Tag Archives: vacation

We’re all at sea

Every day the ship prints out a list of all the goings on that passengers can attend—the “Princess Patter.” I of course, having a hard time remembering the name, just call it the pitter patter. I had no idea what to expect of these events before we boarded, this being our first cruise and all. Everything from learning ballroom dancing to bingo to lectures on buying diamonds, we giggled at some of the offerings and were genuinely interested in others. Always, they try to get you to buy a $6.75 drink at these things. We tried to map out a schedule for the day: start off at the gym, take a dip in one of the hot tubs, have lunch, go to a rumba class, get dressed up for formal night.

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The gym didn’t go so well because all of the treadmills were closed due to a lecture on weight loss. This seemed like a mixed message to me, although perhaps the gym director didn’t want someone my size on the treadmill anyway because it would make working out seem hopeless to fat people. We went straight to the next goal on our itinerary, the hot tub. That was a relaxing experience until the boat hit some choppier water, and then the water inside the tub was splashing all over. Susanne said she was starting to feel like she was being thrown about at sea. We changed, and had lunch.

There are many, many options for eating at sea. Because there are two buffets open 24/7, if one wanted to eat all day and all night, they could achieve success. But the buffets are not filled with the foodstuffs I’d imagined. I guess I’d pictured piles of Alaskan king crab and other regional seafood, something like a fancy cafeteria. Instead it was more like the catering Susanne’s college prepares, complete with those perfectly round, kind of bland cookies for dessert. How can anyone make a bland chocolate chip cookie, anyhow?

The dining rooms serve much better fare, and Susanne has discovered a favorite dessert: the Love Boat Dream, a chocolate mousse (in the shape of a heart), over a chocolate brownie (in the shape of a heart), served with raspberry sauce (in the shape of a heart). It is demonstrated in the following picture.

shipboard desserts

We’ve walked around all of the ship now, save a room or two, and have gotten pretty familiar with where everything is, but the going is a little difficult for passengers. I’ve seen more than a few look frustrated and lost. In fact, of all the little annoyances we’ve encountered so far on this vacation, I’d say pushy passengers top my list.

First of all, they’re everywhere we go, except our cabin. There is simply nothing one can do without at least 38 other people being there, attempting to occupy the same physical space you are standing in. The elevator, the lecture on fruit carving, the spa giveaway bonanza—sometimes we’re so pressed up together I have to look around to make sure I’m not on a subway car heading to Foggy Bottom at rush hour. And many of them are just as rude as the day we checked in. I keep wanting to ask if they think their  bacon burger will taste so much better if they bite into it 30 seconds earlier because they skipped someone in line. Susanne is good at giving me those “settle down” looks though, which is good.

That’s not to say we haven’t met some jolly nice people on board, however. At one meal we sat with two older couples from New Jersey, who were unhappy with the matzoh ball soup at lunch.

“Mine is 100 times better,” she said, tasting the weak broth.

“Mine is 300 times better,” said her friend, after her bite.

I’m pretty sure she just said her matzoh ball soup is 200 times better than her friend’s, but I didn’t mention that. I just told them of course their soup is better than the boat’s soup, and they smiled, first at me, and then at Susanne, as if to say, Oh, he’s learning already, on your honeymoon, too. You’ll do just fine with him.

The day at sea was capped off with the first formal night of the week, so Susanne and I changed into our fanciest outfits: me in my tux and she in her wedding dress. Good thing it doesn’t look exactly like the typical wedding dress, so people weren’t thinking we were getting married there and then. We did have “Just Married” balloons outside our cabin, so there is that, I suppose. I feel a little like we’re lying, having gotten married last July, but this is our honeymoon, so close enough, I guess.

Everyone else was decked out in their finery, too, and Susanne remarked that maybe such a night is appealing because it’s fun to play dress up; we did look a little like extras on the set of Days of Our Lives. At one point we spied a few women who had little crinkled tinfoil doggie bags. One wore it like an edible bracelet. Susanne snapped a picture.

The waitstaff had been made aware of the honeymoon thing because we had a card to signal to them that this was a special night among nights. We were rewarded with our own little “special events” cake and a “happy honeymoon to you” song, sung to the tune of happy birthday to you. After three courses of dinner and dessert, we couldn’t even begin to eat cake, so we asked for a to go container, and were somewhat chagrined to see the waiter return with the cake in a tinfoil sculpture. Our very own cake bracelet.

All aboard

We woke up at a decent hour this morning, cramming everything into our bags and making sure our car was okay in the parking lot—we just couldn’t justify paying $20 a day for the port parking. I do have a Seattle friend whose car was stolen back in 2005, but the thief was kind enough to leave a note saying he’d return it later, which he did, complete with a few dollars in change to account for the gas he’d consumed. Let’s just say that’s not the way folks perform grand theft auto in our nation’s capitol.

After showering and making sure we had all of our 7,289 belongings, everything ranging from fold-up umbrellas to playing cards to extra underwear, we headed out for breakfast at the Portage Bay Café. This is a catering business-turned-series-of-three-restaurants that features organic and locally grown, sustainably farmed food. Their motto is “Eat like you give a damn.” A little arrogant, but I get the point. More interesting to us, if I’m being honest, was the challah bread French toast and the all-you-can-pile-on toppings bar. Two orders of French toast for us. Susanne also ordered a decaf latte and I a double skim mocha. Seattle really knows how to make a coffee drink—the latte was rich without being too acidic, and my mocha tasted just this side of sweet, which is how I like it. If I wanted super sugary, I’d ask for chocolate milk heated up. At the toppings bar we indeed piled up, but taking care to follow their instructions: take as much as you want, but eat what you take. I couldn’t bear, however, to eat the bland apple slices, and I’m really dismayed that in Washington State, they save the worst apples for the residents and send the tastiest ones out of state. The rest of the fruit—the strawberries, raspberries, peaches, and blackberries—were terrific, as was the lightly sweetened whipped cream, and the organic maple syrup had a nutty complexity of flavor that I’ve never before tasted. I’m kicking myself for forgetting to ask where it originated.

Leaving the port of Seattle

Leaving the port of Seattle

After eating too much we waddled back to the car and got whatever else we deemed should come on the cruise with us. I called a taxi service. It was at this point that I realized I’d forgotten to pack black dress socks, so I hoped I’d be able to purchase some on the ship. I really didn’t want to look like a schmuck in my gorgeous tuxedo, replete with white Russell crew socks.

The taxi driver picked us up and looked a little astonished at all the bags we were carrying. We never pack this heavy when we’re flying. All we needed was a steamer trunk. And geez, it would have been so easy to find 2 cubic inches of space for black dress socks.

Coming up to the pier, we saw the ship. It dwarfed everything else in the marina. We had an immediate moment of exhilaration, and next of a weird sense of pride that yeah, our boat is big! Our boat! Big big big! This was then replaced, as the taxi pulled over to drop us off, at irritation with our temporary floating neighbors, who were some of the most clueless humans walking I’ve ever seen. We dropped off our heavier bags and made our way to the long, winding line to show our passports and get on the boat. It was at this point that they asked us to fill out a “Health questionnaire.” Their concern for whether we had recent coughing, fevers, or diarrhea was not urgent enough that we couldn’t all be using the same pencils to fill out our forms, a rather magnificent and ironic way of spreading disease around the ship right at the start of our voyage.

Standing in line, I sang one line of the love boat theme to Susanne, since this was a Princess cruise, after all. Two women in front of us told me to sign up for karaoke night, and then basically warned Susanne that they might steal her man from her! They clearly do not know Susanne. Or me, for that matter.

We made our way onto the ship. Geez, it was big. We walked around, familiarizing ourselves with the layout, mostly of the hot tubs, bars, and eateries. The cigar bar really needs to be better ventilated, and casinos just depress us, so we checked out the other options. Somehow the shuffleboard court keeps eluding us, though we found the nicely appointed exercise room and the amazingly tacky nightclub, high up above the very stern of the ship. All of the furnishings in the “Skywalker’s Nightclub” revolve around stars, except one quarter of the seating, which is in a paisley pattern. I am trying to wrap my mind around why.

Finally we found the “boutiques” on board. Lots of clothing, and should you have forgotten your cufflinks, there are several to rent or purchase. Black dress socks, not so much. Right now my options are the following:

1. buy black shoe polish and permanently discolor my athletic socks
2. ask our steward if he can lend us some of his socks
3. break down and buy black pantyhose

Apparently I am the first person in the history of Princess Cruise Lines to leave behind his socks. And the first formal night is tomorrow, before we will have reached port in Juneau.

Touring the ship, we came upon the spa area. They told us excitedly that we could fill out a raffle ticket for a chance at winning a free spa treatment. Cruise newbies that we are, we picked up more tuberculosis-covered pencils and filled out little cards. Make sure to come back at 5:30, they said, smiling, and somewhere in the distance, I heard a siren song.

We were in good company. Something like 150 people crowded into the spa area to attend the raffle name-pulling, since one had to be present to win. As people flooded in, I started wondering if they were going to give us a one-hour seminar on time shares in Boca. No, just a lecture on all of the spa services, which ranged from the delightful—hot stone massage—to the more esoteric—homeopathic liquid movement to reduce edema. Slowly, the head of the fitness center pulled out raffle tickets, usually to the beat of loud, thumping techno music, and the people around us nearly drooled in anticipation. These folks would have assembled for a raffle on ice water. We left a little early, wanting to get out of there before 150 crazy-for-any-bargain people were ready to leave.

The ship does move slightly with the waves, but it’s got a pretty firm footing overall. We’ve noticed that the drinking lounges and bars seem to be over the places where the engines cause more vibration and noise—maybe the ship designers thought drunk people would notice the movement less. Whatever the reason, it’s fortunate that not all of the ship translates the rotation of the propellers into shuddery movement.

The Golden Princess at her berth

The Golden Princess at her berth

One other note: I think it’s just an awful idea to have an entire section of the ship’s library dedicated to maritime disasters. Really, I don’t want to read about the Titanic while I’m in the middle of the cold ocean. Hopefully I don’t have to explain why.

Newbies on the Kootenay

Having been a fan, in my youth, of many a water flume ride, I often wondered if white water rafting was merely a few degrees higher on the dial of the same animal, or an entirely different adventure, not the least because it was off a metal track and in the open outdoors.

I now have my answer.

We dragged ourselves groggily to the meeting location, most of us wearing layers like we’d been instructed. The Kootenay river runs very near the much larger, longer, Columbia, but the Kootenay is home to more sacred Native lands and is said to be the source for some ancient medicines. One by one we lumbered in, and I watched the cousins, some of whom Susanne hadn’t seen since the wedding, greet each other and start to wake up. We read over the liability releases, made sure we had everyone we were waiting for, and piled into the yellow school bus for our 1/2 day trip to the river.

“Cousins on the river,” they shouted like a pre-game warmup cheer, and we rumbled to the rafting site.

We listened to the guides give us our safety instructions, but we were ready on our own accord, coming armed with 5 epi pens in case an evil peanut or honey bee should come at us in one of the rapids. I chatted up the guide at the back of the raft, our conversation repeatedly redirected so that we could “paddle forward,” “left back, right front,” and so on. The Kootenay has dug through a lot of earth over the millennia, and we found our selves in some deep river canyons, limestone cliffs on our right, deep dark soil thick with evergreens off the port. The cousins at the front of the boat were soaked head to toe. Wet cousins do indeeed look like drowned rats.

We hurtled over class 3 rapids like young bucking bronco riders. Twisting alongside the Canadian rockies, we declared the experience thrilling and vowed to take on a more challenging river next summer. Hooray for the river!

Four stars of lucky hotelification

Susanne is a fan of the Hotwire Lottery, as she calls it. Hotwire, for those who know not of its business plan, is kind of like blindfolding oneself and playing Pin the Donkey, only instead of one giant jackass, one is attempting to get a good deal with any one of tens of hotels, all masked by the Web site so one can’t really be sure where one is staying until one has plunked one’s money down.

One of the things users can see is the star rating of the hotel, another, the general neighborhood where the hotel is located. There’s also the amenities list. One intrepid, rather persistent friend of ours spend considerable time comparing these indicators against the ones mentioned on various hotel Web sites, until she was 99 percent certain that she knew which hotel she was going to put money down. She was right, and when it came time for the conference, she and Susanne had a perfectly fine time.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when Susanne and I were looking at places to stay in Victoria. Not having been there before, we were of course unaware that really, everything is located in the same neighborhood—the harbor. But one 4-star hotel caught our eyes, and we got a great price, something ridiculous like $61 a night. We giggled at our good fortune. Surely it would be a step up from the Hyatt in Vancouver.

The Congratulations! notice came up, joyously informing us that we would be staying at the Inn at Laurel Point at the “Inner Harbour” of Victoria.  The Web site is amazing, picturesque views of the building, the view one sees from one’s glass-bedecked deck, the gentle calls of birds and waterfowl playing as the music of the peaceful. It is a marketing moment of luxurious proportions. We pulled the lever of Hotwire Fortune and came up with a winner!

Now then, do take 10 seconds to look at their Web site. Note the strong architectural lines of the white building, but take note also that the glass-fronted terraces are only on one side. In fact, those two halves of the building have different structures, don’t they? It’s all white, but . . .

 

The backside of the building

The backside of the building

This white paint only goes so far. The dorm-like structure on the left here, is the same as the left side on the Web site, only from another angle. They only painted what would be showing in the picture on their marketing! Such crafty Canadians!

The whole hotel was this way. It was as if to get the 4-star rating, they had hired a swanky hotel improvement team/marketing consultants to go through and tell them what they had to improve. In our room we had: 

  • A brand new headboard, but old and chipped dresser, nightstands, and TV cabinet (the TV itself was so old it still read, “Trinitron” above the analog dial)
  • New pleather chairs a la cocktail lounger flanked either side of an old, round kitchen table.
  • A new alarm clock.
  • A very, very old ice container.

In the bathroom a beautiful and shiny toilet greeted the weary traveler, but didn’t have much space between the cracked countertop and hastily assembled shower. And the entire room smelled of my Aunt Edna’s, who had a penchant for plastic-covered furniture and vinyl. The woman never met a synthetic fabric she didn’t like. I wasn’t quite sure what was off-gassing at the hotel, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t me.

The $60-a-night “bargain” was looking a little worn at the edges. We decided it didn’t matter so much because really, we were only sleeping there, but plopping ourselves on the bed after the drive into town, I suddenly missed our Sleep Number bed at home. I thought a spring might push its way through the thin padding and walk out the door, in protest of its many years servicing ungrateful tourists, such as ourselves. It was like a topographical map, that bed surface. Unfortunately for me, Mt. McKinley was right about under my left hip socket. Susanne, being shorter, was mostly able to avoid Mt. Vesuvius in the southwest quadrant.

The other annoyances came at us slowly, revealing themselves bit by bit, like how Jack Nicholson gradually loses his mind in the hotel Overlook in The Shining. First, we noticed that the other wing of the hotel was indeed, much grander and more luxurious. They couldn’t even put in roll pillows in our room? Roll pillows would have broken the bank, is that it? There was the random ventilation system that spewed whatever aroma was being produced by the kitchen staff at the swanky restaurant in the lobby, right down our hallway to our room’s door. And then there was the parking garage. At a mere $10 a day ($8 in US money), it was an easy place to park. But the other hotel guests were so overly fond of their vehicles that they each insisted on taking up two and sometimes three parking spaces each. This is what comes of no DC Parking Enforcement. Every snob to himself. I almost missed the little smaller-than-a-SmartCar vehicles patrolling the streets, whipping out ugly pink tickets to the wealthy for parking like jerks, a smile crossing their lips because they and they alone have the power to make even the richest person in the District, furious with the pain of a $200 ticket.

So our time in Victoria would begin and end with the momentary frustration of the parking amenity. Most of our time, however, was spent tooling around the harbor and taking high tea at various locations. More on that to come.

Meanwhile, in the land of Walla Walla Freecycle, I feel I must mention an entry from earlier today, in which a couple about to be observed by a county official as part of getting authorized to be foster parents (aww) was looking for a first aid kit and a locking box. The first aid kit because the county requires it, and the locking box so that they could stow their HANDGUN. It’s the liberal in me, I know, but it’s also the snob, because what I hear in my head is: you want children in a house with a handgun, but you’re looking for a free lockbox? Did you spend all your money on the ammunition? What are they, hollow points?

Noodley legends

We like to ask for advice; there are columns in the paper, thousands of Web forums and chat rooms on every conceivable subject from pork rinds to rare, incurable diseases. Perhaps it’s part of the human condition to ask our neighbors about things we haven’t directly experienced. It creates community, sometimes, not just in a virtual Web browser window, but when we create support groups, go on themed vacations, join a club—we do a lot of advice giving and requesting, and then, if we get our first-hand moment ourselves, can appreciate how far away the advice of someone else’s experience was from our own.

And therein lies the rub. For one person’s touted recommendation is another person’s bout with mediocrity. Or there could be, in the case of a restaurant suggestion, a complete incompatibility between palates. It’s really a taste comparison; if we like the same 5 movies, maybe we’ll both hate the 6th. Your advice to go to so-and-so place for dinner might be anathema to me if I think that spiced crickets sounds disgusting but is your favorite appetizer. And then you might gently remind me that some of what I eat, such as corndogs, also can be just plain awful.* So one should have confidence in the taste buds of their friends.

What to make of the good friend with whom you’ve never actually compared culinary affections? It’s just a leap of faith that nobody would recommend a truly terrible venue and that there will probably be something on the menu that appeals. And that’s the pessimist’s approach. For those of us who are more risk-tolerant and/or optimistic, it’s a chance to venture into unknown territory and perhaps experience something new.

 

Legendary Noodle Restaurant

Legendary Noodle Restaurant

It was with this boldly go where we hadn’t gone before mentality that we ventured into the Legendary Noodle Restaurant in Vancouver, a favorite of our friend, Dex. She eats there often. We looked at fully four different kinds of noodle preparations. We started off sharing some steamed meat dumplings, which were fine if not a little pedestrian. Our food came quickly, which I’ve learned in the Northwest is a bit of an uncommon occurrence. Susanne had a noodle soup with beef, almost like a pho, and I had some noodles with beef, mung beans, and a light spice that was just hot enough to linger while not causing massive sinus activity. It was a little place, likeable in that hole-in-the-wall way. 

It was also conveniently located directly across the street from a patisserie. Unfortunately, we were too stuffed to put any more edibles into our stomachs. Fortunately, our friend’s housemate was having a gallery show that night, so the three of us walked around the corner to see her art. She was focused on painting animation-like pictures of Catholic schoolgirls. They looked very sulky. Some of them were against white, unpainted backgrounds. Some were sitting in trees. Many were set in dreary wooded locations. In a room in the back there was a silent auction with older pictures, namely giant robots in dreary wooded locations. I sensed a trend. 

After looking at the art for a while, we headed over to Sweet Revenge for tea and dessert. It was cramped, like visiting your Aunt Nellie who hasn’t thrown out the daily newspaper for 36 years and who has a penchant for collecting antique furniture. We found the remaining 4 square feet of space in the room and sat down at a low table that came up to our knees. I wondered aloud if this was the tea room for Liliputian royalty. 

Menus were carefully presented to us, lest the waiters knock something over. They were small men who looked like they had previously worked as circus contortionists, and they fitted their bodies around the furniture as they served the patrons, bending in strange ways like Keanu Reeves dodging bullets, but nary did they spill a drop of the drinks.

 

table of treats at Sweet Revenge

table of treats at Sweet Revenge

The cakes were very good, although one was a little on the dry side. A man at the next table (read, five inches away from me) asked which cake on our table was the favorite, so we pointed it out to him. There were six people at his table, Japanese tourists, and they were very excited to have cake recommendations from total strangers. How did he know I wasn’t a total smartass who had just told him to try the cake with the pickle juice in it? Such trust! It must have been because we were in Canada, and what Canadian would steer a tourist wrong like that? He’d never have had such faith in me if we were in Atlanta, I bet.

We finished our dessert and hugged our friend goodbye—but only for the moment, because we ran into her two days later in Vancouver’s Chinatown. I would have said small world, but well, I didn’t think it would have drawn the laugh. One must be selective about such things.

*For the record, I do not eat corn dogs.

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