Archive for November, 2011

Yesterday we arrived in Cabo San Lucas. we have two days here. Originally, we were supposed to be in Cabo San Lucas yesterday and Mazatlan today, but the Mazatlan stop was dropped due to safety concerns, and the Cabo stop was extended. We’ve never overnighted before, and it was nice to know that if we missed something, we could come back the next day – though, most likely, we will just stay on the ship today.

We didn’t actually reach Cabo San Lucas until about noon, which was great, because then we got to watch the ship come in to port, which usually happens around 6am and so I miss it. Lis and I went up to the bow to get a better view of El Arco, the arched rock formation at the very tip of the Baja peninsula, as we passed by it. There were some other people up there, but it wasn’t crowded, and we also saw a whale and a few porpoises/dolphins (I don’t know which) swimming along the ship and crossing under the bow – once they came head on toward us and then disappeared under the ship. It was pretty awesome.

Then we moved down a deck, to get out of the sun, and were standing with some people at the railing next to the golf net. After a few minutes, we started to hear “plunk…plunk…plunk.” We turned around – a 2 or 3 year old boy was in the golf net, picking up the golf balls and putting them back in the wooden container where they belong. His mother looked a little sheepish and said, “He likes to clean.” There was another ship in port (Carnival Splendor), and as we approached it, the boy (from inside the golf net still) shouted, “Daddy! Look at the big ship!” His dad said, “Yes, it’s really neat – come look at it.” “I’m straightening up.” “OK, when you’re done, then.”

All was quiet for a bit, then I heard his mother say, “No, honey, that stays there.” I turned around and saw that the boy was trying to lift up the astroturf mat that you hit the balls off of (which was bigger than he was), in preparation for folding it and putting it…I don’t know where. I don’t know if he knew, either, but he certainly knew that it didn’t belong just lying on the ground, because he gave his mother a VERY dubious look, and was clearly unconvinced. He stood there for some time, holding the mat, while she strove to persuade him that it really was OK to leave it where it was – yet another little boy having great trouble abandoning an obviously superior plan. I want him to come to MY house for an afternoon.

Normally we like to either arrange our own tours in a port, or just get off the ship and go to a beach or attraction that we’ve read about in Frommer’s. However, this being Mexico, and the security situation in Mexico being what it is, we decided that this wasn’t wise, and so booked an excursion through the ship.

The excursion we booked was called Eco-Kayaking. The brochure described paddling through the Sea of Cortez, viewing wildlife, to a pristine beach where we would snorkel. I wasn’t sure about the kayaking part, because I am not a strong kayaker, and figured 1) I would struggle to keep up, and 2) this would make me cranky. Lis thought it would all be fine, and convinced me to try it. And so we crammed in to a van with a bunch of other people and drove to a beach where the kayaks were. I turned out to be correct about the kayaking – we both struggled to keep up, which made us both cranky. Plus the wildlife we viewed was mostly the million tourists from the 3 cruise ships in port. But, it had its moments – at one point there was a sea lion swimming along about 30 yards away, and we saw a pelican skim along the surface of the water right in front of us, which was cool to see at water level. Plus, we kayaked out to El Arco, which was pretty neat.

The beach, as expected, was full of people, and the snorkeling was a couple rocks completely surrounded by swimmers with masks – I decided I didn’t want to join them, and so just floated around and watched the pelicans and frigate birds. The water felt lovely, though, and the birds were fun. Lis had abandoned swimming – she was having trouble with her mask, and having trouble with the large-ish swell that made getting in to an out of the water difficult. After a while, I joined her on the beach, and we agreed that these ship’s tours were just never worth the trouble, and we would cancel the one we were wait-listed for in Puerto Vallarta.

Soon it was time to kayak back (I thought my arms would fall off on that last paddle) and we were done. We walked around the tourist area for a little bit, trying to find this particular beer that we had had the last time we were on a cruise to Mexico 5 years ago. The beer is called Noche Buena, and it is a specialty Christmas beer that you can only get in Mexico, and then only during the months of November and December. We tried a couple shops that sold booze, but they only had Corona and Pacifico and Negra Modelo, all of which I can get in the States. The cool thing is that we conducted all our transactions in (probably bad) Spanish – we were very pleased with ourselves.

Back on ship, we headed straight to the pool grill for burgers and fries and a beer (Samual Adams, the only dark-ish non-stout beer available). It’s amazing how good food and drink tastes after an afternoon of exertion – the beer in particular really hit the spot (at times during the kayaking when I thought I might die, I kept myself going by imagining the burger and beer I was going to have back on the ship). Then we went back to the room to watch the sunset from our balcony.

Unluckily, our neighbor decided that sunset was the perfect time to loudly conduct a business meeting via phone on HIS balcony. I get so annoyed when I find myself included in meetings – once in Chicago I was using the wifi in a hotel lobby and suddenly a job interview started right next to me. The meeting continued throughout the sunset, and it was a little hard to tune out, but we managed well enough, and the sunset was spectacular. We are at anchor with a view of the rock formations and El Arco, and the sun set behind them – gorgeous.

We stayed in this evening, and I rinsed out all our sandy clothes and did a load of laundry (we are right next to the free guest laundry for our deck – awesome!). We had been invited to a cocktail party by I’m not sure who – some travel-related something affiliated with Sandra’s agency, I think. Anyway, cocktal party = free booze, and Lis wanted a fruity drink, so she threw on a skirt and went. I was not going to get out of my jammies, and so stayed in the room.

Soon Lis was back, and it was time for bed. About this time, I noticed that my left arm was getting kind of sore. This also happens to be the arm on which I have a big ‘ol spider bite (it is about the size of a 50 cent piece). I figured that the soreness was due to the kayaking, but part of me was a little worried that the bite was more serious than I thought. We discussed calling the ship’s nurse, but decided against it and went to bed.

Around 1am I woke up with my arm really hurting – again, only the left one. I lay there, half asleep, trying to gather the energy to get up and take some Advil. Then Lis said, “What’s the matter? Are you OK?” Apparently, while the half-awake part of me was thinking about Advil, the half-asleep part of me was lying there moaning. I had pain and tingling from my shoulder to me hand. We were both a little alarmed, and Lis called the nurse. They said “It’s probably just a bite,” which doesn’t sound like a very helpful response, but actuallly helped us both to feel calmer. I took the Advil, Lis did a quick web search to rule out anything terrible, and we went back to sleep. This morning I feel absolutely fine – no pain at all. Amazing what a little freak-out can do :)

Yesterday was our first sea day. Sea days are our favorites – you’re just out on the ocean, with nothing in particular to do and nowhere in particular to be. Unless, of course, you’ve signed up for some of the ship’s activities, which usually are kind of stupid but on Crystal can be kind of fun.

We got up about 7:30 and headed to breakfast about 8:30. However, unbeknowst to us, it was actually about 9:30 – we knew we were going to have to move our clocks ahead one hour at some point, but we thought it wasn’t until Tuesday. We had breakfast in the Lido buffet, and our plan was to just get a little and go back for more if necessary. We had our leisurely breakfast out on the aft deck, and then Lis went back to get some bacon – but they were breaking it all down – it was 10:30, not 9:30, we discovered, and the Lido stops serving at 10:00. Ah, the beauty of a cruise – we just went to the pool area, where “Late Riser’s Breakfast” starts at 10:00, and had second breakfast.

We ran in to Sandra at second breakfast, and sat and chatted with her a bit. She asked us if we were doing the Free Slots Tournament at 2pm. We didn’t know what that was. She explained that it’s this tournament where the contestants get three minutes to wildly push the button (or pull the arm, if you are so inclined), and whoever ends up with the most points wins. Lis thought it sounded like fun and went to sign up. I had a manicure scheduled for 1:30 and so couldn’t do it.

(OK, an aside – I’m sitting out in the pool area as I type this, and the ship’s captain just strode by and said good morning to me. But he did it in such a strange pre-emptory manner – usually the staff say hello as they go by, but only if you are already making eye contact with them. The captain actually interrupted me and made me look up from what I was doing, and his whole manner was that of someone who thinks they’re making your day by talking to you. I was the only one on deck – he could have just walked on by. But apparently, when you’re captain, you can’t just walk the ship without making sure that everyone knows you’re the captain out walking the ship. (Nested aside – in case you’re wondering why we like to go on these cruises where people are so unpleasant; the vast majority of the passengers and staff on board are very lovely and friendly – we just make note of the exceptions because they make better stories.))

After second breakfast, we went to pick up a couple of free needlepoint kits that we read about in the daily schedule the night before – mine is a glasses case with a dragonfly on it, and Lis’ is a floral pattern coin purse. There was an associate needlepoint class later in the day, but I used to needlepoint as a kid, so we figured we could skip it. I’m looking forward to needlepointing out on the balcony on one of our upcoming sea days :)

After lunch I went up for my manicure. Sandra had procured for us $1,150 in cruise credit (as I said before, travel agent extraordinaire), and I had decided to spend part of mine on a manicure – I’ve never had one before, and thought it would be fun to have pretty hands for formal night. But it actually turned out to kind of bum me out. First, because sitting with my arms forward for so long started to make my shoulders hurt. But mostly, because it was depressing to imagine it from the workers’ perspective. I caught a glimpse of my manicurist’s schedule for the day – she was booked through 10pm that night, and I’m sure had been at it since the morning. I know that I benefit at the expense of exploited workers in everything from my clothes to my food, but I’m not used to actually seeing it up close. It was also slightly depressing/embarrassing to hear some of the things my fellow passengers were saying – a very sweet little old lady was asking the Romanian girl doing her hair questions about her life – she was particulary interested in where she got her cosmotology training – “Do they have beauty parlors in Romania?”

After my manicure I was heading back to the cabin when I happened to hear all this noise coming from the casino – it was the Slots Tournament. I wandered in to see how my sweetie was doing. It’s quite a sight to see a row of people madly pounding away on slot machines while a couple rows of spectators madly cheer them one. I found Lis – her turn was coming up. She did pretty well – made it to the final round, and ultimately won a “Crystal Casino” t-shirt.

We went back to the room to lie about and read. I attempted to check my email and post my last blog to Facebook, but the connection was slow and the blog was temporarily down, adding to my bummed-out-ed-ness – which was too bad; it had been such a lovely morning.

Around 4:45 Lis went to a Nordic pole walking class, and I gathered up my music and head phones and went up on deck. One of my favorite things in the whole world is to go up to the bow of a ship that is under way, listen to music, watch the sea and sing. It’s always windy at the bow, so most people don’t go there, plus the wind covers the noise, so you can sing off key with impunity. It is so awesome that sometimes it makes me cry. This time, at first, it wasn’t having the same effect – but eventually my bummed-ness wore off, and the old magic returned.

I stayed longer than I should have, and so had to rush to get cleaned up for formal night, but soon enough we were bedecked in our sparkly Sears finery and on our way. They showed us to our table – thankfully, we requested and got a table for two – neither of us felt up to making small talk with people we don’t know. We ordered the Chateaubriande, which we had had on our last cruise, and it did not disappoint – so tender I could literally cut it with my fork. Melted in your mouth – definitely the best bit of meat I’ve ever had anywhere. We couldn’t eat it all, and the idea of wasting it broke our hearts, so Lis asked about taking it back to our room. The (cute but slightly overly talkative) waiter gently but firmly denied our request, which was good, as I think toting around doggie bags on formal night is poor form.

At this point a group of five waiters gathered round our table and sang “Happy Birthday” to me. Then they placed a slice of birthday cake in front of me, and the head waiter kissed my cheek. Those of you who know my birthday is December 22nd might be wondering what gives. Well, when we booked the cruise, Sandra asked us if we were celebrating anything – Lis said, “Mary’s birthday is in December.” Somehow this got translated to yesterday (November 28) being my birthday. After the singing, our waiter brought us the dessert menu. There was a butterscotch pudding option that sounded lovely, but I already had my birthday cake. I was torn; the waiter said, “Have both – you only have a birthday once a year!” Who can argue with that – 2 desserts it was.

This is a jazz-themed cruise, so after dinner we went to one of the bars to listen to a jazz band for a while. It was very good, and they played actual classic jazz, as opposed to the Muzak that a ship’s regular “jazz band” usually plays. After that, Lis went back to the room and I went to the theater to watch Monday Night Football. New Orleans already had the game pretty well in hand (or seemed to – I haven’t checked the score today – maybe the Giants made a miracle comeback), so I only watched for about 15 minutes or so and then headed back to my room. The best thing about the game was watching football in formal wear. The worst was actually having to watch the commercials – it’s what led me to bail before the game was done.

All in all, a pretty successful sea day :)

Yesterday morning we asked the girl at the front desk of the hotel if she knew of a breakfast place with views of the bay (harbor? I’m not sure of the correct Long Beach lingo) and she recommended Claire’s, which is in the back of the Long Beach Museum of Art. We found the place, saw the umbrellas, and followed a guy and his kid back there – and in so doing, we learned later, basically cut in line and inconvenienced the restaurant staff – we were supposed to go in the main restaurant and check in with the hostess. They accommodated us without too much trouble, though, and then put up with us further as we insisted on rearranging the table to get some shade (I’m sure we were their favorites).

It was another gorgeous day – clear and warm, beautiful skies and seas, very little smog, very little wind; really spectacular – and breakfast was very pleasant. After breakfast, we decided to check out the museum a little, since we have reciprocal privileges there, due to our Walker Art Museum membership (faithful readers might remember that this is the membership we reverse engineered to get into the the Art Institute of Chicago). Even though our membership was only supposed to admit 2, the girls at the counter let us all in. The current show was a retrospective of video installations from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Video installations are not really my thing, but it was interesting enough, plus I was very pleased to have used our reciprocal privileges :)

Now it was time to check out of the hotel and head to the cruise port. Before we turn our attention to the cruise, though, I must take a moment to say how much I liked Long Beach. Maybe it was a function of the beautiful weather, but I thought it seemed a really cool town – I could definitely see coming back someday for a long weekend or something.

Vicki dropped us off at the cruise port (thanks for everything, Vicki! You’re a peach!), we gave our bags to the porter, and then headed over to the check in area. To my surprise, there were a bunch of people sitting in chairs, and we were given a ticket with the number 11 and told to sit and wait for our number to be called (they were on number 5). This surprised me because usually, on these smaller luxury ships, the embarkation process is pretty quick and there are very few lines – it’s part of what you’re paying the big bucks for. I groused about it a little, and then, to Lis’ horror and my own, I loudly announced “We wouldn’t have to wait like this on Regent!” – I mean LOUDLY – I practically shouted it. Lis shot me a look, and I said “I know, I know – I don’t know how that happened!” We were sitting kind of by ourselves, and I’m not sure that anybody heard me, but I still found it terrifying to contemplate that I might be becoming one of those old people who loudly blurt out whatever is in their heads…

(Speaking of old people, a digression: there are, as you may imagine, a large number of elderly people on the ship. Which means that there is also fair bit of the phenomenon of old, old people with young, young hair. This works well enough at a distance in low lighting. But up close in good lighting, the effect is NOT what the practitioner imagines. In fact, it is rather startling and mildly horrifying. The lesson to learn from this is, go ahead and dye your hair, but, really, let’s try to be realistic about it.)

Once our group was called (we waited about half an hour), we saw that the reason for the delay was that one of the metal detectors was out of order. If it had been working, we would have had our normal check in – so Crystal was off the hook. We went quickly through security, and were on the ship and checked in in just a few minutes.

We had lunch at the pool grill, and it was good, but not quite as great as we remembered from before; I suspect that we will find several things not as good as we remembered, since we have built Crystal up as practically the greatest food on earth since our last sailing, 5 years ago.

We wandered around a bit, and encountered this odd elevator behavior that we have run in to only on Crystal – people who refuse to make way when you are trying to get on. This man and woman were standing at the very front when the elevator doors opened, didn’t budge an inch, and then gave us the stinkeye as we were forced to push past them to board. It’s very strange. We wondered if it was some sort of rich person thing, but we’ve hung out with rich people on Regent and at the Four Seasons, and we’ve never seen anything like it, except on our last Crystal cruise. Go figure.

We went back to our room so we could be on our balcony to watch the ship sail away from port (one of my favorite parts of any cruise is sailing in to or out of port) and then got ready for dinner.

For dinner we had reservations at Silk Road, which is the Asian restaurant on board, affiliated with Nobu in Los Angeles. We had made a date to meet Sandra, travel agent extraordinaire, and her son David, and we had a really great time – especially since Sandra brought a bottle of wine for the table and told the waiter to keep the rock shrimp coming (I’m not much of a seafood person in general, but the rock shrimp were really, really good). Sandra’s wine, in addition to the Pinot Noir (from Oregon!) I had already ordered, and the champagne I’d had when we boarded the ship, meant that I’d had about 3 times the amount of wine I normally have, so I was feeling pretty good:)

After dinner Lis checked out the casino a bit (she wanted to see if they have penny slots – they do) and I walked around on deck a bit, and then it was time to turn in.

(Author’s note: no links in the next few posts, as the ship’s internet connection is just too dang slow for it…)

We are off on a 7 night Mexican Riviera cruise on the Crystal Symphony tomorrow (yay!!), and so flew in to LA today. Originally we were just going to stay at the Embassy Suites at LAX and then take a shuttle to the cruise port in San Pedro. Luckily, though, Lis’ college pal Vicki lives in the LA area, and proposed a plan – she would pick us up at the airport, we would all go stay somewhere fun, and then she would take us to the cruise port the next day.

Lis and Vicki did a lot of planning, and settled on Long Beach as the place to stay. I do not know the thinking behind this decision (I don’t think Long Beach is usually first on people’s itineraries), but I thought it sounded like fun – especially after Vicki suggested that we have brunch on the Queen Mary (permanently docked in Long Beach) on Sunday before going to the cruise port.

Our flight was on Alaska. While we were waiting at the gate, they announced that there were some first class seats available for a $50 upgrade – we pounced on them as quickly as possible, and found ourselves in first class, a very welcome little surprise. I had been a little cranky earlier (woke up with a headache), but this cheered me right up!

As everyone was boarding, a little boy and his mother started past us. The boy stopped in front of the still-empty first class seats across the aisle from us and said “I want to sit in front, momma.” She laughed and said “Me, too. But we need to keep going.” He had a very hard time accepting this – here were these perfectly nice seats, and they were just going to walk on by? She had to do quite a bit of cajoling to get him to move on back to coach. Poor boy – it’s hard when you run smack in to the world and its confusing ways…

Our flight was lovely, we arrived on time, and soon we were on the road to Long Beach with Vicki. It was a beautiful day – warm and clear and gorgeous. We checked in to our hotel – a boutique hotel in downtown called The Varden Hotel. It is a renovated 1920’s property, which means it is cool and tiny and neato and loud – the kind of place where you really couldn’t stay for more than one night.

After checking in, we headed out to look at the harbor. We drove down to the marina area, and sat on a bench for quite a while, looking out on the Queen Mary and watching the pelicans fish. I’ve seen pelicans many times before, but have never seen them hunt – they make these straight-down dives in to the water – very impressive.

After this we drove around the Naples Island area of Long Beach for a bit (it is one of Vicki’s favorite places) and then went to Parker’s Lighthouse restaurant for dinner. We sat outside and watched the sun go down, and then a crescent moon go down, and the Queen Mary was all lit up, and it was really great.

After dinner Lis and Vicki went to see The Muppets. I wanted to see it, too, but my energy, while greatly improved, is still pretty precarious, and I didn’t want to push things. They both enjoyed it very much – Lis says 2 thumbs up!

We decided against the Queen Mary for brunch after all (for a variety of reasons), and I was at first a little disappointed. But then I read on Wikipedia that she has been gutted and re-gutted since her retirement in 1967 – it doesn’t sound like there’s all that much of the original left (though I guess there are some restoration efforts underway), so I’m glad we’re not going. I think I’ll be happier with the images in my head from the Queen Mary book I read while on the Queen Mary II.

And so we’re off to bed, excited to spend some more time with Vicki tomorrow and then board our ship!

Link to photos