Sunday, December 18, 2011

True Confessions: Our Disney Cruise

** There has been some clamoring for our Summer holiday report.  I am doing a very detailed account of our trip, with a blog post for each day of our holiday, which may stretch far beyond your interest in someone else's vacation photos.  It's just that I've just come to realize that I'm not making photo albums anymore, so this sorry blog might be it as far as family records go.  Feel free to disregard at your leisure.

So this summer I decided to squander the last remaining shreds of my hipster credibility, and go on a Disney cruise.  I don't know if this is dorkier than participating in the World Quizzing Championships which I also did this summer, but I sure know it's not cool.   Ah well, it's kind of liberating to finally be free of the shackles of hipsterdom.  At least now I don't have to expend any more precious energy pretending not to like Nikki Minaj.  But I have to tell you, ask me about my ideal holiday and there will be nary a rodent in a tuxedo to be had. But having a three-year old changes a lot of things, and the manner in which one can pleasantly travel is one of them.

So while neither Shane nor I were really Disney fanatics growing up, we had been Disney Cruise Curious ever since our friends the James' went on one and came back raving about how nice everything was.  Then our friend Liz came back from another cruise with tales of how while you sat down for your lovely four-course meal every night, kids' clubs employees would come and spirit your children away and then entertain them mightily.  You had us at hello, Disney Cruise Line. The only hitch was your kid doesn't qualify as a kid until they are toilet-trained, and our THREE-YEAR OLD wasn't even close. So thinking we would go on a cruise out of Florida and combine it with a trip to DisneyWorld, I decided to bribe motivate Declan with the promise that once he was out of diapers we would go on a trip to where Mickey Mouse lives. Declan was tremendously excited by the prospect.  I later figured out that he thought Mickey Mouse lives at the Chuck E. Cheese's on Rodney Parham. 

There's a big rat on the sign, and I guess Declan's rodent identification skills aren't that refined yet, so he had somehow drawn the conclusion that all the wonders of Disneyland must reside there behind that humble storefront.  I'd never taken him there because it's first Google review is entitled "Call the Health Inspector".  I realized that this misunderstanding created for us the opportunity to make good on our DisneyWorld promise very, very cheaply, but I was averse to the prospect of Chuck E. Cheese.  So I show Declan a picture of Cinderella's castle and tell him that's where we are going.  The castle looks so darn magical that Declan really gets fired up to get potty-trained and get on over there.

But then I actually looked at the Disney cruise schedule and saw they had an option to cruise the Mediterranean, and that looked a little more exciting than DisneyWorld, so I was stuck again.  Declan was expecting to go to Cinderella's castle as his reward for potty training.  So we decided we'd take him to Barcelona and tell him that Mickey Mouse lives in the Sagrada Familias -  eh close enough. Before you get all indignant about us cheating him out of his promised reward, in our defense I say, he's really not that good at using the potty either so we'll call it even.

Cinderella's Castle, Disneyland

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

So with that bit of fraud settled, we moved onto planning our trip, which largely consisted of training Declan to Euro Kiss.  He learned quickly, but thinks it's called "Your Own Kiss".  Here are some stills of the Your Own Kiss in action.  Pretty cute.  Ask him for one next time you see him. 

 Declan also got to pick out a ride-on Trunki suitcase to use a carryon. It was great for pulling him through the airports and garnered him lots of smiles from passersby.  I filled it full of gift-wrapped dollar store toys and crayons etc to keep him occupied on our 17 hour journey.  It worked very well and he loved riding it.

A couple weeks before we left, Declan received a phone call from Mickey Mouse to invite him on the cruise. I love Declan's reaction to Mickey's invitation. There's no jumping down or any foolishness. Just a quietly stated demand directed at me that we had better follow through on this holiday plan. Some threats are best left unspoken.

So that is how we ended up with our holiday plan of 3 days in Barcelona, and a week-long cruise to ports in France, Italy and Spain.  Declan was very good on the plane, with the minor exception of when we landed in Atlanta for our connecting flight to Barcelona, and he began to loudly announce to everyone that we had arrived in China.  Over and over again.  "We're in China!" "That's China out there!"   Geography is not his strong suit.  And then in the Atlanta airport Declan had a major meltdown in the bookstore, when I refused to buy him a copy of "Women's Health" magazine.   It made me really doubt the wisdom of dragging someone so fundamentally unreasonable half way around the world. I had fear in my heart in that bookstore, but really that was the last trouble we had for the entire trip.  There was one minor timeout in Mallorca, but that was it.  We were all having so much fun all the time there was no misbehaviour to speak of.

So Declan was an angel on the flight, but he only slept a couple of hours, which meant I only slept for an hour, and Shane didn't sleep at all.  We arrived in Barcelona at 9 in the morning, and when we got to our hotel, the Hotel Arts, they didn't have a room ready. This is where we all started to decompensate.  We badly wanted some quiet rest, and so they sent us up to the pool side, which sounds very lovely and under other circumstances it would have been but we all felt very zombie-esque. I was feeling terrible, and was strangely unable to regulate my body temperature.  I confess, I had a little bit of a "I can't deal" moment there trying to look after Declan in the pool while feeling horribly jetlagged. So the second official meltdown of EuroCrash 2011 was had by me.  We had lunch at the poolside, and finally around 3 pm we got into our hotel room.  It was gorgeous.  We had booked through my new favourite thing- American Express' Finer Hotels program, where they somehow manage to get you a cheaper rate than you can get online, plus they package up a bunch of benefits with your room, and give you a free category upgrade.  So we booked our regular standard room, and ended up in a 3,000 Euro a night suite with 150 Euros in food and beverage credits for our troubles.  Sweet.  If you're into hotel rooms, here's a tour of ours.  This video proves I've got the palsy. 

We dubbed it the General Franco suite.  Everything was great from the moment we crossed its threshold. We all took a nap for a couple of hours and woke up feeling human again.  We went for a very pleasant stroll along the beachfront boardwalk. Barcelona has a really great energy, and we all took to it right away. 

Declan at a playground on the beach in Barcelona, with the Hotel Arts in the background.

Meeting the local perros.  Being spaniel people, we enjoyed seeing how many spaniels there actually were in Spain. I don't know why I had never really thought about it before, but that is where they come from.   In the background you can see some Speedos.  Lots of Speedos and Spaniels- my day one insightful cultural observation.

Now we had great dining plans for Barcelona, as there are some world-famous restaurants there, and Spain as a whole is really the global culinary power nowadays.  We couldn't get a reservation anywhere on our list for love or money, and believe me I tried.  Me, the woman who came up with a same-day two-top at Alinea in Chicago.  Me, who came up with a next day two-top at Per Se in New York.  Barcelona Reservation Fail.  A country with 25% unemployment, and dozens of restaurants were booked out for six months and more.  Ay caramba.  So for dinner that night we got a recommendation from the concierge, and ended up having a wonderfully delicious meal of tapas at a little bistro called Bar-Mud a few miles away from Hotel Arts.  We got a reservation for 8.30 which I thought was very continental, but it turned out we were the first table there.  They eat late in Spain.  We sat at a tiny table out on the sidewalk,  and were served grilled lobster, the best fig and spinach salad I've ever had, lagostinas with dry vermicilli noodles served in a sauce made from peanuts and the red oil of chorizo sausage, then steak and foie gras.  In my travel journal I wrote "Foie gras feels like vacation."   I just don't fry up foie at home, yanno?  For Declan we ordered was this crazy dish of french fries with fried egg on top that was unexpectedly to die for.  How could it be so good, I don't know but it was.  All washed down with the obligatory red wine of course.   It was the perfect end to our first day of travels, and we returned home to the General Franco suite in high spirits.

Disney Cruise Day 2: Barcelona

We started off the day in Barcelona with a fabulous brunch at Hotel Arts, where Declan got his first crack at the great European culinary contribution of crepes with Nutella. I think this was the point where he really started to enjoy travelling.  We then tried to squeeze in a trip to the Picasso Museum but the line up was over 2 hours long so we bailed on that and just walked around the neighborhood for awhile. 

We got to see the local sights, like the unsettling placement of the butcher right next to the vetrinarian.

Eventually we hopped in a taxi and made the trip over to the cruise ship terminal.  The boarding process was quick and painless.
Excited to finally see Mickey's boat.

Our ship was the Disney Magic, which first set sail in 1995, so it is a smaller, older boat by modern cruise ship standards but we found it very commodious.  We boarded the ship and found our stateroom, lucky #7076.  I had been worried about how the three of us would manage in 300 square feet of space for seven nights. The last time we tried to sleep in the same room as Declan, we were all up til 4 in the morrning, driving around the streets of Longview, Texas trying to get Declan to fall asleep.  We found our stateroom to be actually pretty comfortable over the week.   Our room was very efficent in its use of space, and there was a curtain that would seperate the "living room" where Declan slept from our bedroom. 

We went up dockside for the "Bon Voyage" deck party, which consisted of the regular Radio Disney repetoire of bad music coupled with line dancing.

  This guy was having more fun than everyone else combined.  I should have taken video.  He was hypnotic and the still pictures don't really capture it.

Declan cheered him on from the sidelines.

Then we pulled away from the dock and set sail.  The neighboring ship made ours look pretty Mickey Mouse. 

What this blog needs is a laugh track.  Anyway, our ship's horn blew the opening notes to "When You Wish Upon a Star" and we had officially set sail.  We immediately went below decks to play Bingo, because that just seemed like the cruise ship thing to do.

Shane was the big winner, scoring a Hannah Montana backpack, a Disney Cruise ball cap, and the first of many, many keychains we were to win over the course of the week.  Shane bequeathed his bounty to his sole heir.

Other families won thousands of dollars, but I think we may have had more fun than anyone else.  With as much as I love playing bingo, it is a wonder I ever thought I was too cool to enjoy a cruise.
Declan on our balcony in Barcelona ready for dinner.

We returned to our room to get ready for dinner.  Now if I ever needed to prove that my husband loves me, this fact would be Exhibit A.  When we booked the cruise we were given the option of being seated by ourselves for dinner or being seated with strangers.  I clamored for strangers, and Shane agreed!  He is such a good sport. We would be seated with the same people every night, although we would rotate through 3 different restaurants.  Our tablemates turned out to be a family of 5 from Spain.  The dad, whom I will always think of as "Spanish Shane Nelken", was Rajeesh.

  Rajeesh was half Indian, half Spanish, but spoke very good English.  His wife, Mumblemumblemumble, didn't speak much English at all, and we never did catch her name.  Their kids were Chloe 4, Wendy 5, and Gio 6. They all attended American school in Barcelona, and spoke English really well.  Declan was so taken with Wendy I cannot even tell you.  A lot of his good behaviour over our holiday could be attributed to us using "you don't want to miss dinner at the restaurant with Wendy, do you?" as a threat.   He would never jeopardize dinner with Wendy. 

Declan sharing a laugh with Wendy. He wore his Star Wars pjs to dinner to impress her, because she's a big fan.

So funnily enough, the kids all had such a good time together that we never even used the kids' club at dinner time.  They would take turns playing video games with each other, and it was all very sweet.  Even though dinner would last around 2.5 hours, Declan was thoroughly entertained the whole time.  The waiters were also a big part of that.  We had the same waiters every night, Plamen from Bulgaria, and Martin his Turkish assistant. 
Plamen with Wendy, Declan and Gio.

They knew our kids and what to bring them and how to make them laugh.  They did magic tricks for the kids right at the table every night.  One of the most stressful parts about travelling with a little kid, is having to enforce "restaurant behaviour" day after day, and the Disney experience really removed all that pressure and stress.   I don't think I ever noticed any body's kid acting up in the restaurants- everyone was just having fun.   Anyway, that was a big, big bonus for us.   
The food was pretty good too.  They shape a lot of the things into mouse ears.  And the ultimate verdict on sharing a table with strangers was a big thumbs up; we really enjoyed getting to know another family and recapping with each other our respective adventures at the end of every day. 

How about Declan's shirt?  Think he enjoyed his dinner?
We went back to our stateroom for bedtime and found the first of our daily origami towel animals - a swan, with a surprising aggressive streak, whereby it would suddenly go for the jugular.  We might have over played the danger because Declan became very leary of them, and only the fact that they came with chocolate would entice him to approach.

Day 3: France and Monaco

Did I ever tell you about my having summered in the South of France?  It was a wonderful few hours, let me tell you.  This picture shows as close as Declan ever got to the South of France.  We didn't take him ashore.  He doesn't even know we went to France.

 We checked him into the kid's club, signed a sworn affidavit that he was potty trained, and spent the rest of the day fervently praying that he wouldn't have an accident.  We tendered to the port of Villefranche.  We had signed up for an adults-only Disney shore excursion, despite feeling vaguely uncomfortable around people who take Disney cruises without any children. And there are a lot of them.  I also feel somewhat unenthusiastic about the prospect of a group excursion in unto itself.   Of all the places I've been in the world, I've never seen a bus full of tourists and thought "I wish I was riding with that posse". 
The tour group death march single file to the bus.  Don't be jealous, haters.
But on the other hand I've never been limited to a 10 hour window to explore a place either.  And the kicker is, if you are on a Disney shore excursion and the bus breaks down or there's a traffic jam or wildcat worker's strike, the boat will wait for you.  If you are exploring on your own and some Act of God keeps you from returning to the boat in a timely manner, it will leave without you, regardless of how many kids you have checked into the kids' club on board, or how cute said kid might be.  So we figured that at those ports where we leaving Declan on the boat, we would do the official excursion thing.
The view from our tender into Villefranche. 

We started off with a tour of the principality of Monaco, walking through the city of Monaco, Monaco. This is where I finally figured out what the heck the difference between Monaco and Monte Carlo was.  So Monaco is the name of the principality, and it is divided into 4 quarters one of which is inconsiderately named Monaco, and another of which is Monte Carlo.  We went on an audio tour of the royal palace of the Grimaldi family, wherein I learned that I have also been mispronouncing Monaco all my life. According to the Grimaldis, it should rhyme with "tobacco". Imagine the egg on my face.   So I hope that I have helped someone out there sort through the confusion that I have suffered through all my life, until such time as I vacationed in the South of France, in monAcco, monAcco.
The Grimaldi Family Residence
They might as well pronounce it utOpia, utOpia.  It is breathtakingly beautiful.  It has 0% unemployment and the highest life expectancy in the world (90 years!)   If you try to litter, a single white dove swoops down and catches the trash before it hits the ground. 
This is the church where Grace Kelly got married.  Shane asked me why on earth I would want a picture of this. 
C'mon, we're talking Princess Grace here!  Interesting tidbit: the Kellys had to pay the Grimaldis a 2 million dollar dowry to get them to take that heifer off their hands.  Go figure.

Out front of Jacques Cousteau's Musee Oceanographique de Monaco, Shane seemed to think there was no dignity in feigning encapture by an octopus. I beg to differ.

Onwards and upwards to Monte Carlo.  We were tremendously excited by the prospect of following in James Bond's footsteps and gambling here, and we were among the first in the door when it opened at 2 pm. I didn't know casinos closed.  You are not allowed to take pictures inside the casino, so here's a picture looking out the front door.
The Square outside the Grand Casino.  People gather around to see the fancy cars parked there.  I think the cars belong to the extortionist roulette staffers.

As soon as you go in, you are hit up for a 10 Euro entrance fee.  A small price to pay for glamour no?  Well the Grand Casino of Monte Carlo turned out to be a little underwhelming.  Sure there was beautiful woodwork and light fixtures, but it wasn't exactly hopping in there. There were about 7 table games, and then a small seperate room with silent slot machines. There was no harmonius G-chord chorus to be had.  No one was playing anything, just a few tourists wandering aimlessly like we are, wondering where the rest of it went.  I am getting an idea why they don't let tourists take pictures inside. If pictures got out, it might cut down the number of suckers willing to pay 10 Euros for a look at the place.  We discussed leaving as there weren't even any craps tables which is our favourite game, but I wanted to win my 10 Euro entrance fee back, so we sat down at the Roulette table.  Lucky for me it was a ten Euro minimum.  I played Red and won back my entrance fee, and  Shane played 27 for my birthday as well as 18 for Declan's, and he lost. He wanted one more spin, and this time he just played 18.  I was still complaining about him dumping my birthday when 18 hit and Shane won 450 Euros (circa 600 US dollars!). 
Make it rain!
We got up to leave immediately, forever endearing ourselves to the French croupier.  One woman actually rapped on Shane's chips, and then rapped very forcefully on the croupier tip box.  The international language of extortion.  Shane tossed in a 10 Euro tip and we slowly backed out of there. 

Next stop was the tiny medieval village of Eze.  Our tour bus climbed up the cliffside corniches until we hit the base camp, and then we hiked the rest of the way.  It was good to get out of the bus, as we were saddled with a tour guide with a chip on his shoulder regarding wealthy people.  Not the best person to narrate the sights in the South of France, which is positively lousy with the rich and famous.  He had lots of fantastical tales though, telling us that Bono, who has a house in Eze, apparently had his swimming pool paved with gold, like actual gold this year. That would buy a lot of mosquito nets, Bono!  We had to climb up 1400 feet above sea level to get the view, but it was gorgeous. Along the path up to the top were all these quaint shops and restaurants carved right into the cliffside.  The buildings in Eze date back to the 1300s.  When you get up to the top, the view takes your breath away, and then the French take 5 Euros away, to let you into the entrance of the Jardin Botanique d'Eze.  Sounds pretty good until you get inside and it's just a bunch of cacti.  Go figure.  We half expected to have someone come out and rap us with a stick until we tipped the succulents.

Then it was back to the ship, where we were quite anxious to find out how Declan's day went.  We found this prone figure in the nether region of the kids' club.
We let him sleep it off while we went and lost some of our Monte Carlo mad money on some Bingo. .  Then back to kids' club, where Buzz was still sleeping it off.  Could only rouse him with the observation that it was time for Dinner with Wendy. Had a lovely dinner, then returned to room to find elephant towel animal, and racked up another Norwalk free day on the high seas.

Day 4: La Spezia, Italy

So today we were scheduled for a boat tour of Cinque Terre, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Somehow our enthusiasm for World Heritage Sites although palpable did not suffice to wake us up in time to catch our tender.  We just missed it by a mere 120 minutes.  Hair's breadth.  Catch you next time, Cinque Terre.  Until then, I have no idea how to pronounce you. 

So by the time we got up and mobile, the only thing there was time for was to take a bus out to Pisa and see the sight. Secretly I was not too disappointed, cause you all know how I love a novelty photo.

   I am not the only one in Pisa. I loved walking around Pisa and seeing people from all walks of life, from every corner of the globe trying to strike the same pose. 

With the right model, it only takes one shot.

Lining up a three-year-old afflicted with congenital ants-in-the-pantsitis is a different story.
A little to the right...
No, no - your right!
Around the other side...

Back it up a little more ....

Not that much!
 After all that tough modelling work, a little gelato was in order.  Right about the time this picture was taken, gypsies picked Shane's pocket and stole his iPhone.  Being robbed by gypsies is apparently a standard part of the Pisa experience.  Now we feel very European.

Now visiting Pisa reminds a lot of visiting Stonehenge.  You arrive, say it leans or it stands as the case may be, and then you are pretty much done.  The only other thing to see in Pisa besides the Leaning Tower is row upon row of stalls featuring slanted souvenirs, so we tendered our way back to the ship.

Upon our return, and herein lies the win-win genius of the Disney cruise holiday, we checked Declan into the kids' club for a couple of hours, and went to play trivia in the pub.  Declan was thrilled to get some time in the Nirvana that is kids' club, and we enjoyed the heck out of a couple child-free hours, while racking up a couple more keychains for our collection.  Then we retrieved the boy, went for dinner with Wendy, then collapsed on the staircase because of fun overload. 

Day 4 Summation
Origami towel:  Sad hounddog
Norwalk Contraction:  Negative

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