Sailing on the Open Sea

Location: Somewhere in the Mediterranean

I’ve never been good at doing nothing — excuse me, at “relaxing.” Even at home, when the boys spend a morning at Grandpa’s, I fill the free time with shopping or running errands, cause I need to feel occupied. I need to feel like I’m accomplishing something. So spending a whole day on the ship is a bit of a challenge for me. I was starting to get bored and a bit frustrated — but then I read an email from a mommy friend of mine who reminded me to enjoy being able to eat a meal in peace, go to the bathroom by myself and not have to base my whole day on someone else’s schedule. Point taken.

So how have I spent my day? I slept in, for one thing, but for me that means 7 a.m., so there were still many hours to fill. I sat by the pool reading the book I borrowed from the ship’s library while Chris relaxed in the hot tub (he chatted with one woman from New Zealand who explained that her journey to Europe involved 24 hours just in the air, which made our trip seem like nothing). We browsed the shops on board, sat for a while watching the sea, and went for an early lunch. There’s a magician’s show this afternoon and then someone’s giving a presentation on the ancient Mediterranean, so I might check those out, and then tonight there’s another sing-and-dance number on the main stage. Life could certainly be worse.

And at last the weather is improving! The sun peeked out of the clouds and I think it’s about 20 degrees outside, so I can put away the fleece jacket I’ve been wearing and think about summer again. Tomorrow will be my first time in Africa — it should be an interesting day.

Castles and Cathedrals: A Day in Mallorca

Location: Palma de Mallorca, Spain

Just before we left Valencia last night, the cruise director announced that we would be sailing straight into a gale and that we should be prepared for some rough going en route to Palma. Lovely. I had my Gravol handy just in case, and the ship did rock ‘n’ roll a bit overnight, but I was fine, and the wind had died by the time we were ready to tour around today. It’s still cool, grey and pissy, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Those who know me well know that I’m a monarchy junkie and can’t get enough of palaces and castles. So when I found out Palma had one of each, I was really looking forward to this port. We started off by touring Bellver Castle, a circular stone structure perched atop a hill overlooking the city. It was the original residence of the kings of Mallorca (back when there actually WERE kings of Mallorca) and offers amazing views of the island from its battlements. Then we explored the bullring, which is modelled on the Colosseum in Rome and looks really ancient, but only dates from the 1930s. Next was a guided tour of the cathedral (we’ve seen so many cathedrals on this trip that I was beyond caring about this one) and then we saw the Almudaina Palace, an old Arab fortress that now houses visiting heads of state. The current king of Spain uses the palace for official receptions when the Spanish royal family comes to Mallorca in the summer. Very, very cool.

Having other people along on the cruise adds a whole other dimension to the experience. Yesterday, for instance, Dave went for a nap, I went to blog and Chris and Tanya played Scrabble. If it was just Chris and me, and one of us wanted to nap or whatever, the other one would kind of be stuck. Plus if it was just Chris and me, we would be far less likely to sit in the bar and have a drink, cause we can do that at home — but with Dave and Tanya along we have people to socialize with, so it’s all good.

It’s become a running joke among our group that Chris is constantly focused on food. While we were all sitting around yesterday playing board games, I happened to look at my watch. Here’s a verbatim account of what was said:
ME: Oh, wow, it’s four o’clock.
CHRIS: So we should go hit the buffet?
ME: Do you ever think about anything but food?
CHRIS: (accusingly) You brought it up!
ME: All I said was, it’s four o’clock.
I’m hoping he still fits into his tuxedo for the next formal night coming up in a couple days, but there are no guarantees.

Tonight we say adios to Spain and start the long trek across the Mediterranean to Tunisia in North Africa. It’s a long way, so tomorrow is a full day at sea. It’ll be nice not to have to rush out the door for a tour. On we go…

Going Underground

Location: Valencia, Spain

I could’ve sworn it was 32 degrees in Valencia every time I checked before leaving home, but unfortunately it was eight degrees and raining when we actually got here. No matter, though: the tour we took didn’t really depend on the weather. We had a brief city tour of this, Spain’s third largest city. The first half hour was so boring that Chris was literally falling asleep on the bus, but then we came to the historic centre of the city, which was stunning. We saw the bullring; the town hall; the Silk Exchange building and the cathedral that contains what some experts believe is the original Holy Grail. Pretty cool stuff.

Then it was off to the San Jose Caves, where we boarded a small boat and floated through an underground river. The caves are 15,000 years old and had some amazing rock formations; in many places the roof of the cave was so low that everyone in the boat had to duck to fit through. It was awesome, and probably would’ve been even better if there had been a guide or a sign or anything to tell us about what we were seeing. The guy driving the boat would occasionally warn us to watch our heads (in Spanish — Tanya was able to translate) but otherwise didn’t say a word. I guess I’ll have to look up some more info online when we get home.

Tomorrow we’re off to Palma de Mallorca — here’s hoping the sun comes out!

Hola, Amigos!

Location: Barcelona, Spain

You might ask why, since I have motion sickness issues, I chose to take a cruise. The answer is that large ships generally don’t bother me, although I still have to be careful to get a cabin on the lower decks in the middle of the ship. So when Chris woke up in the middle of the night and noticed the ship’s rocking was causing the coat hangers in the closet to bang together, he jumped up to move them, afraid that the noise would wake me up and then I’d get sick. Fortunately, I slept like the dead and only know about the rough going cause he told me about it this morning. I’d say I’m over the jet lag.

So today we discovered Barcelona. The four of us had audio guides (iPods) and maps and spent over two hours wandering around the historic centre of the city, which is jam-packed with medieval-era buildings and churches. We have four cameras among our group but I’m the only one who likes to have people in the pictures, so I focused more on that and let the others photograph the sights. I didn’t know much about Barcelona when we got here, but it was an interesting tour of the old city — I wouldn’t rush back here, but it was still neat to see.

We’re still liking our time on the ship. The staff is amazing at remembering everyone’s names and preferences, we get chocolates on our pillow every night and we just generally feel like we’re being taken care of. Our first formal night went well: Chris actually seemed to enjoy wearing his tux and I managed to corral everybody for a formal group portrait. After dinner we went to the theatre for the Broadway-style show and were handed free glasses of champagne on the way in, so that’s not too shabby. We’ve been away from home for close to a week and neither Chris or I really misses the kids — we’re just having too much fun. Awesome.

Scaling the Rock

Location: Monte Carlo, Monaco

The defibrillators should’ve been a good clue. They don’t call Monaco “the Rock” for nothing — the whole principality is only one square mile, but it’s built on top of a rather large cliff, and when you approach by sea you’ve got to go a long way up to see the sights. We passed the occasional elevator but figured we were young enough and fit enough to handle the stairs. I even thought it was funny when partway up we saw a sign that said defibrillators were available a few meters away; by the time we got to the top we realized it wasn’t a joke. If you ever go to Monaco by cruise ship, heed my words: take the elevator.

If there was ever a group that would need the defibrillators, it would be the crowd from this ship. I knew going into this that Holland America caters to the elderly crowd, but I’d heard that more younger people were starting to get on board too. We have run into the odd 30- or 40-something couple, but we’re usually the only ones in the room under the age of 60. The ship clearly caters to that clientele, too: the shore excursions all talk about how much walking is involved, and whether the sites are wheelchair-accessible…plus the lines for the buffet can be clogged with slow-moving seniors. The entertainment on board has been pretty subdued up to this point — lots of singers and piano players, along with classes on how to use a digital camera — but there’s supposed to be a big Broadway-style show on the main stage tonight, so I’m looking forward to that.

Anyway, we had fun in Monaco today. As luck would have it, today was Labor Day in Europe, so lots of shops were closed, plus it was the day of the heritage Grand Prix in Monte Carlo, so the streets were closed for the race and the public buses weren’t running. All this meant that we had to pass on seeing the casino (too far to walk) but we went inside the cathedral (which had the Grimaldi family tombs, so that was cool), wandered through the oceanographic museum, toured the palace (way cool) and watched the changing of the guard. I have been to Monaco before, but that was only for a couple hours one evening 12 years ago, so this time around I got a more detailed experience.

Dealing with French seemed like a breeze after days of Italian and German. Apparently I have a decent French accent, too — I addressed a cashier in French and then had to assure her that yes, I wanted the English guidebook. We’re currently sailing for Spain, which I’ve never been to, and in fact from this point on the ports will be all-new to me. Anchors away!


Ciao, Everybody!

Location: Florence, Italy

Medical science would have us believe that no one ever dies of jet lag. I think it just might be possible. I thought I had it beat cause I had a great day yesterday, and I fell asleep promptly at 10 p.m., and I slept great…for 45 minutes. Then I stayed awake until almost 4 a.m. Naturally I fell into a stupor shortly before it was time to get up so we could catch our bus to Florence. At least we had (free!) room service for breakfast.

It’s been interesting to break free from tour groups for a bit to see how we fare as tourists in Italy. Our “tour” to Florence was really just a ride from the ship to the city, leaving us free to discover on our own. We muddled our way through some basic Italian and I was surprised at how much of it was familiar — “pollo” for chicken, “uscita” for exit, and of course “grazie” and “por favore.” We had three different maps of Florence, two of which were essentially useless, but the third one was a lifesaver as we managed to get lost on our way to (Palazzo
Vecchia/Ponte Vecchio/the Medici Chapels/the Pitti Palace). We easily walked three times as far as we needed to, but hey, the exercise kept us from falling asleep. (Now if only there was some way to keep from staying awake at night!)

I thought we’d have trouble filling the six hours of free time, cause I remembered Florence as being all about art (which doesn’t interest me), but there were plenty of historic sites I appreciated this time around that would’ve been lost on me on my last trip 12 years ago. So we really enjoyed our day, despite the fatigue and navigation challenges.

We’re certainly enjoying the ship, too. I’ve fallen in love with the observation deck, which has sweeping windows, a bar, a coffee shop, an incredibly extensive library and some kick-ass computer stations. There are board games available, too, so Chris and I played some ’80s Trivial Pursuit after dinner last night while Dave and Tanya went to the casino.

It’s neat travelling with other people. We met up with Dave and Tanya shortly before dinner last night and shared our travel tales while checking out the view from their verandah. At dinner, the four of us were seated together at a table of eight, but both of the other couples have since transferred to other tables (are we that bad?) so now we’re on our own. Chris’s tuxedo arrived in our stateroom today, so we’re all ready for our first formal night tomorrow. I’m looking forward to it.

Here’s hoping for a decent sleep tonight…on to Monaco!

Welcome Aboard

Location: Civitavecchia, Italy

We probably should’ve expected the fireworks. When we arrived in Civitavecchia last night (after a very smooth albeit very long journey), we discovered there was some sort of street festival going on and mobs of people were clogging the street right in front of our hotel — our driver (who didn’t speak English) had to drop us off a couple blocks away and indicate with hand gestures and slow Italian pronounciation where we needed to go. Apparently he didn’t speak slowly enough, cause it took us half an hour to fight our way through the crowds to the hotel’s front door.

I was surprised to see that we had a loft-style room where the bed was up a flight of stairs but everything else was downstairs. Not super convenient. Plus, despite an abundance of switches on the walls we could not figure out how to turn on the bedside lamps, so I couldn’t really read in bed, but oh, well. Anyway, we found a Subway for supper and crashed around 8:30 p.m. (It was a full 24 hours from the time we left our house to when we finally got to go to sleep.) We both woke up to what sounded like artillery fire at 10:00 — naturally there were fireworks for the festival.

We did eventually get a good night’s sleep and had no trouble boarding our ship this morning. The fact that we only packed one carry-on suitcase each has been a blessing — no waiting around for luggage to come off the carousel at the airport, no leaving our luggage out for the cruise line to bring to us later. Very nice.

As Justin would say: adventure is out there!