Thursday, May 7, 2015

Ch...ch...changes

I've been contemplating this blog a lot lately. What it is. What I want it to be.

It started as a way to document my family's travels, so that we could look back years later and have a detailed recap of where we went, who we met and what we did. A resource for others going on similar journeys, paying it forward for all of the reviews I read to help quench the anticipation that bubbled up inside of me as I ticked days off on the calendar until the next time I'd step foot on an airplane or a cruise ship.

But the more I travel, the more of the world I experience, the more I crave a connection with the people who feel the same way about traveling.

So, as if planning out a nearly three week trip to countries none of us have ever been to wasn't enough, I decided it was time for this blog to get a little makeover, and far past time for me to better connect with all of you, who have followed this blog and our journeys for the past six years.

The new Sunglasses and Umbrella Drinks is underway, rolling out in the next week before we leave (because of course migrating six years of content wasn't going to be easy and I now have 300 posts to reformat and catalog) and a full redesign to come this summer. And in an effort to connect with everyone who wants frequent updates on our planning and travels as they happen, in addition to Instagram, we're now on Facebook and Twitter.

I'll be doing a full-on review of this Euroadventurething in June, but I'll also be live updating our adventures as they happen on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

I have a lot of excitement to share. I hope you'll all share in it with me :)


Sunday, April 26, 2015

T-18 Until Europe! Follow along on Instagram!

Time is FLYING as we gear up for our first jaunt overseas to Europe! I still have a report on our trip to New York to wrap up (and maybe a little ditty on my trip this past week to Seattle!), but since you all won't fit in my suitcase so I can bring you along with me, I've created an Instagram where you can follow along as we cruise around the Mediterranean and ask any questions you might have about our ports of call or our ship (the Vision of the Seas).

You can find me on Instagram at nicolesonthego :)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Oh, Island in the Sun: Breeze-ing Back to the Southern Caribbean (Part Eleven)

I didn’t get a lot of sleep on that last night. I never do on last nights on cruises. It’s not because I want to savor every last moment or delay the inevitable return to normalcy. It’s because…my spidey senses start tingling somewhere between 2:30 and 4:30 in the morning. Almost every time.

And by spidey senses, I mean a feeling that we’re back in domestic waters and my cellular services have been restored. My name is Nicole, and I’m addicted to my iPhone (or, rather, the connection with the world that my phone represents).

((And for what it’s worth, I was up on the hour starting at 3:00 am, I was dreaming of my phone lighting up with the text messages and emails that would start pouring in when I wasn’t awake, and my service actually turned back on around 6:00 am))

It was still storming pretty badly when I’d wake from my REM zen to check my phone, and I was mildly shocked that the safety lock wasn’t put on our balcony door (in heavy storms or high tides, there’s a special safety lock that Carnival will use to lock the balcony doors of cove balconies).

The storms finally began to subside when we began pulling into port around 6:00 am. The gangway connected to the ship just above our room, and it was mildly disturbing to wake up and see a stranger staring into your room. Pro-tip: cove balcony? Leave the curtains over your windows on debarkation day.

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We got dressed and headed upstairs for breakfast up on Lido and for the first time all week, it was impossible to find a table. Go figure. We ended up dining al fresco on a morning where the city of Miami was experiencing seasonal lows (which we’d been hearing about all.week.long because the local stations on the TV were Miami-based network feeds And if they were cold…apparently Chicago got snow on Halloween #checkyourselfMiami). And for inquiring minds wondering if the Blue Iguana is open for breakfast on debarkation day, the answer is yes they are, and the arepas never tasted better.

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We had a bottle of champagne we never got around to drinking during the week waiting in the room and I certainly wasn’t going to let that bottle stay corked (because I don’t care what the circumstances are – you never waste champs. It’s basically sacrilegious). Cheers to…going home? Work tomorrow? The impending Chicago winter? Cheers to champagne.

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When the bottle was polished off and there was nothing left to see or do, we grabbed our bags and left our home for the previous eight days. It was just past eight in the morning and our flight wasn’t until a quarter to five in the afternoon, so we weren’t in any rush to get off the ship and we headed to the Ovation, which served as the VIFP debarkation lounge.

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Every few minutes, Wee Jimmy would come over the PA in the theater to tell some jokes and update us on the debarkation process. By 8:45 am, we just couldn’t make ourselves linger anymore so we headed out to the lobby, fed our Sail and Sign cards into the people counter machine and dinged out for the last time.

Where in most homeports, luggage is lined up in rows by debarkation “zone” number, the Port of Miami has a luggage conveyor belt, a la airport arrivals. Probably a measure to save on the operational costs of having people line luggage up, but entirely inefficient.

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We grabbed a porter who grabbed our luggage and navigated us through the crowds lining up for customs. The customs agent couldn’t even pretend to take a real look at our declaration form and we were on our way and in a taxi to the airport, the Breeze disappearing behind the palm trees as we drove off. We debarked the ship at 8:45 am. We were at Miami International by 9:15 am.

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A couple of years ago, Mom found herself with TSA Pre-Check. Stephanie and I don’t, but we figured we’d sail through the weekend lines since we had priority access with our first class tickets. No go on that one – a grumpy agent placed us in the regular line.

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We had over seven hours until our flight and Miami International wasn’t the worst place to pass the time. We had a morning snack, some coffee. We Netflixed. We shopped and grabbed lunch. We walked around. It wasn’t the best but it wasn’t awful. We made it work.

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They boarded our flight early and before you could get out the first verse to Glamorous, we were getting comfortable in our seats, being served orange juice and playing with the chair controls like kids in front of a big red button.

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I like flying first class. I really like it. I love it. But not for obvious reasons. I’m a better flyer now than I was five years ago, when seeing a boarding pass on my phone would give me a panic attack (have I told the story of the time I boarded a flight to Orlando and I was so obviously terrified that the woman in the window seat pulled out her bible and said she’d pray for me? That was a fun one.). It’s taken me a long time (and a lot of good flights after a long string of really awful ones) to learn to rationalize the parts of flying that scare me and neutralize my own anxiety. Flying in first class is a flight-long distraction. There’s drinks, there’s room to move around. There’s panels with buttons and food and enough booze for me to forget my name and embarrass my mother (which is another level of entertainment in and of itself). I won’t do it for short flights, but on longer flights, I’ve found the gap in price between a first class ticket and a base ticket + luggage + an aisle seat in the front of the economy cabin to be small comparative to the enhanced experience. So once we leveled off in the sky and the state of Florida disappeared beneath a bed of clouds, I ordered a glass of pinot grig and played with the seat controls.

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As part of the US Airways/American Airlines merger, American had recently changed it’s caterer. It’s a good thing we weren’t flying for the meal service because our meals were barely edible. My beef was fatty, salty and had the texture of a microwaved TV dinner. Stephanie and Mom both had ravioli that looked like a pile of gross. And both Stephanie and I had a couple of rotten tomatoes in our three-bite salads. On the plus, “dinner” came with another glass of wine.

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After dinner, I ordered a drink that never came and put my seat into lay flat until we started our descent.

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Before I knew it, the sky was lighting up below us, a sure sign we were approaching our home. It was too dark to play my favorite game of Spot-My-Apartment-Building-in-the-Skyline, but we could see the river area lit up from the tightrope walk going on.

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And then…that was it. There was no more. We went home. We went back to work with awesome tans and plenty of stories to tell. And we started planning the next one.

Thank you for reading along and allowing me to re-live another fantastic week on the seas. What’s next? Blog redesign. A trip journal of a long weekend in New York. And in eight weeks, we leave on our biggest adventure yet: two and a half weeks in Europe. Stay tuned, friends.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Oh, Island in the Sun: Breeze-ing Back to the Southern Caribbean (Part Ten)

Despite all intentions to wake up early and have a full last day onboard the Breeze and after a late bedtime,  we woke up hours after we intended to. Fully rested, but well into the morning. But the sun was shining bright and we had the rest of the day to enjoy it.

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We discussed our breakfast options and while Mom wanted to go to the dining room for brunch (she really enjoyed the lox platter the day before), Stephanie and I just wanted something quick and not so heavy. And with some uncertainty over whether or not the Blue Iguana would be open on debarkation morning, we headed up to enjoy those breakfast arepas one more time.

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Apparently, we weren’t the only ones starting our day late because we found some lounge chairs in the aft pretty quickly and we settled in for a few hours of sun time.

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Last day means Chocolate Extravaganza, but even more appealing than everything chocolate was some burrito!tacos. Stephanie raved over the watermelon and jicama salsa, and I really enjoyed the black bean and corn salsa, but with over a dozen toppings and salsas to choose from, you really can’t go wrong.

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If you’ve never been on a Carnival cruise, on the last day of the cruise, instead of the Comfort Kitchen fare, they set up a buffet of chocolate confections and cakes. It’s rich, decadent and entirely overwhelming. This year, we noticed the addition of fudge cut to order and it was the highlight of the event.

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We headed back to the room to shower and start packing and found our debarkation information and luggage tags. In a heart shaped towel. Kind of like a “Enjoy your last day because here’s a reminder you won’t be here tomorrow! XOXO, Carnival.”

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While Mom and Stephanie packed, I did everything I could do to…not pack. I sat on the balcony. I watched Judge Judy. I slathered myself in aloe (because every time a burn healed, a new one appeared the next time I found myself under any sun). I took a walk along the sports deck. I kept as much distance I could between me and my suitcase. Out of sight, out of mind, right? If I didn’t see my luggage, I didn’t have to remember that in less than 48 hours, I’d already be back at work.

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Up on the sports deck, tucked away in a corner, there is a hot dog stand that doesn’t get much attention but undoubtedly has the best view of any hot dog stand I’ve ever seen.

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My skills of perfect procrastination timing had me back at the room just in time for us to enjoy one of our favorite at-sea activities: tea time!

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If you’re not looking out for tea time, it’s easy to miss it. It’s listed in the Fun Times amongst a couple dozen other activities and it’s held around 3:30 pm on sea days. Servers make the rounds passing out tea sandwiches and sweets, refilling tin teapots and helping cruisers select which tea to sip on (I’m partial to the chamomile). They used to have live music, but that went by the wayside a few years back. We enjoyed the Parisian music they were playing in the dining room – not as good as live music but a welcome change of pace from the usual Yanni tunes.

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We made a few rounds through the Fun Shops before Mom and Stephanie caught on to my dragging my feet on packing and dragged me back to the room.

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Our room steward stopped by to personally deliver my boozy purchases from Curacao and in a stroke of perfect timing, I finished packing just in time to head out to watch the sunset.

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We had originally made early dinner reservations and after seeing bits and rays of a gorgeous sunset through the dining room windows the day before, we pushed our reservation back in the hopes of catching something spectacular. And we did. As the ship forged north towards Miami, we stood out on the Lanai and watch the sun disappear into the horizon over the coast of Cuba.

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Our timing was just right and just as the last bits of light disappeared into the horizon, we had to head up to our dinner reservation at Cucina del Capitano.

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We wanted to end the cruise the way we began it: with good food and better service in a warm and welcoming environment. We found ourselves fascinated with the pictures of Carnival ship captains, both current and former, as we dove into a carafe of wine and a bread plank that would rival the bread course at any Italian restaurant we’ve ever been to.

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The fare at Cucina is best categorized as comfort Italian, and each course is masterfully executed. We pitted many of the items we ordered against the same items ordered in the main dining room and the flavors and textures these chef’s cultivate are levels ahead of their dining room counterparts. We enjoyed everything we tasted and at $15 per person, it was a steal.

Insalata Caprese
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Nonna’s Meatballs
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Il Capitano’s Signature Arancini
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Pollo Parmigiania della Cucina and Spaghetti with Captain’s Tomato Sauce
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Brasato al Barolo and Rosemary Potatoes
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Spaghetti Carbonara
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Broccoli with Peperonata
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Magic Tiramisu
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Sicilian Cannoli
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Crostada di Mele Coppetta
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After such a heavy meal, we had to walk it off so we didn’t end up walking into a nap. And by we, I mean me because my narcoleptic tendencies and affinity for naps didn’t seem to phase anyone. We went for a walk so I wouldn’t fall asleep…again.

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We ultimately headed back to the room to finish packing up some of the loose odds and ends and we were really gunning it towards the Miami, causing some extra motion on the ocean and an interesting juxtaposition from the smooth seas the day prior. Mom turned in for the night when the motion got the best of her, and Stephanie and I put all the suitcases in the hallway and headed out.

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Since we missed Latin Nights the evening prior, we headed to the encore performance. Our seats were designated as Splash Zone seats (they even gave us ponchos!), but it was just a small splash from the dancers dancing on some water puddles. I thought Latin Nights had more potential to grow into a really fantastic show than the others onboard the Breeze (though I question the musical prowess of any producer who considers Lou Bega’s Mambo #5 latin music). The only real downside was (and I know I’m repeating myself here) the cheesy animatronic scenes. The backgrounds of Sims dancing in clubs were cheesy and distracting from some strong performances and a strong set list. I couldn’t take the show seriously with the overuse of the animatronics and it seemed like a couple of the dancers couldn’t, either, because they were pretty checked out.

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After the show, the performers move to the atrium and turn it into a kind of latin dance club. Stephanie and I thought about going up to Lido for some pizza and a movie, but the motion was really getting to us so we just headed back to the room. As I settled into bed, I could see the waves from splashing out the window and between the high seas and the motion, I was a little surprised our cove balcony remained open (they have storm doors that will prevent you from going out onto the balcony in high seas). Stephanie said the seas reminded her of the intro to Revenge. We contemplated the comparison for far too long, trying to put off the inevitable sleep that would roll into the close of our trip.

Chocolate Extravaganza Menu:

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Taste Bar Menu:

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Today’s Lido Dinner Menus:

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