The big 4-0

Yesterday was Zelda and Matteo’s 40th anniversary.   To celebrate, we took them to a very fancy restaurant, complete with an expensive bottle of French champagne.  We finished the evening with a cabaret show (1).

Zelda and Matteo @ 40, April 23, 2017


It’s hard to believe that the 15 year old girl I first saw standing in her mother’s kitchen is all grown up.

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(1) Actually, all of this was included in the price of the cruise, and of course, they paid their own way.  Except for the champagne, which was a gift to us from American Express for charging the cruise on their card.   Still, I thought it sounded nice.  

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.

Heated nuts


I’ve eaten in many restaurants around the world.  In some of the restaurants, the food served was unrecognizable to my uncultured eyes, but I usually understood the point of the dish after it was explained.  That doesn’t mean I tried it, or liked it if I did.  I am an admittedly picky eater; this is well known to my family and friends.  

One type of food that exists in many countries is nuts.   I generally like nuts, especially salted, and especially peanuts (I know, they’re cheap and not the most nutritious).  Different countries emphasize different nuts, of course.  But there is a way of preparing nuts that I’ve only encountered in the front of airplanes: heated nuts. 

Why heat nuts?  It’s not as if they are cooked, they remain in their raw and crunchy state.  It’s not as if there is some storage reason (do they keep them near the jet engines?).  Nuts don’t spoil, and they aren’t served hot enough to kill any bacteria.  The heat doesn’t seem to enhance the flavor in any way.

But here they are, heated. And I don’t like it.  

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.