Thursday, February 28, 2008

Easter At My House

Easter, a time for family, new beginnings and spiritual reflection .
I feel honored that some of you have indicated an interest in hearing about my family. I think now would be a good time to write something personal.
Yesterday, was a busy time for me. I had invited the family for Easter Dinner. I felt a little sad that my eldest son, Clay, who lives in Washington could not be with us. Also, my granddaughter, Tia, who is still in Peru. But the rest of the family came and that made me happy.
On Saturday, I shopped for dinner, buying a huge ham plus a leg of lamb for Ovidiu and Andrzej, the Europeans in our family. I thought they had made a mistake at the check-out counter when they said the little piece of lamb cost $30.00. It would have fit in my pocket, plus I had no idea what to do with it. I had never cooked lamb and since Ovidiu does a lot of the cooking at my house, I am forever fearful that I am losing my cooking skills. But my fears were ungrounded and in the end, the lamb was wonderful, the ham was great and the homemade chicken and dumplings were just like mama used to make.
In addition to the Easter meal, our family tradition includes dying eggs and hunting them. Once they are dyed, everyone places a colorful Easter sticker on his eggs, a sticker to which I have given a value..from 1 cent to one dollar. Everyone has to dye eggs, and everyone has to hunt eggs. Landi insisted that I hide the eggs in the backyard so his friends couldn't see him with his little Easter basket.
After appointing Shawna, my granddaughter to the position of policeman, to see that no one peeked, I put on a DVD for them while I hid the eggs. Then they were off and running.
What fun we had. Ovidiu didn't hunt because he volunteered to hold our great, grandson, Bronson. Bronson is a delightful, roly poly six month old and is a handful. Ovidiu, having never held a baby felt quite awkward. His first question was "How do I hold him"?, but after working at it, he managed to get him right side up.
What a delight it was to see all of these grown people running like little kids with their Easter baskets. They were such good sports. I knew they were doing it for me and I was proud of them.
Greg, Shawna's husband (and Bronson's father) earned the prize for finding the most eggs. Ranee and Landi won the prize for finding the special prize eggs. Each hunter got to keep seven of the eggs they had found and were paid the price of the stickers on their eggs. They wheeled and dealed and traded and argued and in the end each had earned a whopping dollar or so, including Chris who had come as Landi's guest.
Then came dinner. After the blessing, we chatted and teased, talked over old times, and ate too much. It was a great success, and as I watched my little family I said a quiet thank you that I was blessed to have these unique individuals in my life. They are lovable, interesting, funny and some times even aggravating and irritating...but they are mine. I was grateful that they were willing to take time from their busy lives to spend time with me...even if I did have to pay them to hunt eggs.
Easter 2008 was a memorable occasion for me. I hope your Easter was everything you wanted it to be.

My favorite city all the world

Merida, Mexico
People are always asking me my favorite place to travel and they are usually surprised at my response….Mexico!
I began traveling to Mexico back in the 70’s. My husband and I had traveled across the border to Juarez and Monterrey and on one occasion my sister and I had taken our father to Tijuana to undergo Laetrile treatments for cancer. After those trips, I thought I had seen all that Mexico had to offer and really wasn’t interested in returning. But later, quite by accident, two friends and I had an opportunity to visit Mexico.
My friends and I didn’t have much money as we walked into the Travel Agency to inquire as to where we could go on a tight budget. It took some searching but finally the Travel Agent came up with Merida, Mexico, located in the Yucatan. I had no idea where Merida was although I had heard of the Yucatan Peninsula in grade school. It really didn’t matter though because all we wanted was to get out of town. It sounded good to us.
Just as darkness was spreading over the land, we touched down on a Mexican runway, having shared the plane with returning Mexicans and only two other Americans (remember this was the early 70’s).
As spokesperson for my little group, I soon found myself trying to communicate with “no English spoken” taxi drivers while fumbling with a handful of Mexican Pesos that I had no idea how to use.
It was nothing less than a miracle that we arrived at the hotel. I held out my handful of Pesos and the driver took what he wanted. I was relieved. We were home safe.
But little did I know that my problems were just beginning, for the hotel was overbooked and we had no room. It seemed the entire hotel had been taken over by the Sixth National Convention of Credit Managers of Mexico. Night had fallen and there was no room at the Inn. What would we do? I had no experience as to what one does in this type of situation. I had gotten myself and my friends into a real mess.
Welcome to the world of travel.
I shook my head, unable to believe this was happening. This just couldn’t be possible, or at best wasn’t acceptable. After all, I had a confirmation number which meant we had a room…didn’t it? I would find someone who spoke English and take care of this. I would explain that we had never traveled before, did not speak the language and didn’t know anything about this city, or the country. As I looked around for another American it hit me that I hadn’t seen another American since we got off the plane. I was scared. I was trying very hard to keep my composure and save face in the presence of my friends. I certainly wanted to appear as if I knew what I was doing or they would never travel with me again.
I was relieved when the manager arrived. I was sure we could work this out. But my relief was to be short lived because it was almost impossible to communicate with him. He spoke only a few words of English sprinkled with Spanish and the more excited he became the faster he spoke. But it was easy to understand that he didn’t intend to displace anyone in this important convention for the sake of one hysterical American female, reservation or no reservation.
It was at this point that I got excited…he got excited. No, I would not find another hotel. I had already paid for this one and I didn’t have enough money for another one. No, I would not go home.
Embarrassed and frustrated that I was getting nowhere with this little “macho” Mexican, my mother’s stubborn side started to surface. Grabbing my bags and giving the Manager my most intimidating glare, I snapped instructions to my friends and we went to the lobby sitting area. As I shoved our luggage under the couch, I explained that we would be just fine. Just bring us a pillow and blanket. The bathroom was nearby for bathing and dressing so we would have no problem living for a week in the lobby. We would cause no trouble, but we definitely were not leaving. And with that, I curled my legs under my body, crossed my arms and refused to budge. I would show him. He couldn’t treat us this way.
By the time security arrived a crowd had curiously surrounded us and by the look on the security officer’s face I felt sure we were about to get a different type of accommodation in Mexico.
I realized that had lost the battle and I didn’t know what else to do but throw in the towel. Then just as I was about to give in, an Angel in the form of the President of the Sixth National Convention of Credit Managers stepped up and in perfect English apologized for the inconvenience and for taking our room. He spoke with the Manager in Spanish and in a few words we became American delegates to the Sixth National Convention of Credit Managers of Mexico. He gave us a program of events for the coming week and invited us to join them on their tours of the Mayan ruins. We were given a delegates room and an invitation to attend their banquet. That week is one of the nicest of my memories of travel. We were indeed treated as delegates and as guests and by the end of the week had seen all there was to see in Merida. We had learned a lot about the Mayan culture and had made numerous friends. When the week was over, we attended the farewell banquet and I will never forget the moment when we were asked to stand and the President of the Convention said “thank you for attending the Sixth International Convention of Credit Managers.” For the moment we had managed to change a national convention into an international convention.
That week gave me a deeper understanding of people and made me a better traveler. It created a hunger for travel as well as changing my feelings about Mexico. A simple act of one compassionate person led me to pursue travel and thus write this article.
Since that first visit, throughout my travels in Mexico, I have found the people to be hospitable and kind, Mexico has been good to me. I have visited about half of the 31 states of Mexico, traveling from the Baja in the north to the Yucatan in the south, usually by second class bus. I learned to love the Mexican people, their rich culture, and their oppressive history. I was always treated well and made to feel welcome. I was fascinated by the Mayan culture and visited numerous ruin sites, some accessible only by jeep, by walking or even riding in the back of a sugar truck (I’ll tell that story later). But with the help and patience of the Mexican people, I was able to broaden my horizons and, in the process, even master the Spanish language.
I will always be grateful to the people of Merida and the Sixth National Convention of Credit Managers for giving me that opportunity…well, almost all of the people. There is one little “macho” hotel manager that I intend to look up someday…and kick in the shins.
Watch for my next article on Mexico

Biloxi...A great little get-a-way

Biloxi, Mississippi
Biloxi, our “Vegas of the South”, a friendly, charming little coastal city that has suffered more than it’s share of hurricane disasters.
After being virtually demolished by Hurricane Camille in 1969, the people of this tough little gaming town pulled together and brought it back stronger than ever. It took some time, but they worked hard to attract tourist and in time, it’s fame grew. People discovered friendly hospitality, fantastic sea food, great shopping, good fishing, and, of course, exciting casino action. As the town grew outlet shopping malls sprang up and upscale restaurants could be found along the shore, serving succulent seafood fresh from local fishing boats. Reasonable hotel rates made Biloxi a bargain for tourists and an historic past provided attractions for those interested in more than shopping and gambling.
Then along came Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I visited Biloxi shortly after the hurricane devastation and it was hard for me to believe it was real. Everything along the shore was gone, homes, stores, gas stations, hotels, casinos…they were just not there. In their place FEMA trailers served to accentuate the loss of millions of dollars in property loss, not to mention the many lives and personal effects. It was hard to recognize the familiar places I had visited and I wondered if Biloxi would ever be the same again.
Little did I know of the Biloxi spirit. The town went right to work and by spring the beach was cleaned up and restored and the huge oaks that had managed to weather the storm, once bare, sprouted new leaves as if to say, “Take a look at us, we’re still here”. Hotels sprang up here and there on lots swept clean by the storm. Restored Casinos reopened and new ones came to town. Within two years Biloxi was back.
I was so happy when my favorite Hotel and Casino, the Beau Rivage, reopened. Located on the beach, it had been hit hard but is now completely restored and greater than ever (if that’s even possible). The theatre has reopened with headliner stars and a brand new show extravaganza, the “Y”, a cirque sensation like no other.
A few days at the Beau Rivage is my personal, perfect get-a-way. It’s a five star property, located only an hour and a half from New Orleans. The rooms are luxurious, the food is fabulous, the entertainment is superb, the shopping is great and the natives are friendly. What more could I ask for?

If you would like to visit Biloxi, check out Kay’s groups for the next departure.

Paris...City of Lights

Paris, France
I opened my eyes in my own bed. It felt nice. I lay quietly enjoying the familiar surroundings, the smell of my pillows, the feel of my feather duvet, the gently snore of my dog asleep under the bed, my parrot calling to the birds outside. I was home and in my own bed!
It had been a long flight and home felt good! I lay quietly enjoying the familiar surroundings and thinking of a world far away… a world quite different. It seemed unreal that only yesterday I was thousands of miles from home. Only yesterday I was walking the streets of Paris. Paris, France, city of lights!
In all my years of travel, Paris had never been on my priority list of places I wanted to visit. Possibly I was guilty of doing the very thing I advise travelers never to do. I had allowed myself to be influenced by other peoples opinions…“the people are rude, they hate Americans, the city is dirty, they let their dogs get on the table, etc, etc“. I was guilty of judging people I did not know, and had developed pre-conceived ideas of what I would find based on the experiences of others. What a mistake!
It was a beautiful day when we arrived, cool and overcast. Once we checked into our hotel, we immediately hit the streets. I wanted to check out this “city of lights” , the city of choice for so many novels and movies. The so called “most romantic city in the world”.
Our first stop was a small coffee shop where we purchased toast with cheese and a cup of the most delicious coffee I had ever tasted. A shy young man in the shop spoke a few words of English and seemed anxious to practice his accomplishment. We exchanged a few halting words and then we were on our way. I had made my first friend in Paris.
Ovi had done a great job planning our trip (he‘s a great Travel Agent). Located within a few blocks of the Eiffel Tower and the river Seine we were in an ideal location. Paris is a walking city and can only be appreciated if you walk…so we walked…. 8 miles that day and even as we grew tired, each view of the city beckoned us to walk further. The architecture was amazing, grand old bridges flanked by beautiful statues, ancient buildings adorned with angels, winged animals and scantily clad Nubians. And everywhere, parks with beautiful flower gardens and amazing fountains.
The air was fresh and crisp and the city was clean, well-worn but clean. Ovi and I walked hand in hand along the River Seine feeling young and in love as we sang “I love Paris“ off-key. Beautiful stick-thin ladies in high fashions walked their tiny little dogs, looking neither left now right. Old men fed pigeons from park benches while their ladies chit-chatted with friends. Kids played in park fountains and young lovers embraced or held hands, while in the streets hundreds of motorbikes dodged in and out of traffic. The people were neither friendly or unfriendly…perhaps indifferent is the word. They noticed me no more or no less than they did their fellow countrymen. They seldom made eye contact, but when they did, I smiled and they smiled. I didn’t feel they disliked me, they just didn’t seem to care one way or the other and that was alright with me.

We visited the Louvre and the great glass pyramid made famous in the movie, the Da Vinci Code. We took photos of the Arch de Triumph and walked along the Champs Elysee reading menus of fancy restaurants too pricey for our pocketbooks. We window shopped fashionable boutiques. Ovi said that in Romania they call it “licking the windows“, I managed to buy a few souvenirs from street vendors before Ovi rushed me along to avoid gypsies trying to scam me in various ways.
We returned to our hotel after dark and for the first time I took notice of our room. Although it was very modern and clean with all the amenities one would expect, it was not what we were accustomed to in a four star hotel. The rooms were tiny (European hotel rooms on an average are much smaller than American hotel rooms), the TV only spoke French (no LifeTime movies here) and the bed was small. I thought Ovi would go berserk when he found he had no internet connection.…But after a while I convinced him that it was ok not to check your emails while in Paris.
The cost of Paris…pricey! The dollar is weak against the Euro, so we don’t get full value of our money and, had we paid full rate, our hotel would have cost 300 Euros (about $450.00) per night, but because Ovi is good at finding bargains, it cost us less than half that amount.
I could easily have spent our entire vacation in Paris, I had made a real connection with the city. But of course, we had to move on. We had the rest of Europe to see. But one day I will return to Paris when I have lots of time to spend sipping coffee in side walk cafes, exploring side streets and tiny street markets or perhaps taking one of the many boats along the River Seine. I feel like I have only scratched the surface of the many pleasures of Paris, but as always I feel blessed to have had the opportunity.
Tips for visiting Paris:
Do not ask other people how they feel about Paris!
Do not go with pre-conceived ideas about what you will find there.
Take in everything as you walk. Allow yourself time to enjoy the beauty. Look into people’s faces.
Walk the Champs Elysee after dark when the lights are on.
Take lots of money.
Drink the coffee
Eat the pastries

Cruise to Cozumel on the Inspiration

Carnival Inspiration
Driving the three hours to the Tampa Pier was uneventful. We made a stop in Lakeland to pick up Bobbie, my sister. She was to share a cabin with Ovidiu and I. Bobbie is an agreeable roommate so I didn’t hesitate to invite her to join us. I did have some reservations about the amount of room we would have in the cabin, but it worked out just fine..
We arrived at the pier about noon and since I am a Platinum Member passenger I was ushered past other guest to the VIP lounge. We were quickly checked in and personally escorted to the ship. We endured the usual picture taking, then made our way to the cabin.
It was obvious that the ship had been refurbished. The broad hallways and doors were brand new. They even smelled new. Upon entering the cabin we found the bathrooms had also been refurbished. They were very modern and shiny new. I was a little disappointed that they had replaced the spacious shelving above the lavatory with only one shelf, but they had the usual amenities, toothpaste, razors, and cosmetic samples. I was surprised at the absence of a hair dryer. I am sure they had feedback about that. Surely they intend to replace the hair dryers at some point in time. It was definitely an inconvenience contacting the room steward for a hair dryer each time we needed it.
For an older ship, I think the Inspiration is a pretty ship although I still find the purple“alien space worms” in the Lido Restaurant a bit much. There is a lot of deck space plus a water slide which some of my group really enjoyed. Carnival has added an adults-only deck at the back of the ship where adults can lounge and sun without the distraction of children.
Dining was a pleasure. Our Waiter was efficient and friendly. Service was impeccable and the food was good. The food in the Lido Restaurant did not live up to my expectations but was not bad. They definitely need to teach the chef how to prepare grits. I’m assuming they don’t have grits in India. But he makes a mean warm chocolate dessert. My after-meal favorite was the frozen yogurt. It’s available 24 hours, as is the pizza. Ovidiu and I also enjoyed Sushi served each evening from 5 to 8pm.
Our port of call was Cozumel, a small island off the coast of Mexico, great for beach and shopping. My favorite activity is shopping, then a local meal at Poncho’s Backyard, followed by a couple of hours at one of the local clubs. A favorite is Carlos and Charlies or Senior Frogs. We don’t usually stay long because they tend to get raunchy toward evening.
Evenings on the ship found Ovidiu and I dancing, listening to soft music or perhaps an hour or two in the casino. We seldom take in the shows because we cruise a lot and see so many of the same type of shows, however those who did seemed to enjoy them. We did attend a comedy show which was just ok.
The ship arrived back in port a little late because of fog, but we did the self-assist disembarkation and were off by 9:00am. Embarkation is very easy using the self-assist program.
All-in-all this was a very nice get-a-way for us and we really enjoyed the company of our group

Tips for passengers on this ship:
If you have an early flight or want to disembark early, pack only one bag that you can handle yourself and
use the self-assist program.
If you are cruising with a birth certificate as proof of citizenship, you cannot use the early self-assist for disembarkation.
Be sure to plan your flights in the afternoon. Fog in the Tampa area sometimes delays the ships arrival.
Take your own hair dryer.
Air conditioner control is located in the ceiling.
The staterooms have two robes located in the closet for your use.
Try the Sushi Bar in the afternoon…So good!
If you like to bake, buy the pure vanilla available in Cozumel. Makes a nice gift too.
Do not...Do not rent scooters.

Our Mediterranean Cruise

We were attending a “ Seminar at Sea” courtesy of our Royal Caribbean Representative. The rate was good and we saw it as an opportunity to familiarize ourselves with some of the airports and ports we would encounter when we take a group to Europe in 2008.
Being off-season, we found the airports easy to get around , not like the last time we were in Europe when the Charles de Gaulle airport was a nightmare. Arriving from Paris after an uneventful flight we took a taxi to the ship and began cruise check-in, which, surprisingly, proved to be quite easy.
The Voyager is a beautiful ship! The huge atrium was the first area I encountered as I entered the ship and I was quite impressed. Making our way to our cabin we settled down for the seven day cruise. We had been assigned an interior cabin. Compared to some other cruise lines, Royal Caribbean ships have slightly smaller cabins but our cabin was very pretty and conveniently arranged. I would have preferred at least an ocean view, but the price was right so I couldn’t afford to be picky.
The more we explored, the better we liked the Voyager. It was easy finding our way around the huge vessel, and, of course, we found our way to the welcome buffet. It was tasty and the view from the Windjammer Café was spectacular. Service was so friendly and efficient it was almost shameful. Personnel appeared out of nowhere to attend to our every need.
Although the ship was fully booked, I didn’t get the feel of a crowded ship. The many lovely lounges were spacious with adequate seating. The halls were wide and pleasant and the casino was large and well-lit. We did not participate in many of the activities such as the rock climbing (are you kidding…) or the ice skating (I can’t walk and chew gum), but the other passengers seemed to love it. The ice show was wonderful.
We were quite busy attending classes in the morning, but we were able to visit the ports in the afternoon. Each port was exciting and different. We visited ports in France, Italy and Spain. We took the train to the tiny country of Monaco and visited it’s famous casino. In Rome, we visited the Coliseum, St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican, the Trevi Fountain and the Piazza de Espana. What an exciting, historical city!
The ship was fun! We consumed hamburgers in Johnny Rockets, made our contributions to the casino, caught a show or two, danced a little and strolled the decks in the moonlight. But perhaps, the most fun was the dining room. Our waiter “Bullet“ was a true comedian, as well as a great waiter, the food was delicious and the Travel Agents at our table were friendly and congenial. We found ourselves looking forward to dinner each evening.
In the afternoon Ovi would make his way to the workout room while I lay on my lazy duff and enjoyed some of the latest movies, then we would spify up and walked the spacious decks, taking in the beauty of the lovely Mediterranean Sea. These romantic moments were among our favorites.
The Voyager of the Seas, our “home away from home” was everything one would want a ship to be. Spacious and beautiful, it provided comfort, great service, good food and entertainment. Our time spent there will be remembered as one of the best of our travels.
Tip: Although it is possible to see the sights on your own. I recommend taking the ships tours.
We did it on our own, taking trains and busses and subways, but it was very difficult and
Eating ashore is fun but very expensive because the dollar is weak. You may want to
consider taking all meals on the ship.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Welcome to my very first blog.....

How lucky can you be? You get to be one of my very first readers. You can experience my bad grammar, typing errors and all that comes with doing something for the first time.

I am really excited about this. For the fist time in my life I can choose any subject, ramble on and on and assume someone is really listening (or reading). So since this is my big chance, let's be serious and get on with it.

By the way....Thank you for coming.

The true purpose of this blog is to give you my opinions about travel. Most people think of travel as getting from here to there and hopefully seeing something interesting along the way. I have a totally different concept. For me, travel is an expansion of my life. When I travel I want all of the same things I have at home, creature comforts such as food, warmth and shelter. I want to be happy and stress-free. I want to feel loved and accepted and I want to feel safe and secure. I also want to share my experience with someone I care about, and last but not least I want to have fun! These are the things I want....want being the keyword. Getting them can be another matter.

Right now you're probably thinking of that horrific trip to Niagara Falls when you sat in the airport for hours then spent three days waiting for lost luggage. Not only that, it rained the whole week and the falls were so fogged in you didn't even see them.

I have certainly had my share of those trips over the years, and that's what this blog is all about, helping you to choose the right trip for you, avoiding bad situations while traveling and then dealing with the less than ideal trip.. Hopefully my opinions will be helpful....but remember, they are my opinions and I am known to be an overly optimistic traveler. For me, everything is fun. I never have pre-conceived ideas about what a trip will be, therefore any good thing that comes along is a bonus. As long as I can travel, I will take it as it comes and be greatful. We are a priviledged nation to be able to travel whenever and wherever we want, and I plan to do as much as I possibly can.

I hope some of you find my opinions helpful, but if not, at least I get to choose the subject and ramble on and on. What fun this is going to be!