28 January 2009

Cruising for People Who Think They Would Hate It






(Pictures aren't too good, we were too relaxed to take good pictures.)

For years I thought that going on a cruise would be a horrible experience. Between Kathie Lee Gifford's old Carnival Cruise commercials and an aversion to most group activities, I just couldn't imagine ever wanting to go on one. During my year-long experiment as a vacation planner in 2008 I learned a lot about the cruise industry, what kinds of of cruise lines are out there, what the ships are like, where they go, what they cost, etc. The more I learned, the more I was drawn to going on one, if nothing else just to see what it was like. Of course I also have a healthy fascination with all modes of transportation so the prospect of getting on a giant ship was rather appealing.

So last week we took the plunge and went on a 7-day eastern Caribbean cruise on the Celebrity Solstice and we had a blast. Lest you think we have sold out and turned in our independent traveller cards, here is how we survived (and loved) our cruise experience.

How to not make friends:
John and I travel very well together. We like to do many of the same things, our aesthetic sensibilities are similar and we really enjoy each other's company. We also have a healthy fear of being forced into conversations or social situations with people we may not particularly care for. I am sure there were plenty of folks on board our ship with whom we would have had a great time. But 7-days is not enough time to weed through 2,800 guests to find the ones who might be simpatico with us. Our undiscussed strategy was to keep to ourselves as much as possible. Our category of cabin had its own dining room that was a lot smaller than the main dining room so it was easier to get a two-top than it would have been in the big room. If you do end up having to share a table with people you don't know, you might want to try going for a really big table. With more people at the table your chances of getting along with someone increase or at the very least it makes it easier to ignore unsavory elements seated at your table. But there are other options as well for keeping to yourselves. Most ships have specialty restaurants where you can reserve a table for two, you can eat at the buffet and choose your own table, or you can order 24-hour room service (at no additional charge).

We did have a few pleasant interactions with other guests here and there, and the staff were all very friendly, but we pretty much kept to ourselves. Although our ship was huge there were plenty of places to get away from the crowds.

How to not get sick:
These are huge ships with lots of motion stabilizers, but I got news for you: they still move enough to induce motion sickness. We had fairly calm seas but still felt enough motion on the ship that we started to get a little sick. Thankfully Dramamine came to the rescue. The "less drowsy" version was particularly helpful. With the help of those little pills we managed to avoid any real discomfort. We saw plenty of people wearing the little patches behind their ears as well. Next time I am going to try those (but will still have my Dramamine just in case).

How to increase your chances of liking your experience:
It's all about the ship. I repeat, it is all about the ship. While cruise ships go to fabulous destinations all over the world, I think the way to approach it (especially for first time cruisers) is to try and get on a ship that you like enough that it doesn't matter where it is going. I chose the Solstice because it has a great spa, Celebrity is known for better than average food, and because the ship was practically brand new. Coming into service just last month, the Solstice still had that new ship smell. Everything was in perfect order, brand spanking new, and had all of the latest in cruising comfort. In particular:
  • Ship Design. The decor of the ship was much more subdued and sophisticated than your average cruise ship. Lots of blues and neutral colors with typical cruise ship garishness kept to a minimum. And our cabin was really comfortable. With a better bed than many hotels and a verandah that was perfectly sized for two of us. For seven days we had a ocean front view and a wonderful spot to sit and enjoy it.

  • The Art Collection. They actually had a real art collection throughout the ship. This was perhaps the biggest surprise for us. We don't expect to see "real" art in most hotels let alone on a cruise ship. Images in the cabins and cabin hallways were kind of abstract photo prints, but in the more public areas the Solstice was chock-a-block with wonderful art by Hirst, Dine, Bleckner, Hockney, Rauschenberg, Sugimoto, Nils-Udo, to name just a few. They also had a "gallery" with your typical terrible tourist, more money than taste, art for sale. That that is easily ignored.

  • The Spa. As I have already mentioned the Solstice had a really fantastic Elemis spa. All of the staff and treatments were great, the spaces were beautiful and peaceful. A Persian Garden for relaxing in the steam or just looking out at the passing ocean, a relaxation room looking out the front of the ship for lounging after a really great massage, and a fitness center that was big and well-equipped.

  • The Activities. In addition to all of the typical cruise ship activities the Solstice also had a hot glass show with glass blowers from the Corning Museum of Glass giving daily demonstrations, and an actual lawn for croquet and bocce ball. On top of that there is all kinds of entertainment, some of it kind of cheesy (and avoidable) but some of the musical ensembles that rotate throughout the ship were really enjoyable. I almost got John out on the dance floor.

  • The Food. Celebrity has better than average food. With tons of options. You will never go hungry on a cruise. Thank god for the fitness center. Our only complaint was desserts. In general they were too refined. You know how sometimes the fancier a dessert looks the less it tastes like anything. That was kind of what was going on here. On the other hand they did have a gelato bar with easily some of the best gelato I have had outside of Italy.
How to not feel like a tourist:
This was our first time to the Caribbean (if you don't count our trip to fabulous Bermuda, which is not in the Caribbean, so why did you bring it up) so we really didn't know what to expect. If you don't know your destinations it is best to have some kind of plan before heading ashore. Most of these small islands cater to the giant ships that dock on their shores. This usually means lots of shops that cater to tourists. Not terribly pleasant unless you are into that kind of thing. In most cases it is best to choose one of the shore excursions offered through your cruise line. You may still feel like a tourist, but they can at least get you away from the worst of the touristy bits, depending on what you choose. In San Juan we just walked around the old city and looked at the forts. This was actually kind of fun. It is at least a port that exists for more than just the cruise ships that pull up. St. Martaan is a bit of an armpit. Thankfully we took a shore excursion to Orient Beach which gave us the chance to enjoy the beach without worrying about how to get there or the hassle of renting chairs and umbrellas. The rest of the island we kind of explored on our own, but man, wasn't much to write home about. Tortola we played with a Dolphin and didn't get to see much else. In Haiti we went on a crazy zip line that started 500 feet above the beach and whizzed over the water. You can also check out CruiseCritic.com to get more info on ports of call so you can make the most of your time ashore. Bottom line though, it really is about the ship and maybe getting a taste of places that you might want to visit in the future.

27 January 2009

This is Truly Amazing

This picture has to be seen, or should I say played with, to be believed. It looks like an ordinary wide shot of the scene as the President gives his inaugural address. However, use the zoom tool. What start out as specks on the photo turn into clear images of what people in the crowd were up to while Obama gave his address. Behind the President, Yo-Yo Ma is taking a photo, to the far side of the President Clarence Thomas appears to be sleeping, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan is holding hands with his wife, and if you start looking into the general public part of the crowd, you start to feel like you might just find Waldo. Definitely worth a few minutes of your time.

26 January 2009

The Inauguration at Sea



Some of you have been wondering why I haven't written anything about the inauguration of Barack Obama. Living in DC just up the street from the White House, you would think that I would have something to say about the day. Well I do, but unfortunately we were not in town for the event. Last May I booked a vacation for us and we didn't realize the schedule conflict until it was too late. Unlike the last time around we really would have liked to have stayed in town. Four years ago when W had his second inaugural we got the heck out of Dodge and had a really nice time visiting the Grand Canyon. (Highly recommend the GC in January: sunny, cold, a little bit of snow on the ground, and very quiet.)

Thankfully the night of the election we walked down to the White House at about 1:30 am, so we got to experience some of the Obama excitement. However, for the big day itself we were in San Juan, Puerto Rico on our first ever cruise (much more on that later). We lounged in our stateroom watching the ceremony on CNN as palm trees began to float by while we docked in San Juan. The inauguration was also shown on the big screen in the ship's theater, but I didn't want to have to shush anyone so we stayed in our cabin. As soon as the ceremony was over, I put on one of my Obama t-shirts and we hit the streets of old San Juan.

When we got back to the ship in the evening, I walked out onto our verandah and saw a couple on the ship next to ours wearing their matching Obama t-shirts. For me it was a great way to capture the spirit of the day.

Jane, stop this crazy thing!

I feel like George Jetsen on the treadmill that won't stop. Except instead of getting a great cardio workout like George did, I am just wasting time filling my head full of all kinds of political gossip and overhyped prognostications. I seem incapable of staying away from the The Huffington Post, Politico, and other news and political websites. I love keeping up to the minute on what is going on politically in Washington, but there comes a time when it feels like enough is enough. In the lead up to an election, there is no keeping me away. I get totally caught up in the frenzy, with breath held and fingers crossed that the results will go my way. But with that all over for a while it would be nice if I could step away from it.

Of course this will be extra tough at the moment with all of the excitement of President Obama. Like so many Americans I am so hopeful at the moment and frankly a little (okay a lot) in love with the whole Obama family. I can't get enough of the photos of the first family. It is refreshing to have a young, hip family in the White House who actually seem to be excited about being a part of DC the community and not just DC the company town. I love Barack for all of the obvious reasons (you know the ones that got him elected), I love Michelle because she is down to earth and sharp as tacks, I love Malia because she has such poise and curiosity about everything going on, I love Sasha because she seems like a little firecracker ready to surprise at any moment (who can forget her grabbing the microphone in Denver calling out "Hello Girardo family" to the folks on the big screen), and I love Michelle's mom, Mrs Robinson, seemingly unflappable and always at the ready to dispense love, wisdom, or discipline as they are called for. If I seem a little over the top, I don't care. This is my moment to be in love with my country, my president, and my new neighbors just down 16th Street.

As much as I want to keep up with the Obamas as they settle into their new roles, I really don't think I need to constantly comb the political blogs for tidbits on which member of Congress is whining about some perceived slight and all of the other minutiae to be found online. Nor do I need at this moment to read the endless blathering prognostications of how great or how awful this administration is going to be. I would just like to let them do their jobs for a bit before I start reading about the 2012 election.

My problem is that I don't seem to be able to do anything in moderation. So checking out these sites once a day doesn't really work for me. As soon as I peek at them, I get sucked right back in and next thing I know an hour is gone. Maybe I will try being a typical American for a while and only get my political news from the mainstream media. Although the thought of watching the nightly news is too awful to contemplate. Maybe the The Newshour on PBS, that might work. Or maybe I just need to go cold turkey and get my news from Jon Stewart.

14 January 2009

Holy Moly!

I just made the mistake of looking at my IRA balances. Thank god I am 20 years away from retirement. My accounts have gone down almost 50%. Egadz, the only thing that actually made money for the year was the cash in our savings account.

I know it shouldn't bother me. Plenty of time to make up for lost value. Sigh. I need a Suze Orman pep talk.

06 January 2009

Esoteric Television: Dial M for Music (and W for The Womenfolk)

(Photo courtesy of the Womenfolk's MySpace page)

After Christmas we spent a long weekend in New York. Not being in the mood to shop I decided to spend my Sunday afternoon at the Paley Center for Media (formerly the Museum of Television and Radio or something like that). It isn't a regular museum, they show various TV programs in various parts of the building, but the real focus is the library where you can look up just about any show you can think of, request it, and watch it.

My mission was to see if I could find any television appearances of The Womenfolk. The few video clips that have been on the Internet were a great chance to see the ladies sing (for the first time for those of us who were born too late), but both have been removed and I was hoping to find more. I had a list of shows and show numbers from imdb.com or some other online dbase. Unfortunately the show numbers weren't helpful in the Paley Center's catalog where they use show dates not episode numbers. I wasn't able to find the episodes of Ed Sullivan and Red Skelton and other shows on which they appeared.

The only thing I managed to track down was an episode of the show "Dial M for Music". Featuring the CBS Orchestra and hosted by some priest (?!). This particular episode focused on folk music. The "Irish" tenor Richard Hayman sang Danny Boy (which I hate) and a really rather nice version of "I'm Just a Poor Wayfarin' Stranger". Ralph Curtis played the harmonica on Deep River with the orchestra which I loved. He also added a nice touch to Hayman's version of Wayfarin' Stranger.

But the real stars of the show were The Womenfolk. Taped in 1966 (I think) the group was one short for this performance, missing Jean Amos who I believe had left the group by that time. The performances are pretty satisfying, I can only imagine how nice it would have been if all five had still been singing.

In total The Womenfolk did five songs: The Maybe Song, Young Man, Last Thing on my Mind, Love Come a'Tricklin' Down, and something that sounded like Bonnie Heedin (Highland?) Laddie. The ladies were definitely not lip syncing (I wonder if they ever did?), only three of them were playing guitar (Leni Ashmore did not), and there was no additional accompaniment. At least I don't think the CBS orchestra joined in with them. It was fascinating to watch, to see/hear what each of the individual voices sounded like. It actually would have been cool if Ralph Curtis would have joined them with his harmonica on Last Thing on My Mind. Joyce James also encouraged the very clean-cut, young audience to join in on Love Come a'Tricklin' Down.

I know I have waxed rhapsodic about The Womenfolk on many occasions, but I must say, as I sat at the Paley Center watching this one show over and over I was again reminded of how much I love this group. It was a bit of a bittersweet moment. I was happy to be seeing the footage, but a little sad that I could only find the one show when I know they did a lot more television. Hopefully I will be able to see more in the future.

For those who haven't seen the original tribute to The Womenfolk, click here.

01 January 2009

2008 Reading Wrap Up

I read 11 fewer books in 2008 than I did in 2007. I don't like that trend. I intend to improve upon that in the coming year. With good (book reading) friends in town for the last 10 days I have managed to acquire through gift and purchase about 30 books. Add this to the stack already in my commodious night stand and I have plenty of fodder for the coming months.

But what of the books for 2008? I was surprised to learn a few months ago that my sister was using my book list on the left column of MyPorch for reading ideas. Not a bad idea, except that my list makes no distinctions about whether or not the books were any good. So I thought I would give you a few of my favorites for the year.

I read almost no non-fiction, but the last book of the year Richistan, was a fascinating, quick read about the lives of the rich in America. Written by Wall Street Journal reporter Robert Frank, it is an amazing tale of excess, the gap between us and them, and the wannabes at all points of the economic spectrum. It also describes a world that may be involuntarily resetting itself as the economy continues to sour.

Looking back at my list for the year I see a lot of titles that I really didn't care for especially in the first half of the year, but there were some good ones.

Favorite books of the year (in no particular order):

  • The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (wrote a post on this one previously).
  • The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. Not a typical choice for me, lots of action, but a really great read.
  • Julie and Julia by Julie Powell. Woman decides to make all the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child (over 500 of them) in 365 days.
  • The Way I Found Her by Rose Tremain. A bit of a coming of age tale tied in with a mysterious disappearance set in Paris.
  • Hudson River Bracketed by Edith Wharton. Not Wharton's best but a great story nonetheless.
  • Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico. A 1950s London cleaning lady saves up her money for several years so she can go to Paris and buy a Dior gown. Not much meat to the book but a delightful story.
  • My Horizontal Life by Chelsea Handler. Raunchy, laugh out loud humor.

Welcome to the Age of Obama

It could be argued that the Age of Obama started back in November when he won the election, or in the succeeding weeks where he has offered more leadership than the sitting president, but I like clean lines, and the first day of 2009 seems like a fitting starting point. The Obamas will move to Washington DC this weekend so the girls can start school on Monday.

As a DC resident, I couldn't be more excited to welcome them. It sure will be a change from the last eight years and the Bushs' overwhelming desire to be anywhere other than our fair city. It is telling that Obama has created an office that will focus on urban issues, and unlike his Republican adversaries doesn't think that cities are the root of all evil and use them as wedge issue. It drove me crazy during the campaign whenever Sarah Palin talked about bringing small town values to Washington. I have nothing against small town values, I grew up in a small town. But what Palin, in her clueless ignorance, didn't understand is that the Washington she was talking about--official Washington--is full of small town folks just like her. The House of Representatives is a bastion of small town values, 435 Congressmen and Congresswomen either from small towns or representing the often parochial and self-serving interests of their districts. These are some of the folks that make up the Washington she was talking about. Her limited world view would certainly have done nothing to improve the less than ideal characteristics of small town politics as they impact national policy. Not to belittle small town values, but trying to score political points by pitting small towns against larger urban areas is not a positive way to move our country forward.

With so much going wrong at the moment it will be nice to have a president who is ready and willing to apply his intellectual energy to the task at hand. With the glaring example of George W. Bush, every president in my memory (Gerald Ford forward) has at least taken the job seriously. Of course when you layer W's incompetence on top of his apathy you have a marvelous recipe for failure which explains a lot about the past eight years.

As regular readers of MyPorch already know, I am huge fan of Barack Obama (despite being an early Hillary supporter). I fully agree with Colin Powell's assessment that Obama is a transformational figure. Even with my predisposition toward our future President, I must say I am still surprised at how impressed I am with Obama's first book Dreams from My Father which I picked up for the first time yesterday. Not only is he a good writer but his life experience is so much more reflective of a 21st-century American than the usual suspects in American presidential politics. He is the right person at the right time and I can't wait to see what America becomes in the next eight years.

So despite the terrible economy, the senseless violence around the world, and the continued environmental degradation of our planet, I am wildly hopeful about the future and the ability of Barack Obama to inspire and lead us to be more than what we have been.