Friday, November 4, 2011

Some notes on traveling to Bora Bora, FP

Mostly thoughts from our experience...
  • Ensure you carry cash - almost every place takes $$ instead of the local currency. We found that effective exchange rate at our resort was better than at Tahiti Fa'aa airport. So be sure to check that out.
  • Not all restaurants are open on all days in Bora Bora. Be certain to check that first with your resort concierge if you are keen on eating at a specific place. We really wanted to eat at La Suite and La Villa Mahana in BB but missed out coz we didnt know which days they were closed.
  • Some restaurants like La Villa Mahana need advance reservations - a couple staying at our resort had booked dinner reservations here 3 months in advance!! While that may not be needed, if your heart is set on eating at a particular place, be sure to check with the resort concierge.
  • Bring an underwater camera.. the life underneath the surface is breathtaking and worth the money!
  • Plenty of resorts on the motus (or islands) off the main island of Vaitape charge to ferry you from the resort to the main island. We got lucky coz Le Meridien has a free ferry every hour. But you may want to check that out.
  • Most resorts also charge to take you from the airport to the resort. 
  • Everything is super expensive.. so get ready to see double digit to three-digit $$$ amount checks or 4-digit in FP francs! :D
  • Get ready to relax and enjoy paradise!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Bidding Adieu to Bora Bora

October 27, 2011.... I had decided to wake up really early to go catch the sunrise today. So I was out with my tripod and cam at 5:10 am. Sunrise was around 5:30. I walked to the east shore of the motu...there isn't much of a shoreline or beach here so I didn't expect anything dramatic. It was mostly for my photography experience and coz I'm in love with my Canon 7d! ....

Sunrise at Bora Bora...
The setting was so peaceful...waves rushing to the shore, not one soul around, the sun starting to peak from the horizon.... one with nature! I tried several shots before the sun came out including several sets to try HDR on. Excited! Then as the sun came up a dense cloud came right in front of the sun covering it and spreading the rays out! It was fantastic... I was very excited to take pictures...can't wait to see if I did justice to the majesty of the scenery. I was there for a good 20 mins after the which point my cam complained "memory full" ...sigh! And of course my spare memory card was in the room! I had to delete a few shots so I could shoot some pics of other vantage points on my walk back to the room.

Back in the room, I decided to go for a swim from our hut to the shore (DH had challenged me earlier)... it was an invigorating swim, the water was perfect...this should be life...jump into water right outside ur room and go for a swim! ;-) after that refreshing swim we headed to the breakfast buffet. Since we had to checkout at 11, we took our own sweet time having a leisurely breakfast... packed sandwiches for later in the day and headed back. Finally got to enjoy the mango I had packed during the biking trip...yummy! It was amazingly sweet. DH checked if we could do a late checkout..we were good till 1:30!!! We should have checked earlier coz by then I was showered and ready to go! But since we had the time, we just chilled in the room. When it was time to checkout we headed over to the reception, got lovely shell leis from the staff, then went over to the bar to enjoy some drinks.

Our boat to the airport was at 2 pm. Note: the hotel charges for the boat service to and from theairport. Le Meridien charged 7000 cfp (~$85) each way.

Check in to Air Tahiti was smooth. Our flight took off at around 3:10 pm. Everyone at the airport seemed a wee bit sad! :-( and all those folks arriving at the airport had a big smile on their faces...seemed like only yesterday that we were there with a big smile on our faces! Sigh!

Le Meridien in Papeete
We landed at Tahiti Fa'aa airport a little after 4. We were booked into the  Le Meridien in Tahiti. Surprisingly the hotel does not provide a shuttle from the airport. We decided to exchange some dollars before getting a taxi to the airport. the exchange rate seemed to be better than that at the hotel - approx 80 cfp for a dollar but once we went into the bank we realized they charge 580 cfp as commission bringing the exchange rate lower than the one at the hotel!! The taxi cost us about 2000 cfp and driving through Papeete, we were glad that we decided to stay in Bora Bora the whole time instead of Tahiti. Le Meridien in Tahiti is quite nice and the hotel faces west, so there is lovely view of the sun setting over the ocean. The hotel has a pool with a sandy beach like setting around it. We got a room on the 6th floor facing the ocean. I set up my tripod in the balcony hoping to get some sunset pics. We went down to the beach bar to have some drinks.
Sunset at Papeete as seen from Le Meridien
I got some cool shots of the beach, ocean, and the over water bungalows...which we realized were not half as nice as the ones in Le Meridien in Bora Bora...score for picking that over this. These huts did not have direct access to the lagoon, which made the whole OWB concept pointless! We really enjoyed the drinks while the sun set over the ocean . I headed back to the room to try and get some sunset pics from our balcony.
We then headed over to 'Le Plantation' restaurant in the hotel for dinner. The food - hot goat cheese salad, tomato soup, bami goreng (Indonesian noodles) and Polynesian tuna platter - was very good and went well with the red wine we had! Creme brulee was very good too! All in all a wonderful end to a very relaxing and excellent vacation. We retired early since we had to wake up at 4 am to get to the airport by 5 for our 7:30 am flight to LA.

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Diving in Bora Bora

Heading out to the dive sites on Yvan's boat
October 26, 2011... its Diwali for Indians every where...Happy Diwali to all our friends and family! We are far far away from any festivities, lights, sweets and celebrations... but today we are celebrating in our own way. We have 2 tank dives scheduled in the morning with Bora diving center!!! :D We booked the trip thru our hotel but they also have a dive shop on the hotel premises. Pick up is at 8:45 am every day for the tank dives. We finished the usual hearty breakfast, packed our fins/masks, I took dramamine for sea sickness and wore my wetsuit. Yvan (who is also the owner of Bora Diving center) showed up promptly at 8:45. He recommended that I change into a full wet suit instead of the half size I was wearing (he called it "shortie") coz he said it would get cold during the two back to back dives. We were 7 people on the dive with two dive masters. DH, myself and Travis (from Alberta, Canada) were going to dive with Yvan and the rest were with the other dive master whose name I didn't catch. We headed out from our hotel to this site called Anau, located in the lagoon between Le Meridien and St. Regis. After a 3 min boat ride, we anchored and put on our BCDs...everything was setup for us - regulators connected to BCD, weights already set, BWARF check done...all we had to do was put on our masks, fins and strap into our BCDs!!! Much easier than our certification dives in La Jolla! We did a back roll from the boat into the water, and lowered ourselves into the water. The descent was smooth and visibility probably 60-70 ft. We were greeted by coral and tons of tropical fish. We descended past the coral into what looked like a canyon pass, called Te Ava Nui pass - this is actually a Manta ray cleaning station (info here) ...around 60 ft. under water. Giant Manta Rays come in here to allow cleaner wrasse to remove parasites from their skin and gill cavities. Yvan told us to lay low and still if we spot the rays. As soon as we descended and touched the sandy bottom we saw 3 rays glide by....what a majestic sight! There are no words to describe the beauty of these creatures...they glide magnificently...and they went right by us! We were lucky that Travis had an under water camera (at that moment I regretted not making the investment in buying an underwater cam... its going to be my universal advise to anyone going diving here) and caught the rays on video! The 3 rays just made it past us and we were about to move when Yvan pointed out 2 more and asked us to lay still. When those 2 went by a few more came around... I lost count but Yvan had started to move...he suddenly became still on his knees and started waving his arms like he was flying (or gliding in water), sort of mimicking the rays movements. I thought I saw a ray move towards him, almost like it was checking us out then it moved on. We slowly made our way towards the other side of the canyon. As we reached the other side Yvan told us to lay still coz he spotted more rays. This time we saw 9 or 10  of them glide by...the biggest one was almost 10-12 ft wide at the wings! They were huge! Yvan said this was his 2nd or 3rd time in all his diving in Bora Bora where he saw so many rays at once!!!! Joy oh joy for us! While the rays went around us a few times, we learned to control our buoyancy. It was good practice to learn to stay horizontal, and raise and lower our body only by using our breathing. Once the Manta rays passed us, we swam around a bit, checked out some more coral and fish, then started ascending. As we ascended a few feet, we saw another Manta ray pass below us...we got another viewing from a different perspective. These looked a lot bigger then the ones we saw during our ray feeding snorkeling experience....while I didn't understand the difference then, I now know that they were two different types of rays...we saw stingrays during our snorkeling trip, and these are much smaller than Manta rays. We did a safety stop about 5m below the surface. Once my tank almost emptied, I was having a hard time staying below the water surface. Had to discuss techniques with Yvan about that!:-)

We got into the boat, Yvan helped us out of the BCD (this is what's so good about diving at resorts! :D) and we rested before heading to our next dive site. Our bottom time was approx. 40 mins. We had some water n cookies while Yvan steered the boat towards Tapu...this was the same site where we went snorkeling during shark feeding...that was a little disappointing that it was the same site but at least we were gonna see the sharks up close. The visibility here was 100 ft, clear blue skies (after a brief spell of showers)....during our surface interval, Yvan had already changed the tanks and set us up for the next dive!!!! We were loving this...expensive dives but no work for us at all! ;) while we geared up for the dive, Yvan started humming the 'Jaws' theme music!!! LOL!! Lemon sharks n black tipped sharks are mostly harmless...we were back in water after a back flip...this time we descended using the anchor rope. We were greeted by thousands of colorful tropical fish....different kinds of triggerfish (redtooth, black), lemonpeel Angelfish, longfin bannerfish, scissor-tail sargeant, forcepsfish and many many more.. black tipped sharks swam around us. It was similar to the day we went snorkeling except this time we were in the middle of the action! Yeehaw! It wasn't long before we spotted a lemon shark, probably 9 ft long... swimming along gracefully. It had a remora swimming underneath, this is a parasitic fish that attaches itself to the host - in this case to the lemon shark....looked magnificent and surprising didn't terrify me even though it was pretty close. We continued gliding along the ocean floor till we reached about 66 ft depth...more coral and bright tropical fish greeted us. We explored the coral reef, Yvan tried to coax a spotted eel out of its cave so Travis could take a pic. He was experimenting with his strobe light and taking shots...was interesting to watch. Then Yvan swam along side thousands of bright fish so Travis could practice his photography skills...I certainly missed having a cam! We got to pose for pics hopefully we'll have some virtual memories that can be posted here soon. We spotted another lemon shark and many more black tipped sharks before we ascended. Again we did a safety stop, then got into the boat and headed to the dive shop on Vaitape. We were greeeted by Yvan's wife Sarah at the shop...we were very happy with the whole dive experience and would certainly recommend Bora diving center. After a brief stop there, we were dropped back to our hotel by boat. We got back to our room, had the sandwiches we had packed in the morning and took a nice long nap.

Sunset at Matira Beach
We had decided to head to Matira beach today to see the sunset and capture pics. So we booked a taxi (3000 cfp or ~$40) to go one way to Matira beach. We reached there around 6 pm, sunset was a little after 6. We stayed there till 6:50 or quite a few shots, I got to experiment quite a bit but the sunset wasn't anything to write home about. I've seen more dramatic and gorgeous sunset in San Diego. Sigh! But at least we got there and tried to take pics, plus we had fun doing so.

We had dinner reservations at Bloody Marys, which according to my fabulous sense of direction was less than a mile away. We decided to walk over....this wasn't the best idea coz it was pitch black when we started walking. It took us a good 30 mins to reach the restaurant! We had to get in quickly since we had to be on the 9pm shuttle back to the boat dock! Bloody Marys has a seafood market type menu...they had cuts of fish and meat all laid out in a bar, you get to pick ur meat for appetizer and entrée and they'll cook it and bring it out to you...I chose tuna sashimi for appetizer and white tuna in a chipotle sauce for entrée. DH had a tuna kabob and red tuna grilled...we started off with a Bloody Mary (which according to DH was excellent) and a blue lagoon (also very good). We got glasses of Merlot to go with our food. We thoroughly enjoyed the ambience - sand floor, wooden tables, etc. And our food.
The restroom at Bloody Marys
The restroom was worth a look (someone had mentioned on Trip advisor)...the faucet was actually a waterfall!!! Very interesting! I got lots of pics coz the place was so interesting. We ran into Travis here! :-)  also met this other couple from Tennessee staying at Le Meridien....seemed like a popular place from the number of people there. We topped off dinner with chocolate cake and another bloody Mary

Headed back to the hotel and to a well deserved slumber!

Biking in Vaitape

Oct 25, 2011 - we had originally planned on doing an introductory dive today followed by a 2 tank dive tomorrow. The afternoon dive was all booked plus it didn't seem worth the money so we decided to go biking instead. We booked a bike tour thru our hotel concierge. They work with Avis (yeah, the car company but they rent bicycles here). Note: its better to ask for bikes with baskets while making the reservation. We didn't get bikes with baskets and that would have been very useful when we shopped for things along our bike ride. After the usual hearty breakfast at the hotel we headed out by boat to Vaitape. A car whisked us off to the Avis office which is close to Matira beach. After signing the requisite papers, we started off on the bikes (no gears, no brakes...these r beach cruisers) towards Matira beach and Vaitape downtown. A single road runs the loop around the island and the entire loop is about 32 kms. Downtown Vaitape was about 10-12 kms from our start point. We stopped on the way to buy a tee for DS & DH and an island necklace for myself...then onto Matira beach. Its as beautiful as I'd heard it to be, with soft white sand, picturesque views of the blue water till the horizon. I really want to be here for sunset. Hopefully tomorrow. After the usual picture-taking, we headed on. Stopped at a pearl shop while it suddenly poured, saw pearls worth $500...quickly made an exit and biked on. :-) we soon reached downtown Vaitape. We were hoping to exchange some dollars here coz the exchange rate was almost 10% higher here than the hotel. But alas! We forgot our passport! Note: all banks in Vaitape need your passport to exchange money and it is better to get money exchanged in town than in the hotel. After pointlessly going around a few banks we went to a supermarket, got ourselves water, a bottle of wine for later, some snacks to go with it and some beer n a vodka drink for lunch. We then grabbed some pork or beef (couldn't tell what it was!!) Fried rice at this shack called 'snack roti' and biked on. Past downtown we found a spot to park the bikes and sit by the beach to have the rice and drinks! Impromptu was brilliant! The rice was yummy and it was one of the cheapest meals we had! ;-) Got some cool snaps of the place and of us swinging on a tree! Was a lot of fun...the rest of the bike ride wasn't as picturesque but we rode past many mango trees chock full of mangoes. Of course i had to stop to take pics prompting an exasperated sigh and comment from DH....something to the effect that i was forgetting that i grew up in India among mango trees! matter, i got some snaps of a local house, mangoes and had a local woman offer me a mango... score!!!! :-) ...I packed the mango for later and we biked on...We hit a steep hill past the dock for four seasons resort. The hill was a bit$h for me but DH made it uphill all the way riding on the bike. Then it was downhill with crazy speed, no gears and no real brakes! Was a roller coaster ride! We made it back to the Le Meridien dock just before 2pm, which was the time we had to turn in our bikes. After heading back to our room, we swam/snorkeled near our bungalow, I sun bathed for a bit and took a restful nap on the deck, then got ready, sat on the deck while enjoying our wine and snacks. The view was very good...tried taking some sunset time pics from the deck but because the sun sets behing Mt. Otemanu, Le meridien does not get good sunset views. Nevertheless we enjoyed the moment. We had dinner reservations at La Bounty. Food, wine and dessert turned out to be excellent. We had tomato & mozzarella with cabbage slaw in olive oil as an appetizer. It was good. Then we had tuna marinated in coconut milk (apparently island specialty)... we decided tuna doesn't really go well with was just OK. Dinner also consisted of tuna tartar and tuna sashimi...all good but certainly not the best. I had the dessert sampler which was totally worth it but also might be a good option for sharing ( it had samples of creme brulee, tiramisu, chocolate cake, chocolate mousse and mango sorbet).... When we got back to the hotel there was a Polynesian dance show going on. We watched it for a few mins, I tried taking some shots but without a tripod proved a bit tough. Then we headed back to retire for the night. Tomorrow is need the sleep! :-)

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Snorkeling etc

October 24, 2011... snorkeling day! We decided to book the snorkeling excursion thru our hotel. Pick up was scheduled from the hotel at 830 am, so we had a hearty breakfast buffet, packed some sandwiches and pastries for the trip (the hotel staff was very accommodating about that) and headed to the dock. We got into a traditional Polynesian boat and were greeted by our hosts: Steven, Louie and papi - we never got to know their real names but they were amazing entertainers throughout the trip and kept us in splits! I couldn't stop laughing! We headed out from Le Meridian over to Sofitel Marara, then Sofitel Motu to pick up more couples...yeah, that's the thing...there are only couples everywhere in FP...its like no other tourists ever come to this place! DH and I wondered how out of place we would have been had we tagged our 5 yr old DS along...oh, well, good thing we didn't. Once all the passengers were on board, we headed to the open passage where the motus of Bora Bora opens up to the ocean. The snorkeling site we went to is called Tapu. We used our own snorkeling equipment but others were provided with the requisite snorkeling gear. I was so glad I took my wet suit along! For tropical weather, the water is still pretty cold! I was completely unprepared for the sight that awaited me once I got into water. Thousands of tropical fish - mostly black but also blue, yellow etc swimming around..they looked stunning against the turquoise blue water! Steven and Louie were feeding the fish so we kept seeing schools of these fish swim by. There were also black tipped sharks swimming right next to us! It felt like someone had dropped us into an aquarium! Then there were 10 ft lemon sharks swimming right below us. Louie would keep diving down, holding the fin of the shark and swimming right was so amazing. Once we finished our fill of viewing the sharks and tropical fish, we headed back into the boat and onto another site to see the stingrays. This was in very shallow water.... 4-5 ft deep only. We skipped the fins and got into water in our booties. Again tons of rays came gliding by...the first time a ray slid by me, touching my skin, I screamed ...but quickly got used to the idea. Their tails feel rough (the barbs are removed) but their body is smooth and slithery. Louie, in fact, showed us a french kiss with a ray! Yikes! We saw some more black tipped sharks and some tuna. From there we headed to another site called the coral garden. The water here was very choppy, so it wasn't my favorite snorkeling site but we saw thousands of more tropical fish and a huge moray eel. After spending 20 mins looking at the beautiful corals and fish we headed back. The hosts kept us thoroughly entertained with music, jokes and plenty of tomfoolery. We even got to eat some coconut and watermelon (delicious!) Once back at the hotel we grabbed beers ( only because every other drink was way too expensive), some fries and headed back to our room to chill in the balcony. After another beer, stroll by the beach, many more picture-taking moments later we showered and got ready to head to Vaitape by boat. We wanted to go to La Bounty tonight but it was closed. Villa Mahana was booked till Friday (boy-o-boy), so we picked Bora Kaina Hut. Turned out to be a fairly good choice. The place resembles a Goan shack with sand floors and rustic wooden tables n chairs. Taking advise from a Trip advisor review we asked our hotel concierge if she could request the best table for us....we got what we asked for - the best table in the was a private hut by the corner....extremely romantic and very nice. We ordered some cocktails, again based on some reviews we had read. This was the only bad choice we made. Wine would have been a better option. Our drinks were terrible, mostly coz I am not a huge fan of coconut milk and yet I chose a coconut based cocktail, so that was my bad. The food more than made up for it though. I got the grapefruit gnocchi (excellent) and DH got the grilled Mahi Mahi cooked n served on a hot volcanic lava rock. We ended the meal with the lava cake which turned out to be better than the one we had at Fare Manuia. Again excellent but expensive meal! Ride back to hotel was uneventful. We got a couple of Bailey's to wash off our cocktail experience and sat by the pool. I got some interesting night time shots. Another lovely day ending with a lovely meal and drinks.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

Le Meridien Bora Bora

After a 3 hour wait in Tahiti Faaa airport, we boarded the Air Tahiti Nui propeller plane to Bora Bora. The flight was about an hour over picturesque turquoise water. Absolutely breathtaking postcard perfect. I managed to get a couple of shots (sitting on the left side of the plane was a smart move) of the islands and the over-water bungalows (that I'd only seen in pictures up until now)!!!! The view from every angle at the Bora Bora airport is nothing short of stunning. Inside the airport we were greeted by a couple of Le Meridien employees. We got our luggage tags, picked up our bags and were escorted to a waiting boat to be whisked off to the hotel. The ride was about 15-20 mins and we were supplied with water while we enjoyed more breathtaking views of the surroundings. We got our first view of the over water bungalow as we docked at the Le Meridien hotel dock. It was pretty exciting to walk through the hotel glimpsing the infinity pool, lotus pond and the lagoon to get to the reception. The staff was extremely courteous. Every where I looked a photo opportunity awaited! :-)

We were checked in right away while we sipped on some complimentary tropical juice. While DH sorted through our room arrangements, I took the opp to take some pics with my new 7d (super excited!!).... one of the staff, Jonathan, then took us on a tour of the property. We got our room right away (probably due to DH's preferred status coz others had to wait for 2-3 hours).... we were taken to our room in a golf cart... again, the room did not disappoint. It was everything I expected and more....over water bungalow with glass bottom, balcony with a view of Mt. otemanu...beautiful! We had to hurry to catch the breakfast buffet, so we headed back to the hotel lobby. Breakfast buffet at the hotel is till 10 am - we just made it in time - and freaking expensive .. about $45 pp (3800 xpf)...our eyes have been popping out getting used to prices in 4 digits! :D after a hearty breakfast, a good relaxing shower, we headed back to the activity center hoping to figure out how to get to the main island of Viatape to do some biking. Alas! Every thing here is kinda dead on Sunday, so we headed back to change into our swim clothes and went snorkeling at the hotel lagoon. We spotted some fairly mid-sized and smaller fish... the water wasn't as warmed as I had hoped. Then I got nibbled by an extremely energetic yellow fish which looked very playful but freaked me out! I all but yelled into my snorkel....:P..that was it for me! I soaked in the infinity pool for a bit, then headed back to our bungalow. While I sun bathed in the balcony with some complimentary champagne, DH went swimming around the bungalow...

We booked dinner at Fare Manuia thru our hotel concierge. There is free drop off at 630 pm from the hotel to Viatape, where a taxi picks you up and drops you off to the restaurant. All of this is complimentary only if you book it thru the concierge for that time. I had read good reviews about this place but unfortunately they were out of tuna for the evening! So all the best/recommended dishes were not available. I ordered a salad with mashed potato with goat cheese which turned out to be excellent and DH got the grilled fish of the day which was quite decent. Folks at our neighboring table got the seafood platter and steak, which made them very unhappy! We had a nice glass of wine, topped off with some great dessert - chocolate leave cake...yummm! As with everything dinner was expensive...over $100 but we were getting used to sticker shock!

We had to wait for the ride back to the dock. Boat was waiting to bring us back to the hotel. We retired by around 1030 pm. The night sky looked stunning and I really wanted to get a star trails picture...maybe tomorrow! :-)
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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Headed to Tahiti

On board Air France from LA to Tahiti, FP. Reached lax by 730 pm for our 1030 pm flt - way too early as I soon realized. We parked in Park Air Express near the airport. Online reservation got us a lower rate than the regular rate. The only hitch with the parking is that if you block another car while parking you have to leave the keys there. Check-in at the airport went smoothly. The wait to board the flight was annoying but DH gave his business class seat to me and all was well in the world!!!:-) Air France business class might be good - I wouldn't know coz I slept all 8 hours of the flight! :-P Arrival and immigration through Tahiti Faaa airport was smooth. At 4 am they had local singers greeting us at the entrance! Our bags arrived without any issues. We had to wait for about half hour before the Air Tahiti counter opened for our check-in to Bora Bora.
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Friday, May 20, 2011

Back in Barcelona

May 20,! Just like that our 7-day cruise is over. Our ship docks in Barcelona around 8 am and we start disembarking around 9:15 after we collect our passports. Like on every cruise ship we packed our bags the previous night, left them outside our cabin so they could be delivered in the baggage collection area of the cruise terminal. After breakfast in Bora Bora cafe we headed over to deck 5 to collect our passports. Exited the ship right after that on deck 6 (no waiting, yaaay!) and found our bags right away in the baggage claim area. No lines, no waiting! It was the smoothest disembarkation process in all my cruising experience!
A cab ride and €30 later we were at the Barcelona Renaissance Marriott by the airport where we were to spend a night before heading back to SD. Our room wasn't ready. So we took the hotel shuttle into town (for €5 pp). The shuttle dropped us off at the port near La Rambla and we walked north through La Rambla once more. We had to make a pit stop at Dunkin' Coffee (DS asked for chocolate donut).....a coffee and a chocolate donut later we walked the cross street towards the Cathedral. The street had many wonderful shops and window shopping was very enjoyable. I've completely lost interest in going to malls in the US but this was actually fun! Maybe walking the narrow alleys looking through unique stores and not worrying about parking is the charm! Nevertheless, bought a few things...took tons of pics...walked over to the cathedral which presented more photo ops. Unfortunately entry into the cathedral was €6pp which I didn't feel like paying! :(
Instead we went to this cafe, got some tapas & wine, then headed back to the port to catch the shuttle back to the hotel. On the shuttle bus, my neighbor was taking pics with her Nikon dslr through the bus window. I am no pro photographer or even a very good amateur photographer but I am sure anyone who has looked into photography at least a tad bit seriously can relate to this: I cringe every time I see anyone using flash in broad daylight or indoors against glass, especially if the camera is a DSLR!! Yikes! I have to contain myself from leaning over and saying, 'err, excuse me, but u have the flash on and if u take a pic against glass, its gonna reflect the light and u will ruin ur pic!'....but hey, its not my pic, who am I to say anything...and yet I cannot stop from cringing! She wouldn't shut her flash while taking the pics....argh!...:(
After getting refreshed at the hotel, we headed back to town via the shuttle. We walked along an inner street in the Ciutat Villa area on the east side of La Rambla and came upon this chic looking restaurant called Sensi ( Our pick was perfect....the dinner, wine and dessert were the best I had on this trip! Perfect ending to our vacation! The cute waiters didn't hurt the experience! :-P ....I actually ate tuna tartar, duck, ham, sausage and thoroughly enjoyed it! The ravioli with spinach was out of this world! I ended with chocolate fondant I.e. lava cake and it was certainly one of the best I've ever had!! Yummmmmm! Pix of DS & me in Sensi!

Back to the hotel, quite buzzed and happy, called it a night! Tomorrow, onto SD....truly adios Barcelona!
Random thots: In Spain (at least the places we visited), if you ask in a restaurant, what size is the pizza, they'll say "normal"....err, what is 'normal'???...First response for everything is "not possible" especially on the cruise ship! Almost like the ship was run by the mafia and all employees were just scared to do anything without permission!

Palma de Mallorca, Spain

May 19, Thursday.... we docked at Palma around 11 am. We had decided to go to Dragon caves (Cuevas del Drach) in Porto Cristo which is on the east coast of Mallorca. So as soon as we exited the port of Palma (which is a fairly huge port) we started looking for taxis. Unlike in Italy, taxis were very strict about the number of passengers in each car I.e. 4 in each and there are no taxis that will take more than 4. So we had to take 3 taxis for the 11 of us at €160 per cab for about 5 hours. We got this really cool cabbie called Francisco (Frank in Ingles :-) ) who knew a little bit of English. (Ugh, I wish I knew Spanish...I know, Gabe, u tried to teach and I think that needs to be my resolution for the year!)... we started out towards Porto Cristo winding our way through Palma, took a pit stop at a gas station on the way, went past Manacor (where Francisco pointed out that this is Nadal's home town and what an awesome guy he is!!!), and reached Porto Cristo in about 50 mins. The cabbies took us to this restaurant near the Dragon Caves called Ca'n Toni serving local Spanish cuisine. I had some amazing mixed salad, Spanish omelette and even loved the vegetarian paella that my friends got. I am not a huge fan of paella but the one served here is excellent. Tickets to dragon caves is €11,50pp (free for kids under 7) and tours start every hour. We started our tour at 3 pm. There are no words to describe how stunning the caves are. What makes the 2 km long caves of stalacmites (????) even more stunning and beautiful is the amazing lighting, planned and carried out by Dr. Buigas. The apparent highlight of the tour is the classical music (concert!) played by boat-bound musicians floating across Lake Martel, one of the largest underground lakes in the area. The show was definitely nice but for me the highlight were the caves themselves and the absolutely breathtaking feat of nature. Its a shame photography is prohibited....there was so many instances, due to the gorgeous lighting, of perfect reflections that they would have made amazing subjects for photographers!

We then headed to Manacor where we stopped at a pearl factory on Carrer de Majorica. Majorica pearls are made by replicating the natural process of pearl creation by the oyster. DH surprised me by buying me a gorgeous pearl necklace/ear-rings set. Once back in Palma, the driver took us through old town - which is an intricate alleyway of narrow roads. The one thing immediately noticeable about any street, any alley way in Palma is that its spotlessly clean. This is because tourism is the primary source of income on this island and the locals take this very seriously. The city is kept incredibly clean and inviting. The driver also brought to our notice futuristic looking contraptions on every street - gold colored bins which were garbage disposal chutes. Garbage went down this chute to be sucked by vacuum to the central disposal area somewhere underneath in the middle of old town. Every street also has bins for recycling different articles...very impressive! The old town is very charming. The drivers dropped all of us off near the cathedral. Its a beautiful building just like any other in all of Europe. We walked around the cathedral, through the town visiting stores and looking around. Around 6:30 pm, we split up - my friends decided to head back to the ship and took DS along with them while DH and I decided to continue our exploration of the city. We walked into narrow streets from the main avenue and looked at many interesting stores. On the main avenue (???need name), we sat down at a cafe called cappuccino for some coffee and drink which seems to be the past time for most locals around 7-8 pm everyday. Dinner doesn't happen till much later in the night, so one sees a lot of people sitting down in street side cafes sipping on beers, wines, drinks or cappuccino/coffee! The city had free Wi-Fi and we were able to surf so much faster than on the ship! I was most impressed by the city....dare I say, I fell in love with it! I would love to come back to experience the charm on a more day-to-day here for a week or more...after that we walked along the marina, found an interesting street side restaurant called Gotic and sat down for some tapas and wine. Tapas were the usual, nothing outstanding but we enjoyed our dinner. Our waiter, Ganeshwar Singh was originally from India and settled in Mallorca. We had an interesting conversation with him and were amazed at how fluently he spoke Spanish....

The walk from the cathedral area to the ship was several miles - we had underestimated the distance but we had a slow and long walk along the marina. The city is extremely beautiful and the coastline is dotted with hotels and restaurants catering to tourists. Lots of Indian restaurants as well.

Once on the ship we had to pack our bags for disembarkation tomorrow. Once that got done and kids were settled in, I went to deck 15 with my tripod and camera to get some night time shots of the lit up cathedral. But even with 200mm zoom, the shot wasn't tight enough. There was a party going on in deck 14 by the Aqua Park...we hung around for a bit and then retired early for the night.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A day at sea...

May 18, Wednesday....per our original itinerary, we were supposed to dock at Tunisia today. But the port was skipped due to the political situation there, so the day was spent sailing at sea. We again had a late night with friends so ended up sleeping in but not before DS made a meal request at 6 am!!! Boy...since I knew Bora Bora cafe opens at 6, I went up to get some cereal and milk plus fruits etc. I was stopped by the service staff saying I could not take the food from the cafe to the room (no possible, madam!!). I found that rather strange since I could have ordered the same thing through room service. I wasn't going to be stopped either way and in my sleep deprived state I actually challenged the service staff and walked out! Was as well, since I didn't wake up till half past 10 (so missed breakfast hours) and having the fruits in the room helped.

We then headed out to the sports cafe on deck 7 so the kids could do bowling. They have a miniature bowling alley for kids but charge €5 for 10 swings of the ball!! We thought that was quite ridiculous but let the kids have a go at it anyway. Once that was done we took the kids to the water slide on deck 15, followed by some swim time at the kids igloo pool, also on deck 15. Then while some of my friends sun-bathed and enjoyed drinks on deck 15, I took the kids indoors for some board games in the reception area so I could connect to the internet and check my work email. Internet connection is charged by the number of minutes and we had already signed up for 100mins for €20. Wi-Fi Connection was fairly good but only available in mid-ship on decks 5, 6, 7. I had heard the connection was extremely slow on most days and that it took nearly 45 mins to sync email! I would have thought all ships would have been updated by wifi service by now but I guess I am wrong! That day though the connection was decent and I was able to sync and check email within 30 mins.

We continued our relaxing low key day at sea by having lunch at Bora Bora, followed by us girls chilling out on deck 16 in the MSC arena. One good thing on the ship was that we always found lounge chairs and were never disappointed when we wanted to hang out. Even though weather was fairly warm and most people were hanging out on the decks and in/by the pool, there was always space.

There was a kids show based on Disney characters at 4:30 pm in the Strand theater. The show was alright - kids got to take pics with 'Aladdin & Jasmin' so they were happy. After the usual dinner at Villa Verde, we went to the nightly show at the Strand - today's was titled 'Italians' and was a tribute to the Italian culture. Again it was a fairly good show - didn't outshine the other days but the dancing was good, costumes were very impressive and the show was well put together.

Later at night, once the kids slept, the adults hung out in our cabin. We managed to sneak in some cocktails from The Aft Lounge on deck 7. I am sure we weren't supposed to take drinks into our rooms but we managed to....although I daresay those were alcoholic beverages! There was hardly anything in any of the cocktails to qualify them as such! :-P

Palermo, Italy

May 17, Tuesday....we had a tough night to say the least! At about 1:30 am, DS's temp was still hovering around 102. After a dose of ibuprofen when the temp showed 104.5 at about 4 am, we decided to dial the medical center. No one answered, so we dialed emergency which redirected us to reception. Strange! But in the end we carted all of ourselves to deck 4 to the medical center. There was a night staff of one nurse and a doc. They were extremely courteous and did gave DS an alcohol rub to reduce the high fever, diagnosed him with acute bronchitis and tonsilitis, prescribed the right meds and sent us on our way. I was happy with the medical staff and service. The night was shot but DS managed to get a few hours of sleep in the early morning hours.

The ship docked at Palermo, the capital city of Sicily, Italy at 8 am. We decided to skip land excursion coz DS was sick but after another visit to the doc at about 11 am, he seemed fine enough to go out. So we headed out to the port and were immediately accosted by taxi tour operators offering a taxi city tour for €120 for 3 hours or €100 (discounted to €90 just for u!) For 2 hours. We kept walking and met another taxi driver called Joseph right outside the port entrance who offered to take us around for €70 for 2 hours. We finally settled on €50 for the three of us for 2 hours of city tour. He was alright but I felt short changed a little because I think he cut short our tour by about 20 mins. No complaints though since DS was getting antsy after about an hour and a half. The comfort of the taxi was worth the money as against taking a hop on/hop off tour. We started the tour by going to the Albero Secolare, a small garden of trees that looked like banyan trees with their roots spread all around. We then drove up Via Vittorio Emanuelle, to Quattro Canti or the four corners of a square which is made up of four buildings - one on each corner. Each building has three levels covered with Baroque sculptures that were designed by the architect Giulio Lasso. The sculptures on the facades of the four buildings illustrate various themes: the Four Seasons, Spanish kings and various patron saints of Palermo's four old quarters. Next to this is Piazza Pretoria which houses a beautiful fountain sorrounded by sculptures and nice buildings. After walking around and taking the usual pictures we walked over to a church that appeared to be under construction - I believe this is called La Martorana. Next to this church is the tiny church of San Mataldo, with three pinkish red domes or cupolas on top and looks more Islamic than Christian. But the actual basilica behind the contructions facade is beautiful with frescoes and delicate art work on the walls and ceilings. From there we headed to the Palermo Cattedrale...which is an imposing structure. The outside is very impressive, the insides, not as much but theres the usual art work, frescoes and sculptures. We then drove past Teatro Massimo, with a quick stop to take some pics and grab a bite to eat in a street side cafe. Joseph didn't seem too keen on taking us anywhere else and DS wanted to head back so we simply drove past San Domenico (which looked like a dilapidated church) and Teatro Politeama (which appeared to be under some sort of construction). Once we were dropped off at the ship and DS was settled in, I walked out into the city up the street from the port - Via Emerico Amari. My intention was to go back to Teatro Politeama and take some pics but the walk itself was very enjoyable. I stopped at a local grocery store and got some interesting looking local pasta, pate and pesto sauce. Then took pics of some intriguing buildings - one appeared to be a church, another a bingo house....the actual Teatro was quite disappointing and I felt it wasn't worth the walk. However, I was able to stop by at a souvenir store and buy shot glasses representing Don Corleone, the Godfather, for DH, who is a huge fan of the movies. I also stopped at a store/restaurant/cafe called Bristol which according to our driver was one of the best cafes in town. I got some pastries from the store ...and just the cannelloni was worth the effort! It was apparently typical Sicilian style and it was very tasty.

Tonight's dinner dress code was formal and while dinner itself was blah as usual, the wine was very good and we got to dress up and take some good pictures. Tonight's entertainment was a show called 'Sortilegio' ('check mate to the queen') and was themed around chess pieces. So the entire costume was based on various chess pawns in black and white. Again, very impressive although the overall show wasn't as amazing as the previous nights. There was a gymnast act which was very good.

We called it a night after a good round of girly chat in my cabin with my girlfriends.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Naples, Italy

May 16....ship docked at 10 am today. After a late night, I barely managed to make it to the Bora Bora cafe for breakfast. Timing for breakfast is till 10 am in Pago Pago and Bora Bora cafes. But at 10 mins to 10 the staff had already started emptying buffet tables. It was very annoying. We disembarked a little after 11 am and walked through the port with the intention of figuring out how to get to Mt. Vesuvius. The ship excursion was €55 pp for adults plus a cost for kids as well. We found a van taxi outside the port - the driver whose name was David agreed on a price of €25 pp round trip for adults only, no charge for kids. We were 6 adults and 5 kids, so this turned out to be a great deal. He also agreed to drop us to a good local pizza place in downtown Naples. We headed out to Mt. Vesuvius with a pit stop for water - the ride took is about 45 mins. Once at the base, we had to walk up to the crater. The walk is fairly steep, on ash and stone and the day today was extremely windy although it was bright and sunny. It was a fantastic day for taking photographs but not so much fun fo hiking. DH prevailed...poor guy, walked all the way up and back down. Tickets to the 'Parco Nazionale del Vesuvio' are €8 pp and included a guided tour at the crater. We met Stephano at a souvenir store right before the crater and he gave a fairly decent account of the crater, its surroundings and history. He earned his €5 tip from me coz he was also cute with that typical Italian accent! :-P
The yummy cherry tomatoes at Fratelli La Bufala
We hurried down coz the wind was killing us (kids and hubbies bailed out on the guided tour). David drove us back into town and dropped us off at Fratelli La Bufala apparently established in 2003 and according to David, the best pizza in town. I don't know about the pizza but they served fresh mozzarella and cherry tomatoes which was to die for! I am not a mozzarella fan at all but really savoured the bread with mozzarella bits and cherry tomatoes with balsamic vinegar! The pasta was also good, I didn't particularly care for the artichoke and mushroom pizza I ordered. That was a bummer since my brother had sworn, the pizza in Napoli was the best ever! :(
We split up the group after that - my friends went with David (again for €25pp) for a tour of Pompeii (which DH and I had done before and thoroughly enjoyed) while we headed for a city of Naples tour. After stopping for some delicious gelato in downtown we headed over to Piazza Municipio to catch the CitySightseeing Napoli hop on/hop off tour bus ( For €22 pp adult we were able to do the route B loop along the gulf of Naples, om the western side of town. The day was cold and overcast and DS was extremely tired, so we didn't hop off anywhere. Although most of downtown Naples and the area we had seen thus far was shabby and extremely dirty, the tour took us through an area called Santa Lucia, which is very pretty. The views from along the coast are breathtaking and it would have been wonderful to get down at several stops and sight see. DS slept through the whole tour and I tried my best to do justice to the scenic views by using my camera to the best of my abilities in a moving bus. Sigh! Some moments were frustrating...especially when I saw the opportunity to possibly take panoramic shots of the entire town of Naples, Mt. Vesuvius and the gulf of Sorrento but we decided not to get down and the bus kept moving.....grrrr! Well, I'll just have to make another trip! :-P
We headed back to the ship after that. A brief walk through the Galleria del Mare shopping center at the Stazione Marittima di Napoli took me through some interesting shops, especially those of Italian leather shoes and handbags! Very unfortunately, DS kept complaining of a headache and as it turned out, the poor guy had a 102.5 fever!!! After some ibuprofen and mommy hugs, we managed to make it to dinner at Villa Verde. It was disappointing to know that our meal request from the previous day was not only not honored but we got the runaround when we tried asking how to request the chef for something specific. On all our previous cruises, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity etc special meal requests were always honored. The comparison was inevitable and we were all sorely disappointed by the service! After a very uninteresting and unappetizing dinner, we went for the nightly show called 'Prestige' in the Strand theater. The show featured the usual dancers along with a juggler (Duo Dillon?) and a very talented shadow puppeteer (Antonio Versini). Once again the show was excellent and we were really entertained.
Guys were planning on having a guys night out today so we headed back to put the kids to bed (mine was out already due to the fever). When I reached the cabin, however, the key card would not open the door. DH who was inside could not open the door either. We called reception, who called some help, who called more senior help, who called the carpenter and finally an hour later they managed to pry the door open! With absolutely no apologies or comp of any kind, the guys fixed the door and walked off! That's MSC hospitaloty for u!!!!! I am certainly NOT recommending this cruise line to anyone, certainly not to anyone used to the RCCL brand of service!

Genoa, Italy

May 15... our port of call today was Genova, Italy. We docked at around 8 am and the plan was to take the kids to the Aquarium. We decided to simply stick with the excursion offered by the cruise line. For €35pp adult and €24pp child, this seemed like a reasonable deal. In retrospect it was because it was raining and cold when we left the ship around 9 am. Although the aquarium is very close to where the ship docks (about a 15 min walk) it would have been nightmarish lugging 5 kids and all their assorted accessories (stroller, backpacks etc). So we headed out of the ship based on our assigned grouping and immediately outside boarded a ferry which took us right outside the aquarium in about 10 mins. The aquarium or Acquario di Genova in in Porto Antico and is one of the largest aquariums in Europe in terms of the number of species it houses. It is indeed marvellous and way better than the one in Barcelona. We took about 2 hours to tour the 3 levels of the aquarium - they even have a hummingbird forest. I was very happy to experiment with my camera settings in varying light. Got some great close ups on hummingbird, tortoise, iguana, crocodile....all very interesting. The biggest complaint though was the humongous crowds..more adults than kids and completely unapologetic when shoving kids out of the way to get a view of the shark or dolphin!! Crazy tourists!! :-)

Once outside I decided to walk the 15 min route back to the ship. We had lunch on the ship (which wasn't entirely bad!) and then headed out for a 1 hour sightseeing tour of the city offered by Genoa city tour which starts in Porto Antico but can also be boarded right at the Stazione Marittima or where the ship docks. For €10 the ride of 50 mins was completely worth it. It takes one through the city to important squares and structures but with no stops. It broke my heart to see all these lovely buildings and alleyways but with no opportunity to actually take pics! :( favorite was seeing Piazza De Ferrari (the town center) and Via XX Settembre (the main shopping street with fantastic architecture and murals). I would have loved to explore the city on foot and wondered why we didn't do that last time we were here!

We made it back before 4pm. The ship departed from the port at 5 pm and we watched the shores of Genoa from Pago Pago Cafeteria on deck 14 with some coffee, sandwiches and pastries -pix taken from Xoom while ship was departing. Dinner at Villa Verde was the usual I.e. nothing exciting but the maitre'd was kind enough to change our tables and put us friends close by on bigger tables so we could sit together. We also got to make our vegetarian meal request for tomorrow....lets see how that goes.

The show at The Strand Theater tonight was once again excellent. It was a ventriloquist show by Willer Nicolodi. The guy was not only fluent in 4-5 languages but he did a great job of entertaining the audience. DS was in splits and thoroughly enjoyed himself. After that we had a girls night out and enjoyed some mojitos in the deck 6 lounge area by the reception. They had good piano music playing till midnight and catching up with my girlfriends was extremely relaxing and enjoyable in that ambience.

Marseille, France

May 14... our first port of call was Marseille, France. Last nights sleep was not quite comfortable - the beds were uneven and my back really hurt. So instead of the planned early morning, I woke up late and barely made it in time to the Bora Bora cafe for breakfast (till 10 am). Breakfast was as lousy as dinner last night and was extremely disappointing. What was even more disappointing was the service staff. Again I couldn't help but compare the service to that on the Royal Caribbean. DH warned me to stop the comparison else really continue to be disappointed! :(

We then dropped the kids off to the kids club (called Grafitti on deck 15 mid-ship) so we (the adults) could go on shore. Marseille is France's second largest city and the capital of the Provence-Cote d'Azur region. Its a maritime cosmopolitan city on the southeast coast of France. The port where the ship docked is industrial and looks very commercial. We took the ship's shuttle bus (€15 pp) to the city center and noticed that the port along the way was more picturesque than the glimpse we got from our ship. Had I done my due diligence in terms of research, I am sure we could have saved some moolah and taken the local transport to the city.
Once we got down at the city center on Rue H. Barbusse, we headed down the street towards Vieux Port (old port). On the street corner of Quai du Port, we bought tickets (€7 pp) for Le Petit Train, which is, as the name suggests a miniature train replica running on the streets of Marseille herding folks to Notre Dame de la Garde. The ride to the church took us through more picturesque streets and the view of the port and coastline were spectacular. Too bad it wasn't a hop off/hop on type of tour - we couldn't really get down anywhere to soak up the scenary or take pictures. The ride to the church took us about 30-40 minutes. The church stands majestically on top of a hill and offers more breath-taking views of the city. The inside of the church houses a crypt (lower church) and a basilica (upper church). I tried my hand at HDR in both the places - will have to see how the pics turn out. The Basilica is stunning with intricate artwork on the walls and ceilings. I need to read up on the history of this place - like I said did not do due diligence on my research. :(

The ride back was shorter and DH spotted an interesting looking square full of street side cafes near Vieux Port. So we headed in that direction on to Quai de Rive Neuve, around the port, to Place Thiars. We saw many interesting looking restaurants - 'Love Sushi', an Indian one called Jaipur fact Indian restaurants seemed popular, we saw quite a few along other streets - Govinda, Ashoka, Le Kashmir etc. We finally settled on a place called 'Fuxia' in Place Thiars. It had a decent Italian menu. As it turned out, the food, wine and dessert there was definitely the highlight of my day. Every dish was exquisite - the bruschetta, Aubergine parmiggiana, gnocchi with pesto, rigatoni Siciliana....yummmm! Just mouth wateringly exquisite! The Chianti we ordered was also perfect. Lunch ended with some excellent Tiramisu and chocolate layered panna cotta. Again exquisite! We simply drooled over the food. We then took a circuitous walk back to the shuttle stop seeing a few other streets around the port area.

Picked up the kids after heading back - they of course didn't miss us at all and seemed to have had a fantastic day. After more late afternoon siesta, we headed for dinner. Menu at the Villa Verde dining room looked boring so we decided to go to the dinner biffet at Bora Bora. Big mistake! Dinner was terrible with hardly any choices....salad was awful, fries were not good, there was only pizza, bunch of cold cut meats, bread, hamburger, grilled chicken.....sigh! We were better off going to the dining room! Lesson learned! I had read that food and service on this ship were far from good but even in my worst expectations, I did not think it would be this bad! I am extremely disappointed. :(

After dinner we headed to the Aft Lounge on deck 7 because the program indicated that there was a dance show. Again there was hardly anyone there at the announced time of 8:30. We danced with the kids for a bit and then headed out around 9, when we saw people heading in! Maybe most Europeans also follow IST! :P Around 9:45, we headed to the Strand Theater for another show. Once again, we were not disappointed. The dancers, artists, magician were all excellent. The magic show kept the kids entertained, the juggling and other acrobatic atcs were good and dancing tribute to the king of pop, MJ was also executed well.

We had to call it a night after that. Tomorrow we dock in Genoa where we haven't quite decided whether we want to take DH to the aquarium or go to Portofino. Grrr, not being connected to the Internet sucks...once one is used to looking up everything online, life without it is tough!

Adios Barcelona, Ola MSC Splendida

May 13.... today was the start of our 7-day Mediterranean cruise from Barcelona on the MSC Splendida. We spent the morning in our hotel packing up and then headed to the Cafe Veranda in our hotel for a very expensive but delicious buffet breakfast. As would befit any 5-star hotel, the restaurant is classy, serves excellent breakfast with an insane number of choices and the staff is courteous - in other words it was perfect but of course made a huge dent in our wallets! :-P ..Sometimes a splurge is totally worth it!

We took a taxi from our hotel to the cruise terminal on the west side of Port Vell - was about €17 since they charge per bag as well on top of the metered fare. We reached the terminal around 1:30 pm and the whole check-in process was very smooth. No lines for back drop off or check in. Our only dark cloud was DH lost his cell phone in the taxi and realized only too late that it was gone!!

We entered the ship on deck 6. A staff person was assigned to escort us to our room on deck 10 (cabin # 10421), which was a nice personal touch. We had an interior cabin and tried requesting an upgrade. However, the interior cabin is quite nice on this ship. It doesn't feel all that claustrophobic because there is ample usage of mirrors in the cabin. In fact, the entire ship has plenty of mirror, glass, glitter.... the design and decor is very Italian and modern. I was used to the Royal Caribbean fleet of ships and the decor on MSC Splendida is quite different. After quickly checking out our room, bidding adieu to our ship escort, we went up to deck 14 to the Bora Bora Cafeteria for the lunch buffet. The layout of the cafe seems nice enough - there was plenty of place to sit and it didn't seem overly crowded at around 3:30 pm. Food was alright - nothing to write home about although even the simple pastas were excellent. I got some Penne with tomato sauce and another pasta with pesto sauce and both were good. Didn't venture beyond the familiar, got some lentil soup which was also pretty decent. We had to shell out €2-plus for a bottle of water and were cursing ourselves for not buying bottles of water on shore like we did on our previous cruises. :(

We met up with my friends who have neighboring cabins and then headed out to the pool on deck 14. The afternoon was hot enough to warrant being in swimsuits and wading in the pool. But the pools have salt water so the kids were quite annoyed! DH got me the drink of the day: 'sex on the beach which was sorely missing the one required ingredient - alcohol! Doh! The lounge chairs by the pool were comfortable and we spent a good hour and a half enjoying the water and sun. A little after 4, there was coffee/tea/pastries/cookies/tea sandwiches served in Bora Bora. Our excuse to get the whole range of pastries and cookies was that kids were hungry but I was sensing the start of calorie overload! I might just have to setup a date with Cindy at Jenny Craig .... 6-7 lbs gain here I come! :D

Dinner tonight was a formal affair. We had early seating at 7 pm at Villa Verde restaurant on deck 6. I didn't particularly care for the food. Appetizer was OK, asparagus soup was tolerable, salad was really bad and so was the main course of tofu with vegetables. The only saving grace was the first course of mushroom Risotto and the ice cream with mirengue. I was also spoiled by the excellent wait staff (and dining room food) on Royal Caribbean (even Celebrity was better than this). If today's experience is any indication the wait staff leaves a lot to be desired.

After dinner we went to a late night showing of 'Mirage' in the Strand Theater (decks 6/7). The show is excellent with some amazing dancing & acrobatic performances. The theater itself is also very beautiful, the stage & lighting are fantastic, the costumes & artists magnificent. There was ample seating and all the kids with us (of age range 3-8 years) enjoyed the show.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Low key in Barceloneta

May 12, Thursday ...We had a late morning today. Decided we needed to do laundry before we head out on our cruise tomorrow, so after breakfast we headed out to El Centre de la Vila. This is a mall two blocks from the beach next to an apartment complex and has a public laudromat called Diamond. For €4,25 per load we washed our clothes. For another €2,50 we got a cupful of detergent. A smarter, more economical thing to do would have been to go to the super market downstairs in the mall and buy detergent for €1,24 since we had 2 loads of clothes! Anyway, we sat in the courtyard while DS played. While clothes spun in the dryer, we walked over to the Moll de Gregal, a collection of restaurants and stores on a pier jutting out over the Barceloneta beach. We went down by the beach to one of the restaurants - La Fonda Del Port Olimpic. I finally got the vegetarian Paella and some spearmint infused tea. The Paella was good but I am not a huge fan, so I don't think I did justice to the food. DH had the lunch menu - gazpacho soup, mussels, some beef dish (that DS really enjoyed) followed by chocolate mousse (that DS wanted seconds of!). Again, food was nothing to write home about but the mall is a nice place to walk around and while away some time. With laundry done we headed back to the hotel for some much needed 'siesta'!

After a lazy afternoon, we headed out via metro to Placa de Catalunya. My friends from India were in town for our reunion cruise and we were hoping to meet them in front of cafe Zurich at Placa de Catalunya. After a 20 min ride via L4, then L1, we were in front of Cafe Zurich. Meeting up with my college friends was amazing - was seeing them after almost 4 years! Their 2 daughters and my DS had a great time together over dinner at La Puma Pizzeria grill on La Rambla. Pitchers of sangria, salad, tapas, pizza, pasta led to some great conversation about good old times and some new times.

We rounded off the night with some good mojitos in the hotel lounge on the second floor roof-top. It was a very nice sit down area that we had completely missed before - atmosphere was nice, drinks were fairly good and we could take our 4 year old along!

Today is day 5 in Barcelona, half our trip is almost over and there is still much to explore in the city. One could spend weeks exploring various areas in the city depending on ones interests...for an amateur photographer the city provides ample opportunity and excitement. The one thing I didn't venture out to do was take pics of people here....I love candid people shots but am almost always hesitant to explore and experiment in this area.... of course my hopes were high after seeing 'Vicky Cristina barcelona' but unfortunately I feel like Javier Bardem was an anamoly....sadly no one half as drool-worthy as him has been spotted - maybe they are all hiding in Oviedo! For all my single (or not!) male friends tho, DH will confirm that there are plenty of ogle-worthy females...:-P....although I argue that people watching in Rome is more pleasing to the eyes and soul!!!

Tomorrow is cruise day....we'll be joined by another friends' family...blogging may not happen due to lack of connection but will continue to jot down notes about the journey.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Barcelona city tour...

We continued on our city tour today on the official Barcelona city tour ( . The two day city pass was extremely useful. We explored the western part of the city today. The tour has two routes - the eastern/northern called the green route and the western called the orange route. Both routes go one way only and the stop in front of our hotel is for the green route. So we took this route and had to go the entire two hour tour to get to Placa de Catalunya where we changed our bus to get on the orange route. The only plus of doing this was that both DS and I got our naps!

the orange route started at Place de Catalunya and took us through Barri Gotic and Ciutat Vella area to the east of La Rambla. We went past Palau de la Musica Catalana (Palace of Catalan Music -, Arc de Triomf, the Barcelona Catedral, Monument a Colom, the World Trade Center by the port and then onto Parc de Montjuic. The park is on a hill overlooking the city from the southwest side and is home to fine museums and leisure attractions, soothing gardens and the main of 1992 Olympic sites, along with a handful of theatres and clubs. There's so many places to see here. We started with a Teleferic ride to the Castell de Montjuic. The cable car ride is €8,50 pp, the entry to the castle is free but since entry into others museums does require tickets it might be worth getting the Montjuic card ( this is valid for a day and gains entry to all museums, galleries and the cable car ride) - we didn't get this but in retrospect might have been more economical. The castell is more like a fortress with a fantastic view of the coast, Port Vell and the city (attached a pic taken on my Xoom). We walked around reminescing about walking through a similar fortress in Puerto Rico so many years ago in '06. It has a central courtyard with the usual touristy eating joint. Surprisingly the eatary had some good salad and especially good pasta with tomato sauce. Very home-made, very tasty. We took the teleferic back to the bus stop, took the tour bus to our next stop - Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC). This art museum housed in one of the most extravagantly beautiful structures holds one of Europe's greatest collections of Romanesque art and also has an extensive collection of the less captivating Gothic art. The altar frontals which are painted, low-relief wooden panels that were forerunners of the eleborate 'retablos' (altar pieces) and had adorned later churches were magnificent. There wasn't enough time to really look at all the art work, plus having a hyper 4 year old is not conducive to an art museum visit. :-(

In any case, we bought tickets for the museum as well as Poble Espanyol, which was our next stop. Poble Espanyol or Spanish Village ( was my favorite stop of the day - I and my camera could have spent the entire day here. DH was my money-shot composition director and I was the technical executor of his directions!! :-P This place is both a cheesy souvenir hunters' haunt and an intriguing scrapbook of Spanish architecture. Its composed of plazas and streets lined with surprisingly good replicas of characteristic buildings from across the country's regions. The buildings house dozens of moderate to expensive restaurants, cafes, bars, craft shops and workshops, and a few souvenir stores. I must have taken more than 100 plus pics was incredibly fun! After munching on some expensive panellets ( and some gelato we headed out on the tour bus. The rest of our city tour took us through Placa Espanya which has the Placa de Braus Les Arenes bullring - no more bull fights here, instead its been converted into a mall. It looked interesting but we didn't stop here and completely missed the Parc Joan Miro, which is a park behind the bullring and has a sculpture called Dona i Cell ( woman and bird), apparently one of artist Miro's known works. The guide on the tour bus droned on about this as well but I didn't even notice! I could barely keep my eyes open as we went past the FCB soccer stadium, down Avenue Diagonal which houses apartments ranging from €600k to €3m (!!!) and ended up in Placa Catalunya.

We stopped for a quick meal of tapas/sangria/beer at Cerveceria Baviera at the northern end of La Rambla. Dinner was not the least bit memorable but we did notice a lot of Pakistani and Indian service folks! We emerged from the restaurant to a lot of cheering and screaming on the streets. Figured out it was the La Liga championship game between Barca and Levante. I don't follow soccer much but the cheering and celebrations on the street was infectious. The square in Placa de Catalunya was roped off to show the game on a large screen with music and fireworks to celebrate the three time champions! DS had a blast waving the Barca flag and going 'por que' (no clue what that means but we joined in on the chanting and music)!!! DH and DS at Placa Catalunya showing off the victory sign for Barca!

We took the metro back to our hotel from Placa Catalunya (L1) to Urquinaona, then switched to L4 to get to Ciutadella Vila Olimpica which happened to be right across our hotel. Got back to our room to read news of the earthquake and loss of life in Lorca, in southeastern Spain. Unfortunate but we were lucky and didn't feel a thing. The day ended on a sombre note for many reasons....

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A day of Gaudi..and a night of tapas!

May 10.... woke up to a spectacular morning! Another view of the Barceloneta beach and the Mediterranean sea from our room below....

After paying an atrocious price of €22 for a glass of milk and some miniature chocolate croissants at our hotel, we headed out to get coffee at our favorite Genis cafe (had to take a pic today!). Debating between taking the metro to see sights of the city vs. Going on the Barcelona city tour bus, we opted for the latter. Turned out to be the best decision of the day! We paid €30 pp for a two day pass (DS got in free) and the tour bus has two routes through the city covering every major attraction. We went past the beaches of Barcelona which looked beautiful but appear quite neglected by locals and tourists alike, past the Forum, the Glories building shaped like a cylinder. Its a hop on, hop off tour and our first stop was La Sagrada Familia ( - Antonio Gaudi's signature masterpiece in Barcelona which is yet to to be fully completed. He spent 40 years of his life till he died consumed by the building and its construction. Hard to fathom such passion and obsession for ones work, ones art but that's what seperates the mediocre from the greats! :-)  The building itself looks eccentric...partly Gothic, partly Moorish....that's what's called modernista architecture for which Gaudi was known. We went through the museum which houses models, design and pictures of the building through various states of construction. Walking into the church was my highlight of the day. Its magnificent beyond words....while not as grand or awe-inspiring as St. Peters Basilica in The Vatican, this is still beautiful and truly feels like a temple where one would go to find peace. Although literally run over by thousands of tourists the place still inspires something larger than life, something beyond the daily mundane troubles one ponders over. Unfortunately we had to skip the elevator trip to the top due to a 2 hour wait...apparently its completely worth the wait but not with a cranky kid on your hands.

Before we boarded the tour bus again we had a quick stop at Starbucks (of all the places!!!) for a bite. One cannot underestimate the value of having access to restrooms when u have a 4 year old with you! ;-)

We then headed onto Parc Guell ( , another one of Gaudi's work. This required quite a bit of walking over steep hills and uneven surfaces. Poor DS trudged along and was quite a sport but we truly tested his patience. It was hot and the park is not really meant for 4 year olds! Ample opportunity to flex ones photography skills but for a 4 year old all excited about getting to a 'park' it was a huge disappointment! :( we gave up after walking through part of the park and headed back. The tour bus took us through some grand places in Barcelona, all of which was enjoyable. We saw other Gaudi buildings: Casa Milo La Padera where I paid €14 just to take a tour and Casa Battlo where I refused to shell out €18,15 for a tour of the house! La Padrera was actually fantastic...more eccentric architecture with wave like front facade, weird looking chimney pots on the roof terrace, an attic dedicated to other works of Gaudi and an apartment on the top floor fully furnished in the style of the nouveau rich of the early 20th century Barcelona. Too bad I chose not to go into Casa Battlo....I am sure its equally fantastic.

We cut short our trip at this point because DS was extremely exhausted. After enjoying some amazing Baguettes at La Baguette Catalana next to La Padrera (again for an atrocious price!) we headed back to our hotel.

Dinner was at this amazing place called Santa Maria, recommended by our hotel concierge. Its in the El Born area next to La Rambla and serves Asian fusion Tapas. We had some really good red wine, quite a few delectable tapas (Indian chicken curry with jeera rice, frog legs (yikes! Of course I didn't have this), chick peas seaweed salad, tomato goat cheese salad) followed by a brownie pina colada cream dessert...the meal was very good and inspired some truly heart to heart conversation over dinner!

Thoughts for the day: Barcelona is a beautiful another lifetime, if I ever learn Spanish or Catalan I would love living here....people here seem laid back and I even wondered if anyone works here at all (other than those who serve the tourism industry of course)....I didn't notice the usual office hustle-bustle or stress of everyday life....but then maybe I just didn't notice!

Am truly exhausted today! :-)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Buenas Dias, Barcelona!!!!

May 9....Well, at least it was supposed to be Buenas dias before 9 am....sigh! Still jet-lagged, the boys r snoozing at almost 11 am! much for our early morning plans.... :-P

We finally got moving out of the room at close to noon. Totally missed normal breakfast hours, so slipped into a cafe next to the hotel called Genis Cafe, an ultra sleek, modern healthy dining place. We got the most amazing coffee (cafe con leche) and focaccia paninis...yumm! We then walked on to L'Aquarium at Port Vell ( , which is about a 15 minute walk from our hotel. I made the walk really tedious by stopping every now and then to take random pics! ;-) ...The aquarium is supposedly one of Europe's largest with a 80m-long shark tunnel. While it was definitely fun for Neil, it was far from the best! (Also was way too much moolah for the experience ..€17,75pp...there is a €2 discount on the website, so thats totally worth checking out before heading there) Bah...I experimented more with my camera but mostly just trudged along and grumbled about how much my pics sucked! At the end of the 2 hour exploration we emerged from the dark interiors of the aquarium with one happy kid and two annoyed parents....we explored the mall next to the aquarium called Moll d'Espanya, where we saw the ubiquitous McDonalds, the very expensive F.C.Botiga 'futbol' store (€60 for a barca t and no Messi on the back! Yikes!) in the shopping center called Maremagnum ( After more pics, we ambled over the wave like bridge called Rambla de Mar connecting Port Vell and the mall to the palm lined promenade called Moll de la Fusta. This bridge rotates to let the boats enter the marina behind it and has this really cool mechanical masts extending over..hopefully, I have a good pic that I can link to right here. We also got a good view of the Teleferic or the cable car which is strung across the harbor to Montjuic, providing a birds eye view of the city. We bailed out on the actual ride because the skyline looked too hazy to get a good view. From here we headed on to the famous La Rambla ( We started at the southern end at Port Vell where there is a magnificent 19th century monument called Monument a Colom - this is a tribute to the glory of Christopher Columbus. Other spectacular buildings line the street here: Centre d'Art Santa Monica (art gallery and cultural center) and the Museu de Cera (a wax museum with a hall of horror and everyone from Lady Di to General Franco)... we didn't visit either of these places, just paid tribute to the grand architecture with more pics!!! :-P

The walk along Las Ramblas was thoroughly enjoyable. We sat down at a roadside Tapas cafe called Tapa i Apat, where over Sangria, beer and some tapas, there was lot of people watching amidst non-stop toddler chattering. La Rambla is notorious for pick pockets and the like and in the course of our people watching, DH was pretty certain he spotted more than one seedy looking person whom he tagged as prime candidate to fit this role! It was interesting to dissect people while enjoying our drinks! We also managed to slip into a souvenir store where we finally bought those 'Messi' tees for a lot less than €60... talking in hindi to the punjabi store owners certainly helped!! :-P The entire street is fun...with many artists selling their wares, stand-still statues begging for a euro or two so people can take photographs with them, interesting buildings along the way, flower stalls with the most colorful flowers....we even spotted a Dunkin' Donuts (called Dunkin' coffee here...doh!). So we had to step in to get a chocolate Bavarian creme and some hot coffee! After the calorie overload we went through Mercat de la Boqueria ( , which is a food market - this is my favorite part of our adventure for the day! The colors of the food is a sensory overload...I can only hope I did justice to my memory of it through my camera! Everything about the market is truly enjoyable....watching people buying food, the food stalls, the arrangements, the various calls inviting one to buy the goods...just charming!! More walking got us to Placa de Catalunya which is the northern end of La Rambla. The square here houses thousands of was a fantastic sight to see the kids mingle and run through the scores and scores of pigeons! Quite a feat that no one gets hurt! We walked into some stores here, got some chocolate gelato, a pic of Neil with a local polizia named 'Rafa' and headed back towards Barceloneta through the metro. We took the L1 line from Placa de Catalunya to Arc de Triomf. This is an archway structure built in the Moorish revival style ( which of course prompted more standard pics. This leads to a long walkway called Pg. Lluis Companys which takes one to a really nice park called Parc de la Ciutadella ...this houses the Barcelona zoo. The walk through the archway and park was very nice....I sincerely missed my telephoto lens and lost a lot of good close up shot opportunities :-( ....all because some travel book said: don't carry your camera bag into La Rambla....grrr!!!

Heading back through the park, we passed the Parlament de Catalunya, another nice building which used to be the fort La Ciutadella's arsenal. We exited the park near Passeig de les Pujades entrance which has the single most impressive object in the park: the monumental Cascada created between 1875 and 1881 by Joseph Fontsere with the help of a young Gaudi. It looked pretty dramatic with golden horses and chariot on top, cascading water fountain and imposing statues! Walk back to the hotel along the Marina was tiring but DS prevailed! Thank God for that! We had to wind down our day with a simple salad was tiring but well worth it! I really wanted to head out at night to take night time shots of some of Barcelona's striking architecture but was too tired (although not that much to skip my blog! :-P)

Buenas noches!!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Spain bound...

May 7 - 8... journey to Barcelona from San Diego via JFK was pretty inconsequential. The 4 year old did exceptionally well and so did the parents! :-) we arrived in Barcelona early 8th morning to a gloomy day with promises of the Sun making an appearance towards late afternoon. After considering our options from the airport, we decided to take the Aerobus1 from the airport to the city center, the Placa de Catalunya. This turned out a better, more economical option: €5,60 pp vs. upwards of €30 for a taxi (not a cab but a taxi! :-P). We then took a taxi from Placa de Catalunya to the Hotel Arts Barcelona (about €9). The hotel is of the sleek, modern architecture in stark contrast to much of old Barcelona but still very beautiful! We got a lovely corner room thanks to the hubby's influence. :-) A view of the old city from the hotel room is below....

Most of the day was spent recovering from jet-lag. A quick meal at the hotel restaurant called Bites was expensive but delicious (however not worth the moolah!). We learnt that lunch starts only after 1 pm before that time we'd be hard pressed to find a place open for lunch. Later in the day we walked along the Platja de la Barceloneta - this is similar to a boardwalk along the Barceloneta beach. Lots of people walking, running, roller-blading, biking....reminded me of San Diego. Weather has been similar to SD but very humid ...which is definitely doing a number on my hair!!! :-) The walk was fun and I got to experiment with my new found photography knowledge. Images of buildings like the hotel Arts, street signs, long and narrow streets, ancient looking water fountains have found their way into my camera.... remains to be seen if I've done justice to my memory of them! :-P We walked along till we came to Port Vell, looked around the marina and then headed into Barceloneta to a restaurant called Can Ramonet. This was recommended by the hotel concierge...we passed by many interesting seafood and tapas place but stuck to the recommendation inspite of being skeptical. Turned out to be a very charming local Tapas and seafood place. Neil was horrified yet intrigued by the tank of lobsters..."mamma, these are alive!!!", followed by "are these from the tank???" when prawns in garlic sauce was brought to the table (which, of course he did not touch!). We thoroughly enjoyed tapas, some 'rojo vino' and my first taste of Iberian ham (surprisingly yum)!!! After thoroughly enjoying some refreshingly good desserts (we had no idea what it was...since our host spoke only Spanish and our attempts to ask him what we were having was met with lots of 'muy bien' which it certainly was!), we walked back to the hotel.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Joys of Traveling

Ah... traveling to somewhere far, somewhere near! Traveling is always fun but it wasn't so for me always. I used to have terrible motion sickness and traveling in a car, plane or any other form of motion inducing vehicle used to kill my buzz. But then something changed! And now I truly enjoy the journey as much as I enjoy the destination. I started writing my travel journal since I got married. My hubby enjoys traveling and discovering new places (new cuisines!!!) as much as I do and I felt compelled to note down my experiences. Up until now the experiences have been jotted in several different places: my old-fashioned travel journal, my computer where I have a word document, several bits and pieces of paper when I didn't have my journal...But with my blog I am hoping to not only have one place to jot all my thoughts but to also link it to my photo feeds (more like experimentation!)... lets see how well I do that!

I am also wondering if I should back feed all my previous logs in here... sigh! Another project, another day...