Monday, December 12, 2011

First visit to Europe Trip Report! London, Barcelona & 13 day TransAtlantic Cruise - Nov. 22 - Dec. 11, 2011

I got an email about a CruCon deal in May that told me of a 13 day TransAtlantic cruise leaving from Barcelona that was $799 per person for a balcony room with a $200 onboard room credit!  It ended in Ft. Lauderdale, FLA.  First I had to convince my son to go on the cruise with me.  We have only been on one together previously and he hated it!  Swore he would NEVER do another again.  I knew I had some work in store for me...I also needed to do some research about airfare too as first bat at Expedia told me the airfare was $6000! 

I got useful information from co-workers about charter flights to London and also that flying to Barcelona could be very inexpensive from there.  It was too.  I got each flight for $51 which came to $125 each after taxes.  London happened to be the selling point of the trip to my son!!!  His eyes lit up when I told him we would go there first.  Then, showing him the Celebrity Solstice did not hurt!

The mega-ship Solstice pic from Celebrity website

He spent about an hour looking at everything and then turned to me from his computer and said, "I think this ship might be alright mom".  If you knew my son, you would know that, that was great then!  I jump up and down at each vacation while he barely shows emotion at all.  That was a big, emotional statement from him!  :-)  I also said I'd throw in buying a Kindle for him so he'd have plenty to read on sea days and told him he was welcome to relax and do whatever he wanted while we cruised.  I was worried there would be no one his age (he's 21), but I think he was ok with just relaxing...he thinks I don't kick back enough.  I really am about "too much to see in too little time"...He also lets me plan everything.  He is more than happy to tag along and he says he trusts everything I choose.  He really is the ideal travel partner.  I love him and I never get tired of him...AND he lets me pick everything.  What more could you ask for?  For me, there is nothing more I could want in a travel companion...except, well, maybe......that he paid.  ;-)

The charter only flew once a week on Tuesdays.  Our cruise left on a Monday, so I would be arriving early.  It worked well actually!  I decided on two days in London, and three days in Barcelona.  Our dollar exchange made me choose longer for Spain.  I can't tell you how excited I was to get to EAT in Spain!  :-)  I paid $1033.00 CAD for our two one-way flights to London.  When I looked at the end of October, I could have got the exact same flight for us for $493.00 CAD total.  I was bummed.  :-(  I have no skill at knowing when to buy flights.  This happens to me all the time.

I joined the roll call on Cruise Critic and met a great bunch of people.  A large group of people.  I think our Cruise Critic lunch had approx 250 people signed up for it!  We had a very active forum.  My cabin was assigned and it was #6241 on the Continental Deck.  I discovered that it was a "hump" cabin and apparently had a big veranda so I was very happy.  Plus it looked to be close to the elevators!  Our cruise even had a name.  It was called "A Midwinter Night's Dream".  There were even pins!  Here is a picture of mine.  This would be handy for meeting everyone AND having a nice souvenir to keep as a memento.

In May the cruise seemed a long ways away....Then pretty soon it was end of September and it felt like time was  passing fast and furious.  I had a spreadsheet I started in May but by September I had to re-look at everything as I didn't remember a lot of the things I had put in it (or why)!  Research started again...I didn't mind.  Planning is half the fun.  I like being prepared.  However, our time in both London and Barcelona was SHORT!  I knew I couldn't accomplish much, so I ended up buying Hop On/Hop Off bus passes for both places.  This is something I have never done before.  I was so overwhelmed and I didn't really know what to do, to be honest.  I couldn't decide what we should see and I was lost on trying to prioritize things.  This was probably the most lax I have ever been about a trip itinerary yet.  My restaurants were all booked for Barcelona though, I was not lax in that!  :-)

In the last week of October, I wrapped all the tours and planning up and booked it all!  I admit, I didn't do the research like I normally do, but I was happy I had something planned for every day on our five days on land before the cruise...and all our ports!  I wasn't real thrilled about any of the port tours but some times that makes it better when you have low expectations.  I even booked all three "Specialty" restaurants on the cruise too.  In that same week, my son also learned he was accepted back to college full time and started January 3rd, so this trip really did become timely.  We were both looking forward to it.  We both have worked very hard throughout 2011 so we were ready, and very excited to break our Europe cherries!  :-)

I won't even go into all the stuff about shopping, and packing to get ready for these eighteen days!  I will spare you, but I could write a couple good paragraphs about it - at least.. (My friends who helped me know what I'm sayin')!!!  Let's just say, I got it done!

November 22nd:

I worked on Tuesday.  We left our house at about 4:30pm and the trip to the airport was uneventful.  I got about three or four hours sleep on the plane.  My son only got about an hour.  Nine hour flight and we arrived at 1pm local time.  (5am our time).

I arranged a car hire for London both for our drive to the hotel from Gatwick and then on departure to Heathrow.  I chose Airport Only/BA Transfer for this.  (They seem to have more than one name).  Charge for pick up at LGW was $45 pounds.  Transfer to LHR was $28 pounds.  Our driver was waiting for us with a sign with our name on it when we cleared customs.  We were feeling the pain of tiredness at this point.  Extreme tiredness...I was sorry I had pre-paid theatre tickets for this evening, to be honest.

Nevertheless, we continued on.  Our driver was Iraqi and his English was minimal.  We were able to carry on a somewhat limited conversation which was fine.  We pulled up to our hotel about 3:30pm.  I gave him 50 pounds. and we checked in.  I felt the service was worth the price.

We booked the Montana Hotel in South Kensington.  I found this hotel on the Air Transat site when I booked our airfare to London.  I was already warned that accommodation prices in London were exorbitant so even though this hotel looked merely "OK", I booked it for $280 CAD for two nights and hoped we'd be happy...I was definitely fine with the location.  It looked like everything we needed was right there and there was a Underground station (Gloucester) that would take us anywhere we needed to go, right by the hotel.

Picture from website

Our room was teeny small and grungy (old, I suppose).  Plus, even though after confirming with them through email that we would have two beds, there was only one double bed when we entered the room.  I called the front desk and we got into a little bit of a heated discussion about it (he was flat out RUDE).  My son went in the shower and they called back saying they would switch us but after I told him my son was in the shower he reneged his offer and said it was too late to switch now as they'd have to re-do the room.  For two nights, I decided not to argue anymore.  My biggest gripe was there was only two towels.  No hand towels, no face towels.  There was not even a bath mat to put your wet feet on when you got out of the shower!  I had already read reviews to bring your own soap and I'm glad I did that too!

We wandered over to Waitrose to pick up some necessities for the room.  Normally I would have spent a good chunk of time seeing the differences in groceries but this visit did not allow us enough time for it.  We simply grabbed what we needed and went back to the room.  We had a couple of pre-made sandwiches.  My son said the pesto sauce didn't taste anything like we are used to and was disappointed though he said the french bread was great.  I ate my sandwich on auto-pilot and I have to admit, I did think my whole wheat bun was also tasty.

We continued to freshen up and then headed for the Tube.  Our front desk told me just to go to the Ticket Window and say we wanted a return trip to Convent Garden.  We did and it was $13.60 pounds!  OUCH!  He did tell us he gave us a day pass as it was cheaper than the return fare and said we could use it to go other places.

We arrived from a sardine packed train to Convent Garden and went about finding a pre-theatre restaurant Mon Plaisir.  I had made a reservation for 6pm.  They offer a free glass of champagne coupon on their website too as well as inexpensive pre and post theatre menus.  Convent Garden was very nice to walk around while finding our way around and there are good maps everywhere.  We did have to end up asking for assistance to get pointed in the right direction.

The restaurant was quaint and service was very nice and friendly.  It filled quickly and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.  We ordered the three course pre-theatre menu which came with a glass of wine for $14.95 pounds.  Honestly, it was fine but it was highly forgettable.  My son ordered a French onion soup off the menu as the appys did not appeal to him and he was happy he did.  He did add that it was not the best French onion he'd ever had... They add a 12.5% tip to the menu and I left him another pound.  Bill total was $42 pounds when delivered to table.  I am unsure of tipping in London.  I always thought you didn't need to, but I am so not used that.  I don't know what is reasonable either...I was glad the gratuity was on the bill actually.  The best dish of this meal (below) was probably the Fish skewer with Nicois vegetables...the fish was good, the veggies just ok.

A couple of more stops and help for directions, we made our way to Russell street to the Fortune Theatre for "Woman in Black".  It has played for over 20 years in London.  It is billed as a "Spine Chiller".  Lets just say we loved it.  I did have to wake my son with a couple of elbow jabs twice.  He told me at intermission, if it wasn't so entertaining he would have slept through the whole thing but he did quite well!  We had a wonderful time seeing it and it was well worth the $53 pounds we paid for tickets.  (You have to remember I am converting everything into Canadian dollars so it is more expensive).

We hurried to try and find the Tube (used the street maps) and we found Convent Garden station again.  There were crowds of theatre goers and we looked at each other wondering how many trains we would have to wait before getting back to Gloucester station.  No wait!  We got on the first one and were back in no time.  I was slightly hungry so we went to Tesco Express for a snack.  I bought some mini (2 bites) Cornish pasties for $1.70 pounds.  There were great for a perfect nibble.  We had a couple and then we sunk to the bed and were immediately out cold!  It was about midnight.

November 24th:

I intended to start the Hop On/Hop Off as soon as we woke up but I changed my mind and decided to let my son sleep a bit longer.  We also had the "Harry Potter" tour scheduled at noon at Leicester Square.

So about 10ish, we headed for Leicester Square.  Again, we bought another Underground day pass even though we only planned on using one fare.  The ticket salesman really questioned me if I would do more than this one trip and I finally thought, why not?  If was five pounds more and you never know...this would turn out to be a great decision!  If it wasn't for him, I would have only bought the one way as we thought we would take the "Red Line" Hop On/Off back to our hotel.  We didn't know we needed to use the Underground for the Harry Potter tour and it's not included with your ticket...

When we got off at the Tube, we landed at the "Times Square" of London with all the usual suspects, Ripley's (below), M&M's etc.

Then the hunt was on to find out where to redeem our "Hop On/Off" vouchers.  In the end (an hour later), we found out they can be redeemed right where you board, at the start of the tour in Leicester Square.  It would have been nicer if the voucher said that rather than saying you had to pick them up at a "ticket office"...  We were hungry now.  I hate to dine in tourist areas but there was no choice so we went to Angus Steak House which advertised having breakfast.  It was $6.95 pounds but they charge an additional $1 "cover fee".  Our server said that this is standard for the "area".  English breakfast was fine though the back bacon was perhaps the saltiest thing we have ever eaten! Sausage was one of the best ones we've had though.

Then we made our way to the Harry Potter Tour.  This was fun.  It was a two and half mile walk that covered a lot of sites.  My son enjoyed the commentary, I just found it great to take pictures and sight see!  I credit J.K. Rowling with getting my son to start reading on his own.  I read the first Harry Potter book to him.  When we started the second one, he said I was too slow and did not read enough to him each night.  So, I told him he knew how to read, why didn't he start on his own?  Well, the rest is history!  :-)  We even got to take the Thames cruise.

We ended up at King's Cross Underground station to end the tour here:

Back to the Underground and back to Leicester Square to take the Hop On/Off bus.  It started out great on the top in the sunshine but it was bitingly windy.  Then it started to get dark...and cold...brrrrrrr.  We almost made the whole trip around but got off one stop past Piccadilly Circus.  We were starving!  We passed by a ticket booth and decided to see if they had any discounts.  They did.  I didn't know what to ask for, so looking at the wall, I thought "Rock of Ages" might be interesting...I'm an eighties chick.  ;-)  He said there were tickets available so we bought those and off we went in search of dinner.

We wandered through Chinatown, by accident (I didn't want Asian food) and then came across Biagio Trattoria Italiano.  They pack you in like sardines there too.  Everything feels so tiny in London.  Son had pizza, I had Pre-Theatre menu and picked calamari appetizer and wild mushroom ravioli for $12.95 pounds.  Was good.  Son enjoyed his pizza.  The calamari was so might have been saltier than the bacon we had that morning.  Dinner was $30 pounds with 12.5% service charge built in.

We had to ask for directions again to the Dominion theatre.  We had a bit of trouble with this one, but two stops of asking people, we got there!  So we find our seats.  I grab a glass of wine and we settle in.  I hear the rows behind me keep talking about Queen music.  I was eavesdropping and the dad was even singing tunes.  Anyone who knows me well knows that I think Freddie Mercury is the most talented vocalist to ever grace our planet.  There will never be anyone like him again.  The show starts and they say it is dedicated to the memory of Freddie Mercury who died this day twenty years ago.  Nice to say that,  I thought.  Then the show starts and I soon realize that this is NOT the performance we thought we were going to's full of Queen music!  When I looked at the ticket later, I see the show is called "We Will Rock You".   He sold me the wrong tickets.  Best mistake I have ever experienced!  The show was fantastic!  I had tears in my eyes at the end, it was so good!!!  The whole audience gave a standing ovation and I was so happy to have seen this!  I had no idea it even existed.  FATE worked for me this day and left me the most fabulous way to end our short visit to London.

Tower Bridge
A view of the London Eye while cruising on the Thames.

A gloomy Big Ben

November 25th:

We had intentions to go out for breakfast but in the end just slept in till it was time to go.  I had to run to the pharmacy for something I had lost in the room somewhere and could not find.  I picked my son up a coffee at this great patisserie named Paul which was right by our hotel.  I went back and told my son he would have to go back and choose something to eat because I had no idea what he wanted because everything looked so good!  He settled for a chocolate croissant.  He loved it and said he wish he ordered two.

Checked out, I was glad to be rid of this hotel with its tiny room and our car hire took us to Heathrow.   OK, when you're printing your boarding passes at British Airways, do not say "NO" when it asks if you accept the terms and conditions.  I did this by accident and it wouldn't allow me to re-do it.  I had to go for assistance which meant getting escorted by security to have our bags scanned.  I really think it would be nice to add a confirmation screen when someone does say NO.

We made it through that and went through security.  We saw a Gordon Ramsay "Plane Food" restaurant as soon as we passed so I said to my son that we would go there for lunch.  It was a nice restaurant and nice setting in the airport.  It would turn out to be my fave meal in London.  I have never said that about an airport meal before.    

I started with:

Baked spiced crab with wild mushroom and cottage cheese $10.50 pounds
Son had Caesar salad w/ pancetta, anchovies, Parmesan and soft boiled egg with chicken $13.95 pounds
I had Crispy duck & watercress salad w/ chili & ginger $8.50 pounds

Bill was $57 pounds and included cover ($1.50 pp) and gratuity (12.5%) and one pound donation for the homeless. This came out to about to $95 CAD, but it was a good meal.  I tried not to calculate how much the difference was for everything in London or I knew I'd be miserable assessing the value of everything.  I only did this one because it went on my credit card as I was out of British pounds.  I have to calculate to stay within my limit...

When we left the escorted security earlier, I asked at British Airways lady to explain our boarding pass because it had no gate on it.  I heard her to say, "At 1:45 look on the screens and your gate will be posted.  Head to the boarding area at that time".  Well, we left the restaurant at about 1:35 and did this.  The screen said "Boarding".  I got panic bells going off like crazy realizing we were in trouble.  Then I looked at the Boarding pass again and it said, "Gate CLOSES at 13:45"!  Our flight left at 2:05pm.  We descended down to the departure gates and then I see, "Transit to Gate B36".  We had to board a train!!!  After we got off the train, I heard our name announced, "Last call for ..."  We go up the escalator only to find another one!  We were huffing and puffing as we reach the boarding desk.  I tell them my name.  A gentleman BA employee very sarcastically says, "Well, so nice of you to finally arrive, lovely to see you".  I explain what happened and then he walked us to the plane after asking if it was our first trip to Barcelona, then telling us to go eat at Boqueria Market in Barcelona but make sure we go before noon.  With a smile, he let us get on the plane to a bunch of evil eye stares!  :-)  We departed about a minute later!  WHEW!

And two hours later we arrived in Barcelona!  Customs was strange.  He (Customs) waves us over, looks at us and our passports, stamps them and then waved us by.  First time I have gone through with not one word exchanged! We found the Tourism kiosk and exchanged our voucher for our Hop On/Hop off tickets and made our way to the taxi.  Fare was $26 euros to Hotel Barcelona Universal and I gave him $30.  

Pic from Expedia website

This room was night and day from our accommodation in London and cheaper!  The room had space, a big bathroom and lots of towels!!!  We settled in and waited for our reservations at Tickets restaurant.  It was only a 15 minute walk from our hotel so we walked.  We had made arrangements with a couple from Cruise Critic to meet and have dinner together.  Phyliss and Bob.  Phyliss came out to greet us and we went inside.  I really can't thank them enough.  Bob let us know his company was picking up the cheque and dinner would be on him.  It was totally unexpected and was such a treat!!!  It was a real pleasure to spend the evening with them.  

Now Bob just told our server Albert (no, not Albert Adria personally) to just bring it on.  He was quite happy to do this and we tried a LOT of food!  I will post many pictures but my descriptions will be minimal (you can see more detail on the website for some of them)...and a couple will not have descriptions because I can't remember what they were.  :-(  We had a lot of items and we went through them quickly!  Albert did explain each item in wonderful detail, it was just too much to retain while being social and dining.  One picture that did not turn out was a delicious stew with octopus and chick peas.  It was amazing...I also forgot to take a picture of the cod chips with seaweed powder.

The infamous "olives"
? (I just remember he said to dip them in the bottom flakes and sprinkle on some gray sea salt on the side)  edit:  Phyliss said these were Quail Eggs.
Tuna belly
Mini airbags (w/cheese and bacon, I think?)
Avocado with cod
Citrus salad (So good!)
Shrimp - FRESH!
Tuna with roasted vegetables
Octopus & crab (I think?)
Iberico de Bellota
Pork belly buns (YUM!)

There was cheese (and garnishes I can't remember) in them eggshells
Porcini mushrooms with truffle oil
Ham and potatoes
Rabbit ribs (delicious!)
Chicken skewers
Liquid blue cheese
Chocolate balls
Molecular dessert that tasted like cocktails.  We tasted Pina Colada & Margarita
Almond cake and cranberry sorbet (Wow!)
Cotton candy tree

Wow, that was a lot of dishes, eh?  I think I counted 25 with the two missing photos.  Bob said the bill came to $330 euros for four people.  I know I didn't pay but I think that's a pretty good price.  He thought so too.  All in all it was a terrific night.  Some bites were better than others but you can't expect to love everything.  I was very happy to have had this experience.  We even saw Albert Adria too, but we all chickened out in taking his picture.  :-)  It was late!  I think we got back to the room about 2:30am.  Sat up for a bit and crashed hard just after 3am...

November 26th:

Not surprisingly, we slept in today.  We made our way out at noon and were both really hungry.  I asked the Bellman where he suggested we go eat and he told us about Los Cachitos behind our hotel.  I believe their menu said they are Galician and feature that in their food.  They have a nice outdoor patio so we sat there.  I think they charge $3 euros extra if you do.  We each had a sandwich and a croquetta. Lunch with tip was $22 euros.  I had a glass of cava, bottled water and son had cafe con leche.

Spicy steak sandwich

Then we wandered down to La Rambla stopping first at Palau Guell.  They gave my son student price so it was $18 euro for two.  The audio tour is included.  It was stunning.  My son commented - wondering how long it took to build everything as there was so much detail in everything.  The palace probably took about an hour to go through.  We really enjoyed our first look at Gaudi up close.  I'm sure there is no need to say that pictures don't do it justice...

On top of the palace

Christopher Columbus monument

We boarded the Hop On/Off bus and took the red line all the way around.  Barcelona is stunningly beautiful!

The Beach (There is 5km of beaches in Barcelona)

Casa Mila by Gaudi

More incredible architecture

So we got off at Colom Museu Maritim stop and walked back to our hotel.  It was already almost 6pm.  We were soooo tired!  We had reservations for 41 Degrees tonight.  I decided to cancel them.  I know, I was passing up an experience but to be totally honest, we had enough "molecular" cuisine the night before.  We just weren't wanting anymore this quickly.  And, for the $141 euro price tag each, it did not seem right to spend that much money if we weren't "feeling" it.  Because we were so tired, we just made our way back to Los Cachitas for dinner.

We started with a cheese plate and got a side of "Pa Amb Tomaquet" which means tomato bread.  It was so good!  Simple.  Perfect.  Then we ordered seafood paella.  It was also great!!!  We were both satisfied.  The paella had nice sticky bits on the bottom.  It was like comfort food and was just what we needed.  I just wanted to mention that the Fanta orange soda and Coke are really good in Spain!  Not the same as we get at home.  My son said he was going to miss these a lot!

Then it was back to the room and off to bed for both of us.  We were so tired, I'm not sure how or why we both felt the same way.  We both slept right through till morning.

November 27th:

We originally had tickets/plans to do the Cava tour at Freixenet but we both said we didn't spend enough time in Barcelona, so decided to stay local for the day.  I was sad to find out Boqueria market was closed today.  We went to - yes, Los Cachitos again for breakfast.  

Bikini sandwich

Patatas Bravas with spicy sauce

Then we wandered back down La Rambla to take the Blue Line Hop On/Off bus today.  When we got to Placa Cataluyna, I was distressed to find that El Corte Ingles was closed today!  This was where I planned to do all our souvenir/gift shopping.  I knew I'd be leaving Barcelona without anything now.  I wasn't looking for La Rambla souvenirs.  So, we headed for Park Guell.  I'm so glad we stopped here!  It was just breathtaking.   
All the pictures below are from there:

We left reluctantly and stopped for a Cava & a Coke before catching the bus back to Placa Cataluyna.  Once there, we wanted a bite but after wandering around a bit, we (shhhh, don't tell anyone) went to Hard Rock Cafe for lunch.  Then we caught a taxi back to the hotel.  I wrote this trip report while son napped.

We took a cab to Paco Meralgo at 8:30pm.  We had a reservation.  I had read reviews on Trip Advisor and Chowhound saying this was a good place for Sunday dinner.  I can sum up my feelings in one word:  "MEH". Our server was efficient.  He made recommendations that I thought weren't good.  The tuna was just yuck.  Neither of us could eat more than the first bite.  It was just sour!  The veal dish which he recommended was over $12 euros and was tough and chewy though served medium.  Now here's the kicker for me.  While my son ordered dessert, I asked if they had oysters.  He said yes and asked if I wanted small or large?  I said small.  These cost me $4.90 euros EACH!  That's $7.50 CAD or $30 for four oysters!  I complained when I got the bill and he said one word, "Fresh".  They don't even detach them from the shell, I had to do it with grit  in them and try and pull them off the shell!  Anyway, the bill was $93 euros without tip.  I gave him a $10 euros tip.  I would never return!  So disappointed this was our final meal... Here's a couple pictures, including the $30 oysters.  I will be honest...the oysters really put me off the whole dining experience at this restaurant and it was really overpriced in general.  Period.

Chewy veal
Disgusting Tuna

This "Paco Meralgo" salad was $6.45 euros - not worth it!

Took a taxi back again and went to the room to sleep.

I don't know what this is, but it was beautiful too, just like my memories of Barcelona

November 28th:

Woke up and were at the laundromat by 9:15am.  It is on Carrer Nou del la rambla.  About a 5 minute walk from the hotel.  I read in the morning on Cruise Critic that Norwalk Virus has plagued our ship for the last two cruises.  They were offering the B2B cruisers free shore excursions today and boarding was delayed until 2pm with the rooms not being available til 5pm as HazMat was coming in to fumigate.  I called the front desk and they said we could stay until 1pm.  That helped!  I figured we would  go for lunch at Los Cachitas but it was closed so we had to go to one of the sketchy places on our block.  We just got bikini sandwiches and coffee.  Then back to the room to shower and get ready to check out.  Left at 1pm and went to the Port.  I think the fare came to $13 euros.  I can't remember what I tipped him but I probably gave him $20 euros.  I remember he was really thankful and happy.

Boarding was delayed til after 3:30.  We didn't get to our room and start unpacking until around 7pm.  We stayed in the Martini bar and had a couple while letting the crowds thin out.  As I was unpacking, I realized we had left my son's brand new suit jacket hanging in the closet in Barcelona.  I emailed the hotel and they shipped it to me in Canada for $50 euros.  That hurt, both for the formal nights (two) and the shipping cost!

So, as a side note here.  I am writing the cruise portion after coming home.  It was too expensive for internet time on the ship to do it nightly like I normally do when on vacation.  (My internet package was $99.95 and was billed off at 40 cents a minute - normal rate is 75 cents a minute!)  Because of this, this will be a shortened version.  I did keep some notes so it'll be fairly accurate, just not as detailed as I normally do with my daily reports.  13 days is a long time anyway and most probably don't want to suffer through a minute by minute detail of it all anyway!  :-)

As I said earlier, we had a nice hump balcony and here is a picture of it.

The room had plenty of storage.  We were very happy with the size, including the bathroom and closet.
The 32" t.v. had everything you need from room service, your running bill account, movies and music.

The first evening we spent it with a brother and sister from Florida, ate in the buffet and had some drinks.    There was no self service in the buffet.  You even had to ask for salt & pepper and condiments.  You could not pour your own drinks either.  This remained in effect for the entire cruise.

I had purchased the premium alcohol drink package and my son purchased the premium non-alcohol one.  To get what you paid for, for mine, you would need to average $66 per day.  My drinks had a cap of $12 which pretty much covered everything except champagne.  They had  a pretty good Prosecco though so I drank that instead.  I would have preferred Cava though...

November 29th - At Sea - Formal Dinner:

I woke up and walked a couple of miles today.  Small track (below), eight times around equals a mile.  It was early when I went and pretty quiet.

Dinner tonight in the main dining room was not memorable, nor impressive in any way.  I was very underwhelmed and I was not expecting to be this disappointed!  There's not even any good pictures to post of it.  OK, here's my appy of dry, breaded frogs legs.

After dinner we ended up at the "evil" martini bar.  The ice bar was nice (It was shut down after a few days.  Bartender says because they believe it passes Noro virus through the ice).  They had a LOT of different martinis.  I don't drink hard liquor so these had me feeling no pain!  I remember telling my son I was going to try them all.  I made my way back to the room around 2am, the casino being my last stop that evening.

Some evil melon, cucumber concoction

November 30th -  Malaga, Spain:

I awoke at 7:30 and realized we had to be in the Solstice theatre picking up our tour tickets in a half hour.  As soon as I stood up, I ran to the bathroom and got sick.  We made our way to the theatre where I was not feeling good.  I can't remember ever feeling this bad in my life, to be honest.  As we were waiting for further instructions, they announced you could not use the washrooms on the buses as it was Europe law.  I told my son I couldn't go and went back to the room and got sick again.

I could not keep anything down.  I was vomiting and had the runs the entire day.  I put on the "do not disturb" sign and resigned myself to the bed.  Nothing would stay down.  At about midnight, I was pretty sure this was more than a hangover.  I ordered chicken soup from room service and was able to keep it down.  It was just broth with one noodle in it, pretty much...the vomiting finally stopped but the other problem didn't and I spent more time in that bathroom than I would ever like to remember.  Not the kind of memory I wanted for Malaga.  I stayed in the room until the next morning.

December 1st -  Cadiz, Spain:

I awoke and the nausea had left.  The other problem remained.  Our tour left later today and was only 4 hours so we decided to chance it.  When we left, I got a very interrogating questioning from my room steward about my "do not disturb" sign yesterday.  I told her I drank too much but I don't know if she believed me.  In fact, that night, I found a notice about Norwalk virus in my door.  I looked down the hall and didn't see it on any of the other doors.

I still hadn't eaten and only managed to get a  couple pieces of fruit down with a couple spoons of cottage cheese.  We met our tour bus and I asked my tour guide when there would be bathroom breaks and how long between them.  There were enough that I thought I should be ok.   We were doing the Sherry cellars tour.

The first stop in old Cadiz was the showing of this ficus tree.  It really was a nice sight.  My picture doesn't do it justice.  You would need "landscape" view to fit the whole tree in, it was huge!

Here was the first washroom on our tour but she advised me NOT to use it unless it was absolutely necessary.  I managed to abstain.  I also managed to abstain from drinking another martini for the entire cruise...

I don't know what this was, but this  crossed our path on our walk of Old town.  Someone on Trip Advisor said they think it's the Cathedral.

Then it was off to Jerez for our Sherry tour.  We stopped here.  We were told this is the most popular sherry in the world.  It's called Tio Pepe.  

Celebs have toured there too and signed the barrels though I only recognized a couple of signatures that were American.

There was a tasting at the end to which I only managed a tiny sip to the lips.  Sherry is definitely not to my liking.  My son didn't like it either.  In all, this was a good tour for the day.  I would have probably walked around Cadiz after the bus dropped us off.  She even told us there was an El Corte Inglis close by but I still didn't feel like myself and had to get back on board.

I know I ate very little at dinner, but I did eat my appy which was very good!  It was shrimp and scallop risotto and one of the best things I ate on the cruise.

December 2nd - Lisbon, Portugal:

I awoke with still no appetite and had my usual two pieces of melon and cottage cheese.  Then I thought I'd probably end up with listeria from that.  Originally we were to be on a walking tour with a group of other Cruise Critic members.  However, I still had the other problem and was not confident about having to find washrooms on our three hour walk.  I met them and told our leader Bart that I would have to bail out.  He reported to me later that they all had an excellent time and the tour was great.  We walked around town.  I got good at finding hotel bathrooms and they were nice for the ones I found!  Here's some pictures of our walk around.  Don't ask me what anything is, because I have no idea.  :-)  I do know on that middle shelf in the first picture below, there are "Portuguese egg custard tarts".  I tried to talk my son into having one as they are awesome!  He said maybe later and we never got back.  Serious loss for him!

We stopped for lunch at a place called "Solar Dos Bicos" and I tried the codfish (bacalhau) which is above.  It was pretty good but I still didn't have much of an appetite.  It must have been a tourist place too because they charged $4 euros for a small basket of about four slices of baguette!  We didn't ask for it either, it was just dropped on our table so we of course thought it was complimentary.  I was not happy about that.  But I could forgive it as......the Portuguese version of sparkling wine was only $1.50 euros.

My son had sole

Dinner was uneventful so here are some main dining room pictures instead of food.  The ship rocked and rolled all night leaving Lisbon.  You barely saw anyone on the ship and if you did, they looked staggering drunk.  :-)  Surprisingly I felt ok and it did not affect me like a lot of others complained about.

 Gorgeous Chandelier

Loved the wine tower!

This picture below is looking down the floors of the ship between the elevators.  I took many different pictures on different floors but it was hard to get a good shot.  This one is of the library and it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.  The floor below was the card room.

December 3rd - At Sea:

I awoke feeling like my old self today!  No other problem!  We had lunch in the main dining room and I had a wonderful lamb shank dish.  It was really delicious!  It was also nice to have an appetite again too!

I did the Wine Appreciation seminar this day in the afternoon.  It was only $10 and was pretty interesting.  The cheese and bread-sticks sat out way too long  and were almost inedible.  They weren't there for pairing though, just for palette cleansing.  The champagne was poured last and everyone toasted.

Dinner was ok.  I had duck ala orange.  It was better than previous nights but still not great.  My waiters started to figure out I wasn't enjoying the food.

Our favourite place on the ship was Cafe Bacio.  They had great coffees, teas, iced drinks and some that had Gelato in them.  They also offered pastries and afternoon tea sandwiches.  My son lived here.  I visited a couple of times each day as well.  If you don't have a premium beverage package the drinks will run you about $5 each.  The food is complimentary.  

Cafe Viennese
My son said he thinks this one is the Caramel Macchiato 
I can't remember what this one was called but it had caramel gelato in it.

Afternoon tea sandwiches.  I loved the smoked salmon w/ cream cheese!  (bottom right)

December 4th - Azores:

We were on a private tour arranged through Cruise Critic members that had eight people.  We docked two hours late because of the rocking and rolling waves.  They extended the time in port but our tour was based on daylight so we had to skip one sight on our itinerary.  Azores is very green.  Our guide compared it to New Zealand.  After a photo stop, we headed over to a tea plantation.  Azores supplies most of the tea to all of Portugal.  

Tea plantation - Cha Correana

Scenic view of Azores
Hot Springs at Furnas Lake.  Temps are 100 degrees Celsius

We ate dinner with Bob and Phyliss at Silk Harvest this evening.  This is the specialty Asian fusion restaurant.  The small plates were good.  The sushi was terrible and the large plates were not bad.  I didn't get any good pictures of the food.  The one below is my plate with the food from the large plates.  There's some Pad Thai, Kung Pao chicken, Green curry pork and some fried rice.  We let them know our thoughts about the sushi and they seemed to appreciate the comments.  I got all three specialty restaurants booked for $150 for the two of us.  That does not include gratuity.  I originally paid $190 for it but they had a special when we boarded so they gave me the credit back.

December 5th - At Sea:

And so we begin our last six days at sea.  It makes me feel a little nervous but I am looking forward to some rest.  I will say that the entertainment on the first half of the cruise up to Azores was pretty lame.  Yawn.  A whole new crew came on in Azores.

I asked Guest Relations if they would refund my Malaga tour through them because I had been sick but they said that because I had not gone to the Medical facility they would not.

Had a good lunch in the dining room.  Here's the Waldorf salad, meatloaf and apple strudel I had.

December 6th - At Sea: 

Second day at sea and I have a routine developing.  Every night before bed I tell my son I'm going at 7am on the treadmill to walk 5 miles.  Every morning I wake up, go back to sleep til 9 and then tell myself it's too late to walk.  Then I head down to Cafe Bacio for a Baileys coffee and then to the casino.  I meet my son for lunch.

The comedian tonight was really good.  We laughed a lot!  His name was Jim McDonald.  The entertainment had improved.  Thank goodness!!!!

I even had a nice veal cordon bleu at dinner.  I had spoke with the Maitre d and my head waiter about the food.  It was just not ever hot enough and it was always over cooked.  They said they would look after it and they did this evening.

The Maitre d also brought the chefs over to introduce them.  This is the three of them below.  He brought them to all the tables, not just ours.

December 7th - At Sea:

Started my day the same way as yesterday and the day before.  At 2:30 I did the "Art of Food and Wine Pairing" for $15 which was held in Blu Restaurant.  This restaurant is only available to Aqua guests or suite guests so this is the first time I got see it.  I enjoyed this and they gave us a list with pairings to take home with us to use for future entertaining.

The show tonight had a magician Andy James who features sleight of hand.  For that reason I had us sit front row so I could see if I could see anything.  I did see a wire when he did some scarf stuff.  But, by sitting in the front, he got my son up on stage and they did a hilarious piece of comedy and a card trick!  Afterwards, he received a photo from him that says, "I flew across the stage with Andy James".   We ran into Andy at Cafe Bacio later in the cruise and I got a great picture of them together recreating their "Titanic" moment on stage.  My son was really happy about that and Andy was a really nice guy.  Another unexpected pleasure of the trip.

We headed to Murano specialty restaurant for dinner where my son was now like a celebrity.  Everyone called him by name and told him how good he was on stage.  It was very nice!  This continued for the rest of the cruise.  Everyone knew him by name.  I know my son enjoyed it a lot.  :-)  Here is what we had at Murano:

This was an amuse of pea puree to stimulate the palette.
Diver Scallop Wellington
Warm Goat Cheese Croustillant
Heirloom Tomato Salad, Buffalo Mozzarella, Apple and Cantaloupe
Lobster Bisque
Filet Mignon
Mushroom Crusted Rack of Colorado Lamb
Cheese plate (I let him pick them for me)
Dark Chocolate Souffle with Mocha Cream Sauce

December 8th - At Sea:

Yes, the day started with a Baileys coffee and casino until lunch.  We caught the afternoon magic show with Andy James and then I booked Tuscan Grille Specialty restaurant for dinner.  I figured if I could spend all this money on gambling each day, I could spend it on a restaurant.  Those who booked their cruise through CruCon also got 20% off so it cost $48 pre gratuity for two.  Phyliss and Bob had also said this was their best meal so far so I decided to go for it.  

The other habit we had picked up was Bingo.  I started out spending $50 a session but dropped it to $30.  Still, that's not cheap.  My son had a lot of fun there though because he likes corny jokes and that is what you got there each afternoon.  I enjoyed it too. The staff all had a good sense of humour.  No one ended up winning the $5000 jackpot the final day.  They didn't even play for it.  No usual final game for a full card within 46 numbers called.  They just played for $1400 final prize for a full card whenever complete.  When asked about it, they (Zach - Activity Manager) just said, "The Bingo company sets the rules"....

They knew me well in this part of the ship...

I had lunch twice at Bistro on 5.  You pay $5 per person to go.  I didn't think too much of the food.  I had a crepe the first time and a panini the second time.  I didn't take any pictures but here is their offerings they show outside the restaurant.

Here are a few dishes we had from dinner at Tuscan Grille.  We went straight to bed after dinner!  We were stuffed!  It was very good!

Antipasti platter (They bring this to you even if you don't order it with some great breads!)
This was crab dip on the top and crostinis on the bottom.
This was a HALF order of Kobe Meatballs with Pappardelle

December 9th - At Sea - Formal night:

We received this in our daily door mail, so we decided to go...

Here's the officer steering the ship from the bridge.  They said it works on auto-pilot much like a plane
Captain Berdos

The tour wasn't much but my son enjoyed it so that is what matters.  Captain Berdos was more interested telling us how we could buy a picture with him for $10 that evening on deck 4.  

Formal night dinner was ok.  My head waiter even brought me another steak when he saw it was well done without me saying anything.  The second one he brought was well done too so I told him not to worry about it.  Here is a nice picture of him.  His name is Francisco (left) and our assistant waiter was named Elijiah though we called him Simon for a reason that is still unknown to me.  They were both very nice and provided very good service.  I have no complaints about them at all.

December 10th - Final Day At Sea:

We spent the day outside mostly.  It was pretty hot.  

The lawn deck

We had a burger at the Mast Grill.  These were pretty good!  You had to go and get your condiments put on by staff.

Before Bingo in the theatre, they had a "Star Chefs Cooking Competition" so we watched that...(Yawn)...

Dinner was at Tuscan Grille again.  

 Our waiter from Macedonia preparing my Caesar salad
 It was very good!
 Rib-eye steak with mac & cheese.  I couldn't finish, sadly...
 My son finished all of his filet!  That was a fine looking steak!
He also finished his Tiramisu!

December 11th - Ft. Lauderdale:

I awoke and looked out my balcony to see this...we were docked in Fort Lauderdale.

We were scheduled to disembark at 9:30.  The "Celebrity Today" paper said breakfast was in the main dining room til 8am.  We left the room about quarter to eight.  It was not serving breakfast and they sent us to the buffet.  That took fifteen minutes to get there so we almost didn't get anything but we scrambled and got enough to keep us going.  It took awhile to get through everything for disembarkation.  Lines of people everywhere.  It felt very disorganized and chaotic.  We finally got a taxi to the airport ($20 including tip) and it was raining madly!

We were told the ship was having everyone get off again (the B2B'ers) and this time they were even doing more cleaning.  This time the ceilings were getting done too.  I have seen comments varying on our Cruise Critic roll call about what they heard about how many people were sick.  It varied with who you talked to.  I talked to a lot of people who had the same thing I had (though maybe not the hangover).   The staff all gave me different answers from "not many" to "lots - more than last cruise".  I think if they did the extreme cleaning again, it's still a problem.  

I flew home with a cough.  I had a sore throat the last few days but woke up with a cough on the last day.  Thankfully I have a couple of days off before I return back to work so I hope I'll be better soon!  I am unsure if I like cruising for that long.  I think I wish we spent more time on land and took a shorter cruise.  My son agreed.  Perhaps the experience was slightly marred by all the sickness and precautions?  Anyhow, I will miss this view from my balcony each morning...  I thought the ship itself was incredibly well laid out.  Honestly, except for embarkation and disembarkation, I never noticed crowds that were annoying.  Not anywhere, not anytime.  The Solstice had splendid beauty.

I can say that returning to Europe is certainly in both our futures again.  My son loved London and Barcelona and wants to see other places!  He told me he heard Paris is good.  :-)


  1. Great report on the TA Christine & lots of good pics--I kept forgetting to bring my camera to the dinning room :^( we had to walk from 1 end of ship to other end & I was just doing good to get there. Still sorry you were sick some of the time. On the Lisbon night I felt a bit bad--but used 1 pill & some Motion Eze & felt fine.

  2. I have enjoyed reading your blog. I remember our travels by favourite meals so I liked to read about yours.

  3. Great report again! (I've been following your trip reports since NOLA) :)

    I'm jealous you got to try TICKETS, and for free! I was in Barcelona back in 2008 but wasn't much of a foodie back then. I'm heading to Valencia, Granada, Sevilla, and San Sebastian in the summer. Can't wait to eat my face off! Haha.

  4. Hi again Jo! Nice to hear from you! I never did hear about your trip to NOLA. Send me an email and let me know how it was and how you ate. :-)