Thursday, July 23, 2009

Cruise Desserts!

You can easily gain weight like nobody's business when you're on a cruise. Afterall, there's food around-the-clock. And when you see this food, who can really resist? For me, it's not the meals itself that are the creme-de-la-creme of each cruise, it's the cruise desserts.

Here is just a small sampling of some of the cruise desserts I've had over the years.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Villefranche, France

This was the last stop on our first Mediterranean cruise. Would could be better than spending the last day of your cruise in the South of France? The sun, the sand, the beautiful people. It was as close to paradise as you can get.

Our cruise ship tendered in to Villefranche, France, which is a sleepy little beach town on the Cote d'Azur, better known in English as the French Riviera. This town, officially known as Villefranche-sur-Mer lies in between the very famous cities of Nice and Cannes to the south, and the principality of Monaco to the North.

As we approached the harbor where our ship would be dropping anchor, we had the most stunning of sunrises. As you enter the harbor, there is a piece of land that juts out into the ocean. On that strip of land sits a lighthouse to help guide sailors. The first rays of the morning light were just breaking over the horizon right behind the lighthouse and created the most gorgeous effect and a stunning sunrise.

With much pre-planning, we decided that we were going to do this city on our own today. We got on one of the first tenders and headed into the city. As it was early morning, it was nice, peaceful and quiet as all of the previous nights revelers were probably still in bed. We strolled along the shoreline until we came to the train station from which we'd begin our journey.

We had a short train ride along the Lower Corniche from Villefranche to Eze-bord-du-Mer. Literally, Eze by the sea. Our goal was to get to Eze Village, a small hilltop town on the French Riviera that is world famous for its gorgeous views, and is sometimes referred to as the Eagle's Nest of the Cote d'Azur. In order to get to Eze Village, we had to get off the train and get on a local bus that would transfer us up to the Grand Corniche and Eze Village.

Today, Eze is very popular with tourists to the French Riviera. It's known as a sleepy, artsy community. And it has also made quite a name for itself due to the perfume factory that is located in town. After some delays we finally made it to Eze. The views from the top of the mountain are absolutely stunning. To look out ahead of you and see nothing be the suns rays shimmering off the surface of the beautiful blue water of the Mediterranean was a sight to behold.

From Eze, we boarded another bus that would take us to Monte Carlo. Monte Carlo is part of the small independent principality of Monaco. Monte Carlo/Monaco are known for fast cars, expensive yachts, and a world famous casino. It also perhaps is infamous for its royal family who despite being the longest ruling monarchy in Europe has seen their names and faces splashed across the media for decades.

We actually barely spent any time at all in Monte Carlo. We only took exterior photos of the Grand Casino before making our way up to Monaco. Monaco on a hill overlooking Monte Carlo and the harbor. It was amazing to me to look out on the harbor and see the sheer number of expensive yachts docked just offshore. This is certainly a place for the rich and famous to come and play.

While we were at Monaco we went by the Palais, the Palace where the royal family still resides. We spent some time wandering through the small, narrow cobblestone streets until we came to the cathedral. Inside the cathedral was buried multiple members of the royal family including Princess Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier.

Unfortunately, with such limited time in port on this day, we didn't really have time for much more. We quickly headed back to the train station and in the direction of Villefranche to catch the ship again. Nonetheless, this part of the world is absolutely stunning and definitely lives up to every bit of the charm you'd envision when you think of the French Riviera.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Ajaccio, Corsica

Ajaccio was the first port of call on my first Mediterranean cruise and probably the city I knew the least about.

Ajaccio is the major city on the island of Corsica, just off the coast of France. It was also our first port of call on my first Mediterranean cruise.

It was probably the port city in which I knew the least about ahead of time and unfortunately it also turned out to be my least favorite port stop on my cruise. Apparently, this island is a very popular holiday spot for the French and other Europeans. Unfortunately, a beach vacation wasn't quite what I was looking for.

Corsica biggest claim to fame, or perhaps infamy, is as the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. You can see statues commemorating this favorite son all over the island and in the city. While we were in Ajaccio, we saw a Napoleon statue with him dressed in a toga similar to what a Holy Roman Emperor would wear. We also visited a playground which was supposedly where the young Napoleon used to play. There's also a bronze statue there commemorating Napoleon. Finally, we also saw the building in which Napoleon was born and his family lived. It was mildly interesting, but at the same time, do you want to be celebrating this place as the birthplace to one of the world's most hated men?

During our time in Corsica, as we weren't quite sure what else to do, we took a ship's tour of the island and it's surrounding. During the tour, we drove out of town to an area where we could see a string of islands just off the coast of Corsica. At the edge of the island itself sits a watch tower which was operated like any other watch tower back in the old days, as a lookout to help spot enemy fleets as they approached the island. It was an intersting spot that we wandered around for a little bit.

While this turned out to be a nice and lovely day, and the island has it's bright spots, it was also the least exciting stop on our cruise, and I'm not sure that I'd be thrilled to ever go back there again.

Friday, July 17, 2009


After a visit to Barcelona, it has quickly moved up my list of favorite cities. After 2.5 days spent in the city, I knew that at some point in time, I'd have to return.

I've heard many people mention that Barcelona is either a city you love, or one that you hate. And much of that has to do more with the architectural style of the city rather than the people, the sights or the food.

Barcelona is the home of Antoni Gaudi, master Art Nouveau architect who designed and built many of the most iconic structures seen around Barcelona.

It was late in July in 2006, when I visited Barcelona. When we arrived to Barcelona International Airport late in the evening, little did we know that this stay in this beautifully eclectic city would prove to be such an adventure. Additionally, this trip, re-ignited our interest in Europe. It had been nearly 20 years since I'd last been to Europe in 1987. Since this trip in 2006, I've visited Europe at least once every year since.

By the time we got out of the airport, took the Aeroport Bus to Placa Catalunya, walked to Las Ramblas and found our hotel, checked in, and dropped off our bags at the room, it was just past 10:00 pm. We decided to make the most of our first evening in Barcelona by going for a stroll outside. Since our hotel was situated on the very popular main pedestrian street in Barcelona known as Las Ramblas, we were in the perfect place for a late evening stroll. At 10:00 pm, the place was packed and it looked like the party was just getting started. This is definitely one place not to be missed if you're ever in Barcelona. It's funny that during the day (as seen in the picture), before all the previous night's revelers are up, the street is just a very beautiful, but peacefully, tree lined street filled with vendors selling the wares on either side of the street.

For our first full day in Barcelona, we decided to take a trip on the city's famous hop-on, hop-off bus operated by Bus Turistic. The tour operators jumping off point was just around the corner from our hotel, and we made sure we were there for the first bus of the day.

Once we were off on our adventure, you could clearly see the sights that Antoni Gaudi has made so popular laid out before you throughout the city, especially when you're riding on the top deck of an open-top, double decker bus.

Our first stop was Gaudi's famous Casa Mila, an apartment building that he designed and had built. The outside facade of this building that sits at the corner of 2 intersecting streets is the first sign of whimsy that you see. It's up on the rooftop of the building where you see all sorts of odd, unique and intricate mosaic creations where you begin to get a glimpse into this man that is Antoni Gaudi.

From Casa Mila, we headed to the famous, if not infamous, La Sagrada Familia. A church hundreds of years in the making. This church has come to represent Gaudi, his life and his passion. During the later years of his life, he was obsessed with this church, which unfortunately was never completed before his untimely death, and to this day is still a work in progress. Private donations and other aspiring architects today continue his work based upon the blue prints he has left behind. This church really is a wonder to behold, with two very distinct styles depending on what side of the church you are standing on. I've never seen a church so intricate in it's design, nor so bold and forward in its thinking.

Our last Gaudi stop of the day was the beautiful Parc Guell. There was a very rich Barcelona native that hired Gaudi to design him a park, and Parc Guell is the result of that commission. It is no secret that Gaudi had a love for mosaics and this park is the perfect example of his brilliant, tedious, and time-consuming, mosaic art.

Other sights we were able to cram in during our day tour of the city was the Olympic Stadium of the 1992 Summer Games, the beautiful bronze Christopher Columbus statue (which was actually built incorrectly with Columbus facing the wrong direction), the Port Vell area, and finally the Diagonal area.

After a short afternoon rest at our hotel, we ended our day in style by taking in the beautiful Magic Fountains light show at Placa Espanya. If you've ever seen the light and music water fountain show in front of the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas, the Magic Fountain show is similar, albeit a little less high-tech, but nonetheless gorgeous, fun, beautiful, and a great way to end the evening in this colorful, rich and vibrant city.

Our last morning in the city, we decided to walk the quiet streets of Las Ramblas and take in beautiful flower market and the amazing Mercat de la Borqueria. If you're ever in Barcelona, the Boqueria is something not to be missed. It's basically, a fresh fruit, meats, and dining area for locals that is open every morning. The sights, the sounds, and the smells are all distinctly Barcelona.

Unfortunately, there wasn't much time for anything else before we headed to the cruise ship dock to catch our ship and begin our glorious adventure through the Western Mediterranean. When our cruise ship returned to this beautiful city 12 days later, we headed directly to the airport to catch our flight home. But I left this city knowing that at some point in time, I'd be back. Unfortunately, I won't be stopping at Barcelona on my next cruise, but you can bet that I will be back. It's the spirit of the Catalan people, their culture, their history that will draw me back to this wonderful city.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. If that's true, than being in Santorini in person is worth at least a million words.

When you see pictures of Santorini with it's dramatic ocean views, it's white washed homes with blue domed roofs, you get a sense of Paradise on Earth and you wonder what could be more beautiful than that. Then you're really there in person and you realize, a picture simply doesn't do the island justice.

I hadn't really thought ahead of time what Santorini would be like. I admit, I'm not much of a beach person, so strictly visiting an island wasn't really high on my list of "to-do's," but this was far from that.

The one thing you notice about Santorini when you first arrive at the island is how far above sea level the island really is. That's because Santorini is really a volcano. One of the largest volcanic explosions ever recorded occurred here at Santorini. The explosion was so powerful that the volcano basically destroyed itself. The explosion caused the dome of the volcano to literally be blown away and then fall into itself. So there are a number of outlying islands that ring what was the caldera of the volcano. The residents of Santorini today live at the very top of the caldera.

The cruise ship drops anchor off shore, and a local company tenders passengers to the island. Once off the tender, there are 3 options to the top of the caldera: 1) there is a cable car that will carry you to the top, 2) there is a zig-zagging donkey path with donkeys that will take you to the top, and 3) you can walk up to the top following the donkey path. We opted to go with the cable cars.

When you arrive at the top of the caldera, you are in Fira (sometimes referred to as Thira). We had known that our destination was to be Oia, a small city that lies on the southern tip of the island. We also wanted to beat the crowds. From the top of the cable car station, we walked directly to the bus station and took the first local bus out to Oia. It was a pleasant and pretty 30 minute drive out to Oia.

Oia is one of the most stunning cities I've ever seen in terms of raw beauty. Every which way you turn is a jaw-dropping moment. The whitewashed houses really do cling, almost precariously from the rocks off the edge of the caldera. There are very narrow cobblestone lanes that leads to smaller and smaller lanes. These lanes are their "streets." Supplies and goods are donkeyed-in rather than delivered by freight truck. There are buildings at the edge of the caldera that have infinity pools that seemingly just drop right off the cliff. It's one of the most visual stunning cities you'll ever see.

I could have easily spent the whole day just in Oia. Supposedly sunsets from Oia are otherworldly. So much so, that people come from near and far hours in advance to reserve a seat to watch the setting sun.

This is the reason why I knew that if I was going to go back and travel in this region, I'd have to go back to Santorini. It's not just that I had to go back to Santorini, I needed to go back.

In the afternoon, we took the public bus from Oia back to Fira to do a little wandering and shopping. While Fira isn't as "wow" as Oia, it still is awash of beautiful bright white houses and blue shuttered windows and blue domed roofs. It's one of the most beautiful sights in the world.

If you only ever travel to one Greek island, this is the one to go to. Pictures, videos, postcards don't hold a flame to the true beauty of Santorini.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


It's probably one of the most recongizable symbols the world over, and maybe the iconic symbol of Italy, and certainly that of Tuscany, the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

When I discovered on our first Mediterranean cruise that our ship would be docking in Livorno, the gateway to Florence and Pisa, I knew I had to climb the Leaning Tower.

I know, some people say it's cheesy. Some people say it's not worth the money. Many people told me that my time was better spent in Florence. But I didn't listen. Couldn't listen. Climbing the Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of those things that I had always wanted to do.

So, I arranged for a private company to provide us a full day's tour of Florence and Pisa. One of the main reasons I opted to go with a private company was that this was the only way I could arrange to climb the Leaning Tower. With a ship shore excursion, none of them allow for, or provide enough time, to be able to climb the tower.

Once my tour was booked, I went online months before my cruise and booked my ticket for climbing the Leaning Tower.

The climb itself was pretty simple. Only a limited number of people are allowed into the Tower every 30 minutes. The climb takes about 30 minutes in total. It's not strenuous, but it is interesting. While climbing in a circular motion, you can definitely "feel" the lean of the tower itself. Additionally, the steps you climb are pretty much worn out as the marble has been worn away through the years of people climbing the Tower. Once at the top, there are actually 3 different sections from which you can stand atop the Tower. I will say that it was definitely worth the detour we took in order to climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

From Pisa we headed off to Florence. As I was there on a Monday, I knew that the Accademia Galleria would not be open; therefore seeing the original Statue of David would not be possible.

Our first stop in Florence was the world-renownd Duomo. This structure is huge. After waiting 15 minutes to get inside, it was quite a sight to behold the gorgeous, and spacious interior of the Duomo. Outside on the piazza also sits Giotto's Bell Tower and the the famous "Gates of Paradise" bronze doors on the Baptistery. The green, pink, and white marble buildings were just gorgeous.

After this little stop we made our way over to Mercato San Lorenzo where there is an outdoor shopping market along with the Medici Chapels. This is where our tour guide took us to a small family operated outdoor sidewalk cafe for lunch. I ordered penne pasta with cherry tomatoes and marinara. It was to die for. I don't think I've ever had such wonderful pasta before in my life.

Just as lunch ended, the sky opened up on us. I saw lightning and heard thunder and felt rain the likes of which I've never experienced before in my life. From Mercato San Lorenzo we headed off to the Church of Santa Croce where some of Florence's greatest and most distinguished men are buried: Michelango, Machiavelli, Dante and Gallileo. While we were inside of Santa Croce, the rain poured down in buckets and the thunder outside boomed so loud we though that the church was being hit with bombs. It was actually quite scary.

Our last stop of the day was to drive past the famous and historic Ponte Vecchio bridge and up to Piazza Michelangelo. Piazza Michelangelo is located high atop a hill. From this vantage point you get an amazing view over Florence. It is from here that you can really tell that the Duomo dominates over all else in Florence.

This was really a wonderful day. A bit of whimsy, mixed with lots of history, and a lot of religious sites.