Thursday, May 21, 2015

Ibiza Primer 1 of 3: Geography

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Clifftop View of Ibiza Town's Playa (Beach) Area
Clifftop View of Ibiza Town's Playa (Beach) Area
A few of the people we told we were going to Ibiza in May had that that sounds familiar look on their face. Ibiza is as well known to Europeans as South Beach is to Americans, and for all the same reasons (bars, discos, all night partying, ridiculously expensive and large drinks, etc.) For anyone who doesn't know anything about this wildly popular European summer destination (it's currently RyanAir's "destination of the month!"), read on.

Ibiza is a small Spanish island in the western Mediterranean Sea. It is one of the Balearic Islands, a group of islands (an archipelago) that includes the larger islands Majorca and Minorca, Ibiza itself, and the smaller Formentera (visible to the south of Ibiza), and dozens of smaller islands, some just chunks of rock sticking up from the sea. Ibiza is sometimes also spelled Eivissa, but it's pronounced the same either way (Eye-BEE-zuh). Ibiza lies about 50 miles southeast of the city of Valencia, and only about 40 miles from the nearest point of the Spanish mainland.


Map of Spain, from Google Maps, (c) Google.com

Map of Ibiza, from Google Maps, (c) Google.com


Ibiza is, basically, a big chunk of rock. It's a sixth the size of Majorca to the north, but it's 10 times the size of Manhattan. Still, as we've found, it's remarkably easy and quick to drive from one side of the island to the other. The westernmost Balearic islands are called the "Pitiuses", or "Pine Islands", likely because of the scrubby evergreens that grow here (along with palms and cacti), and people who live on the island are called "Ibicencos" (Eye-buh-CHINK-oh's).

The island is served by a surprisingly busy and nice-sized modern airport. When we arrived we expected to find a much smaller, more "island-like" airport, but owing to the island's popularity during the summer (and all the tourism Euros that flow here as a result), there are lots and lots of flights to this little island. Where we're staying we have a great view of the Northwesterly approach to the airport, and it's been no shortage of amusement for Chuck to identify the airlines and aircraft, and commensurately no shortage of amusement for Lori to comment on Chuck's arcane (and relatively useless) knowledge of commercial aircraft. Nevertheless, the airlines that serve Ibiza, at least during high summer season, include (in order of seeming quantity of flights) RyanAir, Vueling, Iberian Airlines, Transavia, Air Europa, Jet2, Monarch, Condor, Luxair, AirBerlin, Norwegian, and Lufthansa.

You might assume that we've come to Ibiza for 4 weeks to party it up in the famous Ibizan clubs like Pacha, Amnesia, or Space. Well, it's likely that this middle-aged empty nester nomadic couple won't come anywhere near the clubs, not because we're old fuddy duddies, but because the clubs don't actually open for the season until the day we leave. Otherwise, you can be assured that we'd be dancing it up at one of them every night (LOL). In reality, we came here for the practical reasons of its proximity to Barcelona and that there are beaches. We love beaches and we love beach towns. If there's a patch of sand next to clear water, you'll find us (particularly Lori) laying on it. But we also came here for another interesting reason: Chuck's ancestors came from this little island, and he's hoping to learn a bit about the Ros family while here.

Stay tuned for 2 more blogs on the history and tourism of Ibiza.

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog, Medieval Fortress Wall in Ibiza Under Spanish Sun
Medieval Fortress Wall in Ibiza

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Our Bummer Visit to Barcelona

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Chuck and Lori Bad Selfie
Even Our Barcelona Selfies Were A Bummer

"Bummer" is not a word I'd ever thought I'd use in a description of a visit to Barcelona. As we related in this blog a week or so back, our quick 2-day visit to Barcelona began on a very sour note (Lori's phone was stolen within an hour of our arrival). It never really got that much better.

We had hardly entered the sumptuous Barcelona cathedral when Lori realized her iPhone was gone. At that point, we had to miss the rest of the cathedral (though we had seen it when we visited in 2008) in favor of a relatively pointless effort of calling AT&T to report the phone stolen, suspend service, and all that stuff. The real use of that time was simply calming down and realizing the world wouldn't end without an iPhone 6+ in Lori's hand. Still, we lost a few hours in the process, but on the bright side we got to see the outside of the cathedral as it was meant to be seen (in 2008, the facade was completely covered with scaffolding).

The rest of that first day (Thursday), we "took it easy". It was a great way to come down off the aggravation of the lost phone. We moseyed through markets and smaller churches in the Gothic Quarter, we bought tickets to a Spanish guitar concert, and we picked up a bottle of wine. That night we enjoyed a nice little picnic with our wine and an even more splendid guitar concert.

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Spanish Guitar Concert
Spanish Guitar Concert in Barcelona

We had been told that it was a long weekend--the next day, Friday, was the Spanish Labor Day--and the city was busy. Which is one reason the thieves were out in force. It might have been a bit of paranoia on our part, but that evening, on the walk back from the concert, it seemed we headed off another attempt to steal from us: just as a shady character ducked behind me as we crossed heading opposite directions, I turned around quickly. He abruptly stopped following me, stepped into the store we were passing, and regarded me in the mirror as he combed his hair. If it wasn't me being paranoid, his behavior was incredibly suspicious.

That night we made plans to meet for dinner Friday night with friends we had met on the boat. Refreshed from a good night's sleep, we headed out Friday morning for a visit to the Sagrada Familia. Gaudi's modern church dedicated to the Holy Family--some describe it as "dripping wax", others just call it weird, everyone admits it is fascinating--has been under construction for a century. We toured and climbed the towers with Susan and Randy back in 2008, and since then it's been consecrated, though it's still not finished. We wanted to see how progress was coming along, except that when we arrived that morning, tickets were being given our for entry late that evening. The holiday crowds were simply overwhelming. Not wanting to come back that evening and skip dinner (we're not ones to miss meals, especially with friends), we just admired the church's progress from the outside and had a leisurely brunch.

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Sagrada Familia Church, Barcelona, Spain
Sagrada Familia, Coming Along Nicely

A note to followers of the construction process of this landmark church: they've begun work on the massive middle column, and many colorful adornments have been added to the outside of the church. Don't ask us how it looks on the inside nowadays.

Undaunted (nearly so, anyway) we headed back to the Parc de la Ciutadella, a park ("of the Citadel") to the northeast of the Gothic Quarter. When we visited in 2008, we stayed across the street from this park. Back then all of Spain was in the midst of a serious drought, and all the splendid fountains that Barcelona is known for were turned off. We wanted to see what those dry-bed fountains might look like now, and the high point of our visit was seeing the fountain in the park in full splendor. We sat at the outdoor café for an hour or so, enjoying drinks, people watching, and admiring that fountain.

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Park Fountain, Barcelona, Spain
The Fountain in Parc de la Ciutadella

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Park Fountain in 2008
The Fountain in 2008

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Park Fountain in 2015
Same Vantage Point, 2015
(Please forgive the cerveza-induced and tight-gripped crookedness of the photo)

From the park we walked back to Las Ramblas, the long street that serves as the center line of Barcelona, and enjoyed an afternoon paseo up toward the Plaza Catalunya. There, the fountains in 2008 had been turned off, so now we expected to find water-spewing splendor, but we were...underwhelmed. The fountains had water in them, and in some places the water flowed from the mouths of gargoyles and such, but none of the water jets were working. Bummer.

Regardless, Barcelona remains one of our favorite European cities. We likely won't return anytime soon, unless of course good travel options bring us through there. When we're ready to go back, we'll go in off season, and we'll make sure we aren't there during any major holidays. Plus we'll keep a tight grip on our stuff.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Congratulations, Catie!

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Catie's Engagement Ring
Catie is Engaged!
Note the excited dog in the background, but know that he's always excited.

We interrupt our regularly scheduled program of fascinating, titillating, amusing, and educational travel blogs with this special announcement:

The second of our beloved progeny, known herein (and everywhere, really) as Catie, is to be married.

It happened like this: boy meets girl, girl meets boy, boy and girl are friends for a few years, girl and boy realize each other are pretty cool, but then girl moves away, boy follows, girl graduates college, boy forms band, girl thinks boy will never propose, and - wham! - boy proposes.

"You knew?" she said the morning she called. Well, it was morning for us, 5:00am on the Atlantic Ocean, to be precise. But back home it was still just midnight and the concert where he popped the question was just ending. We had made it clear to Ryan that she could, and should, call us: it was one of the few reasons we were willing to incur $5 per minute cellular-at-sea charges.

"Honey, everyone knew," Lori told her. And it was true, everyone knew: everyone in the extended family, all our friends, our neighbors, most of our coworkers, random people at restaurants all up and down the eastern seaboard, and much of the crew of the Norwegian Epic.

We had known, in fact, since January. We were on our way to Asheville, North Carolina for a dance event. Lori's phone (back when she still had one, LOL) rang. It was Ryan. "Will you help me pick out a ring?" he implored. A few minutes and a box of tissues later, wedding planning had begun, though Catie wouldn't know about it for another 4 months.

Naturally, we've pitched the whole destination wedding thing (would you expect anything less from us?) But Catie, who has always marched to her own drumbeat, had already decided on an Atlanta wedding. And, without us even having to advise it, she's settled on a long engagement (often necessary in Atlanta, where venues book a year and more in advance). So she (and Ryan, to a much, much lesser extent) will be basking in the limelight for a year and a few months, with the big date currently set for sometime in September of 2016.

Catie and Ryan, we love you both. You're absolutely certain you don't want to get married on a Disney cruise1?


1 - Assuming you get some sort of cast member discount, of course.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Cruising For Transportation

The Norwegian Epic, 4th Largest Cruise Ship In The World

For all you cruise-haters out there (you know who you are), bear with us for one more blog, and regardless of your disposition to these sea-going hotels, if you've never considered using cruise ships for transportation, then keep reading.

We probably belabored the point of our last two cruise ship adventures being more about "getting us there" than "taking a cruise". There are, in fact, a couple of ways to utilize these big luxury ships to get from point A to point B, which is of course what we mean by "cruising for transportation". This is opposed to the traditional cruise vacation of leaving from a port for exotic and sunny ports and returning to the same port. So this blog is to impart the three ways we've identified to "get there" via the cruise lines.

But first, if you're serious about traveling by cruise ship, you need to get the power of the Internet at your fingertips. Go to your app store (Apple or Google) and look for an app called iCruise: it's our favorite. Their website, should you be mobilely deficient, is www.icruise.com. You can use it to filter by destination (which can be tricky with some of our transportation methods, but nothing some enjoyable research can't overcome), timeframe, cruise line, etc.

A-to-B Cruises


This is simply arriving at a different port than you left from. These are cruises that are intentionally not "out and back", tool-around-to-steel-drums sorts of cruises: they purposefully take you from A to B.

The most famous and regular of these cruises has got to be Cunard's transatlantic crossings. They typically go back and forth between England (usually Southampton, sometimes Liverpool) and New York, and they're offered seasonally from late spring to the end of the year (you wouldn't want to cross the North Atlantic during the winter).

Lest you think your A-to-B options are limited to getting between North America and Europe, you've got quite a few more options to consider. For example, during the winter months (January to late April), Cunard doesn't just park their ships and wait for the seas to improve. This year, 2015, all three of their vessels set out on "round the world" cruises, culminating with a grand rendezvous in Liverpool. True, you might call this a 4-month long "out-and-back" cruise (and technically it is), but unless you are wealthy enough to afford the entire journey around the globe, and few people are, you could consider taking segments along the way. Several cruise lines offer such segmented world cruises, not just Cunard. This opens up the possibility of taking, for example, a cruise from Rome to Dubai through the Suez Canal, or a cruise from New Zealand to Hawaii.

Not all A-to-B cruises are segments of world cruises. For example, NCL is sending the Norwegian Sun to South America later this year to make seasonal back-and-forth trips from Santiago, Chile on the Pacific side to Buenos Aires, Argentina on the Atlantic side. Count us in for that cruise one day.

It would be great if the iCruise app allowed you to filter cruises by those that leave and arrive in different ports, but I haven't figured out how to accomplish that: if you can figure it out, let us know!

Repositioning Cruises


Probably the most well-known of A-to-B cruises are repositioning cruises. Not surprisingly, cruise destinations can be seasonal. For example, for all the obvious reasons the wildly popular Alaska cruises are only wildly popular in the summer, so don't look for them in January or February. Those ships being hugely expensive assets, they aren't left ideal during those off-seasons. Instead, they're sent somewhere else. The process of sending them somewhere else for the season is called a repositioning cruise, and the cruise lines don't like to send their ships anywhere without passengers.

Cruising has gotten big in Europe, especially in the summer. Many lines have ships in the Mediterranean year-round, but if they have ships elsewhere, they often move them to Europe at the outset of the summer high season to meet the high demand (and the high prices that go with high demand). This means that there's a veritable armada of cruise ships traversing the Atlantic eastward in the spring, and another veritable armada headed west during the fall after the European season is over. Our ride on the Norwegian Epic was (sort of) an example of this: it was being repositioned to Europe in the spring after the high season for the Caribbean, but Norwegian plans to leave the Epic in Europe indefinitely since they have a new ship, the Norwegian Escape, entering service in the Caribbean in the fall.

Repo's (what "cruise experts" like to call them) can create some interesting opportunities for those of us seeking transportation options. In addition to getting between North America and Europe, there are ships going between South America and Europe, ships crossing the Pacific, ships moving up and down the United States' West Coast, and ships moving between the West Coast and Caribbean, usually through the Panama Canal.

The thing about repo's is that they're not usually the first cruise option people think about. On our cruise, for example, if your principle point was to take the cruise, you'd have found yourself with the major expense of flying home from Barcelona. This makes them less attractive to cruisers than the typical out-and-back cruise. For transport-seekers like us, however, it creates a bargain as the cruise lines cut deep to fill cabins: the $499 each we paid to get to Barcelona (in a balcony stateroom!) was 50% less than the airfare we'd have paid to get there. Even then, the Epic crossed with about 1,000 fewer passengers than her capacity (meaning a quieter, nicer ride for us).

Repositioning cruises really do offer a great transportation opportunity.

Hop-Off 


Thinking about how to utilize cruises for transportation, we were brainstorming other ways to use them, and we wondered if it would be possible to take an out-and-back cruise, but just to get off at the port-of-call of your choice. When we went to pay the deposit for our future NCL cruise, we asked the "cruise consultant" if this was possible, and she cheerfully informed us that, yes, we could hop-off at almost any port we wanted, but we should pre-arrange it with the cruise line when we booked, and we might have to pay some extra port fees, depending on the policies of that particular port.

But why on earth would you want to ditch the rest of a perfectly good cruise?

Let's say you were interested in going to the Caribbean island of Antigua. If you were to fly from New York, you could nab mid-week airfare for about $350 per person. If you had the flexibility, you could also take the Carnival Splendor for $529. True, it's a bit more, and true it takes a few days versus a few hours, but you're fed for those days, provided entertainment, and its considerably more interesting and enjoyable than a flight. It's also true that for $529 you'll be sleeping in an inside cabin, but in our experience you would only ever be sleeping in your cabin anyway. Besides, even that inside cabin is a lot larger than an airplane seat.

Hopping off a cruise can produce some interesting results depending on where you want to go and where you want to leave from. In another example, if you wanted to go to Acapulco and were ok with leaving from Long Beach, California, a flight would cost you about $600 (as of this writing), but a ride on the Carnival Miracle would cost...about the same.

Anyway, hopefully you are now starting to think of cruises not just as out-and-back tooling around to the sound of steel drums and the taste of expensive umbrella drinks and see them for what we see them: ways of getting you to somewhere you might want to be.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Final Thoughts on our NCL Crossing

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Chandelier on Norwegian Epic
The Funky Chandelier Over the Epic's Taste Dining Room

A common question among cruise ship passengers is naturally, "How many cruises have you guys been on?" I guess the official answer is now three: in addition to our two recent Atlantic Ocean criss-crosses, we took the Norwegian Sun on a week-long Caribbean cruise from Houston for our 20th anniversary back in 2005. The two experiences--a 7-day out and back in the Mexican Riviera versus a transatlantic crossing--couldn't have been more different.

Our week-long vacation on the Norwegian Sun almost a decade ago was what we'd consider a proper "cruise". Our purpose was to get away to the sounds of steel drums, pull into some interesting ports of call, drink expensive umbrella drinks, and get sunburned. That's what we were after, and NCL delivered it nicely. We were unplugged and off-the-clock.

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Norwegian Epic Pool Deck at Night
Epic's Pool Deck at Night

Our crossings were so different from that experience, it's hard to consider them cruises. In both the case of the Queen Mary 2 and the Norwegian Epic, the goal was to get from one side of the ocean to the other, not just tool around to the sound of steel drums. We're starting to really love this more leisurely way of getting to and from Europe, and we're not alone: we met at least a dozen other passengers who have crossed the oceans at surface level before. In that sense, it's very possible to use cruise ships for transportation, not just cruising (we've thought of a couple of ways to use cruise ships this way, so keep an eye out for that blog).

Another principle difference in our cruise experience versus our crossings were, and this is 100% unique to us, that we worked as we went. Our Caribbean cruise on the Norwegian Sun way back when was to purposefully unplug from work; now that we travel all the time, we work a whole lot differently than most people. Granted, on the Queen Mary in December work was limited to staying in touch; work on the Norwegian Epic was more like real work. But as we love what we do, and especially where and when we do it, that suits us fine. Like I said before, we weren't the only people working on either the Epic or the QM2.

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Norwegian Epic's Adults-Only Quiet Deck
Epic's Adults-Only Quiet Deck

In our blog a few days ago, we related to you that we were initially caught up in the futile exercise of comparing our Epic experience to our QM2 experience. Hopefully we went on to clarify that we really did have a splendid time on the Norwegian Epic, from the food and the shows to the hot tub and the sunning. But what we most enjoyed about our cruise on the Epic was, as is often the case, meeting fellow passengers and enjoying the art of conversation.

We met a wonderful couple who had spent most of the last couple of decades living and working on a boat in the Caribbean and were now on a quest to see the rest of the world; we would meet up with them again for dinner once we were in Barcelona. We met a couple from Canada who were off to Europe while their house was undergoing major renovations to correct a "little issue" with a leaky heating oil tank that had rendered their house uninhabitable (and reminding us it isn't all that bad not to own a house). There was the couple from Ohio, with a vacation home in central Florida, who gave us a solid recommendation on a community once we're ready to buy in the Disney area.

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Sunset or Sunrise from the Norwegian Epic
A Sunset - Or Maybe A Sunrise? - On The Epic

There was the couple who had cruised to all seven continents and were now trying to tick off their list of countries, one by one. And there was the German immigrant who now lived in Colorado, who helped us contemplate what to call the incredible blue-ness of the mid-day Atlantic Ocean (you'll recall we settled on "Space-Earth Blue"), and there was the former Scotsman now loving life in the Arizona desert, and the retired octogenarian who traveled alone because his wife didn't like travel, and...many more.

Too many people, though, wear the number of cruises as some sort of badge. We're not anti-bucket list, and we don't have any problem with people traveling to cross things off a list: we admire the couple who had been to all 7 continents and were planning to "hit" every country they could. Another guy bragged to us at lunch one day that he'd been on "12 to 15" cruises. Hmm, seems at least three of those cruises were less than memorable. And as we related to the country-hitting couple that we'd spent a month in Valencia, Spain last year, we couldn't help but notice the husband wistfully say, "I'd like to spend a month somewhere."

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Audience Waiting for Show on Norwegian Epic
Waiting for the Big Show to Start

Indeed, we had a splendid time riding the Norwegian Epic to Barcelona. In fact, we will have another splendid time with NCL sometime in the future: we took advantage of their onboard offer and plunked down a deposit on a future cruise. Whether it's as a cruise or a crossing, time will tell. And when, on that cruise, another passenger asks how many cruises we've been on before, we're likely to just smile and say it's our first.

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Coast of Africa at Night from Norwegian Epic
The Coast of Africa As We Passed The Straits of Gibraltar