Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Venice! Oh my!

We arrived at the Venezia St Lucia train station, got our luggage and met my parents off the train. We were anxious to see what Venice would be like! We had prebooked a water taxi to take us to our hotel. The Al Ponte Mocenigo. We are staying here for two nights, which gives us this afternoon and one full day to take in this city. Not a lot of time, but we’ve gotten used to making the most of what time we do have. This is the first we’re really on our own though in a city we haven’t been to. How would we handle it?

We walked outside the train station and even though I’d seen pictures, for me, nothing could really prepare me for “Venice” until I set foot on the island. I immediately had that magical feeling! In case you didn’t notice, traveling is in my blood! The water, the sounds of the water taxis and the gondoliers. The tourists. It was all just what it was supposed to be. And we were only there for 5 minutes! 

Here we go - I just had to say it...I'll say it again many times this trip, but that won't take away from the meaning "I LOVE THIS PLACE!!!!"  It's a feeling I get when I'm somewhere that I feel like I belong.  This was one of those places.  I felt it immediately!  I got the - "we know mom..." from Megan and Alex...they know me well.  They're afraid I'm going to pack us up and move them to one of these places I love so much!  Hmmm....someday maybe!  

Anyway, back to the journey....

So, now we had to find “our” water taxi. This was a little confusing at first, and maybe we had instructions, but I had no idea where to go to find the right one.  No need to panic...I asked at the first taxi stand and they pointed me in the right direction. After a few docks, we found someone who knew where to go. They made a call and before we knew it, our water taxi arrived.

As soon as we saw the crowded Vaparettos we knew we made the right decision. At this time of day, I can’t imagine we could have fit the six of us with our luggage on a vaparetto – and if we could have, it would not have been quite the introduction to Venice that we had. 

The water taxi ride was short, but it was comfortable and we didn’t have to manage our own luggage. We pulled right up to our hotel, which had a water entrance.

Our luggage was put right into the lobby for us and we confirmed our early morning pick up for two days later.

We were taken to our rooms, which were up a pretty large flight of steps, but we knew that would be the case. Our group had a quad room that was very RED! Very traditional and large enough for the four of us. Two sleeper chairs I’d call them, for the kids, but they were fine. They pulled out to twin like beds and both slept like logs. Anything would be fine as long as they didn’t have to share a bed! We had a queen bed I believe. And a very nice, modern bathroom. My parents had a classic double room.

We got our stuff settled in and went out to explore Venice. We had a gondola ride set up for 6:30 and had plenty of time to get to our meeting point. We asked at the front desk for some recommendations for dinner on our way back for later and off we went, map in hand.

This is the front entrance of Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo. They have a really nice open air courtyard beyond that shorter wall where breakfast is served each morning.

We were barely out of the hotel and on our way ...but it I could already tell what a truly amazing experience for someone who loves to take photographs this next 24 hours was going to be! I could have spent hours upon hours just shooting around every turn. But alas...I had the family with me and they were anxious to move along!  

We had a very leisurely walk to San Marco square, which is near where our Gondola ride would be. We stopped for a snack of pizza for Alex and my dad.

We stopped and looked at many of the masks that are handcrafted there in Venice.

Now this was a different take on the masks!

We just took it all in. This was truly a unique place! I chose our hotel in an area was a bit of a distance from the main tourist area of San Marco square which was nice. This meant every time we went out we had a nice walk!  We were away from the crowds and got to "get lost in Venice" just a bit - which is what I've been told is the best way to explore the city!

We may have never been totally lost, but we certainly got to walk along some great canal side streets!  It was fantastic!

Next up....the rest of our first day in Venice!

Losing our Sea Legs! Sunday, June 16th

Today is Father’s Day! We got up and gave out the cards to Grandpop and Keith at breakfast. I told Keith that our plan for a Father’s Day gift was to get him the week Spa Pass when we were sailing on Epic next week so he would have a place to go to relax every day. He seemed to like that idea, but then again he also felt like in a week with only one sea day, he wouldn’t be able to make full use of it. We’d think about it. Maybe just a massage instead.

We went to the Windjammer one last time and then carried our own luggage off, as we had a driver coming at 8:30 to take up to Termini train station for our train to Venice. We decided not to take the train from Civitavecchia to Termini since Mimi and G-pop would have to walk their luggage from the Port to the Civitavecchia station, and the once at Termini possibly have to take their luggage up steps to transfer trains. Convenience of the driver won out here and it was well worth it.

We walked off the ship very quickly and found our driver from Walks Of Italy, who we would be using for several tours while we would be in Rome later. When you book multiple tours you receive a discount, so our transfers were with them as well. 

We arrived at Termini with plenty of time to spare. We had prepurchased our tickets to Venice on the Trenitalia website and rather than cutting it close on the earlier train, we had booked the 10:50 train. Better have time to wait, than rush we figured!

Of course we now had more than an hour at the train station. However, we were very pleasantly surprised at how clean the train station was! We found a café with a table for 6 and room for our luggage next to the table. We sat down, had some brioches, croissants and cappuccinos and relaxed for that time. We really couldn’t get over the quality of the food in a train station! It was all so fresh!

Here we are the train station - is it really that difficult to get a picture of the three of us all looking at the camera? Apparently the answer would be yes!! 

We each also got a Panini for the ride, well, except Megan who couldn’t resist getting McDonalds! Our track was posted and we had no problem finding our train. Now, when I booked the train, I couldn’t seem to get 6 seats in one transaction, so my parents ended up in one car and the 4 of us in the next car. Not a problem. I was able to pick seats right at the end of each car near where the luggage was so we could keep an eye on our bags. 

However when walking to our train I said out loud to Megan and my mom, “now you’re car 6 and we’re in car 5” and that’s when apparently we got “gypsied!” as the kids say!

 A woman totally latched on to us and even though she never really helped us, she kept telling us which car to go to. We firmly told her we knew and didn’t need help. Keith and Alex were ahead of us and knew where to go. She waited at the entrance to the train and pointed to where to put the luggage – we told her firmly “we know” and Alex told her to go away – we know. She then rearranged the luggage “for us” and followed us to our seats holding our her hand. I told her that she didn’t help us. She just stood there. So I gave her four 1 Euro coins and she said she wanted FIVE Euros from EACH of us! I told her NO WAY! That she didn’t help us at all! Finally she left and moved on to help others. I was pretty annoyed that she tried to take advantage of us, but at least I was able to get away with only giving her 4 Euros, I suppose! 

Anyway, we felt pretty proud of ourselves that we managed to successfully navigate our first Italian train trip. We got through the station, luggage and all and onto the correct train and into our seats! We settled in for our approx. 3 ½ hour ride to Venice. We played some Uno, tried to nap and just enjoyed the scenery. It was a great way to travel. Although I will say, with the four of us facing one another the leg room was a bit cramped! 

And as always - Alex manages to get comfortable no matter where and get his sleep in.  I guess when one stays out until past midnight every night, one sleeps when one can!  The life of a teen!  

Next up, our arrival in Venice! What would we think...people seem to either love it or hate it....we heard it all before we left - would it smell? Would it be too hot? Or would it be everything we thought it would be? Hmmm.....

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Crazy busy relaxing! Sunday, June 15th - Sea Day!

Today was a mixture of relaxation and yet somehow busy, if that somehow makes sense! We slept in just a bit. Maybe until 8:00 or so! Alex didn’t get in until super late again, so I didn’t sleep well until he was safe and sound in his cabin.

Anyway, Keith and I went to the buffet today, just the two of us and had a nice breakfast together. Somehow when it’s just us it’s not nearly as hectic as when all 6 of us or even 4 of us are there! When we got back we woke the kids up and tried to convince them to not waste the last day sleeping and watching tv. 

I decided I wanted to do the Walk for Wishes, which is a charity walk for the Make a Wish foundation that Royal Caribbean sponsors. You donate $10 and get a t-shirt to wear while you walk. Then you meet at 10:30, I believe it was, and the whole group walks around the track until you walk 1 mile. The money is donated to the Make a Wish foundation so that terminally ill children can have their wishes granted. Some kid’s with wishes to be on that ship were there on this cruise. It’s a very heartwarming thing to do. The ship officers and captain participate in the walk. Mimi and I did the walk, five times around the track. When we were done they took a group picture, which I have no idea where that went – I would have thought you’d get one since they have your Sea Pass from when you bought the t-shirt – but it wasn’t with our pictures. Oh well! But we were told that just in that walk that morning they raised over $2000!

It was an incredibly windy morning out on the deck. I planned to go sit out with Keith but it was too much like being in a wind tunnel. He stuck it out though. He was determined to make use of this day of relaxation!

Meanwhile I took Alex to the teen speed rock walk competition. He didn’t have high hopes. He figured there were much faster teens. The older guys had to be faster than he was. They got everyone signed in and each teen was timed individually with stop watches. There were boys and girls. Turns out – Alex came in FIRST place for the boys! He was shocked. So were some of the older teens who thoroughly expected to win! There were about 10 boys in all. However, overall the fastest speed was by a girl. I had to smile. It was a lot of fun to watch and Alex got a medal.

Do I have a picture of him with his medal?  Of course not!!!  

Meanwhile Megan finally had the chance to ice skate. We had time and it was finally free skating! My parents took her down to get the skates and Alex and I met them down there. She was doing great!

Ice skating can be challenging enough, but on a moving ship? People were going down fast. Helmets are mandatory here. One woman fell and hit her head hard – she had to be carried off the ice. I had some fears, as a mom, watching Megan skate, but she seemed to be skating pretty cautiously and she was doing well. I can see though how someone could take a nasty fall. I’d hate for her to get hurt, let alone with 2 weeks of vacation still to go!

I have to say I was just a bit relieved when she had her fill of skating for the day!

My dad tried to skate and it turns out skating is not like riding a bike after all…he used to skate a lot as a kid and even as a younger adult. But he just couldn’t do it at all now. And as I said about Megan, we were ALL relieved when he came off the ice. We certainly didn’t need him getting hurt at this point in the trip! I think a fall for a 68 year old man would be much worse than an 11 year old girl! Whew~!

After lunch the wind calmed down a bit and I was able to sit out and read a bit. When it got to be too much, Keith and I went to the Solarium, which is the adults only area, and enjoyed the hot tub. This was definitely a perfect day. Time earlier with the kids, time in the sun. Time with Keith. Being on the open sea and watching the scenery just go by. We went through the Straight of Messina. Passed Mt Etna again. And this time saw the beautiful Stromboli Volcano. 

However, this cruise was coming to an end, so I knew I had to go back to our cabin and pack. We were doing self debark or is it disembarkation? I’m never sure. So I didn’t have to get our luggage out that night. But I wanted to be done before dinner. Off I went to tackle that mess. 

We enjoyed our last night in the Main Dining Room, and as I mentioned before, even with My Time Dining, we had the same waitstaff every night and the same table. They were fantastic and got to know us and our likes well. Every night I had an iced tea brought to me without asking. Alex had his 2 steaks brought to him. They knew our names. The service was fabulous.

After dinner, we went to the arcade a bit as a family. That was fun!

And then we had our usual routines – Alex to the teen club for their final night together. Keith back to the cabin to watch the same old thing on the tv, and my parents, Megan and I went to see the final show. It was pretty good. A physical comedy type show and then the staff cheers.

After the show Megan and I went to the Circus Parade. It was definitely a silly type thing that you couldn’t help but smile while watching. It was a fun atmosphere. Somehow in the crowd we met up with Alex and walked back to the cabins together. 

It was our last night on board the Navigator and tomorrow we’d be the beginning of a whole different adventure…our land journey.  We're officially becoming "Independent European Travelers"!! We’re taking a train to Venice! Look out - here we come!

Just a little ship board fun!

Since it was so early when we got back to the ship, we had some time to take advantage of a partial Sea Day, I’ll call it! Keith took the kids to the rock wall and then in line skating.

See - he does smile!!

And I took advantage of the Spa Special of the day! They had availability left and I booked a 5:30 appointment for the Happy Hour Special! I’m calling it my Anniversary present! It was a neck, shoulders, feet, ankle, and head massage and a mini facial. It was 50 minutes of pure relaxation! And best of all, there was no sales pitch as there often is on cruise ship spas! 

After the spa, I got ready for dinner. Tonight was our Anniversary dinner at Portofino’s. It was really good. Definitely worth the cover charge! I really don’t have many pictures – I was enjoying our meal too much to deal with the camera. But I had the Shrimp Risotto appetizer and the Pesto Pasta for an entrée. Keith had the antipasti and the Tuna for appetizer and the Mushroom Pasta. I’m not sure what we had for dessert. The service was wonderful, and we had a great view of the sea. It was a perfect, quiet meal – just the two of us!

My parents took the kids to Johnny Rocket’s for dinner and then to play mini-golf. They all enjoyed their meals as well. 

We all agreed that we enjoyed our day in Crete, the weather turned around for us again! 

Tomorrow is our last day on the Navigator, a Sea Day. Even though we’re moving on to more adventures, I’ll be sad to be leaving this ship. It has FAR exceeded my expectations!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Friday, June 14th ~ Chania, Crete!

Today we docked in Chania, Crete. After many months of trying to figure out what to do here, it wasn’t until right before the trip, that I found out that the name of the town was actually pronounced as “Hania”!

The ship actually docks in Souda. Our time in port is a very odd time – 6:30 am – 3:00 pm. I’m not sure why this is since the next day is a Sea Day. You would think they could stretch our time in town a bit later so we could really enjoy this town instead of having to rush to get a bus back to the ship by maybe 1:30 to be back on board by a 2:30 on last on board time. Not to mention that docking at 6:30, there wasn’t much to really “do” in town that early!

So, that’s my only real complaint at this point about the itinerary at all. But that being said. Chania is relatively new in the cruise ship world. Finding independent excursions here was much more difficult than in other ports. Also, by this point in the trip I was looking for that “something fun” for the kids that maybe was a bit different from the ruins and history that we had done for the past few days with such intensity. This was also a bit of a challenge with the timing that we were in port.

However, I was lucky to stumble upon a small company called Sea Star who runs private small boat tours around Thodorou Island, just off the coast of Platanias Beach. They got great reviews on Trip Advisor and their website showed a few different options that would fit into our short time in port. Since their boat only holds 8 passengers plus their crew of 2, we knew we’d be able to customize our day. Elise emailed us promptly once I found them and we set up a 2 hour boat tour with a stop for snorkeling. This sounded like a perfectly relaxing way to spend the day!

Although when I told Keith about our plans for the day and how we’d be doing something different – he just laughed – and said “um, Shelley – how different is going out on a boat? You do realize we’re on a cruise?” Well, I meant a small boat, where you can feel the sea, swim in the Mediterranean! Snorkel! A different type of day from the walking and inundation of facts that we’d had! And as you’ve probably figured out I LOVE that type of day! But by now we all needed a bit of a break from it I think.

So – the time came and we met Elise at the port. Unfortunately it was quite a cloudy morning. As we drove to Platanias Beach she told us how she, a woman from France, came to be here in Crete, and we enjoyed getting to know one another. This is another thing we really enjoy about private tours. Getting to know the people who live where we visit and getting to know about the cultures of the towns. We also told Elise what time we had to be back to the ship and that we’d like to have lunch in Chania. She suggested that instead of a 2 hour boat tour, we make it 1 hour – we’d still have plenty of time on the boat, plenty of time to snorkel and she’d arrange for a taxi to take us to the Old Town. She thought if we did the 2 hour boat tour we wouldn't have enough time to visit the town and have lunch. We'd be too rushed. It was settled! This would be our plan!

We got on our boat, and off we went!

Thodorou Island is a National Park Sanctuary and no one is allowed on the island, other than the care taker. He shows up each morning and cares for the wildlife and island then goes home. Also, once a year there is a pilgrimage allowed to the ruins of a small church that is on the island.

The main “inhabitants” of the island are the Kri-Kri goats! They were brought here to protect them. They are fed and cared for and now they number in the 80s. We saw several of them on the mountain side. We also saw a few falcons while boating around the island. Elise told us all about the history, geology and biology as we toured. There’s even a Venetian fort that remains at the top of the island from the 1500s!

We stopped for about 20 minutes or so to snorkel. It was the perfect amount of time. My mom doesn’t snorkel, or swim actually. She stayed on the boat and chatted with the captain. While we were in the water, Elise would dive down and bring up marine specimens to show us – starfish, shells, urchins, sponges – all kinds of things. Then she’d bring them over to the boat so the captain could show them to my mom. 

We all thoroughly enjoyed this few hours. It was great to be in the water and out on the water on the boat. I enjoyed talking to Elise – she was a fascinating person and had a lot to share. 

When we got back to their dock, she had their assistant call a taxi. This is where things got a bit confusing, on our end – not so much from them. Since we were a group of six, they sent two taxis. The person at Sea Star told the drivers where to take us. I assume they told us to Chania, Old Town. Now – remember, no one else in my family really had a clue about this trip – as far as planning or where we would be going or what we were doing! I was the lead!

So how do we split up the six of us with drivers who don’t speak much English at all? Well, for some reason I put Keith and the two kids in one taxi with a 20 Euro bill and off they went. I didn’t even know if Keith had his wallet! They left so quickly! After they left, I realized I had our bag with everything in it, including his wallet. We asked in advance how much the taxi would cost, so at least I knew he had enough money to cover the taxi!

The other taxi eventually arrived and my parents and I piled in. We never thought about the fact that we’d have to find Keith and the kids! Don’t all cruise passengers go to the same place?  Well we weren't coming from a cruise central area.  These taxi drivers could have taken them anywhere! 

Well luckily our driver drove through an area and Keith and the kids happened to be sitting on a wall and they flagged us down. Keith told us after they left he got to thinking how he had no ID, didn’t have his Sea Pass card and had pretty much no money! Only Megan had her Sea Pass card! He had no idea where to go, nothing! But luckily we all met up and all was well.

Sort of – we definitely were not in the “Old Town” tourist area – we were in a very busy area. But I knew we were close! Since we didn’t come here with the cruise people earlier we had no maps, we had no idea where to get the bus back to the ship… 

No problem – we’ll figure it out! How hard can it be?  I love a good adventure! Although maybe some of the others, read that "MIMI" doesn't so much!

Well we did it! We found a security guard, asked him where the Harbor was and he pointed and said something that sort of sounded like directions. After wandering around a bit, we found the Old Town!

And as luck would have it, as we were walking down to the Harbor and looking for a place for lunch, we bumped into Catherine and Ger! Our new friends from Ireland – imagine that! Of the thousands of people in this town, we find people we know! And thankfully they did have a map and they showed us where to go to find the bus when we would be ready to go back to the ship. Feeling a bit more comfortable now, we wandered down the mobbed tourist area looking for a place for lunch. 

Now here, we had probably the worst of our in port lunches. Probably our fault. We just stopped somewhere instead of looking around for something that really looked good. We were hungry and knew we didn’t have a lot of time. It did have a nice view of the water though! But probably the biggest clue that it would be bad was that the menu choices were American food. So, when Megan ordered a cheeseburger and it came out as clearly not beef, we wondered just what it was? Once the waiter translated to another waiter and so on, they finally told us “Pork” of course as if we should be shocked!   It's no wonder Megan didn't like it - pork is one of her least favorite meats!

After lunch we had a bit of time to walk along the shops and take in the view.

The Old Harbor area was really a lovely and very colorful area that we would have loved spending more time in.  But we also wouldn't have traded in our time out in the Mediterranean!  We did get in our time shopping for our typical souvenirs so all was good!

Then we had to fight the crowds to walk back up the busy street to catch what seemed to be a city bus designated as one to go directly to the port. We had to figure out where buy tickets – got that! And off we went.

While we had a great day on the boat, the time in Chania was definitely rushed and crowded. Again, I wish the time in port could have been extended.

But getting back to the ship early meant we had an entire afternoon left to enjoy the wonderful Navigator of the Seas!  Up next - our bonus afternoon at Sea!