- We really were beta testing their ship. And we didn’t even get a discount. From the mechanical issues like lights falling off the wall to the really stupid way they mangled the dress code and restaurant reservation system, we suffered through all of the growing pains of a brand new operation. Presumably these will be improved in due course.
- The tender situation went beyond simply uncomfortable to a safety issue. On more than one ride I was on, passengers were bouncing around and could have easily been injured from a fall or hitting the wall of the boat (and yes, they were all seated). Passengers were bounced in the waves for extended periods while the crew tried to figure out how to deal with conditions that just didn’t seem that unusual to us, and which the other ships we encountered seem to handle just fine. As gracious and competent most of the crew was, the tender crews seemed like the B team.
- The worst part was the food situation and their ability to deal with Sally’s garlic intolerance. The last time we were on a Silversea ship, the restaurant staff had it all figured out after 24 hours. They made it easy for Sally, with the head of the restaurants finding her each day to plan for her dinner the following night. That just never happened here – the head of restaurants was useless. Instead Sally had to find someone each evening, often by going to the next evening’s restaurant and speaking to the head guy there. They then compounded the problem by either sometimes saying they lost the order, or not knowing if the dish they put in front of her was actually garlic-free. You can make her sick, people! This is not a matter of taste, this is a matter of health. I shudder to think about the consequences if they were dealing with a life-threatening allergy such as nuts or eggs. The result of all of this was that a part of the cruise that should have been relaxing and enjoyable turned into a daily ordeal.
No one was hurt in the making of this episode of “As the tender turns”.
I previously gave you some details about the the tender fiascos as we bounced around trying to get into and out of the ship in some of the ports. Actually, in all of the ports where we tendered. After leaving the last one, Sorrento, pretty much everyone on the ship was relieved that at least we we now going to be tender-free for the last three stops: Rome, Florence and our disembarkation point, Villefranche. Do you see a cruise ship dock here?, May 2017
Let me briefly talk about Villefranche. When we booked this cruise, it was advertised as Monte Carlo to Nice. Then a couple of weeks before the cruise, we got a note from Silversea that the cruise had been changed and would now end in Villefranche. This lead to some consternation, as we had booked flights home from Nice airport. So I looked at a map and was relieved to find that Villefranche is basically a suburb of Nice, a few miles away, along the coast. So this was an inconvenience, as we would have to somehow get from Villefranche to Nice to explore, but not that big a deal.
It turns out the opening bid is that it is an €80 deal, as the standard taxi fare between the two towns is €10/person each way.
Then is got more annoying when we all found out that we would have to tender at Villefranche, as there is no cruise ship-capable dock there. And so we would need to use the tenders to get in and out of town. And worse, we would need to use the tenders to disembark with all of our carry-on luggage. That reduces the number of people who can fit in each tender, and elongates the loading and unloading process. So we were even more annoyed that they changed to final port from Nice to Villefranche for unknown reasons.
But wait, there’s more!
We were never going to dock at Nice! Turns out that large cruise ships like ours never dock in Nice, but always Villefranche. The port area in Nice can’t accommodate large ships, and there’s no suitable anchorage offshore. Since it’s difficult to believe that Silversea just found this out, they not only lied about it to the world in the first place, but then lied and said it was a change in their notice to us shortly before the cruise. Simply unbelievable.
But wait, there’s more!
Late Tuesday morning we tendered into Villefranche on another bumpy ride. We spent a while sitting offshore on the tender as we waited for the tender from the Silversea Silver Whisper, which was also in port and sharing our dock, unload and load. All the while, bounce-bounce-bounce. We finally got in, and took a cab to Nice.
After visiting Nice, Sally decided to go back to the ship while Zelda, Matteo and I went to wander around Villefranche. It’s a very small town, similar in size to Amalfi, and built up the side of the hill.
About 45 minutes later I went down to the dock to tender back and found Sally and Zelda waiting for the tender. Seems like the Silver Muse tenders were not capable of navigating the somewhat rough waters in the bay. Meanwhile, the Silver Whisper and the Royal Caribbean ship in the harbor were not having any problems, with their tenders coming and going while our folks waited.
Finally a Silver Muse tender motored in and we all watched while the driver lost control of the boat, with the tail drifting out from the dock and hitting a party boat docked along side, and then making a 10-point turn to turn the boat around with the bow facing out. We all watched with sick feeling in our stomach, because this was the dopey crew that was going to take us back in these rough seas to our ship. But we all borded – this boat was pretty full because it had been over an hour since the last one – and set out.
Sure enough, our ride out was very bouncy and our approach to the Silver Muse once again filled with drama. We bounced off the side of the Silver Muse several times, then pulled away and waited while they respositioned the larger ship to shield us from the wind and waves a bit. But we all finally got on board.
Unfortunately for some people who got on board, they were actually passengers on the Silver Whisper! The incompetent shore crew didn’t properly check their ID cards before they boarded the tender. So they all had to get back on the tender and be taken somewhere else – to the shore or directly to the other ship, I don’t know. We’re lucky it wasn’t some person with nefarious purpose who slipped past the non-security, but I feel bad for those passengers.
I later heard that the reason we had to wait so long was that the previous tender had lost one of its two engines and the driver lost control of it even more, smashing into the Silver Muse so hard that a windshield cracked and it had to be taken out of service.
But wait, there’s more!
This morning we had arranged for our airport transfer from Villefranche at 9:30. Since we had to tender in to shore, we went downstairs at a few minutes before 9 to account for the tender loading and transfer time. There we and about 50 others waited in line for 25 minutes before loading. From there, it was pretty smooth – the ride over was fine, we unloaded fine and found our car.
The car, btw, was arranged through Silversea at 4x the going rate for an airport taxi. That’s because the ship locks up all the taxis in town and makes you deal through them. So $365 for a 30 minute ride.
I really have the feeling that when they were staffing the new Silver Muse (remember, we are on the maiden voyage), all of the other ships got to protect their best players and only exposed the weaker performers to the expansion draft. It certainly seems that way for the tender operation. We do think that the front line staff in the restaurants are mostly pretty great. Not so much the top management in the restaurants. Our butler, who is an exceedingly nice person and eager to please, needed a bit of training from us to perform properly.
We’ve been to Rome twice before. The first was a short two days after we extended our stay in Positano. Another was two years ago with Rob & Laura, when we rented an apartment on Piazza Navona for 3 days. This time we had about 5 hours, but it was action packed.
I had already arranged for a private guide to take us through the Forum and the Colosseum for 3 hours. We planned to find a taxi in the port of Cittivecchia, which is where the cruise ships dock and is a bit more than an hour away. After making the long walk out of the secure port area, I flagged down Max who agreed to take us to Rome on the meter, so no price haggling was needed. When we were almost there, he offered to wait and take us back when we were ready to return for a discount. He also offered to include driving us around Rome to some other sites before returning. We agreed.
I had been through the Forum a couple of times, but never with a guide. And I had never been inside the Colosseum. Our guide turned out to be an energetic Englishman with bad allergies to periodically fell into sneezing fits, talked at an extremely fast pace, had encyclopediac knowledge and was overall very helpful. As expected, the Forum and Colosseum both involved a great deal of walking. I really enjoyed it; the guide’s archeology background gave me an understanding of both sites that I didn’t have before. Perhaps some of it will stick. More likely, I’ll remember disconnected factoids to astonish my friends with.
After leaving our guide and eating lunch, we met up with Max and he took us around Rome to a few more sites. The first was the Spanish Steps, which I don’t find particularly interesting. But everyone is there because it’s the place to be. And when I say everyone, I mean that not only were the steps themselves crowded (as is normal) but the surrounding streets were packed as if people were gathered for a political rally.
We made two more stops which were also pretty crowded. The first was the Trevi Fountain, which is an ornate structure that collects much money as people throw coins into the fountain. The crowds were deep all around the fountain, especially on the lower level. We looked on from the upper tier and to the side.
The last stop was Piazza Navona, which brought back fond memories of our stay and an opportunity for gelato.
Then we got back into the car with Max and headed out to the ship. It turns out that Max has a licensed taxi for metropolitan Rome, which is a large area that extends to the port and hour away. It also turns out that he has license 01, which was first issued to his grandfather in 1921. Pretty cool!
All in, I have to say this brief visit to Rome exceeded my expectations despite the crowds. Hooking up with Max really made a difference in the day, and our guide at the sights was more interesting than I expected.
The Amalfi Coast (2)
Friday night the Silver Muse stayed overnight in Sorrento, and we used the full day on Saturday to hire a driver for a ride down the Amalfi Coast. Although we stopped in Amalfi village on Friday, there were miles of coastline to see from ashore, and several stops to make along the way. Our driver Angelo was waiting at the pier when we disembarked after another not-great ride over in the tender, and we set off.
Once you go over the mountain range that forms the spine of the peninsula, the striking views of the Amalfi Coast come into view. We stopped for pictures, of course.
Our first destination was Positano. Sally and I had been there twice. On our first visit to Italy, we extended our stay in Positano after finding it too depressing to think about leaving (1). The other time we spent some magical time there with our daughter and her man. So we were excited to return, if only for an hour or so.
Positano is built into the side of the hills that line the sea along the Amalfi Coast. The coastal road winds down into the mid-level of town and then out, and there’s a pedestrian street that goes from there down to the beach. Angelo dropped us at the lowest point of the road and we walked down the rest of the way.
The traffic along the coast is terrible. The road (there’s only one) is narrow and winding, and the large busses that travel there need both lanes to make some of the sharp corners. We probably spent 30 minutes on line waiting to enter each of Positano and Amalfi.
Ravelo is not a beach town. It sits at the top of he mountain ridge overlooking the Mediterranean Sea from afar. We sadly had limited time there, so our visit was was a bit rushed. But it’s very pretty.
On the drive back we made one more stop to look down at Positano, where the first picture was taken. We also got a look at the San Pietro hotel, where we stayed during those two visits. Like the town, it is built down the side of the cliff and you enter at the top.
(1) This is only one of two times I can recall us changing plans in mid-trip. The other was when we escaped from Death Valley after the first night, as the heat was unbearable in our so-called air conditioned room.
Wanted: food taster
It took about 8 days and several complaints to get the door latch to our bathroom fixed so that it closed and latched without being slammed.
It took 10 days, several complaints and three “repairs” until the heat was fixed in our cabin. We had the thermostat set to 77F, but the cabin was always cool.
It’s now 12 days and the restaurant crew can’t get their act together when it comes to ensuring Sally has a garlic-free meal. And they’re even further from making the process stress- and hassle-free. Dinner started with the waiter bringing two bowls of risotto, one for Sally, and not knowing which (if either) was garlic-free (turns out both were). Then one waiter put a bowl of marinara sauce in front of her as extra sauce for her pasta. It “definitely had no garlic”, except it was marinara, which usually does have garlic. Or maybe it wasn’t for her, but for Zelda. By the end of the spirited conversation, we were sure of only two things: we had no appetite, and we had no idea if it would make her sick.
Then to top off the evening, we found in our room the daily notice and also disembarkation information. We will be using the tenders to visit Villefranche tomorrow, and also to disembark on Wednesday. With all of our (and everyone else’s) carry-on luggage. And tonight is the first time we’ve felt any rolling motion on the ship, as it is windy outside. The cabin is actually creaking as we rock’n’roll. The weather forecast for tomorrow is periods of rain and avalanche warnings (1). So Villefranc should be …
(1) I’m not making this up, AccuWeather is – that’s what their Tuesday forecast for Nice and the surrounding area has said all day.
Tender, but not gentle
I wrote the other day about the unpleasant tender rides that we experienced. I thought I’d give a little more detail. Or rather, vent a bit.
A cruise ship uses its tenders to ferry passengers between the ship and the shore when there’s no suitable dock to tie up at. The ship drops anchor in the port, and deploys two of the craft that are hopefully never used as lifeboats. They are sparse, with hard plastic seats, and room for over 100 passengers in tender operation. They are designed to not sink in rough seas, but are not designed to be especially stable.
Sally and I have tendered many times, and Zelda and Matteo even more as they cruise frequently. While it’s not always like a rowboat in the lake in Central Park, it’s usually a pretty innocuous operation: you hop from the ship to the tender, or the tender to the dock, and vice-versa. There’s usually a crewman there to assist passengers who need it or are nervous.
Not this time. This time, we encountered tenders outside the ship that were rising and falling 3-6′, which is obviously too big a movement for most people to bridge. Two crew on the ship, and two on the tender, grabbed your arms and passed you across the gap. Often we had to wait several minutes between each passenger, which means moving even 30 people becomes a project.
If you look in the first picture, you’ll see that the seas are not that rough. Yet on one crossing, the crew had to scramble to close the hatches as spray was coming in and wetting people. Another time while observing from our cabin, I saw the ship use its thrusters to swing away from the tender, creating a smoother wake for it to sit in while unloading. Another time the crew aborted loading the tender, unloaded 6 or 8 people, then moved the tender to the other side of the ship to be shielded by the wind. And in yet another, we waited while the ship was rotated to change the wind impact on the tender.
All of this in the only three stops we used tenders: Taormina, Amalfi and Sorrento. More problems then any of the four of us had in all the tender ops we experienced before.
So I went to see who I could talk to about this, and spoke to the Staff Captain, who is responsible for all of the maritime operations on the ship (2). He was a pleasant enough fellow. I immediately sensed that I was was dealing with an engineer, not a customer relations specialist. He was familiar with each of the issues I raised. It never once occurred to him that letting the passengers involved know what was going on might be a good idea. All he focused on was safe and effective operations. Comfort was nice, but not critical. He assured me that the loud bangs we heard as the tender bounced against the side of the larger ship wouldn’t damage either one. Never mind that it terrified us each time it happened.
I would rate the impact of the conversation and his receptiveness at 6-7 out of 10. He wasn’t defensive, but he really didn’t understand that passengers might be upset, as the boat never sank. He did agree that he and his team would think about letting us in on the joke in the future.
(1) I take pride making sure my pictures are level. This picture is level. It’s the tender that’s not.
(2) Sally and I had each previously had separate conversations with the Hotel Manager about the bug report and specifically the difficulty the restaurant management seemed to be having with garlic. They got better, but not great, after that.
The Amalfi Coast (1)
Friday and Saturday we spent along the Amalfi Coast. Friday we stopped in the village of Amalfi, then moved to Sorrento (1) a few miles away in the afternoon and stayed the night. This gave us two full days to explore.
We dropped anchor by Amalfi in the morning. After Sally’s hours and hours of riding boats and buses yesterday and not feeling very good, she took a look at the tender bouncing up and down along side the Silver Muse and decided to sit the morning out while the rest of us went into Amalfi to look around. After the expected rough ride in on the tender, Zelda and Matteo went one way while most likely I went mine. The day started out grey, and the ground was still wet from rain.
Amalfi is a picturesque town built into the side of the mountains. There’s one main street running perpendicular to the waterfront with the usual collection of lady’s clothing and tourist gift shops.
While most of the people on the streets were tourists, most were not from our ship (we were the only ship in port). Amalfi is also major local transportation hub, with coastal ferries and buses making stops here at the terminal area. I saw lots of people with luggage getting on or off, or waiting, for buses and ferries. Amalfi is also major stop for tours of the Amalfi Coast, and there were a dozen or more large groups following someone holding a flag or umbrella in the air, the universal sign of a tour guide. I myself was very happy to be exploring on my own. There was a large group of hikers assembled in town. I later learned that they were likely making the hike from Amalfi to Positano.
Like many of the towns along the Amalfi Coast, Amalfi itself is vertical – it’s built into the side of the mountains and cliffs that make up the Coast. In fact, Amalfi is unique in my experience in having stairs that are actually streets. I climbed about 180 steps up one without reaching the top, passing about a dozen or more homes along the way – doors just coming off of the stairs (2).
After taking an espresso break by the main church, I headed back to the tender and the ship as we were pulling anchor at 1:00 for our trip to Sorrento, where we arrived at 4:00. In the interim I had lunch on the pool deck and relaxed a bit. While the day had started a bit dreary in Amalfi, it was mostly sunny during the cruise over. And in Sorrento, it was mostly overcast.
During the trip along the coast, we encountered the Silver Spirit – the ship we cruised on with Rob and Laura two years ago. The two captains made a little celebration of it, with the Silver Spirit circling the Silver Muse as we sat motionless (3), passengers waving and yelling, and horns blowing.
Sorrento was not my idea of a pretty resort city. It’s crowded, busy and noisy. And the air smelled of auto exhaust fumes, although this may be just weather-induced. There was a pretty park by the sea, and also a nice cloister which was setup for a show of some sort. Nonetheless, I explored for about 2 hours, then walked down a long set of switchbacks to the port are to return to the ship.
(1) Sorrento is not actually on the Amalfi Coast, but is a popular hopping off point and is only a few miles across the peninsula.
(2) As I write this two days later, my quads are still sore from Amalfi and Sorrento.
(3) We were told that the other ship circled us so they could get a good look at our new ship. If you ask me, they look pretty much the same.
Taormina Tantrum, or what happens when you violate the Prime Directive
This post is mostly about me being angry at myself for a bad decision which made for a less than satisfactory day.
After leaving Malta, we sailed overnight back to Sicily, this time to the northeast coast where we dropped anchor off Taormina. Their claim to fame is that they are in the shadow of Mt. Etna, the “second largest active volcano in the world (1)”. It definitely is big, at 10,900′. It definitely is active, as an explosion a couple of months ago sent a BBC crew running and injured one of them from debris. As we came into port we could see smoke and ash spewing from the summit.
When planning our activity schedule for this week, we all pretty much agreed that we would go see Mt. Etna. After considering the options, We decided to take the cruise’s group excursion. All we wanted was a ride up the mountain and back, so there didn’t seem to be any value in hiring a private guide. So we booked a tour leaving at 9:15am. This violated Sally and my Prime Directive (1): never take a group bus tour.
We didn’t realize that the ship was anchoring out in the bay rather than at a dock. This meant that passengers needed to use the ship’s tender to transfer. This in turn meant we needed to be ready to leave at 8:30 to get ashore and meet the bus in time.
The day started with difficulty. There were big swells in the sea. Because of the swells, the tender was rising and dropping against the side of the ship and the door we exited through; the crew had to wait until they thought the two would line up and then get each passanger across. This took quite a while for the 75 or more people on our tender. Then the ride into he dock was rough, and as a result Sally didn’t feel very good by the time we were on dry land.
We boarded the bus with about 20 people and our guide. We had been variously told the ride up was 30 or 45 minutes. It took an hour, and it was also pretty bouncy. The roads were not very smooth, there were lots of turns. By the time we got to our tour spot, Sally felt even worse. And here’s where group bus tours really annoy us. About 45 minutes into the ride, we stopped for a picture of the summit and the erupting smoke. All good, and there were ladies there selling souvenirs. The guide (2) and driver each got freebies. We spent way too much time there, and a couple of women were still shopping when even the guide was ready to leave.
After driving to the end of the road, we proceeded a few hundred yards past our destination to another restaurant/gift shop. Where we spent 30 minutes hanging around. Finally we went back down the road to the spot we were supposed to see. When I read the tour description later, I realized it was accurate and we had just imagined what we were going to see: lava flows and actual eruptions.
Unfortunately, the road stops at about 6,500′, while all the action happens above 10,000′. What we saw were a series of extinct cinder cones from 20th and 21st century eruptions. Interesting, but not what we expected. One can hike the 3,500′ to the summit, which we clearly were not going to do. And there was a cable car going up another 1,000′ or so which had no time for. Sally and Zelda were finished after 30 minutes. Matteo and I walked around there for another 30 minutes, then we all got on the bus and headed back down.
By the time we got back to Taormina, we decided to tender back to the ship and have lunch there. We had originally thought that walking around Taormina after the tour would be fun, but (a) we were all tired and hungry; (b) the town was a 15 minute shuttle ride from the dock; and (c) there were no shuttles in sight. So we took another bumpy tender ride back, and the crew struggled but succeeded in getting us all back on the Silver Muse.
The moral of this story is twofold. First, always read the description of a tour for what it is, not what you wish it to say. And second, never ever violate the Prime Directive. My failure to follow these rules resulted in a most disappointing day.
(1) For those of you who are not Trekkies, the Prime Directive was to never interfere with an alien culture.
(2) Actually I was glad to get off the bus. Not to stretch, not because I needed the fresh air, but because the guide didn’t stop yammering for the entire hour it took us to drive up to the top. Talk, talk, talk, talk. And there really wasn’t that much worth saying.
A new day, a new country
Actually, a completely new country to Sally and me (and Zelda and Matteo) – Malta. Malta is a tiny little country just south of Sicily. The country is only 122 square miles, and the total population is around 450,000. Sitting in the strait only 60 miles from Sicily and 150 miles from Tunisia and Libya, it has been an important trading and military post since forever. All the old timers were there: the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Moors, the Normans. And finally, the British in the early 19th century until its independence in 1964.
As has been our practice, we booked a private guide. Vince met us at the dock as promised at 9:30 and we started our tour of this mini country.
As you might guess from the stats above, the entire country is developed with very little open space. The roads are pretty crummy and we bounced in the van all day despite going slowly. As the two official languages are English and Malta, we had no problem understanding Vince’s British English.
Our first stop was a harbor town, which had an unbelievably colorful marina of fishing boats along with an open air market. I could have photographed the boats for hours, but that wouldn’t have been fair to the rest of our party, or consistent with our plan to get a view of the entire island. As for the market, if you’ve seen one open-air market, you’ve seen them all.
Interestingly, while there is a lot of shipping and fishing in evidence, it is not the driver of the economy anymore – now it’s tourism.
From there we drove to see the Blue Grotto, some caves eaten into the rocky shore by wave action. Sadly (1), the seas were a bit rough and the boats weren’t running. But we admired a nice arch in the water.
We made another stop to look at some cliffs, but then proceeded to Mdina (2), the former capital of Malta. It’s an inland city, up on a hill (of course). Today it seems to be mostly tourists, with large parking lots outside of the old walls. Nonetheless, it was a very nice place to visit and walk around.
We had Vince drop us off back in Valletta, which is the current capital. We saw the Prime Minister rush out of his office and hop into a car to go to lunch somewhere, so we thanked Vince and went off to find some lunch.
After lunch we went back to the ship and relaxed until our fancy dinner in the French restaurant, La Dame. The evening’s entertainment was from the same violinist that we saw earlier, playing the same electric violin with the same three piece backup band. The songs were different, but it was essentially the same show.
(1) I’m not so sure we would have enjoyed a ride in the ocean in a tiny boat.
(2) “Mdina” is pronounced “Imdina” in Maltese, and we even saw it spelled that way.
(3) Despite periodic references to the Maltese Falcon around the island, the film had nothing to do with Malta. Humphrey Bogart played a San Francisco detective looking for a statue.
Sometimes you get more
Tuesday we stopped in Trapani, Sicily. This was the first time any of the four of our party had been to Sicily (1) and I was looking forward to getting a bit of a sense of what it was all about. In American culture, Sicily is all about the Mafia and the Corleone family from “The Godfather”. I think I already knew that this was not really the full story, but didn’t know much else.
We booked a private tour guide through a website called Tours By Locals that I found. TBL acts as a broker, allowing individual guides to post their tour options, and taking a commission from them for each booking (I suspect 20-25%). Mimmo responded to my inquiry, and after an exchange of messages, I booked him for a full day tour of some sights in and around Trapani. Of particular interest to us was the town itself, a nearby medieval hilltop town of Erice, and something called the salt flats.
The day starts perfectly, with Mimmo meeting us as planned at the dock and loading us and our gear into his car. We headed out of town and soon found ourself at the salt flats. Salt is an old industry in this area, where Mediterrainian seawater is pumped into shallow pans and allowed to evaporate, leaving behind the sea salt. The Mediterranean is a very salty sea, and the dry climate and prevailing breezes make this a good business. The water was originally pumped by windmills, but almost all of these have fallen into disrepair.
From there we headed up into the hills, eventually coming to an archeological site called Segesta. This was one of the major cities of the Elymian people, one of the indigenous peoples of Sicily (2). The Greeks, who were not indigenous to the area, took over the culture, although not the DNA. What we are left with today are ruins. There is a partially reconstructed amphitheater and a reconstructed temple. There are also all kinds of ruins of the original city, of buildings and roads of various sorts.
Actually, we had no idea we were going to see these ruins. And we were a bit disappointed in that viewing the site involved waiting for and then taking a bus up to the hilltop, walking a significant amount on ancient stone paths, and seeing what the four of us have seen many times before: the remains of an old stadium, the ruins of an old temple, the ruins of unidentified buildings. In fact, after making the trek to see the ampitheater, we rebelled and refused to make the 1/2 mile walk to and around the temple. I actually find this stuff somewhat interesting in general, but only if the site has some particular significance or is in some other way special. Segesta doesn’t pass this test. And we’ve all seen ancient Greek ruins many times.
We had a frank talk with Mimmo about the situation, which was sad because we had all started out great, and he brought some delicious cannoli which everyone enjoyed. The next ride, up to the hill town of Erice, was a bit quieter, as I believe he was embarrassed by the missed communication (3) about what we wanted to do, and what we didn’t want to do. And we didn’t want to do a lot of walking on uneven surfaces.
Erice, once we finally got there, was a delight. It’s an old city, originally settled by the Phoenicians, at 2,500′ above the sea. It was subsequently conquered by the Greeks, the Cathaginians, and Arabs. The Normans took it in 1167 and created the town we see today. Post WWII the town went into decline as its remote location and limited modern facilities caused a population loss to lower and more easily accessible communities nearby. However, the structures survived and it has now been reborn as a tourist destination for local people as well visitors.
We had an excellent lunch in a very small restaurant and wandered (4) through the old cobblestone streets. From Erice, we headed back down the hill to Trapani and the Silver Muse.
Dinner Tuesday was in Atlantide, the same restaurant where we had the run-in over my lack of a tie last week. But because I’m a go-along, get-along kind of guy, I bought a tie in Aix-en-Provence, and so we had no problem gaining admission to the restaurant. While we were waiting, the ladies took the opportunity to work with Theresa – one of our favorite crew members – on dining plans for the upcoming days. The show this evening was a violinist who plays well known songs on electric violin with the ship’s trio backing him up. Enjoyable.
(1) But not the last time – we’ll be in Taormina, Sicily on Thursday.
(2) What does “indigenous” really mean? It’s meant to imply that a group was in a place originally, before some interlopers arrived from elsewhere. But all peoples in the world, except for some in Africa where humans arose first, came to where they are from somewhere else.
(3) Apparently Mimmo didn’t get, or didn’t focus on, the email I sent him via TBL describing what we wanted on the tour. We never did see anything in the town of Trapani, but it turns out that most of the monuments and public buildings there were closed for a holiday.
(4) I don’t know if you can actually be “wandering” when you have hired guide telling you when to turn left or right.
A day at sea
Cruises, as we know them, are decendents of the ships that used to be the principle form of transportation whenever navigable water was available. Whether crossing an ocean or the Mediterranean Sea, or plying along a coast or up and down a river, ships offered either the only practical means of transportation (ocean crossing) or a very cost effective one (rivers and lakes). With the growth of railroads and cars, and then aircraft, using ships for passenger travel has declined in importance. Pretty much no one who needs to get from Europe to North America will travel by sea.
However, clever entrepreneurs have found that people like to go to resorts, and that many people like resorts that don’t limit them to being stuck in one actual location with one (usually minimal) set of sights to see. So the notion of a cruise ship was born – boarding a ship not to get somewhere, but to stay in one place at the same time that you get to visit many places. Most cruises spend all or almost all days in one port or another, where the passengers can get off and see the sights. If it’s a Caribbean cruise, my experience is the ports are little more than time fillers. You would never fly to those towns or even islands to go sightseeing. On our cruise in the Mediterranean it’s a bit more mixed – some of the stops could be quite interesting, if only you had more than a few hours to explore. We docked in Barcelona for nine hours; two years ago we spent three days there. The Rome stop is even worse: as Rome is not really near the sea, we have to drive an hour and a half each way to get there, only to see a few hours worth of stuff.
On some routes the ship spends a full day transmitting between stops. That is the case on this cruise, where Monday is a “Day at Sea”. A Day at Sea gives you the opportunity to sleep in (no pesky tours to meet at 9:30), relax on the deck without seeing the typical commercial areas where cruise ships dock, play trivial pursuit with the cruise director, and engage in many other resort-like activities, depending on the ship. We don’t have rock climbing, a rifle range, driving range, go-kart track, water park or some of the other features from the mammoth ships.
I’m not generally a big resort guy, which means that – mostly – the Day at Sea is not as exciting for me as it is for some other people. I don’t use the pool, I don’t like games like trivial pursuit or putting in the hallways. I do like finding a quiet lounge and watching the sea, watching the other passengers and watching the crew go about their jobs.
On this particular cruise, the pleasant springtime weather – sunny and high in the low 60s – doesn’t work as well as I would like while at sea. First you get a nice ocean breeze, and then the wind chill created by the ship cruising at about 15mph. I find it a bit uncomfortable to sit outside. I did eat at the outdoor pizzeria, wearing my jacket and sitting under a heat lamp. It was okay, although the pizza did cool off pretty quickly.
The evening show was similar to the Caribbean ports – a 45 minute diversion, but not really anything you would pay to see. Last night we had a violinist who played popular songs extremely well, with the ship’s trio backing him up. But I don’t even remember his name. And I didn’t even bother to take a picture of him. But we also didn’t walk out.
The one thing I really don’t like about being at sea is the lack of connectivity. Both Matteo and I have the AT&T international roaming plan for $10/day. With this, we not only get full cell service but can tether our other three devices. And it works not only in port, but as long as we are reasonably close to any population center along the coast. While at sea we are limited to the ship wifi plan. This gives us each one hour per day, with no rollover (1). I find this barely adequate to check my email, do a quick scan of the news headlines, and upload a post.
(1) This is a big change from our last Silversea cruise, where we got two hours per day with rollover. While the new rule was correctly described in the literature, the change was not highlighted.
Back when I used to work for a living, my group would regularly develop and release IT products to the users across our firm. Before the first production release we would often do a “beta” release, which we knew contained bugs but which we also thought worked well enough for users to use effectively. During the beta release period, we would collect reports of problems – bugs – and develop a plan to correct them, either during the beta release period or after we went into full production.
The Silver Muse is a late-stage beta release. If you were to count the number of features and capabilities which exist on this ship, the number of problems is numerically small. But they are problems nonetheless, many of which could easily been caught and corrected before we boarded. So here is our bug list.
B001: Screws missing in some reading lamps by beds. Risk: lamp detaching and injuring passenger or crew.
B002: Incorrect information about dress code distributed to 600 passengers. Risk: passengers arriving without proper attire and being denied entry to reserved restaurant. Risk: conflict between passenger and crew.
B003: “Do not disturb” door tags not ready on time. Passengers required to use flimsy paper tags with no holes for hanging on door handle. Risk: cabin staff could intrude on passenger at inopportune time. Resolved: proper door tags distributed after several days at sea.
B004: Restaurant reservation requirements not understood or followed by passengers. Risk: passengers being unable to eat in intended location. Risk: unnecessary conflict between passengers and crew.
B005: Water leaking on floor of bathroom. Risk: wet feet. Risk: passengers or crew slipping on wet floor, resulting in injury.
B006: All toilets on several decks temporarily out of service due to failure of pressure flush system. Risk: obvious. Resolution: all toilets now functioning.
B007: Inadequate process for dining room and table assignments on first night. Risk: passengers unable to dine with family and friends. Risk: unnecessary conversations between passengers and crew on first day. Resolution: no more first nights on maiden cruises for several years, at least.
B008: Restaurant reservation requirements changed mid-cruise without adequate notice. Risk: passenger and crew confusion. Resolution: this item determined to be the result of users not RTFM.
B009: Missing heaters in outdoor restaurant on pool deck. Risk: passengers being too cold to dine there.
B010: Inadequate process for accommodating food allergies. Risk: unnecessarily denying dining options to passengers. Risk: unnecessary conflict between passengers and crew. Risk: passengers needing to spend precious vacation time dealing with staff.
B011: lids on at least two toilets in public lavatories broke off. Risk: embarrassment.
B012: Wifi allowance is unclear and inadequate. Passengers required to take steps to explicitly logout of system; daily allowance of 1 hour doesn’t rollover if unused. Risk: passengers unable to control usage and have access to network services.
Doing nothing much in Palma
Mallorca is the principal island of the Balearic Islands, and home to Palma de Mallorca. Mallorca itself is a huge vacation spot, as are the other islands in the group. As you pull into Palma’s harbor, you see miles of seafront condominium buildings and an enourmous marina for private boats. Last time we were here with Laura and Rob, we hired a driver who took us into the northeastern mountainous coast, and Valldemossa in the mountains. This time, we took the ship’s shuttle bus into Palma and walked around for a few hours.
Palma is a pleasant if hilly town. Being Sunday, many of the shops were closed (no big deal) but the streets were crowded nonetheless. We found live music and a huge book fair in one large plaza, and families out for a walk around town on narrow streets.
The commercial district is bordered by a river with extensive landscaping along it’s banks. There is also a boulevard called La Rambla, which is a very scaled down version of the more famous and active street in Barcelona. The only shops on it are florists.
Just before getting back on the shuttle, stopped for gelato. As one must.
We were back on the ship and finished with lunch by around 3:00pm. The ship left at 5:00, and we were escorted for quite a while by some gulls. They would approach the ship from the rear, and then fly along side for a while, matching our speed. It made it (relatively easy) to catch a good picture.
We will be at sea from our departure on Sunday at 5:00 until we arrive in Sicily around 8:00am on Tuesday.
The big 4-0
Yesterday was Zelda and Matteo’s 40th anniversary. To celebrate, we took them to a very fancy restaurant, complete with an expensive bottle of French champagne. We finished the evening with a cabaret show (1).
It’s hard to believe that the 15 year old girl I first saw standing in her mother’s kitchen is all grown up.
(1) Actually, all of this was included in the price of the cruise, and of course, they paid their own way. Except for the champagne, which was a gift to us from American Express for charging the cruise on their card. Still, I thought it sounded nice.
All Gaudi, all the time
Saturday was Barcelona, so of course we did Gaudi things. We went for a trifecta: the Segrada Familia, Park Guell, and Casa Mila. His still-incomplete masterpiece, a failed high-end housing development, and a bankrupt luxury apartment building.
Segrada Familia is a massive church whose construction first began in 1882, or 135 years ago. It is stunning in scale and design, and looks unlike any other church or religious edifice in the world. Gaudi was hired a year after it was begun, and he threw out the original design for a new concept.
We met out guide, Marta, outside and she started our 4-hour Gaudi tour by taking us through the museum beneath the structure and explaining the design and construction concepts. This may sound boring, and I was initially skeptical, but I found it pretty interesting. His insightful use of geometry and mathematics to create insanely complex and pragmatic design elements that were also straightforward to construct was amazing.
There’s way too much to say about the Segrada Familia, so I’ll leave most of it for you to find elsewhere (see Wikipedia, for instance). But I’ll leave you with this thought: construction was creeping along until the Barcelona Olympics, which had the effect of increasing tourist interest in Barcelona generally and the Segrada. The number of visitors had grown such that the funding has dramatically increased from entrance fees. The church is so crowded that mass is only celebrated in the main sanctuary once a month. A cynic might say that this allows for more paid admissions … .
Our next stop was Park Guell. While now a city park, it was originally planned as a high-end gated community in the outskirts of Barcelona. Guell hired Gaudi to design the landscape and public elements of the project. There’s a grand entrance, a house for the concierge to greet visitors, etc. An outdoor market area was built where food and other vendors could set up on market days. Ultimately no one was interested in living that far from the city in the days before motorized transportation.
Only two residences were built in the Park, neither designed by Gaudi. After the project failed, Gaudi bought one of the houses and lived there for the last 20 years of his life.
Casa Mila was commissioned in 1906 by a wealthy Barcelona businessman, Pere Mila, to be his residence and have a number of luxury apartments to provide income for the building. Unfortunately for the later owner, a local bank, the original leases allowed rent-fixed renewals through the grandchildren of the original renters, which ultimately forced the building into bankruptcy. It is currently owned by a foundation, which has turned several of the apartments into a museum.
We had seen the other famous Gaudi-designed private residence, Casa Batllo, when we were in Barcelona two years ago. It was great to see another example of his work this time, but we felt that Batllo was more striking. That being said, this building was extremely controversial when built as it has a number of wonderful and typically Gaudi-esque features.
The fanciful chimneys and air vents are a Gaudi trademark. And he spared no effort in this building.
When Casa Mila was originally built, the attic was subdivided into rooms for the tenants’ household staff to live in, and for laundry and other workrooms. As it has been renovated into a showpiece and museum, the interior walls have been removed. This reveals a set of supporting arches following the same geometry used in Segrada Familia. While the picture doesn’t show it, the arches are quite beautiful.
We finished our time in Barcelona with a stroll on La Rambla and lunch. Then, back to the Silver Muse.
A quick look at Marseille and Aix-en-Provence
In typical cruise fashion, we pulled into Marseille in the morning and left in the late afternoon. This gave us enough time to take a quick look at two cities in southern France: Marseille itself, a bustling port and tourist attraction, and Aix, a smaller city about 20 miles inland. Our plan here was to take a taxi from the dock to and from Aix, and then walk around some part of Marseille before boarding the ship. As the ship was departing at 5pm, we decided to target returning no later than 4pm. As it turned out, we needed to take a shuttle bus from the dock into Marseille to find a taxi. All in all, the transportation options worked out as planned.
Aix is a pleasant little city, with a large pedestrian avenue surrounded by quiet streets. The car traffic seems pretty light in this central district.
There’s a fair amount of real shopping in addition to tourist shops and restaurants. I took advantage of this and bought a tie. After the previous night’s excitement over the ship dress code, I decided I didn’t need any more drama.
We found another taxi and headed back to Marseille, were we planned to visit the Old Port area and find some lunch. The Old Port, or Vieux-Port, is a major tourist area. It makes an enlongated U around the old port itself, with today is packed with small and not-so small pleasure crafts. There’s a giant Ferris Wheel.
We walked up and down the street for a while trying to find a restaurant that would meet our diverse needs, and then decided to give up and head back to the ship for lunch. We got to the appointed meeting place for the shuttle bus about 10 minutes early, and found a hefty line of other passengers. Fortunately, we got on the bus, but a few people didn’t fit. They had to either wait a half hour for the next bus or take a taxi.
Dinner this evening was stress-free as it was “informal”, which implies sport jackets and no ties. I wore my jacket, while Matteo and many other men in our restaurant didn’t. Go figure. I also should mention I had a nice talk with the Hotel Director Paulo in the afternoon, where we discussed the issues of lamps falling on people (1), the dress code and the dining reservation system. He took notes, but basically said he had no authority to change any of the company rules. He did say that if he got lots of complaints – and I was not the first to complain – it certainly would be reviewed at corporate.
After dinner, Sally and I spent a little bit listening to the jazz duo in one of the restaurants. They were very good.
(1) For the second time, this morning we noticed some water on the floor in our bathroom that was not caused by anything we did. When we showed it to our butler (aka cabin attendant), he said it was happening in other cabins as well. Go beta testing!
Thursday was our third day in Monaco, and our first full day on the Silver Muse. One of the concerns we had when we booked this cruise was that this is the maiden voyage. Many people are excited about something like that, being first and all. And let’s not even start with the other meaning of being first with a maiden. But as a long time IT guy, I translate “maiden voltage” as “beta testing”. As in ” we haven’t quite finished debugging yet, but let’s get some customers already”.
I may have already described the seating chart issue from the first night, but to recap: the ship didn’t allow anyone to make any dining reservations for the first night, which are actually required every other night for every restaurant. When we inquired upon arrival with the head of the restaurants, we found that they simply assigned people across the ship by cabin number. So we were sitting with the couple from room 746 (we are 747), while Zelda and Matteo were with two couples from 654 and 655, as they are room 653. While a good way to meet people, not what any of the guests traveling with friends or family had in mind.
Matteo came down this morning to breakfast with a cut on his hand. When we inquired about it, we found out that the bedside reading lamp came off the wall in the middle of the night and cut him. And when the electrician came to repair the lamp, he said that the screws holding it to the wall were missing, and that was a common problem across the ship. Seems like the holes in the underlying baseplate don’t always align with the holes in the lamp unit, so they were simply left off during assembly. Zelda went over to check the lamp on her side of the bed, and it came off in her hand (no injury this time). When I checked our lamps, one had the required two screws and one had only one. This is clearly a design problem, but also reflects the lack of time to fix a (minor) safety problem before the
beta test maiden voyage.
I wrote a couple of days ago about all of the work that the ladies put into organizing our diner reservations. The effort was compounded, in part, by confusion over which nights were “formal” (black tie suggested) at which restaurants. We wanted to avoid them, so Matteo and I didn’t need to bring suits or ties. Which I didn’t bring as a result of the careful planning. It took many emails and phone calls with the travel agent and the cruise line itself before Sally secured the information. Once we were on board and started reading the cabin information, it turned out that two of the restaurants are to be formal every night. And we have dining reservations at those for four nights. It also became apparent Wednesday evening that the passengers were taking this formal thing formally. Even though Wednesday was formally informal (jackets required for men, but no ties), a significant number of men were in tuxedos, and woman in gowns. I haven’t seen this type of dress widespread on a cruise in 30 years. It definitely wasn’t the case on our previous Silversea cruise two years ago.
Anyway, Thursday night dinner was at one of the formal restaurants, and we had a lot of conversation during the day about how to deal with it. My response was, since I didn’t even have a tie with me, I’ll deal with it if and when it’s actually a problem when we show up there. And I didn’t expect a problem.
Well, I was wrong again.
We arrived at the host’s station, and he informed me that the restaurant was formal and I needed a tie to be seated. I informed him that, per the information the cruise line gave us, I didn’t bring a tie. He informed me that it was ship policy and needed to be adhered to. I informed him I came for dinner and wanted to be seated. He informed me that he would be happy to lend me one of the ties they kept in back for uncouth idiots(1) like me who came without one. I informed him that I paid a lot of money for the cruise, I didn’t want his stupid (2) tie, and I was going to have dinner in his stinking (2) restaurant.
At this point he mumbled something about just following company rules, and proceeded to seat us in a nice quiet table in the back of the restaurant, where the fewest possible other guests would need to be exposed to my depraved dress behavior. I, in turn, made sure I sat facing so that the maximum number of people could see my defiance to immoral and probably illegal authority.
We then proceeded to have a lovely dinner, served by a friendly and attentive wait staff. Although I need to say that three of us had to send our main courses back to be redone, and one of them had to be changed altogether to another choice. But the desserts were excellent.
After dinner, we went to the show, which featured the “Silversea Singers” (love the alliteration; very clever). They were very good as they went through a program of songs from the 30s and 40s, which may have matched the age demographic of the passengers (3). Sally then had to make a quick stop to chat with one of the restaurant managers about ensuring a garlic-free menu choice for Friday night, while I took a last picture of Monte Carlo. The Silver Muse left port around midnight, headed for Marseilles.
(1) He didn’t actually call me an “uncouth idiot”. I’m using literary license to describe my inner feelings at this point.
(2) I didn’t say either “stupid” or “stinking”.
(3) I jest. If you were a teenager in the 1930s, you are in your 90s now. While the passengers appear older than we’ve seen on other cruises, they are not predominantly in their 80s and 90s.
Yesterday we boarded the cruise ship Silver Muse to begin our journey around the Mediterranean Sea. The first stop will be Monte Carlo, where we boarded. Yes, that’s right – we moved from our lovely hotel in the city to a lovely hotel floating at a dock in the city. We spent last night on the ship, but remained at dock in Monte Carlo. I’ll get to “why” in a bit.
The check-in process seemed well organized, if a bit over-complicated. We had to stop at three different desks to complete the process, and it’s not clear to me why the three stops were the plan. It seems to me that whatever it was they did at each stop could have been accomplished in one stop. As it was we waited on two short lines, and it moved along well.
After the third stop, when we were officially “checked in”, we made our own fourth stop to chat with the head of the restaurant, Mr. Gilbert Lanza, about food allergies and our reservation for this first night. See, the first night was “special” on this cruise. It was added to the schedule after we had booked the trip, and we understood that the ship planned a special celebration in honor of its maiden voyage – parties, music, dignitaries, etc. But they also seemed to have no way to allow you to make dinner plans for that night(1).
So we stopped to chat with Mr. Lanza and found out a few things.
1. He was mystified by some of the decisions surrounding the festivities, like how they randomly assigned people to tables for this evening.
2. He and his assistant would move us to Zelda and Matteo’s table, and somehow notify the displaced people that they were sitting somewhere else (we if fact all did sit together, so this worked).
3. He would arrange for Sally to receive a menu each evening for the restaurants so she could select a meal which would be garlic-free and tasty (2).
The cabin is nice, which is not a surprise since it’s pretty much the same as the one we had two years ago. There are a few minor changes in the layout, none of which matter a bit.
After checking in and unpacking, we toured the ship, checking out all a bars, restaurants, the spa, the bars, another restaurant, the game room, a bar, the fitness center, etc. Sally decided to do some more unpacking while I went to the gym. While I was working out, they made an announcement about the evening’s events. There was a talk about the cruise industry starting shortly, and a big-deal christening of the ship on the dock adjacent to the ship in an hour.
The christening ceremony was setup with folding chairs for 400 people, a small classical orchestra and speeches by Silversea executives and Prince Albert II of Monaco. Champagne, tv coverage, very posh. Unfortunately, only 150 passengers actually went down as we watched from our balcony, then then the weather turned.
First the blankets came out as the temperature dropped, then the umbrellas as it started to rain. Finally, they gave up and moved the whole thing into the theater in the ship. That’s Albert’s bald spot sitting in the chair in the middle of the aisle. Finally, we watched the christening on the video screen in the theater as they broke a bottle of booze on the hall of the ship.
But dinner was nice, and we had a good time catching up with Zelda & Matteo.
(1) You’ll recall that, unlike our last cruise on a sister ship, is ship has no open seating restaurant – you need a reservation every evening.
(2) We never got a menu last evening, but found Lanza at breakfast and got it all arranged for tonight.
Sometimes I’m wrong
I wrote the other day about packing. If you missed it, I was discussing two alternate approaches to packing for a trip, mine and Sally’s. Mine is to bring only what’s necessary, while Sally tries to be ready for different circumstances and plan for contingencies.
Sometimes my plan leads to a problem.
Sally brought a favorite pair of comfortable shoes, and another pair of comfortable shoes to switch off with. This afternoon – the second day of our two week trip – the one-piece heel and sole started to come unglued from the body of the shoe, making it unusable. Since she has the other shoes, this will merely be a mild inconvenience, rather than a crisis. We are planning a lot of touring on this trip, and not having some comfortable shoes would be a problem. She’ll try and get them repaired on the ship, but we don’t know about that yet.
I brought two pair of shoes: a pair of nice leather shoes for the evening, and a pair of sneakers. If one of them had failed, I’d be shopping in Monte Carlo tomorrow and undoubtedly paying thousands of dollars for a pair of shoes.
We landed in Nice yesterday a bit late as a result of hanging out on the runway at JFK for unknown reasons. We will spend two nights in Monte Carlo. Last night was in a hotel, and tonight will be on our ship, the Silver Muse. So when we got here yesterday morning and finally got into our room after lunch, we found the Silver Muse waiting for us across the street, so to speak. Sally, as only she can do, extended her run of free upgrades and we found ourselves in a large room with a view.
Monte Carlo and Monaco are a little funny. It’s a tiny country, only a couple of square miles. Yet the city feels like a big city. It’s very crowded and has lots of big buildings. It’s loaded with expensive stores, expensive cars, and expensive yachts. It’s also built into the side of the hills which surround it, so the streets are all inclined. There are stairways everywhere.
Monte Carlo is famous for its casino, of course. They charge €10 just to get in, which we didn’t have to pay because of our hotel. We went over last night and Sally blew through €15 in an hour at the slot machines (fortunately, I’m good for it). I really don’t get slots. At least in the old days, you pulled a mechanical lever and could kid yourself that the way you pulled it had something to do with winning or not. Today’s electronic machines don’t even make you do that – you feed currency in, select the amount of your bet, then repeatedly press a button to make the bet. Occasionally it pays off. Of course, there is nothing random whatsoever about the spin; the machine is a computer carefully programmed to provide intermittent reinforcement to the customer so as the maximize how long they will stay and feed it money.
The main gaming rooms are nothing special. Ten tables for roulette, blackjack and baccarat. Several dozen slot machines. There are so-call “private rooms” in the back for high rollers and James Bond types that we didn’t enter. I can’t show you a picture of the gaming room. I can’t even show you a picture of the sign saying “no pictures”. So here’s a snippet of the outside. It’s a nicely ornate building.
I’ve eaten in many restaurants around the world. In some of the restaurants, the food served was unrecognizable to my uncultured eyes, but I usually understood the point of the dish after it was explained. That doesn’t mean I tried it, or liked it if I did. I am an admittedly picky eater; this is well known to my family and friends.
One type of food that exists in many countries is nuts. I generally like nuts, especially salted, and especially peanuts (I know, they’re cheap and not the most nutritious). Different countries emphasize different nuts, of course. But there is a way of preparing nuts that I’ve only encountered in the front of airplanes: heated nuts.
Why heat nuts? It’s not as if they are cooked, they remain in their raw and crunchy state. It’s not as if there is some storage reason (do they keep them near the jet engines?). Nuts don’t spoil, and they aren’t served hot enough to kill any bacteria. The heat doesn’t seem to enhance the flavor in any way.
But here they are, heated. And I don’t like it.
Ready to go, but …
A few years ago we went away for a month. As always, we made a reservation with a car service to take us to the airport. I always worried about these guys showing up; I had occasionally experienced no-shows or late arrivals. So I was grew nervous as the pickup time approached.
I grew very tense when the pickup time passed with no driver.
I grew extremely tense when my call to the dispatcher went to voice mail.
At 10 minutes past the pickup time, and with no answer at dispatch, we loaded our luggage into the car and drove to JFK long term parking. The parking fee for the month was $16/day, or $480.
Last year I started using Uber (like so many of you). Mostly, it’s been a good experience, with lower costs, clean cars and pleasant drivers. On our last trip I had trouble getting a ride; apparently none of the drivers in the area wanted to make the 1:30 trip to JFK.
So this time I decided to try Lyft. I had been told that many drivers were abandoning Uber for Lyft, so we gave a try. I even used the scheduling feature to set the pickup for 4:00pm. Sure enough, a few minutes before 4:00, I got an alert that a driver had picked up the call and would be there in 14 minutes. Cool!
Except that I watched as he drove in the wrong direction, the arrival time stretched to 23 minutes, and then the car icon stopped moving. After a text and voice call yielded nothing, I cancelled the call and switched over to Uber. Tedd (pictured above) immediately grabbed the call and was at our house in 7 minutes.
So now we’re on our way to the airport, with an ETA of 5:40 for our 8:07 departure. Plenty of time.
So we both spent some time yesterday packing, and I’m pretty much done. The conversations we had about choices were illuminating and exposed two different (and equally valid) perspectives on how to make choices.
On the one hand, there’s a school of thought that attempts to bring the minumum one can get away with on a trip. Every item chosen must be versitile; clothing should mix-and-match across your selected wardrobe; items should be both durable and washable. I know people who travel and never check luggage – their selections always fit into the allowable carry-on sized bags. Indeed, I travelled for years for business and never checked a bag, although the carry-on restrictions were a bit looser then.
The advantages to this approach are
- No chance of loosing checked luggage
- No waiting for checked luggage at the carousel (obviously more important for trips with multiple flights or connecting flights)
- Less stuff to deal with in your room, especially when packing and unpacking
The major disadvantage is that you might discover you need something you didn’t bring. At best, this will be an inconvenience, where you either do without or need to go buy the item. At worst, you have a serious problem. For me, not bringing enough of my meds (or ruining some of what I brought), or missing a piece of photo gear (which is not replaceable in most locations we’ll be) would be pretty bad. Not having the perfect shirt for some occassion would be much less of a problem to me; I’m happy to compromise here. I’d be somewhat more unhappy if the weather turned very cold and I didn’t have stuff to keep me comfortable while we’re doing whatever we do.
The other school says that a trip is a special occassion, and one should bring as much stuff as you can manage to maximize your enjoyment of the trip. “As much as you can manage” could be defined by what fits in your suitcase(s). The biggest advantage of this approach is that you will almost always have what you want to wear or otherwise use. You’ll always have warm clothing, and clothing for warm weather. You’ll have a selection of shoes, pants and tops to wear each day. If something gets ruined or too soiled to wear, simply select another.
The disadvangages of this are
- You will never be able to avoid checking luggage
- At the extreme, you’ll have multiple pieces of checked luggage to deal with – increasing the risk of loss or delay
- Your luggage may be heavy and hard to manage
- You need to pack and unpack stuff at each stop
- You need to find a place to store all of your stuff at each stop (a surprising number of expensive hotels have minimal space to unpack into)
As you might guess, Sally and I approach the challange of packing from these two ends of the spectrum. What you might not guess is that we usually wind up with almost identical amounts of stuff as measured by the luggage we bring along. We use the same main suitcase as our checked bag. I usually have a backpack as a carryon, while she might have a small roll-aboard or bag.
Sally usually brings more items, but my items tend to be larger (think shoes or pants).
Sally might have an extra carry on bag, but my total luggage will usually be heavier (my clothes are denser, and my camera gear weighs a lot).
On any trip longer than a weekend, I assume I’ll need to do laundry. Sally’s threshhold for laundry is much longer – perhaps a week.
Sally likes to have a variety of looks to wear, while I don’t care so much about that. I’m happy to wear the same shirt or pants multiple times (subject to laundering, of course).
My rule is always: bring what you want, but it has to fit (whatever that means) and you need to be able to live with your decision. Other than that, I’m happy for us to make different choices.
Trip planning: we’re not on the ship anymore, Toto
People like cruises for a number of reasons. Some enjoy the nightlife. Some enjoy the on-board activities, like limbo contests on the pool deck or trivia games in the lounge. Some enjoy the all-inclusive nature of the vacation (1). Some enjoy being able to see many different places without ever having to pack and change hotels.
This voyage makes stops in 11 ports, including the first and last nights where we overnight on the ship. That means planning (or not) what to do on each day. Now, the cruise line, as always, tries to make it easy. They offer excursions which you can book directly online at their website, and usually have choices for each port.
These are not cheap. The prices shown are per person, so the third one, for instance, is $69 for a 3.5 hour bus ride. There is a stop for pictures included. The second one, at $99, is a four hour bus ride where you get to go shopping at two large markets in Barcelona. Now, don’t get me wrong – I’ve been there, and the markets are actually quite enjoyable. But paying that much money for a bus tour is just beyond what we consider a bad value.
So our approach has been to find our own guides and book them ourselves. As they usually charge by the tour and not by the number of people in your group (2), this can actually be quite economical and much more enjoyable when you’re traveling with another couple.
So, much like our dining plan, we set about identifying what we intended to do at each stop. This is much easier these days than in the past; we start by checking travel forums like TripAdvisor to see if there are any local guides or tour companies which have worked well. Using this technique, we discovered a website – Tours By Locals – which intermediates between independent guides in many locations and potential clients. This ultimately gave us three tours. We found another two independent guides in two other ports. We decided to take the cruise bus in one location where it was reasonably priced and all we wanted was transportation to the site. At one stop we’ll rent a car, which I’ve arranged, and in the remaining four we plan to just wander around, or perhaps take taxis to get to where we want to go.
(1) If they are looking forward to this, they are likely to be disappointed. Every cruise I’ve been on has lots of ways to spend extra money after you board, starting with drinks. On our ship, some of the restaurants have a nominal upcharge which is more than Sally and I usually spend for dinner when we go out.
(2) There is an appropriate charge if the guide needs a larger car or van for a larger group, of course. But four people plus the guide will fit in pretty much any car that any guide we’ve used has driven.
While we’re talking about dining on the ship
When you go on a cruise, you spend a lot of time eating on the ship. Breakfast pretty much every day (although some people skip breakfast), lunch some days, and dinner every evening. And somehow, somewhere, someone got the great idea that it would be great fun to drag all kinds of formal wear on your vacation so you could play dress up for dinner. At least sometimes.
Years ago, when Sally and I first took the occassional cruise, you dressed for dinner each night. Men in a suit and tie, woman in fancy dresses. One or two nights on each cruise would be “formal”, meaning black tie – tuxedos or the equivalent for men, and ball gowns or other formal dresses with scads of jewelry for woman. Now, I suppose for some people, this was a dramatic change from their daily lives and therefore welcome. But I worked at a bank – I got to wear a suit and tie to work every day, and “dressing up” while on vacation was, well, no vacation. Until 1999, anyway, when the dot-com revolution swept away dress codes at any company that wanted some of that sky-high market valuation (1).
Not to mention that dragging a tuxedo and all of the accoutrements along as well was a pain. At least we were not luggage-constrained while flying back then. Ah, the good old days.
But casual attire eventually invaded cruising as it did most parts of society, and so the need to bring black-tie attire or even a suit faded.
Then Sally and I discovered this fancy cruise line that would really like you to dress every night, in at least a sport coat, and go “formal” – meaning a full monkey suit – twice on this long cruise. They do offer an escape hatch for the latter; on the formal nights, you can choose to eat in one of the restaurants that won’t be formal.
Being eager to get along with Zelda and Matteo, whom we assumed wanted to observe the formal dress code, we made plans to bring the requisite gear. Little did we suspect that Zelda and Matteo, being eager to get along with us, were doing exactly the same. This double dose of niceness came to light last week, when we all had a good laugh and promptly agreed to boycott the formal nights.
(1) As if the worse your employees dressed, the higher your stock price would be.
Trip planning – so far
We leave for the trip in not too many weeks now. We spent a good part of a day last week with Zelda and Matteo planning.
We are on the ship for 12 nights. We need to make 12 dinner reservations. There are seven restaurants. Two of the restaurants have upcharges, the other five don’t. On our last cruise, with the same cruise line, there was a “Restaurant” which didn’t take reservations, and was large enough to accomodate enough of the passangers without too much of a wait. On this brand new ship they decided that there doesn’t need to be any no-reservation, open seating restaurant. That means that you need to plan a meal for each night, or risk having to hang around waiting for a seat to open.
Or maybe they have some magic, and they just know that the natural and immutable patterns of passenger dining behavior is such that there will be no conflict, no line, no waiting.
Needless to say, but this would not stand. So Sally and Zelda began strategizing about which nights to eat at which of the seven restaurants. This involved:
- analyzing each restaurant and it’s menu
- checking to see what time we needed to return to the ship each day
- choosing a time to eat each evening
- determining which restaurants were worthy of eating at more than once, despite never having eaten at any of them (1)
- making reservations at the annointed time, using the cruise line’s handy online booking system
Except for a few problems, this worked out okay. The problems included the system not accepting reservations at one restaurant that the ladies deemed especially desirable, and also not accepting reservations for any restaurant on the first night on the ship. So 600 people will board that afternoon and immediately run around trying to get a reservation in the restaurant they like.
Or maybe they’re just not as OCD as we are, and are planning to relax on their vacation and take it as it comes.
(1) Actually, no one has ever eaten at any of these restaurants. It’s a brand new ship, and we are on the first official sailing.
I’ve blogged in the past about some trips that I’ve taken with my lovely wife. This year, we’re planning two major and at least a couple of minor trips. The major trips are another Mediterrainian cruise, and a safari in Africa. We also have an out of town wedding, and we’ll be in Vermont some times.
The Mediterranean cruise is similar to the one I blogged about in 2015 (https://bassman-crusin.blogspot.com/). Last time we traveled with our good friends Rob & Laura. This time we’ll be traveling with Zelda & Matteo (don’t ask). The trip is not for a while yet, so I still have adequate time to obsess over planning and packing, and planning for packing. Actually, I don’t expect any drama with the packing for this trip – I’ll pretty much just drag out the packing list from the last one, update it for new sneakers, etc., and be done.
The safari is a whole new ball of wax. If you’ve never gone on a safari, or talked to someone who has gone on a safari, you may not be aware that there are a few very strict requirements.
The first is that all of your luggage must weigh 44 lbs. or less. This includes your checked bag (singular) and any carry-on stuff you may bring. Related to this, the checked bag apparently must be a soft-sided duffel-type bag with no wheels. There are other guidelines around what you should or shouldn’t bring as well. I’ll probably devote a few posts to this issue in the future, as this trip isn’t until much later. So I have plenty of time to obsess (full disclosure: I started obsessing a couple of months ago when we agreed to make this trip).
I’ll talk a bit about our cruise planning in an upcoming post.