"To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield"
- Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1833

"live deep and suck out all the marrow of life"
- Henry David Thoreau, 1845

"Some guys, they just give up living
And start dying little by little, piece by piece
Some guys come home from work and wash up,
And go racin' in the streets."
- Bruce Springsteen, 1977

"...to the heart, there's no time for you to waste.
You won't find your precious answers now
by staying in one place."
- Frank Turner, 2009

"The best things in life aren't things.
They're living and breathing."
- Michael Franti , 2011

"I owned every second that this world could give,
I saw so many places, the things that I did"
- Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic, 2014

All written content and photos by Rob Fulfer unless otherwise indicated.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Big Apple Bites

Long weekend in NYC
Saturday, Feb. 27 through Monday, March 1, 2010
We took off early Saturday morning on US Air on a dirt-cheap flight to New York City. The Big Apple and lot more of New England had just recently been hammered by yet another snowstorm that reported up to 20" of accumulation in Central Park. We monitored the flights closely beforehand, but had no delays coming out of Nashville. We had to change planes in Philly (please explain to us how airlines make money this way by charging less for more stops, more fuel, etc.??) which also had a good amount of snow but we had no problems landing on time. Now's where it got sticky...but not due to snow..instead our plane to NYC was coming from Scranton, PA, and had mechanical problems that keep delaying it 30 minutes at a time until 4 hours had piled up before it finally got to Philly. The really frustrating thing was that we were only 50 minutes by plane to New York and 90 minutes by train, but were offered no respite by US Air all afternoon. Man, what a sorry airline.
When we finally did get into NYC after wasting a whole afternoon in the Philly airport, it was smooth sailing as the roads looked good and getting a cab to downtown was without a wait. We opted for the Doubletree Guest Suites Hotel right smack in the middle of Times Square after securing a good rate and a ton of Hilton points to be applied on later travels. Our room was on the 20th floor and looked right down on Times Square itself (photo above).
Our planned 6 PM dinner reservations at a Cuban restaurant we heard good things about had to be cancelled thanks to US Air's pathetic performance. So, we had to opt for the Glass House Tavern across the street from The Barrymore Theatre near our hotel where we had tickets to see the new David Mamet written and directed play: Race. The Glass House Tavern actually turned out to be pretty good with decent fare including a yummy rock shrimp pot pie appetizer. The strangest event at dinner was after we had eaten and our waiter dropped a plate nearby that shattered sending fragments in every direction including right into Ashlee's cheek dangerously close to her eye. The waiter wasn't overly sympathetic when we showed him the shard and he offered us "something free" despite the fact we had just finished dinner. "How about knocking off some of our bill, buddy?" we thought. He obviously didn't read our minds and delivered our full check. Oh well, there went a good tip for you, young man. We probably could have raised a stink with the management and got a comped meal, but that's not really how we roll. But, we also don't forget mediocre service and won't be back there or recommend it to anyone else.
We headed across the street afterwards to The Ethel Barrymore Theatre as throngs of people were moving in for the 8 PM show. We were surprised at how small the theater seemed in comparison to most Broadway venues (500 seats or more). Our seats were in the front row (a first time for that for us) and we were so close to the stage you could reach out and touch it. The place was packed and the 2-act play began promptly. Race is the story of a rich, white businessman (played by Richard Thomas of "John Boy" Waltons-fame) who is accused of raping a young, attractive black woman who he admits to have had a relationship with before. He seeks the help of a small, but very successful, law firm whose two partners just happen to be white (James Spader of recent Boston Legal fame) and black (David Alan Grier of comedic In Living Color fame). Also helping in the case is a young, attractive black female lawyer (Kerry Washington of Ray and Last King of Scotland fame) fresh from the bar exam who is learning the ropes from these two seasoned vets.
The entire play takes place inside the firm's law office and obviously, the sensitive topic of race is keystone onto which the lawyers must decide to take the case, and if so whether they can win it no matter what the guilt or innocence of their client might be. Mamet's work always tends to be volatile in terms of topic, language and characters, and you would think that the subject of race would be the end-all. and it was at times with terrific performances turned in by Spader and Grier. However, Thomas and Washington seemed somewhat underwhelming in their important roles and the play suffers from that in terms of being great and powerful overall in comparison to other Mamet work like Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed the Plough and The Spanish Prisoner. It was a very interesting experience to be that close to the stage during a Broadway production, and our opinions of Spader and Grier could not be higher, but taken in an overall context it was bit disappointing per our expectations due to the performances of Thomas and Washington.
It had been a long, rather frustrating day with the flight delay, the OK dinner that was still a second choice, and the Broadway play that didn't quite live up to our expectations. So, it would have been understandable for us to just pack it in early and try again tomorrow, but this is "The City That Never Sleeps" and we just couldn't give up on it yet. After chilling a few minutes in our room, we flagged a cab down and headed uptown to the Mercury Lounge to catch some live music from The Sadies, an alt-country band from Canada that we had heard good things about. We read that the Mercury Lounge is tiny, but gets excellent reviews on its acoustics. We agree with both. The place is VERY tiny only allowing 250 people inside, and the acoustics are top-notch. The reviews about The Sadies and their live show are also accurate. They are a fantastic live act. We arrived as their first set was starting and the place was packed. Good thing we had taken the risk and bought tickets beforehand just in case we wanted to go (at only $13 a ticket, it wasn't that much of a gamble). We were able to move up closer between sets and get a better view when they came back to the stage. To describe The Sadies sound is kind of hard to do with words since they tend to wander in and out of stylings from alt-country to surfer rock and back around again. Check out the clip below for a better understanding: We slept in fairly late on Sunday thanks to our long Saturday and Saturnight. We got up in time to grab another cab and take a quick ride up to Bleecker Street in the heart of Greenwich Village for our 11:30 AM food tour of the West Village. We took a great food tour in Chicago a few months back (see previous blog), so we thought we would give New York a chance to counter. The small 12-person tour was sold out and the weather was cooperating nicely with no precipitation and temps creeping up over the freezing point and mercifully no wind to speak of. Our guide was Heather and she did an outstanding job weaving us in and around the West Village to some of the many delectable eateries in the neighborhood. Here were our stops in order:
Amy's Bread - we stopped in this artisan bakery before the tour actually began to grab some hot coffee and some delicious morning pastries.
Famous Joe's Pizza - our first "official" stop was for some real crispy New York thin crust pizza which we all ate right out on the street. Excellent.
Rocco's - this Italiana pastry shop was amazing in terms of the choices they had available (photo below). We were supplied with mini-canolis that were just about perfect. More street-eating. Did we mention these shops are tiny and more of a grab-and-go kind of thing? Totally New York.
Fiacco's Italian Pork Shop - our favorite nibble of the tour came here with a deep-friend rice ball that wasn't the least bit greasy and incredibly flavorful. Again, we ate right out on the street as a group. Tons of fun.
Palma - this was actually our first venture inside an establishment to eat. Since it was the first sit-down restaurant on the tour, it could obviously accommodate us. But, we didn't go in and sit down. Instead we were led behind the Southern Italian restaurant where the original farmhouse from this property still exists before the area became so urban. You would never know it exists from the street. In the dining room/kitchen of this little villa we were given a wonderful-tasting dish made from boring old cauliflower. Who would have thunk it?
Centro Vinoteca - half-way through our tour we were invited to sit down at this Italian restaurant and wine bar and order a glass of vino if desired while we were served some delicious risotto from their menu while enjoying their street-scape window views (photo below).
It was time to stretch our legs now and take a history and architecture tour of the neighborhood, but before we got started we stopped at the Milk & Cookies Bakery where were each given a HUGE chocolate chip and oatmeal mix cookie. Still warm from the oven. Heavenly.
Our guide, Heather, did a good job of pointing out interesting landmarks in the neighborhood (such as the narrowest house in Manhattan - photo below) as well as other restaurants and shops not included in the tour but still worth checking out if you had the time. Our last stop was were we first met our tour group - Murray's Cheese Shop. This place is legendary and incredible in the variety of cheeses available - over 250 different varieties. We got to go upstairs above the store to the "classroom" where cheese classes are taught...who knew you could go to school for cheese. Once we were all seated were able to sample 3 different kinds of succulent cheese as well as a fresh salami. It was a perfect way to wind up a perfect tour. We highly recommend http://www.foodsofnytour.com/ if you are ever in The Big Apple. After the tour we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon in The Village poking around in stores and checking out a local watering hole that Heather recommended, The Blind Tiger Ale House. Unfortunately, once we went in The Blind Tiger it was a long time before we came out due to great beer (see Rob's beer blog for more info on that), great atmosphere as the USA and Canada took to the ice for Olympic gold on TV, and great camaraderie from some nice locals who befriended us while we sat next to each other in the small pub. New Yorkers definitely get a bad rap in regards to their friendliness especially to visitors. Not only in the bar but everywhere we went in the city the folks were friendly, inquisitive of where we were from and how we were enjoying our visit, and more than happy to give out information and suggestions. It's been like that each time we have come to The Big Apple and it's part of the reason we keep coming back. As darkness fell we decided to forego another dinner reservation we had at a nearby restaurant participating in Restaurant Week and instead check out another suggestion from Heather, Little Havana on nearby Cornelia Street. Maybe it was the fact that we missed our Cuban restaurant reservation the night before, or maybe it was because Heather not only suggested it but also worked there part time, or the fact that it was owned and run by a 77-year-old Cuban national who still does all the cooking herself - but it was a decision we didn't regret because the food was delicious and we were the only ones in the tiny place until another couple from our food tour earlier in the day also came in to have dinner - good selling skills there, Heather! We slipped across the street to listen to a little live music but it was jazz and that doesn't do much for us so we called it a night and headed back down the glitz of Times Square to draw the shades and get some sleep. Monday was a lazy day for us as we slept late, packed up our stuff, stored our bags with the hotel and took another quick cab ride back to Greenwich Village. Yep, we had another Heather suggestion to check out: Bleecker Street Pizza - supposedly the best in the city and it definitely was good and cheap. We decided to spend the rest of our time just walking back toward the hotel and taking in the city on foot. We figured we would get a cab when we got tired but we never did making it the whole way back (about 3.5 miles) along with a few stops along the way for some light shopping. The plane ride home was uneventful (thank goodness) except for the fact that both flights (NYC to DC and DC to Nashville) were both pitifully devoid of passengers. Again, how is the po-dunk airline staying in business? Oh well, keep doling out the dirt cheap airfares US Air and we'll keep flying you and griping about you on our way to another visit to The Big Apple in April perhaps?? We shall see.

Monday, February 15, 2010

"We Can Drive It Hoo-ome... With One Pro-pell-or" - Western Caribbeean Cruise Day 7 (and 8?)

It was our last day of the cruise and another "fun day at sea" for us coming back from Roatan to Tampa. It gave us time to relax and look back and laugh at the wonderful and wacky trip it had been such as the station wagon we ate warm fruit out of in Belize (and didn't get sick) as well as the dumbest chicken in the world in George Town, Grand Cayman (photos above).
The four of us dressed up for dinner one last night (photos below) after spending the afternoon emptying a litre of duty-free vodka we had sneaked aboard in a water bottle in Roatan....shhh, that's an old Mexican trick we learned a few years ago on another cruise.
We got the news late that afternoon.
Well, the daily onboard newsletter proclaimed it "An extra half day at sea!" but what it really boiled down to was a mechanical glitch that caused one of the ship's two huge propellers to stop turning sometime on the way back to Tampa dropping our speed in half and thus delaying our return by eight hours. This, in turn, caused us to have to rescheduled our flight home and cancel our Valentine's dinner plans back in Nashville. We give Carnival Cruise Lines all the credit for handling the situation very well with constant onboard updates of our status, opening phone and internet access for folks to rebook and contact those waiting on them about the delay, putting up passengers overnight in hotels if need be for rescheduled flights (which we did) and including dinner and breakfast vouchers as well. Luckily, Monday was a holiday for us anyway so it didn't mean anymore missed time at work.
We got off the boat around 4 PM and hopped on a prearranged bus over to the Airport Marriott. This isn't a Marriott BY the airport, this is a Marriot IN the airport. Very cool. Thanks, Carnival. The hotel lobby and bar was full of cruise ship passengers waiting to take the next cruise on our boat. They had been there all day waiting to board with Carnival vouchers so most of them were pretty tanked. It just so happened that our friends from Chattanooga, Lavonda and Tim, were in Tampa for the weekend and we decided to all get together for dinner at a place that we heard had great reviews, The Z Grille. Amy and Jeremy got sent to a different hotel and decided to just hang around there for the evening. Our new foursome had a great time at The Z Grille with some amazing food (the reviews were spot-on) and drinks....not a bad way to spend Valentine's Day after surviving Belize and a crippled cruise ship.
Our rescheduled Southwest flight (no charge to us - thanks SWA!) was early the next morning but it was easy to get to the gate since we were already in the airport. We flew back into Nashville with a couple of inches of snow and ice on the ground but we had no delays and a smooth landing. Good to be home but this cold weather really sucks!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Isla Roatan - Western Caribbean Cruise Day 6

After our "adventure" in Belize we had a bit of an uneasy feeling heading to our last stop, Isla Roatan, Honduras. The country of Honduras has been in the news a lot the last year or so because of political upheaval including a presidential coup. Fortunately, this situation had us doing much more research before we left on this trip about the island of Roatan, the port of Mahogany Bay (photo above) and the excursions available there. Roatan is a good distance from mainland Honduras and was reported to be virtually unaffected by what was going on in the capital. Plus, we figured the cruise ship wouldn't go there if there was potential danger. As we cruised into Mahogany Bay our fears eased a bit more because the port was very clean and rather new looking.
Our excursion for the day was a visit to Maya Key which got good reviews on several websites that we trust per our research. Maya Key is a small private island located about 10 minutes car ride from the port. It used to be called "Fins & Flippers" and was just a day resort. Now, Maya Key is not only a day resort with a nice pool, a good beach, nature trails, a full bar and restaurant, plus a long pier for snorkeling off of to a nearby reef, but it's also an animal rehabilitation and interpretative center. We arrived just in time to see some of the staff feeding a half-dozen or so nurse sharks (photo above) that they were working with for proposed future interaction with guests....wow, that's gonna be a tough insurance policy to write! We also checked out some sea lions and stingrays they were helping rehab from injuries.
Next we ambled over to the pool which we had to ourselves. In fact, there was only one other family on the whole island with us. A visit to the beach was next and then we checked out the monkeys, jungle cats and plethora of exotic birds on site as well. We decided to try the snorkeling next off the long pier (photo above) and it was exceptional, probably the best "from the shore" snorkeling we have ever experienced in terms of fish variety and overall beauty.
Our time at Maya Key was much too short because it was the quickest stop of the four in terms of the ship docking, plus the fact we got a bit of a late start after sleeping in some from our previous day in Belize. We definitely would return to Roatan and Maya Key. Unlike Belize, beyond the port the homes, businesses and public area of Roatan were modest (photo above), but very clean and well kept . The residents seemed friendly, helpful and welcoming. Take notes, Belize, take notes.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Belize...Puhhh-lease - Western Caribbean Cruise - Day 5

Well, as my friend, Craig, said recently, the law of averages had to catch up with us one day after all the great tours we have had during our many travels and Belize was it. No doubt about it. What a freakin' mess it was almost from start to finish. This was easily the one port all four of us were looking forward to visiting the most, and the tour we all chose first and foremost of all the other ports was here: tubing a river through limestone caves and then zip-lining through the jungle.
Here's a timeline of how the whole crazy day went:

8 AM - We tender in from the ship with no problems to meet our tour rep at the port before the 8:20 meeting time. Here's a good time to interject that the port was pretty dirty and uninspiring to say the least.

8:30 to 9:15 or so - according to our printed reservation the tour was to start at 8:30, but instead we stood around for 45 minutes in front of the tour operator's little open-air office sucking in fumes from three large buses idling nearby while a lot of disorganization and confusion among the tour operator employees went on about us. We finally had to turn into "ugly Americans" as a full hour approached of standing around to demand to know "what the Hell is going on?" Our first answer was "Five meeeenutes! Five meeenutes" which turned out to be 15. Our second time asking and getting the same answer plus the promise that we were going on a "private" tour (which we didn't request). Our reply was that "Well, in six minutes we want our money back" (cash transaction in a Third World country - fat chance of that, but it was our only move). Here's a good time to interject that the little tour operator office was near "the gate" to the rest of Belize City which is fenced off from the port. When we say gate and fence, we don't mean a little white picket one designating the port from the streets beyond, we mean a 20-ft. high medieval-looking thing on rollers that looked like it was designed to keep King Kong's little brother out. Every time this gate rolled open scary-looking hawkers would yell at the tourists standing around to take horse-drawn carriage rides, city tours and other various activities. 9:30 - A very young Belikian named "Jason" was finally assigned to our "private" tour (everyone else got on those buses whose fumes we were were inhaling). Along with us came three giggling Asian college-age girls who had just walked up (must be nice not to wait in bus fumes) another older employee hitching a ride and another young Belikian who was in "training." Jason leads us through the great hulking gate (oh, hooray!) for a 5-minute walk through dirty streets and seedy people staring at us until we reach the van. The van was new...back in the 80's. We climbed aboard and we were off with the announcement that it would be an hour-long drive to the river caves. An hour? It says nothing of that on the website and now we've wasted an hour standing around. We made that point out loud and were told not to worry because we had plenty of time (we would hear this BS many times today). This would be a good time to interject that our cruise ship would leave at 4 PM and the last tender was at 3:30.

10:30 - After a 45-minute ride through Abandoned-Car Hell complete with a "police check-point" and dudes with automatic weapons, the van which had been making a weird noise for about 10 minutes, is pulled over on the side of the road...completely overheated...yep, we paid $100 a head for this nonsense, ladies and gentlemen. Jason hops out without a word and gets antifreeze or water in an antifreeze can from the back and starts pouring it in the radiator. He seems very prepared and expectant of this scenario. We sit there for 20 minutes or so letting the engine cool down. A bus pulls in behind us and a couple of Belikians get out and lend Jason a hand. Still not a word spoken to the customers inside the rather warm van. Here's a good time to interject that the jabbering Asian girls are not from a cruise ship. They are staying in Belize and could care less what time they get back...i.e. they are having "like, the best time everrrr."

11:15 - We finally pull into the park where the caves are located and hop out. We are asked what we want to do first and since we have no idea what is where and how long the tubing and/or zip- lining will take we opt for the tubing. We are marched over to retrieve our old black inner-tubes and smelly head-lamps with weak batteries. Here's a good time to interject that other groups not on a "private" tour had nice new clean modern tubes made just for tubing and that weren't recently on a '91 Nissan Maxima, bright LED head-lamps and even safety helmets. It was a 30-minute-plus walk to the Caves Branch of the Sibun River put-in (that was on the website and expected at least) and along the way we were asked if we wanted to tube through one cave or two - again, we weren't told how long either would take so we just said "ONE!" in unison.

12:00 - The tubing was fun despite a few low spots where we did some butt-bumping and some rainy weather making the water somewhat cold. The cave we went through was completely amazing. The pictures and video attest to that. But overall, it was hard to even enjoy it fully with the looming time constraints, the worry about our mode of transportation getting us back to the ship and the lackadaisical attitude of our tour guide.
2:00 - After tubing the cave and hauling our tubes back to the parking area, we were asked if we were ready to zip-line!! In unison again we said..."NO!"...get us back to the boat NOW!!! Perhaps the perception that we were not having a great time finally sunk in with Jason by the look on our faces and/or the fact that we were so quickly ready to punt half of the activity that we had paid for because of sheer worry. He invited us to have some fruit and water from the back of a old station wagon sitting nearby. We were so hungry and thirsty that we did so without much thought that the fruit was warm and had been sitting there in the open for a long time or that the water was in little bags that you might see in a disaster relief station. While we stood around regretting our choice to eat the fruit, Jason and the other guy "in training" unloaded the Asian girls' stuff that was left in the van and we left. We doubt the girls had a clue we left or that their stuff had been put God knows where while they were gone. 2:15 - Somehow beer came up in the conversation on the way back and in delirium we asked Jason to stop and let us get some. He obliged and we all bought two Belikian beers each for the ride back at a little shanty/store for $2 American each. They were wonderful and quite effective on our warm-fruit-only stomachs. 2:45 He stopped again for us about half-way back for two more beers each at a "supermarket." What were we thinking? 3:10 We roll into Belize City limits with some relief, but what about city traffic?? 3:15 After barely speaking to us all day, suddenly Jason wants to get "tour-guidey" and show us ramshackle buildings in Belize City he thought we might have interest in on the way to the port. Unbelievable! We scowl and show no interest except in the time and he moves on. 3:24 We arrive at the dock FINALLY to get in line for the last tender back to the ship. Here's a good time to interject that a woman was selling Belikian beer near that line...you can guess the rest. EPILOGUE: This blog has always been about the positive things that happen in our lives and perhaps this blog entry doesn't even belong here. But, in hindsight, it was quite an adventure, the cave was amazing and does deserve recognition, and we did learn a lot about travel in not-so-organized places. We do blame ourselves somewhat for not doing enough research on this particular tour company and the state of Belize itself. We have now found entries on CruiseCritic.com and TripAdvisor.com warning about this tour company and Belize as well. We have added our own experiences as well to help other folks make good decisions in the future when visiting here. As far as the country of Belize goes, we just found it to be disappointing overall in appearance and character. We are quite aware of the struggles of Third World countries and weren't expecting it to be perfect, but there is a big difference between not having riches and not having pride. We reflect back to our visits to areas in Mexico, Turkey and St. Kitts where it is obvious the people and the nation are not rich by any means, but there was pride shown in most homes, businesses and attractions that were well kept, relatively clean and safe. That is not the case in Belize. As mentioned earlier, Belize City - the capital - is dirty, dangerous and depressing, but it also extends beyond the city limits and into the surrounding countryside at least as far as we went with junk cars abandoned everywhere, piles of garbage on the sides of the road and citizens who just don't seem to care that you are there unless they can get money out of you. It seems to be a very sad state of affairs in Belize in our opinion. And it's not like money isn't pouring in there either. We counted six other cruise ships at anchor when we left that evening. But where that money goes is yet to be seen by us. We have no desire to return to Belize despite reports of beautiful reefs for snorkeling and better scenery in the mountainous areas of the country unless sweeping changes occur.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Beeeach, Please! Western Caribbean Cruise - Day 4

Today was a return to Cozumel, Mexico for us. We came here a couple of years ago (pre-blog) on a short Royal Caribbean cruise from Tampa as well. At that time we took a snorkeling trip to see sea turtles in their natural environment over off the mainland near Playa Del Carmen which was great. This time we thought we would spend some time on the island of Cozumel itself. After some internet research and reading some good reviews, we opted for the Nachi Cocom Beach Club. Fifty bucks per person gets you all you can drink, a 3-course meal and private beach and pool access. Sounded like a good deal to us. Amy and Jeremy opted out of this excursion and explored the port area instead. Boy, did they miss out!! This place was great!!
We took a cab from the port for about a 10-minute ride first dropping off some other folks at Paradise Beach Club which looked very nice. A few minutes later when we turned down the little gravel road between two high chain-link fences laced with vines and undergrowth, we were starting to think maybe we should have booked the Paradise as well. We still had our doubts as we got out of the taxi and a lady greeted us and asked us to put some dingy-looking sombreros for an entry picture (uh oh). But after that, we stepped around a corner and into utter bliss. The place was beautiful, very clean and had everythingwe could want. They got us two comfortable beach chaises under our own little tiki with an unencumbered view of the beautiful beach and water. Two Coronas were ordered up immediately and brought to us quickly. This process repeated itself many, many times during the day. The food was superb as well and served up to us beachside. The oceanfront was perfect for swimming with the water getting deep quickly from shore. They also had snorkeling, sea-doos and other water activities available as well for additional fees. Their pool was crystal clear and best of all you could swim up to the bar as well. Another great aspect of Nachi Cocom was that it is limited to 50 people per day, so we never felt crowded. At the aforementinoed Paradise Beach Club we saw that many people just milling around the entrance. Who knows how busy the beach was there. It clouded up early in the afternoon and a brief little shower came through, but we were snug as bugs under their large tiki-covered patio restaurant until it quickly passed. Ashlee got a nice beachside massage as well for a much more reasonable price than they were offering on the cruise ship. We hated to leave this great place late in the afternoon but cruise ships wait for no one.
We would definitely return here if given the chance again, and highly recommend it to anyone heading down Mexico-way in the future.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Hey, mon, Cayman is Grand - W. Caribbean Cruise - Day 3

We would be hard-pressed to have had a better day than we did in Grand Cayman today. Perfect warm weather and what a beautifully amazing place. Of course, your opinion of a new place is always strengthened with a good guide showing it to you, and Capt. John-Michael was just that. He was the pilot and tour guide for our private boat tour around Grand Cayman Island. He picked us up at the port after we had tendered in early this morning from the ship. We drove to the other side of the island away from a surprising amount of rush-hour traffic coming into George Town. We arrived at his dock and boarded his beautiful 27-foot Boston Whaler Outrage and headed out immediately to Stingray City, one of Grand Cayman's busiest attractions. We knew Capt. John-Michael knew what he was doing when we arrived at Stingray City with only two other boats in sight (by the time we left an hour later there were dozens of boats and jet skis around us). Stingray City is a section of waist-deep ocean near Grand Cayman Island with a sandy bottom just inside a large barrier reef. Years before their were cruise ships and too many tourists, local fisherman used this area to gut their catch instead of waiting until they got back to the dock and making a big mess there. Stingrays in the area got in the habit of visiting this area and feasting on the discarded chum. Nowadays, anyone can drop into the water with a handful of squid and feed these beautiful and gentle creatures by hand. There are scores of them in the waters here of all varying sizes. Some of the bigger ones had wingspans that were easily 4 or 5 feet in width. We all fed them and it was truly an amazing experience. They don't have teeth per se and their undersides are very soft. Their imposing-looking tails are not sharp or stinging as their name implies, but instead just rough in texture. And, they really seemed to try and prevent hitting you with them as they circled about. Capt. John-Michael also showed us a trick that since the rays can't swim backwards if you get in front of them and carefully cradle them in front of you they will actually just hover their resting in your arms (photo above). Very, very cool. He also explained to us that the rays actually like human contact and that was evident as many of the rays hung around with us long after the squid was gone.
We left the growing crowds at Stingray City behind and headed next to a prime snorkeling spot. We spent another hour or so floating around and gazing at a huge diversity of fish (the most we had ever seen in one area while snorkeling) swimming in and out of coral reefs growing on huge boulders in about 10 feet of water. Capt. John-Michael came through again by picking a spot that was only occupied by us the entire time we snorkeled. Afterwards, we motored over to the north central part of the shoe-shaped island known as Rum Point and anchored near shore. We took about a half-mile beach walk to a little restaurant just off the beach for lunch (photo above). We got a bit of jolt at the Cayman Dollar-U.S. Dollar exchange rate, but it's hard to grumble too much when you are in paradise. By the time we got back to the boat Capt. John-Michael had gathered together four huge starfish (photo below) for us to examine up close. Each one was a different brilliant color and are fairly heavy in weight. As a final stop before returning us to the ship, we slowly motored through a huge expanse of mangroves without another soul around. Very tranquil. Through the murky water Capt. John-Paul showed us hundreds of large jellyfish resting on the bottom of these canals.
If you ever get the chance to find your self in Grand Cayman, we highly recommend Capt. John-Michael's eco-tour. It's affordable, professional, private for groups of up to 10 and extremely respectful of Grand Cayman's awesome biodiversity.

Monday, February 8, 2010

W. Caribbean Cruise Day 2 - A Fun Day @ C

We got up this morning and boarded our "Fun Ship" - the Carnival Legend. Overall, it's a nice boat. It could use a little paint on the outside in some places and most of the interior open areas are downright gaudy in terms of decorating. The walls were so busy with color and adornments it could give you a headache if you looked at it too long. Our room was the best thing we found. Tastefully decorated with a good layout and design that gave us ample room to move around and for storage. Our mid-ship port-side 5th-floor balcony (a must for a cruise if you ask us - totally worth the few extra dollars) giving us a perfect vantage point while cruising. Didn't even have to get out of bed to get the photo above. We explored the ship some more as we cruised out of Tampa Bay and were disappointed to find that a few of the lounges we were looking forward to frequenting (the sports bar and the piano bar) allowed smoking. Yuck! The food and clientele weren't bad, but nor were they great. Instead of a lot of rowdy partiers like we expected, the majority of the cruisers were very elderly. The best food we found was of the fast-food variety - pizza and burgers. The nightly sit-down
dinners were decent but not the taste sensations we would look forward to on other cruises we have taken in the past. The unseasonably cold temps in Tampa (50 was the projected high today) left the open decks rather inaccessible as well for the start of the trip until we moved farther south into warm latitudes. Jimmy Buffett had it right, however, when you change your latitude, you do change your attitude and the warmer it got outside, the less the little shortcomings of the Carnival Legend mattered to us. Grand Cayman here we come! Above is 30 seconds of relaxing balcony time to enjoy anytime we want. Thanks Blogger.com!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Western Caribbean Cruise 2010 - Day 1

It's been over a year since our last cruise and we were sure missing it. So, we decided to try Carnival Cruise Lines this time for a week's long trek to the Western Caribbean. Carnival always has good values, but sometimes gets mixed reviews in terms of quality and clientele. We did get a great value and a great itinerary which includes stops in Grand Cayman, Cozumel, Belize and Isla Roatan, Honduras. We flew down today to Tampa to spend the night before our departure and met our traveling companions for the week, Amy, who Ashlee used to work with before she moved back up north to New Hampshire, and her new husband, Jeremy. We had just seen these guys a month or so ago when we spent New Year's Eve together in Atlantic City for an O-A-R concert (see previous blog entry).
Breaking our Hilton hotel loyalty, we all shared a room at the new Hyatt Place near the airport thanks to an amazing rate that Ashlee found. We picked up a rental car at the airport for the early evening/night since the Hyatt's only real downfall was its not-so-great location in terms of walking destinations. We found a unique place to catch dinner and a movie all at the same time called Cinebistro. The concept is very unique with rather fine dining and a full bar in the theatre as you watch first-run movies. The place was very luxuriant throughout with large leather chairs that reclined somewhat and even ottomans for the first row (photo above) which we chose (still a bit close to the screen - not recommended in terms of some neck strain). Dinner was delicious and our movie of choice was Avatar 3D which we were both able to cross off our Best Picture viewing list for the upcoming Oscar party we always attend at our friends, the Edmondsons. Everyone had a great time. We will definitely keep this place in mind if we happen to cruise out of or visit Tampa again. Afterwards, we stopped by Ybor City - an eclectic Cuban neighborhood with a busy nightlife scene of bars and clubs. They had just had a free night-time parade there celebrating a city pirate festival. Unfortunately, as with any free event, not always the best class of people show up...i.e. there was some weird folks wandering around. We had a quick adult beverage and walked around a bit and decided it was not for us. Time to get back and rest up for our embarkation tomorrow!