Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

October, 2011

October, 2011
Chess in Lausanne, Switzerland

Sunday, January 30, 2011


24 December…

After a week of paralyzed airports, Eurostar issues, UK train disruptions, road havoc (all due to our 3 ½ inches of snow) we made it out of the country!

It seems like a measly amount of snow to have locked everything up (well it is a measly amount) but given London hasn’t had to deal w/ real winter conditions much if at all, there simply isn’t the support to respond.

I heard plenty of poo-pooing from those who deal w/ that ugly Northeastern US weather…and all I have to say is go to Texas and see what happens when it snows. Tax money just doesn’t get pumped into snow plows for the onesy twosy snowstorms. Maybe a/c instead?

While I’m the first to cut England slack on facing up to winter weather, I must say Heathrow in particular needs to get its act together. One of the world’s largest airports has got to get itself access to some de-icing equipment and a few plows, even if they just rent the stuff once or twice a year.

And for heavens sake why don’t they have a crisis plan that includes communication so people aren’t trapped in (or locked out) of the terminals as flights upon flights are cancelled? Not to mention the fact that some air carriers just stopped answering the deluge of calls as panicked passengers sought options for their holiday travels.
I assume, since 9/11, that a crisis plan exists for a terrorism hit; maybe they could adopt some of the strategies for weather-related standstills? (or maybe they learned nothing from the earlier ash crisis…who am I to say, I supposed; I’m pretty far removed from airport management). Common sense would say…

But I as usual digress! We had the good luck to get to a quiet Heathrow, our terminal just waking up. We had plenty of time to get through the process, have breakfast and board our bus to the plane. Always kills me when you have a 15 minute ride across the airplane parking lot to hike up into the jet. Seems more fitting for those Salt Lake flights, where a handful of people bend down to squeeze in and if the plane isn’t full, you’re asked to disperse throughout for weight efficiency.

We parted London on time, smooth sailing er flying to Barcelona. God must have known my desperation to get out of the gray and enjoy a change of scenery after three of us suffered from swine flu, three weeks of lingering effects and trying to fit in all the Christmas busy-ness while feeling more like going back to bed.

Our luggage found us in sunny, crisp Spain, where we met up with a growing group of fellow cruisers – young, old, families, signles, whatever. We were shephered to buses and off to the port shortly thereafter for a painless check in and we were on board in early afternoon!

Our first order of business: lunch. This meal was at the Grand Pacific Dining Room, where we sat by the windows and gazed out at sparkling water. Ahhh the sun.
And then it was off to explore the ship, check out our cabins and get settled. We had adjoining rooms – twins for the kids, a king for us, windows in both. Ahh that all important door in between. No complaints!

A bit later we joined a tour around the ship to get the lay of the land, then had a tour of the spa (priorities, people, priorities). We each got a small demo of various massage techniques. I’ve no doubt spa appointments for my kids are in their future as both love having their backs massaged. Must be genetic.

We also perused the restaurant optioins and elected for a Spanish dinner meal; the lobster tacos spoke to us. And they were indeed fabuous; as we pulled away from harbor en route to Casa Blanca we toasted our first day on the Norweigian Jade.
Post-mealtime we hit a Christmas show – lots of holiday singing and dancing. Enjoyed by all and it put us in the Christmas Eve frame of mind!

I ended the day in the fitness center – I know I know – on vacation? Frankly, though, if you can’t find time to exercise while on holiday, then hang it up entirely (my philosophies…take em or leave em).

Christmas Day at sea

We started a very relaxing day with breakfast at the Garden Café, a very casual, very big buffet. It doesn’t take long to discern that it’s all about the food on board. Kids love all the options buffets offer so it makes breakfast easy.

Afterward we attended a non-denominational Christmas service in the ship’s auditorium, which featured Christmas music with lounge piano player on keyboard and Catholic priest. In that order. Optional communion service at the end.
Apparently this – I’m referring to optional communion – wasn’t enough for one of the passengers. She was heard complaining more than once about it not being Catholic enough. Nevermind that nowhere in the literature did it mention a Catholic Mass.

Frankly I don’t have much patience for the whining. She’s the one who chose to be away from her home Parish on a big boat with a very diverse group of people who – shock of all shocks – may not be on the Catholic bandwagon. (I was quite surprised to see a Catholic priest, let alone have the option of a communion service; we were more than fine with the interdenominational effort. Scale expectations, people…
Anyway, some of us thought the service was nice, with appropriate messaging for the holidays.)

Then we were off to laze around the ship and for lunch we hit the Garden Café, spending the afternoon playing games, working out, decorating Christmas cookies. This event, designed for kids, was besieged by adults and pimply faced 18 year old boys. Anything for a cookie, I guess. The kids had fun with frosting and candies.

After the sugar fest we joined in a caroling session around the piano with cruise director Gary, who really was everywhere at once on the Norwegian Jade. He led a rousing rendition of Deck the Halls, Rudolph, Jingle Bells, all the festive faves.

For Christmas dinner we dined at the Alazar as the menu featured traditional Christmas favorites – turkey and all the trimmings, ham and such. Even Claire skipped the kids meal for the turkey and mashed potatoes. Actually, she ventured into foreign territory in the food department several times on this trip. Food beyond carbs; who knew?

December 26 – Claire’s 9th birthday

I don’t remember much about my 9th birthday but it certainly wasn’t spent on a cruise ship. And someone I talked w/ recently actually had the gall to say “wouldn’t your kids rather be home than cramped up on a ship over the holidays?”

Considering the opportunities for Christmas on the high seas are limited for us, that their friends and family aren’t hanging around London for big festive dinners and that our options for sharing holidays with family in the U.S. involve impersonal hotels, well I’d venture to say THEY’RE ALL OVER THE CRUISE!

Claire’s day started with breakfast, then onto join the masses in the Stardust Theatre to group up for our Casa Blanca excursion – city highlights. It was a cattle call with a big bunch of tourists all grouping up for their respective buses. Off to 32 we eventually went – first stop Hassan II Mosque, the third largest in the world.

It did go on forever, this Mosque – with its gorgeous, hand-crafted décor – carved wood, hand painted tiling, plaster, etc. We saw main and lower levels, Turkish and Moroccan style baths, male and female prayer areas. And the area around it is a lovely seaside setting. More on the Mosque:

The great Hassan II Mosque was commissioned by its namesake, King Hassan II, in part to provide Casablanca with a single landmark monument. On his birthday, July 9, 1980, the king declared:

I wish Casablanca to be endowed with a large, fine building of which it can be proud until the end of time... I want to build this mosque on the water, because God's throne is on the water. Therefore, the faithful who go there to pray, to praise the creator on firm soil, can contemplate God's sky and ocean.

Designed by French architect Michel Pinseau, construction of the Hassan II Mosque began in July 1986 on land reclaimed (without compensation to the former residents) from a run-down area near the sea. The goal for completion of the mosque was King Hassan II's 60th birthday in 1989, but it ended up not being finished until August 30, 1993.

The project is estimated to have cost as much as $800 million, funds that were remarkably raised entirely from public subscription. International reports have suggested both local resentment and less-than-voluntary donations to the project, but Moroccans seem to be genuinely proud of their monument. The massive fundraising also had a positive side-effect: it temporarily reduced Morocco's money supply and brought down inflation.

Nearly all the materials of the Hassan II Mosque are from Morocco, with the sole exceptions of the imported white granite columns and glass chandeliers (from Murano, near Venice). The marble is from Agandir, the cedar wood is from the Middle Atlas and the granite comes from Tafraoute.

Over 6,000 Moroccan master craftsmen and artisans were employed to work these local materials into the intricate decorations that embellish the entire structure. When construction passed its deadline in the early 1990s, 1,400 men worked by day and 1,000 worked by night to bring the vast project to completion.

The most distinctive characteristic of the Hassan II Mosque is its spectacular location on a platform over the Atlantic Ocean. Uniquely, part of the mosque's floor is made of glass so worshippers can kneel directly over the sea.

Above, an automated sliding roof opens (on special occasions) to the heavens.
At 689 feet, the Great Mosque's minaret is the tallest structure in Morocco and the tallest minaret in the world. At night, lasers shine a beam from the top of the minaret toward Mecca, "to point the way to God." The building was designed to withstand earthquakes and has a heated floor and electric doors.

The style of the Hassan II Mosque displays strong Moorish influences, bringing to mind the Alhambra and Mezquita in Spain. Horseshoe arches prevail both outside and in, and the walls and columns of the interior are delicately carved in a variety of intricate patterns.

There is a huge women's gallery on the right as you face the prayer area, which is beautifully carved of dark wood. The prayer area in the back is spacious and carpeted in red. Downstairs are Turkish-style baths and fountains for washing.

Then off to see more of Casa Blanca, which seemed rather large and industrial, not terribly clean or quaint. So stick with the movie for your romantic Casa Blanca experience. The old town dates to the 1900’s so not the depth of history other Moroccan cities have.

That said, we did get to see some lovely homes, the king’s palace (well really the king’s well-secured palace gates and similarly well-secured big yard). And we walked through the oldest quarter of the city, with its traditional Moroccan architecture, stopping at a market with plenty of fish, much to Claire’s dismay. Any potential meat or fish smell sends her over the edge.

Casa Blanca reminded us of India, though with fewer women out and about and garb less colorful. According to our guide, there is greater religious freedom in Morocco than in other parts of the world, with Jewish, Christian and Islamic people living harmoniously for centuries.

In fact, Morocco is proud to have been such a staunch protector of its Jewish population during the 2nd World War. The guide noted this and said the Jewish population continues to be a very vibrant, visible part of society and political expression in Morocco.

Islamic dress is a choice in the country as opposed to a government requirement, we were told. And for those of you on the edge of your seat, Morocco’s main source of economy is agriculture.

After the market we stopped at a bazaar selling handicrafts. Again, reminiscent of India – less pressure to buy, though, with an entire busload of people rather than just the kids and me being watched, assisted, etc. by the 5+ clerks manning the shop. Let’s not forget the tea and soft drinks offered, along with the weaving demonstrations and the dozens of perfectly folded, plastic wrapped quilts laid out around the room. I always shuddered as I walked away empty handed – or nearly so – as I thought about how much work it was to painstakingly refold and return to those small plastic sleeves for the next demo, likely for what’s assumed to be a wealthy tourist empowered with credit card and desire for over-priced Indian goods likely made by women and young adults (read children) who receive little if any of the monies exchanged.

Worse, I suppose, is us walking away empty handed as I did numerous times, taking the pennies these families subsist upon with me.

In my defense, not all traveling foreigners are rich, not all of us allow ourselves to be taken advantage of with (often) severely inflated prices and frankly, I can’t solve the third world’s problems with one – or even several – rugs that look great in India but in practice in North Carolina, one can only handle so many elephants.

Yeah well anyway in Casa Blanca we got away without big tapestry demos and happily re-boarded the ship for a late lunch at the crazed Garden Café. Everyone else had returned from their excursion with an appetite, too, apparently.

In the afternoon we played Clue, our new favorite family game for everyone except Ava, who’s not quite old enough to appreciate it.

Claire’s dinner choice for the day was Spanish so we again enjoyed good salsa and those fabulous lobster tacos, among other things. The birthday desserts abounded: a small cake, flan, a chocolate cake and some other Spanish specialty. The wait staff sang to Claire and brought out fake candles (flames and ships: not a good mix).

December 27

Agadir. I started the day out circling the deck – the ship has a jogging track up near the top and a walking path on 7. Breezy but nice, I liked the one up top – great views and not much activity early in the day.

Today we opted for breakfast at the Grand Pacific, with its quiet ambience and lovely views. Fresh omelettes, pancakes, etc. Ava’s discovered cream as her new favorite pancake topping.

We grouped up again in the theatre for our outing to agadir. As it was last to leave, much less chaotic than the previous day, we were soon en route and our first stop: the Kasbah– lovely old sand-castle like ruins overlooking Agadir. A series of narrow switchbacks were navigated by our trusty bus driver – glad he was driving and not me.

Agadir is a sprawling, coastal community circled by hills and mountains. With its sparkling water and bright blue sky, on our sunny day it was spectacular.

Some poor camels were waiting with their phsy owners/handlers at the top. Tourists could traverse the parking lot atop the straggly beasts. Claire was picked up and perched on a camel, which didn’t do much for her or us so we opted out from this cheesy photo opp. Ah the romance of riding a worn-out, cranky, smelly camel on asphalt, swaying uncomfortably past tour buses flanked by drivers smoking imitation Pall Malls while cameras clicked and scavengers tried to sell cheap watches and wallets…

We did walk up and around the fortress, which had gaping holes opening into steep drops – no signs of warning or fences. You’re on your own in Agadir, I guess.
Back on the bus we headed to the other side of the city for our Fantasia horse race/camel experience.

Third world entertainment (a far cry from Broadway, to put it mildly). We pulled up to our outdoor green space with trash in the corners of the lawn. Entertainers dressed in various costumes welcomed us into the park area, where chairs were set off to the right, facing a stage covered with dirty carpets. Behind were five men in traditional Moroccan or Berber costumers (I guess) mounted on horseback.

A few minutes later, as the audience sipped tea (we passed -- old habit from India: skepticism on hygiene) out of small glasses, some dancers took the stage. They were older, the lead guy missing a number of critical teeth. Those in place looked pretty abused. They did some swaying and hip wiggling on stage, pulled people from the audience up participate (always good to dodge that bullet), then segued to the horsemen doing a mad dash down the pasture and shooting their guns in the air at the end.

(How is it that when guns are shot in Agadir it’s harmless but when it happens in the US it’s blood, death and media?) Ugh

What the Agadir horse/gun men lacked in coordinated effort they made up for in sound effect.

Next on stage was a young, more appealing belly dancer in a bright blue costume. She gyrated for quite some time – maybe 10 minutes too long – then some really wily gymnasts in hot pink took the stage. They were fun to watch as they did flips and towers and all kinds of physically challenging maneuvers with each other.

The last stage act was a group of male dancers/musicians with wigs and bright red costumes. Their wigs were memorable; otherwise, nothing to report.

After our fine friends the horseman ran through a final time, with one poor guy toppling off, our show was complete. (BTW this horse race business was supposed to be a symbol of manhood, courage and hospitality – so what does that say about the poor guy who fell off?)

Back on the bus, we were off to another part of Agadir for a presentation at an herbal pharmacy. There our busload clamored into a room with a couple benches and we listened to a guy give us a spiel on how various herbal meds work on ailments from herpes to excema, snoring to circulation issues.

Someone volunteered for a 5 minute massage with the special Agadir massage oil and sales person’s assistant. He had to remove his shirt – maybe it was a good thing I restrained my impulse to volunteer?

The sales guy had all kinds of teas, cooking oil, etc. but I think he didn’t sell as much as he’d hoped. I’m not sure how many people wanted to raise a hand for the herbal version of Viagra or for weight-loss tea in front of a bus-sharing crowd.

I did have to laugh at the wide range of ailments some of his products covered. Miracle cures of the desert.

We also made a stop at a shop, of course – some beautiful furniture.

Despite my sarcastic commentary, we found Agadir to be charming, and a lovely coastal city.

Back on board, we had a bite at the grill by the pool, then the kids and Joe swam a bit; I supervised. Take me back to Texas and those really hot temps and warm pools, then I’m all about the pool. Otherwise, x-nay on the pool-a.

Later we hit the Spinnaker lounge for family bingo. No big (or small!) winnings for Webers, but we had fun. At 6:00 we headed off to Tapinyaki for dinner. It’s one of those Japanese restaurants where the chefs cook in front of you. The place only has 16 seats with sittings of eight staggered. So an intimate experience. What our chef lacked in expertise (he did some egg juggling, tossed one in his hat, etc. but also dropped a couple and broke them on the grill) he made up for in crowd interaction and humor.

Both Joe and I tried to play egg basketball by catching a piece of cooked egg in our mouth but I missed, he scored.

A’s meal was chicken and noodles, I had lobster and squid, Claire and Joe had steak. And we all enjoyed delicious fried rice. Our meal wrapped up with fruit and green tea ice cream. Not my favorite.

We ended the evening with a ship show – the magicians and a couple of amazing acrobats/dancers. I’m selling them short in this blog entry because I’m tired and can’t cough up specific awe-inspiring tricks and acts, but suffice it to say our attention was captivated, I still am amazed at the strength and dexterity of those two acrobatically inclined dancers can do. A husband/wife team, they even had their son appear in one act. As for the magicians, it's a mystery to me how they did what they appeared to have done but didn't really do.

December 28

The beach!!! Today we joined the masses for a late breakfast, then I had a fabulous massage after a great workout. FABULOUS. The massage, mind.

Then we got ready for a non-excursion day at the beach in Las Palmos.

Bonus: a sunny, warm day had dawned.

After an easy walk to the beach, we holed up and spent a couple hours alternately reading, sun bathing and looking for shells. Eventually we got hungry and sought a seaside table in vain but opted for the best-looking pizzeria on the strip. (There were plenty of pizza options – apparently when on vacation on an island in Spain pizza appeals.)

Ours had a great table indoors overlooking the beach so we settled in for a slow, relaxed meal of excellent pizza and pasta.

From there we stopped at a gelateria. You know those ferrera rocher chocolates that are so good? Well the gelato they make with them is even better.

Back toward the ship, we wandered through a mall – aren’t they all the same – then settled in for a bit before drinks and the evening show, this time a Spanish flamenco ballet. Defiinitely the best costumes and most changes. Gorgeous dresses.

Afterward – dinner – with lines in the dining rooms we grabbed a drink and played cards in the Atrium, a great place to hang out as someone was usually working the piano or strumming a guitar. Eventually the Old Grand Pacific buzzed us for dinner and I continued the Italian theme of the day…tortellini.

December 29

Today was our Funchal day, though not until afternoon so we slept in, had a lazy morning on board the ship and disembarked at 1:30 for our excursion, which was a particularly good one, with a superb guide.

Our agenda for the day: a bus ride inland, passing through Sao Martinho to the Socorridos ravine. "Eira do Serrado is reached after a short drive along a winding road, offering spectacular views of the interior of the island. Here, it is a short and easy walk up to the viewpoint on Pico de Serrado at an altitude of approximately 3,592 feet (1,094 meters), for an amazing view down onto the village of Curral das Freiras. Curral das Freiras (Nuns Valley) is a small village nestling between almost perpendicular mountains in the heart of the island. In 1566, the nuns from the Santa Clara convent fled from pirates attacking Funchal and found seclusion here where they also brought the convent's treasure."

The views were amazing. Waterfalls, canyons, hills/mountains, the sea, incredible greenery with flowers sprinkled throughout, fog drifting over a nearby peak…
Incredibly piterusque and quite a contrast, weatherwise, to when we boarded the bus – warm, sunny air down below, downright chilly and very windy at the viewpoint.

Incidentaly, Funchal’s history goes back over five centuries when early Portuguese settlers colonised the coast of a bright and sunny bay where fennel (funcho) grew in abundance, giving its name to the new town of Funchal.

From our windy viewpoint (and the mega tourist trap store at the bottom of the trail) we headed to Monte, a small village, perched up in the hills overlooking Funchal. It was formerly a health resort for Europe's high society, including Austrian Emperor Charles I.

Upon leaving the bus we climbed up to Monte Church, which overlooks the city and dates from 1818. It stands on the spot where an original chapel was built by the first two children to be born on Madeira island.

This is also the location of the tomb of Charles I, Karl von Habsburg-Lothringen, the last Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

From the steps up to the church we could see the famous Monte Tobaggans...

Originally a fast means of transport down to Funchal for people living in Monte, Monte’s infamous toboggan sledges appeared around 1850.

Still in use today, they attract thousands of tourists every year who want to make this exciting experience of sliding at high speed on narrow, winding streets down to Funchal. These two-seater wicker sledges glide on wooden runners, pushed and steered by two men traditionally dressed in white cotton clothes and a straw hat, using their rubber-soled boots as brakes.

The downhill journey to Funchal is made in about 10 minutes on a total course of 2 km, reaching at times a speed of 48 km/hour. Adventurous, yet safe, an ‘old-fashioned’ toboggan ride to make your way down from Monte is the perfect contrast to the high-technology cable car going up to Monte.

As exciting as the toboggan rides looked, we passed as age limits precluded Ava’s participation.

After again meeting up w/ our group we wandered to the gondola for a beautiful lift down the hillside, which used to sport a rack railway connecting Monte and Funchal.

At the bottom we were whisked off to a final stop for Madeira (appropriate, no?) tasting in a charming little tasting room with wooden barrels for tables, stools for perching whilst drinking.

We tried two types – a medium dry and edium sweet, leaving with a small bottle of the medium dry. Should be tasty over ice cream…

Back at ship!

For dinner we opted to eat at Papa’s – good Italian food in a casual setting. Thing big wooden tables, great ocean views. My pork saltimbocca – their specialty –was excellent. We scooted early so we could hit the evening show, this time a showdown with the audience determining the winner. Great fun! Afterward we returned to our Italian restaurant for dessert.

December 30

At sea! Somehow the time flies when there isn’t a major agenda. Now how is that? Games, books, workout room, hanging by the pool…

At some point we rotated from one end of the ship to the other to continue enjoying the sunshine and a Beer Fest. On tap: German beer and food, along with live music.

We also stopped in to hear Cruise Director Gary’s presentation about his career in show biz. A Scotsman, he is a classicly trained pianist who, through haphazard meetings with stars in Paris, ended up working in Vegas, then the Lido in Paris, which then led to acts on various cruises. And at sea he was asked to fill in for a fired cruise director (the guy was found sauced under the piano) and since then has worked in the cruise business, on and off the sea, for several years.

In his spare time he’s dedicated to animal rescue and has a place in Italy set up to care for stray dogs, cats, a few donkeys, some ducks, etc. We all enjoyed his talk and of course bought his book, Stars, Staterooms & Stowaways, a collection of anecdotes about his life and career.

For dinner we ate at Le Bistro, a fancy French restaurant. I particularly liked this one, with its perfect mushroom soup. As Claire says, the restaurant has a lovely atmosphere and we all left very satisfied.

Our entertainment for the evening was “Broadway in the Atrium,” a set of “star-studded songs from musical theatre’s rich history and from today’s stages.” One of our favorite gathering spots on the ship, it was a lovely way to end the day, listening to beautiful voices belt out familiar tunes.

31 December
New Year’s Eve!

And how did you spend the last day of 2010? We zipped down for breakfast, fought for (and found!) a table (so far this week we’ve been with the majority on the timing of our hunger pangs, thus tracking down a place to sit takes a little longer).

Then we were off to check out a bit of Malaga, starting with a bus ride through the city and along the coast and on to the magnificent Nerja Caves – Cuevas de Nerja – a series of huge caverns stretching for almost five kilometres and home to the world’s largest stalagmite, a 32 metre high column measuring 13 metres by 7 metres at its base.

There are three Galleries – Show Gallery, Upper Gallery and New Gallery – with each gallery containing a number of Halls.

The Upper Gallery and New Gallery contain many of the prehistoric cave paintings, but tourist access to these areas is limited to special groups (and while we’re special people, we weren’t part of this group tour).

Finding the cave…

On January 12th 1959, five local lads from the village of Maro decided to go hunting for bats and headed for a pothole known locally as ‘La Mina’ where they saw a number of bats exiting through the hole in the rocks.

The boys returned the next day with tools to dislodge a couple of stalagtites in the entrance. Once inside, they found themselves able to descend to a huge cavern where they discovered a number of skeletons next to some ceramic pottery.
Excited by their find, they went back to tell their family, friends and teachers but it wasn’t until the cave was visited by a medical expert and a photographer that the true extent of their discovery became apparent.
The first photographs of the caves were published in the Málaga newspaper ‘Sur’ about 100 days after their discovery and after first being called ‘Cueva de las Maravillas’, they then became ‘Cueva de Nerja’.
The Nerja Caves were officially inaugurated on June 12th 1960 and opened to the public.

Definitely worth experiencing, we were taken aback by the size and beauty of the stalagtites and stalagmites. (We saw the largest stalagmites columns in the world, 161 feet high and 59 feet in diameter!) As big as church pillars and with similarities to Gothic architecture. And in fact, the brochures about the caves noted their “capricious rocky formations can be compared to Modernist cathedrals, and their eight rooms include the Room of the Cataclysm, as well as the Room of the Cascade.”

We oohed and aahed with the rest of our group, discerning different images in the cracks, crevices, walls…

Today, the public at large can visit about a third of the cave, while scientists and academics can arrange to study deeper aspects of it. The cavernous areas are so
large concerts and festivals are held inside.

After visiting the caves we went to the city center of Nerja, which is part of what’s known as the Balcony of Europe and dates from 1487. The city sports a 9th century castle above the sea. We checked out the city’s 17th century Savior Church, constructed in Baroque-Mudejar style and the 16th century Our Lady of Sorrows Hermitage with its paintings by the master Alonso Cano. The old quarter of town sports charming cafes and small shops with local handicrafts and local products such as sweet wine, olive oil, honey and tropical fruits.

Back on the bus we enjoyed views of the subtropical coast, where sugar cane, avocado and custard trees grow in abundance.

And then to the ship!

Our dinner plan for New Year’s Eve was the steakhouse, Cagney’s. And it was wickedly good! Wonderful steak, best views of any of the restaurants late in the evening, as the light sparkled off the water.

The show of the evening was called “Elements,” which included magic and a “visual feast of flying,” music and dance, “reveling in the four elements – Earth, Air, Water and Fire.” Another great performance.

We’ve decided we like this one-hour nightly show; each has been different, entertaining for all of us and not too lengthy.

Naturally we moved on to the New Year’s Eve party, opting for some time in the Spinnaker Lounge, where a live band played. And we later rotated to the Atrium, where a pianist got us all in the New Year’s mood. The place was soon packed and we all sang/danced and of course kissed as the new year countdown took place. The kids ate it all up though Claire was ready to exit about 10 minutes after the big event.
Ava, meanwhile, was just getting juiced up for the party. Hmmm this could be a glimpse of things to come?

January 1

2011!!! Fitting, I think, to have a day at sea on Jan 1.

Our day was spent with a little of this and that – a towel-folding demo, for starts.

Each day our stewards left our room sparkling and decorated with animals folded from towels. My favorite was the monkey hanging from our ceiling. They made gorillas, dogs, bears, you name it. Very creative.

So the ship had a little demo on how to create these creatures at home. You could even purchase a DVD (that was deemed less than necessary for us). Let me warn you now if you opt to visit: you won’t find any cute towel creatures to welcome you. I do well to get them into a square, thankyouverymuch!

For lunch we ate on the deck, BBQ ribs and burgers from the grill. Delish!
In the afternoon the kids and Joe checked out the “name that tune” contest with Gary, the cruise director who seemed to be everywhere on this ship. I spent that time sweating.

And as our last evening meal rolled around, we opted for Asian: the Jasmine Garden, which I thought was very good.

With that final meal we’d tried nearly every dining option -- sans sushi -- on board and found it all quite appealing. And in fact, too much of a good thing!

Overall cruise musings…we had a great first long cruise – nice mix of down time and activity, plus it was all choreographed so easy to just go along and enjoy. We met several people who are regular cruisers, even taking back to back boats (which I wouldn’t do…too much of a good thing, plus I’m thinking on day 11 I’d get itchy feet).

We are of the opinion that we’ll cruise again, but in the interim there are many other ways to explore/vacation that we’ll enjoy. Some of that has to do with our age and activity level (I am, after all, the woman who drags us to the top of the dome, tower, bridge, etc.) as we explore various spots.

It was very nice not to move hotels and the service was fabulous. It goes without saying the food was over the top, as were the facilities in general.

I also think that for multi-generational vacations, reunions, etc. a cruise is ideal – something for everyone, easy access for all, the opportunity for everyone to go their own way and re-convene to share experiences.

For families, the kids club, cookie and cupcake decorating, trivia contests, family bingo, excursions, polls, game rooms, etc. it’s clearly a great venue from toddle to teen.

Bonus: motion sickness wasn’t much of an issue – that one rocky morning didn’t send anyone into the fetal position.

Our trip home involved plenty of waiting after a final breakfast in the significantly less crowded Garden Café. With cards, books and newspapers in hand we made our way uneventfully back to Alma Square.

And after Christmas crackers (which I think are a GREAT Christmas tradition) and a light meal (boy was it great to not eat rich restaurant food) we delved into what was under the tree. Santa had indeed visited!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Catching up in the New Year

Back to the carols in December...

Ok so the Trafalgar tree didn’t look any worse for the wear, and caroling was ok but it was raining so a bit of a damper, literally. Still, they had a good crowd of die-hards.

Among other things as 2010 wound down:

Claire participated in a Christmas concert at the American Church. Third and fourth grade students, along with junior high, high school and staff/faculty choir members put together a lovely event to raise money for London’s soup kitchen.

A very nice concert attended by passels of parents, featuring a wide array of songs, from gospel to contemporary.

During her last week of school, the third grade had a tea party, wherein the kids all dressed up and used their best etiquette to sip tea and eat scones they’d made in class. Not a bad way to wrap up before the holidays.

We also made chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter frosting in celebration of Claire’s birthday for sharing with her class. Doesn’t get much better, especially since we used Patty’s fabulous cocoa, which is sadly now finished.

Ava’s class wrapped up well, too, with a visit from Father Christmas and a party that involved lots of sweet treats.

And for a final hurrah, lunch with friends at Café Med as big flakes of snow came down.

Over the weekend we went to the National Wildlife Photographer Exhibit of the Year at the Natural History Museum. It’s a great exhibit and one the kids and I enjoyed in 2009, too.

This perusal was followed by lunch at a Dutch pancake place (think really big crepes – bigger than the really big plates they’re served on -- sweet and savory. Delish. And then a stop at Whole Foods for good beef because it is of course critical to serve a decent meatloaf for my husband’s birthday celebration.
And I must say, Whole Foods came through. Well that and yours truly’s skills in the kitchen.

Sunday found us at Royal Albert Hall for “White Christmas,” one of the many holiday concerts/singalongs held there this time of year.

This one featured the Capital Voices and the London Concert Orchestra, led by John Rigby, conductor, with star soloists Jacinta Whyte and Matt Little.

The show included all-time favourite Christmas songs such as:
It's the most wonderful time of the year
I’m dreaming of a White Christmas
Let it snow
Candlelight Carol
Ding dong! Merrily on high
Santa Baby
Winter Wonderland
The twelve days of Christmas
Jingle Bell Rock
Baby it's cold outside
We Three Kings
Silent Night
Santa Claus is coming to town
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
All I want for Christmas is you
I wish it could be Christmas every day!

The show was fabulous and we enjoyed our box seats (who knew when I ordered them that we’d have a box). More room and a great vantage point, though since the acoustics are fabulous, it really doesn’t matter where you are in the Royal Albert for a great auditory experience.

The show had a great festive feel, with jokes and plenty of laughter, audience participation (we all got into “Twelve Days” as groups of people in various parts of the Hall were called to stand up and belt out a part of the song along with movement…i.e. wiggling hips to mimic geese laying eggs…) and dancing in the aisles.

A delightful way to enjoy the spirit of the holidays!

Our festivities continued on Monday as the kids and I spent 5 ½ hours at the Olympia Horse Show, watching horses (go figure) and some dogs, too. Along with all kinds of jumping competitions, dog agility finals and the Shetland Pony Grand National, we were entertained by The Ukrainian Cossacks, who did amazing acrobatic feats on rapidly moving horses, The Household Cavalry’s Musical Ride and a War Horse themed Christmas Finale.

Suffice it to say, by 11 Ava and I were definitely horse-weary. Thankfully Father Christmas made his appearance on a stagecoach; he livened everyone up as he wrapped up the show and we were off to the tube!

Later in the week Joe and I went to “Over the Rainbow,” a West End production about Judy Garland. It was a poignant, well-done play. And the following day: lunch with Dad at a delicious little Italian deli.

Throughout the week we watched the fiasco at Heathrow as our 3 ½ inches of snow caused pandemonium…cancelled flights upon cancelled flights, tents outside the terminals, fights at the counters. Thankfully by Christmas Eve it seemed the airport was more or less in working order, and to Barcelona we flew!

Written sometime before Christmas...

One Late December Day

Ok. I am taking time away from what I’m not sure (you know when your schedule gets so derailed you’re suddenly bereft of any idea what to do? – that’s my current state. The flu, which I just learned was most likely the dreaded SWINE flu, did me in. Not only was I virtually unproductive while in the throes of it (other than to address Christmas cards), it made me LAZY.

So I have a million things I could/should be doing but I simply can’t be bothered. How’s that for a holiday attitude?

Ava’s off early today, one of those days where we spend as much time getting ready for school as she does actually being at school…

In keeping with my do nothing scheme, I believe we’ll go have lunch and find a birthday present for Claire.

I did drag myself to pilates today and was reminded how quickly the core muscles turn to jelly without regular, systematic torture. That is, I should hasten to add, for those of us past our 20’s.

On the fun side of late, it’s delightful to see London all lit up. Probably because it gets dark here around 4:00 these days, they feel a need to compensate by REALLY doing great Christmas lights. Because the society here doesn’t get too bogged down with not acknowledging the holiday because of concern over offending the non-Christmas crowd, there’s plenty of holiday display.

And no, it’s not an overtly religious country so don’t get the idea that there’s someone preaching the good news on every corner. Or any corner, for that matter. (Huge apathy in the church going department here, we're told.) Maybe that makes it easier to jump headlong into the light hearted festivities of the season without feeling you’ll offend the non-Christian population? Who knows. Who cares…

Last week the student protests over heightened tuition led to pandemonium in the streets and the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree was set on fire. I was trapped in a cab trying to get to a Joe work function, so the cab driver and I got a play by play of the protests-turned-riot: defilement of Winston Churchill’s statue, Treasury break-in, injured students/police officers, the Prince of Wales and Camilla’s car “attacked.”

It sounded like all hell broke loose from the radio. Other news outlets didn’t frame it quite as dramatically, so I’m not really sure how severe the damage was.
I did eventually make it to the Christmas dinner and, happily, wasn’t the last one into the pub. Though part of me wanted to stay near the radio to see what other drama might occur in Trafalgar Square.

This afternoon the kids and I are going to traipse down there and see how the tree fared, listen to some Christmas carols and take in the holiday cheer.

Last week was my ladies luncheon at the Dorchester, one of London’s nicer hotels. Last year we had our lovely luncheon there, too, and Hugh Grant was sited. I missed this chapter as I was in the coat check line frantically trying to get back to ASL to pick up Claire on time.

This year, no Hugh. But great fun with champagne, Christmas crackers and a decadent dessert. As with most sit-down dinners, the food was fine but not terribly memorable (rubber chicken at weddings, anyone?). Great company and we were entertained by ASL’s high school choir.

The same week I also had the opportunity to go to Paris for the day. So decadent, don’t you think? I was invited to go with a wonderful group of six women to celebrate a 50th birthday. So off we went to Kings Cross, enjoying our coffee and watching the reader board tell us the Eurostar was delayed…but still, we were off to Paris.

Eventually we did leave in the midst of a snowstorm, which then led to a slower train.

BUT we did make it to Paris, compensating with champagne on the train.

Then to lunch at a lovely little boutique restaurant in a lovely little oh so Parisian hotel. After a very long, decadently French lunch with plenty of wine, we strolled through the town, down to the Champs Elysses, took a turn on the Ferris Wheel overlooking Paris, all decorated and beautiful for Christmas, and hit the Christmas market.

Then it was time to go home! More champagne and a free upgrade to first class as the train was slow going back…no complaints – I was still home by midnight. And had a wonderful little getaway.

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi
Largest mosque in India