Cruising to Chile: Live Blog #1 (Key West)

Ernest Hemingway loved the place… the conch republic as they call it. Of course today we’re in Key West. And it’s only month post hurricane Irma. The local residents have done a heroic job of clean-up. There’s some evidence of damage, but the hurricane has clearly not dampened the laid-back ambiance that is so characteristic of Key West.

We took ourselves on a walking tour to the southernmost point in the US then down Duval Street for a bit of hat shopping.

Buying a new sun hat at “Hot Hats” on Duval Street with proprietor, Terry Lipsky.

The rain started in earnest, pounding down to the point of mini flooding. It’s not hard to imagine what it must have been like in a hurricane.

We’re truly enjoying the Silver Muse…she’s a beautiful ship and our suite is lovely. Tomorrow we’ll be at sea and on our way to Costa Rica.

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Discovering new places: Cruise ships as transportation

Sometimes you get in the car and hit the open road to discover new and exciting places and experiences. Other times you hop a train. There are also times when you can only see the places you want to see by flying (try driving between Tahiti and Fiji in the South Pacific!). In recent years, however, we’ve discovered that a cruise ship might just be one of our favourite ways to move between specific destinations.

Silver Cloud with other (1024x576)
We prefer the one on the right! The Silver Cloud was our first Silversea ship.

Unlike others who love cruises, we are probably not what is truly meant by the term “cruisers.” Or at least that is only a small part of how you could describe us. When we embarked on our first cruise so many years ago, we were traveling with a young child, and we didn’t really know what to expect beyond our plan to have a great vacation. And we did. But we have learned over the years – and 15 cruises later – that we are not those people who believe that the ship is the destination. For us it has become a very comfortable conveyance for getting us from one interesting destination to another.

The truth is that we avoid like the plague those mega-cruise ships that offer everything from wave surfing to rock-wall climbing with wall-to-wall food in between. These days we confine ourselves to a small number of cruise lines and choose our trips by itinerary. And as for loyalty to one line? Like airline loyalty programs, they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.  So we decide where we want to go and search among the cruises on offer from the lines we love: Cunard, Oceania, Seabourn, Regent and Silversea mainly. And now we’ll return to Silversea which captured our attention for our upcoming cruise to check a few things off our bucket list: The Panama Canal, Peru and Chile. In fact, we leave on Tuesday.

The first time we realized that a cruise ship was a wonderful way to discover new places to which we might like to return for a longer visit was our first Mediterranean cruise some ten years ago. The cruise left from Barcelona, so we planned a few days there in advance of the cruise. This is a key feature of a destination-rich cruise; the embarkation and disembarkation points. If all of your cruise experiences leave from the same port (e.g. Port Everglades or Miami), you’ll never be able to have that land-based adventure of a new city. This was the first lesson we learned: even if it’s a Caribbean cruise, if it leaves from, say Saint Martin (so sorry for their recent hurricane issues) or even Barbados, that provides a great opportunity for an add-on.

And the disembarkation point is also important: leaving and arriving at two different places is the best since you have two chances to spend time in new cities. On one cruise we left from Monte Carlo and ended in Venice. On another we sailed from Rome and ended in Istanbul.

That first Med cruise introduced us to cities to which we have returned – sometimes again and again. For example, while we were anchored off Monaco, we visited Eze, a place we thought we might never have a chance to visit again. It turns out we’ve been back several times! On that same cruise, we visited Rome for the first time and have since returned twice to get to know it better.

A few years ago we had another of those “bucket list” places that we had wanted to visit for some time: The South Pacific. But as we began considering how to arrange a tour of the islands, it became clear that flying in and out of those tiny islands would only eat up valuable time with at least a half a day each time devoted to airports and flying – and that’s if there are no delays. A small boat didn’t seem like a good idea at all since the distances are too great. So, what about a cruise ship?cruise map South Pacific

We discovered an Oceania cruise that left from Papeete, Tahiti (a chance to spend a week in Tahiti? Yes, please), visited a range of islands between which it cruised during the night giving each day over to an island, and ending in Sydney, Australia. Perfect!

Next week we begin our cruise with a few days in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It’s not exciting, but it will be fun. After three days of unwinding, we embark the Silver Muse, Silversea’s newest ship which launched earlier this year. We’ll cruise to Key West then onto Costa Rica. Only one day here is fine with us since we spent a wonderful two weeks touring the country some years ago. Then we’ll transit the Panama Canal before making our way down the west coast of South America stopping into Ecuador, Peru, northern Chile ending in the port city of Valparaiso. Once there, we’ll pick up our Tours-by-Locals private guide who has four days of cultural and wine country touring for us while we get to know Santiago. And all because we will use a cruise ship for transportation.

Cruise map

We love to tell stories about our travels – that’s what this blog has always been about. This time, however, we’re going to also do some live blogging and post short pieces and photos along the way. I hope you’ll come along with us. We’ll save the longer stories until we get back home in Toronto.

See you on the high seas!

From the biggest to the smallest: San Diego’s best attractions for discerning travelers

IMG_4476Sometimes a travel experience involves a tried and true tourist attraction; other times you find those off-the-beaten path places that no one else seems to find. Either way, they can have their charms.

Last month we visited San Diego for the first time in over a quarter of a century. When people think of tourist attractions in San Diego, the first thing that usually comes to mind is their zoo, and so we made our way from our hotel on the edge of the Gaslight District to the San Diego Zoo only to find ourselves in a morass of people. Having visited the Taronga Zoo in Sydney Australia within the last couple of years, we found the San Diego experience to be lacking in appeal, so we had to find other attractions. Enter the USS Midway.

For many Americans, visiting this floating museum, an actual post-World War II aircraft carrier, likely evokes feelings of patriotism and awe of the US military machine. For us non-Americans, it was an experience of quite a different kind.

There is no doubt about it: there is something awe-inspiring about the sheer size of a vessel of this kind. The hangar deck, the flight deck, not to mention the miles and miles of corridors. We marveled at how a young sailor or air man could possibly have found his way around the carrier on first deployment.

The carrier itself was commissioned a week after the end of World War II and had the distinction of being the largest ship in the world until 1955. During her 47-year career in the US naval fleet, she participated in many important actions including the Vietnam war and Operation Desert Storm. Walking around the ship and exploring its labyrinth of corridors, you get a real sense of history. The curators of this “museum” have done a spectacular job of evoking the life and times of this massive ship.

We arrived early – about 15 minutes before it opened at 10 am – and found ourselves in an already forming line. Once the gates opened, however, we moved quickly and spent the next two hours exploring. It is not a place for anyone with mobility issues – and for the love of God leave the strollers at home! There are many steep stairways and the corridors move from one water-tight space to the next requiring you to step up and over the barriers where the doors shut. Leave the very little ones at home if you want to really experience this museum.

So, we found that massive tourist attraction – then marveled at the opposite end of the size spectrum at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. Fascinated by all things miniature (we’ll tell you about the Arizona Art Museum’s offering next week), Patty had discovered that this museum occupied a floor of one of the buildings at Balboa Park.

It is the largest indoor model railroad exhibit in North America and its 27,000 square feet are pure pleasure. Just as we marveled at the sheer massiveness of the Midway, we were equally awestruck by the workmanship of the miniature worlds created by the model railroad artisans.

This is a place that you can take younger children who will be mesmerized by the miniature worlds and the trains making their way through various landscapes.

It was lovely and quiet there that day and we were delighted to have experienced it.

The Midway has to be seen to be believed, so if you have a moment, click through our video and then make plans to get there on your next trip to San Diego.

 

When a reservation is not a reservation: On the ‘keeping’ of reservations

This is a story about reservations. It’s about what they are, why discerning travelers make them and why it’s a problem when a hotel, car rental agency or – in the case of this particular story – restaurant doesn’t seem to have the same understanding.

Before we begin, though, let’s have a bit of a primer on what a reservation means, and no one says it better than Jerry Seinfeld in the old scene “The Car Rental.”

Unless you’re fond of those spur-of-the-moment trips where you’re happy to just get in the car and go, every travel experience starts with a reservation of one sort or another. There are different kinds of reservations.

When we “reserve” an airplane ticket, we have about ten minutes to complete the transaction and pay. In these cases, we expect the reservation to be “held” because we have a fully paid ticket which we expect to form a contract for the airline to carry us where we plan to go. Well, it does – but not always in the way that we might have liked. Have you ever been “bumped” on an over-sold flight? The airline still has the obligation to get you to your destination, just not necessarily on that flight.

We make hotel reservations without paying up front. However, in most cases, they require a credit card to “guarantee” the reservation. This is their guarantee of payment, not your actual guarantee of a room. If you fail to show up, they will charge you the first night’s fee. If you arrive and they have no room for you, you have little recourse. We all hope this won’t ever happen, but it can.

Years ago we were flying to London for a European tour with our then ten-year-old son. It was an overnight flight arriving in London around 6:30 am. We had been through this before, arriving at a hotel and having to stow luggage for hours while we dragged our jet-lagged selves around until we could check in. This time we thought we were smart. We booked the hotel room for the night before so that we could have the room the minute we arrived – albeit late, but we had a reservation and knew we’d be paying for the room. It turned out that the hotel took our reservation, charged us for the night and promptly sold the room to someone else. When we arrived they had no room for us – not even the room we had paid for. Naturally we were not happy. So this brings us to our most recent “reservation” issue.

marriott san diego waterfront
The Marriott Marquis on the San Diego waterfront. Roy’s is right along here.

Three weeks ago we found ourselves in downtown San Diego for a few nights. We’re great believers in Open Table for finding interesting dining spots, and love the ease of use and how happy we’ve been with the results. So we went on Open Table and booked a dinner reservation at Roy’s.

 

One of the few fine dining spots on the San Diego waterfront, Roy’s is also “conveniently located at the Marriott Hotel”[1]. Since Art is a lifetime Gold Marriott and we carry a Marriott credit card when we travel in the US (no extra exchange fee and extra Marriott points are among the features), we were delighted to make this reservation and looked forward to it. We were set for 6:45 pm.

We arrived at Roy’s at 6 pm so that we could enjoy a pre-dinner drink at their lovely bar. We checked in with the hostess who said she’d be along to get us in due course. We enjoyed a gin and tonic in the bar watching people come and go to the dining room. By 6:50 pm we had not been summoned so we paid our bar bill and went back to the hostess stand where we received some surprising information.

“Oh,” she said, “there is no table available.”

“Excuse us? We have a 6:45 reservation,” about which we informed the hostess on our arrival 50 minutes earlier at 6 pm, at which point a manager presented himself. No table at present; no table in the foreseeable future (foreseeable in our view being the next five minutes).

We indicated to him that we make reservations so that there can, indeed, be a table available at the appointed time. He had the audacity to stand directly in front of us, beaming from ear to ear in the smarmiest of ways and said, “We have lingerers tonight.”

Well, need we say it again? But we did inform him again of the purpose of a reservation. We might have even mentioned the Seinfeld scene. He stood there smiling. No table.

It is true that restaurants cannot always be assured that the tables will empty at the time they expect them to, but they also have an obligation to the patrons who make reservations. This is a management issue.

The thing that was most infuriating about this whole scenario was not the unfulfilled reservation, rather it was the attitude and arrogant nature of the manager who stood in front of us grinning like a Cheshire cat. Good customer service practice would suggest first apologizing, indicating when a table might be available and offering us a free drink, or the like, while we wait. None of these things happened.

Roy’s advertises itself as being “at the Marriott Hotel” and the Marriott Marquis Hotel web site lists Roy’s under their “dining at this hotel” which, regardless of whether the Roy’s employees are Marriott employees or not, clearly associates the brand with Marriott. Based on our many years of Marriott stays, the customer service mentality displayed that evening did not do Marriott proud. They should be ashamed of their association.

So, what did we do?

We said good evening and turned on our heel to seek another place to eat. We were rewarded by finding Sally’s just a short way down the boardwalk. Sally’s had a table and treated us wonderfully.

To add insult to injury, the staff at Roy’s indicated to Open Table that we were no-shows for our reservation, a situation that we never would allow to happen. Thankfully, Art was able to straighten things out with Open Table, but it seemed like a bit of a slap from Roy’s. We had indeed, shown up for our reservation. Roy’s, as Jerry would have said, knows how to take a reservation, they just don’t know how to keep a reservation – which, as we know, is the whole point of a reservation. Shame on them.

[1] Exact wording from their web site: https://www.roysrestaurant.com/locations/ca/waterfront