Tag Archives: Travel

Havana, day 1

My first “you know you’re in Cuba when…” moment was the customs agent wearing fishnet stockings. Before that point, José Martí International Airport in Havana looked mostly like any other airport terminal. As we got in line for customs clearance, though, I noticed that all of the agents were female, and most of them were wearing uniforms that were considerably shorter and/or tighter than I’d expect to see on a TSA agent. Then Warren pointed out Agent Fishnets and I knew: I was someplace really different.Clearing immigration itself was very straightforward: I turned in half of my tourist card, had my picture taken, and was cleared out into the baggage claim area. Our bike boxes eventually appeared on one end of the terminal and our bags on the other, and we proceeded to the declaration line. No one inspected our bags.. well, except for the TSA.

Outside immigration we met Eric, the driver that Tony had arranged to pick us up. He had an immaculate gray 1952 Plymouth coupe for us, or at least for 4 of us, plus a friend with a van to take the other 2 of our party, plus all 6 bikes.

 Eric gave us a well-narrated tour through Havana, which simultaneously looked exactly like I thought it would (lots of classic cars, plenty of exhaust, bright colors, crumbling Soviet-era buildings) and nothing like I thought it would (packed streets, thriving businesses, a fair number of new-looking Chinese Geelys and other cars). Then we went by the big stadium, featuring this sign hailing Fidel as the “permanent inspiration of the best athlete” and showing him in various uniforms. 

Eric expertly navigated us to the Airbnb we’d reserved, “Casa Hendrik.” I can’t say enough good about this place– when I write the review it deserves I’ll post it here. Hendrik was a marvelous host and the apartment was perfect for what we needed. It doesn’t look like that much from the outside but had two marvelous terraces with a view of the water. This photo shows the view from right outside the door of my room, where there was a small porch, looking down onto the 2nd floor terrace; you can see water in the upper-left corner.

Next to the rocking chair is a small cage with two birds. Why? Because Havana, I guess.

The photo shows Craig and me on the top-floor terrace, which is reachable by a tiny and completely unsafe concrete spiral staircase. No handrail, nothing on the outside other than a 30-foot drop, and a stair pitch and size completely incompatible with size 13 feet. So of course I went up there as often as possible. 

Hendrik introduced us to Tia (Spanish for “auntie”), the 95-year-old woman who lives on the ground floor. Her vocation is neighborhood coffee lady, so whenever we needed a shot of her coffee, which tasted like what they must drink in heaven, we’d go see her. Little cups packed a big punch.

Lance quickly started putting together bikes on the tiny front porch, gathering a fair amount of curious stares from passers-by. Our neighborhood had a number of other casas particulares (private rooms that the owners are allowed by the government to rent), along with small shops and so on. It was a good mix to give us a taste of Cuban life.

For dinner, I’d asked Hendrik to make reservations at Paladar Torreson. Paladars are licensed private restaurants, often located in people’s homes (as this one was). Dinner was quite good; for about $12 US I had a plate of 3 small lobster tails, bread with an excellent hummus-like spread, arroz Moro, and a (watery) Cuba Libre.


Best of all, the paladar overlooked the Malécon, Havana’s famous waterfront road, so we got to people- and traffic-watch while we waited for the sunset… which was spectacular.

After dinner, we went to walk the Prado, one of the main drags in Old Havana. Most of the big tourist hotels are near there, as is the National Grand Theater and the Capitol building. It was crowded with skateboarding kids, strolling lovers, tourists, locals, and the occasional street dog.

This is a building whose name I forgot to write down:

And here’s the Hotel Inglaterre:

After the Prado, Craig and I went back to the Malécon to look for some of the famous wifi parks. We found some but couldn’t get them to work… more on that in another post.

One final note. Cubans are absolute masters at making stuff work with very limited resources, as evidenced by the light in our bathroom. There was a nice wall-mounted finial, but someone decided to add an LED can light… so they did. An angle bracket, some wire, and a plastic bag to wrap it in… done!

I hit the bed exhausted but intrigued by what we might see the next day. I was not to be disappointed.


Filed under General Stuff, Travel

Havana, day 0

I woke up at 0315, 45 minutes early. Why? Who knows. I was thoroughly packed so I had time for a leisurely shower and a last-minute gear check. Warren picked me up right on time and we headed for the airport, where we were soon joined by Lance, Warren, and Craig.

At checkin, Delta didn’t know how to handle us. First, they had to figure out how to sell us a Cuba travel card (CTC).. more on that in a minute. Once that was done, our agent discovered that the computer said “no bikes are allowed for transport to Cuba.” This directly contradicted what Warren had been told by Delta on the phone and what I’d been told both in email and via Twitter DM. The agents were patient and helpful but ultimately couldn’t override the computer without getting the local redcoat to come fix us up. 

Delta’s standard fee for bicycles is $150, and they cheerfully applied that on this flight to each of us. The agent apologetically pointed out that my suitcase was 6lbs overweight (because it has about 15lbs of donated clothing, a skillet, and some other stuff for our Cuban hosts) so I had some last-minute juggling to do to make weight. (Meanwhile, Julio was doing the same thing departing Louisville, except that they accepted his bike without question.)

Once that was finally done, we had an uneventful flight to Atlanta and a walking breakfast en route to the international terminal.

We stopped at the currency exchange booth and found that they didn’t carry Cuban currency– not a huge surprise. Tony had coordinated a bulk purchase of Euros, because it worked out slightly better for us to buy Euros in the US and then change Euros to Cuban pesos (CUC).

Now, back to the CTC. Cuba doesn’t issue visa per se for US citizens. Instead, you need a CTC. The airline can’t let you board a flight to Cuba without one, so you either have to buy in advance through a consolidator (which costs $85 or so) or from the airline, usually $50. Delta charged us the $50 fee at checkin, so all we had to do was fill out a form certifying that we had a legitimate reason to go to Cuba and show our receipt for the $50. The gate agents gave us the actual CTC and checked to make sure we’d filled it out properly– apparently lots of people get the date format backwards and end up having to buy another CTC. The form is in two parts: Cuban customs collects part 1 when you arrive, and you turn in the matching part 2 when you depart.

After checking all the documents, that’s when you get your boarding pass, which is stamped to indicate that you’ve passed the documentation checks and can legally board the flight. US citizens traveling to Cuba are required to have medical insurance, since they aren’t covered by Cuba’s government insurance system. The $25 fee for this insurance is included when you purchase a ticket on Delta, and your boarding pass is proof of purchase.. so you’re legally required to keep your boarding pass with you at all times in country.

Apart from the documentation procedures (which are really very similar to any other Delta international flight), the boarding process and aircraft are identical to what you’re used to. We flew a domestically configured A319 with wifi, although wifi only works in US airspace. To make sure that this gets posted, I’m going to actually post it while we’re still in the air over Florida; you’ll have to wait until the next installment to learn about our arrival in Havana, race packet pickup, and our (planned) dinner at Paladar Torreson.


Filed under Fitness, Travel

Training Tuesday: pre-Havana smorgasboard

In two days I’ll be headed to Havana for my first 70.3 of the season: La Habana Triatlón. Things here at la casa have been fairly chaotic as I’ve tried to clear my work backlog, learn and prepare for travel to a completely unique country, and get my normal training and race prep together. Here are a few highlights:

  • Alex handed me over to a new coach, Jon Fecik. Jon is a professional triathlete. I can’t summarize how excited I am to be working with him– even after only two weeks it’s clear that he is going to be a great match for my training needs. So far I’ve learned a ton from him and I think I have a solid race plan.
  • The weather in Havana this weekend: forecast high of 85 degrees and sunny. The water temperature will almost certainly not be wetsuit-legal, plus that’s kind of warm for a 70.3. Jon has given me a pretty solid hydration plan and we’ve talked extensively about my race pace strategy so I think I’ll be good to go.
  • Packing has been interesting because I assume that I will not be able to get anything locally except for bottled water and fresh food. Everything from bike parts and tools to race nutrition to clean underwear (and toilet paper!) has to go with me, or I have to do without it. This has raised my packing anxiety to a previously unknown level.
  • I’m traveling with a group of 5 other local triathletes, and we’ve got an Airbnb with a housekeeper. We’ve also been able to book a driver/guide. This is going to be important because none of us have been there before and we have a fairly complex set of logistical problems to solve– getting 6 people, plus their bikes and gear, from point A to point B, thence point C, then back to B, several times, then back to A is going to be non-trivial. Having local guidance will be extremely useful.
  • There’s a ton of stuff to see and do in Havana– it’s a city of over 2 million people. Anything I have time for will be a bonus.
  • Cuba has very, very limited Internet access. Simple tasks (like sending one of my fellow travelers a message to ask where we’re meeting for lunch) will be impractical at best. We’ve all got paper maps, as well as offline copies of city maps on our phones. I posted the other day about my proposed email/blogging rig, and I’m confident it will work, but you may not be hearing much from me over the next several days.

I’ll be posting a full race report sometime between the end of the race and the end of March. Stay tuned!

Leave a comment

Filed under Fitness, Travel

My comments to the FCC on LightSquared

There’s been quite a debate raging recently between two powerful interest groups. No, I’m not talking about the budget; I’m talking about GPS. A company called LightSquared is about to roll out a nationwide wireless Internet system, apparently in partnership with Sprint. This sounds great… except that the frequency band LightSquared is planning on using overlaps part of the spectrum allocated for GPS use. In practice, that means that LightSquared transmitters work as fairly effective GPS jammers.

There’s no question about whether LightSpeed’s equipment interferes with GPS– it does, as their own tests prove. Their attitude is that the interference is partly due to the GPS industry’s failure to provide adequate filtering, although they don’t explain how the cost of this filtering would be borne, nor how it would work with the highly sensitive GPS receivers used in commercial and general aviation aircraft.

GPS is so widely used that any interference with it would have a huge impact on the people and companies that depend on it. Check out the member list of the “Coalition to Save Our GPS” and you’ll see what I mean: the aviation industry, farmers, surveyors, and city and county governments are all well-represented.

Here are my comments to the FCC. You can file your own if you’re so inclined:

When GPS was originally introduced, only visionaries thought it would be used beyond defense applications. Now it’s a critical part of our country’s economic fabric. It’s used to deliver precision timing, location, and navigation services to a huge range of users, including farmers, pilots, ambulance drivers, and telecommunications systems. Every day, GPS helps enable life-saving emergency services, efficient transport of goods and people, economical production of food, and hundreds of other vital activities.

Personally, my family and I depend on GPS signals to safely navigate the National Airspace System, both as passengers aboard commercial aircraft and while flying general aviation aircraft. We use it for navigation and location services when traveling. We depend on it in case of emergencies that require police, fire, or EMS response. In all of these cases, unavailability or degradation of GPS signals could potentially be quite dangerous, and even fatal.

LightSquared’s proposed frequency plan puts GPS at risk. For that reason I urge the FCC to deny their request to use the current proposed frequency range. GPS and LightSpeed’s current design are fundamentally incompatible. Although making high-speed wireless Internet service available over broad geographic areas is highly desirable, enabling the current GPS system to continue to work safely and reliably is even more reliable given how many industries and activities depend on it.

1 Comment

Filed under General Tech Stuff

Returning to Huntsville

This weekend was my first visit back to Huntsville in many years– I think the last time I was there was in 2005 or so. I will be visiting there regularly to see the boys, and eventually relocating there, so I was quite curious about what had become of the place.

I was scheduled to fly AA SFO-DFW-HSV, arriving about 10pm. AA was kind enough to match my Delta Platinum Medallion status and make me an AAdvantage Platinum, the equivalent of Delta’s Gold Medallion. Unlike DL, which gives their elite members unlimited access to upgrades, on AA Platinum and Gold elites have to buy 500-mile upgrade coupons– so a 1000-mile flight needs two coupons, a 1501-mile flight needs 4, and so on. I elected to request upgrades for the SFO-DFW and DFW-SFO legs, since the DFW-HSV leg is short enough not to bother with.

My flight ex SFO left 25 minutes late, with no announcements or explanation. Surprisingly, the aircraft I was on, a 757, didn’t have onboard Wi-Fi. That’s something Delta has led me to expect on pretty much every flight; even on what must be a heavily traveled route with lots of business customers, AA didn’t provide Wi-Fi equipment. Luckily, though, the plane did have in-seat power, using a standard 3-prong outlet, so I was able to plug in and get some work done en route.

Unfortunately, my flight DFW-HSV was delayed by an hour, so I didn’t get to pick the boys up until nearly 11:30pm. I had in mind that we’d make a tradition out of going straight to Dairy Queen each time I picked the boys up for a visit, but unfortunately I forgot to inform the local DQ, which closes at 10pm sharp. Luckily we went to Sonic instead. Thus began a great weekend. We ate well and thoroughly enjoyed each others’ company (well, except for a few minor fraternal disputes, but those are par for the course.)

One of the highlights of the trip for me was a return visit to the US Space and Rocket Center, one of my all-time favorite museums. They have completely redesigned the place since my last visit; there’s a beautiful new building that houses the Saturn V that used to be out on the back lawn, rusting away. It’s been repainted and refreshed and now occupies a place of honor in the main hall– as it should. We saw “Legends of Flight” (needs moar 787) at the IMAX theater and “Sea Rex” (not bad; fairly educational, though the 3-D effects made the picture a bit dim) at the 3-D theater in the new building.

Another highlight was the huge thunderstorm system that swept through Madison Sunday night. As I was driving the boys back to their mom’s house we were marveling at the lightning strikes, which were frequent, violent, and intense. The rain was so heavy that I had to slow down to below 20mph. This morning I learned that the storm had claimed a casualty in the form of one of Bo’s neighbors. That tempered my enjoyment quite a bit, but it was still quite a dramatic show– something we just don’t get in the Bay Area, along with good BBQ, Dairy Queen, and decent rock radio stations (why does Huntsville have 2 while the huge SF market has none? beats me!)

We made it out to KMDQ to have a look around; I got my first look at a G1000-equipped Cessna 172 (which rents for only $140/hour– considerably less than at KPAO!) I learned that, payload considerations aside, there’s no way to shoehorn me and the 3 boys into a 172, and I saw some really interesting “for sale” notices on the bulletin board. More on that another time.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a trip report if I didn’t talk about food. I was surprised to see which restaurants had survived since I moved away and which hadn’t. No more Green Hills Grille, for example, and Tim’s Cajun Kitchen was closed when we went there (turns out they’re still operating, just not on Sunday evenings). Kings Buffet in Madison lives on, as does Ivey’s. Even Tai Pan (formerly known as “Tight Pants”), my old standby Chinese place near Intergraph, is still there. The rest of the area has grown tremendously overall, too; the airport was booming when I left this morning, and there’s all sorts of new construction, including Bridge Street, a swank open-air shopping center near Research Park, and a ton of new defense contractors sprouting around various parts of town. More on the military-industrial aspect of Huntsville another time; for now suffice to say that drone wars are apparently quite good for business.

I’ll be heading back in a couple of weeks to see the boys again; this time I’ll do a bit more research to look for some specific places I remember.


Filed under Travel

DC day 4

[OK, so I am terribly delinquent about not posting this, y’know, within a month of the actual trip. So sue me.]

Wednesday, Wednesday, Wednesday. What a day!

Here’s what we did: the Capitol tour, the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Air and Space Museum, and the Library of Congress. That’s a pretty full schedule. A few brief notes because I’m too tired to write a long post rhapsodizing about it all.

First, the Capitol: it’s quite imposing, but the tour was wonderful. The Great Hall is amazing, and the statuary gallery is quite striking as well. Unfortunately, our elected servants were taking an extended vacation so we didn’t get to tour the House or Senate chambers, but the building and grounds were well worth seeing.

I loved the Library of Congress. David thought it would be like a public library, only bigger, so he was somewhat disappointed that he couldn’t just waltz in and pick out an arbitrary book to read. However, there are a ton of interactive exhibits, including one that traced the development of the Gulf Coast under Spanish and French rule; that was worth a good look. The interactives are all computerized touch-screen kiosks that are very well done.

For lunch, we went to the National Museum of the American Indian. This was surprisingly interesting, although I was a bit saddened to see that there wasn’t much in the way of buffalo-related displays, although they did have a really nifty collection of Native American art . However, the Mitsitam Cafe there was probably the best place we ate all week. I had a pulled buffalo sandwich that was superb, and everything everyone else had– wild salmon, a buffalo burger, and I-forget-what-else– was well-prepared and tasty. (In fact we went back to the cafe later in the week for another lunch.) The cafe was packed, which is a pretty good indicator that we weren’t the only ones who liked it.

After our lunch it was time for the National Air and Space Museum. What a fantastic place! I’d been to the Udvar-Hazy Center before, which is excellent in its own right, but getting to see artifacts like the Wright Flyer and the Spirit of St. Louis literally sent chills up my spine. They even have UAVs now, as you can see from the photostream. David and I flew in a 2-man F-4 Phantom simulator and had a blast, scoring the highest number of kills for the day (a whopping, not really, 7.) Like all the other Smithsonian museums, NASM closes at 5pm, so we left and went back to the hotel for a swim.

For dinner, we walked over to the waterfront area just south of L’Enfant Plaza. There are a number of seafood stands there, and I’d heard it was a good place to eat. It would have been, too, had it not started to thunderstorm. We sought refuge inside Phillips Seafood Buffet, one of the only restaurants to actually offer indoor seating. The seafood was delicious, and I’m pretty sure, given the quantity we all ate, that we represented a net loss to the restaurant despite the stiff prices.

Then it was time to head back to the hotel (thankfully, it had stopped raining) for a little TV and rack time. We had to rest up for Thursday, which was going to pack a 1-2 punch.

Leave a comment

Filed under Friends & Family, Travel

Veterans’ Day in Pensacola

Today was surprisingly busy for a Veterans Day. Of course, the best way to celebrate Veterans Day would be for veterans to get the actual day off while everyone else works. Until that happens, I’ll settle for getting the day off. The only reason I got this particular veterans day off is because I am in Pensacola teaching the Navy this week. They took the day off, so we did as well.

I celebrated by sleeping in, followed by a visit to the Omni fitness center. This is a Walmart-sized gym a couple miles from our hotel. It has an enormous open floor with every kind of weight machine you can imagine, plus a wide variety of cardio equipment. I got in a great run while watching “The Enemy Below“, a movie I will have to share with the boys when I get home.

Upon returning to the hotel, I started working on the next feature I wanted to add to the LDS Tools application. I have mostly confined myself to fixing bugs, but I wanted to add a “popover” controller to allow users to quickly copy address, e-mail address, or phone number when viewing a member’s record. This seems straightforward enough, although as I dug into it a bit more it turned out to be slightly more challenging. The trick is to use what Apple calls a gesture recognizer to notice when the user holds down a touch on the screen for a long period. The recognizer calls your own code when it fires, and you’re responsible for deciding what to do; in my case, I wanted it to display the popover with a single menu command.

My first attempt displayed the popover correctly… everywhere, not just for the cells that actually contain data. For example, a long press on the “add to favorites” button would trigger the popover. This wasn’t what I had in mind, but before I could fix it, I had to interrupt my programming to join my coworker Apolonio for lunch at Chick-fil-A. He had never eaten there before, but I daresay he will be enough air again. He was particularly impressed that someone came over to our table to ask if we wanted our drinks refilled. As a lifelong California resident, he isn’t used to Southern courtesy.

After lunch, we headed for Naval Air Station Pensacola for the scheduled performance by the Blue Angels. I had seen the Angels about six weeks ago, which did absolutely nothing to diminish my interest in seeing them again. Apolonio had never seen them, so we were both eager by the time we got to the seating area along the runway. The Blues put on a fantastic show; the weather was warm and clear, the crowd energetic and appreciative, and the flight maneuvering flawless. I could, I would happily go back tomorrow or Saturday to see their two upcoming performances, the last ones of the season. However, I have a previous engagement: finishing up my week of teaching exchange to her students at Corry Station.

This class is unique in that they seem to have more cohesion, more esprit de corps, than previous classes have. This is resulted in some great discussions in study hall. These young sailors are willing to help each other with explanations, corrections, or information sharing: exactly the kind of behavior that will help make them successful in the fleet. It’s really a pleasure to work with them, especially when I can see that the content and exercises I’ve been working on for the last few months are successfully teaching them some of the complexities of exchange.

Anyway, after the airshow I came back to the hotel and resumed working on my popover problem. It turns out that the solution to my problem was to always accept the user’s long press, but only to display the popover if the user was pressing within one of the data items I cared about. For example, if the user presses down on one of the action buttons and holds the press, I just ignore it. If they do the same thing on the displayed phone number, I display the popover. Once I figured that out, thanks to some of the sample code on the Internet, the actual process of copying the phone number (or whatever) was trivial. For an encore, I think I’ll add support for copying or pasting the member’s picture, but that will require a bit more work that I don’t think will fit into the current release schedule.

Now I’m officially done for the day. I plan to spend a few minutes reading some more of Mike Mullane’s wonderful autobiography, Riding Rockets, and thence to bed. Happy Veterans Day to all who have served our nation!

Comments Off on Veterans’ Day in Pensacola

Filed under Friends & Family, Travel

Our visit to Denali

In the previous installment, I talked about the fishing trip. As much fun as that was, it was just the first day. Oh, bonus picture: here’s a panorama of the boat dock where the boys were throwing stones:


Where was I? Oh, right; the drive to Denali. The route is a straight shot up the Parks Highway. On the west, you can see the Kichatna Mountains, and on the east you pass from the Talkeetna Mountains up into the Alaska Range. The drive is pretty flat overall, but no less spectacular for all that. Here’s a panoramic shot of the view out into the Alaska Range from one of our roadside stops:


We made a ton of stops to take pictures. On the drive north, first we passed into the Denali State Park, which has all kinds of scenic overlooks facing both east and west. One of them was the Alaska Veterans’ Memorial, so of course we had to stop for that. It was surprisingly large, given Alaska’s small population, and both well-maintained and well-attended. There were easily 50 people there walking around while we were there, which surprised me a bit. The state park’s southern boundary is a looooong way from the national park, which is a little misleading. (Oh, and cell phone service: not really. Don’t count on using a phone-based GPS on this route!)

The most scenic part of the drive was probably the passage over Hurricane Gulch. This description (and the pictures) do a good job of giving you the sense of it, but you really have to see it– the camera doesn’t capture the scale very well.

Denali itself was a bit of an anticlimax. The park is enormous– 90+ miles from side to side. You can take bus tours, but we didn’t have time to do that, and the boys were tired of riding in the car so they didn’t want to drive out to Savage River, the limit of how far you can drive in your own car. We compromised by having lunch (mediocre, but we were hungry so we didn’t care) and visiting the visitor’s center, which has some terrific dioramas. My favorite: the wolf trotting away from a kill with a bone in its mouth, looking for all the world like a deranged cousin of your friendly pet dog.

On the trip back to Anchorage, the boys were in great spirits, aided by our stop back in Talkeetna to pick up some clothes we’d left at the hotel and to get our fish. 15.5 pounds’ worth of fish, packed in a lovely shipping box by the Talkeetna Smokehouse lady. It also didn’t hurt that we didn’t have to stop at every scenic overlook so we could ooh and aah, although we did stop at a few. Mt. McKinley was more clearly visible on the drive south, but even so, this was as good as our view got:


It was full dark by the time we got to Anchorage; we had dinner about 10:30p at Red Robin (mostly because they were still open), then got to the airport, dropped off the rental, and waited, somewhat grumpily, for our 1:20a flight. Everyone slept on the plane, which was good– we needed it!

Summary: great trip. Alaska is beautiful, and I’m eager to go back, hopefully during a time with better weather and more salmon!

Most of the (good) pictures I took are here. The bad ones got deleted, of course.

Comments Off on Our visit to Denali

Filed under Travel

A review of our cruise on the Disney Wonder

One of the unusual things about California that we’ve had to adapt to is the presence of two school vacation breaks: one in the usual April timeframe and one in mid-February. The kids call it “ski week” because lots of folks use it to go to Yosemite, Tahoe, or other places. For instance, our Scout troop traditionally goes snow camping at Yosemite during this time.

This year, we took advantage of the off week to give my mom a Christmas present: we took her on a four-day Disney cruise, followed by three days at Walt Disney World, with four of her five grandsons. (The fifth is only 17 months old, so he wasn’t really invited.) Ski week was the perfect time for us to combine the two, so we started making plans just after Thanksgiving and had everything squared away by early January. This was no small feat, given that we had to coordinate travel and activities for people from California, Vermont, and Louisiana.

Logistics I started by contacting Vacations to Go, the cruise agency we used for our previous Princess cruise. They do an excellent job of handholding, which in this case was warranted by the complexity of our plan. Their agents are all home-based, and the one we drew (Judy Hastings) did a terrific job. They’re like Amazon in that you get mostly-automated communications from them at major milestones, telling you what to do (or what’s ben done.) We reserved category 12 staterooms, the least expensive (and least fancy) kind– but more on that in a minute.

Disney offers web-based booking for all the shore activities. We used their booking system for a couple of activities and found others by using the web. Our particular cruise stopped for a day in Nassau, a day at Disney’s Castaway Cay, and spent the final day at sea.

For air travel, we were pretty much stuck. We wanted to leave the 13th, so we’d have a day of buffer in case of travel delays. Julie and Mom both had much shorter travel legs than we did, so to maximize our time with them we wanted early flights. That left us stuck with US Airways, which I hadn’t flown in at least 12 years. Service was perfunctory; everything except soda costs extra (want a blanket? that’ll be $7), and we spent an extra hour in Phoenix because one of our FMS computers needed replacement. The fare was outrageous, but at least we got the times and dates we wanted. Enough said about that.

When we arrived, we took the shuttle to the Embassy Suites near MCO. This enabled us to gather and have a little together time before heading to the ship the next morning. We had considered staying at the Hyatt at MCO itself, which would have made the process of getting to the ship a little simpler. However, they were full. Oops. The Embassy Suites was plenty nice for a one-night stay, and we all love their breakfasts.

The next morning, Tiffany Town Cars picked us up exactly on schedule and drove us from Orlando to Port Canaveral. They came recommended on one of the Disney-themed forums I’d been haunting. For $125 for a party of 8, it was a pretty good deal. Disney offers transport too ($35/person each way), but only from MCO to the port.

When we arrived at the port, things were in a bit of a rumpus. The Disney Magic was late in arriving due to high seas during its prior-day stop at Castaway Cay. Our area was filled with frazzled people who had just gotten off the Magic, plus frazzled people who wanted to get on it but didn’t realize they were in the wrong place. We arrived at about 9:30 am. Disney usually opens the terminal for arrivals at about 10am, so we didn’t have too long to wait– it just seemed like a long time because of the unseasonably cold weather.

The check-in process was smooth, as you’d expect. We showed our passports to the nice trainee behind the counter, turned in our cruise contracts, got our pictures taken for our “Key to the World” cards, and settled down to wait for boarding to begin. Arlene spent nearly 90 minutes in line to register Matt and Charlie for the kids’ activities aboard, but some kind of computer problem kept registration from working until later when we were aboard.

All aboard! Protip: get on the ship as early as possible on your departure day. You can swim, play on the sports courts, eat, and explore (all of which we did… well, except for the swimming; it was about 50* and windy.) We boarded as soon as they’d let us and went to Parrot Cay, one of the four onboard restaurants, for lunch. (There are also several places to get fast food, but I don’t count those as restaurants.)

The lunch buffet was a solid “OK”– I thought the quality and range of choices were better on Princess, but this was by no means bad stuff. Arlene got a piece of truly vile gluten-free cheesecake– we’re not sure, but we think it might have been made lactose-, sugar-, and gluten-free, meaning it was probably made with goat’s milk and Windex.

We spent time ranging around the ship and discovered our staterooms a little after 1:30p, the time when Disney releases them from housekeeping. Despite their small size, the rooms we had were nicely appointed with a queen bed, a fold-out futon-style sofa, a (very) small desk, and a 27″ flatscreen TV showing unlimited Disney programming. (Boo hiss: no Olympics, as they’re carried this year on rival network NBC.) Our bags arrived later, as did some terrific cruise gift baskets that Julie had ordered for us.

Our first night’s dinner was at Animator’s Palette. You can probably guess the décor theme; if not, this might help. Our dinner was superb, and our table staff (Faisal and Kevin) did a great job of taking care of us. On Disney, you dine in a different restaurant each night, but you keep the same table staff. We filled a table for eight all by ourselves. The ship had several kinds of gluten-free bread for Arlene (though they would always bring her at least three pieces of it at each meal, more than she could eat), and they were always able to adapt entrées for her without any difficulty.

There are lots of odd angles in this particular restaurant, which I think contributed to Matt and Tom both complaining of seasickness during dinner. They ended up going to bed semi-early while the rest of us went to see the “Golden Mickeys” musical. As you would expect, this was superbly produced and performed, and those of us who saw it loved it. We put some anti-nausea wristbands on the kids and that (along with a good night’s sleep) helped a lot. The two anti-nausea drugs they sell aboard ship aren’t safe for asthma sufferers, so keep that in mind if you’re going to sea.

Nassau We got into Nassau about 9am and promptly split up: Mom, David, Tom and I hit the port while Julie, Charlie, Matt, and Arlene went on a dolphin visit. I’ll leave it to Arlene to describe that (and show off the tons of pictures she took). As for the port: meh. It was pleasant to walk around in the sun, but other than that it was pretty bland. Mom and Tom went off to their snorkeling outing, so David and I had time for a quick lunch together before our own snorkel trip. Mom and Tom got the better end of the deal; their expedition went to an area with a crashed Cessna, and they baited the water to attract fish instead of selling little baggies of fish food. I took a ton of pictures and video using the underwater camera case that Julie and Paul gave me for Christmas, but the results were a bit disappointing (I’ll upload them once I have more bandwidth than this airport offers); the camera’s autofocus system had a hard time coping with fast-moving fish.

Everyone made it back to the ship with stories to tell, so we had a lively dinner at Parrot Cay. This dinner featured their “island menu”, which was uniformly excellent. Everyone loved everything, which might be a first. Either we were all unusually hungry or the food was unusually good.

Castaway Cay The next morning we arrived early at Castaway Cay. The weather was poor: 25-30 kt winds, rain, and low clouds. Disney cancelled most of the shore-based activities; Julie and I had Jet Ski time booked, and Arlene and Charlie were headed for the glass-bottomed boat tour. Too bad! The weather did eventually improve, and we were able to spend some time on the actual beach in the sun. Stingrays cruise very close in to shore, which was fun for the kids. There’s also a simulated fossil dig located in and around a real whale skeleton; this was very popular with Matt and Charlie. David spent the whole day with a pack of teens in a structured group activity and delighted in being away from his family (OK, maybe not, but he did have lots of fun!)

Lunch was a barbecue buffet that was pretty good. We spent time doing nothing much in particular; although we would have all preferred to be able to enjoy our scheduled activities, having a day off wasn’t so bad either! We sailed early, about 5pm, to get ready for the “Pirates IN the Caribbean” theme of the evening. Mom had laid on pirate clothes for all of us, so I was sporting a do rag, an earring, and an eyepatch when we went to dinner, which was again excellent.

The party itself was clearly oriented at the 5- to 12-year-old set: it was noisy, featuring a non-stop stream of Disney hits [sic]. The redeeming part in my mind was the shipboard fireworks. Disney makes much of the fact that they’re the only cruise line that can launch fireworks at sea, and these were beautiful (although nothing compared to the displays at WDW.)

A day at sea The weather was nicer on our last day than it had been on the preceding days, so we all got some sun, and the kids got to swim. Apart from that, it was a low-stress day, capped off by a French dinner at Triton’s, the poshest of the onboard restaurants. Arlene had duck; several of us had an excellent duck confit appetizer, and David and Tom both had (and loved!) escargot. I was really pleased by how well we all did at trying new foods, something that’s easy when you know the wait staff will just bring you something else if you dislike whatever you ordered. (Kids: don’t try that it home. It won’t work.)

A side note on kids’ programs Our day at sea good segue for me to talk about the onboard programs. We had kids aged 5, 8, 11, and 15, so we covered all the bases except the nursery. The 5- and 8-year-olds spent time in the Oceaneer Lab and Oceaneer Club, a big open space located on deck 5. Each kid gets a wristband with a small RFID tag, and each parent gets a pager. That way it’s easy for each party to keep track of, or contact, the other. The Oceaneer activities tended to be science-themed. Matt made Flubber, researched sharks, and so on. Charlie’s program was more activity-themed, and Tom’s (aptly named the “Out and About” club) was a nice mix. For example, one day they played dodgeball, then had a big trivia contest, then made their own pizzas for lunch.

David spent as much time as we’d let him in “Aloft”, the teen club on deck 11. Here the main attraction was the presence of other teens, plus lots and lots of food and games.

There was enough adult supervision for all of the programs that we felt comfortable letting the kids spend time there, and they enjoyed it immensely. This made it possible for us to have quiet adult time when we needed it. This is one of the major distinctions that Disney offers, and they deliver exactly what they promised. The kids clamored for more time in the programs, and we were happy to be able to mix that in with our other family activities.

Debarkation Disney wants the ship unloaded as fast as possible, so you pack your luggage and put it out in the hall the night before you arrive and they put it ashore for you. This worked quite well for us because we’d done it before, but in the morning I heard other families complaining about things they’d forgotten or mispacked. We had a sit-down breakfast at Triton’s, then a few minutes later we were off the ship, through customs, and ready to take the bus to Walt Disney World… but more on that another time.

Table scraps A few miscellaneous notes and observations:

  • There’s cell phone connectivity aboard, but it’s crazy expensive. Don’t plan on roaming in the Bahamas, either: $2.99/minute for voice and an extortionate $19.99/Mb for data. (The shipboard rates are lower but I was too afraid to turn on my phone to find out what they were.)
  • Shipboard Internet service is slow and high-latency. Disney blocks outbound VPN connections, too. At least it’s expensive! I bought a 100-minute block for $40 and used about 75% of it checking mail and dispatching work on Wednesday, so that means I went two whole days without e-mail. Sigh.
  • Attention Anita: unlike Princess, Disney ships have ice cream from 0800-2300.
  • Julie recommended packing a power strip of some kind because each stateroom has only two outlets. I grabbed two of these and they were splendid– just what we needed.
  • Don’t bother taking your own snacks aboard. You’ll have plenty to eat.
  • I think the four adults, combined, read maybe 50 pages during the entire voyage. There were just too many other things to do to spend time reading.
  • Our stateroom was on deck 2, just below the dance club. We never heard a thing; the interior soundproofing is excellent, although you can hear hallway noise. We could also hear the ship’s thrusters loud and clear because we were so far forward. However, Disney doesn’t schedule port arrivals at 0700 like Princess does, so no one’s sleep was disturbed.
  • Don’t let the small square footage of the cheapest staterooms fool you– it was fine for three people.
  • The Disney cruise message boards talk about upgrades a lot. In theory, you can buy them before you board; you can ask for them at check-in, or you can attempt to buy one after setting sail. In reality, at most time periods Disney sells out. The purser told us that the only time they’ve recently had cabins available for upgrades was during the recent East Coast snowstorms.

Bottom line: a great trip, one we would definitely consider doing again.

Comments Off on A review of our cruise on the Disney Wonder

Filed under Reviews, Travel

End-of-the-year randomness

Wow, how did it get to be the end of the year already? I’ve fallen down on my blogging bigtime, but I have ambitious plans for 2010– mostly consisting of posting a batch of articles at once and letting MovableType publish them on a schedule. That way when I’m in the blogging mood I can write up a bunch of stuff and post it.

A few end-of-the-year notes:

  • Christmas was wonderful, even though (or perhaps because) we were here by ourselves. We gave Mom and our boys a Disney cruise, which means I’ll miss the MVP summit this year. I think it’s a reasonable tradeoff, though.
  • Julie and Paul gave me Cruise Ship Confidential, which was a real hoot. The author struck me as someone I’d love to sit down with over lunch. If you like true-confessions-style books, this one’s excellent.
  • Lego Rock Band is a ton of fun, especially with the boys. We also gave them Lips: #1 Hits, which is way more fun than I expected it would be. No surprise that the Lips wireless mic works with the Rock Band family, and having a wireless mic makes those games more fun (and easier for us to stage).
  • I bought a USMC license plate frame from the Stars and Stripes Shop. It was cheaper than any place else I found, I got it in two days, and they sent me a 10% off code to share: sssfrienddec09. Share and enjoy!
  • This year’s Aviation Week & Space Technology photo contest winners are even more awesome than usual. The little tiny online versions don’t really do the pictures justice; if you can find the print magazine, you’ll see what I mean.
  • One of my coworkers is an Iowa fan– the first one I’ve ever met in the flesh. Too bad his team is going down when they play the mighty Yellow Jackets.
  • Speaking of work, I’m really excited about some of the stuff we’re going to be doing. I can’t share any details yet but there are some exciting things coming up.

I probably won’t be posting again this year, so until next time, have a wonderful New Year’s Eve and get ready for a great 2010!

1 Comment

Filed under Friends & Family, General Stuff, Musings