Saturday, March 30, 2013

8-Night Trip to Costa Rica

10 March 2013, Sunday

My friend Carol and I flew to Costa Rica to spend eight nights in Uvita, located on the Pacific side of the country. We spent the previous night at a hotel near the airport (Best Western on Dorsey Road) since we had to get up early for our 7am flight. We met up with Tony and two other couples at Iron Bridge Wine Company ( for dinner. It’s an expensive restaurant but the food was wonderful and of course, the company great. And they have a large selection of wine to choose from for your meal.

Our flight was on Spirit Airlines, a company that offers low prices, but then you get what you pay for. Pay nothing, get nothing. To bring a carry-on is $35. We brought snacks and bottled water onboard. Anything on the airplane has a cost, including water. I had to cram all of my camera equipment (monopod in the checked suitcase) in my camera bag. It must have weighed 12 pounds. Since it was considered a personal item, I couldn’t have a purse, so I had to also squeeze in my smartphone, wallet, pills, and my 3-1 liquids bag. Yes, the price of the tickets were low but depending on your travels and what you plan to pack, it may be worth buying tickets with another airline company. Spirit must have crammed in a few more rows of seats than the norm. I’m not tall but my knees were just two inches from the seat in front of me. I couldn’t believe how tight it was. Plus the backs of the seats did not move at all. It was terrible sitting so straight for two hours.

We changed planes in Ft. Lauderdale - first getting a bite to eat and more water. Our flight was about two hours late. Mechanical problems, so the company had to deliver a different airplane. Being a smaller plane, I got bumped to a different seat, just two rows back from the exit row. Fortunately, all three of us in my row got moved to the emergency exit row, as those seated were under 18 years of age. I loved the legroom! And on this plane the seats did move back.

After going through customs and getting our luggage, we walked out into steamy, hot Costa Rica. My friend Denis was waiting for us, all dressed in black, including a jacket! We hopped into a large van after Denis poured us a glass of chilled white wine each. Nice touch, thanks!

It should have been a 4 hour drive to Uvita, however, being a Sunday, the main highway (Rte 27) is turned into an only-south-bound-direction to accommodate the Tico’s (locals) coming back from their day at the beach. The north-bound side of the road would not be open until around 6pm. Our only choice was to take the long route through the mountains.

Denis drove around Alajuela and got lost. He had a GPS system but it wasn’t very useful. We decided to stop for lunch. The restaurant (Delicias de mi Tierra, in Alajuela) had a young man out in the parking lot guarding the cars for a small fee. Thank goodness, as our luggage was in full view from the back of the van. Our first typical Costa Rican lunch was delicious. I had a plate of lemon marinated chicken, beef, rice and refried beans, tomato salsa and friend plantains.

On the road again, we got lost a few times but we were able to enjoy the mountain scenery, including coffee plantations. The roads are narrow with lots of twists and turns. After a few more wrong turns, we ended up at the highway when it finally opened up.

Just before dusk, we arrived at Tárcoles River where we stopped to see about 35 American crocodiles resting on the bank of the river or floating in the water! The road has a bridge crossing over the river. Looking from above, I was amazed at the sight of so many crocodiles. Most were adults and were huge, some up to 20 feet. I later read online that this river is the most polluted in all of Costa Rica where sewage and diesel fuel is dumped, having traversed from towns and cities. How sad that these incredible creatures live in such pollution.

The rest of the drive to Uvita was stressful. It was dark and the road (from Rte 27, we turned onto 34) does not have painted lines, but red reflectors…once in a while. Plus, the road had ditches on the sides, which if you make a mistake and went too far to the right, you could end up in the ditch. I’m sure Denis was tired from the long drive. By the time we got to our place, we were all tired.

Our home for the next eight nights was at “BBU” (, a small hostel-type place that has six rooms, a small restaurant, and a newly built bar/sitting area. Lupita, who does the cooking, housekeeping, and everything in between, prepared dinner. We enjoyed tasty pork BBQ, roasted potatoes, and a salad along with more white wine.

My room, #3, is very basic. There’s a queen bed plus one set of bunk beds. There’s a flat screen tv, a/c, small area with counter top and shelves below (no closets, no hangers), and a bathroom with a large walk-in shower. It was very hot in the room when I arrived. I turned on the A/C to cool the room down. Anytime I left, I would turn it off to conserve energy and expenses.

A quick shower and into bed….a hard bed but not uncomfortable. I was glad I brought my pillow, as the ones that are supplied are also hard.

11 March 2013, Monday

The roosters woke me up early. I didn’t sleep well at all and got up a few times in the middle of the night to adjust the a/c. Lupita made our breakfast, which consisted of eggs (sunny side up), toast, and a local staple of rice/beans called Gallo Pinto. She also brought out a beautiful platter of fresh fruit - mango, watermelon, kiwi, and pineapple. It was a lot of food but very good.

Denis drove us to Playa (beach) Ventanas, stopping first at the grocery store to buy bottled water. It was just a couple of miles south of BBU. We had to walk a short distance through private property (owned by the widow of Bayer corporation). Parking was just a few dollars and $1 per person to get in. The walk was lovely and the area was well manicured with a large green lawn and all sorts of tropical plants and flowers. In the background I could see the mountains. This is the only area in Costa Rica that has mountains that come right down to the ocean area.

The beach has a lot of shade with palm trees, including many coconuts on the ground. A lot were sprouting. To the right of the beach are two caves that extend out to the ocean. We could see the tide coming in. If we had been there earlier, we could have walked all the way through. There were a few guys swimming in the flushing of the waves.

We swam and played in the waves, which were small. The water was warm, almost like bathwater. It was delightful, especially since we escaped the cold weather. I got stung on my shoulder by a jelly fish. Denis didn’t think there were any, but we later saw one near the water’s edge. It was probably the one that stung me.

There weren’t many people at the beach, maybe 10-12 total. It was a very relaxing and enjoyable morning. I felt secluded from the rest of the world.

Near BBU and up the hill is a small waterfall called Cascada Verde. There’s a small bar/restaurant so sat for a while and had lunch (chicken fajitas for me).

It’s a short walk down to the lower pool. The water was cold yet delightful. Towards the main falls were a bunch of people. Denis, Carol and I hiked to the top of the falls (Carol didn’t go the entire way) for a different perspective of the area. It was really beautiful.

Dinner: Probably my favorite dinner on this trip: Chicken cutlet that was lightly breaded along with sesame seeds and topped with a light white sauce. This was placed on top of a cold fruit and avocado salad (with mangos, which I love), and julienned vegetables.

12 March 2013, Tuesday

Breakfast: A large omelet with cheese, ham, onions, red peppers, and whole green olives; plus another beautiful platter of fruit. We did not starve on this trip.

Today we went to the Manuel Antonio National Park, which is about a 45 minute drive north of Uvita. This is another famous national park with wildlife and beautiful beaches. The entry fee was $10. Denis purchased a bottle of suntan lotion, which was very expensive. Bring your own from home.

It was a long thru the park to the beach areas. Both Carol and I were expecting a more lush-looking area, but then it was still the dry season.

We saw a sloth high in a tree and at least a dozen or so white-faced capuchin monkeys. They moved quickly from tree to tree, sometimes jumping across the path we were walking on. Some were lounging on large branches, while one or two were pulling open large leaves and inspecting them – probably for bugs or water. It was remarkable to see them in their nature. It certainly beats a zoo. There were also some large golden orb-weaver spiders, which I took photos with my close up lens. It has very long legs with a golden and black body – very unusual.

Continuing on, we arrived at Playa Manuel Antonio, which was Denis’s favorite beach. The woman at the ticket booth had told him a crocodile was in the water, so no one could go in. He was very disappointed. We sat at a picnic table enjoying the views, including seeing a large iguana. A little while later, there were 3-4 people in the water. A guide that was there said he ‘thought’ the crock was gone. Hmmmm. I wouldn’t go in the water.

We walked to the next beach, Playa Espadilla Sur, where we saw several raccoons! They were going from person to person trying to find food in bags. Most people shooed them away. I thought they were cute.

The waves were higher and rougher than the other beach (and Playa Ventanas). I got hit by a wave, which threw me off my feet. Never turn your back on the water. After about an hour, we continued with our walk. I was starting to not feel well.

The trail back to the starting point crosses over a small water area. We took a small boat to cross over, although you could walk around it.

We had drinks and snacks at beach side place called Café del Mar – great views. A woman came to our table with small bowls and vases for sell. She wanted a certain amount but I was able to negotiate the price down a little for Carol and me. I bought a small vase that had etchings of a capuchin monkey, toucan, and humming bird.

Later we went to dinner at El Avion. The building (two levels) is built around an old C-123 cargo plane. We sat at the upper level and had dinner (not me, as I was still feeling sick) while watching the sun go down. We had gorgeous mountain and ocean views.

Driving back in the dark was quite scary, just like our first trip to Uvita. Dark road, no lines, no street lights. Oncoming traffic had their bright lights on till last second. Denis had a hard time seeing the road because the window was dusty, so he turned on the windshield wipers. That just smeared the dust making it even harder to see. We made it back to BBU safely, but this area is not fun to drive around at night. We even saw people walking or riding a bike on the side of the road. Not one person we saw was wearing any light colored clothing. A small move over to the right and surely one would have been hit by a car.

Chad, Denis’s BBU business partner, arrived and would be staying about a week. Carol and I had some wine and I ate a light meal of crackers and bread to settle my stomach from earlier.

13 March 2013, Wednesday

Marino Ballena National Park is comprised of several beaches, including Playa Ballena, and is located just a couple of miles from BBU. Some beaches are free, others have an entry fee. This one was $6 per person.

It was a fairly long walk out but we loved the views. This area has a stretch of sand that extends out into the ocean with a rocky end, which looks like the tail of a humpback whale. I wish we had seen the area from above – next time. This area is home to the migrating humpback whales during mating season. Unfortunately we didn’t see any – next time.

We got there at low tide, probably too early. We wanted to wait for the tide to start coming back in, so we spent our time snorkeling and swimming in the water. The water was a little choppy so it wasn’t clear, but I did get some photos of fish. The coral in this area is growing and we were told not to stop on any of it.

I took a lot of photos and was glad I had my wide angle lens, which is perfect for the panoramic scenery. It was a beautiful beach and again, no crowds. There was one couple that had a large umbrella to sit under. There’s no shade at all and got quite hot.

As the tide started to come in, we packed up our belongings and started walking back. I took pictures along the way as the strip of sand slowly disappeared under water. By the time we reached land, the stretch of sand was no longer in site.

Denis stopped under some shady trees, located near a small stream that probably comes down from the mountain. At one point, my foot sank a few inches into the sand and I jokingly said, “Oh, quicksand!” Seconds later, Carol is thigh deep in this quicksand with her right leg straight down and the other kicked back (which probably stopped her from sinking further). She screamed for Denis and Chad to help her out while I took photos. Hey, there was no way I could help her out so I decided to capture the moment. One of her shoes was left behind after she was freed. Chad dug in with both arms and found her shoe. It was a scary experience for Carol but once she realized she wasn’t sinking further she felt better and laughed about it.

Carol and I weren’t very hungry so we had Lupita make us a salad with hearts of palm for lunch. After a shower and some time relaxing in the room, we all went out for drinks in Uvita to a place called La Casona de Doña Maria. It’s located on the second floor of the building. It’s a small place with a pool table. Some drank beer while I had some wine.

Later Lupita made dinner, which was not good at all. It was a beef dish and the meat was very tough and dry.

14 March 2013, Thursday

Lupita made us scrambled eggs, bacon, and fruit. The eggs were very salty and the bacon overcooked.

Denis made arrangements for Carol and me to go zip-lining in Osa Mountain, which is about a 45 minute drive south. Chad drove us there where we were told the tours were overbooked. Chad suggested we visit his friend’s butterfly farm.

The drive to the farm was a thrill of a ride. Dirt, rocky road, narrow with lots of tight curves, steep inclines and no side railings.

We met David, who created this incredible butterfly garden. He built a large netted, enclosed area, which contained all sorts of tropical plants, flowers, and a wonderful variety of butterflies. He is very passionate and knowledgeable about butterflies. As we were the only customers ($15pp entry fee) David spent about 1.5 hours with us explaining the entire life cycle of the butterfly. We saw eggs, cocoons, caterpillars, and butterflies. He explained how he takes care of plants in order to have the right amount for the survival of the butterflies. It was fascinating.

There were three or four areas which had fermented fruit on plates for the butterflies to feed on. This gave us some great opportunity to take pictures, rather than trying to take them while they fluttered in flight.

Behind the area David has been creating a large garden to include medicinal herbs, a humming bird garden, and other tropical plants. This place is fairly new and I hope he is able to build up his business and have a lot more tourists visit this special place. Anyone planning to zip-line can easily include the butterfly gardens on the same day.

David doesn’t have a web site, but I found this link:

Next door is another friend of Chad, Mike, who started a sanctuary for exotic animals. He told us that people will call him up asking to take an animal that they no longer want to keep or an animal that’s been rescued. The place is still a work in progress, but we did see baby parrots, a couple of squirrel monkeys, a baby doe, and a coatimundi. Coatimundi have sharp claws that could tear you up but this one loved having someone gently blow on his face. I stood away from the cage and blew on his face where he proceeded to relax and close his eyes. He’s a cute animal and sort of looks like a raccoon. Carol held another small animal that loved licking her neck.

Here's a web site for the sanctuary:

Back down the mountain, we had lunch at La Ponderosa (Ojo de Agua, Cuidad Cortes), recommended by David. Great choice. The restaurant had a large bar and large dining area. Behind we could see a pool and cabinas (rooms for rent). It like a nice play to say for a few days while touring this part of the country.

I ordered from our waitress the Costillo de la Casa, their house specialty, which was grilled BBQ pork with rice and vegetables, and tortilla chips, all for about $6. We met the owner Erick, who sat with us for a short while. Erick offered to take us to a beach but we wanted get back home.

There was a new guest at BBU, Jean, a French Canadian, who was staying here for four nights. We made plans to go to the waterfalls and invited him to join us. Denis brought Lupita’s 5-year old son to swim in the water. He’s a cute boy who made funny faces each time I pointed my camera to him. He liked Carol’s ipad and would played games on it.

Later we sat at the bar and had a round of drinks. I had a pina colada, which I sucked down quickly – it was so good. It had a yellow color rather than the usual white color. Carol had her usual (and new) drink of Mitchelada, which is beer with lime juice and served in a salted rim glass. The limes here are almost orange in color.

We made a quick stop to the grocery store for more bottled water and wine (about the same pricing as in the US).

Paul, who is a real estate agent, came to BBU. Chad and Paul have been friends for many years. Paul wanted to show Danny, another employee at BBU, a new development in the area. My ears perked up listening to Paul explain the details, so I asked to go along for the ride. Carol came too and we enjoyed the a/c in his truck.

About 2 miles away a portion of land has been cleared and the first of three sections of the development already has a road with sidewalks and a fire hydrant. Apparently that’s a rarity, as well as all wiring/lines will be underground. Each section will have 16 lots. Playa La Colonia (one of the Marino Ballena National Park beaches) is just a 5-minute walk away, as well as a restaurant/bar. There are some homes in the area too. Seeing the area learning this could be a good rental investment and possibly ‘snow-birding’ once retired, I told Paul I would definitely be interested in purchasing a lot and would talk to Tony about it. Danny is interested too, although it would be a permanent home for him.

Lupita made fish for dinner. Fresh-caught that morning. However I was disappointed. The sauce was very salty so I scrapped it off the fish, which sort of helped.

15 March 2013, Friday

Hacienda Baru is a national wildlife refuge located about 40 minutes north of Uvita and sits between the main road and beach. It was $7 to get in for a self-guided tour. Carol and I were disappointed with this place. The main garden had many different varieties of orchids, but they were not yet in bloom, just a bunch of signs showing what we missed. This is not a place to visit in March. Had we known we would have spent our morning elsewhere.

However, we liked walking around the area, which had more of a tropical feel than Manuel Antonio. And we did see some butterflies, a capuchin monkey, more golden orb-weaver spiders, several iguanas and lizards. There’s a tower where you can bird-watch but we didn’t see any.

At the beach we sat for a while. I saw four pelican flying just above the ocean waves.

Chad picked us up and we went to Dominical, which is a small surfer’s town - “town” meaning a couple of streets with bars, shops, restaurants, grocery store, and a beach area. It was large compared to Uvita but smaller than Jaco, located further north. Along side of the beach is a long stretch of booths – typical touristy items such as colorful beach towels, t-shirts (I bought one later for Tony), locally made products, and tacky souvenirs.

We had lunch at Tortilla Flats, a popular place. Every time we ate someplace we’d pick a table near a ceiling fan. There’s no a/c in these places. Carol ordered a basil margarita. Yes, you heard correctly. I had the ‘regular.’ Both were very good. I never thought of basil in a drink. I ate chicken fajitas for lunch. The chicken was very tender.

As we were leaving town, Chad pulled over and had us walk into another restaurant/bar. Inside the back area on the ceilings were pieces of broken surfboards. On each were the names of the rider, date they broke their board, and sometimes with comments. On one side of the room was a memorial to Elvis Presley and another section dedicated to Duke Kahanamoku, the king of surfing.

Chad called out to us and pointed out a toucan! It was high in a tree. Of course, my zoom lens was in the car. I snapped off a few shots and quickly changed lenses. By that time it was perched on telephone wires, which ruined the tropical bird scene. A second toucan flew by. We finally saw toucans!!

Chad made a couple of stops for photo ops before we returned to BBU. Later Denis left to fly home.

Carol and I dragged a table and two chairs out in the parking lot where we could enjoy the breeze. The dining area can get hot in the late afternoon, even though there are ceiling fans.

Lupita’s sister was visiting and I noticed her meal. Lupita made a rice and shrimp dish, which looked delicious, so I asked her to make the same thing for dinner. It was quite similar to paella and was excellent.

We met some of Chad’s friends that showed up for the evening, including Rama who we met a few days earlier at the waterfall bar. Jean joined us for some wine.

16 March 2013, Saturday

Today we went horseback riding ($60) to Nauyaca waterfalls (, which included breakfast, lunch, and swimming time at the falls. Denis made reservations the day before. Carol had stated if we were going horseback riding on this trip to save it towards the end of the trip in case we were too sore from riding.

The night before, Carol got on the internet to see what we would be getting ourselves into. The pictures of the falls made me realize I would need my wide angle lens and zoom lens. I was hoping to just bring my 35mm lens to keep the weight down. Nope, I brought all three lenses.

Once we paid for our ticket, Chad drove us to the meeting point. This was another narrow dirt road with steep and sharp curves. Chad wasn’t sure if he would be able to get the van back up. I offered to ask someone in our group if we could hitch a ride in the 4-wheel car but Chad said not to worry.

There were probably 30 or so people in the group and were of all ages. One of the guides asked each person their riding experience in order to match up with the right horse. Me: I was on a horse once in Hawaii when I was about 15. My horse was Palomo and he was very gentle. Carol’s horse was Tico.

We were divided into three groups. There are about 60 horses total, so each works every other day. As we began we really didn’t need to guide them. They knew the way. Every once in a while Palomo wanted to go faster but I kept him at bay.

We rode along a small ‘road’ passing by the beautiful countryside. 40-minutes later we arrived to a place with a restaurant and mini zoo. There were a few peacocks and a couple of scarlet macaws. One macaw was outside of the large cage sitting on the ground. I got down to his level to take some photos. He lunged and pecked at my lens. Maybe he saw his reflection in the lens. No damage done, thank goodness.

Breakfast was served. We ate a variety of fruit, banana bread, and fried patties that were a mixture of corn and cheese. The macaw flew to the railing near where we were sitting and a young boy fed him some of the patty. I tried to feed the bird as well, but I guess he had enough, so I took it over to the other bird in the cage. He liked his treat.

Back in the saddle again, we rode for another 40 minutes. We walked through two areas of water. Palomo decided to take a break for some water. He drank and drank and drank.

At this point when walking on the trail to the waterfalls, there’s a sign with arrows pointing in two different directions. Everyone had gone ahead of Carol and me so we decided to take the path to the right. We ended up at the upper end of the falls. What a sight!! It was one long, narrow waterfall. I was glad I brought my wide angle lens.

I set up my camera for Carol to take pictures of me with the falls in the background. I started to walk down a very large rock when my feet slipped out from underneath me. I instinctively put my hands down to stop the fall. I did hit my butt (not much of a bruise) but I pretty much took all of my weight in my hands. Oh my, the pain!!! I really slammed the palms of my hands on the rock. I was wearing my sneakers and the rock was dry but still I slipped. Thank goodness Carol had my camera in hand, as it would have been damaged if I had it with me. I sat for a while to compose myself. A man asked if he could help me but I said no thanks. I didn’t want him coming down to get me and possibly slipping himself. So much for a photo of me and the waterfall.

My hands hurt as I walked back. There were bamboo railings and each time I grabbed it, my hand stung in pain. Once at the lower end of the falls, I had a couple of the guides help me to the swimming area, as those rocks were wet and I didn’t want to risk falling again.

I soaked my hands in the cool water hoping to get the swelling down. I swam a little and tried to forget the accident and not let it ruin the rest of the day. This section of the falls was stunning. Some of the guides and others climbed a long rope and jumped into the water. I told Carol, “Well, my hands are bruised and sore. Maybe I should climb the rope and injure myself even more.” The young kid in the group jumped in and would yell, “Awesome!!!”

After about two hours at the falls, we hiked back up to our horses and rode back to the restaurant. Lunch consisted of chicken, rice, potatoes, salad, and corn tortillas. The chicken had a nice flavor but we couldn’t figure out what spices were used. Everything was very good.

Someone spotted a toucan in the tree. I got in close with my zoom lens. While I hated carrying all this camera equipment I was glad to have it all.

The last leg of the journey included crossing two small streams. Palomo walked slowly, as the stream had various sizes of rocks. He really was gentle.

Back at the starting point, we thanked our guides and tipped them. Chad was nowhere to be found. Oh no, did he have a problem getting back up the road? Carol and I sat around for about 15 minutes and then saw Paul’s pickup truck. He had a super-duper heavy duty 4-wheel truck. He drove us up the road without any effort.

Paul drove us to his real estate office where he got me a bag of ice and some motrin for my hands. That was really kind of him. Chad showed up after buying some seviche at a road-side shack. It looked really good so I wanted to have my own cup.

Paul drove us to see a few sites in the mountains. One home was under construction. It’s probably over $1M. The views are fabulous but I would never want to have a home so high up with the kind of roads they have. You definitely need a 4-wheel drive vehicle. He also showed us his lot where his home will soon be built. Same beautiful views from above.

I really wanted to go to the beach for some sunset views but decided to stay home and keep my hands on ice. After a while, I packed some of my things, showered and then had drinks at our cool spot in the parking lot with our table and chairs.

Paul and Chad had gone surfing and came back for dinner. Carol and I ran out of wine, so asked Paul to make a run to the store along with a couple small bottles of hot salsa to bring home to Tony.

Danny and Lupita’s sister cooked dinner this evening. I wanted the chicken dish that Lupita on our second night. Danny wasn’t so sure but I gave him dome details. It wasn’t quite the same recipe but was very good.

We had a late night with the group, including a family that arrived for a couple of night.

17 March 2013, Sunday

I slept in a little and finished my packing for the trip home. One last delicious breakfast from Lupita.

Chad wanted to leave about noon but ended up going to the beach with the family that arrived the night before for a couple of hours. We left Uvita around 1pm. Chad filled the tank with gas and we headed north on Rte 34.

At one lookout point, we saw some great waves. Chad was itching to go surfing. We watched two young men go into the water. There was only one small area that was clear of rocks. One of the men had a hard time getting out far enough and started to get slammed by the waves. He eventually made it back to the beach. All of us assumed he was a novice surfer.

Just north of Jaco (we drove through Jaco for a few minutes) is a road-side restaurant, Bar Restaurante Rancho Manuel. It’s a large place with an open kitchen, a nice bar and large area with tables and chairs. I ordered one of the specials of the day: smoked pork with rice and beans, sweet plantains, and some sort of vegetable dish. It was a huge portion for just $5. Carol ordered fish fingers, which came with a small side salad. Chad had the same as me.

Paul had given us directions to the airport, which I’ve added some additional information. This is handy for anyone going to/from Uvita:

-Rte 34 to Rte 27 (90 minutes). There will be a sign with direction towards Orotina.

-Rte 27 is a toll road (3 tolls). Go about 18 miles.

-Take the exit for Siquiares (the sign comes up last second so stay in the right lane a couple of miles prior).

-Go around two round-abouts: Take the 4th road (9-o’clock position), crossing over Rte 27. At the next round-about, take the second road, which is 1/2 way around the round-about.

-Go 2.7 miles and veer right towards Rte 1 and then a right onto the Pan American Highway, Rte 1.

-Go 4.3 miles (you will pass Dos Pinos, a beer manufacturing site on the right – can’t miss it with its green neon colors) to the airport, which is on the right.

Rte 27 was one-way direction heading north – same as last Sunday. Traffic moved smoothly, although many were reckless drivers. We were almost in an accident, as we saw two cars to the left of us almost hit. Sparks and smoke were everywhere. All three hearts skipped a few beats.

At the second round-about, our GPS system wanted us to take the first road (Rte 124). At that time I just wasn’t sure which road to take and we didn’t want to get lost, as it was getting dark. We stopped twice for directions and finally got on the correct road. If your GPS takes you onto 124, that’s okay, as it will also get you to Rte 1.

It was dark by the time we arrived to the airport. I was surprised that the arrival terminal building was just a few hundred feet from the exit ramp. It was 6:30pm, a long day to get to the airport. Carol and I hugged Chad goodbye and wished him well driving back to Uvita in the dark. Since he had a van, we hoped that he would just pull over and spend sleep till dawn.

The airport was empty. None of the ticket counters opened until 10:30pm. In the women’s bathroom, we changed into our travel clothes. We had spent half the day in shorts/shirts since there was no a/c in the van. I brought a wash cloth from home and planned to toss away at the end of the trip. I felt much better after freshening up.

Everyone is required to pay a $29 departure tax, which we paid at the only open counter.

There’s an upper level eatery, Café Lavazza, where they sell coffee, bottled water ($3), and pastries. The wifi didn’t work well at all. It was a long wait. I should have kept my leftovers from lunch (gave to Chad) for a light dinner.

It was 10:15pm, so we gathered our things and walked to the ticket counter. Already the lines were long! Everyone had to check in; no one could do the usual 24-hour online check in. Our passport and receipt for the departure tax were inspected three times! I was given a window seat on the first leg and aisle on the second leg, with Carol close by. We had a red-eye flight home. Ugh!

Once through the security area, we checked out the large store. There were lots of souvenirs but most were expensive. I saw some beautiful photography books on Costa Rica but didn’t want to lug a heavy book home. I almost purchased a bottle of water as we got close to the departure time but a salesman said I would not be able to take it on the plane. I thought that was very strange.

18 March 2013, Monday

12:30am: As each zone was called for the flight, people had to have their bags inspected. There were about 7-8 security people behind tables. I wondered if they were looking for liquids or drugs.

The flight was uneventful. San Jose looked beautiful at night with all its lights. It’s a large city and a place I read that’s not safe to visit.

Once in Fort Lauderdale (5:30am arrival), we ran into chaos! The airport was a zoo! It seemed as if all flights landed at the same time and everyone was trying to make their connecting flight at the same time. The line to get through security (after going through customs and re-checking our bags) seemed to be the entire length of the terminal, although it did move pretty quickly.

At security and x-ray area, it took a long while to go through. Someone ahead of us stopped traffic, as his bags were being carefully inspected. Once through security, Carol stopped at the bathroom while I watched the bags. When it was my turn, I walked inside and seconds later heard, “Last call for flight xxx to Baltimore.” I made a u-turn and we quickly ran to the gate. We had not realized how much time was lost getting through security, nor did we hear any announcements for our flight. I didn’t have a watch with me on this trip either.

Once in Baltimore, I was glad I didn’t see any snow on the ground. The weather report called for 1-3” of snow. The hotel shuttle picked us up and the driver loaded our luggage into my car. Fifty minutes later we were home.

Glenn, Carol’s husband, had spent the night at my house so he could pick her up. The four of us went out to lunch, as we were starving. Later Carol and Glenn drove home while I took a well-needed 3-hour nap.

Quick Summary

I had a very good time in Costa Rica with Carol, despite a few negative things. The beaches, mountains, waterfalls, and scenery were gorgeous, the food (most meals) was excellent and inexpensive; the Ticos we met were friendly and I never felt uncomfortable while there. I appreciated everyone we met.

I enjoyed my stay at BigBamboo Uvita (will posted an in-depth review on Trip Advisor) but wished for a few more amenities. I was glad they had a/c in the rooms, a tv and wifi (although it didn’t always work well in the room).

I am definitely returning to Uvita but would also like to explore other areas of Costa Rica. One area we didn’t get to visit is Corcovado where it would be best to spend a few nights to see some of the fabulous wildlife.
Photographs: I invite you to see my photographs from this trip. Currently I have two galleries and hope to upload the rest within the next several days, so please check back later.

Pura Vida!!


Monday, March 4, 2013

Photos from Lion Country Safari

I visited the Lion Country Safari (16 Feb 2013) for about 4 hours. The first portion I spent about a 1.5 hours driving thru the park. I got there right when it opened, which is one of the better times to visit. The web site states the best time is during a rain.

Most of the animals were still pretty active, so I was glad I didn't show up later in the day. I wish I could have gotten better shots of the lions but certainly understand the necessary, tight fencing. I didn't have to rush with cars behind me. The road is two lanes in some areas so this allows people to stop and watch the animals while others can go around. A female lion kept chasing the vultures away from some bones; the pelicans splashed in the water; and a huge rhino casually walked by my car; just to name a few animals.

Later, I walked around the second section of the park. Loved seeing the flamengos, watching young children feed a giraffe, and relaxed eating a picnic lunch that I packed. There's a petting zoo area with goats and other small animals.

The price is on the expensive side (must be a fortune for a family with lots of kids!) but I was able to get a small discount with a coupon.

It would be nice to visit again the next time I travel to Florida. My mother's house is just 7-8 miles way from the safari!

You can view the rest of my pictures by clicking here.  

Friday, March 1, 2013

Trip to Rome and a 15-Night Cruise

Note: I started this back on November 28th but got quickly behind. Today I posted the remaining journal. It is long.

28 November 2012 – Rome Italy

I am in Bella Roma!! I am traveling with friends Carol and Glenn. We are spending three nights in Rome and then will board the Celebrity Silhouette for a 15-night cruise to Fort Lauderdale. Our itinerary: Florence, Genoa, Toulon, Barcelona, two days at sea, the Canary Islands, and seven days at sea.

The flight was good with the exception of the last 30-40 minutes, which we encountered terrible turbulence!! Our flight had a total of 17 fellow cruisers.

I hired Rome Cabs ( to take seven of us to our hotels. There was three drop off locations. Massimo was our driver. Traffic was very heavy getting into the city due to the rain! Wow, it really stops the traffic.

I am staying at Hotel Parlamento ( my home away from home while in Rome. It’s in a great location located on via del Corso. There’s easy access to the bus and metro and easy to get around to other areas on foot. The Trevi fountain and Spanish steps are just a 5-7 minute walk away.

Everyone at this family-owned hotel is wonderful. Mr. Chini, the owner, upgraded me to a room that opens onto the terrace. He probably upgraded me because of being a repeat customer and for bringing him my cruise friends as new customers. Tiziano, a handsome man, is polite, friendly, and always taking care of the customers. There are others too (Andrea and Roberto) that are friendly and helpful.

My room, #104, is a nice size with room to walk around. Comfortable king bed, nice marble finished bathroom and a small shower with full body jets (but they didn’t work, or at least I couldn’t figure out how to use it). There are doors that open to the terrace, which has a few tables and chairs. It's too cold to sit outside, plus everything is wet from the rain.

Carol, Glenn and I spent our afternoon in Rome walking to Trevi fountain, Campo de Fiori (great outdoor food market), and Piazza Navona (large Christmas market), and pizza for lunch at La Focaccia ( via della Pace, 11). You walk inside passing thru the kitchen with the large pizza ovens. We sat down stairs, where we found the place to be almost empty except for 5-6 people. I had delicious fried eggplant with mozzarella and ricotta cheese pizza (9 euros). Yum! Glenn and Carol enjoyed their food too. We shared 1/2 liter of red house wine (5.50 euros).

Afterwards, we visited the Pantheon, and then hit the Despar grocery store a couple of blocks from the hotel for some wine and lemoncello.

Nine friends came to my room for pre-dinner drinks. Carol brought her ‘mandarin-cello’. We enjoyed that along with the wine and lemoncello.

My group of five (Christine, Paul, Carol, Glenn and I) had a nice 20-minute walk to Il Fico ( for dinner, which I enjoyed in February 2012. It's located near the Piazza Navona on a small street and has the atmosphere of a typical trattoria with decorations on the wall, a local feel, and friendly service. With our complimentary prosecco we toasted to the start of a wonderful trip together.

I ordered the battered/fried stuffed zucchini flowers. Inside was cheese, perfectly melted, and anchovy - just enough for a light, salty, but not overly fishy taste; then the octopus salad, and finally the evening special: Risotto with mushrooms and gorgonzola. I was expecting a stronger flavor from the cheese, but there was only a hint of it. I thought it was well prepared. It was a large portion and I couldn't finish it. We shared a liter of house red wine and instead of dessert, we were given a shot of lemoncello to end our delicious meal.

We slowly walked back towards our hotel, stopping along the way taking pictures, and went to see the Trevi fountain lit up at night.

Back in the room, we had some wine; then time for bed. Late at night it was thundering and lightning.

29 November 2012 – Rome Italy

I spent the day alone since most of my cruise time would be with my friends. At breakfast, Tiziano asked where we were dining this evening. After telling him, he suggested a place called Gino’s. He said, “You should go there, it’s like eating at home,” but that it’s difficult to get reservations. It sounded great but I couldn’t cancel our current reservations. I took the restaurant card for future use.

I spent the morning near the Spanish Steps (empty of tourists this cold, rainy morning), and checked out the stores. Many were decorated for Christmas with lights, wreaths, and bright red ornaments. I was sure Rome would be beautiful by Christmas. The window displays varied: fashionable, contemporary, strange, elegant, quirky. And the shoes! Prices are outrageous, but this is Rome.

I walked to Piazza Popolo (with a detour to walk along via Margutta, a peaceful small street) where I visited a small museum on Leonardo DaVinci’s works. There were replicas based on his drawings and sketches. I spent an hour inside looking over and playing hands-on with these marvelous replicas while it poured outside. DaVinci was a painter, sculptor, engineer, and scientist, just to name a few, who was so far in advance of others of his time that it’s mind boggling. This is a gem of a museum and quite different from the other museums in Rome that are filled with sculptures, paintings, etc.

I decided to find Ristorante Da Gino just to see if I could get for lunch. It was a little hard to find – located in a tiny alley off Parlamento, with the door entrance practically covered with plants/shrubs. I walked in around 12:30pm where I saw a small group of people eating lunch – they were the owners/family of this small restaurant. I asked if I could make lunch reservations. 1pm? Si, grazie! I walked around the area enjoying streets I hadn’t been on yet. I ended up at the Tiber River, which was pretty muddy looking.

I returned promptly at 1pm and was given a table near the entrance and hostess area, The restaurant was just about full! Tables were set close together and the last few had ‘reserved’ signs, which were quickly filled in minutes. As I ate my lunch, people came and went, some had reservations, some made reservations for another day, and some were turned away because they didn't have reservations.

Gino, the owner, waited on me. He moved slowly serving several tables. One of the sons told me Gino won’t stop working in his old age. Gino would give his recommendations to me. I started with a hearty riso & verdure soup, which was so filling that I couldn’t finish it, especially since I was looking forward to my entrée: Lamb with rosemary, garlic, and potatoes. Simply prepared, home style, and very good. I had a 1/4 liter of white wine to go with my meal. I didn't jot down the total but it was around 20 euros.

Gino was kind to let me have my photo taken with him, which I later showed to Tiziano. He was surprised, but happy for me that I was able to dine there for lunch.

I wanted to visit the Capitoline museum but as I walked south on via del Corso, it was blocked off by at least two dozen carabinieri. Protestors were walking up the street throwing fire crackers in the middle of the street. I stood for a while watching the spectacle. The carabinieri told the on-lookers move away from the area, but we stood around. It wasn’t a hostile group. They made their way to the Parlament building. I believe it was a workers protest.

This evening the group met in Christine and Paul’s room for cocktails. Their room was much larger than mine. Nice large bed plus a sofa. Bathroom was bigger too.

The same group of five headed out to dinner at Hostaria Romana ( This is one of my favorite places to eat in Rome. I made reservations in advance via email to the owner and requested a table on the lower level. All of the walls are filled with graffiti. A few of the waiters recognized me, including Gigi and Franko (he was our waiter for the evening).

We were seated in one corner. On the back side was a large group of Brits, about 16, and there were probably two or three tables of Italians. The room was very noisy with everyone having a great time…except the Italians who shushed the room at one point in the evening. Anyone that has dined at Hostaria Romana knows this place can get very noisy, especially in a small room.

I had the antipasti to start, a nice small selection of food; pasta Amatriciania, which is prepared table side and was excellent! We had one liter of house red wine and later ordered a second liter. We chatted with the Brits and as the evening progressed our two groups blended into one. We had such a fun time.

We walked by the Trevi fountain on our way home. Late that night it really poured and thundered.

30 November 2012 Friday – Rome Italy

After breakfast, Christine, Paul, Carol, Glenn, and I took the mini 116 bus to Trastevere. We got off near the Tiber River and walked the rest of the way to our destination – a cooking class. The bus stop was very convenient, just several feet from the hotel entrance.

We had some time to kill, so we visited the nearby market. It was small but had the same usual food items on display as at other markets. A fishmonger egged us on to have our photo taken with him while he held either a huge knife or the head of a swordfish. He was very cheerful.

The sun was finally out for the day. I was a little disappointed to miss the sunny day being inside a kitchen, but you can’t predict the weather when you do advance bookings. Glenn headed off for the day while the rest of us attended the cooking class. A friend of mine told me about this class and I thought it was a great idea – something different to do instead of the usual touristy things in Rome. The class holds a maximum of 12 people. In addition to Carol, Christine, and Paul, friends Lynn and Leo joined us. We also met another couple going on our cruise; and four others.

It was advertised as a 5-hour class but it lasted a little longer than that. Chef Andrea asked everyone to Introduce themselves before going into the kitchen where we spent our time prepping the ingredients for our lunch. Our menu consisted of fried artichokes with a southern style pesto; fettuccini with a ragu Bolognese sauce; chicken cacciatora; roasted potatoes; ricotta and chocolate torta for dessert.

I was surprised how tiny the kitchen was, especially for a group of 12 ‘chefs’ plus Andrea (sometimes Erica came in to assist). We all managed pretty well even if one had to squeeze by or move out of the way.

Christine, Paul, and I started on the vegetables for the Bolognese meat sauce. We learned how to properly peel and cut artichokes, and we made fresh pasta. I also helped prepare the meat sauce, which was a combination of beef and pork. Once combined, it simmered on low for at least an hour. Some of us took turns cranking out fresh fettuccini. I’ve made fresh pasta in the past and this got me thinking I should make more at home. There’s nothing better than fresh pasta!

It was fun cooking with others and I enjoyed meeting people from around the world. I had fun in the kitchen prepping, watching others, listening to Andrea, and taking pictures. The pasta Bolognese was my favorite dish of the day. The southern style (tomato-based) pesto sauce, which you use for the battered fried artichokes, was excellent. It can also be used as a sauce for a pasta dish. I did have a few issues with Andrea, so I will say this wasn’t an exceptional cooking class. You can read all the details (photos too) of the cooking class here:

Glenn showed up right before we left and he got to taste our torta. Afterwards, we had a nice long walk back to the hotel.

I hosted a pre-cruise happy hour with about 45 other cruisers. Two weeks before the trip, the place I had booked told me they couldn’t take such a large group. I was able to find another place thanks to Roberto at my hotel. We all met at 0,75 – zerosettantacinque, ( located across the street from the Circus Maximus, which was about an 15-minute walk from the hotel – longer if stop to take pictures along the way. We enjoyed drinks and a fabulous spread of antipasti/tapas for a couple of hours. Not only was the food delicious, but every time I went back to get another bite or two, the cooks would bring out entirely new foods to sample. There was plenty of food to eat that dinner crossed my mind. The staff was wonderful, including Mathew and Flavio. I met the owner, Michele, and thanked him for a great night.

After our party we walked back to the hotel, walking past the Colosseum, Vittorio Emanuele II monument, a church here and there, which flood lights lit the buildings. It was a good opportunity for night photography.

Christine wanted to have drinks on the terrace, as we did this a couple of years ago. The terrace has 4-5 tables with chairs. We sat outside for just a few minutes as it was very cold. Carol and Glenn later went to their room. About 11:30pm Christine said, “I’m not leaving Rome without having a pizza.” So off we went. I asked Andrea for his recommendation of a pizza place that was still open. He directed us to Pizza Ciro ( located just down a block or so on our street.

There were a few others eating pizza. The menu had a long list of pizzas to choose from at various prices. We selected the Margherita pizza (9 euros) to share, along with some wine. I have to say this was some of the best pizza I’ve ever had! The dough was crusty and thin, the sauce the right consistency (not watery or overly thick), and just the right amount of mozzarella. We thought it was so good that we ordered a second one!

Rome photos:!i=2290748764&k=QTJWX77

1 December 2012 Saturday – Rome to the Port

After breakfast and saying our goodbyes to everyone at the hotel we headed outside to wait for our car service with Rome Cabs (30.50 euros pp). Massimo was already waiting for us. It was nice to have him again as our driver and we appreciated his promptness.

The sun came out as we drove to the port of Civitavecchia. Check in took some time for me, which I didn’t know why. Carol and Glenn were long gone and on the ship, but I met up with Christine and Paul. We headed to our cabins with a glass of sparkling wine in hand. We quickly dropped off our bags and went to Bistro on Five for lunch (after getting another glass of sparkling wine). You can order various crepes (savory and sweet), soups, salads, etc. I had the seafood crepe and we each ordered different dessert crepes to share.

My aqua class cabin (#1635, room attendant was Zar) was located port side of the ship. Carol and Glenn were in 1633 and Christine and Paul were in 1637. We eventually opened the partitions on the balcony so we could enjoy cocktails together and talk while enjoying our sea days. There was angled post between my cabin and Christine’s but they could step over it.

My luggage arrived so I unpacked and then went to the boat drill. Afterwards, we met up with other Cruise Critic members for a sail away party. It was dark by the time we left the port.

Dining in Blu is probably the best reason to splurge on an aqua class cabin. There are other perks but the food stands out in Blu. Blu is open seating and we usually arrived around 7:15-7:30pm for dinner. Most times it was the five of us; other times we had other friends join us.

For our first night we sat at one table but for the rest of the cruise, we sat closer to the entrance at a table for eight. We never had to wait more than a minute or so for our table, but there were a couple of nights that we had arrived later than our usual time and had to wait for a bit.

2 December 2012 Sunday – Livorno Italy

I arranged for a private tour for eight people with (Claudio Caponera) to Florence and San Miniato. Our guide, Francesco, picked us up and we promptly headed out for the day. It was an overcast, rainy cold morning. As we left the port, Francesco asked why we had San Miniato on our list of sights to see and suggested we drop it and instead, visit San Gimignano in the afternoon. We were game.

Our first stop in Florence was to Piazzale Michelangelo where we had wonderful views of Florence. In the distance it was a long horizontal stretch of morning fog. Florence looked cold and old, yet magical. After the obligatory photo ops, we drove into the city and stopped to see the Church of Santa Croce. It was a Sunday so mass was taking place. A few of us quietly walked in and stood in a corner admiring the interior while listening to the mass.

Outside in the piazza, there was a Christmas market. There were vendors from different countries, including France and Germany. I picked up a couple of small items.

I walked around for an hour while the rest of the group visited the Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David, an incredible piece of sculpture I saw several years back right after it had been cleaned. I purchased a beautiful purple leather purse and walked around while eating pistachio and Nocciola (hazelnut) gelato. Yum!

We were dropped off at Piazza della Repubblica and the group split up for an hour or so. Five of us headed to the roof top of the department store La Rinascente for lovely (and closer) views of the Duomo and nearby terra cotta rooftops. I knew we would not have time to go to the top of the Campanile, so this was the next best option. There’s a café on the roof top, a nice place to consider on a future trip to Florence.

We walked to the baptistery and Duomo; then over to Piazza della Signoria. The ponte Vecchio was crowded (as always). I enjoyed looking at all of the gold jewelry on display in the windows. The river was quite muddy looking from the recent rains.

After checking out the leather market, we went to the van Francesco drove us out into the country side. Seeing all of the hills, the rows of poplars, vineyards minus its grapes, fall colors, and other picturesque scenery made me want to jump out and take pictures. I definitely need to plan a land-based trip soon where I could plop myself in an apartment someplace in Tuscany, rent a car, and take my time traveling the countryside with my camera and gear. The sun was out turning our day into a beautiful afternoon!

Francesco stopped at an area called Fattoria Poggio Alloro where we had views of the vineyards, country side and the towers of San Gimignano in the distance. The sun was not in the best direction to take pictures of San Gimignano. He was patient as we all gave him our cameras for group shots.

In San Gimignano we had a quick bite to eat in a small café (prosciutto cotto, mozzarella panino and wine) and then we walked on our own exploring this fabulous town. I was here several years ago and climbed a tower. This time I walked to the highest point possible and got some great photos of the towers (and countryside) at a somewhat closer eye level. I later purchased a pretty ‘double’ ceramic bowl for olives and pits.

Back at the port, we all thanked Francesco for a superb day (tour price 70 euros pp w/tip).

Happy hour on board the ship: Celebrity revised the Captain’s Club Elite social hour (5-7pm) from having it in the observation sky lounge to passing out three coupons per day per member. I wasn’t sure I would like this new format, as everyone would be spread out at the various bars on the ship rather than in one lounge. It worked out very well. My group of friends and I would meet at the martini bar almost every night and had the same waiter (Joey). We enjoyed our drinks and would use the third coupon for a glass of wine to take to dinner.

Florence photos:!i=2303411634&k=cZjkwDc

3 December 2012 Monday – Genoa Italy
Genoa was one port that I was really looking forward to visiting. I spent a lot of time planning on what to see/do, as most museums and palazzo are closed on Mondays. With the help of a trip advisor friend (thank you Mary!), I was able to come up with full day itinerary. I also booked a private tour for the Palazzo del Principe. There were nine of us and I was the unofficial guide. It was another day that started out gloomy but the sun came out soon afterwards. It was quite cold too.

The old town area of Genoa is quite compact. We could have walked from the port but there was a metro station right across the street, so we saved time and leg work. Our first stop was to the San Lorenzo Cathedral. The inside was beautiful with arched columns, black and white marble; mosaic marble flooring, etc. But my main purpose was to see the treasury museum (6 euros) with its collection of silverware, jewelry, and religious artifacts. Only three of us visited the museum, while the rest had coffee across the street.

Next door was the Palazzo Ducale. This was once the home of the Doges of Genoa and is now a museum and arts exhibition center. There was a special exhibit of photographer Steve McCurry. You may know his works from National Geographic – he’s the one that took the photograph of the young Afghan girl with the piercing green eyes. He found her years later and took her photograph again. I wanted to see his exhibits but we had plans later in the afternoon to visit a palazzo for a private tour. There’s also a tower at the Palazzo Ducale but it was closed until the afternoon. It would have been nice to catch some city views from above.

Next to Piazza de Ferrari was a small food stand with a few people making fresh focaccia with various toppings. I purchased one with cheese on top. It was tasty mid-morning snack.

There were many narrow streets that we walked along while window shopping and taking pictures. We saw some of the palazzo that were owned by the Andrea Doria family. I wondered what the interiors looked like.

I asked Valentina, who worked at the Palazzo del Principe , to make lunch reservations at Trattoria da Maria, Vico Testadoro 14 r. She was the person I was in contact with in securing our private tour to the Palazzo. Da Maria is located in a tiny alley, off one of the main shopping street. There were several rooms and we were seated way in the back. At first I thought, oh no, we're going to be stuck in a room with other tourists. Nope, the place filled up very quickly with locals. Our table had a reserved sign with my name on it.

We read through hand-written menu, which included some daily specials. I had fettuccini with pesto (a typical Genovese dish) followed by a veal/eggplant stew. Both were very good. We shared a couple of carafes of red wine. Prices were very reasonable: 10 euros for two items on the menu. The popular dishes went quickly.

Via Garibaldi is a colorful street line with beautiful palazzo. They were closed but we could walk into any open entrance way. Some of the ceilings had beautiful frescos, and some with grand staircases.

Jill and Kevin wanted to buy some Genoa salami to bring on the ship. Did we find any? No!! We were so surprised. None of the shops we found had any. They were disappointed.

It was a quick metro ride back to the port where we walked to the Palazzo del Principe  (  for our 1-hour guided tour. It was wonderful having the Palazzo to ourselves. The tour lasted a little over an hour, as we visited several rooms while our guide explained many things. Most were empty with the exception of some furniture and paintings on the walls.

It was a full day in Genoa but a fine day. We were all ready to be back on board to relax for the evening.

This was probably the worse night we had in Blu. We waited a very long time to get our dinner. It was not due to our waiters quality of service but that there was not enough waiters to take care of a full dining room. There used to be a $5 surcharge for suite guests who could dine in Blu if there was space available. The fee was dropped and we believed the staff was letting suite guests in without consideration of the aqua class guests, who had priority. I was also very angry at the sommelier. The previous night I exchanged my sparkling wine that was in my cabin for a bottle of red wine. I had a couple of glasses and the bottle was stored for the next night. After asking for it he came back to the table stating I had finished it the night before. NOT true and I told him so right in front of the maître-D. The bottle showed up at my table a few minutes later.

There were a few other nights that Blu was crowded. It didn’t have the quiet, elegant atmosphere that we so enjoyed while on the Summit this past spring. Sometimes it felt like we were dining in the main dining room, which has a noisy banquet-hall atmosphere. Fingers are crossed for a better experience on our next Silhouette cruise, otherwise it might be our last time in Blu.

Genoa photos:!i=2306177736&k=kmZB5bq

4 December 2012 Tuesday – Toulon France

I booked a private tour for eight people with Transferts Services ( Two friends had to back out due to being sick but they paid their share. We were very fortunate to have Delphine as our guide and driver. She’s a charming and lovely woman who enjoys taking travelers around her country. She’s very knowledgeable and informative about the places we visited.

We met Delphine at 8:30am (we were docked in La Seyne sur Mer, across the bay from Toulon). The morning was overcast and rainy but the sun came out a little later and it was a beautiful day. The mistral winds blew all day long.

Our first stop was to Sanary sur Mer, a charming and picturesque water-front town. There were many colorful fishing boats docked in the small port. Near the main parking, a daily Provençal market takes place, which is shaded by plane trees. We saw lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, cheese, local products and interesting looking mushrooms and vegetables I couldn’t identify. We walked through the town along the small pedestrian streets and window shopped.

We drove through Bandol (another lovely port town) to La Cadiere d’Azur, a small perched village. From atop, you can see lots of vineyards (already picked with some remaining leaves in their fall colors), olive trees, pine forests, and Le Castellet, another perched village across the way.

La Cadiere d’Azur felt like a sleepy village, rather than a tourist-filled village such as Saint Paul de Vence. I saw just a few residents going about their day. Two women were decorating their store front with Christmas decorations. We walked along the pedestrian-only streets taking lots of pictures of warm-colored buildings, narrow steps, doorways, and fountains. Delphine took us a bread/pastry shop where I picked up a fresh-made petit quiche. It was a delicious mid-morning snack as I walked along the village.

Between La Ciotat and Cassis we drove along D-141 called Route des Cretes. It’s a narrow, no-safety-barriers, panoramic drive with breathtaking views of the mountains, Cassis, and the beautiful rich blue waters of the Mediterranean. Unfortunately for me, I was sitting up front and was very uncomfortable as we drove along the road. Delphine asked once in a while if I was okay. She was a very good driver so I knew we were in good hands.

We made two stops at look out points, the second having the most spectacular views. Far down below and across the way was Cassis. The sun had been out for a while now, so we took some wonderful photos of the area. Delphine told us to not get too close to the edge and I certainly listened to her, as it’s a sheer drop down and the mistral winds were really blowing. In fact, as we were driving, Delphine said she was surprised we didn’t see any other cars in the area or any heading in the opposite direction of us. Apparently when the winds are very high the road is closed for safety reasons. She wondered if it was closed on the other end that maybe the officials forgot to close our entry point. I got a little worried wondering if we were going to have to drive all the way back if the other end was closed. I was ready to get off this roller-coaster ride. This was a spectacular drive and not to be missed, albeit a nerve-racking drive for me.

By the time we got to Cassis, I was ready for a glass of wine and some lunch! Cassis was a striking and colorful seaside town. It reminded me of Sanary sur Mer but Cassis has lots of restaurants and cafes along the water area. There were lots of fishing boats too. We ran into some friends, who told us about a place where they ate for lunch. Cassis has lots of restaurants that were way over our budget so we went to Le Dom Camillo ( and ordered from their pre-fixe lunch menu. Select an entrée to go along with the salad bar (nice variety of foods, including octopus). I had mussels in a tomato based broth, along with two glasses of red wine. Overall it was an okay meal.

After our time in Cassis, we continued on to Le Castellet. This is the village we saw across from La Cadiere d’Azur. Le Castellet has rampart walls, narrow streets, and small shops. In order to get back to the ship on time, we just took pictures from across the road. It’s a town I’d like to explore on a future visit.

This was one of my favorite port days on this cruise. Delphine was a very good guide, friendly, helpful, and (I especially appreciated this) a fine driver. The price we paid (including Delphine’s lunch and tip) was very reasonable for an all-day tour.

This evening was a formal night and I dined with a group of solo travelers in the main dining room. We were split between two large tables. Despite a brief and unpleasant encounter, I had good time chatting with my fellow diners along with a delicious dinner (beef carpaccio for an appetizer, rack of lamb for the entrée, and dessert).

Toulon photos:!i=2307580936&k=XQV7S3N

5 December 2012 Tuesday – Barcelona Spain
Having been to Barcelona several times, I wanted to do a tour to Montserrat, so I booked with Barcelona Day Tours ( I was there in 1996 with my Mother but when we visited Montserrat, it was an overcast and extremely foggy day that blinded our views of the mountains. I booked a tour for six people, but a few were still sick, so they canceled and paid their share of the money. So, it was just Carol, Glenn, and me for the day.

It was a beautiful perfect day with clear skies and temps in the low 60s – probably one of the best days on the trip. The three of us took the local bus along with Dennis and Ray, who had been on my Florence tour. From the bottom end of Las Ramblas, we walked up the street and around the surrounding area. Street performers were setting up for the day. The flower stalls were bright, colorful, and included Poinsettia for the Christmas season. Las Ramblas has not changed.

Mercat de la Boqueria is one of my favorite indoor markets because of the displays of foods, offering many photo opportunities. It’s one place in Barcelona I recommend to others to see, as it’s such a lively place. Since we were traveling at the end of the tourist season, the market wasn’t crowded at all. It was a delight to walk around without being pushed or shoved or bumped with carts toted by old Spaniard women.

Near the entrance of the market is a small eatery called Bar Pinotxo (, Mercat de la Boqueria, Stall 466-467), and is quite popular with locals and tourists. A charming older gentleman took our order for bocadillos (Spanish style sandwiches, 3.50 euros) with meat, cheese, tomato (just a rubbing of the tomato on the bread), and olive oil. He was all smiles and thumbs up when I asked to take his picture. I later did a google search on the bar and found out that this gentleman was the owner and his name is Juanito Bayen. I also saw several photos with his smile and thumbs up. It must be his “signature.”

Our handsome and charming guide, Armando, picked us up at the Hard Rock Café across from Placa Catalunya at 10:30am and we drove of Barcelona for our tour. He drove through some very expensive housing areas. I saw a few villas I wouldn’t mind living in.

We could see in the distance the mountain of Montserrat, the location of the Benedictine abbey and basilica, Santa Maria de Montserrat. The mountain range is quite a sight to see. It’s a long windy road getting to the top and it reminded me of the drive in France but this time with road barriers.

It was very cold up in the mountains, about 45 degrees but with the winds it felt even colder. I was glad I had my jacket and brought my gloves and scarf.

Armando was very passionate about Montserrat and the importance of the place for Catalans. He talked about the black Madonna and the history of the place. We were there at the right time to listen to the choir boys sing. Armando directed us to one spot where we could see the boys without anyone in front of us. Their singing echoed in the basilica with such graceful harmony. It was a certainly a moving experience for me. The basilica was completely full but once the boys left, the place quickly emptied out. We finished with a quick view of the Black Madonna.

There are three or four other abbeys in the area, none in use today if I remember correctly. Armando drove us to see one of them. The view of the abbey with the backdrop of the mountains was impressive.

Our sandwiches were quite good and we ate them while Armando drove down the mountain on the other side. You get a different perspective of this huge chunk of mountain, as the rock formations are different from area to area.

Armando made a short stop to Parc de Montjuic, where we had great views of Barcelona and even our ship in port. I could see Sagrada Familia in the distance. A lot more work has been completed but it will still take years before it’s finished. I paid Armando, we thanked him, and we were back on the ship. He was a great guide and I loved the personal attention we received.

Onboard the ship the captain made a few announcements, including telling us there would be a delay in departure and stated we would be passing the Strait of Gibraltar the next evening around 6pm.

Barcelona photos:!i=2336831576&k=6LSwf8K

6 December 2012 Wednesday – At Sea

Today was our first day at sea. After four days of sightseeing, it was nice to relax….well, not this day. My day consisted of breakfast (Tuscan grill dining room where the elite passengers could enjoy a light breakfast with fresh squeezed orange juice, cappuccino, or a bloody mary to name a few), attending the Cruise Critic connections party, listening to a lecture on the earth and plate tectonics, participating in the battle of the sexes game, hosting a wine tasting party, and cocktails in a friends room as we passed the Strait of Gibraltar. Phew!!

The connections party was fun. Many people showed up (around 150-180?) including some officers.

There were about 50 people who attended the wine tasting party. Each couple brought a bottle from their home town or from Rome and everyone had the opportunity to try the various types of wine. One woman scolded me for not requesting multiple wine glasses and spit buckets. This party was never meant to be a “ formal tasting” event but a second opportunity for cruise critic friends to gather together again.

The battle of the sexes was lots of fun. I went a few times while on the cruise and each time there was a challenge. One of the funniest was that the men had to show up wearing lip stick and women with mustaches. Christine and I made mustaches from the leaf of the flowers in our rooms.

My friend Phil hosted a cocktail party in his cabin. He had an aft corner suite with a large balcony (wish I could afford such a cabin). There were about eight of us and we sipped on champagne and snacked on hors’dourves as we passed the Strait of Gibraltar at dusk.

We had dinner later than usual and had to wait quite a bit for a table. We were squeezed in a table for 4 and I sat on the end facing the window. Not my cup of tea, as I was pretty much sitting in the aisle with waiters squeezing by me.

The food in Blu has been very good to excellent – all cooked to order, well prepared, and well presented.

7 December 2012 Thursday – At Sea

It was nice having two sea days in a row. My sea days were pretty much the same: Breakfast in the elite breakfast room or in Blu; listening to some great lectures, battle of the sexes game, trivia, reading, learning to knit, and walking outside on the track for some exercise. Of course I didn’t do all of these things every day.

8 December 2012 Friday – Tenerife Canary Islands

Our last port day before crossing the Atlantic for a week was Santa Cruz Tenerife, Canary Islands. It was a short day, docking at 11am and departing 6pm. The weather was beautiful! There was no need for a jacket and I saw a lot of people wearing shorts or Capri’s. The temperature went up to the mid-70s.

I wanted a relaxing day, no tours or car rentals, just a leisurely morning walking in town, window shopping, and lunch. The ship provided courtesy shuttles to the entrance of the port or you could walk about a mile to the port entrance. The main shopping street was quite active. Lots of shops, but I didn’t buy anything.

There’s a market in town called Mercado de Nuestra Señora de África. There were many food stalls to include fresh fruit/vegetables, fish and seafood, and lots of cheese and meats. I snacked on a beef and potato empananda. Outside the market building were two streets filled with flea market stands, mostly junk.

Next to the tram line is a place called Bodeguita Canaria ( It’s a restaurant that serves Spanish tapas and other foods. Carol, Glenn and I sat outside under umbrellas and ordered the cured meat and cheese platter (12.80€ - very filling and excellent) and the octopus, which was grilled and dusted with paprika (9.50€). Carol and I ordered a small pitcher of “tinto” (red wine); beer for Glenn. The wine was served in a typical terra cotta glazed pitcher. I later asked our waiter with my limited Spanish if I could purchase it for a souvenir. He went into the kitchen, came out a minute later and told me the location of a store. I said the stores were closed (siesta) and begged, “Por favor!” He went back into the kitchen (assumed he was talking to the owner), came out and jotted down “5€” on a piece of paper. That made my entire day!

Closer to the port we found a gelateria, so we enjoyed our dessert (pistachio for me) as we slowly walked back to the shuttle stop.

Evening cocktails in the martini bar with Joey taking good care of us. Dinner in Blu. I brought a bottle of wine to share at dinner, which had been delivered to my room from Celebrity.

Clocks turned back one hour this evening.

Tenerife Photos:!i=2326426348&k=RqzKG9q

9-15 December 2012 – Seven Days at Sea
Summarizing my week at sea:

The captain made daily 10am announcements. He’s one of the funniest captain’s I’ve ever encountered and quite handsome too. He always ended his announcements with a funny cruise-related joke followed by, “This is your Captain………………………OUT!” I’m glad to know he’ll be on the Silhouette for my cruise in the fall 2013!

We had mostly smooth sailing with comfortable rolls of the ocean. There was one day or two that had higher waves, but nothing compared to my 2011 transatlantic cruise where I earned my sea legs from very rough and high waves.

Abbot was the main speaker for the Celebrity Enrichment series. He was so informative and interesting to listen to. He talked about different aspects of geology. One was called “How the Altantic formed.” He can take a complex subject and simplify for everyone.

I enjoyed sitting outside near the pool, reading, writing, or doing some knitting, which I’ve started to learn. I also watched the passengers versus crew playing volley ball. The captain made a grand entrance wearing his bathrobe and a big splash into the pool. With the angle of his jump, many of us gasped as we thought he was going to hit his head on the side of the pool!

One of the Aqua Class cabin perks includes using the Persian gardens. Inside are 6-7 heated tiled lounge chairs that were so relaxing that I could have fallen asleep. I prefer the sauna rooms on the Summit (M-class ships) over the Solstice class ships, as there were more options; however, I never had to wait for a seat or spot in the steam room. Christine, Carol, and I also swam in the indoor pool.

Friends and I attended some of the Captain’s Club events, such as the Captain’s Club Celebration, high tea, and the senior officer’s party.

Friends hosted cocktail parties in their aft suite a couple of times, which was lots of fun.

There were always tables set up outside the shops with items for sale. It was quite amusing to watch passengers scramble to grab an item that I didn’t think was worth buying.

One day at the lawn garden there was a presentation on the “Art of Pizza Making’. The chef made a few different flat bread pizzas, which we tried at the end. In the same area were two huge adirondack chairs where we had our pictures taken. I felt like Lilly Tomlin.

Since we were dining in Blu we didn’t feel the need to dine in the specialty restaurants, which charge $30-$40pp. However, we did eat in Bistro on Five (crepes – savory and sweet, soups, salads, etc.), and The Porch (sandwiches, salads, etc.), each a $5 surcharge.

Seven days at sea was wonderful. The days went by at a comfortable pace. We all wished for more time on the ship. Transatlantic cruises simply provide the best in cruising.

On the ship:

Staff members on board:
Captain Dimitrios Kafetzis.
Tanuska D’Soua – Captain’s club hostess. Some of us found her to be unfriendly and not social at all
Popa (our maitre ‘D in Blu) – Charming and always with a smile
Daniela – hostess in Blu
Toto – waiter on our first night
Gino – assistant waiter on our first night
Damar - our main waiter – all smiles and attentive
Jovan – waiter
Bosko – elite breakfast room (Tuscan Grill)
Cemal Ozcelik – restaurant manager
Joey – Wonderful bar server in the martini bar. Every time we showed up he scrambled to find us a place to sit. He was the best!

Jayne Curry, singer
Beatles Celebration – very good group, wigs and all
Brad Mastrangelo – the ultimate storyteller – Funny show! Carol laughed her ass off and it was actually more fun watching her than Brad

Some foods I enjoyed, to name a few:
Lentil soup
Rack of lamb
Filet mignon
Lamb shank
Fettuccini with clams
Scallop appetizer
Lobster with caviar
Wild mushrooms with mozzarella, balsamic reduction
Guava sorbet
Chocolate mousse

Some “eh, not so good” foods:
The second lobster tail that I ordered (they were very small) – too mushy
Beef tips –dry
Halibut – overcooked
Chilled pea soup – just “okay”
Healthy orange roughy” with buckwheat noodles in a miso sauce - the fish was way over cooked and probably previously frozen

I will say that I have been living in Maryland since 1984 and never got up the nerve to try soft-shell crabs. I’m not a picky eater but didn’t think I would like eating the entire crab, guts an all. Lucky on cruises, you have the opportunity to order whatever you want on the menu. One night, there it was – a soft-shell appetizer. I really liked it!

I wasn’t impressed with the aqua spa café foods. I’ve had better on the other ships.

Overall, the food on the ship was very good; which is one reason I like to cruise on Celebrity.

16 December 2012 Sunday – Fort Lauderdale, Florida
The ship docked early in Florida. Since I was going to visit my Mom, I didn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn. I had breakfast in the cafeteria with friends and later got my carry-on items and went to the Tuscan grill to meet a couple where we would share a rental car to West Palm Beach.

Getting off the ship was easy but the line was extremely long to get into the terminal. There were six ships in port!! The car rental agency had complimentary pick up service to their office. It took a while to get our car, as lots of people were renting one-way vehicles.

I was dropped off at Mom’s home, which I was grateful. Mom didn’t have to drive to the train station (my original plans) to pick me up.

I spent three nights before flying home and then back to the real world.

It was a very good trip! I had a lot of fun despite some rainy weather. I enjoyed cruising with friends, meeting new people, and loved the port towns we visited.

I’m looking forward to my next cruise, although it’s a port-intensive cruise: 13 nights with just one sea day. I plan to use two port days and stay on the ship while the majority of passengers are in port.