Sunday, September 29, 2019

Thursday, December 13, 2018 – San Francisco, CA – Partly Cloudy – 66F -Embarkation Day

Slept well.  The room was very quiet.  The desk clerk told us yesterday that the room was part of a block of rooms sold to a group.  But our room was so quiet it seemed like we had no neighbors.

The breakfast was pretty much the usual La Quinta fair.  I had a bowl of Raisin Bran, a made to order waffle, some scrambled eggs (powdered? I hope not).  The food was pretty good.

Based on information from the hotel, we decided to take an Uber to the port – an UberX: Fare: $27.73; Tolls/Surcharges/Fees (?): $2.20 - $29.93 Total (plus a $5 tip) or about what we pay to go to the airport from our house.  The driver was polite and semi-careful and he dropped us off right at the port where the porters await your luggage.

We checked in quickly with the Port Agent – our credit card was registered during on line check-in so that cut the wait time.  We were on the ship in no time.

I got some very nice pictures of the city including a panoramic shot of Baghdad by the Bay (not as complimentary a term as it was in the past).

I also took what has become an iconic pose - Ellen on the back deck.  In this case, the vast Pacific Ocean has been replaced by the equally iconic San Francisco skyline.

We have been in many different kinds of cabins on Grand Princess.  This time, we are in an outside officer's cabin. However, finding our room, 7125, proved to be challenging as several crew members did not know where it was.  We even ran into Steve Cauoette, the comedian, who is staying in the same area and he tried unsuccessfully to find our room.  Finally, an officer helped us find it – we had walked by it several times and didn’t notice the number.  The room is on Deck 7 forward starboard – through the doors to the crew area – make a left and it’s the first cabin – it’s a very nice cabin with a decent bed and big window – it’s big with lots of shelves and storage and the bathroom is pretty big compared to other speaker rooms.  The room does use a real key – the sea pass card is only for charging and entry to the ship.

We had lunch up in Horizon Court, which was super-slammed.  All I wanted was a salad and there was no lettuce – I was told that there were technical difficulties with the lettuce.  Finally, the actual chef brought me my own bowl of iceberg lettuce for a salad.  There are hand washing stations at both ends of the buffet and they are manned by watchers.  We saw the same thing for the whole cruise on the Island Princess.

We went to the wrong venue for the lifeboat drill (Vista Theater instead of the Crooners Lounge – we should have read the letter in the room and/or known better from past experience).  We were scanned in so I am still confused as to what happened.

I met with Mike Witte, the Entertainment Manager, in his office by the theater entrance.  Mike had a totally different list of topics than I had (and had sent in to Princess).  No clue as to what happened so I handed him the list I had and he said he would go with that.  I was going to give all five talks – some in the Vista Lounge and some in the Princess Theater.
The sail away is always beautiful - under the Golden Gate

and this time, a view of Alcatraz of the back deck.

We had dinner in the Michelangelo Room (one of the TMNT rooms).  It was the usual first night chaos.  After a crazy wait, we got our salmon and Fettuccine Alfredo – the food was good.

Steven Campbell is the Cruise Director and he told us that there are two thousand Americans on board (of the 2400 passengers).  While that may be true, many of the US passengers are Chinese folk from the SF area and are not necessarily English speakers.  Steve said there are 12 Chinese passengers but many more folks are speaking Chinese. 

Steve Cauoette is the headliner for Showtime tonight.  His act was a little different (no girlfriend with a mustache) and was OK.  Much of his act is chatting with the audience and giving late comers a standing ovation. 

Even though it is our first evening, the clocks go forward tonight.

Grand Princess – Mexico and Hawaii Cruises – December 13, 2018 – January 7, 2019

We are getting away from the cold for almost a month by combining a 10 day Mexican Riviera cruise with a 15 day Hawaiian Cruise.  I never get tired of those itineraries - especially the sea days and warm weather.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018 – Travel Day

Our flight on American (AA2634) this morning departs at 10:20 AM so our cab is scheduled for 8:00 AM.  Instead of our usual cab, American Taxi dispatched their upscale American Blue Lincoln Sedan at no extra coast.  Our driver is another classy woman dressed in a long coat and gloves.  We took one of these a while back – very fancy.  I don’t know how much more the Blue cars are but it was a comfortable ride.  She was right on time and with no traffic, we were at the airport before 8:30 AM.

We usually check in at the kiosk but there was no one in line at the Premium desk area so we checked in with an agent.

TSA pre-check was very quick and we were off to our gate.  Our plane (an A320) was waiting for us.

The flight took off on time and the climbout was smooth.

We were in Cabin Extra Seats – 10C and 10D so we had drinks included – we also were told that we could have one of the pay meals instead of a drink so I chose the hummus plate (three different hummus’ and the cutest mini pitas and some vegetable sticks for dipping) which was very good.  On the next drink run, I ordered a “White Russian” (a glass of milk and a Bailey’s bottle).  A pretty good perk for the premium seats.

The flight was bumpy almost all the way there and the pilot kept apologizing for the ride and indicated that he has been trying to find smooth air (I could tell that was the case because I could feel the change in altitude and also saw it on the TV display).

Even though we are on a small jet, the entertainment system was excellent.  I watched “Pacific Rim 2” – essentially dreck but it helped pass the time.  I have a feeling that there are more Jaegers and Kaijus on the horizon.  The flight status system was also neat with 3D graphics now included -  here we are about 30 minutes out.

We touched down on time and our bags were one of the first to come off the belt.  We went upstairs to the Hotel Shuttle pickup area.  We had to call twice to make sure our shuttle was actually going to pick us up.  After waiting about 40 minutes, our van showed up.  

It’s a short ride up the highway to the La Quinta SF Airport North. 

Our initial room was an accessible room in an outbuilding – we walked part of the way there and decided to check with the desk on other options.  We wound up giving up our Double Queen Room for a Double Double Bed Room on the second floor in the main building.  This would make it easier to come down for breakfast and to check out.The desk clerk was very helpful - he indicated that this room actually was part of a group reservation.  He said he would deal with the issue later.  

The room looked like it might have been recently upgraded.  The beds were nice and the bathroom had a bath tub.
We walked across the hotel parking to the Denny’s Restaurant and picked up two side garden salads and some fries to have with our bagels and loxs that we brought on the plane to eat.  The salads were huge and I didn’t each much of the bagels. 

We spent the rest of the evening in our room.  Even though we were supposed to be embedded in a group of reserved rooms, everything seemed quiet.

November 1, 2018 – Rome, Italy, Travel Day - Drizzly and 60s

A soggy day in Rome - taking the good weather with us.

Our flight this morning is at 11:15 AM – Lufthansa 1843 to Munich – so had a car scheduled for 8:00 AM (FCO could be as long as an hour away).  I went down to breakfast right at 7:00 AM and had my cereal and milk plus scrambled eggs, baguette, and coffee.  Ellen got a bag from the hotel and packed her breakfast to go (for the airport).  

Our driver was there right on time.  Our driver spoke very little English and did his best to try and point out some sights along the way.  He drove like a typical Italian but, even though it was raining, we got to FCO about 8:45 PM.  We found out which check in desk we had to use and got into that line.  The line moved a lot faster than expected and our bags were checked through to Chicago.

We went through security relatively quickly – no shoe removal at FCO.  Even though this is a busy airport, the security process is thorough but quick.  We put all our stuff back into our carry on (which, by the way, had to be approved and tagged during check in to be allowed as carry on) and headed for our gate.  They have charging stations throughout the waiting areas so you can always have your devices working.  Our plane, LH1843 - an A319 - was waiting for us at the gate.

When I looked at the boarding passes carefully, I noticed that the seats were incorrect – the process was so hurried through check in that I didn’t see the problem at the time – I did look at the long flight to make sure they were OK.  We were both in aisle seats on the A319 just not across from each other. 

While waiting to board, I got two emails indicating gate changes – Lufthansa is good at that since the departure board didn’t have them up there as yet.  

We boarded pretty much on time - we did not opt for premium seats on the short flight to Munich and while the seats were a little tight, they were tolerable.  The flight was relatively smooth.

Our layover in Munich was three hours but the airport in comfortable and we had chargers and adapters.  Once we got the gate assignments, we noted that our plane - LH434 - was there.

We boarded our A350-900 on time - we have excellent premium seats on this flight - for future reference, seats 16J and 16K are excellent because they do not have a third seat.  So plenty of room and no neighbor.  The plane is similar to the 787 Dreamliner in that it is constructed of carbon-reinforced plastics - the plane is able to pressurize at lower equivalent altitudes resulting in higher humidity and a more comfortable environment.

The flight was indeed comfortable - the in-flight entertainment system was excellent - and our kosher meals very good.  Our flight plan today will take us over Iceland - a route we have not seen much, if at all.

The flight was mostly smooth and the plane arrived around 8:00 PM. Passport control went relatively quickly (Global Entry helps).

A long day but a very nice trip.

October 31, 2018 – Rome, Italy – Mostly Cloudy – 68F

A good night sleep (it was very quiet) and a beautiful day in the Eternal City.  It's a Goldilocks day - not to hot and not too cold.  A perfect day for exploring.

The hotel provided (included) a very nice breakfast - breads and cheeses and some hot stuff as well.  We fueled up for our day of walking.

Our plan to day is simple and elegant – we are going to walk to the Jewish Ghetto Area and get a big Kosher hamburger.  Our past visits to that area have turned up pricey kosher restaurants but also quaint, no frills burger places with seating right there in the street.  Hoping for something like that today.

I plotted our route on a map, double checked with Roberto for accuracy (thumbs up) and we were off. The route was basically a straight path with several street name changes – a left out of the hotel for about three blocks and a soft left onto Via Statuto, down the hill until you run into the Forum. 

About a block into the walk, we came across a Center for Estetico and the place was able to offer two Thai massages at 45 Euros/hour.  We thought having the treatments now meant we would not have to rush back for our 6 PM appointments.  I emailed the hotel and asked them to cancel our appointments.  The massages were OK if perhaps a bit too strong – next time, it’s relaxation massages.  But now, there was no time pressure on our walk - a positive thing.

Then, it was back on the road for us. The route (downhill in this direction, which meant a climb to get home) would take us parallel to the Colosseo, which we could actually see on our way down.  At the bottom of the hill - so to speak - we found out that, due to construction, we would not be able to get close to the Colosseum.  Our best best would be to shoot a picture from a couple of blocks away.

Our next stop was the world famous Roman Forum - or as the sign indicated - The Forum of the Peace (circa 70-75 AD).  There were so many things to see at the Forum - shot the site from different angles to capture as much as I could.

Near the forum, we came upon a plaque - I couldn't read all of the Italian but I did make our the word, Israel.

As we left the Former, we noted a number of street performers - one of the most unique were the invisible twins (sunglasses suspended in space)

We continued our walk over to the Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland) also known as the Monument Vittoria Emmanuel II.  This monument, started in 1885 and completed in 1935, commemorates King Victor Emmanuel II, the King who unified Italy.  The structure contains an equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuel II as well as two statues of the Roman goddess of victory, Victoria.  It is located near the Piazza Venezia.

After going around the back of the monument and not attempting the huge stairs,

 the Great Synagogue of Rome 

and the Ghetto area were located just a right turn along the Tiber River.  Well, the route turned out to be accurate and in about an hour we were scouting the many Kosher restaurants in search of the perfect burger.

The last two times we did the hamburger pilgrimage, we found greasy spoons offering yummy fare.  They were not gone and replaced by fancy burger places.  The one we settled on was Fonzie’s Kosher Burgers.  

Ellen had the 120 gram patty and I opted for 240 gram size (in hamburgese, that’s a quarter pounder and half pounder, respectively).  I added an Italian Beer, Peroni Nastro Azzurro, and an order of onion rings (the only disappointment – only five rings) and a Coke Zero.  The total tab came out to be 23.30 Euros or about $26.00 – would be a whole lot more back in Chicago.  The burgers were heavenly and worth the hike.


We walked through the Ghetto area a bit checking out the stores and the sights.

One of the plazas had a very ornate fountain - La Fontana della Tartarughe - The Fountain of Turtles - that was built between 1581 and 1588.


We also found a shop that offered Harry Potter items but what really caught our eye were the items hung on the wall of the shop.

We decided to walk back after thinking about a cab.  We did get back (after a few breather stops) and the total steps were just over 11,000 with half of them being uphill.  We did see some interesting architectural items during our homeward trek.

We were still full from lunch so we opted for no dinner - just some snacks in the room.

We set up a ride to Fiumicino Airport with the desk clerk.

A great day in Rome.

Friday, September 27, 2019

October 30, 2018 – At Sea – Ligurian Sea – Coast of Itality – Partly Cloudy – 50s

The ship is moving.  I got up early and confirmed we were sailing.

We are heading to Civitavecchia with a arrival time projected to be 2:30 PM.  The skies are mostly blue but the waves are big and the sea is not that smooth.

Our position indicated we were making good time.

It didn’t feel like we were 900 folks lighter as I had breakfast up in the Oceanview Café.

To fill in the extra day – there is a movie at 10:30 AM and I am going to do my “Extreme Forensics: Non-Human DNA” talk at 12:30 PM – seems that Sam was trying to get in touch with me while I was looking for her.  I did the presentation in the theater to about 20 folks (some regulars said they didn’t know about it even though Paul did make an announcement).  My clothes were packed so I was on stage in convertible travel pants and crocs.  Just trying to help out.

Our ETA in Civitavecchia is about 2:30 PM and it took a while to pull alongside.  I got a nice shot of one of the ferries, decked out in Superman livery.

Passengers, including us, lined up at the gangway on Deck 4.  Celebrity provided complimentary bus transfers to Fiumicino Airport.  We got on the very first bus and in about 40 minutes we were at the airport.  We purchased First Class tickets on the non-stop Leonardo da Vinci Train and in 32 minutes were in Roma Termini Station.  We walked around the corner of the station to the taxi line – we paid 20 Euros to get to the Hotel Napoleon (the hotel said it would be no more than 12 Euros but the cabbie said something about bag charges).  We were, truthfully, too tired to debate the issue.

Using a convoluted route and driving like a Rome Cab Driver (in a cab with non-functional seat belts), we got to the hotel.  

The hotel is a magnificent structure contained within several shops.  We checked in with very professional desk clerk, Roberto, who explained how the hotel worked.  The porter took us to our room – using two separate very small elevators.  We are Room 306 – a very nice room with a balcony overlooking the courtyard – this should result in a quiet room.

It was our lucky night because on Tuesdays (and Thursdays), there is cocktail hour complete with complimentary drinks and snacks.  I got a Bloody Mary and Ellen a Coke Zero (found out later that the cocktails at other times are 9 Euros and up). 

There were some lox and cream cheese snack as well as crostini with beans and cheese (surprisingly good).  After the rush was done, we asked the bartender for some mineral water and he gave us two of them gratis.

Roberto, recommended two Thai Massage places in the area and I made a reservation for both of us for tomorrow at 6:00 PM (50 Euros/hour).

We tried walking down the street near the hotel but everything was starting to close (8 PM) so we went back to the hotel and hung out in our room.  

Really pooped.

October 29, 2018 – La Spezia – Day 2 – Windy, Rainy, Thunder – 50s

From our docked position, the city of La Spezia looks peaceful enough but that is not the case. The temperature is in the 50s outside and the clouds look threatening.

The weather story was all confirmed by an announcement from the bridge that indicated that it would not be safe to go ashore today.  We had planned to visit a nearby spa but it looks like that will have to wait for a return trip to La Spezia.

I had a nice breakfast up in the Oceanview Café – yes, still no cottage cheese (no one made a special trip to the supermarket to get me cottage cheese).

We are going to spend the day in warm and safe confines of the Reflections Lounge.

The weather got progressively worse and we watched it all unfold from our viewpoint in Reflections, Deck 11.  In the morning, the first bit of bad news – thunder and lightning.  That was followed by heavy rain.  There are some passengers on excursions this morning and they must be getting drenched.  It almost looked like things would be improving with visibility getting better but the clouds reappeared.

We got lunch in the Oceanview Café and then returned to keep an eye on things on Deck 11.  Then everything went nuts.

The winds picked up dramatically causing all the little boats in the marina to bob like toys. Then super-strong winds (heard they were near hurricane force) started to pummel the harbor followed by an eerie linear fog or cloud that was blown along with the winds.  Visibility went to near zero and the waves were linear from the wind.  Then, it appeared the ship was moving but there was no way that Constellation was going to depart in this wind.  The ship then listed, crashing noises were heard, and the ship started to move toward the boats in the harbor entrance.  
She stayed still for a while (probably due to full engine power) while several tugboats pushed the ship back.  

We only found out later that Constellation had broken free from its strings (due to the high winds), drifted backwards and dinged the Costa Magica (all caught on video and now on You Tube).  The ship was finally brought under control.

We were told that the ship would not depart at 4:00 PM as scheduled but would again stay overnight in La Spezia but that the departure time tomorrow was unknown.  The Magica had already transferred all of its passengers to buses headed to Fiumicino Airport and that new passengers would be bused in and board their cruise here instead of Civitavecchia.

My final talk – “Forensic Detectives: Identifying the Famous and Infamous” – is scheduled for the Reflections Lounge at 8:30 PM between the two “Rock City” shows.  Even if the attendance is low, it is still preferable to the theater.  As it turned out, the attendance was good – about 90 percent full.  It all went well and some passengers even told Sam how much they liked the lectures.

Announcements continued through the early evening – the latest indicated that about 900 passengers would get on buses at 11:00 PM to Fiumicino so they could get their morning flights – this was a 5 plus hour drive.  We found out later that the buses didn’t depart until 1 AM due to clearance issues with the Port Authority.

At about 4:00 AM, I felt a shudder in the cabin and a peek out the window indicated we were moving somewhere.