Blarney…Tastes Like Chicken

After sailing across the Atlantic, and spending nine glorious days at sea, we finally reached the Emerald Isle.  Okay, I’m jumping ahead a bit.  Let me back up…

We had this amazing Royal Caribbean cruise booked that sailed out of Copenhagen and covered seven Baltic countries.  (Look for details in future posts.) While Stephanie was diligently researching the best airfare, I happened to discover that the sailing right before ours was a transatlantic crossing.  What better way to arrive in Copenhagen than having spent 16 days already at sea?  Finally, Stephanie cracked under my relentless hinting and we booked our first ever back-to-back sailing.

The transatlantic leg began with six days in a row at sea.  Now, for those of you who have never cruised before, you should know that sea days can be even better than port days.  There are so many activities, shows, and of course, opportunities to eat.  We always tell people “If you’re bored on a cruise ship, it’s because you’re trying to be bored on a cruise ship.”  We spent our time relaxing by the pool, reading magazines, cross stitching, ballroom dancing, winning trivia contests, going to the gym, making friends, watching movies in the ship’s cinema, playing miniature golf, climbing the rock wall, and of course, eating.  As you devoted followers of this blog know, we usually travel pretty hard, so having a week of forced relaxation was heaven.

We did actually call in another port before Cork, Ireland, but if I had started with Ponta Delgada in the Azores, the opening for this post wouldn’t have had the same “gotcha” factor.  In truth, we had been to Ponta Delgada before when we were traveling around the world in 2012.  The Azores are beautiful islands belonging to Portugal, and located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  The only reason Ponta Delgada was less notable this time is simply that it rained all day, and so we didn’t do much on shore.  Stephanie and I did manage to wander around the town for a bit, and of course, we found the obligatory free Wi-Fi so we could catch up on the important goings-on at home.  In the end, however, we were glad we didn’t have big elaborate plans for the day.  We tried some local hot chocolate to stay warm, and looked in the local stores to see what types of treats and candies they had.

Ponta Delgada was just as we remembered it with interesting patterns in the sidewalks made out of black basalt and white limestone.  No two are alike.

Another two days at sea saw us to the port of Cobh, Ireland.  Cobh (pronounced “cove”) is just a quick 25-minute train ride away from downtown Cork, which in turn is only a 25-minute bus ride from famed Blarney Castle – home of the famed Blarney Stone.

The castle itself is exactly how one pictures an old castle: equal parts ominous and charming.  We climbed the narrow, spiral stairs to the top where we hung upside down over a 40 foot drop and planted our lips where thousands of other people planted theirs before.  It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s one of those bucket list things, so we did it anyway.  See….

The grounds of Blarney Castle are huge and varied.  Our first stop was the poison garden where they grow toxic plants including hemlock, belladonna, and nightshade.  Stephanie was delighted to find that Harry Potter favorites mandrake and wolfsbane are actually real, live plants and not just made up for the series.  The garden even had cannabis.  I never thought of marijuana as poisonous, per se, but just in case, it was safe in a cage where no one could accidentally lay their hands on such a toxic danger.

The Poison Garden

The Poison Garden

We strolled through glades and glens, saw waterfalls and caves, and even found a swing for Stephanie to play on.  There is a rock staircase called the wishing steps where if you walk up and down it backwards with your eyes closed, the Blarney Witch is said to grant your wish.  (Stay tuned for confirmation.)  We also strolled through the Pinetum which I’m sure is pronounced “pine-ee-tum,” but we had fun calling it the “pine-tum.”

Rock Close Waterfall

Rock Close Waterfall

Back in Cork, we discovered Dealz.  Dealz is to Ireland what Poundland is to England or a dollar store in the U.S.   Now, having British parents, I know a thing or two about candy from the U.K., and Dealz had great prices on two of my all-time favorites: Fry’s Turkish Delight, and jelly babies.  I know I went into detail about jelly babies once before on this blog, but they’re worth mentioning again.  So much better than jelly beans!  I may have gone a wee bit crazy stocking up on British candy. (A note to the jelly baby purists:  I looked for Bassetts, but couldn’t find them anywhere.  Crilly’s taste exactly the same.)

The UK candy stash

The UK candy stash!

What we saw of Cork was nice, but between the trek to Blarney Castle and the candy, we didn’t really get to see the town itself.  So, as with many places we’ve been on our travels, we resolved to come back again someday.

The Perfect Cruise

Almost 18 months prior, I had booked an exciting 16-night Royal Caribbean cruise from Venice to Dubai via the Suez Canal.  At $22pp/night plus taxes, who could resist?  But as the departure time grew close, we realized the cruise itself was the only thing that was going to be a good deal.  The one-way airfares were going to cost a fortune – even with my travel miles and expertise!  We had a heart-to-heart and came to the conclusion that after all of travel we had done in 2016, our primary goal in December was simply some major relaxation.

And so it came to pass that we found ourselves on a 12-night Royal Caribbean cruise on the Grandeur of the Seas, round-trip, out of Baltimore.  Maybe not quite as exciting as the original plan, but it fit the budget, didn’t require airfare, and had plenty of R-E-L-A-X-A-T-I-O-N written all over it.  Elliott was thrilled that he could pack a million pairs of cufflinks and shoes, throw all of the luggage in the car, and not have to worry about airline baggage restrictions.

01 car full of luggage

Leaving Philly with all of Elliott’s shoes, cufflinks, and dress shirts.

We really didn’t have any expectations; we simply relished the idea of warm weather, calm blue seas, and not having to cook for a while.  We started out with three days at sea, as we left the cold North and headed down to the Caribbean.

 

It only took about a day and a half to get to the warm weather, which really surprised and pleased us!  I was out swimming in the pool before I knew it.

01a Relaxing in the pool

It’s my favorite place to be.

That wasn’t the only surprise, however; the entire cruise turned out to be one, big, happy surprise.  In those first three sea days, we went to Ballroom and Latin dance lessons, and found there were many more dancers onboard than we are used to.  What a treat!  We got to know many of the other dancers, and traded moves and inspiration night after night.  In addition, the onboard dance instructor loved dance so much, she offered free private lessons to anyone who wanted them.  What?!!  Unheard of!  We took her up on her offer more than once and added a few new beautiful moves to our Waltz and Foxtrot.

I had sadly assumed that since we were on a cruise, any holiday spirit would be totally forgotten for 12 days; it was, after all, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas!  I was wrong and couldn’t have been more pleased.  In the beginning of the cruise, there wasn’t much to remind us of the holidays other than the decorations a few passengers had hung on their cabin doors (which were really cute).  As the days passed, we’d hear a Christmas song here and there, then a Christmas tree was put up in the atrium… then at the end of the cruise some of the crew wore Santa hats!  We found it was the perfect amount of holiday spirit without being in-your-face or overwhelming.

 

There were a lot of fun activities onboard.  One night I joined in the fun for a rendition of an old favorite, Family Feud.  My team was terrible, but somehow made a comeback in the last minute (perhaps due to the fact that the last question was worth 3x the points?!).

 

Another night, we celebrated the ship’s 20th birthday with a big celebration and ship-shaped cake in the atrium.

 

Watch the balloons fall!

The itinerary was a fabulous one, and at the same time, an itinerary about which we felt very relaxed.  We had been to all of the ports before, so we didn’t feel pressured to do a lot on each one.  On our first port of St. Thomas, we walked around a bit and went shopping.  For those of you who don’t know, St. Thomas has many jewelry bargains; and it’s one place where I feel very lucky to have a husband who likes to shop!

04 More jewels from St. Thomas

Happy with my St. Thomas souvenir.

On Dominica, we didn’t even get off the ship, preferring to have a relaxing day of our own “at sea” and having the ship mostly to ourselves.  We did see a gorgeous rainbow from our ship:)

08 Rainbow over Dominica

Rainbow over Dominica.

In Bridgetown, Barbados, to the shock of the locals we walked a whole half hour to a local beach.  We spent a blissful afternoon relaxing under a poisonous(!) tree and swimming.

 

In Castries, St. Lucia, we got off the ship and walked around the town for a few minutes.  We didn’t feel the need to do much more, as we honeymooned there, and had a 10th anniversary trip there a few years ago.  Plus, we were on the wrong end of the island, in our opinion!

 

The most fun and adventure we had on land came the next day, on Saint Martin.  We made our way by local transportation (always fun) to Maho Beach, which is next to the Princess Juliana International Airport.  Maho Beach is directly under the flight path of the planes, so you can stand under them as they come in for a landing.  Pretty cool!

 

See a plane come in for landing yourself!

It is so close to the runway that you can stand on it and feel the jet blast of the planes taking off.  Should you though?  Well, I guess each person has to make that determination for him/herself…

 

Elliott was smart like most of the people standing there and ran to the side when the blast got to strong; unfortunately I simply tried to run away from the blast, going further onto the beach and into the ocean.  Warning: don’t do what I did!  Not only did the bare skin on my back get totally sandblasted, every time I popped up out of the water to see if it was over yet, more sand got pelted into my head and hair.  Not a fun experience!

60 Sandblast

Run, Forrest, run!

Sandblasting and all, we had a fabulous time on this cruise.  So much so, that we did something we’ve never done before; we booked the same exact cruise for 2017, while still on the 2016 sailing!  I’m not saying it would be perfect for everyone, but this appeared to be the perfect cruise for us.  And we’re really looking forward to this year’s version:)

Cruising, Hawaiian Style, Part II

When last we left our heroes, they were on a boat rounding the Big Island of Hawaii after departing from Hilo. Kona was our next stop, but knowing we would be back on this side of the Big Island soon for a whole week, we decided to stay within the town of Kona itself before relaxing on board. (Relaxing is very big with me.) We walked through town, checking out some jewelry shops, a Del Sol (where everything they sell changes colors in the sun), and the local Kona Market.  The market was full of crafts and souvenirs but also extraordinarily hot.  After a quick run-through, I introduced Barry and Ann to the local chocolate-and-macadamia chain, Donkey Balls, where I graciously bought us all some balls.

158-barry-tried-his-first-donkey-balls

Barry and Ann try their first Donkey Balls

Since it was hot and we still had plenty of time before heading back to the ship, we all indulged in another local food item, shave ice (kinda like a snow cone).  We had ours with a snow-cap which is condensed milk on top. Super delish!  Afterwards Barry and Ann headed back to the ship, while Stephanie and I snorkeled just next to the pier.  There were a surprising number of pretty fish for such a small, crowded cove.

160-mango-shave-ice-with-a-snow-cap-condensed-milk

Mango shave ice with a snow cap

We had a long afternoon onboard, so we went to a couple activities in and around our pool time.  We made cheesy origami Humuhumunukunukuapua’as (Hawaiian State Fish), and later made Lauhala Ribbon Weave Leis in another class.  They actually came out pretty cool, and we brought ours home.  For a change in pace, the family tried the ship’s 50’s style diner for dinner.

Our ship cruised over to Kauai that night.  The next morning we tried the free cardio boxing class on board, a first for me.  I realized I could get into that.  Then we drove to Waimea Canyon, which is considered a “mini Grand Canyon” of Hawaii.  We climbed in our cars up Waimea Canyon Drive, and took in some of the best views with the whole gang.  The edge of Waimea Canyon overlooks the back of the beautiful Na Pali coast.  It can be a bit cloudy there, but the views are still fabulous.

171-looking-out-over-the-na-pali-coast

Looking out over the Na Pali Coast

The evening was dominated by one major event: Wendy and Linda’s wedding. They had had a civil union performed many years ago, but thanks in part to recent legislation, they were having an honest-to-goodness wedding.  What better spot than a cozy nook on a beautiful Hawaiian beach, and who better to officiate than the Honorable Reverend Elliott Segelbaum of the Universal Life Church (courtesy of the Internet)?  We ended up choosing Kalapaki beach close to the ship for easy sunset access. The view was so nice you would never know there was a giant Marriott only steps away.  We found a little tent in which they give beachside massages during the day, and we managed to magically transform it into a wedding tent.  The ceremony was short but sweet, and all the kids had a part, be it a reading or handling the unity candles or providing the music.  Wendy and Linda even had matching outfits.  Afterwards, we had a mini-dance reception in the tent, and that night at dinner on the ship, we had the wait staff bring a cake and sing to the “newlyweds.”

After such a busy day, we opted to spend our second day on Kauai relaxing while the New Jersey Contingent went touring.  We slept in and then headed to morning trivia where I totally won one of those insulated can holder thingies that we will never use.  Then it was back to Kalapaki beach for a swim. Stephanie and I got so into our conversation that we didn’t notice the current taking us waaaaay out.  We swam the 47 miles back to shore against the current, after which I crawled onto the sand to rest while Stephanie actually swam some more.  (The girl is part fish, I tell ya!)

Back on board, we spent the afternoon sailing around the Western side of Kauai – The Na Pali coast.  This coast is touted as the most beautiful coast of all the Hawaiian Islands, and it lives up to its reputation.  The sharp angles of the Na Pali Coast were carved by water eroding the volcanic island when it was newly formed.  Stephanie and I had been here before on a Zodiac, but it was just as amazing when seen from deck 12 of the cruise ship.

250-the-girls-of-the-na-pali-coast

Girls of the Na Pali Coast

And just like that, our cruise wrapped up.  We had our last family dinner together and watched a few of the shows that night around packing.  The next morning we ate breakfast and said farewell to the New Jersey Contingent, then enjoyed spending a surprise shipboard credit in the gift shop.  We disembarked and set off for Week III of our Hawaiian adventure.

999-off-to-get-married

Just Married

Cruising, Hawiian Style, Part I

A Hawaiian cruise was the whole reason for this family trip.  Wendy (Stephanie’s sister) really wanted to see as much of Hawaii in a short time as she could.  Given that we’d spent time in Hawaii previously, we were content to let Wendy direct this show.  Now – we love to cruise (some of my faves were our trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific crossings), and we love Hawaii, but honestly, we would not have thought to combine these two things.  There is so much to see and do on the islands, and with a cruise, you simply don’t have enough time.  (We call most cruises “sampler platters.”)  That being said, it’s pretty hard not to have a great time on a Hawaiian cruise!

So after our great week in Maui, we hopped an early morning flight to Honolulu where we met up with Wendy, her wife Linda, and four of our nieces:  Emily, Allie, Rachel and Ellie; all six of whom will hereafter be referred to as “The New Jersey Contingent.”  Our first day, we took it easy exploring the ship and relaxing in the pool. Dinner the first night was at the buffet.  What?!  No formal dinner in the dining room in my tux with ballroom dancing to follow?  How ever was I going to survive?  No problem. Being the smooth, advanced traveler that I am, I downshifted into casual mode, and prepared to have a nice understated cruise.

Our first full day brought us right back to Kahului, Maui from where we had just departed less than 24 hours prior.  (We joked that we could have stayed on Maui and picked up the ship the next day, but once I pointed out that we would have missed several buffets, we agreed we had made the right choice.)  Barry and Ann decided to stay on board, while the rest of us piled into two rental cars to tackle the famous Road to Hana.

The Hana Highway is a twisty, 52-mile road that is considered one of the most beautiful drives in the U.S.  It’s on the National Register of Historic Places since many of the bridges date back over a century.  This wonderful drive used to be extremely narrow often forcing cars to negotiate around each other with a cliff walls on one side, and a nasty drop on the other.  We were excited to show it all to the rest of our family.  Who cares that it was raining?  Who cares that it was raining?

26 The North Maui coastline

The North Maui coastline

Our first stop was at a waterfall called Haipuena Falls. The name doesn’t matter as much as the fact that this is just one of the many gorgeous waterfalls, surrounded by lush tropical foliage, for which the Road to Hana is famous.  And the fact that this is one in which you can swim!  At first everyone declared the water to be too cold, but after climbing upstream a bit, Emily and I decided to double back and take the plunge.  Pretty soon all of us were in the pool at the base of the falls.  Since our last visit, someone had hung a rope ladder over the pool, and we took turns trying to climb up it with varying degrees of success.

 

We stopped at the Ke’anae Arboretum for a short hike through tons of nature.  It’s a state-owned place that’s free, and the plants are varied and well-marked, so we really enjoyed finding lots of new flora.

We continued on to the Ke’anae peninsula, and we drove to the end of the road that travels down it. Here, the rainy day was making for some huge surf which sent football-sized lava rocks rolling and tumbling with each breaking wave.

VIDEO: Big waves and rolling rocks

A few more waterfall-viewing stops along the way, and we were at Waianapanapa State Park.  This is the home of Maui’s famous black sand beach, and the girls were fascinated with it.

In keeping with the colored sand theme, our next stop was the red sand beach.  To get to this one, you have to take a 15 minute hike along the shore around a mountain.  Your reward is a secluded beach made of red, volcanic sand, towering cliff walls above you, and a protected cove to swim in. Stunning!

67 Family on the Red Sand Beach

Family on the red sand

We had two days on Maui, which left us with an interesting problem: What would we do with our rental cars overnight?  Even if we wanted to pay exorbitant cruise-port prices, there’s no parking to be had at Maui’s cruise port, and all the shopping plazas in walking distance warn that they will tow if you leave your car overnight.  Luckily, however, there is an open lot on the faaaaaar side of the cruise harbor, about a half-mile away.  We rolled the dice, left our cars there, and walked back to the ship.  (Both cars were perfectly fine when we returned the next morning. Yay!)

For dinner that night, we went to the formal dining room, but the best they could do for us walk-ins was two tables for four.  The girls all ran to get a table together, which gave us an opportunity to have a nice dinner with Wendy and Linda. (Barry and Ann had eaten much earlier while we were on shore).  We knew we didn’t want to sit separately again, so after dinner, we all converged on Barry and Ann’s stateroom to make a plan.  If you think cruise ship cabins are tight when there’s only two of you, try stuffing ten people into one room.

74 Family meeting in Barry & Ann's stateroom

Family meeting in Barry & Ann’s stateroom

For our second day on Maui, we hit the beaches.  First up, our favorite turtle-spotting beach: Po’olenalena. We’ve written about this beach before, and we were hoping to introduce our family to our friends the sea turtles (Honu in Hawaiian).  There were four Green Sea Turtles there, and they completely ignored us as they swam round and round some rocks looking for tasty algae.  After snorkeling with the honus, we changed beaches to Maluaka beach. There were more turtles, followed by frolicking in the waves, having chicken fights and stacking nieces on top of ourselves.

85a Group shot at Po'alenalena

Group shot at Po’alenalena

Back on board, NCL actually advertised a ballroom dancing event.  Stephanie and I got all dressed up and headed over to check it out.  The bad news was that the dance floor was maybe 12 feet across.  The good news was that we had it pretty much to ourselves.  Very good news, actually, since it could only hold about three couples.  This being our most formal night, we had a formal cruise photo taken of our whole gang.

125 First formal night

First formal night

Our next day was at Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii.  Since we would be spending a week on the Big Island soon, we opted for a leisurely day rather than run all over trying to see the volcano with too little time.  We went into town with Barry and Ann, checked out Hilo’s famous craft market, and even saw some live music.  The market is usually a weekend thing, but they open up when the cruise ship is in port.

137 Hula dancing too

Live music and hula dancing

Back on board, we learned how to make fresh flower leis, and then experienced the most amazing part of the entire cruise so far.  THE POPCORN MACHINE!  (No photos sadly.)

OK, that was #2. The highlight was sailing past the point where lava from Kilauea cascades into the ocean.  The ship turned off her lights so we could really appreciate the glowing lava in the darkness.  Neither the photos, nor our video do it justice.

VIDEO: Kilauea at Night

We’ll leave you with this photo until next time.

155 Kilauea flowing into the ocean at night

Kilauea flowing into the ocean