Thursday, March 7, 2024

Celebrity Constellation – Mardi Gras, Caribbean, Mexico Cruise – February 9 – March 3, 2024 – Roundtrip Tampa, FL

February 9, 2024 – Travel Day

February is historically the coldest month of the year in Chicago but thanks to scientifically ignorant earthlings, the planet is getting warmer and the weather is getting weirder. Temps have been in the low to high 50s this week and today, the high is forecast to be 57F.  This is the month where we usually take out “Get Away from the Cold” cruise and while the name is not as appropriate this year, we are doing back to back cruises on Celebrity Constellation. 

Our flights, set up by the Cruise Lines’ travel agents, tend to be at odd times and involve some lesser known airlines.  Not this time.  We are going out on American and returning on United (both non-stops) and the itineraries are pretty good.  Our flight this morning on AA2920 departs ORD at 8:35 AM (arriving 12:14 PM.  When I checked us in on line, I noticed that I did not have TSAprecheck on my boarding pass (Ellen did). After an online chat with American, I found out that the travel agency had entered my birthdate incorrectly – so no precheck. Based on that information, I figured we needed more time to go through security so I scheduled American Taxi to pick us up at 6:45 AM. 

Taxi #2441 arrived right on time. The driver put our bags in the trunk (not all drivers carry our bags down the stairs) and drove at the speed limit in the right lane all the way to the airport. We arrived at 7:10 AM and I was amazed at the number of cars at both Terminal 1 and Terminal 3 (ours).  We found an open kiosk near the Door 3A entrance and I printed new boarding passes and tagged our bags (my AA credit card got me a free checked bag). We dropped our bags at the drop and I asked the agent if she could do anything about my TSAprecheck problem. She asked me for my KTN and I gave it to her and she promptly printed a new boarding pass with TSAprecheck on it.  In the past, I was told that was not possible because TSA needed 10 days to confirm everything. Good to know.

The TSAprecheck Security Checkpoint is at the other end of the terminal. As we made our way there, we were in a mass of people – I don’t remember the terminal being this crowded.  We reached the Check Point and realized that there was a line – a really long line of maybe 100 or more.  The regular security line was unbelievable.  Amazingly, the line moved pretty quickly and TSA had a lot of agents and we got through in a decent amount of time.  We made our way to our gate while wading through a sea of people – what was so special about today.  There were no seats at Gate H14 when we first got there but some people got up and we scored a couple of seats.  The flight next to us (destination Los Cabos Mexico) was overbooked and they were offering $2000 vouchers for people to give up their seats (the bidding started at $1000). 

Our plane (B737-800) was at the gate 

and boarding started right on time at 8:00 AM.  By the time, we went over to the jetway entrance, they were boarding Group 5 (ours).  When I got the flight information from Celebrity, all of the Cabin Extra seats (the good ones) were gone so we are sitting aisle across (19C/19D) in the sardine section. Even though these seats are regular seats, they are considered “preferred” location seats and cost $23 (the end is nigh). The overhead bin by my seat was empty when I got there and I stowed by backpack.  Somebody closed it so my backpack was the only thing in that bin.

Everybody was on board, so we pushed a few minutes early.  We headed right out to the active runway – no planes ahead of us – revved those engines and took off right on time. We had our mini-bagels and smoked salmon cream cheese for a late second breakfast. I ordered two cups of coffee and an orange juice. The flight attendant was about to pour my juice when the plane hit some bad air and shook the aircraft. The pilot ordered everyone to sit down (I never got my juice and I held on to my coffees so they wouldn’t get knocked over). I checked my flight tracker and we were flying through some storms – I guess the pilot thought they wouldn’t be an issue. The plane climbed from 27,000 to 36,000 feet to find smoother air.  The turbulence smoothed out at the higher altitude and the flight was uneventful until we landed (a very hard landing) early at 11:56 AM.  I should mention that I wore my mask the whole flight (except, of course, when eating).  Lot of cruise ahead of us.

We took a train from our gate to the terminal to get our bags.  The terminal building is very nice with restaurants and shops and the world's biggest flamingo.

Our bags came right out so I called our hotel to send the shuttle.  They told us to go outside of the baggage claim, turn left and find BLUE 1 or 2 (the sections of the terminal have colors and numbers). American Airline baggage claim is BLUE 225 and I thought we would need to walk forever but BLUE 1 was just around the end of the building.  I called the hotel again and the shuttle appeared less than five minutes later – a true BLUE miracle. 

The ride to our hotel – Hampton Inn and Suites, Tampa Airport Avion Park Westshore – took just a few minutes. The hotel is in a complex of hotels and businesses called Avion Park.  It’s a real nice hotel – it looks new but it’s hard to tell how old it is.  We are in Room 811 – the desk clerk said it would be quiet.  We had our third meal of the day in the hotel lobby – we split Ellen’s birthday sandwich from Jimmy John’s along with Pirate Booty and a Diet Coke from the hotel fridge (never charged us).  The sandwich was a little soggy but still good.

Room 811 is a real nice room (you have to use your key card to activate the elevator in this hotel).  Again, it looks new.  It smells clean and looks clean.  It also had an interesting door plate.

The room has good views including the airport (TPA).

Although we were tired, we did have the whole afternoon to go somewhere in Tampa.  The weather was perfect – blue skies and 70F – so we decided to Uber to Ybor City. Ybor City (we were here years ago) is a concentrated cultural area (mostly Cuban and other Hispanic folks) that started off as its own city until it became part of Tamps in the late 1800s.  The Uber ride to Ybor City (with Laura in her Nissan Rogue hybrid) was 7.7 miles and took 37 minutes (yes, the traffic was ugly).  The cost including the $3.29 tip was $25.24 (that darn “booking fee”). 

Our plan was to walk along the main drag, 7th Avenue, 

and then have dinner at a Fish and Chip place on 8th Avenue.  The Fish and Chip place was iffy so we changed the plan and would seek out a better place along the main street.  7th Avenue had plenty of vintage stores and restaurants and even a theater.  

It also had a cigar plant where you could see the men making cigars.  

But it also had plenty of cigar smoke along most of the street on both sides.  It seemed a bit quiet for a main street but it was early in the afternoon.  We passed Ybor Centro

a mall with restaurants (a large Thai place) and shops. 

The hotel desk had told us about a free trolley that takes you all around the downtown Tampa area and has 11 hop off hop on stops.  We went back to that first restaurant and once again decided it was not going to work.  While we were there, we saw roosters roaming the streets.  

These chickens are descendants of Ybor City chickens kept by the cigar workers for food and for cockfighting.  The chickens are protected by the city of Tampa so they have the run of Ybor City. 

We spotted the TECO trolley sitting at the Ybor City stop a couple of blocks away and hopped on to see the rest of the area.  

It went through some industrial areas and wound up in the downtown area.  We got off and walked to the River Walk, a 2.6 mile walk along the Hillsborough River.  

We had dinner al fresco at Big Ray's Fish Camp near the Convention Center and the Riverwalk.  I thought it was an aquarium at first. We ordered from a window and you got paged when it was ready.  We shared a Cesar Salad (a unique version containing tomatoes and no croutons plus Ken’s Cesar Dressing in a packet), a grouper sandwich (a Florida tradition), and Parmesan Garlic fries (an interesting taste when fresh and not so much when cold and soggy), along with sweet and sour sauce (I dipped my fries in the sauce), and a Diet Coke.  It was plenty of food and it was good. It’s been decades since I had a grouper sandwich (I tried one on Azamara but didn’t like it).  The meal ran $35.48.  The River Walk dispatched tour boats and was populated by young joggers.  

We sat there until the Sun went down it got chilly.

I called for an Uber – Matthew picked us up in his Corolla; this trip was 6.34 miles and took 20 minutes.  The traffic on the highway was nasty but Matthew knew how to avoid it.  The cost was $21.13 including a $3.00 tip.  Back at the hotel, we found some comfortable seats in the lobby and had donut holes and Oreos for dessert along with coffee.  The coffee was cold and I heated it up in the lobby microwave. 

Back in our room and lights were out early – it was a long day.

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