Dublin

Dublin1

I’ve never developed much of an affinity for Dublin. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it, it’s just that there’s nothing to draw me here. It’s a city of writers: Joyce, Wilde, Shaw, and so on. But frankly they’re writers I don’t read, and certainly don’t reread.

It’s a city of pubs, but those aren’t high on my list of places to eat or drink. And it’s a city of tourist shops—well, you get the idea.

It’s also where about a third of the country’s population lives, a million and a half of them. But it lacks the natural beauty of the rest of the Green Isle.

So we tried something different this time, a Jameson distillery tour (the actual distillery isn’t really here anymore, it’s in Cork).

We began with a tour of the city. Our guide was rather boring, and had gone to the William Shatner School of Bizarre Dramatic… Pauses.

Dublin2

Once we reached the Jameson “Distillery” which is really a visitor center we had a short tour and then I was lucky and got chosen to be one of the people to taste comparative samples of Jameson, Scotch and Jack Daniels, which was interesting. The Jameson is much smoother, the scotch is peaty/smokey and a bit harsh, and the Jack very perfumey and rough. But regular Jameson is also pretty rough after having only had the 12 and 18 before.

We had much too long a time there, so Linda and I went for a walk to the river, but since it was Sunday, that part of town was closed up. We did see some good street art:

Dublin3

 

After another ride around town we were dropped off back at the ship.

The last time we were in Dublin there was bad weather so we stayed in port overnight and skipped the next port, which was Belfast. It must be something about Dublin, as tomorrow we’re skipping Cork, due to predicted gale force winds. At least we saw Belfast this time. And the weather has been really nice so far. I guess there are 25 foot waves forecast tonight, so I’m just as glad to be in port.

So next stop is Newfoundland, in four days.

Titanic Belfast

Titanic Belfast is a visitor center opened in 2012 adjacent to the Belfast docks where Titanic was constructed. It is, without doubt, the best visitor center I’ve been to.

Our day began with a short tour of downtown Belfast, a small city that is enjoying an economic renaissance since peace came in 1998. We soon arrived at the dry dock where Titanic was outfitted after the hull was completed in the nearby gantry.

DryDockTop

After a bit of history we descended into the dry dock where we could inspect the rusted gate that was moved to seal up the dock.

DryDockRust

Along the bottom of the dock are stacks of the supports used to brace the ship. To give you an idea of the scale, each little support weighs more than a ton.

DryDockBottom

After a stop for coffee we arrived at the nearby Titanic Belfast, an absolutely breathtaking building with five floors of exhibits.

Titanic

You begin by traveling from the ground floor up to the first floor, where a gallery details what Belfast was like during the years leading up to the time of Titanic. Unlike other Irish cities, it was quite industrial, with half a million linen looms in the city, and a major boat building business.

Throughout the facility we found excellent displays, interactives and use of projections. Nearly every other museum I’ve been to should visit here to see how to properly design displays to engage and inform.

I particularly loved the floor projections of drawings and other information in this first area. Sourced from four overhead projectors, they were constantly changing, easy to read, and amazingly resistant to shadows as we walked over them.

TitanicFloor

This brought us to the base of a re-creation (at 1/3 scale) of the Arrol Gantry used to construct the Titanic’s hull. We ascended in a lift to the fourth floor and boarded a dark ride that took us on a tour of the shipyard, through sets and projections. The ride vehicles were smaller versions of the King Kong ride from Universal Studios Florida in the 90’s. Each six passenger vehicle was suspended from a scissor lift, permitting two stories of vertical travel. Ride audio was excellent.

TitanicRide

After the ride we stopped at a large window that looks out onto where the gantry stood. The window changes from opaque to transparent, in sync with a film of the launch. This shot captures it in transition, with the titanic in the gantry visible as a rendering over the view of the port:

TitanicReveal

Other displays contained whole staterooms, including first, second and third class accommodations. A particularly effect 180 degree theater provided a tour of the ship, moving upward from engine room to bridge on three walls surrounding the audience:

Titanic180

The displays on this floor concluded with the sinking, and on the third floor a two story high theater described the aftermath, including discovery and exploration.  In a unique bit of design, the lowest floor of this theater was glass, and below it you could watch high resolution images as cameras moved over the wreck.

With limited time we couldn’t explore further, but the museum certainly deserves at least a half day, perhaps more. It is a truly great facility.

 

London

After Linda’s push to get “Tree” (AKA “A Bug’s Life”) open at Animal Kingdom, we were able to slip away for a transatlantic cruise. On Friday we picked up a rental car at Disney and on Saturday we packed it and headed for Orlando International airport. (This trick saves us cab fare, and is much less rushed.) We had lunch at our frequent travel stop, McCoy’s and then boarded a Delta jet for Detroit.

Since we live in Orlando we’re used to a really nice airport, but this one might even be better than Orlando’s. It’s spacious and airy, easy to get around, and the Westin hotel is even more convenient than the Hyatt in Orlando.

At the moment there is a shortage of nice places to eat in the terminal, but new ones are coming. For now, the solution is to dine at Dema in the lobby of the Westin, which is just on the other side of a private TSA entrance to the hotel’s lobby.

Dema

The Zen-like setting of this lobby restaurant makes it a welcome retreat from the hustle of the airport, and it’s literally feet away from the gates.

Service is friendly and there is an extensive selection of wines by the glass. The pepperoni and bacon pizza and the hummus and tapenade appetizer were both good.

Note that the TSA portal closes in the evening and you have to go back around through the terminal, but it’s still not that far.

Our flight departed at about11pm, the last one out of the airport. I skipped dinner and took advantage of the “pod” in Delta’s business elite class (thank you frequent flyer miles) to get an almost full night’s sleep before our 11 am arrival in London.

On the approach to Heathrow we passed over Windsor Castle, the weekend home of the Queen, and our destination for the following day.

WindsorAerial

This time our luggage arrived with us (unlike two years ago, on our trip with Martin, Audrey and Emilio) and we were met by our favorite driver, Eddie Manning. It wasn’t much after noon when we arrived at The Ritz Hotel and were able to settle into our lovely room.

RitzExterior

I found this room on Hotels.com for about half price, and what a deal it was.

RitzRoom

If the the founder of the Ritz could see his hotel a hundred years later I think he would be very pleased. Its maintenance and refurbishment are tip top, and its staff still cleaves to old-time standards of service. While the strict enforcement of the no jeans or sneakers rule may irk some, and the requirement of a jacket and tie in the restaurants may seem old fashioned, they work to enforce the tone attempted here, which some may find a bit snooty. So be it; if that’s not your thing, there are plenty of alternatives. But if you’d like to step back to the glamour of a past age, this is the place to do it.

RitzInterior

After a nap we headed out for a snack, and after wandering around a bit ended up at our old standby, Bentley’s. Dani and I first found this play quite a few years ago, up an alley called Swallow Street (lots of bars there?) off of Piccadilly. The place seems to have been the only thing around that survived the bombing in WWII, and has been operating since 1916.

Bentleys

Bentley’s specializes in fresh seafood and shellfish.  It has a cozy, pub-like interior, but on this day it was great to dine in the covered area out front, basically the middle of the street.

The wine selection is particularly well-suited to fish and especially the shellfish selections. You can’t go wrong with the Albarino, and it went great with my prepared crab appetizer.

PreparedCrab

Back to the hotel and a bit of journalling, and then it was time for dinner at the very dressy Ritz Restaurant, right in our hotel.

RitzRestaurant

Regarded by many as the world’s most beautiful dining room, the Restaurant at the Ritz offers a rarefied experience, at rarefied prices. But actually the tasting menu, which included eight courses for 95 pounds, was a good deal. While the food is not likely to garner Michelin stars, several courses were quite good. The matching wine pairings were generous, but few actually matched the food. Service was, of course, impeccable.

Monday morning the alarm got us out of bed, but we were pretty much on time zone for our trip to Windsor Castle. This involved navigating the tube to Paddington Station and catching two trains. This sounds harder than it turned out to be, and we arrived in about 60 minutes (although it must be said that the tickets we bought failed to work in almost every single turnstile and we had to be let through manually, a difficulty that seemed to be a matter of course).

Windsor has a nice mall attached to the train station (and in retrospect this is where we should have eaten), but the castle itself is surrounded by tacky tourist shops. We had a lunch reservation at what turned out to be a chain Thai restaurant, and we were early, so Linda had time for a bit of shopping.

ThaiSquareExterior

The Thai restaurant, Thai Square, was conveniently located adjacent to Windsor Castle. It features attractive decor in its various interconnected dining rooms.

It was mediocre at best. The curry was the best thing we tried. The “Golden Sack” and rib appetizers were unremarkable, as was the duck entree. Service was pleasant but not particularly attentive.

Then it was on to Windsor Castle. Unfortunately no pictures allowed, but here are some.

A drizzly Monday proved to be the perfect time to visit, as crowds were very light. We had repurchased tickets which were mailed to us by Royal Post, and that allowed us to skip the short line that was there, but on a busy day this would be essential.

The castle offers a self-guided audio tour that is excellent. I was surprised at the amount of access afforded, as we toured nearly every public room, including where state visitors are entertained. At 3:15 we rendezvoused with our pre-booked Kitchen tour, and with a group of only a half dozen were taken on a very informative private tour of the kitchen used to cater dinners for more than 170 dignitaries. I highly recommend this, as there were many insights beyond the kitchen itself, and the tour was provided by a member of the Queen’s staff.

One of the more interesting aspect of both tours was to hear about the restoration following a catastrophic fire in 1992. This afforded the opportunity to restore some things just as they were, improve a few others, and to uncover a considerable amount of previously unknown history. All in all, quite an interesting day, and perhaps the top activity I’ve done in London.

For dinner we originally had reservations at a particularly difficult to ge tot restaurant, Trinity, but decided to change, and I was able to book us a late dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant I’d heard a lot about. This proved to be a great move. And it turned out to be right beyond Bentley’s in Swallow Street.

It’s hardly surprising that all of the best Indian meals I’ve had have been in London, even include some Michelin starred meals. But Veeraswamy may well be the best of the best.

I was actually not expecting it to be quite that good, because the opentable listing emphasizes their corporate connections, plus a recommendation by National Geographic(?!)

Veeraswamy

Yet everything we tried was one of the best Indian dishes I’ve tasted, and we tried quite a few items, sampling four appetizers and a vegetarian main that included four separate dishes. Particular highlights were the Raj Kachori, a fancy version of Indian street food consisting of a crisp wheat puri filled with goodies, and Scallop Moilee, which came in a stunning coconut and ginger sauce. My wife is a Chicken Tikka aficionado, and proclaimed this one the best Indian dish she ever tasted.

There is also an excellent wine list, highlighted by some very well-described white and red Burgundies.

This will definitely be the Indian restaurant we return to on our next visit to London.

I was not ready to get up when the alarm went off Tuesday! It’s not that I wasn’t on schedule, just that dinner was very LATE.

A quick taxi ride brought us to The Royal Albert Hall, for our tour. We were again fortunate to have a small group of ten, and an excellent guide. It was so much a behind the scenes tour (since there really isn’t a “backstage” in a round auditorium) as a tour that gave us a look at the installation process for a new show (although we did also get to tour the Queen’s private rooms).

We watched the seating installation, sound check and lighting tests for the night’s Spandau Ballet movie and live performance, and learned many interesting things about the 150 year old facility built to fulfill a vision of Prince Albert, who didn’t live to see it completed.

In 1851 Albert organized the first World’s Fair, housed inside the enormous Crystal Palace in Hyde Park (it was later moved to South London, and burned in 1936). With the profits of the fair he bought a huge parcel of Kensington with the intent of creating a collection of science and art museums, which has indeed come to pass. He began with plans to construct a great performing hall, but died before construction began. A devastated Queen Victoria spent the money instead on the incredibly elaborate Albert Memorial. I suspect Albert would not have been pleased. Anyway, the Royal Albert Hall was eventually constructed through the financing device of selling one third of the seats on a 999 year lease.

After our tour we caught the tube across London to see the installation of red poppies at The Tower of London.

Poppies1

The poppies were installed this summer to commemorate the 100th anniversary of WWI. There is one poppy for each casualty, which really makes the pointlessness of that (and every) conflict quite apparent.

Poppies2

 

After our brief stop at the Tower, we caught a boat back to Westminster. Cruising the Thames is something we hadn’t done before, and it was interesting to see Tower Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Shakespeare’s Globe, The London Eye, Big Ben and Parliament from that vantage point.

 

Thames

In Westminster we decided to see if we could get into Roux at Parliament Square on the spur of the moment, since it was nearly 2pm and lunch hour was winding down. Luck! We did.

Roux is the sister restaurant to and old favorite, LeGavroche. There is a superb prix fixe lunch menu at a very affordable price (so affordable, we couldn’t resist spending several times as much on a wonderful Corton Charlemagne, the perfect accompaniment).

I selected a cassoulet of squid and smoked mussels as my starter. It was richly flavored without being excessively buttery, although there was certainly plenty of that on the wonderful toast served with it.

SquidMusseles

For my main I had the mackerel. This is a dish for true fish lovers, as it’s of course quite fishy, but was not at all oily, just moist, and with a perfectly crisped skin. The accompanying beets were luscious.

Mackerel

A wonderful cheese trolley capped off a delightful meal. Professional yet friendly service increased our enjoyment, making us feel particularly lucky to have been squeezed in without a booking.

Highly recommended as a dressy, sophisticated retreat from the tourist-choked streets outside!

We walked back to our hotel through St. James’ Park, past Buckingham Palace and through Green Park.

StJames

After an evening of journalling, we took the tube north and then walked to Pied a Terre, which has become one of our favorite London restaurants. The atmosphere is intimate, and perfectly suited to romance or business discussions.

The food–especially the tasting menus–is as good as any from London’s other top rated restaurants. But the real difference at Pied a Terre is the wine service.

Rather than simply selecting and pouring wines with each course, it is the restaurant’s practice to offer a blind tasting, where the wine is poured first so you can taste it alone, then the course is served so you can see how it matches, and then you are asked to comment on the wine and (if you wish) guess what it is.

We find this to be tremendous fun. It forges a camaraderie with the sommelier that sets the experience apart from all other fine dining experiences.

On our last visit we were fooled by most of the wines, but I have to say on this evening our performance was impressive.

Linda had by far the more challenging wine pairing, the “Discovery” series, which included very obscure wines and regions such as Croatia. Yet she managed to blind identify an  Assyrtiko from Santorini(!), a very unusual pinot noir blanc from Burgundy, and a Grenache from Australia—in each case not just the grape but the region. Wow!

I had a much easier time of it with the “Classic” pairing, and identified four out of eight wines by type and region, mostly by nose alone, including a French Sauvignon Blanc (although I thought it was from Sancerre, not Pouilly Fume), a German Riesling (always the easiest varietal), a red Bordeaux (I even identified that it was a 2009 Pomerol), a vintage port (easy). I was reasonably close but not exact on the others (Pinot Gris, an odd white Burgundy, late harvest botrytised Vouvray, and Vinsanto from Santorini [which we have in our cellar!]).

PiedaTerre

A very fun evening.

We got to bed late and slept in. At last, a vacation day!

Then is was off to the West End by to to see a show. Before hand we had lunch at The Salisbury, a very historical pub next to the theatre. It’s almost 300 years old.

Salisbury

It’s a good place for lunch before a matinee show at any of the nearby theatres. The food and beverage selections are what you’d expect, and there is a charming period decor. Service is friendly, and accommodating of foreign visitors, so the you can usually order at your table rather than the bar, as is more traditional.

The show we saw was a new Disney-produced stage version of the Tom Stoppard written Shakespeare In Love. This adaptation closely followed the movie, was well staged, brilliantly acted, and made extensive use of on-stage musical performers who created the score as they performed.

I really enjoyed this production, and it brought home to me how parallel the outer story is to the inner story of Romeo and Juliet (but without all that dying). I don’t know how well it will do in the States, but it has certainly been popular here.

After the show we walked a few short blocks to our other favorite London restaurant, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon.

We’ve dined here both upstairs and down, and at the sister restaurants in Las Vegas and (now closed) New York. Of all of them, this is our favorite, because of the intimate size of the downstairs area. It offers arguably the best tasting menu in London, with wine pairings that superbly match each course.

lAtelierLondon2014

The artistry of the food arrangement is really unsurpassed, and it’s great fun to watch it being assembled before you, so be sure to ask for a seat at the counter. This makes it easy to chat with the servers and sommelier, making it a friendly, energizing experience. For parties of more than two a few tables are available downstairs, which I recommend over the less intimate upstairs dining room.

lAtelierLondonCaviar

After a wonderful dinner we headed back to the hotel to sleep, pack, and catch meet our driver for tomorrow’s cruise departure.

It was a great four days in London.

Porto

Porto isn’t far from Vigo—just 84 kilometers—but it’s a different country and different wine-making. Our shore excursion took us to the Douro Valley, two hours away, where port comes from. Although port is named after Porto, the city has nothing to do with its production.

It was a rainy morning, but our luck held, and we didn’t get wet at either stop, and by afternoon the sun had come out.

Unfortunately our tour guide was a nice guy, but the world’s most boring tour guide. His name was Ricardo(ze). Along the way to Douro we stopped at Amarante, where there is an old church (I know, what a surprise, right). Linda lit a tacky LED electronic candle and said a prayer for a better guide, but it didn’t work.

So we spent a dull hour near the church, with a break for shopping but only a hardware store and convenience store nearby. Then on the way back to the bus we walked through the shopping street we should have been at all along, but with no time left to stop.

Another hour brought us to the Casa Amarela winery, a small property that has been in the same family since the 1880s, but which has been making wine only since 1994. We toured their cellar, with large old oak casks and a couple of stainless steel fermenters, and the crushing room, where they stomp the grapes in large granite enclosures.

Then we sampled their white port with some tapas that included their own olives and olive oil, which were terrific. (Unfortunately the olives weren’t for sale, but the olive oil was.) I don’t think I’d had white port before, and it was fairly pleasant. It was followed by a pleasant lunch accompanied by their serviceable red wine and a ruby port.

The drive back to the ship took almost two hours, but the view was much better than the footed in morning because we took the express way over the tops of the mountains, across many impressive valleys so panned by high arching bridges.

In the evening we had our own private sail away party on the balcony, with Martin, a table full of canapés left in our cabin by our butler, and a bottle of yesterday’s four euro Albarino. Audrey was tired from her walk around Porto, so dinner was just the four of us in the dining room. Afterwards Linda and I went up to Reflections for a 40s themed show and dance party with the entertainers.

The following day was the first of two sea days. We attended a wonderful Riedel comparative tasting that contrasted the difference between four wine glasses by having us transfer the same wines between various glasses. We went in skeptical, and came out true believers.

After two relaxing days at sea it will be time to head home from a very pleasant two and a half weeks of travel.

Vigo

Vigo is one of the southern most cities in Northern Spain, located only 20 miles from Portugal. It is Europe’s main hub for shipping fish, and the 10 mile long harbor is filled with platforms used to raise mussels, oysters and scallops. It’s a pretty port, and you can step right off the ship into the bustling down tom, which is surrounded by hills dotted with spanish style homes.

The ship didn’t dock until noon, which gave us time for a workout and some breakfast/lunch before our shore excursion.

This excellent excursion took us up the coast to the next estuary, Pontevedra, where we visited the old city of Combarro. A few twisty stone streets have been toured into tourist shops. Each intersection features a fountain and a “cruceiros,” a religious monument intended to ward off evil spirits. Ironic, since the shops were selling halloween merchandise. We had some tapas and white wine at a seaside cafe before continuing up the coast to Cambados.

In Cambados we visited a small winery and guest house where we enjoyed a tour of the 5 acre property, which has vines, birds and some fruit trees. Then we had a delightful meal of tapas and wine in the courtyard. The mussels were the best I’ve ever tasted, and they just kept bringing out plate after plate of them. Also delicious were mild cooked and salted peppers, similar to the flavor of chile relleno, a great match for the generously poured—and repoured–Albarino. Their red was pretty much undrinkable—-a fact the owner essentially admitted—-but they also made some interesting flavored grappas. I bought a bottle of Albarino and a bottle of herbal grappa. Total cost: 11 Euros.

The group seemed pretty trashed on the way back to the ship. Amateurs.

For dinner the group of five of us met in the dining room for a taste off between Martin’s 2006 Dominus and our 2008 Chapoutier Hermitage Le Meal.

Bilbao

After a workout Friday morning we spent a restful day on the ship. originally we had a dinner scheduled in a Michelin-starred chef’s kitchen, but it was cancelled, and since it was rainy we decided to spend the day on the ship, relaxing. We had dinner with Audrey, Emilio and Martin. Martin went to Rioja, and said it was a good trip. We shared a few wines, including a 2006 Lynch Bages, which had a classic Bordeaux nose, but was acidic and off balance. Maybe the rest of the bottle will be better in a couple of days.

Saturday we had a shore excursion into Bilbao, about 10 miles upriver from the port. It sprinkled throughout the day, but not enough to disrupt the excursion, and since it rains 40% of the year in Bilbao, I suppose it’s to be expected.

We began our tour on a mountain overlooking the city, for a panoramic view. Bilbao has undergone an amazing transformation in the last twenty years, from an industrial iron works into a garden-like model city. The centerpiece of the city is the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry. It was paid for locally, Guggenheim simply gave permission for use of the name. It proved to be a successful spark to the city’s renaissance. We drove past, but didn’t stop.

Our destination was the old part of the city, now a trendy shopping and dining district. Following a walking tour we stopped at three different tapas bars for a glass of wine and a pintxos (the “x” is pronounced “ch”). Traditionally pintxos was served on a stick, but these were all toast with either, ham, salmon or brie, plus marinated vegetables, fruits and so on. Each was excellent, and frankly better than anything on the ship.

We were back on board for an early 3pm sailing and formal night number two, which we celebrated with the tasting menu in Ocean Liners. This time we tried the prix fixe menu, which is one of the few good deals on the ship, at $89 for food and matching wines, considering the wines include a Puligny Montrachet and a Smith Haut Lafite Blanc. The service was excellent, and they were very flexible about letting us swap around courses from the regular menu, and changing the tasting pairings. In fact, we skipped dessert, and they comped us two glasses of Perrier Jouet instead, which were worth about half the cost of dinner. We’ve noticed that while the food even in this restaurant is just so-so, they are really good at salads. I had a quail salad with seared and caramelized goat cheese on arugula with a mustard dressing that was certainly the best thing I’ve tasted on board. It was great with a (gasp) Zinfandel from Chiarella Family Vineyard (the 2009 Giana).

Afterwards we attended a very good review of songs from around the world, presented by the ship’s company.

Margaux

I’ve been struck on this “wine themed cruise” by how little the other passengers know about wine: basically that it has alcohol in it and isn’t beer. Today’s excursion to Margaux included a few passengers who seemed to know their reds from their whites, but not much more. It’s peculiar.

Our first stop was at Chateau Giscours, a third growth that is huge compared to other area wineries, with over 600 acres, much of it not actually classified Margaux, but rather simply Haut-Medoc. The 2004 Le Haut-Medoc de Giscours was an unclassified wine from a poor year, but the 2006 Chateau Giscours was certainly serviceable. More important than the wine, though, was our luck in arriving on the last day of the harvest. Things were in full swing, and we got to watch the hand sorting operation, and crusher stemmer. There is also apparently an automatic optical sorter that rejects individual berries ohm the way to the fermenters.

Then we went to Chateau Kirwan, a send growth, that was quite generous with their wine and the various finger foods served of lunch. The 1999 Kirwan is pleasant, and the generic white “Signatures en Boardeaux” was quite nice with the food. Their second tier wine, 2006 Charmes de Kirwan was to me undrinkable, but they made up for it with the soaring (and sadly unavailable for purchase) 1978 Chateau Kirwan, which offered rich old cabernet scents of anise, sagebrush, mint, flowers and coffee. 96 points.

Following lunch we toured the winery, which had already completed the harvest and was preparing the tanks and barrels for the next step in the process. Two things I found odd: that they make the final mix before oak aging, and that the force the malolactic fermentation simultaneous to alcohol fermentation rather than letting it proceed naturally. To me, these “efficiencies” can be tasted in their modern wines.

There were a lot of sleepy passengers, unaccustomed to wine tastings, on the bus back to the ship!

Bordeaux

Reflecting pool

The last time I was in Bordeaux, I stepped off the ship onto the main street along the waterfront. This time our ship is larger, and we are docked two hours away, in Le Verdon. This obviously makes every shore excursion four hours longer, so we had limited time in the city today. But it was enough time for a walking tour and then lunch on our own.

Bordeaux has certainly been fixed up since Dani and I were here a half dozen years ago. The buildings are cleaned, some streets are converted to pedestrian walkways, and there is a revitalized waterfront and lovely reflecting pool where warehouses once stood.

Linda selected—somewhat at random—Le Cajou Caffee, a bisto that wowed us with the starters, a foie gras terrine and chèvre salad. The main courses were less exciting, but it was still a good lunch. A 2000 Chateau Bouscaut Pessac-Leognan was the perfect age.

Bordeaux

Back on the ship by 5pm, we had dinner in the Tuscany restaurant. Basically food the caliber of an Olive Garden. Located in a fairly austere space on the top deck, it certainly wasn’t worth the $45 per person cover charge, almost twice what it costs to eat at the specialty Italian restaurant on Royal Caribbean, which provides a far more elaborate meal.

We tried a 2008 Sito Moresco Barbaresco by Gaja, which was dusty and a bit hot; and a Far Niente Chardonnay, which had very big California style fruitiness and seemed slightly sweet. We’ll save both for tomorrow.

Livarot and Calvados

Linda’s birthday! Morning workout in the gym and then buffet lunch. Salad bar is okay, nothing spectacular.

Our tour today is all about fermented apples and cheese. First stop is the Graindorge Fromagerie, which by coincidence is an Alcorn McBride installation. The delightful visitor’s tour does a great job of promoting the brand and explaining the cheese making process, through engaging videos, a theatre, and windows into the factory. At the end of the tour we were served four generous slices of chess and some local cider. My favorite was the Livarot, followed by the Neufchatel, Pont l’Eveque and Camembert.

Second stop was the Chateau du Breuil, a beautiful estate where they make Calvados, a brandy distilled from apples. The guide her was quite informative, and we learned about the fermentation and distillation process, which involves double distillation, discarding the first and last alcohol and keeping only the heart. Then the brandy is aged in oak barrels, typically from 8 to 20 years. Each year, about 2% of the alcohol is lost (the “angel’s share”) but since it starts out at 144 proof, it still requires dilution with water prior to bottling. A tasting followed, where most agreed that the “Pommeau de Normandie,” which has 60% cider added back in, was more drinkable than the 15 year old straight Calvados.

Our guide for this tour was extremely informative. A fan of World War I history, he collects sets of letters exchanged between the front and those who stayed on the farms; he also collects historic labels from cheeses, including labels created for cruise lines and even one for soldiers at the front.

Upon returning to the ship we found a mountain of food and only an hour until dinner, so we provided catering service to Audrey and Emilio’s cabin!

Our dinner was at Ocean Liner’s, the cover charge French restaurant on deck 3. The room is lovely, and the food and service are a level above the main dining room, although still not at the level of restaurant that the decor evokes. A wine new to us, Nickel & Nickel Chardonnay, proved to be the highlight. The owner is the same as Far Niente, but the wine is more like Aubert. A 2007 Chambolle-Musigny by Drouhin was disappointing, and we save most of it to see if it would improve with a little air.

The entertainment on this ship is really the highlight. In the main theatre we enjoyed the terrific ships orchestra backing Mark Donoghue, who played classic rock on violin, harmonica, piano and electric guitar (not all at once). I particularly enjoyed his rendition of The Devil Went Down to Georgia, and also his medley of 1960s TV Western theme songs.

We set sail during the show, so Linda was able to get in a little casino time on the way out, and fought the machine to a draw.

We caught a bit of Perry Grant, whose show was very similar to the previous night’s. The night life was still going strong when we retired at 12:30.

Etretat

We got up at 10:00 am, but I’m going to use the one hour time change between England and France as the excuse.

They have a nice assortment of workout machine on the gym, although I realized that when Linda is on the treadmills she is looking at the view, while I’m looking at the drapes above the window. Anyway, Le Havre is a working port, so the view isn’t exactly scenic.

We met Martin for lunch at the creperie. The crepes were quite authentic, although I need to find a filling better than the overcooked eggplant that was in mine.

Our after noon tour took us north to the alabaster coast, so named for the which chalk cliffs. All five of us were booked for this tour, but Emilio and Audrey missed the message about the time change.

Our first stop was at the Benedictine factory and museum in Fecamp. Benedictine is a liqueur made by infusing alcohol with sugar and herbs. The founder of the company was a good marketer, and used some of the profits to build what amounts to a palace filled with collections of somewhat random objects such as religious icons and metal locks. We toured the museum and the factory, a surprisingly small space considering the make 1.5 million bottles a year. The underground cellars are extensive, since the product needs to be aged for 30 months. Afterward we were able to taste the original Benedictine or B&B, a blend with brandy. There is also a special cask version that is less sweet. Linda and I like it best, but it is only available at the factory shop, and hardly seemed worth the trouble to transport.

Our other stop was at Etretat, the coastal town that is bracketed by arches worn into the cliffs on both side. Linda and I climbed to the top of the 300-foot cliffs and enjoyed the view as the late afternoon sun set.

Back at the ship Martin helped us consume the afternoon’s canapés and then we went to dinner in the main dining room, where we enjoyed the first half of a 2000 Ch. Smith Haut Lafite blanc that was all about passionfruit, and a 2009 Caymus Special Selection that vacillated between chocolate and tobacco. I suspect that in a couple of days the rest of that bottle will be extraordinary.

After dinner we enjoyed piano entertainer Perry Grant in the intimate Michael’s nightclub. His very gay / Judy Garland fixation / interrogation of the audio about their kitchen amenities was quite funny, but could get tiresome if his act doesn’t changes from night to night. Excellent singer and piano player, though.

Southampton

Eddie Manning’s limo service provided our transfer to Southampton, and despite the skepticism with which we viewed the mountain of luggage for the five of us, it fit easily into the back of the seven-passenger Mercedes van. We were at the pier by 1:30, and onboard ship within minutes.

This is our first time cruising on Celebrity, and it’s always interesting to compare ships and lines. The Constellation was built in 2002 and refurbished most recently in 2010. Despite the fact that it’s scheduled for another one in April, everything seems new and shiny.

The layout of the ship makes it seem much more intimate than the 2000 passenger count would suggest. It pinches in at the middle, and there are many public areas where you can see both port and starboard views simultaneously.

This is the nicest suite we’ve ever had on a ship, with excellent fit and finish, and a really nice cabin layout that separates the bedroom, living/dining room and bathroom with a short hall that is also a cleverly designed closet. THe amenities are great except for the wi-fi, which is marginal at best, even on the provided in-room computer.

As with every line we’ve been on (except Costa) the crew is overwhelmingly nice and accommodating, and everyone sees to know your name by the second day.

The five of us got together in our suite for afternoon Champagne and canapés, then went our separate ways.

Linda an I caught an early show in the ship’s theatre, a well designed 4-story space in the bow, that has no columns blocking sight lines. It was a revue of the ship’s performers, and the singing, dancing and acrobatics were impressive, better than I’ve seen on other lines.

After the show we headed for dinner. The food is certainly a cut above Royal Caribbean, the parent company, but not the fine dining quality of Oceania or Regent.

Wine seems to be priced with primarily a fixed markup rather than a percentage, so the more expensive bottles are better deals, although some rare gems listed at great prices didn’t actually exist when I tried for them. A corkage charge is available for wines purchased off-board, a nice feature I haven’t seen on a cruise line before.

We took advantage of the discount available when buying three or more bottles of nice wine to stock up for the trip. The ability to have the restaurants store unopened or opened bottles for you and transfer them between restaurants on the ship is one of my favorite features of cruising.

Natural History and Pied-à-terre

After a lazy morning Linda and I took the tube to Kensington for an Indian lunch at the lovely Bombay Brasserie, then walked to the Natural History Museum to visit the dinosaurs.

The Natural History Museum is BIG. It must be bigger than the British Museum. The exhibits were very well done, with lots of interactives to keep the kids engaged, and very descriptive and informative exhibits about geology, disasters, the history of the earth (we discovered that it’s older than 6000 years!), floral and fauna, and, of course, dinosaurs. I liked the way each exhibit had a point that was presented clearly and directly, without overwhelming us with information. Well done.

Dinner was at Pied-à-terre, a two-star Michelin on Charlotte Street. It was sublime. Not only was the chef’s tasting menu excellent, the matching wine pairings were served blind, which created an opportunity for interesting conversation with the very personable sommeliers at the conclusion of each course, as the wines were revealed. Great idea, and a lovely last night in London.

 

The Phantom of Westminster Abbey and Clos Maggiore

Linda and I spent today on our own while our friends were off doing other stuff. We slept in and then found a nearby teeny tiny Japanese restaurant, Ichi-Ricki, for lunch. I’m glad the reviews I’d read warned me it was nothing but a door with a paper sign, because otherwise we’d have missed it. The restaurant is actually in the basement, and has only six tables. The sushi was very good.

After lunch we visited Westminster Abbey, which somehow we’ve missed in all our trips to London. There are a lot of people buried here who spent their lives living off public funds. There are also a few people who actually did something useful.

Outside, we walked through the cloisters, the museum and the garden. One of the more interesting sights was England’s oldest door, which apparently dates from 1050 AD, and appears to still be functional. I looked for a Home Depot sticker, but didn’t see one.

In the evening we walked to Her Majesty’s Theatre to see Phantom of the Opera in its original venue. God, I hate that show. Great music, good staging, completely ineffective story telling. My third time seeing it, and I like it a bit less each time, I guess because it seems like such a missed opportunity to tell a great story. The original movie with Charles Laughton is actually much more moving. It paled next to BIlly Elliot, that’s for sure. Not helped by the fact the audience was full of drunk Chinese who couldn’t follow it. The downside of going to a famous show, I guess.

After the show we cabbed it to Clos Maggiore, three times voted London’s most romantic restaurant. My third visit, and it always wows. Not terribly expensive, great wine list, great food and service. Everyone loved it.

We had a 2007 Ramonet Gevrey Chambertin Blanc and a 1999 Pommard by Ferdinand Laurent Pillot. Both excellent. Martin also had a 1995 Rieussec by the glass with his foie gras. But the 1965 Castarde Bas Armagnac I finished with blew them all away. Great meal.

 

London

We’re off to London for a few days before heading out of Southampton on a twelve night wine cruise. This was Linda’s first experience with the airline beds that recline all the way, and they certainly make a difference; we both got about five hours of sleep, and arrived in London already on schedule (although the afternoon nap always helps, too).

Linda claims the food on Delta was the best she’s had on a plane, but I skipped it, except for the salad and pumpkin soup (which I admit was exceptional). We were lucky to make our connection in Atlanta. The only reason we did is because the receptionist in the Delta lounge bumped us to an early flight out of Orlando. Unfortunately his attempt to bump our luggage failed, and it didn’t show up until after dinner.

We used Eddie Manning Limo to pick us up at the airport. We’re traveling with Audrey and Emilio, and Martin, none of whom have been to London before, and the three parties all had different planes distributed between two airports. Eddie was able to react to a 5-hour delay and put another limo on the job with just one email. I used them before and will use them again because they’re so accommodating.

I’m very impressed with our hotel. It’s The Sanctuary House in Westminster, just south of St. James Park. The rooms are spacious by London standards, and everything is brand new or freshly painted. The only downside is extremely creaky floors. For $240 a night it is a steal. We had lunch in the Fuller’s pub downstairs.

Before dinner we showed our friends how to use the underground by taking a ride from the conveniently close St. James Park station to Embankment, and from there walked up into Covent Garden and through the theatre district. The area around Leicester Square has become quite the casino district now that you don’t need to be a member to go into the casinos. It’s lit up like a mini Las Vegas.

Our destination was l’Atelier, one of our favorite restaurants in the world. Because of our large party (and possible our inability to dress for dinner, having no luggage) we weren’t able to sit at the counter, but instead ate upstairs in La Cuisine, which offers the same food but without the interaction with the people behind the counter. The multi-course tasting menu and matching wines were superb, and everyone enjoyed the three-hour experience.

After dinner, Audrey and Emilio were more than ready for bed (as they were the ones with the five hour flight delay) but Martin was game to stroll back through Piccadilly Circus and have a midnight Champagne cocktail with us at a trendy looking Italian restaurant and bar.

On Wednesday we met at 11am and headed for the British Museum. Near the museum we found a little Korean place called Han Kang that had good reviews and indeed we had an excellent lunch.

The British Museum was just a few blocks away, and we spent a pleasant three hours looking at dead people and the things they used to own.

After resting up back at the hotel it was time for the evening’s entertainment. The underground stairs are hard on Audrey’s knee, so she and Emilio took a cab to the Victoria Palace Theatre, but Linda and Martin and I walked, a pleasant half mile stroll.

Billy Elliot is one of my favorite shows, and it’s better here in London than anywhere else. Great, as always. It was fun for Martin to see how much better a show is in its original theatre, and a treat for Audrey and Emilio to experience it for the first time.

After dinner we took a cab to Kensington to an Indian restaurant we like called Zaika, where a snippy receptionist informed us that because we were 15 minutes late the kitchen was closed. I guess it would have been the bum’s rush anyway, so we instead had a nice dinner at the nearby Strada Cucina Italiano, a well-disguised member of a massive chain that is much nicer than the website suggests.

A busy couple of days to start off our trip, but we’re on-schedule and ready for more.

 

Barcelona, Spain

Disembarkation in Barcelona is amazingly easy. We simply strolled down the gangway, pointed out our bags to a porter, and were ushered to a taxis. No immigration, no customs. By 10 am we were at the Hotel Condes de Barcelona.

The hotel is actually two building across the street from each other, both on the Gracia, the high end shopping boulevard. Happily, our room was ready. It’s spacious and ultra-modern, with remote controlled drapes and even a Nespresso machine. It’s on the second floor, facing into the courtyard that forms the center of most city blocks in Barcelona. That makes it nice and quiet, because there is almost no street noise. I booked it directly on line, prepaying 219 Euros a night, which is a third of what the cruise line wanted for the same hotel, and a third of the price of the other hotels on the street, such as the Mandarin. Best of all, there’s a two-star Michelin restaurant, La Sarte, downstairs.

For lunch we walked up the Gracia, admiring the Gaudi architecture. Our destination was Botafumeira, a seafood restaurant recommended by Ron. Everything is on a later schedule in Barcelona, with restaurants not opening until 1pm for lunch, and 8:30 for dinner. We waited a bit in the front, admiring the huge tanks and refrigerators filled with every kind of shellfish, from tiny barnacles to huge lobsters. Then we were ushered deep into the building, to a lovely dining room, one of many, done in light woods and nautical decor.

The meal began with Champagne cocktails. I was a bit alarmed when they were poured from a bottle of Pommery, but when the bill came they were just 10 Euros. We also had a delightful Catalonian chardonnay by Jean Leon. The highlight of the meal was an enormous platter of grilled seafood, with multiple kinds of lobster, shrimp, crayfish, clams and other shellfish, accompanied by many mysterious implements.

By the time we left, well after 3pm, the place was packed, and the area in front around the seafood bar was deafening, so it was definitely a good thing we had a reservation.

After lunch we strolled back down the Gracia, stopping to buy some gifts and stocking stuffers, and then settled into a long siesta in preparation for dinner.

Dinner was at La Sarte, the two star Michelin restaurant in the other half of the hotel. There were many beautiful dishes, but none was really a home run, taste-wise, except for the first dessert, which was a frozen sorbet of gin, lemon juice and a basil drizzle that I’d like to try to reproduce. Pricing was very reasonable, though, even on the wines, and it was nice to simply cross the street to be back in our room by midnight. (The restaurant was still more than half full at that hour, as some arrived for dinner at almost 11pm).

Sunday we slept in, enjoying the hour time change (which is a week earlier than in the US), and then walked down La Rambla, the wide tourist boulevard that connects to the southern end of the Gracia. We arrived early for our 3pm lunch reservation at L’Olive, a place near our hotel suggested by American Express, and enjoyed a leisurely three-hour lunch and a nice bottle of Priorat, Veuve Cliquot Champagne, and a very generous pour of 1982 Armagnac. Wine prices were very reasonable.

Then it was siesta time, in preparation for our final day of travel.

 

Aix-en-Provence, France

Our final shore excursion of the cruise took us from the dock in Marseilles into Provence. Our first stop was in the Luberon region, at the Val Joanis winery. We toured their award winning gardens and the cellar (a 200,000 bottle operation annually) and then had a tasting and lunch. They use mostly syrah, but must blend it according to AOC rules. Their best wine actually doesn’t carry an AOC designation, because it is 100% viognier. I also liked their 2003 mostly grenache blend. Lunch was excellent, simple provence style food, not too heavy, with a vegetable flan, lamb stew, and a fruit dessert.

Then we spent two hours in Aix-en-Provence (pronounced “X in Provence”), a beautiful town of 135,000 that is about 1/3 college students. We strolled through the medieval section, which is all trendy (and expensive) shops, and then sat at a sidewalk cafe, where we discovered that a Champagne cocktail can be something completely different.

The seas were high after we left port, with a 40 mile per hour gale, and there were quite a few green guests, but not us, as we headed for a farewell steak dinner in Polo. We’ll miss the ship, its great crew, and our nice cabin, which came to feel like home.

 

Monte Carlo, Monaco

I’m never sure whether to call this place the city of Monte Carlo or the country of Monaco, because they’re almost the same thing. The city nearly completely fills the valley that is this country. In fact, from our cabin I’m pretty sure we can see houses in France and Italy on either side.

At 12:30pm we took a tender to the luxury yacht-packed harbor and climbed the hill to the casino and hotel for our lunch at Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV restaurant. The ornate dining room, originally the tea room, is little changed from its appearance upon opening in 1864. Lunch was a prix fixe multi-course affair that came with our choice of wine, and the red provincial blend of cabernet and syrah was delicious.

The main course of chicken was a bit disappointing for a three-star Michelin restaurant, not nearly as good as the one we had two weeks ago at his bistro in New York. The stand out courses were the bread (so many to choose from!) cheeses (a real stinky cheese cart, with the best Epoisses I’ve tasted) and the foie gras terrine.

After lunch we strolled around up on the hill for a while and then returned to the ship. On the way we passed through a carnival set up for Halloween weekend, I suppose. It was busy with children and teenagers. We were struck by how the attractions on the midway were so similar to the Florida State Fair, except the barkers were all speaking French. Linda couldn’t resist the tug of the claw machines, and after a few tries won an adorable pink hedgehog. It was much more fun and more rewarding than a visit to the casino, I’m sure!

Livorno, Italy

Two quiet days recuperating on the ship, with not too much to look at, since Livorno was heavily damaged during WWII and hasn’t been rebuilt with anything but functionality in mind.

The first day was raining all day, so our cancelled wine trip might have been pretty soggy. Linda mailed the payment off to the guide in cash anyway, so he should be surprised and happy.

We’ve never spent days onboard when in port, and it was interesting to see how much crew activity there is, with a blackout test one day that herded remaining guests into the Horizons lounge while the power was off for an hour, and emergency lifeboat drills for the crew on the other day.

 

Civitavecchia, Italy

Well, Rome’s port isn’t the most attractive place in the world. It’s also not particularly close to Rome, almost 2 hours away in traffic.

As it turned out, it didn’t matter, because I got sick and had to get some strong antibiotics from the ship’s doctor, and Linda was unwilling to leave me alone to go on the private tour of the coliseum that she had spent months planning. I feel really bad about that. We also canceled tomorrow’s private tour to Tuscan wine country, so I basically cost us the two highlights of the trip. Sigh.

 

Amalfi, Italy

Today we arrived in Amalfi, a picturesque city on the Italian coast that shares its name. Contrary to reports, the shops were almost all open, even though it was Sunday, a last chance for the shopkeepers before the season ends. The narrow main street seems like it is for pedestrians, but cars and motorcycles also squeeze up and down.

Particularly impressive are the lemons from the region, used to make Limoncello, a desert liqueur. My photo compares them to normal lemons.

We had lunch in the hard to find Trattoria Teatro off an obscure alleyway. It is so named because it was once a children’s theater. Lunch probably wasn’t as good as claimed by Fodors, but it was fresh. Perhaps not as fresh as the drinking fountain in front of the cathedral, though.

 

Taormina, Sicily

We spent a pleasant couple of hours in Taormina, a medieval city converted to a pedestrian tourist shopping street, on top of a hill in Sicily. The weather has warmed up to 71, and we had an alfresco lunch at a trattoria on a secluded street. The town is very busy, with cars an motor scooters dodging tourists, so it’s easy to see why they made part of it a pedestrian street.

Unfortunately clouds obscured Mount Etna, which we’re told towers over the coast here.

 

 

 

Santorini, Greece

Today we visited one of the most scenic places I’ve ever encountered, the Greek Island of Santorini. We arose at sunrise to discover the ship sailing into the caldera of a giant volcano.

We were tendered to a remote spot near the southern end, the only place tour buses can get down from the top of the cliffs to sea level.

Our guide, Vangelis, was the best tour guide ever. He kept us laughing the whole day, while dispensing an incredible amount of information about just about every facet of Santorini.

We spent the morning shopping and sightseeing in Oia-Ia at the Northern tip of the island, and then drove back to the Southern part of the island for a tour, tasting and lunch at the Boutari Winery. The grapes on Santorini are primarily a white variety called Assyrtiko, which is not vinifera, but tastes a bit like Chardonnay. Because the island only gets 7 inches of rain a year, the grapes absorb much of their moisture from the air. And because some of the root stock is 700 years old(!) the roots can go down 25-40 feet. Strong winds mean that the grapes grow low to the ground, and are trained into a sort of basket shape.

We were quite impressed with the winery’s barrel fermented reserve bottling (14 Euros) and especially a dessert wine called Vinsanto made by air drying the grapes before pressing (16 Euros a half bottle).

After lunch we drove to the largest town, Fira, where we descended to the old dock via the cable car, a fairly exhilarating trip.

Vangelis’ parting advice: “If you are afraid of heights, when going down in the cable car, face away from the ocean. It will all be over in three minutes. Five seconds if something breaks.”

 

Patmos, Greece

Patmos is a small Greek island in the Southeastern Aegean. It wasn’t on our itinerary, but because of a strike in Rhodes to protest the Greek financial situation, that port was inaccessible, and Patmos was substituted. I don’t know what Rhodes has to offer, but Patmos was great. And the weather warmed up to the high 60s, making the day delightful.

With a population of only 6000, Patmos is pretty tiny, and since the season was over, we got the impression they reopened the shops and restaurants just for us. The town is spotlessly clean, with fresh paint on everything. The stores are definitely mostly tourist shops, but nicely kept, and they even have price stickers (although everything remains negotiable, of course).

We had lunch in an outdoor cafe called Mermaids, and enjoyed the house red and white wines, a delicious assortment of vegetarian appetizers that was assembled for us, and some delicious pork and fish. Several cats gathered around our table for handouts. I patiently picked all the bones out of my snapper before surreptitiously slipping them some, and then was surprised when the waiter put the leftovers–bones and all–across the street for them to finish.

Patmos was an unexpected delight, and a great way to spend a relaxing day.

 

Kusadasi and Ephesus, Turkey

The port in Kusadasi was certainly busier than the last time we were here, when we were the only ship. Either things are quieter in the Middle East or people have just gotten used to it. No circling gunboats this time, and a relaxed atmosphere throughout the busy town.

In any event, the contrast between Greece and Turkey is striking. Where Greece seemed completely shut down, Turkey is booming. Kusadasi is vibrant, with shops, restaurants, construction and lots and lots of tourists. The Turkish people are very friendly (albeit insistent shopkeepers, which takes some getting used to), and well aware that tourism is Kusadasi’s number one industry (followed by textiles and agriculture).

The main reason is Ephesus, about a 20 minute drive from the port. 2000 years ago it was the most sophisticated city in the world, other than Rome. It’s population was a quarter of a million. Its homes featured running water, toilets, heated floors and beds, and many other innovations that wouldn’t be rediscovered for more than a millennium.

Ephesus was physically destroyed by earthquakes and a landslide, and economically destroyed when its canal to the sea disappeared. Almost completely buried, it wasn’t rediscovered until the 20th century. The site has now been 14% excavated, and attempts have been made to reconstruct some of the structures, much like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

Our day couldn’t have been more different than yesterday. Not only was the archaeology 100 times superior, the weather was, too, with clear skies and a temperature of 60.

Since we’d been to Ephesus before, we opted for a more detailed tour this time, with a working archaeologist, Erjon, as our guide. (Our tour director also was an archaeologist, although she has been directing tours for 11 years, since it pays better.)

We began by taking a coach to an off-site museum where Erjon guided us through all the best finds from Ephesus. (Some of the pieces have been copied so that a duplicate remains at the site, subject to the elements.) Then we traveled to what is essentially Ephesus’ back door, so that we could work our way down the rather steep main street.


The best part of our tour was a visit to the villas. This new excavation, beneath a protective cover, exposes seven adjoining homes, each up to 7000 square feet. The first one had an 1800 square foot dining room. The high rent district, indeed! The way they’ve done this excavation is spectacular, with glass walkways that allow visitors to walk through the entire space and see everything below them.

After the villas, we posed in front of the facade of the library, which looks like a two-story building, but wasn’t. One of its more interesting features was a tunnel to the bordello, making a visit to the librarian pretty exciting indeed.

In the afternoon we traveled to Restaurant Sizguzar for a delicious Turkish meal of grilled vegetables and minced lamb kebabs, then returned to the port to walk through the bazaar and tell very polite but insistent shopkeepers that we didn’t want a rug. Or a jacket. Or jewelry. Or a statue of Priapus that was six inches tall and six inches long, if you know what I mean.

 

Filippi and Kavala, Greece

The ship was rockin’ and rollin’ last night, I guess still feeling the effects of a cyclone over the Black Sea. It was still raining when we docked a bit late in Kavala, a hillside community in Macedonia (Northern Greece). But shortly after we joined our 9:30 tour, the rain stopped, although temperatures remained in the 40s and it was windy.

Our tour was to Filippi, a ruin located about ten miles from Kavala. I should capitalize RUIN. What was a major city in 200 AD is, after a few earthquakes and a millennium of maintenance by The Three Stooges, now a field full of rocks. It’s certainly nothing like Ephesus or even Carthage in terms of its intactness.

Filippi is where Casius and Brutus, murderers of Julius Caesar, were defeated, and it’s where the apostle Paul first converted a European to Christianity. Fortunately there were no shops selling pieces of Paul.

We returned to the ship by 2pm, and had lunch in the dining room, where it felt good to warm up.

Tonight was the Captain’s Gala dinner, although we already had reservations at Toscana, one of two specialty restaurants on board. That might have been a strategic mistake, as they had caviar as an appetizer and lobster as an entree in the main dining room. But our dinner at Toscano was lovely. We had a wonderful table under the sloped glass at the stern, a great bottle of 2008 Gaja Magari, and watched the sun set under the cloud layer as we sailed into the Aegean.

Linda has a new black cocktail dress with a halter top, and she was rather self-conscious about wearing it. I think she felt better about it after four random people around the ship told her how fantastic she looked.

Before dinner we enjoyed a very sincere welcome by the Captain and the very funny crew’s introductions in the Insignia lounge, and after dinner we returned there for a Broadway revue, with four singers and a 8-member orchestra. They did quite a good job, even pulling off “Defying Gravity” from Wicked. A very nice end to the day.

 

Istanbul

This is our first time on Oceania, although they are owned by Regent, a high end line Dani and I once took for an enjoyable Mediterranean cruise. The Insignia is a beautiful ship, with by far the nicest finish work of any I’ve sailed on. Unlike the Princess, Royal Caribbean and NCL ships, there is no tacky chrome and glass, or garish colors. It’s all detailed woodwork, leather, and brass. Every public space, even just little out of the way corners, is furnished with ritzy, comfortable living room furniture like you’d find in someone’s home. Oddly, they are retiring this ship; it’s not in next year’s catalog, as the plan to lease it to a German company. That’s surprising, considering it seems in perfect repair, but I guess they need larger ships. This one is small compared to almost all that I’ve been on, accommodating only 684 passengers, rather than the thousands we’re used to. Still, it has several lounges, and four different dining experiences.

For our first night aboard we ate in the main dining room, and certainly enjoyed the best meal I’ve had on a cruise ship. This is not Royal Caribbean food, where a cheese plate comes with saltines and Kraft slices!

The wine list isn’t high-end, and the prices might be low for a fine restaurant, but they’re a bit high for a cruise ship. However they offer a package that provides a 30% discount if you preorder bottles, so that’s quite a good deal.

Water, coffee (even cappuccino and so on) and soft drinks are free on this ship, a benefit worth many hundreds of dollars over two weeks. Liquor is also a pretty good deal.

Sunday we were up early (very early, given the 7-hour time change) but we had a good night’s sleep, and were ready for our 7:45am departure for The Best of Istanbul tour. We opted for a small tour group, with only eight people, which made it very easy to stay with the group and to hear our guide.

Unfortunately, it was rainy, although that didn’t affect our plans. What did affect our plans was that today was the annual Euro-Asia marathon, with 250,000 entrants, so the streets were closed and the city was impassible for most of the day. It’s the only marathon that covers two continents, and–not coincidentally–Istanbul is the only city that spans two continents.

Our van dropped us off in the old city, not far from the ship, and our day was spent on foot.

Our first brief stop was at the first needle stolen from Egypt by the Romans. They could only manage to move the top two thirds of it, and once they got it to Byzantium (aka Constantinople, aka Istanbul) it took more than half a century for them to figure out how to stand it back up.

Nearby we visited the Blue Mosque, the largest mosque in a city filled with them. It is unusual in that non-muslims are allowed to visit in between the five daily prayer sessions. We learned that Turkey is a unique muslim country, because even though it is 99.9% muslim, it is secular. In fact, the government dictates what is allowed in the sermons, to prevent religious uprisings such as those that have toppled other governments. It is also technically illegal to cover your face, although we saw one Iraqi woman at the airport wearing a burka.

A short distance from the Blue Mosque is the Topkapi Palace, where the Sultans ruled for 700 years. The palace is actually a sprawling complex of courtyards and single story buildings that have been converted to museums. There was a textile museum that displayed various sultans’ garments of considerable age, and a holy artifact museum that displayed possessions and bits and pieces claimed to come from various prophets. Most impressive was the treasury, which displayed jewelry, swords and boxes studded or filled with many, many enormous diamonds, emeralds and other precious gems.

Outside Linda posed in the rain for a picture on the balcony overlooking the strait. Behind her, on the left, is Europe, and on the right is Asia. Only 3% of Turkey is in Europe, though, making it a long shot for membership in the EU.

Another short walk brought us to Saint Sophia, the most impressive stop of the day. Built in the early 6th century as the first domed basilica, it remained the largest building on Earth for over 1000 years! It is still the fourth largest basilica in the world. The size of the unsupported dome is rather amazing, especially for its age, and particularly because it was constructed in five years. (There’s a cathedral in Koln that took the better part of a millennium to build!)

Another short stroll brought us to the lovely Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul, where we had a marvelous buffet brunch of sushi, sashimi, salads, and omelets, all included in our tour. Best tour lunch ever.

Unfortunately, the marathon road closures made it impossible to get to our final destination, the spice market, so we spent a couple hours relaxing in the hotel, and then headed back to the ship for the ever-popular lifeboat drill.

Then we bid rainy Istanbul goodbye, and headed out into rough seas for Greece.

New York to Istanbul

With a lull in Linda’s projects for Disney, she was able to get away, so for her birthday we booked a cruise in the Mediterranean. When Delta changed their flight schedule, our connection through JFK became dangerously short, so we decided to fly into New York a day a day before our international flight and celebrate her birthday a couple of days early, with dinner at Daniel and a night at the Hotel Athenee. Booking through Amex got us some nice benefits, including an upgrade to one of only two balcony rooms. Although it was rainy (with an impressive thunderstorm in the middle of the night) we were lucky during our walks around the city, and never needed an umbrella.

Dinner was nice, if not quite at the level of Eleven Madison Park or Jean Georges. The dining room is beautiful, and there were an astonishing number of wait staff. The service was extremely professional, but neither stiff nor friendly, just sort of a frenetic attempt to make everything perfect. It was, at times, a bit exhausting to watch. That’s very different from Eleven Madison Park, where the perfection feels effortless.

We had the six course tasting menu with matching wine pairing. There were two choices for each course, and I let Linda pick first, then took all the alternatives. As it turned out, I think I got the better choices. Of the wines, a 2009 Copain Pinot Noir from Alexander Valley really impressed us with its earthy/fruity complexity.

The next day we ate at Linda’s favorite lunch restaurant, Alain Ducasse’s Benoit, where we had her two favorite courses, the Charcuterie and the Roasted Chicken. Both are really, really French, and the pommes frites that accompany the chicken are the best anywhere.

On our walk back to the hotel we passed the Apple Store, where a tribute to Steve Jobs had been set up by fans. It happened to be iPhone 4s launch day, and there were hundreds of people in line outside.

Our 5:15pm flight to Istanbul was delayed when a bird was sucked into one of the engines on arrival at JFK, and eventually Delta ended up replacing the plane, recatering it, and we finally took off close to three hours late. Fortunately we had nothing to do on arrival. We were both able to get four or five hours of sleep on the way, and felt fairly refreshed as we watched the comedy team of baggage handlers try to round up 69 passengers and their bags at the Istanbul airport. Then it was off to meet our ship.

Our luggage is on the bottom.