Wednesday, January 21, 2015

January Cruising!

The Carnival Breeze
We always wonder why we don’t go somewhere in January when it’s cold; so this year we decided on a winter cruise.  We left home when it was minus one and headed south to warmth!

A few weeks ago we were talking to our friend Carolyn about her Bucket List item of watching a rocket blast off.  We loved that idea so we added it to our list. By a stroke of luck we happened to be in Florida when we heard that SpaceX’s launch for their Falcon 9 rocket was delayed till Saturday morning.  We found a cheap hotel on Cocoa Beach and set our alarms for 3:30 in the morning.  The launch was scheduled for 4:47 AM with an immediate launch window…meaning that it would blast off exactly at 4:47 or not at all.

Our best pic.  Bad zoom and blinded
by the light.  (Sounds like a song!)
We found a vantage point across the bay from the blast site and pulled our car onto the shoulder.  We were there with a few hundred others who, like us, were standing in the dark looking at a bright light across the way.  Some of our compatriots had NASA’s broadcast on so we could hear the launch technicians talking and could monitor the countdown.  Finally, it got to 10, 9, 8…..lift off!  Suddenly, a new sun emerged and we could clearly see the launch platform and the rocket.  It didn’t seem to be moving at all, but then started to lift lift lift!  It seemed to start slowly and then it gained momentum and shot into the sky.  Shortly thereafter came the thrum of sound almost pulsating through us, like nothing we’ve heard before.  We watched it for a least two minutes before it finally disappeared.  At that point, everyone, including us, began to clap and cheer.  IT. WAS. AWESOME!  It’s still a thrill just to think about it!
This was our view, but not our pic.  Our cameras were
blinded by the light.
Our home for the week was the Carnival Breeze.  This was the big ship that we first had seen in Grand Turks back in October.  The Breeze is one BIG ship.  While most of the other Carnival ships carry about 3200 passengers, this ship carries 4500 plus a crew of 1400. Big.  It weighs in at a mere 130,000 tons and has 14 decks and is 1004 feet long.  Did I already say it was big?  It’s big! Not only is it big, it’s beautiful.  The decor is light, airy and very tropical.  We love it!  And last but not least, it has Guy’s Burgers so for us it’s practically perfect in every way!
Mona and Friends Going Up the Falls.

Our first port on our cruise was Ocho Rios, Jamaica.  We were in Jamaica for a week about fifteen years ago and somehow we didn’t have time to visit Dunn’s River Falls.  This trip we’d fix that!  At the port we boarded a catamaran and sailed to the mouth of Dunn’s River.  There we met our guide, BBG…short for Big Belly Guide.  He and his cohort told us we’d be walking in a line holding hands up the falls.  Huh?  That sounded a little like overkill.  

The easy part of the falls
After a pep talk and everyone repeatedly shouting “Hot! Hot! Hot” at the top of their lungs we finally began.  You start at the bottom of the falls at about a 30 degree angle.  The water is rushing down the falls and you are walking on very slippery rocks with lots of holes.  Immediately, we’re glad we are holding hands in a line.  You need each of your adjacent hand-holders to help you stand!  

You slip and slide, slide and slip, slowly working your way up the natural steps of the cascade.  Neither of us fell but somehow we both got wet from head to toe!  We had gone about a tenth of a mile and finally, we were done!!! Whew!  But no, the river curved and the falls went up at about a 60 degree incline.  Up we went!  It took us at least 30 minutes to get up there, but we did it!  At the top was a sign saying we made it!  We high-fived and head back down to shore to party on the catamaran as it took us back to port.  Back in port we celebrated with jerk chicken and Red Stripe Beer…a fitting way to celebrate our conquest of the falls.

The Atrium of the Breeze
We loved cruising on the Breeze.  We even got to go on a behind-the-scenes tour of the ship.  We got to go into the bowels of the ship to visit the storerooms and freezers.  We also got to go to the galley where they prepare over 15,000 meals a day. Then up to the bridge to meet the captain and get our photos taken with him.  (I was told specifically not to touch anything.  Can’t figure why I was singled out.)  We went behind the stage to learn about costumes and set movements and then finally we went down to the front of the ship where the spare anchor is kept.  For geeks like us, it was the perfect tour!

Overall, this was a great cruise.  Three great ports: Ocho Rios, Jamaica; Georgetown, Grand Caymans; and finally Cozumel, Mexico.  We met new friends everywhere we went and we even ran into a couple of old friends on the ship.  The ship had four great shows and lots of other entertainment including outside movies at night.  We couldn’t get everything done, but we sure tried!
Gas Station Gators

All too soon it was time to head home.  We are working on finding a geocache in every Florida county and we already have all the “outline” counties so this trip we decided to drive up through the center of the state.  This is a part of Florida that most don’t see.  It’s Everglades, Indian reservations, sugar cane fields and orange groves for miles.  Lots of wildlife everywhere including two alligators that we saw while gassing up. (They weren't fenced in...I think they were attracted by the $1.73 gas!)

After driving across the Florida panhandle we decided to visit Baton Rouge.  We spent a night there and headed to Memphis to see the Lorraine Hotel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.  Our visit coincided with the MLK holiday and the 50th anniversary of the
Civil Rights Bill so there was a lot going on at the “hotel”, including lots of gospel singing and food stands everywhere. I put hotel in quotes because the National Civil Rights Museum has been built to envelop the hotel.  The lines were as far as the eye could see and too long for us to go into the Museum so we’ll have to go back for that.  

Just seeing the balcony was a very emotional experience.  I remember the day Dr. King was shot and I’ve seen that balcony in hundreds of news reports and documentaries.  Standing there you wonder at how much more Dr. King could have done for the country had he lived.  You’re also struck with how much he accomplished in just 39 years of life.  What an amazing man who was taken from us all too soon.  (Note: We saw “Selma” our first night back home.  It’s a great movie that gives insight into Dr. King and the horrible conditions in the South in the 60s.  Seeing this movie was a great complement to our Lorraine Hotel visit.)

We ended our trip the right way….with red beans and rice, étouffée and a Po Boy on Beale Street.  It’s hard to beat Memphis food…unless you're in Louisiana of course!

Now we’re home.  Our bags are unpacked, we’re doing laundry; and of course, we’re making plans for the next trip!
Remembering the Warm Tropical Nights!

P.S.  We highly recommend traveling to somewhere warm in January.  The only problem is it's so damn cold coming home!

Monday, January 5, 2015

New York New Year's

Let’s get this over with quickly, shall we?  No, we did not see the ball drop on Times Square.  There, I’ve said it!  Now let’s move on.  No, you say….you want to know why not?  Okay, here’s the scoop.  Long ago, when we first created this Bucket List item it was indeed titled “Watch the Ball Drop in Times Square”.  However, as we got into the detailed planning for the trip we found that it’s simply not that simple.  

Roll back to last September/October.  Mona was absorbed with something on her computer when she finally leaned over and said, “Hey, do you know all the details about watching the ball drop in Times Square?”  “Duh, just show up late evening and watch!”, says I (on the inside).  “No, darling.  Pray tell what are the details?”,  (on the outside).

Come to find out….and this is no joke…
   You need to claim your standing spot around 3 in the afternoon
   No backpacks, etc
   No access to restaurants
   Any food/drink you want over the next 9 hours must be in your pockets
   No access to restrooms….you leave to "go" and you can’t come back in.
   You will have barely enough room to stand; be prepared for your feet to be stepped on
   It’s freaking cold so wear many layers
   And did I say it before....nine hours without restrooms!

Well, between the four of us (Monte and Aleta went with us) our average age is about 65 and let me tell you there was no way we were going to Stand. Outside. In the Cold. For Nine Hours. With No Hot Food.  AND NO FREAKING RESTROOMS!  In no time at all the Bucket List Item was revised to say, “Spend New Years in New York City.”  Whew!  (BTW: We did talk to people who did stand out there all day and they started to give us details about Depends and whatnot….TMI!)

Caught a limo at LaGuardia
Our next tactic was to make reservations where we could watch the ball drop from inside.  Most were already booked, but we did find one nice little spot for $800 per person.  One problem, you didn’t get a chair for that $800.  Not!  Finally, after hours of searching; we found the perfect spot.  Window view of the drop.  Food and beverages.  Restrooms!  Chairs!!!  Only $15,000...

We settled on the Bourbon Street Bar/Times Square.  It’s about a block from Times Square. It was reasonably priced for NYC (aka “outrageous” by mid-West standards).  It came with food and adult beverages.  And Chairs.  And Restrooms!  We went there and had a blast.  (Note: Here’s a big shout out to my peeps, Monte, Aleta and Mona, for chaperoning me home.  Nuff said.)

Back to the rest of the trip!

Can you see Buddy?
We had a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it.  We jumped out of our limo.  Checked in. And then hit the streets!  First up was Rockefeller Center…This was my first time seeing it decorated for the holidays and I felt like a Valley Girl when I first saw it, “Oh my ga-odd! Awesome!”  I actually think I saw Buddy and Jovie skating!

Times Square & Friends
Then it was Radio City Music Hall, then Avenue of the Americas, and finally Times Square.  There we linked up with about 500,000 of our closest friends from all over the world.  Literally.  It was packed with people and you seldom heard English.  It was wild and this was the only the 30th!  We made it all the way down Broadway to the Armed Forces Recruiting Center and got to see ourselves on the Jumbo Tron.  Enough decorations and lights for the night…time for a beverage and bed!!!

Day 2 had a lot on the agenda so we hit a diner for breakfast and off we went.  Central Park was first up.  We took a carriage ride (No, the horse didn’t have issues like the one in Seinfeld.) through the park and the driver told us all about the sights and history we were seeing.  His Irish accent reminded Mona of Greg from Mosaic so it took a wee bit of time to get her away from there!

1 of many Saks 5th Avenue windows
Then it was window shopping on 5th Avenue.  Incredible.  Amazing.  Fantastic.  I just don’t have enough superlative adjectives to describe the window displays in the swanky/deluxe stores along 5th Avenue!  I’ve never seen anything like it!  And these weren’t just little trains and villages, no no no.  Some of these were full sized fairy tales come to life with haute couture clothes and Harry Winston jewels.  I may have to go back to New York on another holiday weekend just to see more of these incredible window displays!

It was time for lunch so we grabbed a cab and head down through the Bowery to land at Katz’s deli.  We were all hungering for a pastrami on rye.  Monte and I headed to the counter to order and Mona and Aleta went on an all-points search for a table.  I’m not sure who had the easier job because both were circus events!  In the end, I think Monte and I got luckiest because we enlisted a local to help us
The "line" at Katz Deli counter
through the protocol and we got free samples!  The sandwiches were only $19.75 and were huge so each “team” split one.  There was no pastrami left over whatsoever!  And sorrowfully, Sally wasn't there to give her rendition of the big "O".

Time to walk off lunch.  Another cab, this time with Washington Square Park as our destination to begin our walk.  If you’ve ever watched “Friends” you’ve seen this park as it’s where the fountain is.  Frankly, if you’ve watched much TV or many movies you’ve probably seen this park lots of times.  The fountain and the arch here are iconic.  We watched a guy playing his grand piano in the park then headed south.  After a few blocks we got cold and ducked into a little Greenwich Village bar for a
I guess it's normal to play your baby grand in the park;
after all, it's Greenwich Village!
warm-up drink.  Oddly all the warm-up drinks were cold, but they did the trick!

We continued our trek south through SoHo, then Tribeca and IT. WAS. COLD!  (Note: Did you know that SoHo stands for SOuth of HOuston?  And Houston is pronounced Huston?  Also, Tribeca is short for TRIangle BElow CAnal Street?  Trivia fans, you're welcome!)  Oops, got distracted.  It was cold walking those streets but it was also cool to be walking through neighborhoods that we’ve heard about all our lives.

This is the North Building Memorial
We ended up at One World Trade where the new 1776 foot tall building dominates the sky.  There is still a lot of work going on around here, but it’s still incredible to see what has regrown from the ashes of 911.  We then walked around to the south side of the new building.  There, we found the 911 Memorial where the foot prints of the twin towers are encased in water falls in tribute to the 2606 people who died here. There is much more to see here and we need to come back.

A cab ride back to our Midtown hotel and then Mona and I decided to walk back to Rockefeller Center.  We just wanted to feel more of the child-like awe of the lights and decorations.  We also stumbled upon a light and sound show at Saks Fifth Avenue where they use the entire building for the show.  A-MA-ZING.
Happy New Year!

At long last it was time to party for New Year’s Eve!  Yet another cab ride, this time to the Bourbon Street Bar/Times Sqaure.  There we did pretty much what people all over the world did to celebrate: dance, laugh, eat and drink…and use those nice warm restrooms!

We started New Year’s Day the traditional way, with a visit to an Irish Pub!  Aye, an Irish Pub that serves breakfast only on New Year’s Day.  Me, I had the “Full Irish Breakfast” with bangers and mash, blood sausages, beans, eggs and god knows what else!  Breakfast provided fuel for Aleta and I to visit the Empire State Building where we also got a simulated helicopter ride above and below New York (you had to be there) as well as a ride to the 86th floor observatory.  High winds and cold temperatures kept our outside viewing to a minimum, but we managed to see it all!

Our evening started with another stroll with a few of our friends in Times Square.  Then to Sardi’s for dinner.  It was fun looking at the caricatures trying to figure out who they were; while at the same time scanning the rest of the patrons to try to spot real-live celebrities.  Monte was pretty much convinced that Jackie Mason was at the table across the aisle.  Yeh, right.  After dinner Monte walked up to the guy and asked…and yep it was Jackie Mason.  Cool!

Even Mona could see from here!
Next door to Sardi’s is the Helen Hayes theater where we saw “Rock of Ages.”  Mona’s favorite American Idol, Constantine Maroulis, opened this show in 2009 and was nominated for a Tony, but then went on to other roles.  Much to our surprise, Constantine was there that night, back in the lead role as Drew!  He can really belt out those songs!

Rock of Ages rocked!  It’s an awesome production with lots of high-energy classic rock music that makes you want to sing along.  It’s also full of laughs especially from the character Franz played by Frankie Grande, whose friend was our waitress at Bourbon Street the night before.  This is a show I’d love to see again!

Here's a few more random pics of Times Square...there's just no way for a picture to transmit the size, sound, smell and energy of this unique spot of the world.  You just need to go!

All too soon our New York City New Year’s had to come to an end.  The four of us did a pretty good job of covering Manhattan from Central Park south to the Battery.  But of course, there is much much more to see in New York so we’ll have to go back again…hopefully, soon!  For now, it’s time to do our laundry and start planning the next trip!