Tuesday, January 27, 2015

January Cruises and Travels

In January we made the most out of being in Florida by doing 4 short (4 & 5 day) back to back cruises out of Tampa on the Brilliance of the Seas.  We like that ship, but now that we have done those cruises, have determined that we do not like short cruises.  One of the drawbacks was that we went to the same ports several times.  The advantage was that we experienced mostly nice weather, and, of course, were pampered on the ship.  Needless to say, we went in and out of Tampa 4 times.  Here is a picture of the downtown as we left: 

   There is a very nice Riverwalk down there which we enjoyed several times while in port. 
     The crew on the ship was extremely friendly and efficient, and we got to know some of them quite well.  Every day when we went to the Concierge Lounge at 5PM, we were warmly welcomed and well served by Mickey, the bar server: 

  We also met quite a few people there, a few of whom we had cruised with before.  Most of the people doing the short cruises are Floridians, and many of them are younger than the people we usually cruise with and are still working.  On the longer cruises, we usually met retired people, because they have more time to cruise.  On one of the cruises we met two women who have been in a committed relationship for a long while and who raise foster children, even though they have adult children of their own.  They recently adopted a 2 year old girl who was their foster child since she was a baby.  This is a picture of us with them;  from the left:  Mary, Khloey, Arlene, Lisa, & Elaine 

  Another couple we enjoyed spending time with was Phyllis and Larry Tandy, whom we first met in Sept. on the Oasis transatlantic to Barcelona:   

  All of these friends live in Florida.  Several of the new friends we made, who live in Florida, have invited us to stay with them the next time we return.
     On Jan. 12, the friends who hosted us for Christmas in Punta Gorda, George and Elaine Lewter, joined us for 5 days.  On the way out of Tampa, we passed the Vision of the Seas: 

  The first port was Grand Cayman, where they had been before many years ago.  We all took the public bus to the Cracked Conch restaurant, out on the west end, because there is a snorkeling cove right there.   

  They had their own equipment, but I rented some fins and a mask.  Elaine C. decided it was too rough for her to enjoy it, so she stayed onshore.  Here I am snorkeling with George: 

  and both George and his wife, Elaine, snorkeled for quite a while.  After the snorkeling, we all had some food and beers at the outside tables: 

  Apparently I swam too close to some jellyfish because I ended up with 2 rows of tentacle stings along the inside of my upper arm which I didn’t even notice until a few days later!  Back on the ship, we had a delightful dinner at Giovanni’s with Elaine and George.  

 The next day at Cozumel, 

  we were meeting friends sailing on the Vision, which was also docked there.  George and Elaine went on a ship’s shore excursion taking them to 3 different places to snorkel.  We went to Mandy’s, a Mexican bar and restaurant right in the port area, where we enjoyed a few Mexican beers and the company of Peter Blosic & Jim Thompson, and David & Colleen DeForest: 

  The next day was a cruising day and Elaine L. was having pain in her hip and leg which she thought was caused by getting off and on the snorkeling boat.  The last day, when they needed to get off the ship, she couldn’t even walk, so we helped her get a wheelchair and into their car at the port.  When we spoke to George later that day, she was in the hospital with a broken hip!!!  Such a fun cruise which ended in such an unexpected and painful way.
     The last cruise we had a different port: Key West.  We enjoy walking here, and this time we walked to the marina area where we saw this colorful whaling wall, painted by Wyland: 

 This is a picture of Elaine with a colorful marlin display, made to look like the real thing in the area where they used to bring in lots of them: 

  After the walk, we just enjoyed sitting on our balcony in the warm weather.  The last night on the ship, we had this picture taken with some of the staff up at the Windjammer: 

We ate up there so often that we got to know them pretty well and Alex, the chef, went out of his way to get us anything extra we wanted, such as my favorites, mushroom soup and Key lime pie.
     After getting off the ship, on Jan. 22, we drove back to our RV, which was stored at the Elks Lodge in Brandon, quickly got it ready to roll, and headed for the SKP park in Bushnell.  That same day we managed to get our laundry done, and also some shopping for food and cooking.  The next day we drove the car to The Villages, a very large retirement community about 30 miles away.  Our friends, Stephanie and Paul Bernhagen, who used to be RVers, and who built a beautiful home in Las Cruces after that, relocated to The Villages 2 years ago.  They bought a home which needed lots of TLC, almost totally renovated the inside, and now it looks beautiful.  Here they are in their living room: 

It happened to be Stephanie’s birthday the day we were there, so we went out for lunch with them and some other former RV friends, Jim and Cindy Cook. 

 After lunch Paul and Stephanie gave us a very extensive tour of The Villages, which took hours because there are about 110,000 people living there now.  It was built for people over 55, and it has extensive amenities which have been built for each little area of homes, called a village, as well as about 32 golf courses.  There are so many groups and clubs that it takes a daily newspaper to list all the activities.  There is quite a variety of house types and neighborhoods, and each recreational area also has its own theme.  We were quite impressed, but definitely not interested in moving there.  It suits Paul and Stephanie quite well, and he is playing golf nearly every day and also working part time at the golf course.
     We left Bushnell on Jan. 24 and started driving cross country on I-10, heading to Livingston, TX, where we are now happily set up at Rainbow’s End.  This is the headquarters of our RV club, the Escapees, and there is an extensive campground here, where we are boondocking.  Good thing we have until Feb. 8 to stay here because we have lots of things to catch up on.  The mail forwarding building is here, so we were able to pick up our mail, which means we had 3 months of business and statements to deal with.  We have to get visas for 6 of the countries we will be visiting when we sail between Sydney and Istanbul in April, May, and June.  And, we have to get our taxes done before we leave the country on March 28.  On Feb. 8 we will be driving in the car to Galveston, where we will board the Navigator of the Seas for 2 weeks of cruising with David and Diane and other friends.  We planned to visit them while we were in Texas, and when we contacted them, they said they were cruising, so we said we would join them!
     Once the cruises are finished, on Feb. 22, we will pick up our RV and continue heading west, back to California.  Planned stops to visit friends and family will be in Las Cruces, Tucson, Yuma, San Diego, Palm Desert and possibly Temecula.  We have to be back at Park Sierra early in March for medical checkups and to prepare for the trip to Australia.
     Tomorrow is Elaine’s 68th birthday.  We don’t have any big plans, because as usual, we are trying to lose some weight and get in better shape between cruises.  We will have to celebrate properly when we join our friends on the ship.


Thursday, January 08, 2015

December Travels

This is a catch-up post about what went on in December:
December found us with a few more cruises planned.  We had arranged to store our RV at the Brandon Elks, and we spent a few days there packing and getting ready for our flight to New Orleans on Dec. 6.  While we were in Brandon, we found a nice area to walk around one of the many small waterways.  There was lots of bird life, and I managed to get a closeup picture of some sandhill cranes

  and a marabou stork:

  These were taken not far from a housing development – the birds aren’t too afraid of people, it seems.
     December 6 we flew to New Orleans and boarded the Serenade of the Seas.  Our Park Sierra neighbors, Dave & Brenda Neil, had asked us to join them on this cruise a long time ago.  We weren’t aware that it was a reunion cruise of the family and friends – they had about 33 people in their group!!  We managed to get them alone long enough to have this picture taken: 

   Other cruise friends of ours, Jane and Doug Vickery, had a suite so we enjoyed a glass of champagne in their suite for sailaway.   

  We had other friends on board and we enjoyed going to Izumi with them one evening.  Here we are with Lisa & Larry Kimmons and Sandy & Roger Hagstrom:

  Izumi is the Asian restaurant on board, and this is one of the food orders:   

  Other friends, Mark & Mary from Minnesota, asked us to join them on their shore excursion in Grand Cayman, which was to Stingray City.   

  This is a sandbar area where large stingrays collect in great numbers and because the boats and people feed them, they seem quite tame. 

  They swim right up to you, let you touch them, sometimes they swim right over your arms or body (they have a silky feel), and they let the boat guys hold them and show their faces with people for pictures.  It was windy the day we were there so there were lots of waves, which made it harder to stand there and interact with them.  It is better to go on a calmer day.  After that the boat took us to a nearby area where we snorkeled to see different brightly colored fish and corals.  The last day of the cruise, we had lunch with some of the officers, and here we are with one of our favorites, Anders.  Roger and Sandy are in the picture with us. 

     We were taking the next cruise as well, and so were Jane & Doug, so we spent the turnover day in New Orleans with them, riding the trolleys. 

 There are 3 lines, it only cost 40 cents for seniors, and we could transfer between lines.  One of the lines goes through an area of stately old mansions, such as this one: 

  Near the riverfront, there was a large and elegant mall, and here we are in front of the fountain: 

  The first port was Key West, one of our favorites.  This is the waterfront where the ship docks:   

 We wanted to walk in some different areas, and a really nice quiet one was near the “Little White House”.   

 It was built in 1890 as naval quarters, but was used as a vacation home for many presidents, including Taft, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton.  Harry Truman used it the most, so it is sometimes called the Truman White House.  Some important conferences and decisions were made in this historic home.  In Nassau, the most obvious attraction seen from the port, is the Atlantis Hotel.  

We often walk over there for exercise, and it has a great aquarium, casino, elegant shops, and an extensive collection of Dale Chihuly art glass pieces.  This time, however, we took the public bus to explore other parts of the island.  Back on board, we had another delicious dinner at Izumi, this time with Lisa & Larry, and the Loyalty Ambassador Melissa with her fiancĂ©e, Claudio. 

   The lunch with the officers enabled us to meet Karine, the Guest Services Manager.  She is from France, and was delightful to have as a lunch companion.  

     We flew back to Tampa and removed our RV from the Brandon Elks, driving it to Punta Gorda, where we also stayed at the Elks.  The lodge there is the second largest in the country, and they not only have a nice bar, lounge, and restaurant right on the waterfront, but they also have a few rental cabins, and a large grass field for RV’s.  An old friend of Elaine’s from her school days in Illinois, Elaine Lewter, and her husband, George, had rented a home nearby for 4 months to escape the cold winter in Michigan.  We went over to their place for drinks and games one evening, and then they joined us at the Elks potluck on Christmas Eve day.  After the potluck, we all went walking over at the Fishermen’s Village, where they had wonderful Christmas displays:  

Christmas Day, they cooked for us at their rental home: 

  We enjoyed the traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings:

  Afterwards, we played games with them.  It was wonderful to connect with them again, since we have visited each other every few years in various locations, and always kept up with each other’s families and events.

     Dec. 26 we moved our RV to the SKP park in Zolfo Springs.  This park has a nice pool and the weather was warm enough that we used it almost every day.  There is also a nice walking area at the county park in town, just a few miles away.  We left our RV there and drove the car over to Okeechobee for a visit with cruise friends Jeff and Dorothy Brooks.  They are Canadians but for 4 years they have owned a place in an RV park right near Lake Okeechobee, and Jeff fishes a lot.  They were all prepared to take us out in their boat, which was a special treat for us.  Here is Elaine with them as we headed down the canal to the lake. 

   The lake is the second largest fresh water lake in the US, but to get out on it, you have to go through a lock, which separates the lake from the canal. 

  There is a big berm separating them, in order to prevent flooding.  The lock doesn’t lift boats up or down because the water levels are about the same, it just keeps the lake water separated from the canal and out of the nearby fields.  Here we are in the lock, holding on to some ropes to keep the boat in place while the gates open and shut:

  We went across part of the lake, which has reeds and water plants in places near the shore, but no buildings, houses, resorts, etc.  Jeff says there are often alligators to be seen out there, but this day there were none.  We went through another lock, and a different part of the canal to get to a place where Jeff and Dorothy often go on Sundays to listen to live music and drink beer with friends.   

  We were lucky because on this day, WE were the friends!! 

  On the way back, we went along the canal, which has some houses on it. 

 That evening, they prepared a delicious BBQ dinner for us.  

 This is a view out the back of their place, looking across to some of the neighbors nearby.   

  The next day we all had a hearty breakfast together, and then Jeff went fishing while Dorothy took us for a walk on the trails near their park.  We were quite impressed with their wonderful hospitality and also their home and park.

     We returned to Zolfo Springs and spent another day, then headed back towards Tampa in the RV.  We had a very quiet New Year’s Eve in the parking area (with hookups) at Camping World in Bartow.  It was time to get ready for the next batch of cruises.  We once again put our RV in storage at the Brandon Elks, did a little shopping and a lot of packing, and drove to the parking area near the Port of Tampa on Jan. 3.  We boarded the Brilliance, and are now scheduled to be on this ship until Jan. 22.  It is visiting a few ports in the Caribbean where we have been before, but we are enjoying the amenities of the ship, and the warm weather.  We are using this as a “spa” experience – trying to go to the gym every day in order to do the elliptical and weights, and walk 5 miles a day on the decks.  Hopefully, we will be in much better shape by January 22!!!  (Because you can see in the pictures all the FOOD events we have been having!!)