October 30, 2018

Boarding The Symphony in Barcelona

The end of daylight savings time in most of the world gives me an extra hour of sleep. I am up long before my alarm would wake me. Once everything is packed I head across the street for a pastry for breakfast, something I would never consider at home, but only because it is miles to the nearest bakery.

Elisenda arrives promptly a couple minutes before 11 to pick up the keys, and I will assume clean the apartment for her next rental. The temperature remains in the 50's, with a lite rain.  I call a cab with "Cabify" a cab hailing app I downloaded several days ago. It works like Uber and Lyft with the cost displayed before you accept the driver, and payment made by credit card or Pay Pal upon acceptance and completion of the ride. As near as I can tell, regular cabs are also included in the pool of drivers. 

My driver arrives in less than two minutes and I am on the way to the port to board The Symphony of The Seas. There is no traffic until we get near the port. Something I have never seen before, two terminals are used to load passengers. My driver is a little confused and leaves me at terminal "C" instead of "B" where I was scheduled to board. Seeing that signs indicated Symphony passengers were to board here, I did not try to get him to take to to the correct terminal, I might have wound up on the Epic instead.

Boarding couldn't have been easier. There were no lines for security, but of course I get special processing, no metal detector or x-ray machines for me here. Once passengers and carry on bags are checked, one last verification of boarding pass and it is directly to the ship. The steps that were previously accomplished by another long line at the check in counter have been totally replaced with on line check in. The passenger even submits a photo, or "selfie", for on ship identification.

The Symphony is a new ship of the Oasis class, meaning the hull and superstructure are built from the same plans, but the finishing touches may be unique to each ship. Without a tape measure I suspect the cabins are a little smaller than on the Oasis, but are much more efficient in the use of space. Deck 17 which used to be the Viking Crown Lounge is now dedicated to suite passengers. A revenue change that is being implemented on all Oasis class ships, and on some of the smaller ships.

The overall design incorporates more high tech features such as proximity sensors to open public restroom doors and RFID to sense your sea pass card to unlock your cabin door.

All muster stations appear to be indoors, mine is in the main theater. All the usual instructions are via video presentation.  It is soon time to leave Barcelona. It is cold outside, and only a few passengers line the rails as we depart. I take a few quick pictures and then retreat to the warmth of inside.

Because of the thousands of Diamond and Diamond Plus passengers the entire entertainment district on deck 4 is used for the Diamond Lounge at happy hour, with a capacity of about 75 the designated Diamond Lounge is no where near large enough.

I consider giving the dining room a try, but when I see my table for 8 set for 12 guests I come to my senses and will continue my habit of eating elsewhere.

The weather is no better on Monday, and in fact worse.  All outside deck areas of the ship are closed. Central Park is open, but no passengers brave the weather for a stroll through the Park. It is reported that the wind is in excess of 40 mph. There is little display of navigational and weather conditions, and it is difficult to obtain factual detailed information. 

The ship rolls a little but all the passengers seem to be taking it in stride. The cold and rain is a different story, generating many disgruntled passengers.

The first 24 hours generates at least three Alpha, or medical calls to passenger cabins, not a good start.

Our first port of call is Malaga Spain. Temperatures remain in the low to mid 50's and it is rainy and foggy. Many passengers have booked tours, I elect to remain on the ship with about half of the other passengers.

It has only been a couple of days, but so far the staff has been excellent. Food quality better than on my other recent Royal cruises. The food presentation is possibly the best I have ever seen by Royal Caribbean. The passengers that have been going to the dining room generally report satisfaction with the food and service.

The most common complaint I hear is one I share. There is a lack of space to just sit and read a book or watch the ocean go by. Much of the space that formerly would have been public space has been taken over by more cabins and suites.

When we leave Malaga this evening, Oct 30, it will be sea days until we arrive in Port Canaveral, our next port of call on November 8th.

My Days In Barcelona

The first night I sleep soundly for over 12 hours, not only do I awake rested, I have quickly adjusted to the 6 hour time  change.

The weather forecast is for near perfect weather for the next several days, a forecast that proves to be accurate. I quickly become a typical tourist and visit a number of the most popular tourist spots including Sagrada Familia,  Parc Guell, Montjuic Castle, The Magic Fountain, Etc. I take both routes on the narratted Hop On Hop off bus, my favorite way to get an overview of an unfamiliar city.

I had considered a day trip to the nearby country of Andora, but with it being much colder in the mountains, I decided to forgo that for this trip.

Despite having kitchen facilities, I eat all of my meals in the local cafes within a few blocks of my apartment. the neighborhood is more of a residential neighborhood than a tourist area. I encounter no one that can speak English, but picture menus, and friendly patient shop owners overcome any language barriers.  One of my favorite cafes is owned by a Chinese family where the eldest members work in the kitchen, the next generation behind a service counter and bar,  and a young boy about 7 or 8 cleans tables as he takes a break from doing work in his school book. This is definitely a local spot as I recognize a couple patrons drinking beer at the bar each time I am there.

I find Barcelona a very clean friendly city. Traffic congestion is minimal. Drivers are courteous  and patient, one seldom hears a horn blown. Even when crowded, there is no shoving or pushing on the Metro. One aspect I did find a little difficult to get used to was that elderly passengers are nearly always offered a seat by younger riders. Sometimes I would accept, other  times I would decline. I just don't consider myself elderly.

Most of the Metro is handicap accessible with elevators. All the newer stations have escalators, and only a few of the oldest smaller stations only have stairs. The 10 different lines intersect at different stations throughout the city. The connection can be  as close as the otherside of the same platform, or a 10 minute walk through an underground passageway. In one station the connection was about 150 feet vertically made by taking 5 escalators in succession. I'm sure glad the escalators were working when I was there.

On Friday others begin arriving. I had considered meeting them at the airport, but this was one tourist that was just too worn out by then. Besides, they are all very able to find theirown way to their apartment. We do communicate by text message, and everyone arrives safely even if late. We make plans to meet at Sagrada Familia Saturday morning.

Besides the people I expected to meet, the group is joined by Chris and his friend from London. Friends for several years, they came to Barcelona just to visit Jenn, Adrienne and Steve.

The temperatures have dropped into the 60's and there is an intermittent drizzle. Most of the group is headed to Parc Guell. Having been there a few days ago, I take a pass, but do invite everyone to see my apartment as it is only 5 minutes out of the way, and provides a good restroom break.

The Hola Barcelona Travel Card is the way to travel within the city. For a few dollars per day, you can enjoy unlimited metro passage. Taking an extra train of two is easy and there is no financial consequence to be considered.

Since she is here, I have Alyssa help interpret the instructions on the washer and dryer. When she leaves I don't feel I got my monies worth for her college education and the study abroad program she attended here in Spain. Regardless, I will figure it out.

My landlord left me with a bottle of wine, so I make plans to meet up with everyone else at the much larger apartment my daughters have rented. It is about 30 minutes away by Metro. While yes it is larger, with 6 people sleeping there I might actually have more square feet of space per person.

Being our dinner time we head to a local place on the corner. The rain and the hour and it is no problem making a table for the 9 of us to eat inside. Not only does our waiter speak English, they have menus in English. definitely a location in the tourist area of town.

As has been the case everywhere, the food is good. After dinner we return to the apartment where we are joined by more friends headed to the ship. I think we have wine not only from Spain, but wines brought from Egypt, Great Britian, and Scotland.

Before midnight, I head back to the Metro to go home. Surprisingly, no drunks, no bad behavior. This certainly is not a US city.

Tomorrow it is time to head to the Symphony. 

October 25, 2018

Arrival in Barcelona October 23

Boarding starts early. A Boeing 787 Dreamliner. I am one of about 25 "Premium" passengers. There is capacity for 30. There are 5 or 6 empty seats, including the 2 next to me. I don't think economy seating is full either, but we have been given specific instructions to remain in our "class" section of the cabin so I don't know for sure.

The stewardess are sharply dressed right down to their red gloves. Everything is high tech including electronically controlled glass to darken the windows. We are immediately offered the included wine, champagne, or other beverage of your choice.

All passengers are boarded and seated at least 20 minutes prior to our scheduled departure from the gate. We quickly climb to our cruising altitude of 41,000 feet. I decline the offer of food at 11:30 PM.  I am not a late diner.

Three displays across the bulkhead in the front of the cabin display the ever changing important information. Altitude, ground speed, time since departure and expected time until arrival. A map showing our location and the ocal time in Newark and Barcelona are also displayed.

For the first hour the flight goes as expected, then we run into strong headwinds and turbulence. Nothing serious, but a lot more motion that what one will usually encounter on a cruise ship, and a lot faster. The captain tries flying at different altitudes.  He can't escape mother nature. Our ground speed drops, and one by one minutes are added to our expected arrival time, Ultimately over 30 minutes are added.

The next 7 1/2 hours are bumpy but quiet I try to sleep but basically fail. The seats are quite comfortable with plenty of leg room and a good amount of recline, but my attempt at sleep is unsuccessful.

Breakfast is served about an hour before our scheduled landing. One cube of mellon that is barely over a bite. One half of a strawberry, two bites of prosciutto, and a roll. I will guess it cost more to cut the strawberries than it would to serve a whole one.

We hit the runway pretty hard as we land, the plane rattles and takes a hop as the tires squeal, but it is no where near the worst I have encountered. We taxi to a gate and the gangway is moved into position. It is about 1 PM local time.

Signage is excellent directing us to baggage claim and custom's clearance. I appreciate the availability of free luggage carts. Ours is the only plane that has landed recently at this terminal so it is nearly empty.

I am soon in a cab headed to my rental apartment. I can't check in until 3:00.  Exactly where to meet was not specifically covered. I ring the door buzzer, but no response. Since I am early, I will wait until 3 before calling. I already know the owner won't be here as she told  me she is sending a friend to accommodate my early arrival.

I knew before i booked that the Metro, or underground, or subway, whichever you prefer is across the street. There is also a grocery store, and several cafe's within a 100 feet. A fruit stand is literally at my front door, well 18 inches to the side.

A stranger approaches, I learn she is the "friend" to get me into the apartment.The apartment is interesting. I would guess the building to be 100 years old. The lift will barely hold the two of us and my two suitcases, but it is much better than trying to navigate the narrow stairs the two stories to the first floor. Actually an elevator is a luxury for many apartments in buildings of this age. It is very slow, but it works.

Even if small and old, everything is very clean. A small galley kitchen wide enough for one, no helpers here. The small fridge is almost brand new and is more than adequate for my needs. TV with cable, and free WiFi. I doubt I will even turn on the stereo. Oh, the shower, smaller than any I have ever encountered on a cruise ship, but plenty of hot water providing you remember the gas valve and water heater.

Yes,  If you want hot water, you first must turn on the gas, and then the instant hot water heater. When hot water is not needed, or you are not using the stove, the gas is to be turned off. I "heard" something about a gas leak in the building. I consciously attribute my understanding to a loss of meaning in a conversation between a person that doesn't speak English and a person that doesn't understand Catalan. I'm not concerned, the building has been here for over a hundred years, it will make it another five days. Well at least the odds are in my favor.

I unpack and head to the market to get a few basics. I didn't think to take a shopping bag with me, so I had to pay two cents for a disposable one, a common practice in much of Europe.

My next venture is into the metro to turn  my voucher, bought at home, into a usable ticket.  After studying the kiosk I think I have it figured out.  Everything works except no ticket is dispensed. Kiosks just are not cooperating with me on this trip. While I am pondering my error, another person purchases a ticket, and two are dispensed. Problem solved, not my error, just stuck in the machine.

I explore the local neighborhood, grab a bite to eat at a nearby cafe, and hit the pillow early. It has been a long day and a half.

October 24, 2018

Long Day to Barcelona

I easily finish packing on Sunday. It probably is a good thing I use a list.  From Q-tips to razor blades and just in case I need it, band aids and a mini sewing kit, my list has nearly 150 different items. 8 pair of socks count as 1 item, not 8!  Without a list I am sure I would miss a few items, and probably something important like shirts or a pair of shoes.

My son, Scott, arrives early to take me to the airport. Arriving early is a rare event for him. Maybe its him becoming a father that has changed his ways. As a parent I can always remain hopeful can't I?  The daughters arrival prevented Scott from taking the trip with his sisters to Egypt, but that was the original plan, His loss, but my gain. While I'm gone he is going to do some upgrades to my computer. A minimal return on the years of college expenses.

I breeze through check in and security fairly easily at Orlando. Being a known traveler with a global entry card helped a lot, I can wear my shoes and belt and wouldn't have to open my laptop, that is if I had one. Of course I need to go to a different location because of all my new parts.  I still walked through one of the metal detectors, but one they deem safe for passengers like me.  I actually saw the display screen and found it quite interesting.  A faint image of me superimposed with white rectangles wherever the machine detected metal. For me that was most of my body from my knees to my neck. A quick pat down and I was on my way.

The plane was full, and overhead storage quickly filled up. It appeared that many passengers were carrying more than the one allowed carry on.

The fruit and cheese "snack" could have been described as a full meal. Two types of cheese, almonds, prosciutto, grapes, crackers, strawberries, apricots, crackers, and a dark chocolate square. Beer, wine, cocktails, or soft drinks, I settled for a glass of club soda. First class does take some of the pain out of air travel.

The plane arrives about 15 minutes late in Newark. It is a long haul to luggage, the train, and then on to terminal "B". Signs and directions are sparse, and everything is very busy. I have use of a lounge with my ticket to Barcelona. I know it is in B, but it is not shown on the information signs. Google maps reveals it is 100 feet down the corridor.

I have to have a boarding pass for access, but wasn't able to get one on line before I left home.  There is a bank of 15 kiosks, they are not busy, I try the first, the screen freezes before I can enter any information.  Having lots of time, and not being able to get into the lounge without a boarding pass I try the next kiosk, and the next, and...., finally on the fifth success! A luggage tag and boarding pass.

Entry to the lounge is granted. This is not a luxury I usually have, so I have nothing to compare with but listening to other passengers this is the pits.  I don't know, a soft seat, free beer, wine, and soft drinks, sandwiches and a couple of hot foods is better than sitting at the gate.  No the AC doesn't work, and in general it is kind of grungy. I have been here about 2 hours, nearly every seat is occupied, and other than the host when I checked in I have yet to hear a word of English.

In another 30 minutes I will check my luggage at the counter when it opens and head towards the gate.

The stop at the counter was brief, not so for TSA. Global entry was of no value. Finally an hour and a half later I am on my way to the gate with almost an hour to spare before boarding for our 11 PM departure. Not first class but "Premium" as it is called on Norwegian Shuttle Airlines. The seats are supposed to recline to  nearly flat. Sleep is the plan.

October 20, 2018

Prepare For The Symphony

No the Symphony is not an elaborate musical composition, but the Symphony Of The Seas, Royal's newest and largest Oasis class ship.

This is the first cruise I have booked that originates in Europe instead of a US port. I will spend 5 days in Barcelona before boarding for the transatlantic crossing to Florida. This sounds really strange but one of only two ports of call is Port Canaveral, Florida on our way to Miami. Definitely a cruise for the journey not the destinations.

For some reason there just seems more to get done on these few weeks at home. All the usual doctors appointments, family dinners, train club activities, and of course visits with my grand daughter. Add to this the added task of some tree removal and landscaping and unanticipated car repairs. I am procrastinating packing for yet another few days, but definitely on Sunday.

Initially  when I started writing this blog it was for my friends that asked me, now that I have been doing it for several years I find that I want to do it for myself. It serves as a cruise diary, that when read, rearranges the distorted memories in my brain. Oops, maybe I shouldn't admit that, the staff at my doctor's office are amongst my readers. It's OK I still can remember where the car keys are even if not what I ate for breakfast.

I have rented an apartment for the stay in Barcelona before boarding the ship. My criteria were very simple: Location; Location; Location. The most important being located very close to the Metro system. I was told  it is across the street from the apartment entrance. More about that after I have been there a few days. I leave on Monday the 22nd to arrive in Barcelona on the 23rd.

I am often asked by my local friends if there are other people I know on the ships I sail on. The usual answer is that it is rare not to run into other passengers that I know. This cruise will be different in that I know in advance of many passengers that will be on the ship.  Before boarding our paths from home to the ship are quite varied. At the risk of boring you, but for my future reference, I am including a quick synopsis.

I think Lee and Sue were the first to leave the US. They have been traveling through a number of Eastern European countries since early September. Will meet them in Barcelona on the ship on the 28th.

Pann and Terry are in Ireland, will meet in Barcelona on the 26th.

Mimi has been in Italy for a week or so, is headed to the Greek Isles and then will meet on the ship on the 28th

Adrienne (my daughter), her husband Steve, and Amie leave on the 19th. I take them to the airport at 3:45 in the morning, what an  ungodly hour. At least the traffic will be sparse. They are headed to New York for two days and then on to Cairo and Luxor the evening of the 20th. I will meet them in Barcelona on the 26th.

Don and Di are in Moscow and  will meet up with Rocky and Linda in Istanbul. The four of them head for Cairo. I will meet them in Barcelona on the 26th.

Keli and Marilyn also go directly to Cairo, meeting up with Adrienne, et al. in New York on the 20th. Unfortunately they are not going to be on the Symphony, after leaving Egypt, they are headed to Paris for a week before returning to the US.

Alyssa (my youngest daughter) leaves Saturday the 20th to fly to New York with Marilyn and Kelli, where they will meet Adrienne, et al to fly to Cairo. I will meet her in Barcelona on the 26th.

Summer and Jen fly to Barcelona on the 25th, I will meet them there on the 26th. 

I don't remember where Kevin and Linda are, but will meet them on the ship. I am sure there are more I have forgotten, I apologize.

I originally was planning on touring Cairo, riding a camel to the pyramids and going on to Luxor with the others, but after looking at the projected weather, highs in the upper 90's, and the grueling schedule, like heading to the airport in Luxor at 3:30 AM, I felt it would be wise to plan a more leisurely schedule sampling tapas and wine in Barcelona. I may even catch some of the International Jazz Festival that is being held in Barcelona while I am there.

The alarm is set for 3:00 for a passenger delivery run to the airport. The landscapers will be here by 8:00, and then one more doctors appointment. How did I ever find time to work before I retired?

October 02, 2018

October 1, Returning Home

Disembarkation is scheduled to begin shortly after 8:00. I am in the first group after those that carry all their own luggage. My group, #2, is called about 8:30. After snaking back and forth through the dining room, I exit the ship, find my luggage and proceed to the customs agent. Once outside I call the parking lot for my pickup shuttle, only to discover it is parked right in front of me, but is almost indistinguishable from all the other white vans waiting for passengers. No congestion like in Miami after the last trip. By 9:15, with my car retrieved, I am headed to I-4 for my drive home.

Again the skies are clear and sunny. Initially the traffic is heavy, but once past the I-75 interchange the speeds pick up and I am able to drive at the speed limit.  I never finished an audio book I started so I listen to it on the way home. Maybe before the loan expires.

I am in my house by 10:30, turn on the water and the AC then proceed to immediately unpack the suitcases. Every thing, whether clean or worn heads to the pile to be washed. Things like Q-Tips and razors are replenished, ready for the next trip. Errands are next on the list. Pick up a new supply of 2$ bills at the bank, food at the grocery store, prescriptions at the drug store, signed and approved forms to allow repair to some landscaping. My mail won't be delivered until late in the afternoon, sorting of that will be a Tuesday task.

Home for three weeks and then off to Barcelona. Three weeks to spoil my new grand daughter just a little.

September 30, A Sea Day

Our passage through the night was calm and quiet, except for the party people trying to find their cabins at 4:00 AM. Morning finds the skies partly cloudy. The seas would still be classified as calm but there are a few scattered whitecaps.  The wind on our starboard bow has increased, making the wind across the deck howling at about 45mph. Hold onto your hats and towels. Unlike my cruise of four weeks ago, the water surface is clean.

My shower this morning is with less than hot water. In fact, the temperature of both the cold and the hot water is the same, luke warm. I noticed the lack of hot water yesterday, but attributed it to everyone getting ready to leave the ship, true but not the cause.

Mechanically this ship is in the poorest condition of any ship I have been on. Granted they are all minor items, but there are lots of them.  Elevator call buttons, elevator overload safety controls, shower heads, long term leaks, the list goes on. Every one of these problems existed when I boarded the ship, and repairs are not being made. It makes one wonder about the condition of those systems we don't see.

I have met some interesting people over the past few weeks. We have all heard of people that live on cruise ships. A couple from Australia doesn't live exclusively on cruise ships, but for the past twenty years, yes twenty years, have been traveling the world by train, plane, foot, automobile, and cruise ship. They have no permanent home. To recently travel in the US, they bought a well used 99 Lincoln with 244,000 miles, that they will just junk when they are finished with it.  When on land, housing is a Bed & Breakfast, AirBnb, or friends. Other than the car, everything they own travels with them in a few suitcases. Safari's in Africa to mountain climbing in the Alps they are living an adventure few of us can even imagine.

There are several passengers that work for InterCruise.  InterCruise is the company that provides boarding services at many ports around the world. A relatively young company being around for about 10 years, and based in Barcelona. They provide the people in the terminal that guide you through the process of checking in for your cruise, or finding the right shuttle bus to the airport. 

As expected, the process is different for every ship. The computer equipment and software they use is unique to each vessel, and in fact the equipment goes with the ship, not the port.

I don't know these people, but there is a story many of us can easily relate to. As I was taking the elevator down to the cinema yesterday morning, it stopped on deck 10 for other passengers. The husband, gets on the elevator after trying to give instructions to his wife on how to get off the ship. She reminds him that she has been on over 35 cruises and knows how to get to the pier. He says he is going ahead, and will meet her there. He pushes the button for deck 2, and the elevator descends.  The gangway is in fact on deck 2, but not accessible from the forward elevators. I just bet she knew he was headed down the wrong path. 

Despite the brisk wind, the pool is busy. I think there are actually fewer kids this week, but definitely many more heavy drinkers. Perfect pool of contestants for the belly flop contest.

Shirt sales for the WWF are minimal. They are priced at $12.00 each, I add 2 to my collection. No I'm not going to rip the arms off and wear them to the dining room, I wear them to the pool at home.

The lounge is nearly empty tonight. For about a minute after dinner I was the only guest, a situation quickly rectified by the return of a few other regulars. Bernadette is moving to the pool bar next week. Assignments for the bar staff rotate every month. I am pleased she was our bartender while I was here, she did a great job.

By early evening, the winds have died, and the seas are nearly perfectly flat. I pack my suitcase and place it in the hallway. Tomorrow I disembark in Tampa and head home.