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.  

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.

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.