Destination: Malaga, Spain
Malaga is a city that has it all: Beautiful sandy beaches, art museums, and cultural and architectural treasures. It is the largest city on the Costa del Sol and her sun drenched beaches are a mecca for tourists in the summer. Malaga is a bustling port city, yet more laid back than Barcelona and Madrid.
This was a day long stop on our Carnival Sunshine cruise and we weren’t disappointed. We opted out of an organized tour and instead decided to navigate the city by foot. Only try this if you are accustomed to walking for long periods of time. We did our homework in advance and knew that everything we wanted to see was within a three mile radius. We also knew that if something unavoidable happened, there were local buses and taxis that could take us back to the ship. Slipping a few Euros into your pocket is never a bad idea.
It’s a long, but enjoyable walk from the port to downtown. You’ll pass a lighthouse towering over one of the finest beaches along the Mediterranean. The winding walkway is brimming with shops and restaurants featuring some of Spain’s tastiest cuisine. In addition to cruise passengers and tourists, this is where the locals hang. If you don’t venture further, the sheer beauty of this scenic port will have made your visit worthwhile. But for us, the skyline beckoned.
Malaga is where the artist Pablo Picasso was born. The museum bearing his name houses many of his most famous works and drawings of his family. Venture into the museum’s basement to view Phoenician, Roman, Islamic and Renaissance remains that were uncovered during the construction. In addition to the museum, a visit to Picasso’s birthplace is a must. Here you’ll view lots of objects and paintings he created in his childhood. You can see the inspiration for many of his paintings as you stroll along this historic city.
Architectural delights include the remains of an old Roman theater and the Malaga Cathedral, both located in the heart of this historic city. The hike to the Moorish castle, Castillo de Gibralfaro, is not for the fainthearted. It is nearly all uphill, but when you get to the top, the view of the city makes every bit of the suffering worthwhile.
Of course, we had to stop at a typical Spanish restaurant for a home cured ham sandwich and coffee. We also stopped by a local sausage market to purchase chorizo and anchovies to take home. At this writing, these were allowable purchases to bring back to the U.S.
Sometimes you stop at port cities on cruise ships where a few hours is about all you want to stay. Not so in Malaga. It was such an enjoyable experience; we would love to someday return for a longer visit.
I have to honestly say I did not expect to like Barcelona. You might recall my earlier posts where I mentioned the thieves and pickpockets that frequent the tourist areas. It’s so pronounced that I expected it to all but ruin the three days we had here. What I found is that if you take the usual precautions as you would in any city, the likelihood you will become a victim of crime is almost non-existent.
I don’t like Barcelona – I love Barcelona!
Though not as walkable as I would like – most sites are far apart and require transportation Beyond one’s legs – there’s enough to keep you entertained for weeks on end.
There are museums and art dotted all around this great city. Sculptures abound. The 20th century surrealist painter and sculptor Joan Miro hails from here and there are an entire museum and park dedicated to his work. There’s a colorful sculpture by pop art artist Roy Lichtenstein in one of the plazas and other fun pieces scattered throughout Barcelona.
Then there is the architecture. Oh the architecture! Architectural students come from all over the world to see and study the unique designs.
Most notable is that of Antoni Gaudi whose distinctive designs are all over the city. I found most to be breathtaking and they are standouts in this city of architectural treasures. His use of curved construction is unmatched. But the giant temple, Sagrada Familia is the tackiest of his works. Don’t get me wrong. This is the number one attraction in Barcelona and is beautiful in its own, incomplete way. The monstrosity has been under construction since the early 1900’s and because of many, many delays and cash and permitting problems, it will probably not be completed in my lifetime. I’m sure Gaudi is rolling in his grave trying to figure out why. Either way, despite the scaffolding and netting, it should be a must see on any visitors list. I have a hard time believing that the word gaudy did not originate from his works, but it’s true.
Then there’s the must see street, La Rambla, a spot popular with tourists and locals alike. The tree lined, pedestrian mall is brimming with dining and shopping spots. The promenade is crowded during the day and stays that way until late at night. You’ll find newspapers, souvenirs, flowers and you’ll watch street performers entertain on the busy thoroughfare. When you tire of walking, stop by one of the many cafes and restaurants along the way for sumptuous Spanish favorites. Not to be missed is the market where you can purchase fresh vegetables, seafood and even eggs. It’s fun walking through the winding La Rambla where you can always find something that catches your fancy.
Eating your way through the city is a viable option. Trying a variety of Tapas, or small plates of some of Spain’s finest foods is a great way to start. In my three days here, I never had a bad meal and everything tasted as good as it looked. These folks know their food. I was also surprised to learn that the cost of dining out here is much less than in France and other European cities and the portions are much larger. We had the menu del dia, or the plate of the day. The cost was 9 euros and included a first course, which I wrongly assumed was an appetizer, a second course, soft drink or beer, and dessert. Since the menu was written in Catalan, I didn’t recognize any of the dishes except Paella which was listed as a first course. So we ordered the paella and asked our server to choose the remaining items for us.
This huge plate of paella arrived, overflowing with fresh seafood. I assumed she decided we should have it as our first and second course. I was wrong. The second course came and it was some sort of mouthwatering beef and potatoes. That was followed by flan. Needless to say, it was impossible to finish it. By the way, if you are in Barcelona on Thursday, don’t be surprised to see paella on every menu from Chinese to Japanese. Apparently Thursday is Paella day and every establishment has to serve the national dish. This is good eats!
Barcelona is the largest passenger port in Europe. Though we brushed up on our Spanish, almost everyone we encountered spoke fluent English. After all, it’s an international city. If you find Barcelona as a gateway for your next cruise, embrace it and consider yourself lucky to visit this historic city.
Destination: New York
New York is the greatest city on earth. If you don’t believe me, ask any New Yorker. For those of us who don’t live here, that we continue coming back says a lot about how we feel.
The City needs no other name. When you say those words, everyone knows what you are talking about. (example: Sex and The City) There’s no other place like it and while I echo the words of many, ‘it’s a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there’, a visit to The Big Apple is always a treat.
New York is a port city with a number of cruise ships frequenting the seaport. And it’s an international destination – everyone wants to visit New York. My favorite place to stay is in the Times Square area because I love being near the theaters and watching the throngs of people who mill around. If you hang there during peak hours, you literally feel like a game piece in a Chinese Checkers competition.
There’s always something to do and you are limited only by time, your imagination and – cash. This is not a vacation for the thrifty. Coming from a town where prices fit nicely into the local income, New York has a sticker shock effect. Two years ago, my stay at the Doubletree Suites in Times Square for $200 a night. This time, it was $520.
$$$ Money Saver – I am a Hilton Honors member and used some accumulated points for two, free nights. It cost me 60 thousand points plus I got an upgraded suite with a city view and comp internet access. I went to the special desk where they schedule time share tours and scored an extra 500 points and $10 off any restaurant and bar purchase. No. I did not do the time share tour. I also accumulate points through affinity programs. I do surveys with a company which allows me to convert rewards to Hilton Points and I have a VISA where I get points through purchases.
The price of a taxi went up as well. I usually fly into LaGuardia because it’s the closest airport to the city. Two years ago, there was a $35 flat fee to midtown from JFK or LaGuardia. On this visit, the private cars that used to advertise there with cheaper rates were nowhere to be found. Used to be you could get a cab in a line where you waited five minutes or less. This time, I had a 45 minute wait and the cost was $48. The cost now from JFK is $58. I’m guessing there are fewer cabs because it’s become equally hard to hail a taxi once you are in the city.
$$$ Money Saver – If you don’t have a lot of luggage, take the bus to the port authority and use the subway in town or walk. There aren’t a lot of options.
There are no grand eating bargains, just varying degrees of expensive. I paid $32 for breakfast one day and $40 the next. Same breakfast. Now if there is a redeeming value to all this, it’s that they were the tastiest breakfasts I’ve ever had. Here’s what I love about dining in New York: They will never rush you. In fact, it’s almost like you rent the table for a few hours. The food quality is far above average and so are the portions. They don’t cut corners. And most of the time there’s a tablecloth and most of the time you won’t find plastic or disposable tableware. Everything is in glass and things taste better in glass!
$$$ Money Saver – I love staying in the Times Square area which is crawling with tourists and high prices. Best bargains and restaurant selections are on 8th and 9th avenues between 40th and 49th Streets. If at all possible, stay in a hotel that offers a free breakfast.
There were a few other changes that I found bothersome since the last time I visited the Big Apple. There were more empty storefronts than I saw during my previous visits and there were huge signs in Times Square with dates of premiers and shows that expired a month or more before. That to me indicates they left them up because advertising isn’t selling as it should.
Finally, the sleeze seems to be moving back to Times Square. It was one spooky place in the 1970’s, but it finally evolved into a more family friendly area. This time, there were several ‘gentleman’s clubs’ that opened and workers were passing out specials to every man who walked by.
There were people begging for money including one woman with an infant. I have never encountered that in the city before. It was like being in some third world country.
New York is a place I always felt safe, but this time – unless the cops were wearing civilian clothing – there were fewer of them around as well.
None of these things have reached a critical stage yet, but it’s easy to backslide.
Let’s hope someone notices before it’s too late.
It’s home to the world’s largest passenger port and if your travels bring you here, don’t pass on the opportunity to visit Miami. Dubbed “The Magic City”, Miami got the nickname because of its incredible growth and if you venture beyond the port or the airport, you’ll bear witness to that growth. If you’ve driven in Los Angeles, Houston or Bangkok, this won’t bother you a bit. But if you live anywhere else, the traffic will scare you to death. Everyone is in a hurry to get somewhere and those who aren’t, well, they are part of the problem and shouldn’t be on the road. If you don’t believe me, just ask the guy shouting and giving you the finger.
That’s the down side of Miami. But as someone who lived there for many years – and yes, it was the traffic that drove me away – the city is a wonderful place to visit. It’s just minutes away from the Port of Miami and a short drive, traffic permitting of course, from Miami International Airport. If you have only a few hours to spare and want to get the flavor of the city, head downtown.
To get there, if you are at the airport, purchase an Easy Pass for $2 at the Metrorail Station and get off at Government Center. From the port, take a taxi. It’s just a two minute drive away and a cab is the easiest way to get there. If you are driving, use the metered parking lots on Biscayne Boulevard. Unless there is a big event going on, you can almost always find ample parking. Parking is $6 for two hours and they accept credit cards. Once you are there, get a bird’s eye view of the heart of the city on the Metro Mover. It’s fun and it’s free! You’ll get an overview of the downtown area and some great photos as well. Take it roundtrip or get off if you see something interesting on route. When you get back to wherever your ride originated, start walking.
Miami is a clean, vibrant city with a distinct Latin flavor. Walk the streets and stop by
one of the many coffee bars for some Café Cubano, a full bodied, not for the weak hearted concoction guaranteed to put hair or your chest, or Café Con Leche, Cuban coffee made with hot milk instead of water. Choose either and you will never look at coffee the same way again.
Cross Biscayne Boulevard and stroll through Bayfront Park. When you finish, head to colorful Bayside for shopping and dining. If you have more than a couple of hours to spare, for $20 roundtrip, you can hop on the Water Taxi and head to trendy South Beach.
As you emerge from Bayside and cross over Biscayne Boulevard, look to your right. You will see a small, orange building dwarfed by towering skyscrapers. Now known as the Freedom Tower, the structure was built in 1925 as headquarters for a newspaper. In 1957, the newspaper relocated and the building was used to process Cuban refugees fleeing Fidel Castro. It continued to be used for that purpose until 1972. The 255 foot building was completely restored in 1997. Now operated by Miami Dade College, it’s used for a variety of exhibitions. Please know that this itinerary of sorts is designed for those with limited time to visit. There is so much to see and do here in Miami that one could stay several weeks and still not see it all.
If you do have a little more time, head to Southwest Eighth Street, Calle Ocho, for the real deal in Cuban experiences. Stop by Domino Park and watch the ‘regulars’ play dominos, then head to Versailles. It is dubbed the World’s most famous Cuban Restaurant and just about any time you see photos of Miami, you’ll see Versailles. It’s been a fixture more than 40 years and offers a walk up coffee bar, bakery and restaurant that serves up lunch and dinner. Prices are very reasonable and dinner for two can be had for under $30
No matter how you choose to see it, a visit to Miami is something you won’t soon forget.
As a reminder of your brief visit, check two mysteries to the right of this blog, FAKER and Death of Dead Man, both of which are set in Downtown Miami. And the books featured detective, Falk McCoy has his own blog! Check it out at, www.FalkMcCoy.com
Destination: The Panama Canal
I don’t know that it is on everyone’s bucket list, but transiting the Panama Canal was certainly on mine.
Years ago I visited Panama City, Panama as a Travel Writer. Among the highlights of that visit was seeing a ship sail through the Miraflores Locks. I watched in awe from the shore and dreamt of the day when I would see the same from a different perspective – from a cruise ship. I got my chance about a year ago when I took the Los Angeles to Miami full transit cruise on the Norwegian Jewel. The experience clearly exceeded my expectations. We were up at the crack of dawn, convinced we would find the perfect viewing spot. Apparently everyone else had the same idea. On this cruise, NCL opened all forward areas to the public. Even at this early hour, 5:00 a.m., every open space was packed with passengers. We officially entered the Canal around 6:00 a.m., navigated the three locks and exited around 3:30 p.m. Even if you weren’t right next to the rail, it was a sight to behold. An onboard historian described the history and the building of the canal, along with detailed accounts as we passed through each lock. We watched the entrance and exit at Miraflores from the front of the ship, but because of the extreme heat, decided to catch the remaining locks from our balcony. It was equally entertaining. Bragging rights t-shirts of every size and hue went up for sale in the early morning hours and continued throughout the day. They sold like hotcakes. The crew filmed our entire transit from both land and from the ship and got closeups of guests proudly wearing their t-shirts and waving from all the public areas If you were watching the transit from anywhere other than the privacy of your room, you were in the video. And that’s what made it special. The video was made specifically for this ship, for this sailing and all those who sailed were the stars. It was available the following day for less than $20 and the DVD all but sold out. So I cross the Panama Canal transit off my bucket list. I enjoyed every moment of that journey and I’m happy that I found it important enough to add it to my ‘must do’ list.
Destination: Sarchi, Costa Rica
(Check out the video for, Fabrica Carretas here: http://bit.ly/135wywY)
I have to start by saying that I love Costa Rica. I had an extended visit a number of years ago and was astounded by the natural beauty of this tropical paradise. So I was excited that one of the stops on our Panama Canal cruise was Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. I’m not a tour person and I hate being trapped on a bus. When I do one, I am very finicky about where my hard earned dollars are spent. There were a number of tours available and we selected a Shopping Tour of Sarchi, one of our favorite stops on our previous visit. At $59 per person, I expected an actual tour with stops as outlined on the itinerary. It didn’t deliver. We spent 3.5 hours winding up and down mountains in a bus to get there. The scenery for the most part was nice, but we hit an awful lot of traffic. When we arrived in Sarchi, we stopped in the center of town to take photos of the world’s largest ox cart, the craft for which the town is known. We were there 10 minutes. Then we went to Fabrica Carretas for 45 minutes and that was the extent of the shopping tour: one stop for shopping at a factory that made only one, overpriced item. In hindsight, the store should have paid us a commission to be there since there was nowhere else to spend our money. Our tour also included a visit to an historic church, but when we got there, the church was locked, so we got back on the bus and made the long trip home. Keep in mind that we spent 3.5 hours getting back to the ship. We would have been better served spending time in Puerto Limon where we docked. There were lots of shops and music and local food. But we spent so much time on the so-called shopping trip that when we returned, our ship was ready to depart. Other than visiting the Ox Cart Factory, this trip was a monumental waste of time. A word to the wise…if you stopping in Puerto Limon, stay away from the shopping trip! (Check out the video for, Fabrica Carretas here: http://bit.ly/135wywY) Destination: Nassau, Bahamas
It’s a port welcomed by first time cruisers and dreaded by more seasoned enthusiasts. In the, ‘been there/done that’ world of travel, many of those who sail frequently to the Caribbean won’t get off the ship in Nassau. I belonged to the latter group, but a couple of years ago on our annual Sibling weekend, (It’s a yearly event with my brothers and sister. More on that in a future blog) I didn’t have a choice. Two of them had never been Nassau. That left me with a bit of a challenge: How do I entertain them and enjoy the city myself? I found that a day in Nassau can be fun. You just have to know what to do. Just about every ship offers a tour to Atlantis, which includes a visit to the lagoons or to The Dig, a maze of tunnels, rooms, and displays exploring the history of the fabled lost island of Atlantis. Prices vary and include transportation. But what if you’ve been there? How many times can you walk around a hotel and look at fish? And let’s face it, if you are going to Atlantis to gamble, you can do that onboard, unless of course, you are cruising with Disney. For most of the Wrinkled set, diving or an afternoon on a rum boat is not going to be your first choice. And shopping? It is an option, but for the most part, there’s nothing you can buy here that you can’t purchase at home or online and probably for less. Below are a few ideas if you want to forego the traditional Nassau tours or avoid staying onboard. Tour Alternative: For six dollars a person round trip, you can catch Nassau’s version of a water taxi and head to tropical Paradise Island where you can visit some of the island’s most beautiful resorts, including Atlantis. This is a real treat and especially enjoyable if you are with the grandchildren or like me, with someone who has never been to Nassau previously. Best of all, it’s a real cost saver over tour prices charged onboard. For the truly hearty, it’s about a seven mile walk from the ship. But be sure to get back to your ship on time – they won’t wait for you and the cost of your flight home will outweigh any savings! Shopping Alternative: Take a horse and carriage ride at $5 per person. Your driver will tell you a little about Bahamian history and point out all the important buildings in this Capitol city. While you are riding around, look for some of the local bars and souvenir shops. Later, have a brew and savor the Bahamian culture at one of the local watering holes. After, stop by a souvenir shop and get a t-shirt for the grandkids. Oh who are we kidding! Get a t-shirt for yourself! Prices are reasonable, more so than from vendors nearest the ship. If you want to soak up some local flavor, visit The Straw Market in the center of Bay Street. If you tire of people telling you why you need your hair braided or how wonderful you would look in the tropical shirts they are selling, you might want to skip this step. Sightseeing alternative: Grab a cab and asked to be taken to the top of the Queen’s Steps. If you are up to it, climb to the top of the stairs. Each step of the limestone stairs was created to mark a year in the life of Queen Victoria. When you get to the top of Bennet’s Hill, you’ll have the best view of the Nassau landscape. Be sure to bring your camera! Take a short walk from the top of the stairs and visit Fort Fincastle, built in 1793. Climbing the stairs and visiting the fort is free! You’ll only pay for the cab. We walked from the ship and found it to be relatively easy, but if you have any condition that might mean an injury later, take a taxi. You will likely pay about $12 roundtrip and can fit four people in the cab. They also offer some unique paintings and souvenirs here that you won’t find downtown. And that’s how you can enjoy your day in Nassau!