Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The drive home

Mostly, it was uneventful. A few interesting things occurred:
  • We spent most of Saturday listening to the Fox News coverage of the avalanche on XM - and talking back to the anchors as they mangled the location of the slide as well as the details of what had happened and general information about avalanches. It was very good to hear that no one was killed.
  • We chose to return via I-40 (reported for a while on Saturday as the location of the avalanche, by the way) and I-25, since snow was forecast for Vail Pass over the weekend. This was mostly a good choice, but we had a scare on Sunday. Just south of Santa Fe, we saw a highway warning sign: "I-25 CLOSED AT COLORADO BORDER. SEEK LODGING". Several phone calls later (in-laws with computers, New Mexico Road Conditions, and Colorado Road Conditions), we figured out that the sign was a little out of date and everything was open. High winds between Trinidad and Colorado Springs, though.

We're home now. I think it's probably about time to take the Christmas decorations down. And there's another blizzard forecast for this weekend, I hear. Woo hoo.

Vacation Photos

I think this will work - here is a link to my snapfish photo album. You will need to log in to see them.


Hand Sanitizer

Apparently, my husband was not the only one worried about Norovirus. Things have changed since our last cruise. During the week we were onboard, the passengers collectively had the cleanest hands in the known universe - either that, or they never ate or left the ship. At every possible occasion, we were doused with hand sanitizer: in the buffet line, on entering any food service venue, when entering the theatre to see a show, when leaving the ship to go ashore, when returning to the ship from being ashore - at all these spots, there were a couple of crew members wielding pump bottles of hand sanitizer.

For the record, hand sanitizer tastes terrible. Under no circumstances should you lick your fingers after using it - especially not in conjunction with a meal.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

A little more on the final sea day

Down a few posts, I mentioned that our last day at sea had been a bit bumpier than the rest of the cruise. As the day progressed, the weather actually deteriorated - at one point, we were headed nearly straight in to 37-knot winds, and the sea state was described as "rough" - 7-12' waves.

"Rough" was an understatement, in my opinion. At intervals, it felt as if the ship was slamming into the waves ahead of us - sound effects included. If you laid down, you felt as if you were pulling Gs occasionally - floating and being pressed into the bed.

I still maintain that I wasn't seasick - I was never even queasy. But shortly after lunch, I became convinced that I really needed to spend the rest of the cruise lying down - it just took too much energy to deal with all that motion. Probably a good policy, all things considered - we later heard that the medical department was overwhelmed with sick people, and there were some broken bones amongst the passengers. They ended up draining the pools, and some of the art for the art auctions was damaged. Nasty day, all told.

I owe it to my conscience to mention that both my husband and daughter actually got up and went to dinner that night - apparently they're both hardier sailors than I am.

And the captain was right, eventually - when I woke up at 2 am it had flattened out.


The Onboard Spa

All shipboard spas are run by the same company: Steiner of London. It is not obvious that this is the case for Princess Cruises - they only refer to their spas as the "Lotus Spas", which made me think that it might be run by a different group. Once we got on board, the Steiner label started surfacing, and the spa experience was very similar on this cruise to our Alaska cruise on Royal Caribbean. The spa technicians, whether hair stylists, nail technicians, massage therapists, or fitness instructors, are all masters of the upsell. On Royal Caribbean, our daughter had a facial. After it, we met her in the corridor outside our room, and she was carrying a huge shopping bag. They had handed her a raft of skincare products without telling her that there was a charge for them. To even things up, we told her older sister that she could go on a similar product-buying spree, and I vowed to be more vigilant on this trip.

We mostly did okay. During the spa tour on the first day aboard, they showed us their "thermal suite" - heated tile benches, an oriental-themed sauna, two steam rooms, and the "rainforest shower". We could buy passes to this marvel for $70 per person, $109 for a couple, or $175 for a family. Since I'd spent so much time in the (free) steam room and sauna on our Alaska cruise, this seemed like something we needed to do, so we handed over the cards. Subsequent to our purchase of the passes, I found out that the changing rooms included a (free) sauna and steam room, just like on the Alaska trip. They, of course, didn't mention these features of the spa during the tour.

I got upsold on a massage the first day out - nasty hotel beds had left me with a really stiff back, and I wanted a massage similar to what we get at home - deep tissue, including the use of elbows and little pointed sticks when necessary to get the trigger points to release a bit. The receptionist convinced me to spend an additional $60 to get the hot stones massage, because it would go deeper than the sports massage and was an hour and 15 minutes instead of the 50-minute sports massage. I suppose it did go deeper - and it was nice, but for what I paid for it, I could have had a 3-hour massage at home. I resisted buying any aromatherapy products that would supposedly reduce my muscle tension, as well as a product that would help my arthritic thumb joints.

I also went to one of the complimentary seminars in the fitness center: Keys to a Flatter Stomach. I'm always in favor of a flatter stomach, so we trotted up to absorb knowledge. And I'll now share my knowledge with you. Complimentary, too. The key to a flatter stomach is apparently cleansing. Specifically, cleansing using organic seaweed and algae compounds only sold in the spa. For anywhere from 3 months to a year. At $100/month. But before you can tell whether you can slide by on 3 months' worth or if you're in for the long haul, you have to spring for an electronic metabolism assessment at $33. Needless to say, my stomach is no flatter today than it was before the seminar.

Our daughter had a manicure/pedicure during a port day. When she signed up for it, the receptionist reminded her to bring along her discount coupon to get 15% off - and she did. What the receptionist did not tell her was that all in-port manicure/pedicures were reduced in price by $40 from the at-sea price - and they took the 15% off the at-sea price. And then tried to sell her some sort of oil to help with the dry skin on her heels. We said no. And I think on any future cruises, I will avoid these joints like the plague.

Shipboard Shopping

There are about 5 shops onboard the ship. When we're at sea, they're open; they stay closed in port to force everyone to shop on shore. All onboard purchases are done with our room keys, which makes it fatally easy to spend to the point of shock on the last day. The onboard shops offer beach-related stuff (swimsuits, sarongs, sunblock, aloe), formal wear, giftware of various sorts, jewelry, duty-free liquor, perfume, and souvenir clothing. And they spill over into the atrium - nearly every day there's been something for sale on tables in the public areas - loose gemstones, watches, port-theme t-shirts and hats, the inch-of-gold concession, swarovski crystal jewelry.

In the early days of the cruise, before we hit our first port, the ship's "shopping staff" conducted several seminars on shopping in port. Interestingly enough, the seminars referred us to the same set of stores in every port - and even more interesting, it was the same set of stores that Royal Caribbean referred us to in Alaska: Diamonds International, Tanzanite International, Pacific Jewelry, Del Sol, Senor Frogs (okay, that one was new). The small print indicates that these stores have paid a "promotional fee" to the cruise line to be included in the recommended shops list, and that they will all honor a 30-day money-back guarantee on their merchandise. And if we were so unlucky as to miss the live seminars, at least one of the in-room TV channels had a recorded pitch.

Ship-sponsored tours include stops at the recommended shops, where the tour group is provided with a "welcome drink" and invited to shop. Even the taxis in Mazatlan had what appeared to be preset routes that ended at a recommended shop. Our first taxidriver deposited us at Diamonds International, and when we left that area to go to the old town area (way cool, by the way), that taxidriver took us right to yet another bloody jewelry store.

I really didn't come on this trip to shop. Maybe some of the other 3000 passengers did, but the constant sales pitches have begun to get on my nerves. I succumbed twice - I bought a bracelet from the inch-of-gold lady, and a pair of fire opal earrings at what turned out to be a recommended shop (not anything named ...International, though). And I ended up with the earrings sort of by surprise. I didn't intend to bargain for them. When the lady at the shop told me that they were $80, I figured I could live without fire opal earrings. When I was waiting for my husband to finish buying vanilla (a request from several family members), she asked me if I would buy them for $50, and I said no again. We left the store (or so I thought) and were looking in the window of another one, and she came up and asked if I would buy them for $30. Well, at that price, I caved, and I'm glad I have them, but it was a little weird.

Shipboard Food

I really wasn't kidding about 24x7 food service around here. The buffet is open 24 hours a day, and room service is available within 15 minutes of a phone call. We've been doing buffet for breakfast (my daughter's been doing room service), buffet or the burger grill for lunch, and the formal dining room for dinner. A typical breakfast menu at the buffet goes like this:
  • orange and cranberry juice
  • milk
  • cold cereal
  • granola
  • oatmeal
  • canned pears
  • prunes in juice
  • fresh fruit salad
  • whole fresh fruit
  • link sausage
  • "specialty" sausage
  • ham or canadian bacon
  • regular bacon
  • broiled tomatoes
  • sauteed mushrooms
  • cold sliced turkey breast
  • cold smoked salmon
  • bagels
  • toast
  • english muffins
  • dinner rolls
  • croissants
  • sweet rolls
  • cream cheese
  • sour cream
  • cottage cheese
  • cubed assorted cheese
  • fried eggs
  • grits
  • scrambled eggs
  • omelets
  • "specialty" eggs
  • fried rice
  • yogurt
  • tea/coffee/water
I think that's everything - I may have missed a few things. Lunch provides a similar range of items, and adds a variety of desserts. They also have a special lunch buffet each day - they've had sushi, fajitas, and a sandwich bar that I've noticed. Today's special buffet is all desserts - if you don't feel like you've got your calorie intake to the right level for the trip yet.

And then there's dinner. We've stuck with our dining room assignment for dinner throughout the cruise, partly because it starts 1/2 hour earlier than the buffet does, and partly because our table mates have turned out to be really nice, interesting people. The dinner menu covers 5 courses each night: appetizer, soup, salad, entree, dessert - I don't think I've done them all at a single meal yet. Last night was the really formal dinner menu (formal night 2) - the entrees included lobster, roast pheasant, and beef wellington, and baked alaska was one of the dessert choices. Our headwaiter, Dana, is almost too helpful - when I asked her which she would recommend between the pheasant and the beef wellington, she suggested that I'd enjoy the beef more, but offered to bring me a sample of the pheasant along with it, so I could try that as well. It was good, but as a result, I didn't finish the beef, and only wanted some sorbet for dessert.

For about the last three days, we've been trying to taper off - more salads at lunch, things like that. And it works - for a while. About 4 pm yesterday I was ravenous, and ended up having a burger and fries. When the nutrition experts recommend 5-6 small meals a day, I don't think that's quite what they have in mind, somehow.

A bunch of stuff after the fact

Since posting turned out to be near impossible while on the ship (dead slow and at 50 cents/minute, not something I wanted to do for long), I'll wrap this up with a series of short postings on various life-on-a-cruise topics, rather than trying to do a chronological diary.

At the moment (Friday morning), we are about 400 miles from Los Angeles, just west of Baja. Land is periodically visible from the stateroom window, which I find somewhat reassuring, because the water between us and the land is moving more than it has all week. I first noticed it at 4:00 am, when I woke up to find that the ship had acquired a new rhythm - shimmy-shimmy-shimmy-shimmy, followed by up/down-up/down-up/down. It was pitch dark in the room, which left me with no other sensory input than shimmy-shimmy-shimmy-shimmy, up/down-up/down-up/down for about 2 hours. It's not making any of us sick, but I'm about ready to get into a motionless hotel room for a while. The swimming pools have turned into wave pools this morning, and it's cloudy and kind of cold - we're running almost directly into a 25-knot breeze (with the ship's own speed, we're getting nearly 45-knot winds onboard, so most people are staying inside. The captain is promising that things will flatten out later - but he didn't qualify "later", so I guess he could be referring to the period immediately after we tie up in LA.

A good day to do some packing. We have signed up for the "walk-off" disembarkation process, which means that we get off the ship around 8 am tomorrow (more time to drive home). It also means that we're absolutely on our own as regards luggage - if we can't drag it off by ourselves, it's staying here. We have with us the following:
  • 4 standard rolling suitcases of various sizes
  • 1 rolling garment bag (which I didn't realize was a rolling bag until this morning)
  • 2 canvas duffel bags
  • 1 really heavy backpack (storage for the laptop, the DVD collection, and the physics book)

Our goal for today is to reduce the number of rolling bags by at least one, by means of cramming more of our possessions into fewer of the suitcases, so that we can pack the smallest rolling bag into the largest and take them off as a single bag. I think we're going to make it.

Cruise Clock ticker