Last year we were disappointed when our cruise to Cuba was effectively cancelled by the government‘s inconsistent foreign policy. In December, we booked our travel for this year. Our plans involved an eastern Caribbean cruise on the Celebrity Summit in March. And in August we were booked on a Danube river cruise from Bucharest, Romania to Vienna, Austria on the Amadeus Silver II. We would have transited ten countries across eastern Europe. We were so excited about these trips. However, 2020 had it’s own plans.
COVID-19 happened and a couple weeks before our March trip, the cruise industry suspended all operations thereby cancelling our eastern Caribbean cruise. We rebooked on a cruise with roughly the same itinerary on Royal Caribbean Enchantment of the Seas in November. Surely the pandemic would be over by then, right? Well, by July our Danube river cruise was cancelled and earlier in October our rebooked Caribbean cruise was also cancelled. There is no end in sight and I am starting to think we’ll never leave the country again.
Anyway, we decided our 2020 vacation consolation prize would be to take a road trip through the Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Kara’s mom lives near the Smokies in Rockford, so we could visit her before and after our road trip. Here is how it went:
- 10/14 – Smyrna to Rockford
- 10/15 – Abrams Falls Trail: We started our vacation by hiking the Abrams Falls Trail in the Smokies. I hiked this trail about 25 years ago, except then we were backpacking and continued past the falls to the Abrams Creek campground. Today we simply hiked to the falls and back.
- 10/16 – Blue Ridge Parkway to Asheville: In the morning, we drove from Rockford through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park down to Cherokee, NC. After lunch, we drove on the Blue Ridge Parkway from the southern terminus up to Asheville, NC. We were in the clouds for most of the time above 5,000 feet. The foliage was starting to turn and would become more colorful throughout the trip.
- 10/17 – Biltmore: We spent the day at the Biltmore. In the morning, we took the guided rooftop tour. After lunch, we explored the grounds surrounding the mansion. And in the late afternoon, we took the self-guided tour of the mansion.
- 10/18 – Blue Ridge Parkway to Boone: Today we continued up the Blue Ridge Parkway, driving between Asheville and Boone, NC. Along the way we visited the summit of Mount Mitchell, which is the highest point east of the Mississippi river. And in the afternoon we stopped to make a short hike to Linville Falls.
- 10/19 – Boone to Rockford: We started today by visiting Grandfather Mountain, where there is a mile-high swinging bridge. After enjoying the views there, we traveled the backroads west back into Tennessee and made a short stop at the David Crockett Birthplace state park. Before returning to Rockford, we visited the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Greeneville, TN.
- 10/20 – Rockford to Smyrna
It wasn’t either of the vacations we originally wanted, but we still enjoyed ourselves. Anyway, I’ll post the link to the pictures once I’ve finished processing them.
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We just returned home last night from our second trip of the year. However, it turned out quite a bit different than originally envisioned. We booked the trip last December. It was going to be a cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Empress of the Seas visiting three ports in Cuba (Havana, Cienfuegos, & Santiago de Cuba) & Labadee, Haiti. We were really excited to visit multiple stops in Cuba.
Our best laid plans were dashed in June when the Trump administration effectively banned travel to Cuba. The administration claimed the ban was a result of Cuba being a “communist foothold in the region” and supporting “US adversaries like Venezuela”. While I am irritated that I can no longer visit Cuba, I am infuriated that the administration’s reasoning was inconsistently applied to Cuba and not to China. China is both communist and supports Venezuela, but we don’t see Trump banning travel to China. Why not just say you are reversing every Obama-era policy and this one was next on the list? Anyway, I digress.
Accordingly, Royal Caribbean changed the itinerary for our sailing but allowed free changes due to this
abomination policy. The changed itinerary was not one we had interest in as we had been to most of the ports. We lucked out as there was a different itinerary for the same date range starting one day later that we liked. This meant we didn’t have to change our flights and had a free day in Fort Lauderdale before the cruise. We still got to visit Haiti and sail on one of Royal’s mega-ships, Allure of the Seas. It wasn’t what we originally wanted, but it was a great replacement. Here is how it went:
- 08/09 – Flight to Fort Lauderdale: We had travel vouchers from JetBlue as a result of delayed flights in 2018, so we used those for the outbound flights for this trip. Ironically, we had another long flight delay on this trip. Scheduled arrival was around 8pm, but we didn’t actually arrive at FLL until just before 2am. So, they gave us each a $150 travel voucher this time.
- 08/10 – Fort Lauderdale, FL: Due to arriving very early in the morning, we slept in late and had a lazy day. Our hotel was right on Fort Lauderdale beach.
- 08/11 – Embarkation & Departure: We boarded the ship and had lunch while waiting for our cabin to be ready. Then, we spent the afternoon exploring our cabin and the rest of the massive ship. The muster drill was noteworthy in that our muster station was at the ice skating rink venue! We loved that. On the other hand, I thought the video they showed during the muster was cringe inducing and way longer than it had to be. You can see it here on YouTube; judge for yourself.
- 08/12 – Day at sea: On the first sea day, we spent the morning by the solarium pool. After lunch, we played a round of mini-golf, rode the carousel on the boardwalk, & browsed some of the shops. The highlight of the day was the the Ocean Aria show that took place that night in the aquatheater. Here is a YouTube video someone took of the show on an earlier sailing.
- 08/13 – Labadee, Haiti: We spent the day in Labadee on the beach at Royal Caribbean’s private resort. After dinner back on the ship, we went ice skating, which I had never done before. This is clearly not a skill I have, so I only did one lap gripping to the railing the entire time. But it will be unique to say that the first (and probably only) time that I went ice skating was in the Caribbean Sea!
- 08/14 – Falmouth, Jamaica: In Falmouth, we went to a nearby beach club and spent the day on the beach. That night we went to a ventriloquist show by Ronn Lucas.
- 08/15 – Day at sea: For the second sea day, we played another round of mini-golf before I had a go at the zip line. After an afternoon nap, I then went to a viewing of Avengers: Endgame.
- 08/16 – Cozumel, Mexico: For our stop in Cozumel, we chose to visit the Mayan city of Chichen Itza. It required about a 35-40 minute ferry and 2+ hour bus ride each way, but I think it was worth it to check off a bucket list item.
- 08/17 – Day at sea: On the last sea day, I attended a crew Q&A with the captain, chief engineer, hotel services manager, & the cruise director. Kara never has interest in these. After lunch, we went to the Ice Games show at the ice skating rink. I’m not an ice skating or ice dancing fan, but it was impressive how much they could do on such a small rink. Here is a partial video of the show someone took on a prior sailing. After the ice games show, we tried our hand at boogie boarding on the flowrider. I did better than I thought I would and most importantly didn’t get injured.
- 08/18 – Disembark & flights home: We also had travel vouchers from United as a result of delayed flights in 2018, so we used those for the return flights for this trip. Despite a minor delay, we arrived home without too much difficulty.
We typically prefer cruise itineraries with a low number of sea days so that we can see as many places as possible. After 7 nights (including 3 sea days) on this ship, we were never bored and there are some things we didn’t even get to. We enjoyed our first mega-ship. I’ll post the pictures after I’ve finished with them.
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A couple days ago, we arrived home from our first trip of the year. We went on a cruise to the southeastern Caribbean that stopped at some lesser visited islands. I had my eye on this itinerary for a while since it went to a lot of places we hadn't been to. In fact, after our second trip later this year, we will only be 3 countries away from visiting all the countries in North America & the Caribbean. Here is where all we went:
- 03/29 - Flight to Miami: The cruise started and ended in Martinique. Because there is only one flight per week from Miami to Martinique, we decided to arrive in Miami the night before to limit the chance of missing that flight.
- 03/30 - Flight to & Embark in Fort-de-France, Martinique: We flew from Miami to Fort-de-France, Martinique. After a short taxi ride to the port, we boarded the MSC Preziosa. This was our first time cruising with MSC. We explored the ship and relaxed before the ship departed around 11pm.
- 03/31 - Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe: For our stop in Guadeloupe, we booked an excursion to an all inclusive beach resort through MSC. We were bused from the port in Pointe-à-Pitre to the resort, which happened to be the Club Med Caravelle in Sainte-Anne. The beach was spectacular and while the resort wasn't quite as nice as a Sandals, it was still very good.
- 04/01 - Castries, St. Lucia: Since this cruise visited places that were all fairly close to each other, there were no sea days in the itinerary. We had previously visited St. Lucia, so we chose not to do much here and in a sense it served as a sea day even though we were docked. In the morning, I took a helicopter tour of the island, which was awesome. After some brief shopping at the port, we got back on the ship and enjoyed the ship for most of the day. I particularly enjoyed the Vertigo water slide, which MSC calls "the longest single-rider water slide on the seas." It is completely enclosed and has a section that runs out over the edge of the ship.
- 04/02 - Bridgetown, Barbados: We took a shuttle from the port into Bridgetown. We explored the downtown area briefly before walking over to the Boatyard Beach Club on Carlisle Bay. The beach was outstanding and not that crowded given that two ships were in port. We would definitely go back there in the future.
- 04/03 - Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago We saw some off-shore oil rigs as we approached Port of Spain. That shouldn't be surprising given that, at the closest point, that Trinidad is only about 7 miles from the oil producing country of Venezuela. After arriving we went to Maracas Bay Beach. Getting there required an adventurous drive through a mountain rain forest. The beach was pretty good, but unfortunately much of the time we were there it was pouring rain. It's funny that we were down off the coast of South America, yet the soaking rain actually made us cold!
- 04/04 - Saint George's, Grenada: I think Saint George's, Grenada was probably my favorite stop on this cruise. The harbor area almost feels like a Caribbean version of an Amalfi coast town. We visited both Fort George, which had nice views close to town, and Fort Frederick, which offered a more sweeping viewpoint of the island. After the forts, we spent time at Morne Rouge Beach (also known as BBC Beach). It was a small beach but nonetheless exceptional.
- 04/05 - Kingstown, Saint Vincent & the Grenadines: The final stop before ending the cruise was Kingstown on Saint Vincent. Our tour started with a drive through the downtown area on the way to Fort Charlotte. The fort had a great view of Kingstown. After the fort, we visited the nearby Botanical Gardens, the oldest in the western hemisphere. Our final stop was Villa Beach. It is a tiny dark sand beach that seems to be popular.
- 04/06 - Disembark in Martinique & Travel Shenanigans: Originally, we had booked an excursion to see some sights in Fort-de-France after disembarkation. MSC's site stated that the tour was for those with flights after 3pm, which our's was barely. However, when we asked the excursion desk about this they clarified that the excursion actually drops people off at the airport at 3pm. So, we had to cancel that tour and just spend the day at the airport. Unfortunately, the inbound flight kept getting delayed while we were waiting for our scheduled departure. In the end, our flight departed around 4 hours late. This caused us to miss our connection in Miami, which was the last flight of the day to Nashville. So, for our second trip in a row, the airline had to provide a hotel room for us.
- 04/07 - Unexpected Travel Day: Apparently, at the time our itinerary was re-booked, there were no direct flights home with any seats remaining. So, not only did we have to fly through New York to get home, but we didn't get home until about 24 hours after our originally expected arrival in Nashville.
The travel disruption notwithstanding, we really enjoyed this trip. Now, I just have to finish with the pictures before the next trip.
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A couple weeks ago, we completed our latest vacation. We had never been anywhere in southern Europe, so a cruise around the Mediterranean was a great way to see a lot of interesting new destinations in one trip. Here is how things went:
- 09/07 - Travel Shenanigans: As originally booked, we were supposed to connect in Washington, D.C. on our way to Barcelona, Spain. We got to D.C., boarded the flight to Barcelona, and then didn't leave the gate. Initially, ATC put us on an overwater hold due to weather. Then, when we were cleared to depart, the tarmac at Dulles was closed due to lightning. So, even though we had clearance to leave, no one could push back our aircraft. Eventually, we left the gate and started taxiing towards the runway. But then we were informed that the ETOPS certification for that aircraft had expired and that we had to go back to the gate. We waited some more before they finally decided to cancel the flight. We spent about 6 hours on the plane, having gone nowhere. We then had to wait forever to get re-booked. United re-booked us on Delta through Atlanta and put us up at a nearby hotel. So, being delayed by a day, we lost the chance to explore Barcelona. We'll just have to visit another time. We got to bed that night around 3am.
- 09/08 - Travel Shenanigans (continued): But that wouldn't be the end of the travel insanity. When we tried to check-in that morning for our Delta flight to Atlanta, we ran into errors and they said we had to go back and speak to United. The United agent looked at our record and stated that the United agent from the night prior shouldn't have re-booked us on Delta using the most inane reasoning. Because we paid for our flights with miles, we only could be rebooked on a Star Alliance carriers. In other words, if we had paid in dollars then they would have allowed the rerouting on Delta. We wondered if there was even any seats left that would get us to the ship on time. At one point, the agent asked us what our first port was. We were not amused. Luckily, they were able to re-book us through Munich to Barcelona. But now our flight didn't leave until that evening. So, we used our Priority Pass to enter the Turkish Airlines Lounge, where we camped out until our flight.
- 09/09 - Embark in Barcelona, Spain: We landed that morning in Munich and then flew to Barcelona. After arriving in Barcelona, we went immediately to the port and boarded our ship, Holland America Oosterdam. This was our first time on Holland America. Impressively, our bags arrived at our cabin before we did. Our vacation could finally begin.
- 09/10 - Marseille, France: In Marseille, we started by taking a shuttle bus to the Old Port, where we explored for a bit before getting on a hop-on hop-off bus. We got off and visited the Basilica Notre-Dame de la Garde, which sits on a hill overlooking Marseille. We then visited the Marseille Cathedral and surrounding area.
- 09/11 - Monte Carlo, Monaco: Our ship anchored near Monte Carlo, Monaco. We did a small group tour of the French Riviera that started by visiting the sights in Monte Carlo. Next, we visited Nice, France. Lastly, we visited the small hilltop village of Èze, France.
- 09/12 - Livorno, Italy (Florence & Pisa): The ship docked in the port town of Livorno, Italy. From there our tour took us first to Florence. In the Accademia, we saw Michelangelo's sculpture David. We had a guided tour of the other sights in Florence before being given time to explore by ourselves. Then we were taken to Pisa. We saw the leaning tower, as well as the cathedral and baptistry. Unfortunately, the inside of the cathedral was closed the day that we were there.
- 09/13 - Civitavecchia, Italy (Rome): The ship docked in Civitavecchia, Italy, which is about 35 miles from Rome. Our tour visited the Trevi Fountain, National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, Trajan's Column, the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, and the Arch of Constantine. Later, we went to Vatican City and saw St. Peter's Square and St. Peter's Basilica. One day in Rome is certainly not enough time to see everything, so we definitely plan to return to Rome in the future.
- 09/14 - Naples, Italy: After docking in Naples, Italy, our tour started by visiting the Sorrento Peninsula before going to the Amalfi Coast. Bad traffic caused our planned visit to Positano to turn into a drive-by viewing. Although, we were still able to stop in Amalfi for a visit. In the afternoon, we had a guided visit to Pompeii.
- 09/15 - Messina, Sicily, Italy: We docked in Messina, Italy and then started our tour of northeastern Sicily by going to Taormina. After exploring all the sights of Taormina, we were taken to the hilltop village of Castelmola. We were guided around the village and taken to the top of the hill to enjoy the views of the surrounding area. After lunch in the village, we returned to Messina where, among other things, we saw the Messina Cathedral and Clocktower.
- 09/16 - Day at sea: We spent the day sailing the Ionian Sea between Messina and Corfu. It was nice to have a relaxing day to do nothing after all the busy days beforehand.
- 09/17 - Corfu, Greece: After getting off the ship in Corfu, Greece, we took a taxi into the old town and did a self-guided tour. After exploring for a bit, we made our way to the Old Fortress. We climbed to the top of the fortress and enjoyed the views of the city. After that, we explored more of the old town before returning to the ship.
- 09/18 - Dubrovnik, Croatia: The walled city of Dubrovnik, Croatia is a place I've wanted to visit for a while and was a requirement when browsing itineraries for this trip. We took a shuttle bus from the port to the old town and started exploring the Stradun and side streets. After seeing the old port, we made our way to the cable car. We rode it up to Srđ Hill, which stands at around 1,300 feet above nearby Dubrovnik. The views of the city were outstanding. After lunch, Kara did some shopping while I went and walked the western part of the city walls. Lastly, I briefly visited Fort Lovrijenac, just outside the city wall.
- 09/19 - Kotor, Montenegro: I feel like Kotor, Montenegro is the hidden jewel of this itinerary. It's not a place most people know, but it is a picturesque town on a bay surrounded by mountains. Since we didn't have that much time in this port, we got off the ship pretty early in the morning. So early, in fact, that while we were exploring the town there was hardly anyone else out and about. After walking from one side of town to the other, we hiked a trail leading from town up the mountain towards St. Ivan's Fortress. The views were spectacular. After returning to town, we explored some more and then returned to the ship. Around 2pm, our ship departed. Because our route through the Bay of Kotor was scenic, the crew opened up the bow of the ship, which is normally closed to passengers. So, I watched our departure from there.
- 09/20 - Venice, Italy: Our arrival into Venice, Italy took place just after noon. The route from the Adriatic to the port took us past the entire city, which gave us a great view of everything. After we got off the ship, we went to Piazza San Marco for a self-guided walking tour. I took the elevator up the Campanile bell tower and enjoyed the views of Venice. After exploring the piazza, we started walking back towards the ship crossing the Grand Canal at the Accademia Bridge. We then walked to and visited the Basilica dei Frari. Lastly we walked back to the ship via the Scalzi Bridge and Piazzale Roma.
- 09/21 - Venice, Italy: Early in the morning, we left the ship for the last time and placed our bags in a luggage storage facility because we had a tour that day. Our guided walking tour started near the Rialto Bridge and visited a ton of places. Before lunch, we went on a gondola ride for about a half hour. After lunch we visited St. Mark's Basilica and the Doge's Palace. After the tour, we returned to pick up our baggage and then went to our hotel.
- 09/22 - Flights home: To return home, we flew from Venice to Zürich to Chicago to Nashville. Although, due to long customs lines and a terminal change, we very nearly misconnected in Zürich.
It was an incredible trip. I’ll post pictures here when I am done with them, which might be a while given how many pictures we took.
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Last week, we returned home from our first vacation planned for this year. Given that our trip later in the year visits a lot of places with little down time, Kara wanted this trip to be pretty much just relaxing at beaches and pools. We ended up choosing a 6 night cruise to the Dominican Republic, Grand Turk, & Bahamas. Although, to save some money we booked an inside cabin, which is the first time we've done that. Here's how it went:
- 04/21 - Flight to Fort Lauderdale: On the way there, we flew nonstop from Nashville to Fort Lauderdale.
- 04/22 - Embark in Fort Lauderdale: We boarded the Carnival Conquest in Fort Lauderdale. We didn't purposely choose a cruise on a ship we've been on twice before, but it just worked out that way.
- 04/23 - Day at sea: We spent most of the day sunbathing or in the pool. Kara won the Harry Potter trivia game. That makes three combined trivia wins between us!
- 04/24 - Amber Cove, Dominican Republic: Amber Cove is a cruise ship port just outside Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. There is a resort area as part of the port that is accessible to the cruise passengers that has pools, water slides, zip lines, among other amenities. We got a couple chairs and an umbrella and spent the day there.
- 04/25 - Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos: The port in Grand Turk has a beach and pool area, which is where we spent our time there.
- 04/26 - Half Moon Cay, Bahamas: Half Moon Cay is actually Little San Salvador Island in the Bahamas. It is a private island that has an awesome half moon shaped beach. It was also the only port where we had to tender. The day started gloomy with rain, so we rented a clam shell umbrella that would keep us dry. Luckily, it cleared up a couple hours later and became sunny for the rest of the day. The beach was one of the better beaches we've been to.
- 04/27 - Nassau, Bahamas: Like the last time we were in Nassau, we booked an excursion that took us to Balmoral Island also known as Discovery Island. And that is what we did again this time. The resort was a little more developed this time and there wasn't near as many people there with us as last time.
- 04/28 - Disembark and flights home: When we booked our flights we had direct flights in both directions of travel. For reasons passing understanding, in January JetBlue cancelled the Fort Lauderdale to Nashville flight for the day we were coming back. They didn't drop the route, just that day's flight. Weird to do for only one flight date about 3 months in advance. Since JetBlue's only other destination from Nashville is Boston, that required a connection there. The flight from Fort Lauderdale to Boston went normally. It looked like the subsequent flight to Nashville would operate as scheduled, but after sitting on the plane at the gate for quite a while they were unable to solve a mechanical issue. So, they deboarded us while they tried to find us another plane. That took so long the pilots timed out on their allowed work day. Then we had to wait for them to find us another flight crew. After a nearly four hour delay, we finally got going. We ended up getting home after midnight. Before we even landed though, JetBlue sent emails stating that each passenger would get a $100 credit. Given what we paid for the flights that is better than a 50% refund.
The last flight home notwithstanding, it was a relaxing trip. I’ve posted the pictures to my Flickr in the collection titled 2018 Caribbean Cruise, which contains the following albums:
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Yesterday, we returned home from our nine country odyssey around northern Europe. We took a cruise marketed as a cruise of (current or former) capital cities on the Baltic Sea. That’s a stretch for the stop in Warnemünde, Germany, where the majority of cruisers take a train ride to Berlin. This cruise itinerary was appealing to us as it visited a lot of iconic European cities, particularly Saint Petersburg, Russia, which was on Kara’s bucket list to visit. So, we booked a balcony cabin. A couple months before the cruise, we got an email offering the opportunity to put in an upgrade bid to upgrade our cabin. In the last week or so, we found out via email from Norwegian that our bid was not enough and we didn’t get the upgrade. Too bad, but it was nothing to be sad about since the cabin we booked originally was still great. Here’s how it went:
- 09/17 – Flights to Copenhagen, Denmark: When we got to the airport, we found out that our inbound aircraft to Toronto was delayed nearly 2 hours and would cause us to misconnect. The check-in agent stated that all rebooking would occur in Toronto. Given that we would be arriving after 10pm, there would be few same-day options if we waited to have them address our problem then. The check-in agent looked briefly, but did not find any flights to change us to. So after clearing security, I used our delay to search for replacement flights. We called Air Canada to have our flights rebooked, feeding them the flight numbers for various options we found. During irregular operations, it speeds things along if you can provide the agent this information. After that we had to get the gate agent to re-tag our bags for the new routing. For some reason, they were unable to do this using their automated systems. So, they had to write out a manual bag tag. That really made me nervous, but it ended up working out ok. After arriving in Toronto, we got to the gate for our flight to London right after they started boarding. If we had waited to find a rebooking agent in Toronto as they initially directed, we would not have been able to make that flight and would have had to wait until the next day. That would have made things much more stressful leaving little margin to make the cruise.
- 09/18 – Arrival in Copenhagen: Upon arrival in London, we found a lounge to wait in. After taking a shower, we made our way to the flight to Copenhagen. Right after we landed in Copenhagen, I was checking my phone while we were taxiing. There was an email from Norwegian and they were making us an offer on an upgrade! It was actually lower than any of our original bids and for a suite category higher than the ones we bid on. All we had to do was call to accept. We couldn’t get off the plane fast enough to call them. We accepted the offer to upgrade to a Haven 2-Bedroom Family Villa! The suite had 559 combined square feet between cabin and balcony. It is the third highest cabin category and the category with the second most area. And the category with more area only has two cabins on the ship. So, on a ship with 2,008 cabins, ours was smaller than only 2 cabins! The other part of this is that we were in the Haven, which has private areas of the ship and special services only available to 80 of the 2,008 cabins. This link has more info on that. Anyway, after taking care of that we went to check-in to our hotel and then explored Copenhagen.
- 09/19 – Board ship in Copenhagen: We did some more sightseeing in Copenhagen before making our way to the cruise port. As part of the Haven, we had a much shorter line and were on board the Norwegian Getaway in no time. We explored our suite and had some lunch before exploring the rest of the ship. Eventually the time came to set sail. As indicated by the map below, we sailed north. This seems a bit circuitous, as most ships could sail south under the Øresund Bridge. The captain explained that while our ship could fit under the bridge by about 10 feet that our draft is too deep for the water under the bridge. This necessitates sailing around the other direction.
- 09/20 – Warnemünde & Rostock, Germany: We had breakfast in the Haven dining room and it so happened that the windows were pointed towards Warnemünde. So, we had a great view from deck 16 while eating breakfast. Most passengers probably took a train to Berlin. Since Kara has already seen Berlin, we stayed in Warnemünde & Rostock. Rostock was the first area on my mission to Germany. So, since I lived there for 4.5 months, I was able to guide us around the sights. We started by exploring Warnemünde. After that we took the s-bahn to Rostock and explored there. There was some light rain off and on, but we still enjoyed ourselves.
- 09/21 – Sea Day: On our first sea day we did a variety of things. We played a couple games of trivia, nearly winning one. I killed Kara in mini-golf. We also did the rope course, which was pretty cool. They have a plank you can go on that hangs out over the water. And at the end of the course is a zip line. Let me say that again. We did a ZIP LINE on a cruise ship. Unfortunately for Kara, she got stuck half way through the zip line. For some reason, she didn’t want to do the rope course later in the cruise. In the evening, we went to the Haven courtyard to enjoy the hot tub with 55-60°F air temps.
- 09/22 – Tallinn, Estonia: We started our exploration of Tallinn by taking a taxi to the Old Town. According to UNESCO, Tallinn’s Old Town is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. I had originally intended to start our walking tour at the north end of Old Town, but our taxi driver suggested we start from the south end so we would be walking down hill. His English was rough and our Estonian is non-existent, but his recommendation saved us from a lot of up hill walking. So, thanks Estonian taxi guy. We explored Old Town starting with the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which is an orthodox cupola cathedral. There was some rain early on, but it cleared out pretty quick. After we finished up in Old Town, we walked back to the cruise port and had a late lunch on the ship.
- 09/23 – Saint Petersburg, Russia: Typically, a U.S. passport holder must have a visa to enter Russia, but there is an exception for cruise visitors in Saint Petersburg when they are accompanied by a tour operator licensed by Russian authorities. So, since we booked our tour through a licensed operator we didn’t need a visa. Nevertheless, you are still required to go through passport control after getting off the ship, which is not normally required for visiting ports on cruises. As a result of that, we got some Russian stamps in our passports. Our tour on day one started by visiting the Peter and Paul Fortress and Cathedral. Nearly all of the Romanov emperors and empresses of Russia are buried here. Next, we went to the Peterhof Palace, which is also referred to as the “Russian Versailles“. We’ve now visited both and can say they are both amazing. As part of lunch, we had some Borscht. The last stop on day one was the Catherine Palace, which was the summer residence of the Russian tsars. After we got back to the port, Kara bought a set of Matryoshka nesting dolls.
- 09/24 – Saint Petersburg, Russia: Day two of the tour started with a river boat tour on the Neva river. We saw a variety of things, among which was the law school that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky attended. Next was the Winter Palace of the Hermitage Museum. Aside from being an ornate palace, it houses an incredible amount of art. Among many others, we saw works by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, & Rembrandt. Next was the Church of the Savior on Blood. The inside of this church might be the most amazing single work of art I have ever seen. Nearly every surface inside is covered in intricate mosaics. That’s over 80,000 square feet of mosaics. Wow! The next stop was the huge St. Isaac’s Cathedral. The last stop was Yusupov Palace, which was the residence of the House of Yusupov. It was also where Grigori Rasputin was murdered. Our two-day tour of Saint Petersburg was absolutely amazing. As we left Saint Petersburg, we went to deck 17 to watch as we past the Kronstadt Naval Cathedral. This was something that we wanted to visit but that was just too far away to be practical (seriously, go to the Wikipedia page for this and look at the pictures of the interior). We settled for seeing it from the ship at night as we left.
- 09/25 – Helsinki, Finland: In Helsinki, the day started with some dense fog that burned off fairly quickly. We used a hop on hop off bus to get around, starting first with the Sibelius Monument, dedicated to composer Jean Sibelius. After visiting various other sights, we ate some Finnish street food for lunch at Market Square.
- 09/26 – Nynäshamn & Stockholm, Sweden: For the stop in Sweden, the ship docked in Nynäshamn. Earlier in the year, Getaway sailed through the archipelago to dock directly in Stockholm. I heard that the reason why we didn’t do that is that they require daylight to safely navigate the archipelago in a ship of this size. So, we had about a 35 mile bus ride to get to Stockholm, where we started with a stop at an overlook with a view of the city followed by the Stockholm City Hall. This is also where the Nobel Prize banquet is held. Next, we went to the Vasa Museum, where the salvaged 17th century warship Vasa is kept. The remainder of our time was spent in the old town (Gamla Stan). We explored the old town and had lunch at a small cafe.
- 09/27 – Sea Day: On our last sea day, I started by going to a lecture by the captain and chief engineer on the technical aspects of the ship. If you can believe it, Kara had no interest in this event. Go figure. Then, we played a couple more trivia games. After lunch, we pretty much just relaxed in our suite since we had done a lot of walking in the past week and a half. In the evening, we watched from our balcony as we passed under the Østbroen Bridge, which has the world’s third longest main span.
- 09/28 – Arrival in Copenhagen: Sadly, our cruise had come to an end. We took our bags to our hotel and then went out to explore Copenhagen. Our first stop was the Church of Our Saviour. It has a spiral staircase on the outside of its spire that allows a nice view of the city. Then we went to see Nyhavn, where we also had lunch at a cafe. After lunch we visited various palaces as well as the Little Mermaid statue.
- 09/29 – Flights Home: On the way home, we only had to take 2 flights. We flew from Copenhagen to Toronto to Nashville.
This trip was absolutely fantastic. I’ve posted the pictures to my Flickr in the collection titled Baltic Sea Cruise 2017, which contains the following albums:
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Today, we returned from our vacation to Miami and Key West. Because our Baltic cruise later in the year is a little longer in duration than normal, we decided our spring trip would be a little smaller in scale. So, we found cheap flights to south Florida and paid for all of the hotel nights except for one using points. Since the cruise in September would not be in beach type weather, this trip was intended to be half beach vacation. Here was our itinerary:
- 04/18 – Flight to Fort Lauderdale: We flew down to Fort Lauderdale. Right after clearing security in Nashville, we saw a restored American Airlines DC-3 (Flagship Detroit). A group of people surrounded it and later took off for a short flight around town. Anyway, after arriving in Fort Lauderdale we drove down to Miami to our hotel.
- 04/19 – Miami: We spent the morning in Everglades National Park. Within about 15 minutes of arrival at the first stop in the park we saw a soft shell turtle killed by an alligator. A ranger was standing there explaining to a group of kids that the turtle had just laid some eggs. The turtle then started walking back to the water, which happened to be too close to a nearby alligator. And thus ended the life of the turtle. It was cool to see the variety of wildlife in the park. In the afternoon, we went to the south end of Haulover beach. I mention the south end specifically, because if you go to the north end you’ll see more than you bargained for! Anyway, since there was a red flag warning with very rough surf & rip currents, we just lounged on the beach without getting in the water.
- 04/20 – Key West: We left our hotel in Miami and drove down the Keys on the Overseas Highway. We arrived in Key West just before lunch. After having a look around Mallory Square (and dodging the free-range chickens), we had lunch on Duval Street. After lunch, we toured the Truman Little White House & Key West Lighthouse. Then, after a quick stop by the southernmost point buoy, we toured the Ernest Hemingway House. Once the residence of Hemingway, it is still the home to the many descendants of a six-toed cat given to him as a gift.
- 04/21 – Key West & Marathon: Our first stop was Fort Zachary Taylor. We explored the fortress for a while and then went to the nearby beach. The beach was a little too rocky, so we just headed to the next planned destination. We drove back up the Keys towards Marathon. We stopped briefly at the Seven Mile Bridge overlook before eating in Marathon. After lunch, we spent the afternoon at Sombrero beach. The beach and surrounding park area was very nice. Although, the weather was cloudy and cool, so the water was a bit too nippy to get in.
- 04/22 – Miami: We spent the morning in Biscayne National Park. We took a boat tour from the park headquarters across Biscayne Bay past Elliott Key and stopping at Boca Chita Key. We saw a lot of wildlife (mostly birds). During our hour long stop on Boca Chita Key, we explored the lighthouse as well as other parts of the island. In the afternoon, we tried to visit the Cape Florida Lighthouse, but it was closed by the time we got there. So, we finished the day at the Crandon Park Beach. The beach itself was large and nice, but there was too much vegetation in the water to bother swimming (not that the weather allowed it anyway).
- 04/23 – Miami: We started the day by visiting the Ancient Spanish Monastery (St. Bernard de Clairvaux Church). The monastery has an interesting history in that it was originally built in Spain in the 12th century. In the 20th century it was purchased by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, dismantled, and shipped to the US to be eventually reassembled in North Miami Beach, where it is now an Episcopal church and tourist attraction. The skies opened up to a downpour of rain right before we were done at the monastery, so we waited about 45 minutes inside before getting drenched running to the car. After drying out a little during lunch, we went to South Beach. Yet again, there were red flag warnings and rough surf. We only spent about 15-30 minutes there before it began to rain again. On the way to and from South Beach, we saw Norwegian Getaway docked in the Port of Miami. Getaway is the ship we will be taking in September on our Baltic cruise. It was starting its last Caribbean cruise before making the transatlantic voyage towards the Baltic.
- 04/24 – Return flight to Nashville: We returned our rental car and flew back to Nashville.
Even though the weather and surf conditions made the beach parts of the trip mostly a bust, we still had a nice relaxing time. I’ve posted the pictures to my Flickr in the collection titled Miami & Key West 2017, which contains the following albums:
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Yesterday, we arrived home from another cruise in the Caribbean. This was our second time cruising with Shannon, Rusty, Ben, & Stephanie. However, this time Caitlin and Alaina also tagged along since it was their fall break. This cruise lasted 8 nights and was scheduled to stop at two ports in the northern Caribbean and two ports in the southern Caribbean. It was unique for us since we were sailing on a ship we’d already been on (Carnival Conquest). In fact, our cabin was the exact same cabin number we had the last time. Here was our itinerary.
- 09/30 – Evening flights to Fort Lauderdale: We flew down to Fort Lauderdale and stayed at a hotel close to the port using Hilton points.
- 10/01 – Start Cruise: We boarded the ship and had lunch which was around the time met up with everyone else. We explored the ship for a little while before I went to the sports bar to watch college football with Ben & Rusty. After the muster drill, we went out on deck to watch as we sailed out of port. After dinner, we returned to the sports bar to watch more football.
- 10/02 – Day at sea: After breakfast, we started our day at the pool and water slide. After we got too hot, Kara and I played a couple rounds of trivia. We came in third on the general knowledge trivia. After a nap, we went to dinner for the first formal night of the cruise.
- 10/03 – Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos: We spent our time on Grand Turk at the beach near the cruise center and at the pool resort area near the Jimmy Buffet’s. It was convenient to the cruise terminal and was a nice free place to enjoy.
- 10/04 –
La Romana, Dominican Republic ► Day at sea: Our ship was originally scheduled to stop in La Romana, Dominican Republic, where we would have taken a tour of Saona Island. I say “would have” because nearby Hurricane Matthew necessitated a change in plans by our captain. The previous day, we cut short our stop in Grand Turk by a couple hours and we skipped the stop in La Romana altogether. The bright side of the changes were that we were able to extend our time in Curaçao and Aruba. So, while it is a bummer that we didn’t stop in La Romana, the captain made the right call to keep everyone safe. Actually, this is our second cruise in a row that we were near a hurricane, although this was the first time we needed to change our schedule. The closest we came to the eye of Hurricane Matthew was approximately 425 miles when we were off the southeastern coast of Hispaniola while Matthew was off the southwestern coast.
- 10/05 – Curaçao: We spent the morning on Curaçao by going to a beach resort at Jan Thiel Beach. After returning to the ship, we then walked over to explore the very European-like downtown Willemstad. Our ship was docked until around 10pm, so we were there most of the night. After dinner, we all went up to deck 12 to play cornhole. This was pretty cool because we had the backdrop of the lights of Willemstad at night while we were playing.
- 10/06 – Aruba: We spent the morning on Aruba by going to Eagle beach, which was a nice beach. Kara and I had expected to be the only ones from our group there since the others had booked an excursion for this port. But their excursion was cancelled, so we met up with everyone else and had a great time. After returning to the ship, we explored downtown Oranjestad and did some shopping.
- 10/07 – Day at sea: This day at sea was much like the others with pool/water slide, naps, trivia, and other games with the group.
- 10/08 – Day at sea: We started our last day with pool and water slide in the morning. After that, I went to the sports bar with Ben & Rusty to watch college football. We watched a double overtime thriller between Tennessee and Texas A&M. With about 60% Tennessee fans in the sports bar, the place went nuts when they inexplicably forced overtime but then fizzled when their luck finally ran out and lost the game.
- 10/09 – End cruise in Fort Lauderdale: We debarked from the ship, but our shuttle back to the airport got us back a little close to our flight. To speed things along, I checked us in on the Delta app while on the shuttle to the airport. So, all we had to do was drop off our bags and clear security. As we arrived, there were sirens blaring and bright lights flashing throughout the terminal with an automated message announcing that there was a security threat (bomb threat I suppose) and that everyone should leave the terminal. However, no one was leaving the terminal. That was bizarre enough, but the Delta line to drop off bags was completely full and snaking down the sides of the terminal. I’m not sure why it was so backed up, but if we had waited in the whole line we would have missed our flight. Luckily, the Delta agents handled it well and called all passengers from our flight to the front of the line so we could make our flight. It was so backed up there was no one in the security line after dropping off our bag. We made it to our gate with about 5-10 minutes to spare before boarding.
We had a great time on vacation. I’ve posted the pictures to my Flickr in the collection titled 2016 Caribbean Cruise, which contains the following albums:
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A couple days ago, we returned from another trip to the Caribbean. We hadn’t yet visited Jamaica and had accumulated enough miles for flights, so we decided to try out some Sandals resorts in Montego Bay. Sandals has three resorts in Montego Bay: Sandals Carlyle, Sandals Montego Bay, & Sandals Royal Caribbean. The resorts are all-inclusive and a bit pricey, but Sandals Carlyle only costs about 60% as much as the other two while still allowing access to all three. So, we were able to save money by staying at the small resort and spending all of our time at the two big ones. Since the resorts are situated close to the airport, there are low flying aircraft landing or taking off periodically throughout the day, which is cool for an AvGeek. Kara didn’t appreciate the novelty quite as much as I did.
We originally booked the cheapest room category, which was just fine initially. However, on the third night the rain outside started leaking through the wall creating a puddle on the floor. Luckily, nothing of ours got wet, but due to this problem they upgraded us to a better room. The new room had a balcony and a better view than the first room. So, it worked out for us.
We spent most days on the beach under a palapa or in the water, though there were a ton of other things to do. Among other activities, we enjoyed cornhole, shuffleboard, pool, & table tennis. There were also some things that I tried for the first time: sea kayaking (which is pretty much like canoeing), paddle boarding (only fell off once), & a ride on a Hobie Cat (which is a mini-catamaran sailboat). I was thinking about trying water skiing, but after how shaky I was on the paddle board I decided against it. We really enjoyed our time and were able to relax a ton.
Anyway, I’ll add links to the pictures here when they have been uploaded.
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We just returned from perhaps our most unique and adventurous trip to date. We previously had a cruise through the Panama Canal on our bucket list and decided to do one this year as a way to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary later in December. Since these cruises tend to book up very early, we actually had to book it about a year before the cruise. The only cruise that met these parameters and that had a desirable mixture of ports and sea days was Celebrity Cruises on the Celebrity Infinity. So, we tried them for the first time and it was outstanding.
- 11/19/2015 – San Diego: We flew out a day early since the cruise would be starting on the west coast to mitigate any risk of travel delay on the outbound flights. It also gave us the opportunity to see San Diego. We used points to stay for free at a nice downtown hotel within walking distance of everything. After dropping our stuff off at the hotel, we explored the marina waterfront area. We saw the Unconditional Surrender statue before heading over to the USS Midway Museum. It is an aircraft carrier turned into a naval and aviation museum. We spent some time enjoying the exhibits there and then went to do some shopping areas near the hotel.
- 11/20/2015 – Board ship & Depart San Diego: We headed over to the cruise terminal to start our cruise. When we got there we noticed that every single person was pretty old. After a while we did notice some people our age or younger, but it ended up being a slim minority. In fact, we overheard that there were only 16 kids on the ship that cruise and my best guesstimate is maybe 25-50 people our age. This is interesting considering the ship was fully booked and has a listed passenger capacity of 2,170. The boarding process took us about 2-2.5 hours, the whole time waiting in lines. I don’t know if that is an attribute of the Celebrity boarding process or the cruise terminal in San Diego, but it was mildly annoying as our previous cruises did not require that much waiting in lines to board larger ships.
- 11/21/2015 – At Sea: Since we didn’t actually board until later in the day the previous day, after sleeping in we explored the ship. It was mostly a lazy day playing trivia and visiting the indoor hot tub & thalassotherapy pool. Before this cruise, I noticed that Celebrity seems to have well regarded dining (winner of Cruise Critics 2015 Editors’ Pick for best dining). This really started to show this night as I had a filet mignon that was maybe the second best I’ve had anywhere.
- 11/22/2015 – Cabo San Lucas, Mexico: While approaching Cabo, we spotted maybe 20-30 dolphins from our balcony, which was neat to experience. After tendering (luckily the only port that required it), we found our local tour. They showed us around Cabo a little bit on the way to boarding a boat to take us to El Arco (also known as Land’s End). It’s basically a rock formation and arch on southernmost tip of the Baja California peninsula. This tour also included a stop at Playa del Amor (Lover’s Beach), but sea conditions were pretty rough near the beach and Kara wasn’t sure she would be able to get back in the boat (no dock available there at the beach). So, we omitted that stop. Bummer.
- 11/23/2015 – Puerto Vallarta, Mexico: Here we went to the beach at Playa de Oro and rented a jet ski. For some reason, Kara preferred not to participate. So, I rode a jet ski for the first time (which was fun) while Kara enjoyed the beach. After I finished with the jet ski, we both went to a nearby resort pool that was included with the jet ski rental.
- 11/24/2015 – At Sea: One of the things we enjoyed (mostly me) were the lectures that were available periodically. This is something I don’t remember being available on cruises we have taken in the past. In the morning on this sea day, we went to a lecture about the Panama Canal, where we learned the following interesting facts: Passenger vessels are charged by number of available berths regardless of passengers currently on board; Our ship would be charged approximately half a million dollars for the transit; There is still concrete in the canal locks that hasn’t yet completely dried. We played another round of trivia before I went to a lecture about plate tectonics, volcanoes, & glaciers. That night, we went to one of the specialty restaurants (Tuscan Grille). I thought it was good, although not as good as the other one we went to later. My favorite part of the meal was the spumoni donuts dessert. After the meal, we went to watch a battle of the sexes competition.
- 11/25/2015 – At Sea: After a late breakfast, we played a couple rounds of trivia. Then, I went to a lecture about sea mammals. The other thing of note for this day was that a hurricane developed about 1,000 miles away from our position heading in the direction of Cabo and Puerto Vallarta. Hurricane Sandra later become the latest forming category 4 Pacific hurricane and the most intense November hurricane by pressure ever recorded in the eastern Pacific. So, we lucked out that it didn’t cause us any issues.
- 11/26/2015 – Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala: There is not much of anything to do in Puerto Quetzal, which is why we chose to visit Antigua, a former Spanish colony and the former capital of Guatemala. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and contains a lot of Spanish Baroque architecture. It takes about 90 minutes each way to get from the port to Antigua, but during the ride you do have some good views of the three 12,000 to 13,000 foot volcanoes surrounding Antigua (Fuego, Agua, & Acatenango). We booked a self guided tour, so they dropped us off with a map and told us when to meet back at the bus for the return to the ship. We explored the city and enjoyed the interesting architecture. We later found out that a day or two after we left this port that Fuego began erupting.
- 11/27/2015 – At Sea: In the morning, while I was watching some birds hunt for fish I saw a sea turtle from our balcony. Neat. We played some trivia and then went to another Panama Canal lecture. After lunch, we went to another trivia game and then relaxed in our cabin.
- 11/28/2015 – Puntarenas, Costa Rica: While watching our arrival in port from the balcony, I saw some kind of sting ray or manta ray. We got off the ship and did a canopy tour. Apparently, canopy zip line tours originated in Costa Rica, so we thought it would be fun to do one where it started. We did 11 lines with the longest one at about 1,000 feet long. After we enjoyed that, they took anyone that wished to a nearby river bank where you could see about 10-20 crocodiles on the other side of the river. When we got back to the port and back on the ship, I noticed that there was a small air show with a couple airplanes doing a routine nearby. Not sure whether that is a regular thing or if we just happened to be there for an annual event, but it was fun to watch. After dinner, we went to a magic show by Trigg Watson.
- 11/29/2015 – At Sea: After breakfast, we went to the outside pools. We played another trivia game and then I went to another canal lecture. For dinner, we went to Qsine, another of the specialty restaurants. This is what we had: Lava crab (Alaskan King crab, scallions, lobster sauce), Lobster escargot (lobster and escargot fritter with parsley garlic butter sauce), Taco royale (black Angus sirloin steak, caramelized onion, guacamole), Chitini (orange chicken, Kung pao shrimp, beef, sweet and sour pork, sticky rice), Chocolate covered strawberries. Then, Kara had cheesecake and I had a chocolate tombstone. It looks like a lot of food (and it was), but the portions are not huge so that you have an opportunity to try a lot of things. Before the dessert course, they ask you if you are still hungry to try even more stuff! We really enjoyed it, although I was not able to get Kara to try the escargot with me.
- 11/30/2015 – Panama Canal Transit: This day was the reason we chose this cruise. We got up early in the morning to ensure we wouldn’t miss anything. For cruise ships that have a helipad, they normally don’t allow passengers in that area. However, the day we went through the canal they opened up that area so that everyone could observe the canal transit from there, if desired. So, we watched the transit of the Miraflores Locks from the helipad. We then moved to the aft of the ship to see that view when we went through the Pedro Miguel Locks. After we left Pedro Miguel and traveled through the Culebra Cut, we mostly went inside to watch from deck 11. Soon after leaving the cut and entering Gatun Lake, we went to lunch. And finallly, while we went through the Gatun Locks we watched mostly from starboard side of deck 4. Overall, it was an outstanding experience.
- 12/01/2015 – Colon, Panama: We got off the ship and found our tour to the locks. We went first to the Gatun Dam, which dammed up the Chagres River creating the lake in the canal. After that, we went to the Gatun Locks Visitor Center to watch ships go through the locks. Next, we went to the Canal Expansion Observation Center. There we could see the huge site of the new Atlantic locks currently under construction. After some time there, our guide drove us around Colon showing us points of interest before returning us to the ship.
- 12/02/2015 – Cartagena, Colombia: Here we took a tour of the city starting at La Popa Monastery, which is perched on a hill above Cartagena. That provided a wonderful panoramic view of the city. We made a stop at Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, which is fortress built by the Spanish in the 1500’s. We spent most of the balance of our time in the old walled city of Cartagena, which due to the Spanish influence looks similar to a European walled city. We were shown and explored various landmarks there. We returned to the ship and later that night went to a comedy show.
- 12/03/2015 – At Sea: We went to various trivia games and lectures and otherwise relaxed around the ship. That night was the final formal dining night, where we had maybe the largest lobster tail I’ve eaten. It was so large that Kara couldn’t finish all of hers.
- 12/04/2015 – At Sea: We went to various trivia games and lectures and otherwise relaxed around the ship. One of the lectures was given by the captain and was all about how they navigate and sail the ship from port to port. It was very interesting. Then, for dinner we returned to the Qsine specialty restaurant. This time we we had the Lava crab and the Taco royale that we had last time along with trying these two for the first time: Disco shrimp (bouillon poached tiger shrimp, avocado, aioli & crunchy topping served above a “disco” light), & Persian Kebab (skewered chicken garlic & spices veggies & yellow rice pilaf, which was served on a big knife that the waiter called a “sword”). For desert, I had gelato and Kara had build it yourself cupcakes. Like the first time in Qsine, the food was excellent.
- 12/05/2015 – Disembark & Return Home: We arrived in Fort Lauderdale, where we debarked the ship and flew back home.
It was a wonderful cruise. We visited four new countries and our first in South America. I’ve posted the pictures to my Flickr in the collection titled Panama Canal Cruise 2015, which contains the following albums:
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