harry Murphy’s presentation on Friday was about the Oscars.  It was fun and enlightening, involving the history and some of the silliness of the event over the years.  Friday was another formal night in the dining room. 

For Saturday night’s dinner, our last on board, the four of us chose to eat in the Lawn Club Grill, one of the special restaurants.  I had a marvelous filet mignon, cooked to perfection.  During dinner, Denton, the Executive Chef, stopped by to see how we were doing.  Becky mentioned to him that the cookbook we had received after the Chef’s Table event did not have a recipe for Steak Diane, which had been a big hit at the event.  Denton rushed off to get her the recipe.  After what seemed like a very long time, he returned with the recipe and apologized for the delay explaining that he had to convert the recipe from serving a ship full of passengers down to just four people.  Very nice.  We also celebrated Wendy's 61st birthday.

Very early on the morning of Sunday, the 15th, we arrived at Fort Lauderdale, after travelling 5,310 nautical miles (the equivalent of 6,106 land miles).  The priority was clearing the crew through immigration, which meant we could stay in our rooms until 8:00, then we had to cool our heels in a lounge until our debarkation number was called.  Our number was 75, which was nearly the end.  It didn’t matter, since we were going to spend the day in Fort Lauderdale, anyway, so there was no hurry to get off the ship.  When they called our number, we dutifully went to the debarkation area which was crammed with people.  After about ten minutes of no movement, we went back up to the lounge and relaxed. 

They ultimately called for everyone to exit the ship, so we followed orders.  We zipped through immigration and customs, thinking we were very special because of our Trusted Traveler status.  It turned out that Wendy, who is not as privileged, made it through just as quickly as we did. Hmmmmm.
We said goodbye to Harry and Debby at the dock, learning that one of Harry’s suitcases was missing, which we  later learned had been picked up by a traveler who thought it was his.  This was very reminiscent of a trip to New Zealand 12 years ago at the end of which (at LAX) our travel mate, John Phelan, had one of his suitcases taken for the same reason by someone from New York who discovered the error later that same evening and returned the suitcase to the airport in time to keep John from committing mayhem. 
We hopped on a shuttle that took us to the Alamo car rental place.  Becky had reserved a small SUV for the four of us, thinking the extra room would be sufficient for our luggage.  The lady at the counter thought it would not be even close, and upgraded us to a Chevy Suburban SUV.  That turned out to be just barely big enough. 

Our first order of business was to have lunch at the Capitol Grille.  We had been there five years ago and wanted to relive the great experience.  It was a slow, delicious, expensive lunch. 

We then drove around Fort Lauderdale, taking in all the sights.  It is an impressive place, obviously the home of some quite wealthy folks.

We finally gave up and headed for the airport.  We had a 6:45 flight on Jet Blue, so we had some time to kill.  We just cooled it in the lounge at the gate.  Becky and I always book aisles-across seats, so we have easy access to the bathroom.  My seatmates, I was chagrined to see, were a young couple and their infant son.  I prepared myself for an awful flight.  It turned out that the baby was fabulous, and we all got along just fine.

The flight took off mostly on time, and was generally uneventful.  The eventful part of the flight was the hour (plus) of turbulence we experienced.  I have never been on a flight that bounced around so much.  At one point my seatmate’s drink popped up in the air and landed mostly on him and partly on me.  But we survived.  The plane landed at LAX on time---at 9:45.  It took us a while to get our luggage, and we then saw airport traffic that could not be believed.  While I babysat our bags, Wendy’s husband, Kai, picked up the girls (he drove Becky and Barbara to Barbara’s car, which was parked at her office very near the airport) after struggling through the airport traffic for quite some time.  Then Barbara had to come back through the same airport traffic to get me.  I was waiting for at least an hour. 

It was near midnight on a Sunday and LAX was jammed with cars.  (Becky and I later decided we should probably use Phoenix as our airport in the future, and avoid Los Angeles altogether, when possible.)  Barbara finally dropped us off at the Jonathan Club in downtown LA, and we checked in for the night.  We opened a bottle of wine we had bought in France and soothed our jangled nerves.  But for a little sleep on the plane, we had been up for more than 24 hours.

Late Monday morning, Becky picked up a Budget rental car at Union Station and we headed for the Pasadena area.  After a bit of shopping, lunch at Buca di Beppo (I had a clam linguini)

and some time-killing, we met Wendy at her home to do a bit of trust business, then returned to Union Station to await our train back to Williams.  The train left a few minutes after 6:15, and we settled in for the night---having a dinner of sandwiches we had bought at the station and wine we had bought in Pasadena.  The train ride was just fine, as usual, and we arrived at Williams Junction at 5:00 in the morning on Tuesday.  It was 16 degrees out.

We were the only passengers who got off the train, so the shuttle driver dropped us off at our truck, which was parked in the Railway Hotel parking lot.  Problem:  The batteries were dead.  There is an AAA station just a few blocks from the hotel, so I anticipated no problem in getting help.  Wrong!  The AAA operator couldn’t locate anyone who could come in less than 90 minutes.  After several phone calls and waiting for almost two hours, AAA admitted that its order never got to the driver.  I called the local AAA guy and he got the company to transfer the service call to him, and his people arrived five minutes later.  But, alas, they couldn’t get the truck started anyway. 

So they drove us home and then towed the truck to their shop.  They called a few minutes later with the expected news that the batteries were shot and needed to be replaced.  I authorized the charge and an hour later our truck was in our garage.
We needed to pick up Ramsey and Kelsey from the pet resort by one o’clock, and we did just get there in time.  The dogs were very glad to see us, of course, and the feeling was mutual.  We spent the rest of the day getting back to normal and we finally crashed early.  It had been a very long day.

The trip was officially over. 

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