Doing nothing much in Palma

Mallorca is the principal island of the Balearic Islands, and home to Palma de Mallorca.  Mallorca itself is a huge vacation spot, as are the other islands in the group.  As you pull into Palma’s harbor, you see miles of seafront condominium buildings and an enourmous marina for private boats.  Last time we were here with Laura and Rob, we hired a driver who took us into the northeastern mountainous coast, and Valldemossa in the mountains.   This time, we took the ship’s shuttle bus into Palma and walked around for a few hours.  

Narrow streets, April 2017


Palma is a pleasant if hilly town.   Being Sunday, many of the shops were closed (no big deal) but the streets were crowded nonetheless.  We found live music and a huge book fair in one large plaza, and families out for a walk around town on narrow streets.  

Crowds, florists and a river, April 2017


The commercial district is bordered by a river with extensive landscaping along it’s banks. There is also a boulevard called La Rambla, which is a very scaled down version of the more famous and active street in Barcelona.  The only shops on it are florists.  

Cathedral, April 2017


Just before getting back on the shuttle, stopped for gelato.  As one must. 

We were back on the ship and finished with lunch by around 3:00pm.  The ship left at 5:00, and we were escorted for quite a while by some gulls. They would approach the ship from the rear, and then fly along side for a while, matching our speed.  It made it (relatively easy) to catch a good picture.

Bird in flight, April 2017

We will be at sea from our departure on Sunday at 5:00 until we arrive in Sicily around 8:00am on Tuesday.  

All aboard!

Yesterday we boarded the cruise ship Silver Muse to begin our journey around the Mediterranean Sea.  The first stop will be Monte Carlo, where we boarded.  Yes, that’s right – we moved from our lovely hotel in the city to a lovely hotel floating at a dock in the city.  We spent last night on the ship, but remained at dock in Monte Carlo.  I’ll get to “why” in a bit.  

The check-in process seemed well organized, if a bit over-complicated.  We had to stop at three different desks to complete the process, and it’s not clear to me why the three stops were the plan.  It seems to me that whatever it was they did at each stop could have been accomplished in one stop.   As it was we waited on two short lines, and it moved along well.

After the third stop, when we were officially “checked in”, we made our own fourth stop to chat with the head of the restaurant, Mr. Gilbert Lanza, about food allergies and our reservation for this first night.   See, the first night was “special” on this cruise.   It was added to the schedule after we had booked the trip, and we understood that the ship planned a special celebration in honor of its maiden voyage – parties, music, dignitaries, etc.   But they also seemed to have no way to allow you to make dinner plans for that night(1).  

Chatting with Lanza, April 2017

So we stopped to chat with Mr. Lanza and found out a few things.

1. He was mystified by some of the decisions surrounding the festivities, like how they randomly assigned people to tables for this evening.

2. He and his assistant would move us to Zelda and Matteo’s table, and somehow notify the displaced people that they were sitting somewhere else (we if fact all did sit together, so this worked).

3. He would arrange for Sally to receive a menu each evening for the restaurants so she could select a meal which would be garlic-free and tasty (2).  

The cabin is nice, which is not a surprise since it’s pretty much the same as the one we had two years ago.  There are a few minor changes in the layout, none of which matter a bit. 

Cabin with a view, April 2017

After checking in and unpacking, we toured the ship, checking out all a bars, restaurants, the spa, the bars, another restaurant, the game room, a bar, the fitness center, etc.  Sally decided to do some more unpacking while I went to the gym.  While I was working out, they made an announcement about the evening’s events.  There was a talk about the cruise industry starting shortly, and a big-deal christening of the ship on the dock adjacent to the ship in an hour. 

The christening ceremony was setup with folding chairs for 400 people, a small classical orchestra and speeches by Silversea executives and Prince Albert II of Monaco.  Champagne, tv coverage, very posh.  Unfortunately, only 150 passengers actually went down as we watched from our balcony, then then the weather turned.  

Sparse, umbrellas and then inside, April 2017


First the blankets came out as the temperature dropped, then the umbrellas as it started to rain.   Finally, they gave up and moved the whole thing into the theater in the ship.  That’s Albert’s bald spot sitting in the chair in the middle of the aisle.   Finally, we watched the christening on the video screen in the theater as they broke a bottle of booze on the hall of the ship.

But dinner was nice, and we had a good time catching up with Zelda & Matteo.
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(1) You’ll recall that, unlike our last cruise on a sister ship, is ship has no open seating restaurant – you need a reservation every evening.  

(2) We never got a menu last evening, but found Lanza at breakfast and got it all arranged for tonight.

Almost ready

So we both spent some time yesterday packing, and I’m pretty much done.  The conversations we had about choices were illuminating and exposed two different (and equally valid) perspectives on how to make choices.

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Bags ready to go, April 2017

On the one hand, there’s a school of thought that attempts to bring the minumum one can get away with on a trip.  Every item chosen must be versitile; clothing should mix-and-match across your selected wardrobe; items should be both durable and washable.  I know people who travel and never check luggage – their selections always fit into the allowable carry-on sized bags.  Indeed, I travelled for years for business and never checked a bag, although the carry-on restrictions were a bit looser then.

The advantages to this approach are

  • No chance of loosing checked luggage
  • No waiting for checked luggage at the carousel (obviously more important for trips with multiple flights or connecting flights)
  • Less stuff to deal with in your room, especially when packing and unpacking

The major disadvantage is that you might discover you need something you didn’t bring.  At best, this will be an inconvenience, where you either do without or need to go buy the item.  At worst, you have a serious problem.  For me, not bringing enough of my meds (or ruining some of what I brought), or missing a piece of photo gear (which is not replaceable in most locations we’ll be) would be pretty bad.  Not having the perfect shirt for some occassion would be much less of a problem to me; I’m happy to compromise here.  I’d be somewhat more unhappy if the weather turned very cold and I didn’t have stuff to keep me comfortable while we’re doing whatever we do.

The other school says that a trip is a special occassion, and one should bring as much stuff as you can manage to maximize your enjoyment of the trip.  “As much as you can manage” could be defined by what fits in your suitcase(s).  The biggest advantage of this approach is that you will almost always have what you want to wear or otherwise use.  You’ll always have warm clothing, and clothing for warm weather.  You’ll have a selection of shoes, pants and tops to wear each day.  If something gets ruined or too soiled to wear, simply select another.

The disadvangages of this are

  • You will never be able to avoid checking luggage
  • At the extreme, you’ll have multiple pieces of checked luggage to deal with – increasing the risk of loss or delay
  • Your luggage may be heavy and hard to manage
  • You need to pack and unpack stuff at each stop
  • You need to find a place to store all of your stuff at each stop (a surprising number of expensive hotels have minimal space to unpack into)

As you might guess, Sally and I approach the challange of packing from these two ends of the spectrum.  What you might not guess is that we usually wind up with almost identical amounts of stuff as measured by the luggage we bring along.  We use the same main suitcase as our checked bag.  I usually have a backpack as a carryon, while she might have a small roll-aboard or bag.

Sally usually brings more items, but my items tend to be larger (think shoes or pants).

Sally might have an extra carry on bag, but my total luggage will usually be heavier (my clothes are denser, and my camera gear weighs a lot).

On any trip longer than a weekend, I assume I’ll need to do laundry.  Sally’s threshhold for laundry is much longer – perhaps a week.

Sally likes to have a variety of looks to wear, while I don’t care so much about that.  I’m happy to wear the same shirt or pants multiple times (subject to laundering, of course).

My rule is always: bring what you want, but it has to fit (whatever that means) and you need to be able to live with your decision.  Other than that, I’m happy for us to make different choices.

Trip planning: we’re not on the ship anymore, Toto

People like cruises for a number of reasons.  Some enjoy the nightlife.  Some enjoy the on-board activities, like limbo contests on the pool deck or trivia games in the lounge.  Some enjoy the all-inclusive nature of the vacation (1).  Some enjoy being able to see many different places without ever having to pack and change hotels.

This voyage makes stops in 11 ports, including the first and last nights where we overnight on the ship.  That means planning (or not) what to do on each day.  Now, the cruise line, as always, tries to make it easy.  They offer excursions which you can book directly online at their website, and usually have choices for each port.

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Make your choice, April 2017

These are not cheap.  The prices shown are per person, so the third one, for instance, is $69 for a 3.5 hour bus ride.  There is a stop for pictures included.  The second one, at $99, is a four hour bus ride where you get to go shopping at two large markets in Barcelona.  Now, don’t get me wrong – I’ve been there, and the markets are actually quite enjoyable.  But paying that much money for a bus tour is just beyond what we consider a bad value.

So our approach has been to find our own guides and book them ourselves.  As they usually charge by the tour and not by the number of people in your group (2), this can actually be quite economical and much more enjoyable when you’re traveling with another couple.

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A private guide explains, May 2015

So, much like our dining plan, we set about identifying what we intended to do at each stop.  This is much easier these days than in the past; we start by checking travel forums like TripAdvisor to see if there are any local guides or tour companies which have worked well.  Using this technique, we discovered a website – Tours By Locals – which intermediates between independent guides in many locations and potential clients.  This ultimately gave us three tours.  We found another two independent guides in two other ports. We decided to take the cruise bus in one location where it was reasonably priced and all we wanted was transportation to the site.  At one stop we’ll rent a car, which I’ve arranged, and in the remaining four we plan to just wander around, or perhaps take taxis to get to where we want to go.

 

 


(1) If they are looking forward to this, they are likely to be disappointed.  Every cruise I’ve been on has lots of ways to spend extra money after you board, starting with drinks.  On our ship, some of the restaurants have a nominal upcharge which is more than Sally and I usually spend for dinner when we go out.

(2) There is an appropriate charge if the guide needs a larger car or van for a larger group, of course.  But four people plus the guide will fit in pretty much any car that any guide we’ve used has driven.

Trip planning – so far

We leave for the trip in not too many weeks now.  We spent a good part of a day last week with Zelda and Matteo planning.

We are on the ship for 12 nights.  We need to make 12 dinner reservations.  There are seven restaurants.  Two of the restaurants have upcharges, the other five don’t.  On our last cruise, with the same cruise line, there was a “Restaurant” which didn’t take reservations, and was large enough to accomodate enough of the passangers without too much of a wait.  On this brand new ship they decided that there doesn’t need to be any no-reservation, open seating restaurant.  That means that you need to plan a meal for each night, or risk having to hang around waiting for a seat to open.

Or maybe they have some magic, and they just know that the natural and immutable patterns of passenger dining behavior is such that there will be no conflict, no line, no waiting.

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“Sorry madam, you will have to sit with the crew this evening …”, May 2015

 

Needless to say, but this would not stand.  So Sally and Zelda began strategizing about which nights to eat at which of the seven restaurants.  This involved:

  • analyzing each restaurant and it’s menu
  • checking to see what time we needed to return to the ship each day
  • choosing a time to eat each evening
  • determining which restaurants were worthy of eating at more than once, despite never having eaten at any of them (1)
  • making reservations at the annointed time, using the cruise line’s handy online booking system

Except for a few problems, this worked out okay.  The problems included the system not accepting reservations at one restaurant that the ladies deemed especially desirable, and also not accepting reservations for any restaurant on the first night on the ship.  So 600 people will board that afternoon and immediately run around trying to get a reservation in the restaurant they like.

Or maybe they’re just not as OCD as we are, and are planning to relax on their vacation and take it as it comes.

 

 


(1) Actually, no one has ever eaten at any of these restaurants.  It’s a brand new ship, and we are on the first official sailing.

How to plan a trip

I blogged a couple of years ago about the immense detail involved in planning a ground trip.  We spent a month visiting the national parks out west, and had dozens of pages of planning information: hotel reservations, flights, car rental, sites and locations to see in the parks and elsewhere, backup driving directions in case our GPS failed, etc.

The other extreme is generally perceived to be a cruise.   It’s generally thought that once you get to the ship you generally don’t have to decide anything more important than which flavor martini you want before dinner.  I’m here to tell you that it ain’t so, Joe.

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Dining on board, May 2015

When we go on a cruise, the planning starts as soon as the cruise line opens up the specialty restaurants for reservations.  You see, today’s cruises are all inclusive, except for all the stuff that isn’t actually included.  One of those are the specialty restaurants on board.  Rather than eat in the stuffy old dining room with pretty much unlimited portions of everything on the menu, you are enticed by smaller, more intimate restaurants that (a) require reservations and (b) often have a surcharge. The ship we will be on – the Silver Muse – sports a total of eight restaurants, ranging from Italian to Southeast Asian to seafood to tapas to … well, you get the idea.  And once you have a system where advance reservations are available, and there is a start date when you can make those reservations, it’s starts to look like the next Lady Gaga concert: ticket sales open at 10:00 am Monday, and they are sold out by 10:05.

Well, that might be a slight exageration, but you get the idea.

So you need to decide which restaurants you want to eat in, and which nights.  Simple you say?  Just go down the list and choose Restaurant 1 on Day 1, Restaurant 2 on Day 2, etc.?  Not so simple.

First, you need to map the restaurants against the ports.  For instance, our cruise variously leaves ports at 5:00pm, 6:00pm, 7:00pm and 10:00pm.  If you’re touring that day, you need to find out what time you get back on board (a port where the ship departs at 7:00 will have tours that get you back before that, but not as early as those when the ship departs at 5:00).  So why not just always choose a later time?  Well, then you run into the showtimes in the lounge.  If you eat at the wrong time, you might be eating dinner when the show(s) are on.  And then, some nights are “formal” in the main dining room.  Do you want to ensure you’re there for those formal nights, or do you want to ensure you avoid being there?

All of this gets complicated when you’re traveling with another couple, as we are.  You need to discuss and debate all of these choices, and make sure everyone is happy with the decisions.  And then hope you can actually get reservations when and where you want them.

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The Colosseum, May 2015

The second major planning activity revolves around shore touring and sightseeing.  For many people on cruises,  they simply look at the list of excursions offered by the ship and choose one.  No muss, no fuss, not too much brain strain.  But lots of money.  Example: on our last cruise, the stop at Livorno offered a “tour” to Florence which consisted pretty much of a bus ride from the dock to the bus station in Florence, and the corresponding return trip.  The trip was advertised as about 1 1/2 hours each way, and you would have about 6 hours on your own to explore Florence.  The price? $100 per person.  Tours that actually do something other than provide transportation were even more expensive.  In this case, we elected to rent a car for the four of us for the two days the ship was docked at Livorno, at a cost of less than $200.  We paid another $15 or $20 for parking in Florence, and spent the second day driving to a few smaller towns and villages in Tuscany, including Siena.  We followed this self-tour plan at all of the stops, not taking any of the excursions offered by the ship.

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Siena Piazza del Campo, May 2015

So our instinct is to self-tour at most of the stops this time as well.  We have four stops in “big” cities: Rome(1), Florence(1), Marseilles, Barcelona.  We have 8 stops in smaller places: Monte Carlo, Palma de Mallorca, Trapai, Valletta, Taormina, Amalfi, Sorrento, and Nice.  We need a plan for each one.

Once we have a plan for each one, we can get the dinner reservations squared away.  See how I got back to that?

 


(1) There’s a bit of bait and switch here as well.  As I mentioned, Florence is quite far away from where we actually dock, and Rome is actually even further.  And while the heart of Florence is small enough that you can wander around for six hours and accomplish something, in Rome you need to pick a sight or three that you really want to see and get to them somehow. In both cases, our ship is in port for about 11 hours.

Travel Plans

I’ve blogged in the past about some trips that I’ve taken with my lovely wife.  This year, we’re planning two major and at least a couple of minor trips.  The major trips are another Mediterrainian cruise, and a safari in Africa.   We also have an out of town wedding, and we’ll be in Vermont some times.

Scenes from the Silver Spirit, May 2015

The Mediterranean cruise is similar to the one I blogged about in 2015 (https://bassman-crusin.blogspot.com/).  Last time we traveled with our good friends Rob & Laura.   This time we’ll be traveling with Zelda & Matteo (don’t ask). The trip is not for a while yet, so I still have adequate time to obsess over planning and packing, and planning for packing.  Actually, I don’t expect any drama with the packing for this trip – I’ll pretty much just drag out the packing list from the last one, update it for new sneakers, etc., and be done.

The safari is a whole new ball of wax.  If you’ve never gone on a safari, or talked to someone who has gone on a safari, you may not be aware that there are a few very strict requirements.

The first is that all of your luggage must weigh 44 lbs. or less.  This includes your checked bag (singular) and any carry-on stuff you may bring.   Related to this, the checked bag apparently must be a soft-sided duffel-type bag with no wheels.  There are other guidelines around what you should or shouldn’t bring as well.  I’ll probably devote a few posts to this issue in the future, as this trip isn’t until much later.  So I have plenty of time to obsess (full disclosure: I started obsessing a couple of months ago when we agreed to make this trip).

I’ll talk a bit about our cruise planning in an upcoming post.