Monday, November 5, 2007

Adventure All Day

We began Day 3 the same as Day 2 – with a 45 minute run around the area between Epcot and MGM Studios and breakfast in our wonderful room at the Swan. Since Susan had not yet seen the new “Nemo the Musical” show at Animal Kingdom, we decided to go there first thing. Upon arriving, we were shocked at the long lines at the park entrance. I’ve been to the Animal Kingdom dozens of times at different times of the year and different days of the week and I’ve never seen that many people queued up at the turnstiles. It took us at least 15, maybe 20 minutes to just get into the park. Our plan was to get Fastpasses (FP) for Expedition Everest, see Nemo and do things like the Safari ride, Pangani Trail, etc. as needed to fill time. Susan and I separated while she went to get a Times Guide to check the Nemo show schedule and I went on to Expedition Everest to get the Fastpasses. I kept checking behind me expecting her to catch up but she never did (as it turned out – she took a wrong turn along the way). After getting the FP I looked around for her near the attraction but still didn’t see her. I picked up a Times Guide myself and noted the Nemo show was starting at 11:30 and ASSumed that Susan was probably waiting for me there so off I went. Upon arriving, Susan was nowhere to be found. Hmmm…she must be waiting for me just inside the door of the theatre I told myself so I continued into the theatre…No Susan…Hmmm. Why not just call her you’re probably wondering? I’ll tell you why - because Susan didn’t have her cell phone. I found a seat inside and watched the entrances hoping/expecting she’d come in but she never did. So here we are 2 people out of tens of thousands in a 500 acre theme park with no easy way to find each other. I stayed for the show (I highly recommend it by the way) and was thrilled to find Susan waiting for me at the show’s exit. Hurray – reunited!

I believe we ate lunch next at the McDonald’s restaurant in Dinoland…we split a nutritious (NOT) double cheeseburger and fries. Next, we went to Harambe to get FPs for the Safari Ride and then walked the Pangani Trail where I got a cute picture of a meerkat (above). We then returned to Asia to do the Maharaja Jungle Trek, where we saw this tiger (below), before using our FPs to ride Expedition Everest (roller coaster in background of photo below). We returned to Harambe for a cool (and alcoholic) beverage at the Dawa Bar before cashing in our Safari FPs. We ended our day at the AK by catching another show of Nemo.

We returned to our hotel to freshen up and then headed to Epcot for more of the Food & Wine Festival. We had thoughts of perhaps catching the 5:45 pm David Cassidy show at the American Gardens Theatre but it was full. We stood at the back of the theatre and listened briefly to his opening number and I wasn’t at all impressed but there were plenty of older ladies in the audience that were apparently reliving their girlish crushes from the Partridge Family days. They can have him!

We met up with Tony O’Neil and his wife Cosette again and decided to eat at Tangierine’s Café at the Morocco pavilion. It’s always been a favorite of ours and we were able to enjoy a nice meal at an outside table. Tony and Cosette had not yet seen the movie “Impressions de France” at the France pavilion so we did that next. After that, Tony and Cosette headed off to the Land pavilion to use their Soarin’ FPs. Susan and I thought it would be fun to go to the Adventurer’s Club at Pleasure Island so we returned to the Swan to put on some warmer clothes as it was starting to get a little chilly outside. As it turned out, this was a wise decision – not so much for the outside temperature but the Disney bus we stayed on for 30 minutes getting to Pleasure Island was FREEZING. The Disney bus driver explained that Disney had done a study on this and concluded that it was best to have the buses serving Downtown Disney/Pleasure Island really cold because 1) it helped to keep the inebriated people from getting sick, 2) it helped keep the inebriated people awake so they wouldn’t miss their bus stop. I might buy that story later in the evening but not at 8:30 pm. Bottom line we were SO GLAD to get off that bus!

It has been several years since I’d been to the Adventurer’s Club and I’ve missed it. For those that may not be familiar with the AC, it’s a themed bar/theatre that features actors that portray various members of the Adventurer’s Club. When you enter the club, you step back in time as the “show” is set on New Year’s Eve, 1937. You’re welcomed as a visitor and the Club is holding an Open House to recruit new members (that’s you). There’s lots of humor, shows, skits and even opportunities for audience participation. I was “lucky” enough to be chosen to go up on stage for one skit. It’s all in good fun and Susan and I had a great time.


Thursday, October 25, 2007

Happy Birthday To Me!

Today was my 48th birthday. Happy Birthday to me!

We started Saturday with a 40 minute run to burn off some of the calories we'd consumed at the South African Wine Adventure. We ran down the sidewalk connecting the Boardwalk-Swan-Dolphin area to Disney's MGM Studios, and around the Crescent Lake (Boardwalk, Yacht Club, Beach Club) walk. What a beautiful area to run in! After a shower, we decided to take advantage of Swan hotel room service for breakfast (ham & cheese omelet and hash browns). After all, we had this nice table in our room and spectacular views out the windows and it was a great choice.

Checking the Food & Wine Festival guide, we noted Pam Smith was having a cooking demonstration at 11 am in the Odyssey. Pam is a familiar face to those who've attended the F&W Festival before as she's typically the hostess for other chef's demonstrations in the Odyssey. Pam showed us how to make a tasty crab and fresh corn risotto and, the best part, we got to taste it....mmmm. Next up was a wine tasting. While Susan headed to the Festival Center in the Wonders of Life pavilion to get in line, I went to the Land pavilion to get Fastpasses for Soarin'.


The winery hosting the tasting was Allen Scott Winery & Estate, located in Marlborough, New Zealand. As I recall it, we tasted an unoaked Chardonnay, a couple of savignon blancs and a pinot noir. All were very good. In a "It's a Small World" moment, the Alan Scott representative, Fred Ordway, was actually from Huntsville, AL - our neck of the woods. Fred's presentation included a nice briefing that described the various New Zealand wine growing areas, with a focus on the Cloudy Bay area where there winery is located. We are definitely going to be looking for Allen Scott wines in our local wine stores.

Next, we went to Guest Services to get me a "It's My Birthday" Disney button. If you're at Disneyworld during your birthday, do it. It's nice to get "Happy Birthday" wishes from the Disney Cast Members and also from other Disneyworld guests. We spent the next several hours sampling the cuisine at the Marketplace food booths (Dominican Republic, Greece and Oklahoma). Of particular note were the Spanakopita in Greece and the seared Buffalo with scalloped wild onions and Three Sisters Soup at the Oklahoma-Three Sister's Cafe. While in the Oklahoma exhibit area we also enjoyed a show by some Native American dancers.

By this time it was getting pretty hot outside so we decided to go to the American pavilion to see the Voices of Liberty and American Adventure. As we walked into the pavilion and were about to take a seat, one of the Disney Cast Members came up to me and said I had a phone call in the lobby. When I picked up the phone it was Goofy singing Happy Birthday to me. Too cute! As we made our way back to our seat yet another Cast Member came up and said she noticed that we'd lost our seat when we came to answer the phone. Since it was my birthday, she said she was going to escort us up to the second floor and make us the "First Family" for this show of the American Adventure. Cool! We got to sit in real chairs and listened to the talented Voices of Liberty below. After the preshow, the Cast Member escorted us into the theatre where we could sit anywhere we wanted. After the rest of the crowd entered, the Cast Member announced us as the "First Family" and asked for a round of applause. We turned around and gave the crowd a wave as they clapped. Our last activity in the park was Soarin'. What a great ride. For those not familiar with it, Soarin' is a simulated hang glider tour of various areas of California. Guests sit in tiered swings that face a huge movie screen that is used to project the scenes. Definitely a "do not miss" attraction.

Afterwards, we hot footed it back to the Swan to freshen up and change clothes in preparation for our reservation at the Party for the Senses. Once again, we were joined by Tony and Cosette O'Neil. What can I say - we had a great time. The food was fabulous - the wines were excellent - the entertainment (acts from La Nouba by Cirque de Soleil) was amazing. This was our 5th Party for the Senses and I'd have to say it was the best we've been to so far.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Honey, Have You Seen My Wallet?

We woke up at 6 am Friday (10/12) morning feeling like we’d have plenty of time to finish packing and run an errand before driving to the Huntsville airport at 9 am for our 10:05 am flight to Orlando. Things were going wonderfully until I started looking for my wallet – and I looked and then looked some more. “Honey, have you seen my wallet?” “No.” Darn! Finally I decided I must have left it in my airplane, which I had flown down to Auburn the day before. OK, that’s a 25 minute drive one way and I’ve still got to run that errand too. I’m getting nervous now. I drive out to my plane, look around…nothing! I Call Susan at home and ask her to look in my flight bag and computer bag now sure that it must be at home. I head out to run that errand while Susan searches. I cross my fingers and hope. Susan calls back on my cell phone and gives me the bad news – no luck. Double Darn! By this time we realize that to make sure we can get our bags to the airport in time to check them, we’ll have to drive separately. Luckily, being a NASA employee, I have a handy government-issued picture ID that I can use as proof of identification for checking in at the airport. Our flight is delayed by about 15 minutes so that gives me a little breathing room to make our flight. Whew! I thought this was going to be a relaxing morning.

Our non-stop Delta flight down to Orlando went smoothly. On the flight with us were friends Tony O’Neil and his wife Cosette. After picking up our bags at Baggage Claim we met our driver (George) from Happy Limo who escorted us out to our stretch limo. We highly recommend Happy Limo by the way. We've used them for 6 years and we've always been very pleased. George dropped Tony and Cosette off at the Boardwalk and then took us to the Swan. We were able to check in and drop our bags off at our room and we were VERY pleased with it. We were on the 7th floor, had wonderful views towards MGM Studios and Animal Kingdom, a nice king bed with widescreen LCD TV…it was great.

Susan and I changed into shorts and headed out to Epcot for lunch. We had the cheddar cheese soup and maple glazed salmon at Canada and the chilaquiles and quesadilla con chorizo at Mexico – all were excellent! While we were at the Mexico pavilion we also did the revamped Gran Tour ride, which now features the Three Caballeros (Donald Duck, Jose Carioca and Panchito Pistoles). Next, we decided to venture over into Future World to check out the Food & Wine Festival Center set up this year in the old Wonders of Life (WoL) pavilion. This is a nice change from previous years as the WoL pavilion is air conditioned and no longer used so its facilities can be 100% geared towards the needs of the F&W Festival. We had a nice surprise…as we were wandering by the location of the complimentary wine tastings, a Disney Castmember waved us in to a tasting (by the Achaval Ferrer winery from Mendoza, Argentina) that was just getting underway. We’d never heard of the winery but found their malbecs to be outstanding. We had one in the $25 range, a second in the $50 range and a third in the $110 range.

We returned to the Swan to change for the South African Wine Adventure and met Tony and Cosette at the World Showplace at 6 pm. We didn’t know quite what to expect at this event as it was the first and only time it was to be held.
We suspected it would be set up similar to the Party for the Senses and we were correct. Color-coded areas were set up in the middle of the floor that corresponded to the various wine regions within South Africa. The “culinary specialty” items (yummy food) were located at tables arrayed together along the north wall. Unlike the Party for the Senses, the chefs didn’t cook the food at the stations; instead, it was precooked and they were simply serving it. It was all delicious; however, they could have set the tables up better. They were so close to one another that the lines for each merged into one long line. Finally, it would have been nice if some type of dessert item had been included - a zebra dome from Boma would have done nicely. These minor comments aside, we all all agreed this event was well worth the expense and we would not hesitate to do it again. In fact, we would suggest that Disney expand this event to not only include South Africa, but also do a similar event each Friday during the Festival focusing on the wines of countries such as Italy, France, Germany, Australia, Spain, Chile, etc.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Getting Prepared


I decided to edit our Mediterranean cruise blog to capture our visit to the Food & Wine Festival this year. Pretty nifty, eh?

This will be the 5th year in a row Susan and I have trekked to Epcot to attend the International Food & Wine Festival and I don't think we'll ever get tired of it. This year, we're excited to be staying at the Swan hotel, which is a short walk from the International Gateway entrance to Epcot. Below is our itinerary. We have the two main events on Friday and Saturday and will be spending most of the rest of the time touring Epcot's World Showcase, sampling the various food and wines. We also will try to catch the new/renovated attractions we've not yet seen, like the Nemo show in the Animal Kingdom, Monster's Inc. Laugh Factory in the Magic Kingdom, and the Gran Fiesta Tour in the Mexico pavilion in Epcot.

Friday Oct. 12th

Direct flight from Huntsville, AL to Orlando International
Happy Limo to the Swan
South African Wine Adventure at 6:30 pm, Epcot World Showplace

"This is a unique occasion to meet the most prominent wine makers in South Africa today and to taste the wines from 30 different vineyards. The evening's wine walk-about will include culinary specialties from Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge and roaring entertainment!"

Saturday Oct. 13th - My Birthday!

Party for the Senses at 6:30 pm, Epcot World Showplace

"Feast on this tribute to the sensory arts! Begin your evening with a reserved seat at the Eat to the Beat Concert Series at the American Gardens Theatre (Starship for us). Following the show, World Showplace becomes the setting for a sensational evening showcasing the talents of more than 25 eminent chefs and the diversity of over 70 wines and beers. Wander among tempting tasting stations in the midst of imaginative decor and awe-inspiring acts from LaNouba by Cirque du Solei."

Sunday Oct. 14th

Culinary demonstrations, seminars and wine tastings

Monday Oct. 15th

Culinary demonstrations, seminars and wine tastings
Return flight from MCO to HSV

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Last Sea Day, Disembarkation Day and Barcelona

Jeff here again. It’s Thursday, 6/28 and we're back in the states at my mom's house. We've been up for 22 hours and I'm worn out. Nevertheless, while we had time sitting around in the various airports we worked on our latest blog entry off line. Here we go....

We got up around 8:30 on the last sea day. We had noticed overnight that the seas had gotten rough. The Magic has fantastic stabilizers, so it wasn’t nearly as bad as the sea state (very rough) indicated. Going up to get coffee and diet cokes, I noticed large waves with white caps and the winds were blowing hard. No one was eating breakfast outside at Topsiders either. We decided to go to the 10:15 am showing of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. It made a lot more sense the second time around, especially since I stayed awake for the entire movie. After the movie and lunch in Lumiere’s, Susan and I went to the wine tasting. During the cruise there are 3 tastings, each on a sea day...well that would be true for the 11 night cruises...I'm not sure what they do for the 10 night cruises. Also, each of the tastings is themed to a country. The first tasting was for Italy, second for France and the last for Spain. Neither of us was terribly impressed with the Spanish wines we had, but it was an opportunity to drink wine, so that’s always a good thing! Next up was packing…talk about depressing...you know you’re going home when it’s time to pack your bags. They must be tagged (with tags Disney leaves in your room) and placed outside your stateroom between 8 and 10 pm if you want Disney to take them off the ship for you. Otherwise, you’ll have to tote them around with you all morning on disembarkation day. We finished packing in time to see the 6:30 showing of the Farewell Show. It was a nice variety show with Taylor Mason, the ventriloquist, being my favorite. Our final dinner was at Lumiere’s, where we said our farewells to our tablemates Bob, his wife Sara, Michael, his wife Alice and their daughter Marta and exchanged email addresses. We then presented our head server Toto and assistant server Analia with their tip envelopes and some tokens of our appreciation for their great service through the cruise.

Wednesday morning, disembarkation time. BOOO! Though we hated to leave, part of us are also ready to get back home to see our dog Oliver and to sleep in our own beds. The disembarkation process is as simple and easy as it can be. We just walked off the ship. There was no waiting for them to call your color or number or any such mess. Luggage in the terminal was organized by tags…ours was Chip and Dale. We quickly found a porter and were queued up for a taxi. Disney announces they want everyone off the ship by 9 am. We were dropped off at our hotel, the Regencia Colon, in a short while and, after leaving our bags there, we were off to do the “Bus Touristic” – Barcelona’s city bus tour. It costs 19 Euro each for one day and covers three separate routes. We did the red route (north) which visits the Sagrada Familia church (first picture) and Park Guell (second picture) and the blue route (south) which visits the Spanish Village (third picture) and Montjuic hill. This was a good way to see the city and get around. With the Bus Touristic ticket comes a discount coupon book which includes coupons for Spanish Village and Sagrada so don’t miss those. The Sagrada Familia was designed by famed architect Antoni Gaudi, who spent most of his career working on the church. Construction began in 1882 and, as the photo shows, it continues today after more than 100 years and will likely continue for decades more.

Our next stop, Park Guell, is yet another Gaudi creation. His ability to combine nature and architecture is displayed throughout the park - the second most visited park in the city. Originally planned as a garden city, the project was abandoned after only 5 of 60 buildings were completed. It was turned over to the city by owner/industrialist Eusebi Guell, for whom the park is named. Next up was the Spanish Village or Poble Espanyol. Built for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, the Spanish Village was intended to be a temporary exhibit showcasing regional architecture, handicrafts, cultural styles and cuisine. However, the Village proved to be so popular, it was kept and now receives more visitors than the Sagrada Familia or the cities major museums. We finished up the evening with a nice dinner at Amaya, a sidewalk restaurant on La Rambla. It had been recommended by the desk manager at the Regencia Colon and we give a thumbs up to it as well.

Susan here reporting on the VAT refund. The DCL folks provide envelopes to save your receipts for purchases from Treasure Ketch and Mickey’s Mates (combined) and Shutters. If I had been smart, I would have used those envelopes all along rather than getting it all together on the last sea day. Anyway, you can only claim items that you have not used or consumed. This is important! Also, all of the purchases have to be in the same name, so ladies, you can make all of the purchases!! There is a chance that they might check at Customs, so better to be safe on this. On the last sea day, from 6 pm to 10 pm, they have a number of Cast Members at the Shore Excursion Desk to check your receipts and fill out the forms for you. There was a pretty substantial line for this so be forewarned. Beverage purchases that you have consumed and spa services are not able to be claimed. All of this is explained on the back of the envelope, and obviously quite a few folks didn’t understand. I had all of my receipts together, they were totaled and the forms with my receipts stapled to them were returned later in the evening. I believe that there was a message on our phone with the times that the desk was open. At the Barcelona Airport, it took a while but I finally found the wee little white window where you get the stamp on your forms. It is located in Terminal A, just outside the Arrivals. When you walk into the door of Terminal A, look to the right for the arrivals, pass the information desk, and the window is to the right of the arrivals exit. There is a small sign that says “Tax Free” near the window. For those of you that need a landmark or two, there are some vending machines at the corner, and it is before you get to the bank windows and food court. FYI, you have to have your ticket and passport. At first, we had not checked in, so I wasn’t able to get the stamps, but after a quick and efficient check-in at KLM, I was back at the window and soon had stamped forms in hand. Yeah!!! I will mail them when I get home. I believe it will take 6-8 weeks to get the refund.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Villefranche, France

Jeff here again, writing in between meals, an afternoon wine tasting and packing (sigh). Yesterday, as I said before, we docked at what in my opinion is the most picturesque port of all that we’ve visited – Villefranche. Once again, we did a private tour, this time with a company called Revelation Tours. Our driver was Michel (pronounced Michelle) and our touring partners were Jeanette, her husband Doug and Patti and her husband Mike. I’d contacted Revelation about a tour and gotten Jeanette’s email from Michel. Jeanette and I had exchanged several emails prior to the cruise to coordinate our itinerary. In short, Jeanette, Doug, Patti and Mike were a lot of fun to tour with.

After we’d both had less than desirable experiences tendering in La Spezia, Jeanette and I agreed we’d get to the Buena Vista Theatre an hour early to make sure we met our driver at the agreed to time of 9 am. As it turned out, we were 30 minutes early. Better to be early than late! Once again, Michel, like Olivier had a wonderful 8 passenger van that was very roomy. Additionally, Michel had a microphone hooked up with speakers in the back so that we all could clearly hear everything he was saying as he narrated the various points of interest we saw. Michel also had pre-recorded segments covering the key spots that he played over the audio system.

We began our tour in the port city of Nice. Michel told us that we would see a heavy Italian influence in Nice since it had been under Italian rule and influence for many, many years. Nice has a population of about 380,000. One can see from the photo that it’s pretty densely packed. After stopping at the overlook from which we took the picture here, we proceeded to the old part of Nice. Here, Michel let us off for about 30 minutes to tour the market square, which holds a nice flea market each Monday. There were a lot of antique type items here in addition to paintings, minerals, etc. It was interesting to look through it. At Michel’s suggestion we then visited the local Baroque style church, which was as plain as cardboard on the outside but very ornate inside. Next, we were back in the van and on our way to a small medieval village called Tourrette. This tiny village was amazing. Like other such villages, it sits on a hilltop (for defensive purposes) and is surrounded by a rampart (wall). Michel dropped us off so we could tour on our own. At this stop, and all stops, Michel passed out laminated cards that had a summary of the place we were visiting, along with a map notated with the most significant/interesting places to see. Michel would be a good engineer because he’s extremely organized.

Our next stop was another medieval village, Saint Paul. It was similar to Tourrette except it was much more popular with tourists. Michel told us that some 3 million tourists visit Saint Paul each year. It wasn’t too bad when we visited though until several Disney tour groups showed up. We made our way to the rear of the village intent on finding the grave of painter Chagall. After searching the entire cemetery and all but giving up, we found his grave right by the entrance…doh! We had lunch at the Malabar restaurant (recommended by Michel) and it turned out to be very good. Next up was Monaco and Monte Carlo. Here we made the obligatory tourist stop at the grand casino, rode around the streets used to run the Monaco Grand Prix, visited the grave of Princess Grace, visited the royal Palace and admired all the beautiful yachts in the harbor. It was like an episode of the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

We finished up our tour with a visit to Eze (pronounced Ez), yet another small medieval village. This was my least favorite village – it is very touristy and it was the most crowded of all the villages we visited. Of course it could also have been that we were all tired at this point and ready to relax on the ship. We didn’t spend too much time here bud did stay long enough to buy some sweet treats to snack on during our drive back to the pier. We said our goodbyes to our touring mates and Michel and reboarded the ship. We finished out the evening by watching the new show “When Mickey Dreams”. It was pretty good. My favorite part was the re-use of music from the Tapestry of Dreams parade at Epcot.

Marseille, France

Hello, Jeff here. It’s Tuesday morning (6/26) and this is the last full day of our cruise, which is a day at sea. Speaking of seas, we’ve got white caps on the water today and it’s very windy outside. We dock at Barcelona, Spain tomorrow morning and will be disembarking the ship after breakfast. We will be spending the day touring in Barcelona and hope the weather there cooperates.

On to Marseille…up to this point, we’ve been on tours that I’d arranged with tour companies. For Marseille, I’d been communicating with a nice lady named Jodie on the DIS cruise message boards and we’d agreed to join up with her family - husband Mike, son Cary (9) and daughter Jill (7) - on a tour of Aix en Provence and Cassis. Marseille is not a tender port so we were able to depart the ship right onto the pier where our driver, Olivier (pictured with Susan and Katy), was waiting. The tour company is Rendezvous Tours and is based in Aix. I have to say right up front that Olivier has the BEST touring van we had all cruise. It was very roomy for the seven of us, was immaculately maintained and had pull up screens for the windows one could use to block out the bright sunshine. We used those screens as, once again, the weather was spectacular…bright blue, sunny skies with warm, but not hot temperatures. One of the first things that struck me as we started touring was how dry it is in the area. I asked Olivier about it and he confirmed that was their normal climate. I would compare this whole area (including Villefranche) to say Santa Barbara, California. Lots of rocks, scrub brush, etc.

Our first stop was to be Aix and we were soon off on what was the equivalent of one of our interstate highways. Being that it was Sunday morning, there was very little traffic and we arrived in Aix in about 45 minutes. There was very little activity in the town as it was just waking up. Olivier took us to the old part of town, much of it dating to the 15th and 16th centuries. He gave us a map and then took us a walking tour of the main square, the church and through the narrow streets. We found out some interesting things: 1) the French love their dogs; 2) the French hate to clean up after their dogs. There was dog poop all over the place and one had to be careful where they stepped. We were also warned about pick pockets, especially around the markets. Olivier told us to carry our backpacks in front or on the side. He then gave us some free time to explore. Since it was Sunday, most of the shops were closed. That combined with the dog poop and warnings about pick pockets seemed to drain my excitement for Aix. It is a pretty city though and I love how the city is so pedestrian friendly. One can walk to church, to the corner café, to work, etc. and never have to use a car.

Next, we were off to Cassis, which is on the coast. This place was BEAUTIFUL. When one looks up picturesque in the dictionary a photo of this Cassis should be right there. We first had lunch at a sidewalk café where Susan, Katy and I all had what seemed to be a common dish for the French…meatballs and French fries in a bowl. It was yummy! Next we went on a boat tour of what are called calanques, which are basically tall, white limestone cliffs carved over the years by rivers that empty into the sea. We also got to see some other white things but unfortunately they were the private parts of nude sunbathers lying out on the rocks and/or on their yachts. After the boat ride, we loaded back up in the van and Olivier took us up to an amazing overlook of the Cassis area and the view was breathtaking as you can see.

We finished up the day by touring a beautiful medieval, hilltop village called Castellet. This place was so pretty and quaint, with narrow, winding, cobblestone streets and flowers all around. We looked around in some of the shops, visited their church and then found a place to get some cold desserts. The one thing Castellet was lacking was a public toilet. After searching for quite some time we finally found the public “water closet” which consisted of a hole in the ground. This was totally unsuitable for Katy – even though she had to go really bad. We finally do what is traditionally done in France – buy something in a restaurant in order to use their real toilet. Olivier delivered us back to the pier to end a wonderful tour on our first day in France. Tomorrow – Villefranche!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Marseille and Villefranche To Come

Hello everyone, Jeff here again. Whew! We just got back from another great day of touring from the port of Villefranche. What a picturesque port it is. It's definitely the best of all the ports the Disney Magic docks at during these Med cruises. Tomorrow (Tuesday) is our last sea day. We will try to write up the blogs for Marseille and Villefranche - being less verbose would help but we're trying to capture for ourselves as much as anyone, the interesting things we pick up in these ports before our aging brains lose the information. We have literally taken hundreds of pictures...certainly more than 500 so beware those that express an interest in seeing our cruise photos. Luckily, many people are still on tours so the laundry rooms aren't packed and we'll be able to get that task out of the way and be able to enjoy our time on the ship tomorrow doing fun things. More tomorrow!

Sunday, June 24, 2007

La Spezia

Hello, Jeff here again. It’s Sunday morning (6/24) and we’re getting ready for our first day in France – specifically, Marseille. However, I have a little time to first catch you up on what we did yesterday at the port of La Spezia, our last port stop in the beautiful country of Italy. La Spezia has a population of about 95,000 people. It has been settled by man since prehistoric times; the Romans established nearby city of Florence (our first stop) in 59 BC; the city of Pisa (our second stop) was built as a Roman colony in 180 BC. The city of Florence (known as Firenze here) is considered by many to be an artistic hub in Italy. Many famous artists were once residents of Florence, or have their work displayed there including: Leonardo DaVinci, Michelangelo, Boticelli, Raphael and Donatello. In the city of Pisa, during World War II, the Nazis used the Leaning Tower as a watchtower; Galileo Galilei is said to have used the Tower to conduct physics experiments, dropping cannon balls of different sizes from the top to show that the rate they drop is independent of their mass.

The port of La Spezia is a tender port for us, meaning that our ship cannot dock but instead must anchor out in the bay and we must be shuttled from our ship to the dock via smaller boats called “tenders”. We (and others not on Disney excursions) reported to the Buena Vista Theatre to receive tender tickets at 7:30 am. It appears others arrived earlier as there were already about 100 there before us. Here’s a tip for those of you reading this that might be doing this cruise later. Those on the far right and top of the theater (as you face the stage) are the first to be called to go. So if you want to make the first tender, get there between 7:15 and 7:30 and make sure you’re either seated on the top row all the way to the right or are standing by the door on the top right. We were seated on the left and had to wait for the third tender and were about 20 minutes late meeting our driver at the port. Other than that, the tender process was smooth. It took about 10 minutes to get from the Magic to the dock. As you can see from the photo, this gave us a great opportunity to get photos of the ship. Once again, our driver was there waiting for us and we were off to Florence. Joining us today was Vicki. Marie and her son Jeff decided they weren’t up to the 2 hour drive each way and backed out.

Again, we had a “chamber of commerce” day - beautiful, clear blue skies with temps in the upper 70’s to low 80’s. The drive to Florence was interesting as there was plenty of scenery for us to admire – there were tall mountains on the left side and smaller mountains and hills on the right. Within the tall mountains on the left, the driver pointed out marble quarries and we were able to see quite a few small towns perched on the hills. It took about an hour and 45 minutes to get to Florence. There we met our licensed tour guide Virginia. She looked to be about our age (40s) and she was very enthusiastic about everything she told us. Our first stop was the Accademia, the museum that houses one of Michelangelo’s most famous masterpieces – the statue of David.

Susan here, picking up where Jeff left off. Rising some 16 feet tall, the David is truly a work of art. Virginia, being an art historian, gave us a detailed explanation of how Michelangelo’s sculpting procedure was radically different than that of his contemporaries, then explained why his David was unique when compared to other depictions. First, David is depicted as a man, not the teenage boy that we read about in the Bible. Second, David is normally shown with his foot on Goliath’s head, but this feature is notable absent, with David’s expression as thinking about what he is about to do. And lastly, David is naked, representing the Roman god, Apollo, who is always depicted with a tree trunk behind his leg. She took us all around the statue noting the sling in his enormous hands, indicating strength, and the larger than normal size of his head representing wisdom. We saw many students seated around the walls doing sketches of the statue, learning from this magnificent work of art. A copy of the statue (seen in the photo here) is now found in the original location, outside the Palazzo Vecchio, which is now the city’s administration building. Next Virginia took us quickly though an exhibit of exquisite musical instruments. The exhibit included a marble piano and a violin by Stradivarius. Oboes, recorders, bassoons, and stringed instruments we incredibly detailed and understandably priceless.

Our next stop was the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flower, known for the beautiful green, white, and red marble exterior and the enormous dome (Duomo), designed by the masterful architect Brunelleschi. The construction technique, using no scaffolding, that Brunelleschi employed for the huge dome are still a mystery to contemporary architectural studies. We viewed the massive bronze doors of the little octagonal Baptistry (see photo at bottom), which is to the west of the cathedral. The beginning of the construction of the Baptistry is unknown, but the bronze doors, begun after a competition in 1401 to chose the artist, signals the beginning of the Renaissance in Italy. The doors, designed by Ghiberti, were completed in 1424, depicting people in structures in perspective. The Paradise doors depict themes from the Old Testament. These doors were replicas however, as the original doors, damaged in a massive flood, were removed and moved to a museum for their protection.

From the cathedral, we went to the church of Orsanmichele, where there are niches on the exterior that are filled with Renaissance statues sponsored by the guilds that depict the patron saints of the various guilds.

We then proceeded to the Piazza della Signoria (photo at the end), where there are spectacular sculptures; all but two are priceless originals. It is here, outside the Palazzo Vecchio, where we saw the copy of Michelangelo’s David. Another noteworthy item is some graffiti by Michelangelo. He was challenged to carve a face in the wall of the building, behind his back. After a stroll past the Uffizi, we were greeted with a view of the beautiful Ponte Veccchio (photo), built in 1345. We walked back up along the Arno River, grabbed a gelato, and walked to our next destination, the gothic Church of Santa Croce (Church of the Holy Cross). The exterior is similar in color to the Duomo, but it is done in the Gothic style. There are more than 200 dignitaries buried inside, including Galileo, Michelangelo and Rossini. This was the end of our tour with Virginia – we said our farewells and found a walk up pizza place for a quick lunch. Susan, Katy and Vicki went off to do some shopping (Myra, Susan and Katy each both an Italian leather purse). Our driver soon showed up and we were off to Pisa.

We arrived about 1 hour and 15 minutes later (during which we all slept most of the way) to do a quick tour of La Piazza del Duomo, the complex that includes the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. The Tower is on the far right of the photo. It was built as the bell tower of the Cathedral.

Katy here. Pisa was a quick visit. It only took 30 minutes to get in there and see what we wanted to see. Mom refused to take the “obligatory ‘holding up the Tower of Pisa’ picture.” We saw several of the Disney photographers, and so we had them take our pictures. One of the photographers, who refers to me as “the princess” had me take a couple pictures by myself while striking a random pose. I had a couple poses in mind; however, I was in the middle of a crowd of tourists and I didn’t want to embarrass myself, even if I WAS never going to see any of those people ever again. So I stuck my hands on my hips (the photographer’s suggested pose) and had my picture taken while staring straight into the sun thus giving me the squinty, awkward look.

Anyways, after taking all the lovely outside pictures, we decided to make a quick run through the church. Inside was the body of someone named Ranieri (or something like that) in an illuminated box thing, much like the decaying body of that one pope in St. Peter’s. Across the way was another illuminated box containing the skull and a couple other bones (I think) of some unknown person. By that time, we had to leave.

We met back up with the cab driver, Giambattista, who, by the way, drove the most incredibly cramped van I’ve ever been in. As Dad put it, a super micro mini van. I had the choice of sitting crammed together with my Mom and Vicki (I don’t like it when people rub up against me. It violates my personal bubble.) or being crammed in the “back seat.” So naturally, personal space ruled over my decision, also I didn’t know that the back was THAT cramped. I couldn’t even sit normally. If I did, my knees were pressed up really hard against the seat, so I had to sit with one leg to either side (not very ladylike) or diagonally. I alternated the two because either way, it was hardly an enjoyable experience.

Now, the tight squeeze aside, let me shed some light on our driver’s driving “technique.” He had this quirk where he would speed up, then let off the gas and coast, then speed up again, etc. He never would keep his foot on the accelerator and go a constant speed! Anyway, the driving and smallness of the van aside, we had another amazing excursion in Florence and Pisa.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Civitavecchia, Italy

Today is a sea day, which gives us a chance to rest and catch you up on what we did yesterday at the port of Civitavecchia, Italy. We did another private tour, this time with Limo in Rome owned by Claudio Camponera. Our driver was Pepe, and he was at the port waiting for us at the agreed upon time of 7:45 am. Joining us again for this tour were Marie and her son Jeff. Susan has volunteered to do the writeup for today so here’s Susan.

Hi Everyone! Susan here, reporting on our fabulous tour of Rome. We woke up bright and early, grabbed some breakfast, and we got off the ship by 7:30 am. We were waiting for Marie (worktoplay) and her son, Jeff, who had also joined us on the tour of the Amalfi Coast and Pompeii. Before long, we joined up with them, and found our driver, Pepe, and we settled in the van for the drive to Rome. It took us about an hour and fifteen minutes to get to Rome, as the traffic wasn’t too bad. It was a bit overcast to start the day, but by 9:30 or so the sun was shining brightly, and it was hot. Our first stop was at the Colosseum. Prior to that, Pepe showed us the Forum, Circus Maximus, Palatine Hill, the Baths of Caracalla, as well as many other sites whose names I can’t remember. Pepe said that he knew how to bypass the long lines at the Colosseum legally, so we stopped and bought tickets at an office close by and once we were through security, he instructed us to stay to the left and go through the turnstiles. Felt a lot like doing FastPass at WDW. We had thirty minutes to wander around. We didn’t have any maps, as they didn’t offer any free maps, so we just speculated about some of the areas that we were seeing. As others have commented in previous blogs, it wasn’t hard to imagine the cheering crowds inside the Colosseum.

As we were walking back to meet Pepe, we saw a Disney tour and our friends, Vicki (vtiffany) and Tom, who were on the Amalfi tour as well. Also saw the Disney photographers near the Arch of Constantine, but didn’t have time to get our pictures taken (plus the tour group had just arrived). Back in the van, Pepe told us that he grew up a few blocks from the Colosseum and that as a child he played hide and seek there. We drove by the Mouth of Truth, but the gates were still closed, so we didn’t stop. Next stop was the Church of St. Peter in Chains where we saw Michelangelo’s statue of Moses and the binding chains of the apostle Peter. At one point during the tour we passed ruins where Peter and Paul were jailed in Rome. We stopped at the top of the Spanish Steps and walked down for a few pictures. We were all amused by the McDonald’s cart out in front. We drove around some more, as Pepe pointed out the important sites and told us about the history or the area.

At the Pantheon, we were all amazed at the architecture of the building and the vastness of the dome. It is truly an engineering marvel, considering the construction techniques of the age in which it was built and that the dome is self-supporting. The sunlight streaming in the open top did give you the feeling of being near heaven. The picture shows a group of nuns we saw inside. Next stop was Trevi Fountain (photo below), and we all tossed the obligatory coins in. The Disney photographers were there too, so we snagged one for a picture. It wasn’t quite time for lunch, so we went to another church. The interesting aspect of this particular church was that the patron family of the church ran out of money during construction before the dome could be built. One of the money saving measures was to paint a forced perspective of a dome on the flat ceiling. From the rear of the church, it looks so real. It is only when your get closer that you notice that the top of the dome is not in the center. Really cool effect! Also some of the “marble” columns are also painted in perspective.

By now we were getting hungry, so we all decided that a quick stop for pizza and gelato would do the trick. We stopped near Piazza Navone, at a Pizza shop recommended by Pepe. The pizza was outstanding, and of course I wound up wearing my lunch, dribbling pizza grease all over my shirt and skirt. Grrrr!!! And I had just done all of the laundry the day before. Oh well, hopefully most of it will come out. We sat at the restaurant across the street with the promise of getting gelato when we were through with pizza. They had 51 flavors of gelato. Pepe recommended getting ciccolato (chocolate) with pana (cream), and Jeff and Katy took his suggestion, while I got my standard dish of limone (lemon). Marie got cream caramel and Jeff got the standard vanilla. The waiter brought out the lovely dishes of gelato with cookies and a little decoration. Very cool and very yummy!!! Again, we saw the Disney tour walking by, seeing Vicky, Tom and Steph (taysmom).

After our gelato, we walked around the piazza and looked at the fountain. It was 1:45 and time to go to the Vatican to meet our tour guide at 2:00. After going though security and purchasing our tickets, we were off to the museum. Our guide told us that there are over 70,000 pieces of art in the museum, making it the most vast collection in the world. The first hall contained busts of Roman emperors and other famous Roman citizens, their “celebrities.” Next, we went through the Courtyard of the Pine Cone – yes, I said Pine Cone. This cone is bronze and HUGE. It was built by the Romans as a fountain in the first or second century BC. We also visited the Octagonal Courtyard, home of more beautiful sculptures, the Hall of Animals, the Round Hall (inspired by the Pantheon) and the Hall of Maps. We actually saw much more in the museums but those are the high points.

Our guide explained what we were going to see prior to entering the Sistine Chapel. The paintings are truly breathtaking. It would have been nice to linger, but the crowd was oppressive, and not following the instructions to not take photos or video, not talk, and not sit on the floor, despite the instructions that had been given in every language imaginable. Tourists!! We then went to the magnificent St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world. We were all amazed at the size of the church and the beautiful mosaics. There is only one painting in the Basilica, with the rest as reproductions of famous paintings in mosaic. Some were so detailed, that it was difficult to tell that it wasn’t a painting. There were opulent statues and alters in the various alcoves to mark the crypts of popes and wealthy rulers from all over. Now, only the popes are allowed to be buried in St. Peter’s. From grates in the marble floor, one can see the level below and some of the crypts. We bought a book about Vatican City that describes the area in more detail than we could see in our tour. We entered into St. Peter’s Square, and imagined the crowds of people that assemble to see the Pope give his blessings every Sunday.

We said goodbye to our guide at 4 pm and were off to the ship. The ride back only took about 45 minutes, as the traffic gods were on our side. We said goodbye to Pepe and boarded the ship. There were very few people on board, so I got some Shout wipes from Marie, and proceeded to attempt to get the grease out of my skirt. I made it to the laundry before the hordes arrived.

We had a wonderful tour of Rome, without having to walk around for hours. We weren’t nearly as tired as many others that we talked to. We were able to see most of the important sites and spend reasonable amounts of time at the more popular areas.

Dinner was at Animator’s Palate and it again was outstanding. Big thumbs up to the kitchen and service staff! We finished out the evening by visiting the Buena Vista Theatre to watch James Bond in “Casino Royale”. Good flick!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Olbia, Sardinia

Hello, Jeff here again. First of all, to Kay, DriveAmalfi doesn’t have a web site – well it does but it just says “Under Construction”. To reach Salvatore, send an email to info@driveamalfi.com.

Today’s report is on the port of Olbia, Sardinia. Sardinia is an island that lies between Italy, Spain and Tunisia, south of Corsica. Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea (after Sicily). Olbia has a population of just under 50,000 people. From the port of Olbia, we took the Disney tour called Panoramic Tour of La Maddalena. Here’s Katy’s take on it.

Katy here. Olbia was probably the most boring tour I’ve been on so far, and by the looks of it, I wasn’t the only one. My mom and I slept on most of the drive to the ferry that would take us to La Maddalena. We didn’t miss much from the tour guide Robert. All he seemed to be doing was pointing out granite and various plant life. He even got all excited about a heron - big deal. We see those all the time in Alabama. His two favorite words to say were “Look!” and “Okay”. He would point something out and say something like: “LOOK! That over there is the French Quarry. LOOK! That is where they mined the granite for the base of the Statue of Liberty. LOOK! You can see it over to your left now. LOOK!” If I kept tally of how many times he said those two words in 5 minutes….it’d probably be like 100 times. He was nice though, and he did have a couple funny moments like when he said “Italians…. They park wherever they stop”.

Anywhos… after reaching La Maddalena, we got a free gelato. We met some people from Mobile, Alabama who let us cut in front of them in line because Mom just HAD to go to the restroom before getting in line for the gelato, and by the time we got back, the line was super long. Afterwards we wandered about a little, and the parents then decided that they wanted ANOTHER gelato (Crazy peoples). There was nothing very exciting about the walk around the shops and such. So we got back on the ferry and then back on the bus. On the way back to the port, we watched a couple of the little informational video things that the Disney Cruise had done about our next port, Civitavecchia and then a couple cute little Disney cartoons. And of course, I slept some more. (I was very tired, I couldn’t help it). Now back to Dad with all the information that I slept through!

Jeff here. Actually, Katy pretty much covered it. The tour wasn’t bad but it wasn’t particularly memorable either. I did find it interesting that Sardinians don't have a trespass law. In fact, property owners must allow citizens access to their property to hunt wild boar and gather foodstuffs. Of course, this tour had a tough act to follow after the amazing scenery we’d seen the day before on the Amalfi Coast drive. After returning to the ship, we decided we’d try to do some laundry as we were all down to our last pair of clean underwear. Unfortunately, it seemed everyone else on the ship had the same idea. We checked all the laundrys and they all had waits. Susan toughed it out though and waited for her turn and was able to get all our laundry taken care of. Thanks dear!

We freshened up and then went to see “The Art of the Story” show in the Walt Disney Theatre. Katy thought it was OK, Susan and I liked it a bit better. Katy correctly points out that some of it was a bit “cheesy” and some of the performances were only so-so but considering what they have to work with, it was good.

Dinner was in Lumieres and it was fantastic. Whatever problems Disney might have had in their kitchen have definitely been worked out. The service is excellent and the quality and presentation of the food has been top notch. We turned in after dinner knowing we’d have to get up early for our 7:45 am departure on our private tour of Rome.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Naples, Italy

Good morning! We arrived in the port of Naples just a few minutes ago. I thought while I was waiting for the girls to get ready I'd upload some more photos from Cefalu. Look for them at the bottom of the Palermo blog. Myra, good suggestion on getting some more locals in the photos. I'll do that today on our tour. More later!

Update 6/20:

Hello, Jeff here again. We had a busy day yesterday in Naples, Italy. Here’s some info about the city:

  • Population is just over 1 million people
  • City covers 45 square miles
  • Naples (Napoli) was founded by the Greeks in the 6th century BC and named Neapolis, which means New City
  • Naples is considered the birthplace of pizza. It was first created in 1889 when it was served to Queen Margherita during a visit to Naples

As I’d mentioned before, today we’re taking a private tour with DriveAmalfi, which is run by Salvatore Lucibello. I’d researched private tour operators on the cruisecritic.com message boards and found nothing but glowing reviews of DriveAmalfi. Our driver twas Roberto and, as promised, he met our party just as we got off the ship holding a sign with “Spencer” on it. In addition to Susan, Katy and I, there were four other people in our group. Fellow DIS boarders Vicky (vtiffany), her husband Tom, Marie (Worktoplay) and her son Jeff (12) joined us on the tour. We were loaded into a very roomy 8 passenger van and began our trip to the Amalfi coast. Roberto told us about the city, about Mt. Vesuvius and Pompeii as we drove. Roberto told us we were going to do the coast tour first and then do Pompeii in the afternoon when it was less crowded.

The drive was simply amazing. I’ve never seen landscape that was close to what we saw on this drive. We passed through the towns of Piano, Sorrento, Positano, Praiana before stopping in the town of Amalfi for about 30 minutes.

While here, Susan, Katy and I toured the Cathedral of Amalfi. The cost was just a couple of Euros each and it was well worth it. The Cathedral was built starting in the 12th century and contains four main areas: the Cloister of Paradise, the Basilica of the Crucifix, the Crypt of Saint Andrew and the Cathedral. The Cloister and Basilica were interesting and contained many historical pieces from the 12th, 13th and 14th century but it was the Crypt of Saint Andrew that interested me most. Here, the head and other bones of Saint Andrew, Jesus’ first disciple, are buried. The Apostle, who had evangelized Greece, was crucified in Patras. From there his body was taken to Constantinople and later to Amalfi in 1208. The final stop on our tour was the Cathedral. The interior is a Baroque style dating to the early 18th century. There are large inset paintings on canvas upon the ceiling.

Next, we stopped at a small village above Amalfi called Pontano – so small it doesn’t even show on the map – for lunch at a nice restaurant. We started off with a beautiful plate of appetizers, followed by a plate of pasta, followed by pizza and then topped off with an assortment of desserts. Oh, we also had bottled water, red and white wine and lemoncello. Cost for the meal was 20 Euro each and it was well worth it. There were also nice, clean restrooms for us to use. Soon we were off again in the van on our way to Pompeii. After the lunch and drinks, we loaded back up and Roberto drove us to Pompeii.

For those that may have forgotten, Pompeii was a city of about 20,000 people that was buried in ash and rock in 79 AD after a sudden eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Here, we had two hours to explore the ruins and chose to do a self guided tour using the online touring plan of Rick Steves. It was so HOT and the walls of the ruins tended to block what little breeze there was; nevertheless, with touring plan and map in hand we were able to see most of the major sites in our allotted time. The most interesting things to me were the bodies on display, the Temple of Apollo, the House of the Faun, the Bakery, the various murals and mosaic tile work. My knees hurt thinking about how long it would take someone to set those thousands of small, individual tiles in intricate patterns. Soon, our time was up and we exited the site to meet up with Roberto but he was no where to be found. Unfortunately, Pompeii had changed things up on Roberto as those exiting the ruins were directed to an area away from the entrance. After walking around about 15 minutes we were finally able to find our driver and we were on our way back to the ship. It was a long day but definitely a wonderful tour.

After grabbing a snack on Deck 9, during which Katy was almost pooped on by an evil seagull, we freshened up, then Susan and I went to Palo to celebrate her forty-somethingth birthday. Dinner, as usual at Palo, was fabulous. We started off with a goat cheese, red pepper and arugula flatbread. We had wonderful filet mignon topped with sautéed mushrooms on a bed of potatoes and asparagus as our entrée and a chocolate soufflé for dessert. Feeling bad that Katy couldn’t join us (one must be 18 to dine in Palo) Susan got her a chocolate soufflé to go. Katy loved it.