Baltic Sea Cruise

Yesterday, we returned home from our nine country odyssey around northern Europe. We took a cruise marketed as a cruise of (current or former) capital cities on the Baltic Sea. That’s a stretch for the stop in Warnemünde, Germany, where the majority of cruisers take a train ride to Berlin. This cruise itinerary was appealing to us as it visited a lot of iconic European cities, particularly Saint Petersburg, Russia, which was on Kara’s bucket list to visit. So, we booked a balcony cabin. A couple months before the cruise, we got an email offering the opportunity to put in an upgrade bid to upgrade our cabin. In the last week or so, we found out via email from Norwegian that our bid was not enough and we didn’t get the upgrade. Too bad, but it was nothing to be sad about since the cabin we booked originally was still great. Here’s how it went:

  • 09/17 – Flights to Copenhagen, Denmark: When we got to the airport, we found out that our inbound aircraft to Toronto was delayed nearly 2 hours and would cause us to misconnect. The check-in agent stated that all rebooking would occur in Toronto. Given that we would be arriving after 10pm, there would be few same-day options if we waited to have them address our problem then. The check-in agent looked briefly, but did not find any flights to change us to. So after clearing security, I used our delay to search for replacement flights. We called Air Canada to have our flights rebooked, feeding them the flight numbers for various options we found. During irregular operations, it speeds things along if you can provide the agent this information. After that we had to get the gate agent to re-tag our bags for the new routing. For some reason, they were unable to do this using their automated systems. So, they had to write out a manual bag tag. That really made me nervous, but it ended up working out ok. After arriving in Toronto, we got to the gate for our flight to London right after they started boarding. If we had waited to find a rebooking agent in Toronto as they initially directed, we would not have been able to make that flight and would have had to wait until the next day. That would have made things much more stressful leaving little margin to make the cruise.
  • 09/18 – Arrival in Copenhagen: Upon arrival in London, we found a lounge to wait in. After taking a shower, we made our way to the flight to Copenhagen. Right after we landed in Copenhagen, I was checking my phone while we were taxiing. There was an email from Norwegian and they were making us an offer on an upgrade! It was actually lower than any of our original bids and for a suite category higher than the ones we bid on. All we had to do was call to accept. We couldn’t get off the plane fast enough to call them. We accepted the offer to upgrade to a Haven 2-Bedroom Family Villa! The suite had 559 combined square feet between cabin and balcony. It is the third highest cabin category and the category with the second most area. And the category with more area only has two cabins on the ship. So, on a ship with 2,008 cabins, ours was smaller than only 2 cabins! The other part of this is that we were in the Haven, which has private areas of the ship and special services only available to 80 of the 2,008 cabins. This link has more info on that. Anyway, after taking care of that we went to check-in to our hotel and then explored Copenhagen.
  • 09/19 – Board ship in Copenhagen: We did some more sightseeing in Copenhagen before making our way to the cruise port. As part of the Haven, we had a much shorter line and were on board the Norwegian Getaway in no time. We explored our suite and had some lunch before exploring the rest of the ship. Eventually the time came to set sail. As indicated by the map below, we sailed north. This seems a bit circuitous, as most ships could sail south under the Øresund Bridge. The captain explained that while our ship could fit under the bridge by about 10 feet that our draft is too deep for the water under the bridge. This necessitates sailing around the other direction.
  • 09/20 – Warnemünde & Rostock, Germany: We had breakfast in the Haven dining room and it so happened that the windows were pointed towards Warnemünde. So, we had a great view from deck 16 while eating breakfast. Most passengers probably took a train to Berlin. Since Kara has already seen Berlin, we stayed in Warnemünde & Rostock. Rostock was the first area on my mission to Germany. So, since I lived there for 4.5 months, I was able to guide us around the sights. We started by exploring Warnemünde. After that we took the s-bahn to Rostock and explored there. There was some light rain off and on, but we still enjoyed ourselves.
  • 09/21 – Sea Day: On our first sea day we did a variety of things. We played a couple games of trivia, nearly winning one. I killed Kara in mini-golf. We also did the rope course, which was pretty cool. They have a plank you can go on that hangs out over the water. And at the end of the course is a zip line. Let me say that again. We did a ZIP LINE on a cruise ship. Unfortunately for Kara, she got stuck half way through the zip line. For some reason, she didn’t want to do the rope course later in the cruise. In the evening, we went to the Haven courtyard to enjoy the hot tub with 55-60°F air temps.
  • 09/22 – Tallinn, Estonia: We started our exploration of Tallinn by taking a taxi to the Old Town. According to UNESCO, Tallinn’s Old Town is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. I had originally intended to start our walking tour at the north end of Old Town, but our taxi driver suggested we start from the south end so we would be walking down hill. His English was rough and our Estonian is non-existent, but his recommendation saved us from a lot of up hill walking. So, thanks Estonian taxi guy. We explored Old Town starting with the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which is an orthodox cupola cathedral. There was some rain early on, but it cleared out pretty quick. After we finished up in Old Town, we walked back to the cruise port and had a late lunch on the ship.
  • 09/23 – Saint Petersburg, Russia: Typically, a U.S. passport holder must have a visa to enter Russia, but there is an exception for cruise visitors in Saint Petersburg when they are accompanied by a tour operator licensed by Russian authorities. So, since we booked our tour through a licensed operator we didn’t need a visa. Nevertheless, you are still required to go through passport control after getting off the ship, which is not normally required for visiting ports on cruises. As a result of that, we got some Russian stamps in our passports. Our tour on day one started by visiting the Peter and Paul Fortress and Cathedral. Nearly all of the Romanov emperors and empresses of Russia are buried here. Next, we went to the Peterhof Palace, which is also referred to as the “Russian Versailles“. We’ve now visited both and can say they are both amazing. As part of lunch, we had some Borscht. The last stop on day one was the Catherine Palace, which was the summer residence of the Russian tsars. After we got back to the port, Kara bought a set of Matryoshka nesting dolls.
  • 09/24 – Saint Petersburg, Russia: Day two of the tour started with a river boat tour on the Neva river. We saw a variety of things, among which was the law school that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky attended. Next was the Winter Palace of the Hermitage Museum. Aside from being an ornate palace, it houses an incredible amount of art. Among many others, we saw works by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, & Rembrandt. Next was the Church of the Savior on Blood. The inside of this church might be the most amazing single work of art I have ever seen. Nearly every surface inside is covered in intricate mosaics. That’s over 80,000 square feet of mosaics. Wow! The next stop was the huge St. Isaac’s Cathedral. The last stop was Yusupov Palace, which was the residence of the House of Yusupov. It was also where Grigori Rasputin was murdered. Our two-day tour of Saint Petersburg was absolutely amazing. As we left Saint Petersburg, we went to deck 17 to watch as we past the Kronstadt Naval Cathedral. This was something that we wanted to visit but that was just too far away to be practical (seriously, go to the Wikipedia page for this and look at the pictures of the interior). We settled for seeing it from the ship at night as we left.
  • 09/25 – Helsinki, Finland: In Helsinki, the day started with some dense fog that burned off fairly quickly. We used a hop on hop off bus to get around, starting first with the Sibelius Monument, dedicated to composer Jean Sibelius. After visiting various other sights, we ate some Finnish street food for lunch at Market Square.
  • 09/26 – Nynäshamn & Stockholm, Sweden: For the stop in Sweden, the ship docked in Nynäshamn. Earlier in the year, Getaway sailed through the archipelago to dock directly in Stockholm. I heard that the reason why we didn’t do that is that they require daylight to safely navigate the archipelago in a ship of this size. So, we had about a 35 mile bus ride to get to Stockholm, where we started with a stop at an overlook with a view of the city followed by the Stockholm City Hall. This is also where the Nobel Prize banquet is held. Next, we went to the Vasa Museum, where the salvaged 17th century warship Vasa is kept. The remainder of our time was spent in the old town (Gamla Stan). We explored the old town and had lunch at a small cafe.
  • 09/27 – Sea Day: On our last sea day, I started by going to a lecture by the captain and chief engineer on the technical aspects of the ship. If you can believe it, Kara had no interest in this event. Go figure. Then, we played a couple more trivia games. After lunch, we pretty much just relaxed in our suite since we had done a lot of walking in the past week and a half. In the evening, we watched from our balcony as we passed under the Østbroen Bridge, which has the world’s third longest main span.
  • 09/28 – Arrival in Copenhagen: Sadly, our cruise had come to an end. We took our bags to our hotel and then went out to explore Copenhagen. Our first stop was the Church of Our Saviour. It has a spiral staircase on the outside of its spire that allows a nice view of the city. Then we went to see Nyhavn, where we also had lunch at a cafe. After lunch we visited various palaces as well as the Little Mermaid statue.
  • 09/29 – Flights Home: On the way home, we only had to take 2 flights. We flew from Copenhagen to Toronto to Nashville.

This trip was absolutely fantastic. I will update this post with links to the pictures when they are done.



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Vacation to Miami and Key West

Today, we returned from our vacation to Miami and Key West. Because our Baltic cruise later in the year is a little longer in duration than normal, we decided our spring trip would be a little smaller in scale. So, we found cheap flights to south Florida and paid for all of the hotel nights except for one using points. Since the cruise in September would not be in beach type weather, this trip was intended to be half beach vacation. Here was our itinerary:

  • 04/18 – Flight to Fort Lauderdale: We flew down to Fort Lauderdale. Right after clearing security in Nashville, we saw a restored American Airlines DC-3 (Flagship Detroit). A group of people surrounded it and later took off for a short flight around town. Anyway, after arriving in Fort Lauderdale we drove down to Miami to our hotel.
  • 04/19 – Miami: We spent the morning in Everglades National Park. Within about 15 minutes of arrival at the first stop in the park we saw a soft shell turtle killed by an alligator. A ranger was standing there explaining to a group of kids that the turtle had just laid some eggs. The turtle then started walking back to the water, which happened to be too close to a nearby alligator. And thus ended the life of the turtle. It was cool to see the variety of wildlife in the park. In the afternoon, we went to the south end of Haulover beach. I mention the south end specifically, because if you go to the north end you’ll see more than you bargained for! Anyway, since there was a red flag warning with very rough surf & rip currents, we just lounged on the beach without getting in the water.
  • 04/20 – Key West: We left our hotel in Miami and drove down the Keys on the Overseas Highway. We arrived in Key West just before lunch. After having a look around Mallory Square (and dodging the free-range chickens), we had lunch on Duval Street. After lunch, we toured the Truman Little White House & Key West Lighthouse. Then, after a quick stop by the southernmost point buoy, we toured the Ernest Hemingway House. Once the residence of Hemingway, it is still the home to the many descendants of a six-toed cat given to him as a gift.
  • 04/21 – Key West & Marathon: Our first stop was Fort Zachary Taylor. We explored the fortress for a while and then went to the nearby beach. The beach was a little too rocky, so we just headed to the next planned destination. We drove back up the Keys towards Marathon. We stopped briefly at the Seven Mile Bridge overlook before eating in Marathon. After lunch, we spent the afternoon at Sombrero beach. The beach and surrounding park area was very nice. Although, the weather was cloudy and cool, so the water was a bit too nippy to get in.
  • 04/22 – Miami: We spent the morning in Biscayne National Park. We took a boat tour from the park headquarters across Biscayne Bay past Elliott Key and stopping at Boca Chita Key. We saw a lot of wildlife (mostly birds). During our hour long stop on Boca Chita Key, we explored the lighthouse as well as other parts of the island. In the afternoon, we tried to visit the Cape Florida Lighthouse, but it was closed by the time we got there. So, we finished the day at the Crandon Park Beach. The beach itself was large and nice, but there was too much vegetation in the water to bother swimming (not that the weather allowed it anyway).
  • 04/23 – Miami: We started the day by visiting the Ancient Spanish Monastery (St. Bernard de Clairvaux Church). The monastery has an interesting history in that it was originally built in Spain in the 12th century. In the 20th century it was purchased by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, dismantled, and shipped to the US to be eventually reassembled in North Miami Beach, where it is now an Episcopal church and tourist attraction. The skies opened up to a downpour of rain right before we were done at the monastery, so we waited about 45 minutes inside before getting drenched running to the car. After drying out a little during lunch, we went to South Beach. Yet again, there were red flag warnings and rough surf. We only spent about 15-30 minutes there before it began to rain again. On the way to and from South Beach, we saw Norwegian Getaway docked in the Port of Miami. Getaway is the ship we will be taking in September on our Baltic cruise. It was starting its last Caribbean cruise before making the transatlantic voyage towards the Baltic.
  • 04/24 – Return flight to Nashville: We returned our rental car and flew back to Nashville.

Even though the weather and surf conditions made the beach parts of the trip mostly a bust, we still had a nice relaxing time. I’ve posted the pictures to my Flickr in the collection titled Miami & Key West 2017, which contains the following albums:



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2016 Caribbean Cruise

Yesterday, we arrived home from another cruise in the Caribbean. This was our second time cruising with Shannon, Rusty, Ben, & Stephanie. However, this time Caitlin and Alaina also tagged along since it was their fall break. This cruise lasted 8 nights and was scheduled to stop at two ports in the northern Caribbean and two ports in the southern Caribbean. It was unique for us since we were sailing on a ship we’d already been on (Carnival Conquest). In fact, our cabin was the exact same cabin number we had the last time. Here was our itinerary.

  • 09/30 – Evening flights to Fort Lauderdale: We flew down to Fort Lauderdale and stayed at a hotel close to the port using Hilton points.
  • 10/01 – Start Cruise: We boarded the ship and had lunch which was around the time met up with everyone else. We explored the ship for a little while before I went to the sports bar to watch college football with Ben & Rusty. After the muster drill, we went out on deck to watch as we sailed out of port. After dinner, we returned to the sports bar to watch more football.
  • 10/02 – Day at sea: After breakfast, we started our day at the pool and water slide. After we got too hot, Kara and I played a couple rounds of trivia. We came in third on the general knowledge trivia. After a nap, we went to dinner for the first formal night of the cruise.
  • 10/03 – Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos: We spent our time on Grand Turk at the beach near the cruise center and at the pool resort area near the Jimmy Buffet’s. It was convenient to the cruise terminal and was a nice free place to enjoy.
  • 10/04 – La Romana, Dominican Republic ► Day at sea: Our ship was originally scheduled to stop in La Romana, Dominican Republic, where we would have taken a tour of Saona Island. I say “would have” because nearby Hurricane Matthew necessitated a change in plans by our captain. The previous day, we cut short our stop in Grand Turk by a couple hours and we skipped the stop in La Romana altogether. The bright side of the changes were that we were able to extend our time in Curaçao and Aruba. So, while it is a bummer that we didn’t stop in La Romana, the captain made the right call to keep everyone safe. Actually, this is our second cruise in a row that we were near a hurricane, although this was the first time we needed to change our schedule. The closest we came to the eye of Hurricane Matthew was approximately 425 miles when we were off the southeastern coast of Hispaniola while Matthew was off the southwestern coast.
  • 10/05 – Curaçao: We spent the morning on Curaçao by going to a beach resort at Jan Thiel Beach. After returning to the ship, we then walked over to explore the very European-like downtown Willemstad. Our ship was docked until around 10pm, so we were there most of the night. After dinner, we all went up to deck 12 to play cornhole. This was pretty cool because we had the backdrop of the lights of Willemstad at night while we were playing.
  • 10/06 – Aruba: We spent the morning on Aruba by going to Eagle beach, which was a nice beach. Kara and I had expected to be the only ones from our group there since the others had booked an excursion for this port. But their excursion was cancelled, so we met up with everyone else and had a great time. After returning to the ship, we explored downtown Oranjestad and did some shopping.
  • 10/07 – Day at sea: This day at sea was much like the others with pool/water slide, naps, trivia, and other games with the group.
  • 10/08 – Day at sea: We started our last day with pool and water slide in the morning. After that, I went to the sports bar with Ben & Rusty to watch college football. We watched a double overtime thriller between Tennessee and Texas A&M. With about 60% Tennessee fans in the sports bar, the place went nuts when they inexplicably forced overtime but then fizzled when their luck finally ran out and lost the game.
  • 10/09 – End cruise in Fort Lauderdale: We debarked from the ship, but our shuttle back to the airport got us back a little close to our flight. To speed things along, I checked us in on the Delta app while on the shuttle to the airport. So, all we had to do was drop off our bags and clear security. As we arrived, there were sirens blaring and bright lights flashing throughout the terminal with an automated message announcing that there was a security threat (bomb threat I suppose) and that everyone should leave the terminal. However, no one was leaving the terminal. That was bizarre enough, but the Delta line to drop off bags was completely full and snaking down the sides of the terminal. I’m not sure why it was so backed up, but if we had waited in the whole line we would have missed our flight. Luckily, the Delta agents handled it well and called all passengers from our flight to the front of the line so we could make our flight. It was so backed up there was no one in the security line after dropping off our bag. We made it to our gate with about 5-10 minutes to spare before boarding.

We had a great time on vacation. I’ve posted the pictures to my Flickr in the collection titled 2016 Caribbean Cruise, which contains the following albums:



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Montego Bay, Jamaica

A couple days ago, we returned from another trip to the Caribbean. We hadn’t yet visited Jamaica and had accumulated enough miles for flights, so we decided to try out some Sandals resorts in Montego Bay. Sandals has three resorts in Montego Bay: Sandals Carlyle, Sandals Montego Bay, & Sandals Royal Caribbean. The resorts are all-inclusive and a bit pricey, but Sandals Carlyle only costs about 60% as much as the other two while still allowing access to all three. So, we were able to save money by staying at the small resort and spending all of our time at the two big ones. Since the resorts are situated close to the airport, there are low flying aircraft landing or taking off periodically throughout the day, which is cool for an AvGeek. Kara didn’t appreciate the novelty quite as much as I did.

We originally booked the cheapest room category, which was just fine initially. However, on the third night the rain outside started leaking through the wall creating a puddle on the floor. Luckily, nothing of ours got wet, but due to this problem they upgraded us to a better room. The new room had a balcony and a better view than the first room. So, it worked out for us.

We spent most days on the beach under a palapa or in the water, though there were a ton of other things to do. Among other activities, we enjoyed cornhole, shuffleboard, pool, & table tennis. There were also some things that I tried for the first time: sea kayaking (which is pretty much like canoeing), paddle boarding (only fell off once), & a ride on a Hobie Cat (which is a mini-catamaran sailboat). I was thinking about trying water skiing, but after how shaky I was on the paddle board I decided against it. We really enjoyed our time and were able to relax a ton.

Anyway, I’ll add links to the pictures here when they have been uploaded.



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Panama Canal Cruise

We just returned from perhaps our most unique and adventurous trip to date. We previously had a cruise through the Panama Canal on our bucket list and decided to do one this year as a way to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary later in December. Since these cruises tend to book up very early, we actually had to book it about a year before the cruise. The only cruise that met these parameters and that had a desirable mixture of ports and sea days was Celebrity Cruises on the Celebrity Infinity. So, we tried them for the first time and it was outstanding.

  • 11/19/2015 – San Diego: We flew out a day early since the cruise would be starting on the west coast to mitigate any risk of travel delay on the outbound flights. It also gave us the opportunity to see San Diego. We used points to stay for free at a nice downtown hotel within walking distance of everything. After dropping our stuff off at the hotel, we explored the marina waterfront area. We saw the Unconditional Surrender statue before heading over to the USS Midway Museum. It is an aircraft carrier turned into a naval and aviation museum. We spent some time enjoying the exhibits there and then went to do some shopping areas near the hotel.
  • 11/20/2015 – Board ship & Depart San Diego: We headed over to the cruise terminal to start our cruise. When we got there we noticed that every single person was pretty old. After a while we did notice some people our age or younger, but it ended up being a slim minority. In fact, we overheard that there were only 16 kids on the ship that cruise and my best guesstimate is maybe 25-50 people our age. This is interesting considering the ship was fully booked and has a listed passenger capacity of 2,170. The boarding process took us about 2-2.5 hours, the whole time waiting in lines. I don’t know if that is an attribute of the Celebrity boarding process or the cruise terminal in San Diego, but it was mildly annoying as our previous cruises did not require that much waiting in lines to board larger ships.
  • 11/21/2015 – At Sea: Since we didn’t actually board until later in the day the previous day, after sleeping in we explored the ship. It was mostly a lazy day playing trivia and visiting the indoor hot tub & thalassotherapy pool. Before this cruise, I noticed that Celebrity seems to have well regarded dining (winner of Cruise Critics 2015 Editors’ Pick for best dining). This really started to show this night as I had a filet mignon that was maybe the second best I’ve had anywhere.
  • 11/22/2015 – Cabo San Lucas, Mexico: While approaching Cabo, we spotted maybe 20-30 dolphins from our balcony, which was neat to experience. After tendering (luckily the only port that required it), we found our local tour. They showed us around Cabo a little bit on the way to boarding a boat to take us to El Arco (also known as Land’s End). It’s basically a rock formation and arch on southernmost tip of the Baja California peninsula. This tour also included a stop at Playa del Amor (Lover’s Beach), but sea conditions were pretty rough near the beach and Kara wasn’t sure she would be able to get back in the boat (no dock available there at the beach). So, we omitted that stop. Bummer.
  • 11/23/2015 – Puerto Vallarta, Mexico: Here we went to the beach at Playa de Oro and rented a jet ski. For some reason, Kara preferred not to participate. So, I rode a jet ski for the first time (which was fun) while Kara enjoyed the beach. After I finished with the jet ski, we both went to a nearby resort pool that was included with the jet ski rental.
  • 11/24/2015 – At Sea: One of the things we enjoyed (mostly me) were the lectures that were available periodically. This is something I don’t remember being available on cruises we have taken in the past. In the morning on this sea day, we went to a lecture about the Panama Canal, where we learned the following interesting facts: Passenger vessels are charged by number of available berths regardless of passengers currently on board; Our ship would be charged approximately half a million dollars for the transit; There is still concrete in the canal locks that hasn’t yet completely dried. We played another round of trivia before I went to a lecture about plate tectonics, volcanoes, & glaciers. That night, we went to one of the specialty restaurants (Tuscan Grille). I thought it was good, although not as good as the other one we went to later. My favorite part of the meal was the spumoni donuts dessert. After the meal, we went to watch a battle of the sexes competition.
  • 11/25/2015 – At Sea: After a late breakfast, we played a couple rounds of trivia. Then, I went to a lecture about sea mammals. The other thing of note for this day was that a hurricane developed about 1,000 miles away from our position heading in the direction of Cabo and Puerto Vallarta. Hurricane Sandra later become the latest forming category 4 Pacific hurricane and the most intense November hurricane by pressure ever recorded in the eastern Pacific. So, we lucked out that it didn’t cause us any issues.
  • 11/26/2015 – Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala: There is not much of anything to do in Puerto Quetzal, which is why we chose to visit Antigua, a former Spanish colony and the former capital of Guatemala. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and contains a lot of Spanish Baroque architecture. It takes about 90 minutes each way to get from the port to Antigua, but during the ride you do have some good views of the three 12,000 to 13,000 foot volcanoes surrounding Antigua (Fuego, Agua, & Acatenango). We booked a self guided tour, so they dropped us off with a map and told us when to meet back at the bus for the return to the ship. We explored the city and enjoyed the interesting architecture. We later found out that a day or two after we left this port that Fuego began erupting.
  • 11/27/2015 – At Sea: In the morning, while I was watching some birds hunt for fish I saw a sea turtle from our balcony. Neat. We played some trivia and then went to another Panama Canal lecture. After lunch, we went to another trivia game and then relaxed in our cabin.
  • 11/28/2015 – Puntarenas, Costa Rica: While watching our arrival in port from the balcony, I saw some kind of sting ray or manta ray. We got off the ship and did a canopy tour. Apparently, canopy zip line tours originated in Costa Rica, so we thought it would be fun to do one where it started. We did 11 lines with the longest one at about 1,000 feet long. After we enjoyed that, they took anyone that wished to a nearby river bank where you could see about 10-20 crocodiles on the other side of the river. When we got back to the port and back on the ship, I noticed that there was a small air show with a couple airplanes doing a routine nearby. Not sure whether that is a regular thing or if we just happened to be there for an annual event, but it was fun to watch. After dinner, we went to a magic show by Trigg Watson.
  • 11/29/2015 – At Sea: After breakfast, we went to the outside pools. We played another trivia game and then I went to another canal lecture. For dinner, we went to Qsine, another of the specialty restaurants. This is what we had: Lava crab (Alaskan King crab, scallions, lobster sauce), Lobster escargot (lobster and escargot fritter with parsley garlic butter sauce), Taco royale (black Angus sirloin steak, caramelized onion, guacamole), Chitini (orange chicken, Kung pao shrimp, beef, sweet and sour pork, sticky rice), Chocolate covered strawberries. Then, Kara had cheesecake and I had a chocolate tombstone. It looks like a lot of food (and it was), but the portions are not huge so that you have an opportunity to try a lot of things. Before the dessert course, they ask you if you are still hungry to try even more stuff! We really enjoyed it, although I was not able to get Kara to try the escargot with me.
  • 11/30/2015 – Panama Canal Transit: This day was the reason we chose this cruise. We got up early in the morning to ensure we wouldn’t miss anything. For cruise ships that have a helipad, they normally don’t allow passengers in that area. However, the day we went through the canal they opened up that area so that everyone could observe the canal transit from there, if desired. So, we watched the transit of the Miraflores Locks from the helipad. We then moved to the aft of the ship to see that view when we went through the Pedro Miguel Locks. After we left Pedro Miguel and traveled through the Culebra Cut, we mostly went inside to watch from deck 11. Soon after leaving the cut and entering Gatun Lake, we went to lunch. And finallly, while we went through the Gatun Locks we watched mostly from starboard side of deck 4. Overall, it was an outstanding experience.
  • 12/01/2015 – Colon, Panama: We got off the ship and found our tour to the locks. We went first to the Gatun Dam, which dammed up the Chagres River creating the lake in the canal. After that, we went to the Gatun Locks Visitor Center to watch ships go through the locks. Next, we went to the Canal Expansion Observation Center. There we could see the huge site of the new Atlantic locks currently under construction. After some time there, our guide drove us around Colon showing us points of interest before returning us to the ship.
  • 12/02/2015 – Cartagena, Colombia: Here we took a tour of the city starting at La Popa Monastery, which is perched on a hill above Cartagena. That provided a wonderful panoramic view of the city. We made a stop at Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, which is fortress built by the Spanish in the 1500’s. We spent most of the balance of our time in the old walled city of Cartagena, which due to the Spanish influence looks similar to a European walled city. We were shown and explored various landmarks there. We returned to the ship and later that night went to a comedy show.
  • 12/03/2015 – At Sea: We went to various trivia games and lectures and otherwise relaxed around the ship. That night was the final formal dining night, where we had maybe the largest lobster tail I’ve eaten. It was so large that Kara couldn’t finish all of hers.
  • 12/04/2015 – At Sea: We went to various trivia games and lectures and otherwise relaxed around the ship. One of the lectures was given by the captain and was all about how they navigate and sail the ship from port to port. It was very interesting. Then, for dinner we returned to the Qsine specialty restaurant. This time we we had the Lava crab and the Taco royale that we had last time along with trying these two for the first time: Disco shrimp (bouillon poached tiger shrimp, avocado, aioli & crunchy topping served above a “disco” light), & Persian Kebab (skewered chicken garlic & spices veggies & yellow rice pilaf, which was served on a big knife that the waiter called a “sword”). For desert, I had gelato and Kara had build it yourself cupcakes. Like the first time in Qsine, the food was excellent.
  • 12/05/2015 – Disembark & Return Home: We arrived in Fort Lauderdale, where we debarked the ship and flew back home.

It was a wonderful cruise. We visited four new countries and our first in South America. I’ve posted the pictures to my Flickr in the collection titled Panama Canal Cruise 2015, which contains the following albums:



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Trip to St. Maarten, Anguilla, & St. Barths

We just returned from another trip to the Caribbean, but this time instead of a cruise we flew down there. We had enough miles saved up to pay for the flights to St. Maarten with miles and we found a resort that was priced as low as a Holiday Inn Express type hotel in the US. So, we got a pretty good deal to visit St. Maarten for a week. While we were there we took a few of those days to visit nearby Anguilla and St. Barths. The last time we visited St. Maarten I was on crutches, so it was nice to enjoy the visit this time around.

  • 4/21 – Travel to St. Maarten: We flew from Nashville to St. Maarten via Atlanta. Having watched airliners land from Maho Beach, it was cool to watch the approach from inside one of those airliners. After picking up our rental car, we made our way to the resort and spent the evening on the beach at the resort watching the sun set.
  • 4/22 – St. Maarten: In the morning, we visited Marigot on the French side of the island. We went to the top of Fort Louis for some great views, after which we explored Marigot. We then went to Maho Beach. After lunch at the beach bar, we spent a couple hours at the beach watching planes land and take off. After that, we spent the rest of the day at Red Bay Beach (Baie Rouge).
  • 4/23 – Anguilla: To get to Anguilla, we took a ferry from Marigot to Blowing Point, Anguilla. We rented a car to get around for the day. Since Anguilla is a British overseas territory, they drive on the left side of the road. So, I had my first experience doing that. The island only has around 13,500 people so there wasn’t a ton of traffic, making it fairly easy to get the hang of it. Although, it is really weird going around a roundabout the opposite way. Our first stop on Anguilla was a resort on Rendezvous Bay. The beach is absolutely spectacular and we had the resort’s part of the beach all to ourselves for the first hour. After eating lunch at the resort’s restaurant, we went to Shoal Bay. It was nice, but had too much vegetation in the water for our liking. So we went to Mead’s Bay, which was much nicer and had fewer people. We spent some time there before returning the rental car and taking the ferry back to St. Maarten.
  • 4/24 – St. Maarten: With all of the sun we got in the two previous days, we decided to change our original plans and avoid beaches this day to give our sun burns a break. Staying on the Dutch side, we went first to Fort Amsterdam which overlooks Philipsburg. After the fort, we went and explored around Philipsburg, browsing the shops and walking around the boardwalk. We had lunch in Philipsburg and then went to Pic Paradis, which is the highest point on the island.
  • 4/25 – St. Barths: To get to St. Barths we took a ferry from Philipsburg to Gustavia. After picking up our rental car, we went to Fort Gustav & Fort Karl which had some great views of the harbor. Then we drove to the south of the island to visit some beaches. First, we visited Grand Saline Beach, which was nice. After that, we went to Gouverneur Beach, which was also nice. For lunch, we went to a restaurant near St. Jean. Then, we returned to Gustavia to explore and do some shopping. Lastly, before returning the car and taking the ferry back, we went to St. Barths airport to watch the abnormal aircraft approaches.
  • 4/26 – St. Maarten: On our last full day, we had a lazy morning before going to Orient Bay. We ate lunch there and then drove to the western coast to visit Happy Bay. To get there, you have to drive to Friar’s Bay and then hike about 10-15 minutes to Happy Bay. Strangely, Friar’s Bay smelled like a sewage plant, which begs the question: Why were people on the beach there with that smell? Anyway, the smell went away after we walked to Happy Bay, which was a great beach.
  • 4/27 – St. Maarten & Return Home: We spent the morning around the resort before packing up and checking out of the resort. We returned the car and then went to the airport to fly back home.

We had a great vacation. We visited two new Caribbean islands along with exploring one we had been to before. Our passports received 6 stamps on this trip, which was pretty cool. I’ve posted the pictures to my Flickr in the collection titled St. Maarten | Anguilla | St. Barths 2015, which contains the following albums:



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2014 Caribbean Cruise

Kara and I recently returned from our third cruise. Our first two cruises were in the eastern and northern Caribbean, respectively. Earlier in the year, someone mentioned the idea of going on a cruise together, so we went with Shannon, Rusty, Ben, & Stephanie. The cruise we all chose was in the western Caribbean. It was different from our prior cruises since we went with other people we know. But that meant that we had an even better time. Here is how it went.

  • 10/05 – Travel to Miami and begin cruise: Everyone else arrived in Miami the night before. This was the first time that we flew in on the same day of cruise departure and it worked out just fine. We all arrived at the cruise terminal and boarded the ship. We had lunch and then explored the ship until our rooms were ready and bags arrived.
  • 10/06 – Day at sea: Kara and I slept in late because the previous day was an early travel day for us. After breakfast, we played some trivia games. Later, Rusty, Ben, & I went to the sports bar where they had an xbox. That night was the first formal dining evening of the cruise, at which we enjoyed lobster and shrimp. Afterward, we played some games around the ship. I especially enjoyed playing cornhole. While we were playing, a strange thing happened: a bird randomly fell out of the air dead near where we were playing. The bird was shuffle-boarded out of the way and then our game resumed.
  • 10/07 – Cozumel, Mexico: The excursion we originally booked for Cozumel involved taking a catamaran to an island beach resort. There was some kind of overbooking issue that caused us to be re-booked for no extra cost to the same excursion with a twister jet boat. It went faster than the catamaran and also did some fun high-speed twisting turns that got everyone wet. After that it took us to Passion Island, where we had a great time. The island is almost completely sand covered. There couldn’t have been more than 35 people on the excursion where there are frequently hundreds of people on the island, so it felt we had the island to ourselves. We swam, played on a water trampoline, ate lunch, and then rested in some covered hammocks. On our way back to the ship we did some more twisting turns on the twister boat.
  • 10/08 – Belize City, Belize: In Belize, there is no dock for the ship so you have to tender to the port, which was a first for Kara and I. After we got to the port, we explored and shopped at the port until our excursion. We took a boat to Goff’s Caye, which is located on the Belize Barrier Reef (the second largest coral reef system after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef). After a little time on the island, we then boarded the boat again for a guided snorkeling tour nearby. We saw lots of fish and coral reef. In fact, we saw a Lionfish like the one that was in dad’s fish tank. Not bad for my first time snorkeling.
  • 10/09 – Roatan, Honduras: On Roatan, we decided to a zipline and beach tour. The zipline part was pretty fun. While I had done a zipline before, it was the first time while on vacation. It was Kara’s first time. There were 12 zipline segments of varying lengths and heights. After the zipline, we toured a nearby mini-zoo with monkeys, macaws, toucans, and other animals. Then, we went to a beach resort at West Bay Beach to enjoy the rest of our day.
  • 10/10 – Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands: Grand Cayman is another port you have to tender to. After tendering to the port, we took a taxi to a resort on Seven Mile Beach. Almost immediately when we got in the water we noticed a fairly large school of fish swimming very close to the beach. We swam with the fish and also did some more reef snorkeling. We ate lunch and then swam in the nearby pool before returning to the port and then the ship.
  • 10/11 – Day at sea: We slept in and had a late breakfast and then spent the morning in the pool and going down the water slide as well as playing some mini-golf. After lunch, Rusty, Ben, and I spent the afternoon in the sports bar watching college football.
  • 10/12 – End cruise in Miami: We returned to Miami, where we debarked the ship and flew back home.

We had an outstanding cruise. Both Kara and I did some new things and enjoyed it. I’ve posted the pictures to my Flickr in the collection titled 2014 Caribbean Cruise, which contains the following albums:



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Hawaiian Vacation

For a while I have had the goal of visiting all 50 states in the U.S. For my purposes, visiting a state is defined simply as being in the geographical boundaries of the said state (flying over it doesn’t count). Some might argue it doesn’t count if I don’t actually see a lot of the state. In my opinion, I will see a lot of the state if it warrants a longer visit, otherwise a very short visit is sufficient for me (some of those plains states really have nothing interesting to me). In early 2012, I only lacked 5 states: Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Hawaii. The plan was to take a cruise in 2012 and then to knock out the remaining 5 states in two separate trips in 2013. Of course, my knee had plans of its own. I dislocated my patella on the 2012 cruise and then again in early 2013 on a work trip, which necessitated reconstructive surgery. This pushed back my plans regarding the remaining unvisited states until this year. Last month I went on a quick trip to visit my four unvisited plains states. This month Kara and I went on vacation in Hawaii. So now I have been to all 50 states (as well as D.C. & 2 U.S. territories). Now we can concentrate on visiting countries! Anyway, here is how our trip to Hawaii went.

  • 5/07 – Outbound Flights: We had a long day flying more than 5,000 miles from Nashville to Atlanta to Seattle to Honolulu. We were lucky to score a first class upgrade on the flight from Seattle to Honolulu, which was nice for the longest segment.
  • 5/08 – Oʻahu: Our first stop was Diamond Head, which is an inactive volcanic cone. As it used to contain a fort, it has various lookout points that offer good views. We hiked the 1.5 mile roundtrip up to an observation platform on the summit for some great views of the island. Next, we went to the Valley of of the Temples memorial park. There is a Buddhist temple there situated at the foot of the Koʻolau mountains. After lunch we went on a tour of ʻIolani Palace. It is the only palace in the United States ever used as the residence of a monarch. We ended the day with a visit to Kūhiō Beach Park, which was near our hotel. Kūhiō Beach is a sub-section of Waikīkī Beach.
  • 5/09 – Oʻahu: We visited the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument at Pearl Harbor which includes the USS Arizona Memorial. While waiting for our boat out to the memorial, we found some exhibits that showed where in the harbor Grandaddy Chatman’s ship (USS Honolulu (CL-48)) was moored during the attack when he was on shore leave. It said that the Honolulu suffered moderate damage. In fact, it showed a picture of the attack taken by a Japanese plane at around 8:00am. In that picture it shows a Japanese torpedo bomber on an attack run near the Honolulu. For all we know, this could have been the moment before the damage to the Honolulu was inflicted! After Pearl Harbor, Kara shopped in Waikīkī while I went on a helicopter tour of Oʻahu, which was outstanding. After my helicopter tour, we both went to the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve. The bay has a nice beach and coral reefs that are popular for snorkeling. Unfortunately, we arrived too late to rent snorkeling equipment, so we enjoyed our visit without snorkeling.
  • 5/10 – Oʻahu: We ate breakfast at the Hukilau Cafe. After breakfast, we made a quick stop at the Laie Hawaiʻi Temple. Then we went to the Banzai Pipeline on the North Shore, known for big waves. There was a large beach and active surf. After that, we went to the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet. There were some pretty good prices there, but nothing we were interested in buying. Lastly, we returned back to Kūhiō Beach to relax for the remainder of the day.
  • 5/11 – Hawaiʻi (big island): Early in the morning, we flew from Honolulu to Kona, on the big island of Hawaiʻi. First, we visited a lookout overlooking the Waipiʻo Valley, which was very scenic. We spent the rest of the afternoon at Hāpuna Beach. It was an outstanding beach with very fine white sand and waves that were high enough to be fun but not overbearing. The only complaint I have about it is that the sand farthest from the water was hot…like molten lava hot. Then, we went to our hotel in Kona and went to a luau. Because it had been raining that day, they had to move it inside.
  • 5/12 – Hawaiʻi (big island): We drove across the island over to Hilo. While Kara was shopping in Hilo, I went on a helicopter tour of the volcanoes and waterfalls on the east side of the island. After that, we both made a quick stop to view Rainbow Falls. We spent the second half of the day exploring the Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. The park includes Kīlauea (one of the world’s most active volcanoes) and Mauna Loa (the world’s most massive subaerial volcano and taller from its base under the ocean than Mt. Everest is from sea level). We drove all of the currently opened primary roads in the park and saw some amazing landscapes including cooled lava flows, a lava tube (that you can walk into), numerous craters, a sea arch, and a road that was closed by a lava flow. We returned to the closest Kīlauea observation point right after nightfall and saw the glow emitted from the volcano. For me, it was cool to see the volcanoes from the air as well as from the ground. Lastly, we went stargazing at the visitor center for the Mauna Kea Observatories. Every night, they set up telescopes at the visitor center for free stargazing. Of course, the night we were there just happened to be right before the full moon, so that kept us from being able to see a lot of cool things. We were in one of the least light-poluted places on earth and the moon was providing the light pollution. We were still able to see something interesting though, the Southern Cross. The Southern Cross is a fairly well known constellation that is only visible from latitudes south of 25° N, which means it is never visible from the continental U.S. Earlier in the day we were at sea level and it was in the mid-80s. The observatory visitor center is at around 9,200 feet elevation and we experienced temperatures in the mid-40s. Kind of funny that I packed and wore jeans and a fleece on a trip to tropical Hawaiʻi. To get back to the main highway on our return trip to the hotel, we drove down a 17% grade down the mountain, which was interesting.
  • 5/13 – Hawaiʻi (big island) & Return Flights: The first stop on our last day in Hawaiʻi was Punaluʻu Beach, which is a neat black sand beach. It is frequented by endangered animals, such as sea turtles. And we did see a couple sea turtles during our visit. After that, we went to South Point also known as Ka Lae. South Point is a remote area on the big island that is the southernmost point in the 50 United States. It is known for strong winds and ocean currents, as well as cliff jumping. And we did see some crazy people that were taking part. On our way to the airport, we made a quick stop to see the Kona Temple. We flew from Kona to Honolulu to Los Angeles. After we had boarded the Honolulu to Los Angeles segment, there was one first class seat available that was offered to Kara, but inexplicably, she declined it as she wanted to be together with me.
  • 5/14 – Return Flights: And finally, we flew from Los Angeles to Nashville.

We had an outstanding time seeing a lot of cool places. I’ve posted the pictures to my Flickr in the collection titled Hawaiʻi 2014, which contains the following albums:




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2013 Caribbean Cruise

Due to my reconstructive knee surgery in April, we had to wait a bit longer this year in planning what to do for vacation. We wanted to try another cruise so we could actually experience it without me on crutches in a leg immobilizer. During the last cruise, we were able to do what we wanted on all of the islands except for St. Thomas. So, when choosing this cruise we wanted a stop in St. Thomas and for the other ports to be new to us. Additionally, Kara wanted more days at sea than we had in the previous cruise (only one previously). We found an 8 night northern Caribbean cruise itinerary that met these criteria and were happy to give cruising another shot.

  • 10/11 – Miami, Florida: We flew down to Miami in the evening. After dropping our bags off at the hotel, we went across the street to the Bayside Marketplace for dinner and browsing through the shops. It’s located next to a marina in downtown, so it has an interesting atmosphere.
  • 10/12 – Begin Cruise in Miami: We boarded the ship around noon and explored the ship until the scheduled departure. I am happy to report that we were able to accomplish that sans knee injury, which means that we were finally able to enjoy leaving port on the start of a cruise.
  • 10/13 & 10/14 – Days at Sea: We had a few relaxing days at sea to start the cruise. We spent the time with some lounging up on deck as well as on our balcony. I enjoyed the trivia games, some of which I was able to convince Kara to play. The night of the first of these two days at sea was the first formal dinner, during which we enjoyed lobster and shrimp. There were also some comedy shows that were pretty good.
  • 10/15 – Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands: Originally, we planned to start the day in St. Thomas by riding the Paradise Point Skyride up to a cool lookout over Charlotte Amalie. Annoyingly, the tram wasn’t operating due to some construction, but we got similar views later in the day. We spent a couple hours walking around downtown before having lunch on the waterfront. We then took a great tour of the island, after which we spent the rest of the day at the beach at Magens Bay. It was a spectacular place and one of the best beaches we have been to. If we ever come back to St. Thomas, we would probably spend all or most of the day there.
  • 10/16 – St. John’s, Antigua & Montserrat: This day was the one I was most looking forward to on the itinerary. Antigua is geographically close to the island of Montserrat. There is a tour operator that offers helicopter tours that fly from Antigua to Montserrat and then tour around the Soufrière Hills volcano. This volcano was dormant for a long time until 1995 when it erupted violently and destroyed a large portion of the island. Because of the destruction and the continuing activity of the volcano, there is an exclusion zone established that prohibits habitation or ground transportation in the southern half of the island. Our pilot mentioned that their helicopters are allowed in the exclusion zone for air tours because they also help the Montserrat Volcano Observatory staff with helicopter flights to the volcano for research and monitoring. It was such an outstanding tour. Kara wanted no part of being in a helicopter, so we took a tour of Antigua after lunch. It included some great views of the island at the Block House, Shirley Heights and Nelson’s Dockyard.
  • 10/17 – Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands: In Tortola, we took a land and sea tour that started with the land tour. There were lots of great views of the island. The land tour ended at Soper’s Hole Marina, where we had some time for shopping before boarding a boat for the sea tour. The route took us past St. John to Treasure Point on Norman Island and then past Peter Island and Dead Chest Island back to the dock where the cruise ship was. After dinner back on the ship, we went to a show where a hypnotist hypnotized people from the audience (not us) and had them do funny things. Regardless of your opinion of hypnosis, it was hilarious.
  • 10/18 – Day at Sea: This day at sea was spent similar to the two days at sea earlier in the cruise.
  • 10/19 – Nassau, Bahamas: The final day was different as the arrival time in Nassau was at noon, so half the day is at sea. In the morning, I convinced Kara to play some more trivia games with me and we actually won one of them (which is harder than it sounds as some of them were diabolical). After we docked in Nassau, we did some shopping in town before boarding a boat to a beach on a private resort island owned by the cruise line. The boat taking us there had some issues that increased the travel time to the island, but we eventually arrived. The beach was fairly nice, but not as good as Magens Bay. Due to the issues getting to the resort island, we received a 50% refund of the excursion.
  • 10/20 – End Cruise in Miami: We returned to Miami, where we debarked the ship and flew back home.

So it turned out to be a wonderful vacation. I’ve posted the pictures to my Flickr in the collection titled 2013 Caribbean Cruise, which contains the following sets (albums):



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Update

I am making slow progress after my reconstructive knee surgery in April. I was recently cleared to start putting weight on my knee and I have progressed to be able to walk with a cane. More importantly, we were allowed by the doctor to send back the CPM machine that was monopolizing my time (six hours per day every day). This provided some extra time to do something I had been wanting to do for a little while.

Previously, our pictures on the web site had been in a gallery hosted on our web server. I liked that it was hosted on our own server, but there were aspects of the gallery application that I didn’t like. Last month, Flickr updated its look and feel and raised the storage limit for free accounts to 1 terabyte. I had previously considered Flickr, but decided against it since the storage for free accounts used to be very small. So, since I had some more free time and since Flickr now allows a lot more storage, I decided to move all of our online picture storage over to Flickr. I completed the move and all of the picture gallery links on my blog and our website now point to my Flickr photostream. I am pleased with the change. I also uploaded some pictures from recent travels that had not previously been in the old gallery. Have a look.

  • Natchez Trace Parkway: In June 2011, Kara and I took a day-trip down part of the Natchez Trace Parkway starting with breakfast at the Loveless Cafe.
  • Labor Day 2012 Braves Games: These are the pictures of the Braves games I went to that I mentioned in my previous blog post.
  • Manchester, UK: I had a couple two-week trips to Manchester, UK for work (September 2012 and January/February 2013).
  • Liverpool, UK: While in Manchester in September 2012, we all went to Liverpool for a little sightseeing and dinner one evening.
  • London, UK 2013: While in Manchester in February 2013, I made a weekend trip down to London to see some things I missed the first time I visited in 2009.
  • Chester, UK: While in Manchester in February 2013, we all made a weekend sightseeing trip to the town of Chester near the border of England and Wales.