Monday, December 18, 2006

Busy weekend

We usually don't run out of things to do but we're rarely as social (in at least some sense of the word) as we were this past weekend.

Thursday night was Naoyuki's department's holiday party at the Saturn Club in downtown Buffalo. It's a cool place, in a "how many of these places are left?" kind of way. As usual, great beef on weck, free liquor, and more beef on weck for dessert. Naoyuki's colleagues are charming and gracious and as is always the case when I'm not actually acting as host my preferred location was holding up the wall and watching.

Friday night we made our second foray to the Studio Arena Theatre, this time to see The Fourth Wiseman, a re-telling of the Christmas story. I was hoping for something a bit more challenging but the cast and crew did a great job (I especially enjoyed the puppets.) And Paolo Andino, who played the lead, was really just topnotch (and way hunky!) Naturally I googled him as soon as I got home and while there are many references to him (and at least one to his mom, or so it would appear!) he doesn't seem to have a personal website of his own. Sigh!

Saturday afternoon we travelled to Rochester for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra's annual holiday concert. I thought it was quite good as holiday concerts go and the high school chorus was very nice. Mostly, though, I was blown away by the Eastman Theatre, which is just simply spectacular. I figured it would be pretty grand but it is really quite over the top in a 1920s, gilded age sort of way! Afterwards we stopped by Alexandria's Mediterranean Cuisine for a very late lunch and/or very early supper. Very good food and cute waiters -- what more could I want?

Sunday morning we joined my chat friend, Jim Cooper, at Betty's in downtown Buffalo, on Virginia right off of Elmwood. The food was very yummy -- I had amazing French Toast Anglaise with blueberry compote! The company was good, too. It was the first time we'd had to meet Jim, another native Buffalonian and a long-time resident of the West Side.

That afternoon we managed to decorate three of the remaining four Christmas trees (the live one, the aluminum tinsel one, and the tiny tabletop tree with the handcrafted wooden ornaments Naoyuki bought on a trip to Germany) -- he had already taken care of the fiber optic tree in the living room.

It's looking festive!

Labels: , , ,


Our first landfall was Bonaire, one of the Dutch-owned ABC islands (the other two are Aruba and Curacao), off the north coast of Venezuela. It’s just a little bit of a place, with only about 10,000 inhabitants, and apparently some of the world’s best scuba diving and snorkeling. Bonaire is mostly a former coral reef and the drop off from the shore to deep ocean is very abrupt and very steep.

We went snorkeling, our first chance to try out the new snorkeling equipment (masks, snorkels, fins, socks) Naoyuki ordered for us online. We went on the Seacow, one (the only?) of Bonaire’s local water taxis, owned by an apparently Dutch family that’s been living in Bonaire for a few years. They took our group over to Klein Bonaire (the uninhabited little island across the channel from Kralendijk, Bonaire’s only town) for drift snorkeling, then back across the sound for some deepwater paddling near Hamilton Beach.

The trek along the beach on Klein Bonaire was a little rough on the footsies (lots of rocks for a tenderfoot like me) but the water was gorgeous, crystal clear with alternating warm and cool currents. I had my usual difficulties getting adjusted to the mask and the snorkel (the mask wasn’t tight enough) and got a bit off course. My anxiety was heightened a bit by the fact that we had to swim past fire coral (which I never quite identified) and I was afraid I’d get into it. (As it turned out, Naoyuki did brush one of his wrists on some; I think he’s still got a bit of the poison ivy-like rash, more than three weeks later.)

By the time we made it to the second dive site, though, I pretty much had it figured out again. Did I mention I love snorkeling? I never tried it before April 2005 when we took the kids and Eden on the BOB (Breathing Observation Bubble) adventure when our cruise ship stopped at St. Thomas. I figured I’d be no good at it (as is usually the case with any sort of physical activity) but it was great from the get-go.

We were good boys and put on the SPF 45 before we ever left our stateroom, much less the ship, but we got a little bit of red anyway, forgetting to re-apply after the first dive site.

After the snorkeling we spent an hour or so looking around Kralendijk. It had some interesting Dutch colonial architecture and a few shops but nothing that really caught our eye. It seemed amazingly laidback, a little beach town adrift in the ocean.

If we’d had more time, we’d have gone exploring more of the island. The flamingo colony is supposed to be one of the biggest in the world!

All in all, a good first landing!

Labels: ,

Monday, December 11, 2006

Dinner Companions

I was perhaps vaguely aware that Naoyuki was an habitué of but little did I realize that there were such great people there!

Jeffrey Kaufman (accompanied by his lovely wife, Jane), a music producer from Cliffside Park, New Jersey, put together an excellent table for our time aboard the Symphony. In addition to ourselves and the Kaufmans, our companions included Jean and Rob Foster of Bryan, Texas, owners of a company specializing in the creation and restoration of stained glass, and Len Paradise, a retired airline pilot, and his wife Raye, of Lakeland, Florida.

You never quite know how things are going to work out with dinner companions you’ve never met before but we all hit it off from the get-go and the more time spent together the better it seemed to get. The last night of the cruise we were once again just about the last group to leave the Crystal Dining Room, after yet another two-hour culinary extravaganza.

Various combinations of us came together on four of our at sea days to play Team Trivia under the moniker Whyarewehere – and won twice! Baseball caps for the first win, pen and pencil sets for the second, woo hoo!

Labels: ,

The Panama Canal

There’s not anything I can say about the Panama Canal that hasn’t already been said, other than it truly IS one of the engineering marvels of the world, right up there with Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge.

What I can tell you about transiting the Canal on a cruise ship is that it is surprisingly intimate considering the mammoth size of the structure. The individual locks are 110 feet wide and 1000 feet long – and the guys driving the “mules” (the miniature cog trains that guide the ships through the locks) are right there, as are the folks at the visitor center at the Miraflores locks, and the crews on the ships in the parallel locks.

It also seems quite languid compared to hotfooting it across the high seas. I’m sure that’s just a matter of perception. Your ship spends 15-20 minutes in a lock, which seems like an eternity until you remember that in that time the lock has drained and been re-filled (or the other way around) with 60 million gallons of fresh water. Likewise, the stately motion of the lock doors belies the fact that each of the gates weighs upwards of 700 tons.

We had beautiful weather for the transit, apparently something of a rarity. Hot and sticky, yes, but sunny and only partly cloudy. On the approach to the entrance on the Pacific side, Panama City shimmered in the haze – I had no idea that it was so built-up, the many skyscrapers gleaming white against the dark green hills. The bridges were likewise impressive, especially the Miraflores bridge. I’ll add pictures later.

When I talked to David and Emily last night I reminded them that their maternal great-grandfather, John Robert Baylis, Sr., actually worked on the construction of the canal in the early part of the 20th century. I’m not sure what he did although given his later career (he supervised the construction of the Chicago water works in the 1920s) I imagine it had to do with water purification and/or sanitation. (His monograph, Elimination of Taste and Odor in Water, was published by McGraw-Hill in 1935.)

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, December 08, 2006

Aboard the Crystal Symphony

At 50,000 tons, it’s only about half the size of the two other ships I’ve been on, Celebrity's
Constellation and NCL’s Norwegian Star.

Much smaller and not as much to do but quite elegant and easy to get around in. No inside staterooms, either, so we actually had a window this time! We were on Deck 7 (Promenade) with easy access to Decks 6 (Tiffany) and 5 (Crystal), where most of the dining and entertainment options were located.

Even at full capacity Crystal Symphony holds about 940 passengers, less than half the number that can be accommodated by ships like the Constellation and the Norwegian Star. As it turned out, this cruise was pretty significantly under-booked, with only 450 or so passengers. As a result just about everything was a snap – no waiting to get on or off the ship, usually our choice of seating in the dining rooms, and so forth.

We took advantage of most of the amenities at one point or another:

The Crystal Dining Room, the ship’s main dining area, was superb, both in terms of food and service. Through Naoyuki’s participation in, we wound up with an excellent set of tablemates (more on that later.)

The Lido Café (on Deck 11, aft) provided buffet service for breakfast and lunch. Unlike some other ships, the food quality was just as good as that of the main dining room, just fewer options. The wait staff were equally dedicated; you really had to work at it to fill your own coffee cup or take a tray to your table!

The Palm Court (also on Deck 11, forward) served high tea most afternoons between 3:30-4:30. Nothing like slurping down a pot of English breakfast tea (or your choice of a dozen others) with crumpets and pastries and hors d’oeuvres and attentive staff and a panoramic view of the ocean.

Likewise, the Bistro Café was an excellent place for a late breakfast of pastries and fruit or for a mid-afternoon pick-me up.

The spa and fitness center (Deck 12) were on the small side compared to those of bigger ships but with a much smaller passenger base we never had to wait to use the facilities and never felt crowded when we did so.

The main entertainment venue, the Galaxy Lounge, was quite a bit smaller than the full scale theatres on the Constellation and the Norwegian Star and that made an impact on the size and type of productions that could be presented. On the other hand, it’s a much more intimate setting – we were never more than 20 feet from the stage. It was nice to see the performers without having to use binoculars! Ditto, the Starlite Club was quite serviceable for lectures, small performances (the ventriloquist, the a capella group), and activities like Bingo (we didn’t attend) and Liars’ Club (we did attend!)

After the evening show you could usually find us in Luxe, the new disco lounge. The dance floor holds about 10 people, tops, and there were never more than six when we were there. I’m afraid Luxe isn’t going to make it. It was a great place for the ship’s crew (especially the entertainers) to hang out but for people who don’t like (70s and later) dance music there’s not much appeal. Considering the average age of passengers of this cruise was mid 60s I suppose it’s not too surprising that there wasn’t much interest. Not so bad for us, though – we danced our booties off!

Two pools, two hot tubs, one set forward, the other set aft, both on Deck 11 (Lido.) I think we hit the forward ones once or twice but otherwise we tried to save our sun exposure for shore excursions.

Last but not least: Free laundry facilities, yay! On Decks 10, 9, and 8. For a 12 day cruise, they came in VERY handy! I think we went through about three outfits a day (knocking about the ship, shore excursions, and dinner) and we did NOT take 36 pairs of underwear. J

The first couple of days on the ship we were feeling its lack of size but that mostly had to do with the fact that we had about three days at sea (including the transit of the Panama Canal) but making our first landfall (Bonaire.) After that first shore excursion, though, we got into the groove of life aboard the Symphony and by the end we didn’t want to leave.

Labels: , ,


Naoyuki and I just completed our 12-day Thanksgiving cruise aboard the Crystal Symphony. Our itinerary included:

San Jose, Costa Rica
Caldera, Costa Rica (a small port on the Pacific Coast)
Transiting the Panama Canal from the Pacific to the Atlantic
Bonaire and Curacao (two of the three Dutch islands off the north coast of Venezuela)
Grand Cayman

Naturally, we had a blast, although we almost didn’t make it. The original plan was for us to fly from Buffalo to Atlanta early Friday morning, November 24th (the day after Thanksgiving), and then catch a late morning flight from Atlanta to San Jose. That would have put us in San Jose around 1 p.m., plenty of time for the 2-hour bus ride from San Jose to the port at Caldera, from which the Symphony was scheduled to depart around 6 p.m.

We had a lovely Thanksgiving Day. We had Dawn (Naoyuki’s lab tech) and her partner Phoenix over for lunch, then put up the deer fence, and piddled around. About 8 p.m. we decided that we’d go see a movie (For Your Consideration) rather than trying to go to bed early – and found, much to our surprise, that a very dense fog had rolled in, so much so that we couldn’t go down the road at much more than 30 mph.

“Uh oh!” we thought. “What if it’s still like this tomorrow morning?”

We were up by 3:30 a.m. and the fog was, if anything, thicker than it had been when we went to bed. Naoyuki checked our flight online, then called Delta directly, confirming that our 7:30 flight had been cancelled and that they had automatically rebooked us for the next flight – which didn’t get to Atlanta until almost exactly the same time our flight to San Jose was leaving. The next flight out of Atlanta to San Jose would not arrive in Costa Rica until about 10 p.m. – well after the Symphony would have sailed.

We had booked the travel arrangements through Crystal Cruises so Naoyuki called their 24-hour emergency travel hotline. In the meantime I got online and found out that – not unsurprisingly – weather conditions at Rochester International Airport, 60 miles east of us, were crystal clear. (It would appear that we get lake effect FOG as well as lake effect SNOW!)

Naoyuki’s experience with the 24-hour hotline was totally unsatisfactory. He was on hold for 30 minutes before he got a call screener and it was another 15 minutes before he was connected to someone who was actually supposed to help. That person, however, made it clear that there was nothing she could do and that she really had no interest in doing anything anyway. Her best suggestion was to call Crystal if we actually made it to San Jose. When Naoyuki asked if we could expect another 30-minutes on hold if we called back, she pointed out that it was very early in California and that she had been asleep (and why were we bothering her?)

So much “peace of mind!” We found an 8:30 a.m. flight from Rochester to Charlotte that would allow us to catch an 11 a.m. flight from Charlotte to San Jose – plenty of time to make it to the ship! Naoyuki bought two one-way tickets from Rochester to San Jose (via Charlotte) two hours before the flight was supposed to leave. The agent in Rochester who checked us in said, “Well, gee, you got up this morning and decided to go to San Jose, did you?” We pointed out that we’d decided to go to San Jose about 10 months previously but it was only that morning we figured out that we needed to go by way of Rochester.

After that, everything was smooth as silk!

Labels: , ,