Friday, November 30, 2012

IAH Restroom: "Now We've Seen (Almost) Everything"

We just deplaned (what a word) at Houston Intercontinental Airport after a decent enough flight from Miami early this morning.

A few funny things about the way the day started might have tipped us off that this day could have strange elements. We'd set a wakeup call for 5:15 a.m. at the Miami Airport Sheraton. Instead, the phone rang at 4:25 a.m. When Kathy finally found it she heard only a dial tone rather than the usual wake-up greeting so, yeah, it might have been a wrong number.

However, the scheduled wake-up call did not occur, leaving us with dark suspicions and a friendly suggestion to the front desk that they check their wake-up call system.

On the bright side (ha!) we arrived at the airport a half hour earlier than we might have otherwise. We both opted out of the millimeter-wave scanners for civil liberty-type reasons. Most experts, including those who also oppose them, believe that they're safe and don't carry any of the risks of the X-Ray scanners.

Our TSA searchers were polite and friendly, and Brian kept up with usual line of cheap jokes to entertain himself and anybody within earshot while being, well, groped. For example, when the employee told him he could decide at any time to continue the screening in private, Brian replied that the screener could likewise let him know if he wanted to out for coffee afterwards.

Onward to a long and dreary wait in what we believe to be one of the more dreary and disliked major airports in the U.S., if not the world. Since MIA charges something like five bucks for 30 minutes of Internet (albeit $8 for 24 hours), we didn't bother with that.

If you've been waiting for what was seen in the Women's restroom at IAH it was this: Kathy spied a cleaner who has a fairly simple and straightforward way of cleaning her toilet bowl brush. She rinses it in the sink, and then knocks it on the edge of the sink to dry it before proceeding to the next stall.

We did report it at the closest United Club, and the employees there were appropriately horrified and promised they would inform the contractors who run this (not the same people as in the United Club). We suggested retraining and left our name and phone number in case anybody wanted verification.

When one has just gotten off a ship operating on "red alert" due to illness and cleaning and disinfecting is being carried out continuously to an incredible agree, perhaps one is inclined to frown upon such, ah, minor lapses.

Next stop Seattle. Alas, we'll have baggage to pick up at the carousel, but we'll then see if our shortened night of sleep leaves us with enough horsepower to drive home in our Hertz.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

All Ashore In Miami

We disembarked from Riviera this morning.

There was "some" kind of virus outbreak during our cruise but we fortunately avoided it.
Apparently tests indicate it wasn't norovirus but it was similarly unpleasant for those who suffered through it, as we found out by talking to other passengers.

For the last few days of the cruise the employees were spraying and cleaning everything, including for example the chairs in the Terrace cafe buffet between diners. It was apparently at a "Code Red" level, which we gather means that at least 3% of passengers and/or crew reported symptoms. That's not very many, but unfortunate for those who have it

We started our travel year in India with the obnoxious "Delhi Belly" so we're more than relieved to avoid this one. Our impression was that the ship's crew handled it very well.

The disembarkation went fairly well, although we experienced significant waits in a queue for the elevator and then in a taxi queue outside the small terminal. Funny to arrive in such a major port and find that there are no escalators from the disembarkation level down to the main floor. Fortunately we were in no hurry, unlike some folks in line nervously wondering whether they would make their flights.

Alas, Kathy finally lost her venerable iPod Touch, probably in the back seat of the taxi that brought us here. The hotel tried to track it down, but there are a lot of yellow-color cabs in Miami and Brian's remembering that the driver's first name was "Franky" didn't help at all.

The good news is that she was due for a new one anyway, and they're a lot cheaper now. She thinks she can transfer the information onto the new gizmo, so her word games with others may be delayed but still possible.

We're sitting in the Sheraton Airport Lounge waiting for our room, and happy to have a place to relax.

We're also looking forward to getting back to our own neighborhood and seeing some grandchildren.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Aboard Riviera: Counting Down The Last Few Hours

Two more nights of our cruise to go and it'll be back to reality in Miami.

We've continued the same leisurely routine, playing a lot of table tennis, shuffleboard, mini-golf, and even a little croquet.

For intellectual stimulation we've played Team Scattergories and Team Trivia daily.

The food has been great and our last nights include dinner at two of the specialty restaurants.

There has been some kind of a viral outbreak aboard. The captain announced it officially today, apparently because regulations require it once more than 2% of passengers and crew are affected. There's a lot of cleaning going on. Fortunately we've felt fine although we've spoken to a couple of people who were hit hard.

We'll be washing our hands repeatedly and using the hand sanitizers place throughout the ship, and keep our fingers crossed.

The weather has been terrific the past few days and the ocean relatively calm.

It's been fun.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Pursuing Trivia On The Atlantic

One of our favorite pastimes on cruises, particularly transatlantic cruises, is Team Trivia.

On this cruise we found six other congenial cruisers from various parts of the U.S. and we’re enjoying some success. Today we might have hit our high point by tying for first place. Among other facts, we correctly answered the second-largest continent (Africa), the book of which the first line concerns somebody’s brother Jem breaking his arm (To Kill a Mockingbird), and the first feature-length Disney cartoon (Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs).

We tied for first even though the cruise director wouldn’t accept “Korea” as the correct answer for the headquarters of Kia (He demanded South Korea, even though it’s the Republic of Korea, if you want to be technical).

We’ve played table tennis and shuffleboard, enjoying a great lunch along the way (one of the best lasagnas we’ve had in a long time).

The weather continues beautiful and the seas are calm. Four more nights before returning to the reality of Miami November 29.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Atlantic Ocean: Miami Bound

Yesterday at 2:00 p.m. we sailed from Santa Cruz de La Palma, in the Canary Islands, our last port before docking in Miami November 29. The old town near the port was a pleasant place to wander around for a couple of hours before getting back aboard.

How will we pass the time crossing the Atlantic?

Yesterday we played table tennis in the morning before going ashore, and shuffleboard and croquet after reboarding. We also played Team Scattergories, and watched two shows last night, the production company’s medley of Andrew Lloyd Webber songs and the cruise director’s comedy show. In between, we attended a guest lecturer’s presentation, “The Wisdom in Jewish Humor.” The ship also runs cooking lessons and a spa, so there’s never a shortage of activities.

The clocks were set back another hour last night, as they will be four more times before we reach Miami and Eastern Standard Time. That was what motivated us to stay up for the late show.

Today we’ve been invited to a Thanksgiving Day Luncheon in Toscana hosted by the Hotel Manager, and tonight we have a reservation for one of the specialty restaurants, Jacques, named after Monsieur Pepin, Oceania’s celebrity chef-adviser.

The ship is both rolling and pitching mildly but our medication helps us to cope it with it nicely and we’re enjoying the ride.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Arrecife Spain: Our Penultimate Stop Before The Crossing

This morning we docked at Arrecife (Lanzarote), Spain. Since a free shuttle bus was provided from our dock into town we decided to ride in.

It’s a quiet place, although we were surprised to see a typical IKEA in the distance - there must be a larger population than we thought.

It’s clearly a volcanic island, with bleak hills in the distance and not too much else.

We enjoyed strolling around a nicely developed promenade area for awhile but there wasn’t a heck of a lot to see, or at least not much that we noticed.

We hopped back on the bus and arrived back aboard in time for lunch. We sail away from here this afternoon and are scheduled to arrive at Santa Cruz de La Palma, Spain in the morning.

We depart from there at 2:00 p.m. and from there sail almost directly west for some 6 ½ days before arriving in Miami on the morning of November 29.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Cruising Along

We’re settling into a transatlantic crossing schedule on Riviera. The clock now gradually works in our direction and has already been set back an hour last night when we sailed out of Cadiz, with five more to follow before we dock at Miami.

We’ve met a number of cruisers and employees from previous cruises, one of the pleasure of such a relatively small cruise line.

Last night we had a not-too-great dinner in the Grand Dining Room after sampling some delicious sushi in the Terrace Café.

This morning we slept in late, getting showered and coffeed-up just in time to play Team Trivia at 10:00 a.m., getting together with three other couples from New Jersey /Arizona and Arkansas. We didn’t win but we have potential and, more important, it’s a congenial group.

We enjoyed lunch in the Grand Dining Room today. At 2:00 p.m. we played table tennis with another congenial group and we went up to the top deck to play a nine holes on the putting green, all of these events for those invaluable Big O points.

We’ve spent time in between playing table tennis and shuffleboard.

Tonight we dine for the second time in Toscana. We’re now officially confirmed for a total of six dinners in the specialty restaurants. In addition to that, we’ve been invited to a Thanksgiving Day Luncheon in Toscana.

Yes, it’s a rigorous schedule, but we’re sticking to it, so don't feel sorry for us.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Docked In Cadiz Spain

We're heading toward our third night on Riviera and thoroughly enjoying ourselves. This morning we docked at Cadiz.

We got off the ship at a leisurely hour and wandered around the Old Town, including a market featuring seafood of all kinds. We took some great photos but will wait to post them until we have a better Internet connection.

We're watching an interesting little political wrinkle. As part of our welcoming package, Oceania provided a letter informing us that the Spanish government was now collecting a 10% tax on any alcohol sold while the ship is in a Spanish port, sailing from one Spanish port to another, or sailing within 12 nautical miles of Spain. This seems to mean that, for example, if we ordered one of the two liquor packages, we would pay tax on the entire amount even though the final days of our cruise will be spent in international waters.

Needless to say, we bought a couple of bottles of wine at the Carrefour Market, and will cheerfully pay the corkage fee as a matter of principle rather than fork over 10% tax to Spain.

We met again our favorite cruise director, J.R. Lustig, who was called back from his vacation and filling in for a few days while another employee had an emergency leave. A whole batch of new employees joined the ship with us in Barcelona and we've noticed a few service glitches, but nothing at all serious.

So far we've eaten in Toscana on the first night, at the Tapas on The Terrace buffet last night, and Polo Grill tonight. We have an invitation for a Thanksgiving luncheon in Toscana with the hotel manager, so it's time to keep walking to fight off those calories.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Aboard Riviera

The Internet is now horribly slow but we're still enjoying ourselves aboard Riviera as we sail toward Cadiz, due to dock in the morning

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Starting Our "Classic Crossing" On Riviera

Today is the day we board Oceania's beautiful Riviera for its "Classic Crossing" to Miami.

Nov 15 Depart Barcelona 6:00 p.m.

Nov 16 Cruising Med Sea & Strait of Gibraltar

Nov 17 Seville (Cadiz), Spain
Arrive 8:00 a.m.

Nov 18 Seville (Cadiz), Spain
Depart 8:00 p.m.

Nov 19 Cruising the Atlantic Ocean

Nov 20 Arrecife (Lanzarote), Spain
Arrive 8:00 a.m. Depart 5:00 p.m.

Nov 21 Santa Cruz de La Palma, Spain
Arrive 8:00 a.m. Depart 2:00 p.m.

Nov 22 Cruising the Atlantic Ocean

Nov 23 Cruising the Atlantic Ocean

Nov 24 Cruising the Atlantic Ocean

Nov 25 Cruising the Atlantic Ocean

Nov 26 Cruising the Atlantic Ocean

Nov 27 Cruising the Atlantic Ocean

Nov 28 Cruising the Atlantic Ocean

Nov 29 Miami, United States
Arrive 8:00 a.m.

We plan to check out of our hotel at 1:00 p.m. and take a taxi to the port. We've enjoyed wandering around this trendy 22@ district of Barcelona but now we're looking forward to a lifeboat drill and the first of many good dining experiences aboard Riviera.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Barcelona: Can Recasens Restaurant Near The Four Points

A little research today here and here cinched our evening meal choice.

Can Recasens is literally a five-minute walk down Rambla del Poblenou from the Four Points By Sheraton.

We chose the 23-Euro prix fixe menu, which includes a lovely and unique salad, a wooden board of cheese and sausage selections that reflect the joint's deli origins, desserts, and all the wine and water we desired.

A unique experience, a good deal, and a splendid evening...

Barcelona: The Forgettable Pasta City

It wasn't awful, just mediocre, a chain restaurant offering a 10-Euro lunch special including appetizer, main, and dessert, accompanied by a beverage.

Oddly enough the tiramasu was as good as we'd expect on Oceania, and it was pleasant to sit outside, even if was just downstairs in the giant mall.

Barcelona Supermarket Wandering

The strike is over, the businesses are open again, and we strolled back to the large Carrefour to buy some more of their house label 100-gram 80% Dark Chocolate bars at 98 Euro cents each after sampling and approving a trial bar last night.

As we wandered, we were impressed in particular by the extensive displays of hams, obviously a specialty that Spaniards clearly appreciate.

We also did some sightseeing among the vegetables and the seafood, even noticing octopus - pulpo - for sale in the pre-packaged area. A recipe for braised octopus in paprika sauce - pulpo a la gallega - can be found here. Of course this octopus is already cooked - cocido - so all you need to know is how to set the microwave.

Torre Agbar Looks Like?

A controversial 38-story high-rise located just a couple of blocks from our hotel, Torre Agbar has its own website and a Wikipedia entry.

The Wikipedia entry reveals that the building, opened in 2005, has acquired some rude nicknames.

For the life of us we can't imagine why.

Mossos d'Esquadra: The Lads Are Here

The Mossos d'Esquadra ("squad lads") are the police force of Catalonia and the "oldest civil police force in Europe."

Let's hope it's merely a donut run that caused a bunch of them to park just below our hotel window just a few minutes ago.

All but two vans have now driven away and we hope they have a peaceful day.

In another vignette showing us a strike is on today, a bus driver pulls up and removes as many stickers as he can from his windshield, rear-view mirror, and side windows. We also hear loud bangs in the distance.

It's a good day to keep a low profile and be aware of our surroundings, particularly after checking out early news reports.

Update: Now that we hear the kinds of whistles favored by demonstrators, and see that the street below our window (Diagonal) is closed or blocked at the next intersection, and a demonstration passing by our window, we'll definitely plan to stay close to "home" for awhile.

Update Two: We're back from our fairly brief walk around the neighborhood. Most of the businesses are closed and shuttered, there are groups of demonstrators in the distance, and the police presence is heavy.

No, we didn't feel at risk - there are lots of locals out, including parents pushing toddlers in strollers - but we've decided to stick around our room, what with a security guard at the hotel's front door letting us out and in with a smile.

We hear on a French English language channel that the most violent protests have been in Madrid, and that there are demonstrations across Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, and Greece.

Lucky we've already seen our share of Europe, because we're not going to see too much of it today.

Waking Up In Barcelona

We both got back to sleep after a post-midnight fit of jet lag, and slept through until 8:00 a.m. or maybe later.

During our walk late yesterday afternoon we wanted a little snack to hold us over until morning. We found Viena, and enjoyed light sandwiches made with panini-style bread.

The chain boasts an impressive website and touts the positive mention in the New York Times

This morning the breakfast buffet, included for us as Starwood Platinum, was quite decent. We tried to make the coffee machine work for us, by combining expresso with Americano - modest success.

Now it's time for a walk. We noticed the trams at least are running, despite the strike, but we'll probably stay fairly near the hotel, given that the Diagonal area is a nice neighborhood.

We have to take a photo or two of the impressive display of hams for sale in the nearby Carrefour supermarket. No, it's not too early in the morning to be thinking about food.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Striking Good Luck

Since we always make our own "air arrangements" when cruising (thus saving a lot of money), we plan to arrive in the port of departure no later than a day before the cruise.

This time, due to the availability of award tickets, we planned our trip to arrive two days before the beginning of our cruise.

Lo and behold, Spanish labor unions have planned a general strike for today. Lufthansa has already canceled Wednesday's flight from Frankfurt to Barcelona, the one we might have booked.

Worst case, we'll hang around close to our hotel today. Last night before going to bed at a very early hour (explaining why we're up at 1:00 a.m. local time) we wandered as far as a large shopping mall a couple of blocks away and we can easily spend our time wandering there some more, especially since rain is in the weather forecast.

We've experienced strikes in France and in Italy. Now we get to add Spain to that list.

Lufthansa Boarding Via Limousine

We'd heard about it but never experienced it, since this is our first time flying into FRA in LH F.

At the scheduled time, one of the friendly First Class Lounge attendants checked our boarding passes, bade us farewell, and sent us down to the tarmac in an elevator, where a friendly driver awaited us.

She obligingly took a photo of us and then it was off to the remote gate where our Airbus 321 was parked, passing some bigger birds along the way.

After a five-minute ride, we just had to wait for one more plane to pull out before parking beside our own. The friendly driver enjoyed our interest and told us she'd be marking 20 years working at the airport very soon but still enjoyed every day.

We were the first ones aboard, as the regular folks had to ride the buses out to the remote gate.

Business Class in Europe consists largely of a blocked middle seat.

Brian pecked away at a fairly decent lunch - compare that to what you get on a two-hour flight in the U.S., even in F - but for some strange reason Kathy wasn't hungry.

Our priority-tagged suitcases were the very first ones on the baggage carousel, and a 30-Euro taxi ride later and we're all checked in at the Four Points Diagonal with free breakfast and a pleasant room for 71 Euros nightly, a real find.

We're both tired but will try to stay awake for a few hours and get ourselves on European time. It was well worth the fatigue to experience First Class, the new First Class Lounge, and even the limo ride.

We'll see what mañana brings us in Barcelona, with rumors of a strike even causing our cruise line to move up the flying dates for passengers who purchased air.

As for us, we're here and happy we decided to fly in two nights before our cruise.

FRA: Terminal A Lufthansa First Class Lounge

We enjoyed the showers and are enjoying a pleasant three-hour layover in these surroundings before being driven to our Barcelona flight.

It seemed timely to have a glass of champagne, since it's already 10:30 a.m. The charming young lady at the bar suggested her favorite, Ruinart. It is indeed pleasant.

The buffet food offerings are rather amazing, with a large variety of goodies. It's almost like being on our cruise already. Any LH flight in F should ideally include a long layover at FRA.

Seattle To Frankfurt In Lufthansa First Class

There were only three of us in F and we took the lead of the other passenger and changed into our official pajamas before takeoff.

After perusing the menu, we decided to dine on lobster tail. Our very friendly flight attendant also invited us to have some caviar in addition to the appetizer we'd chosen.

Oh oh! After all these years we've finally developed a taste for it.

A salmon amuse bouche started us off.

Then it was time for the appetizers.

Up close caviar...

A green salad...

A little wine tasting - France vs. Chile (Chile won by a nose but both were terrific).

A rose at every seat...

The main course...

And a "light" dessert to top off the meal

Bailey's On the Rocks and it's beddy-bye time.

We enjoyed a pleasant European-style breakfast before landing this morning, complete with our favorite German bread. Our flight attendant would have cooked us fresh scrambled eggs in an electric skillet but when in Europe it's fun to eat traditional breakfasts.

Our flight landed early, alas (are we greedy?). We thoroughly enjoyed our 9 1/2 hours of pampered bliss.