Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Passing Scene At MIA

First, let's point out the positive aspects of our four-hour wait in the G Concourse of MIA. The facility itself is fairly modern and relatively clean, if you don't look too closely. Additionally, it's not that crowded today. We paid about $8 for all the Internet we need and found seats near an outlet without too much difficulty.

It's not all sweetness though. The announcements are just a touch too loud and given in two languages, heavily-accented English and Spanish. The food facilities are abysmal - a Pizza Hut Express is the highlight - and we've settled for weak but hot coffee.

Finally, we've experienced two people yelling loudly in our general vicinity. The first, an obviously annoyed passenger, was swearing loudly into her wireless at some relative who was apparently taking up with an individual she clearly dislikes. We know she dislikes him because of the unprintable language she used.

The second "yeller" was an employee using a walkie-talkie to give directions about doing something to another employee outside. He's apparently of the school of the thought that, when somebody doesn't understand what you say, yell even more loudly.

Ah well, it breaks up the monotony.

Back To Reality In Miami

We stayed on Regatta until the last possible moment this morning, since our flight to Houston doesn't leave until mid-afternoon.

It's interesting to note the two flights of stairs passengers are required to traverse to get down to the baggage pick up area. No real problem for us but it would be a challenge for some passengers

Going through Immigration and Customs was a breeze, although outside we waited in a somewhat disorganized taxi queue for about a half hour before getting a cab. It's a flat $25 fare to the airport, which simplifies things for us out-of-towners.

A little wrinkle occurred when we tried to obtain our boarding passes for these Continental flights due to the fact that, when Kathy's upgrade cleared, her coach seat remained in the system. Eventually an agent sorted it out and we have our boarding passes.

Then it was through a quiet TSA line. Kathy made it through the walk-through metal detector, but then it was roped off and Brian opted out of the millimeter-wave scanner, despite the "officer's" telling him hopefully "there's no radiation."

It's funny that the TSA actively tries to reassure passengers that "this machine doesn't emit x-rays like the other machines we use on you," but that's government marketing in action.

All you need to say is "I opt out" and that's what Brian did, enduring a public search (always in public) from a young officer, who wanted to play interrogator and ask Brian where he was from. What we have to endure to travel within our country these days. Bah humbug!

We're seated in the G area of this vast airport with nary an airline lounge in sight. At least it's not busy and we've resigned to hanging out until our flight board in another three hours or so.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Grand Turk

This is a quick stop. Again, Regatta is anchored off shore and we grabbed the first independent tender in, before the tours start. We've found a free but weak Internet signal and are sitting on the ground with a half dozen other computer geeks, much to the amusement of those strolling by.

This is a very antiseptic artificial port center, and it's frankly a relief after the really aggressive vendors we encountered yesterday in La Romana, Dominican Republic. They were somewhere between Turkish and Egyptian vendors on the pushiness scale, and we escaped shortly for a walking tour of the shabby and relatively quiet downtown area on a quiet Sunday.

We overpaid our guide and told him the vendors would do better if they didn't accost the tourists so vigorously. He tooks us over immediately to the woman who supposedly managed the market, told her presumably the same thing in Spanish and asked us to tell her in English.

She told us she was sorry and that they'd already met with the vendors about this but would meet again. We told her we'd like to see them selling souvenirs to tourists (it's clearly not that prosperous a place) but that they were driving people here.

Here it's a complete contrast, right down to a branch of Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville and and assortment of the usual shops one sees in the developed ports.

There's a lovely looking beach but for us it's back to the ship soon after a quick stroll around and getting ready for our last sea day (after quite a bumpy ride last night) and docking in Miami Wednesday morning.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Our Dominican Republic stop was sadly a tourist trap. We're happily back aboard.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Caribbean Cruising Scenes: November 2012 on Regatta

The ports are pleasant but so is our stateroom, including a lobster dinner we ordered in.

Tortola: Crawling With Tourists

We tendered in to the dock to park beside two absolutely mammoth ships already disgorging their passengers (a number of whom had obviously done some gorging themselves).

The NCL giant was overshadowed by its neighbor, Ventura, that stretched even a couple of decks higher. It's just another remind that we're happy to be sailing on our own small Regatta.

We've been here before and enjoy wandering around, just stopping in an Internet cafe to plug in our netbook for a reasonable $4 for an hour to catch up on e-mail.

Nothing spectacular but we're thoroughly enjoying ourselves on this cruise. We have two more stops, including our first visit to the Dominican Republic, before docking in Miami and flying home November 30.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Oceania Regatta: Slow Cruising

We're docked at St. John's Antigua today and stepped back on land for the first time since Sunday.

Regatta has some kind of mechanical problem that prevents it from sailing at full speed. That, combined with some bumpy weather that made us all too aware of being in a forward cabin, prevented the ship from arriving on time at its first port yesterday. In fact, it didn't anchor until around 1:00 pm and people were still waiting to catch a tender ashore at 2:40 so we skipped it and stayed on board.

As for the cruise itself, our suite is lovely and the best part is that we can order food from any of the dining rooms as room service. Last night, for example, we enjoyed whole Maine Lobster from Polo Grill.

We're playing Team Trivia and table tennis, and trying to walk off some of the food with strolls around the ship but it'll be another battle we'll have to deal with when we return home. Today is Thanksgiving but we'll be enjoying it Italian-style in Toscana Restaurant.

There's another tender stop tomorrow and we'll probably stay aboard again. It's hard to believe we're already halfway through our cruise.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Oceania Regatta: Caribbean Cruising To "Islands In The Sun"

Tomorrow we board Oceania Cruise Line's Regatta to set off on a ten-night Caribbean cruise.

Sailing out of Miami tomorrow evening, we cruise the Atlantic Ocean for two days before our first stop at Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands. From there we sail on to St. John's, Antigua; Gustavia, St. Barts; Tortola, British Virgin Islands; La Romana, Dominican Republic, and; Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos Islands, before docking at Miami the morning of November 30.

What started as a bargain cruise in a cabin with a porthole has been enhanced by two buy-up opportunities at too-good-to-turn-down prices. As a consequence, we're cruising in a Penthouse Suite up on Deck Eight.

We'd enjoy this ship and this cruise in an inside cabin on the bottom deck, so this experience will be a real treat for us.

Never Rent A Car With A Black Interior

No, it has nothing to do with lint. That's Kathy's new motto after first losing and then finding her iPod Touch on the seat of our Dodge Avenger as we returned it to the Budget Miami Airport location, and then noticing our fairly new GPS unit was missing as we were standing in line for our receipt after dropping off the car.

She ran back to where we'd left the car but it had already been moved. She asked a manager for help and asked her what car we'd had. Kathy's reply, "It's a red one," wasn't sufficiently detailed, so she and the manager intercepted Brian and he escorted us over to the area where the car was already lined up for a wash.

He was gone for a long time and we'd just about given up when he returned, holding our GPS unit, complete in its little black case. It was lying on the back seat and probably fell there as Kathy reached in to retrieve a bottle of water.

Thank you, Richard, of Miami Airport Budget, for taking the time. That was worth a thank-you note to Budget that's now been sent. Next time we'll specify a beige interior.

The drive back from Key West was more pleasant than the drive down, and we're now back in the Sheraton Airport, a short walk from the rental garage, and ready to think about boarding Oceania's Regatta tomorrow for our 10-night cruise.

Key West Scenes

Key West Eats: Santiago's Bodega

After some research, we decided to eat at Santiago's Bodega last night. It proved to be an excellent choice for what we would describe as "small plates" rather than simply tapas.

We made reservations for 5:00 p.m., which allowed us to arrive partway through Happy Hour, which features about three small plates, mussels, beef empanadas, and beef skewers, at half price, and wine or beer two-for-one.

The menu is extensive, and we probably shared at least one more dish than we thought we would, a delicious bread pudding from the dessert menu.

Although food quality is of the highest priority, we should add that the atmosphere is lovely and the service was friendly and generally terrific. Thank you, Alan!

In the event our travels ever take us back to Key West, Santiago's Bodega will be a definite stop.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Key West: A Tale Of Two Hotels

Partly to achieve the number of stays required to requalify for Starwood Platinum and Hilton Diamond, we stayed one night each at the Sheraton Suites Key West and the Doubletree by Hilton Grand Key Resort.

Both are fine. If you want to stay at one of the "name" chains elsewhere, if you have to ask the price, you can't afford it.

The Sheraton checked us in promptly, upgraded us to a "pool view" suite, and allowed us to check out as late as we wanted to. The hotel is immediately across the street from the beach.

We checked in early at the Doubletree and our room happened to be ready. We were given a Doubletree cookie and two bottles of water, along with a voucher for a full breakfast buffet in the restaurant. We were also "upgraded" to a pool-view room.

The Sheraton suite was more spacious; the Hilton room was somewhat more updated.

Parking fees were waived for us in both properties. Both have a free downtown shuttle but there wasn't room for us on the Sheraton shuttle when we would have gone. The Doubletree shuttle, on the other hand, guarantees a space.

Either is fine if you're trying to qualify. All other things being equal, we'd give a slight edge to the Doubletree, but would willingly stay at either property, depended on on price.

A Key West Dining Highlight: Santiago's Bodega

Santiago's Bodega has great reviews in Trip Advisor and Chowhound. That was enough for us to give it a try.

We enjoyed a great dining experience there. Thank you, Alan and Fernando, for a great evening.

We recommend Santiago's Bodega to anyone visiting Key West.

The Florida Keys Revisited: A Mistake?

Back when we were still honestly employed, we spent upwards of a week in a little Islamorada cottage in the middle of the Florida Keys one Spring Break. It was a truly magical experience for us.

During that visit, we devoted one day to driving down to Key West, wandering around and attending the famous sunset ceremony at Mallory Square, the spot where crowds gather to watch one of the most famous sunsets on this continent while various kinds of street entertainers perform for donations.

We've stepped off cruise ships docking at Key West a couple of times since, only to retreat to the ship as quickly as possible, due to the crowds. We've been looking forward to having a better look so here we are.

We picked up our Budget rental yesterday, a Dodge Charger, and drove down a quite busy Highway 1. Driving in Florida more than ever consists of trying to avoid elderly and clearly incompetent drivers driving slowly and changing lanes unexpectedly, while simultaneously trying to stay out of the way of aggressive drivers in a perpetual state of Road Rage.

We finally arrived at our first hotel, the Sheraton Suites, and were checked in with reasonable efficiency. It's somewhat ramshackle in spots, but our room is fine. With only one elevator that sits at the opposite side of the property from our room on the third floor, it's a hike, but we've been long overdue for a walk.

The hotel offers a free shuttle hourly downtown and back, and they don't take reservations over the phone, so we hiked back to the lobby. There we learned that the first shuttle with spaces available was 7:00 p.m. so we simply drove downtown and parked about eight blocks away, just up the street from the monument commemorating the southernmost point in the Continental U.S.

From there we walked and walked, mainly looking for any of the restaurants recommended on the usual Internet sites. There's one thing about rubbing elbows with other tourists in Florida: It makes us feel much younger and much slimmer.

For dinner wee settled on the Trattoria, where we had a reasonable, if somewhat overpriced, meal that featured a couple of pasta and seafood dishes.

From there it was back to the hotel and a night's sleep. This morning we'll give Key West one more try, and also move from the Sheraton to the Doubletree at some point during the day. We face an interesting question. Have the Keys and Key West become more crowded and therefore less attractive since our first visit nearly 15 years ago, or, even worse, have we become jaded travelers? We hope it's more the former than the latter.

If nothing else, this southern sojourn will add us in requalifying for top tier in both hotel programs, and we're glad we came here, even if it doesn't thrill us in the way it did the first time around.

Update: We wandered around this morning - no cruise ships in port - and enjoyed it much more. All we did was have a late breakfast at Harpoon Harry's and walk around but it was much more pleasant experience without all of those other annoying tourists getting in our way.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Suite Deal At Miami Airport Sheraton

The Sheraton shuttle rolled up about 10 seconds after we walked out the door. It's right next to the airport so we were checking to our upgraded suite - the joys of being Starwood Platinum - almost before we knew it.

They are renovating their executive lounge and gave us certs good for one drink and appetizer each at the bar, along with a full breakfast.

We enjoyed ahi, flatbread, and added a chicken quesadilla, making a pleasant late-night dinner for us after 2 1/2 hours on a regional jet.

This is the only hotel room we can recall that has entrances on two different floors. The living area is on 9 and there's an entrance to the upstairs bedroom on 10. That would save having to lug suitcases up the spiral staircase, and we prudently put the Do Not Disturb signs on both doors.

The Rockies From United Flight 916 SEA-IAD

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

About Those Luxurious Airline Lounges

Our flight SEA-IAD was just fine. First Class is usually a pleasant experience. We do have a fairly long layover before boarding our Regional Jet for Miami and we're sitting in a familiar United Club, (the pre-merger Red Carpet Club) in the D area.

It's the one that looks something like a basement rumpus room, not surprising since it's in a basement. The Seattle club is also located in a basement but looks a lot nicer to us - maybe we're just used to it. Internet connections can be spotty and the first time we tried to use our wireless phone we got a message saying "emergency calls only," but it eventually worked for us.

The place was packed when we arrived, and a fellow who looked suspiciously like former Ambassador John Bolton walked by awhile ago. This is going to be the kind of place you'll see people like this. We eventually found a place with a power outlet and we're basically sitting around checking our e-mail.

Next stop is MIA, after a couple of hours on that RJ courtesy of Mesa Airlines.

A Fondle-Free Morning At SEA

The airport shuttle van picks us up in good time and deposits us at the airport without a hitch.

There's a fairly long line at the TSA check point, and we appreciate the much shorter elite security line.

Today the walk-through metal detector is at the far left, but an employee is alternating passengers between it and the adjacent X-Ray scanner. Both of us manage through luck (and trying to wait until there's somebody in line at the X-Ray scanner) to go through the metal detector. No groping "administrative search" today.

We're drinking our coffee and surveying the slim but existing possibility of a bump on both of our slightly oversold flights today. Either way, we're off to a good start.

Over The Passes From Wenatchee To Issaquah

Yesterday was a glorious day for a drive, especially knowing that snow is predicted over the next couple of days. We enjoyed the Fall colors and light traffic as we traversed Blewett Pass at 4102 feet on Highway 97 and Snoqualmie Pass at 3022 feet on I-90.

We enjoyed a great evening with Avery, Peyton, and Lily, along with their parents, so now we've managed to have some fun with all seven grandchildren over the past four days.

Our remaining upgrade into F for the SEA-IAD flight cleared 48 hours in advance - the new United Airlines is trying to upsell every seat it can before applying those upgrades that customers earn by flying a hundred thousand miles a year - so we're good to go and awaiting a 5:30 a.m. shuttle to the airport.

That's one way to get adjusted to the Eastern Time Zone.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Wandering to Wenatchee

I-5 was busy yesterday afternoon as both Americans and Canadians returned home from their three-day weekends. As for us, once we exited to Highway 2 the traffic quieted down and we enjoyed a smooth drive over Stevens Pass, with slush on the road only around the summit.

It's a beautiful morning in Wenatchee and we're looking forward to spending some time with grandkids Riley and Blane today.

It also turns out that they have time to decorate their own little gingerbread house with Grandma.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Gingerbread Houses And Roll-Aboards

We're trying to organize ourselves to depart from home late this morning. Before we fly to Miami early Wednesday morning (a visit to Key West followed by a 10-night Caribbean cruise on Oceania, we have to walk two grandkids across the Canadian border to their parents on a busy November 11 weekend after an overnight visit, drive to Wenatchee to visit two more, and from there back over to Issaquah to visit the remaining three. That's seven grandchildren in three locations in four days.

In the meantime, Jake and Taegan did a fine job decorating Kathy's made-from-scratch gingerbread house. We'll have to declare it to the Canadian authorities as priceless.

Decorating the house itself is a work-in-progress to be completed this morning, but the trees are well covered.

Best of all, objective taste tests of the scraps reveal that homemade gingerbread does indeed taste better.

The finished product...

And now for the tricky part - keeping it intact as we walk across the border on a rainy and windy day.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Strolling Vancouver's Chinatown

It's a drizzly day in early November, we've ridden Amtrak from Bellingham to Vancouver for the heck of it and have a couple of hours to kill after lunch, so we walk a couple of blocks to find ourselves in one of the largest largest Chinatowns in North America, a place we've visited many times over the years.

Avoiding the glances of street people and averting our eyes from downtown Eastside denizens "shooting up" down the alleys, we traverse Main and Hastings, one of the most notorious corners in Canada. We can't help but wonder what Andrew Carnegie would think if he could catch the views from the steps of the library building he donated to Vancouver 'way back when in the early 1900s.

Enough of the gloom... Today is our day simply to wander. It's so easy to think we're in Hong Kong, except for the fact it's a lot less crowded here.

Kathy finds her favorite brand of Thai fish sauce to import back to the US later.

On the other hand, trying to bring back meat and poultry might be impossible. Oh shucks!

We enjoy the signs too.

We top off our Chinatown visit with a stroll through the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, or, more precisely, the park located adjacent to the garden.

It's laid out in that clever Asian way that gives the impression of spaciousness and seclusion in a compact area. It also reminds us that it's time to get our own yard ready for winter.

Down By the (Vancouver) Station: Eats

Vancouver's VIA Rail Station is located in one of the city's seedier, neighborhoods, a reality of the changing demographics over the decades that have dealt this cruel blow to many big-city train stations.

Since we're only in Vancouver for about four hours, we decide to try Campagnolo, an Italian joint just a block down Main Street that gets decent reviews from urbanspoon and Chowhound.

It's a pleasant place. The decorations are minimal - not a picture of anything, let alone Rome, on the cement block walls - but the ceiling is open-beam, comprised of massive rough old-growth fir, and worth gazing at.

Since it was raining lightly and cool outside (lucky we wore our jackets) we decided to make it a lingering Italian-style dining experience, and ordered wine and bruschetta (topped with roasted peppers, ricotta salata, and basil) to start.

For our main course Kathy chose Tagliatelle (pork ragĂș, basil, pecorino romano cheese) and Brian went with the Cannelloni (roasted eggplant, sausage, fennel, fior di latte).

The food was good, the service was friendly and helpful, the coffee we ordered for "dessert" was excellent, and the only shock was getting the bill and realizing that the taxes - and the cost of wine in British Columbia - have brought the cost of our meal before tip to about $100.

Maybe that second half-liter of red wasn't needed after all.