Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Taormina! and the BamBar!

As we were waiting – and waiting – and waiting to actually take this tour, the three long years of COVID, we spent time doing research on various aspects of the itinerary. One of our very favorite resources was Gary Bembridge’s Tips for Travellers, and his amazing cruise ship videos.

Gary Bembridge and his partner really like Oceania for it’s passenger service and care, and for the dining options they offer, and he says that for people who are destination serious, the line that has the best tours and onboard lecturers for content and information is hands down, Viking.

My Mother had a great sense of humor; she once said “have you ever noticed that people with good taste seem to have tastes that agree with your own?” I’ve never forgotten that. As I recommend Gary Bembridge and his videos, it is my OPINION that his opinions are really great, but it is probably because I agree with most of what he says.

He says it is important (I am paraphrasing here) to know who you are and to know what you like and know what is important to you as you choose a cruise line. Do you want entertainment? Do you like casinos? Do you want to take your children?

He compares ship packages – tours, drinks, ship credits and helps you find what is right for you. He advises on choice of cabins, cabin locations, and cabins for people inclined to sea sickness. If you have never cruised, or if you have had a disappointing cruise but are willing to try again, Gary Bembridge and his videos can help you make choices that will be a great choice for YOU.

We also watched a lot of YouTube videos about Taormina (and Barcelona, that’s how we narrowed down our choices for our short time there.)

We are the bane of a tour director’s life, AdventureMan and I. We prefer to wander off on our own. I like to take photos not crowded with people. I have some attention deficits; I can only listen for so long, and I can only absorb so much.

So we signed up for a tour called Taormina on your Own, and it turned out to be very right for us.

It was getting close to 1:55 and we headed for our bus. Our friends Alan and Ed came on board, too; we had met them in Barcelona and they sat behind us and we got to know each other a little better. They said mostly they had been eating and catching up on sleep. 

Before we got out of Messina, we got stuck in the middle of a very cultural moment; school got out and parents, drivers, and taxis were all very aggressively picking up students from their schools. There was no regard for lanes, and there were cars coming straight at us in our lane! There were students stepping in front of the bus, knowing we would stop! It was chaos, and it happened every single day in Messina.

Here is a policeman, doing nothing.

Our guide, Julia, gave us all sorts of great information on Messina and Toaramina as we drove the twisty roads en route to Taormina.

The day was already fading as we arrived at a giant parking lot and Julia explained how to get into town and where we would meet to return to the ship. She said we would meet at 5:30, but we were supposed to be back on board at 5:30. She said, oh no, that the ship wasn’t leaving until seven, so we had plenty of time. OK.

AdventureMan and I headed out, and it was familiar territory from all the YouTube videos we had watched. We found there were not too many tourists, and the light was beautiful.

We had learned, from YouTube, of a Taormina legend dating back to early times where a princess had a lover who was unfaithful. She cut off his head and used it as a planter for her basil, which thrived. If you know the legend, you see the planters commemorating this legend everywhere,

Pomegranates! And a pomegranate juice maker! I wish I could stop, but we are headed for the BamBar, and their famous Granitas.

We quickly found the Twin Set where we headed right and strolled down to the Bam Bar. There was one empty table waiting for us.

We ordered granita; chocolate for me, pistachio and brioche for AdventureMan, and hot tea for me. The chocolate was divine, thick and intense, probably full of calories, but how often are we in Taormina?

We continued down the main road and went outside to look at the old Roman Ruins.

On the way back, we headed to see the Greek Theatre, but the gates closed just as we arrived.

It wasn’t a great loss to us; we’d seen it so often on YouTube we felt like we’d been there, and we had other panoramic opportunities to view Toaramina.

These musicians were very good. I can imagine they made good money from tips from appreciative tourists.

Back in Pensacola, pre-trip, a not un-typical conversation:

AdventureMan, hollaring from his office “Hey, there’s an airport up on the hill. We could hike up!”

Me: (thinking why would I want to hike up a hill to the airport? Looking at the map – I can see that it is not an airport. It is an old fort.) “It’s NOT an airport!” I holler back.

AdventureMan, coming into my office with a very confused look on his face: “What do you think I just said?”

Me: “That we could hike up to the airport on the top of the hill.”

AdventureMan, laughing so hard he can barely stand up: “Arab Fort! Arab Fort! Not Airport, Arab Fort!”

We still laugh about that one. We had a great view of the Arab Fort from the BamBar.

We also got to see Mount Etna spewing lava in the distance.

It was another gorgeous day on our trip. We met up with our group, getting to know some of our fellow passengers a little better, then headed to the bus.

As we departed, the moon came up, giant and blood-red in the distance, truly glorious. Arriving back in Messina, at almost 6:40, there was a long line to get back onto the ship, but they had facial recognition programs that identified us and allowed us to process quickly. 

We got to our room, changed our clothes, and took our dinner and a bottle of wine out to our balcony.

We were eating and chatting and watching the passengers straggle back, and at some point, the ship silently pulled away from the dock and it was so gently done we didn’t even notice until we were about ten meters away. We still have a full moon!

What a lovely way to make a departure. The temperature was so warm that we were perfectly comfortable out on the balcony watching as we departed Sicily, faced toward Italy until we lost the view and we retreated back into our cabin.

January 20, 2023 Posted by | Adventure, Arts & Handicrafts, Beauty, Chocolate, Cultural, Food, Italy, Travel | , , , | 2 Comments

First Stop: Messina and Taormina

We had a surprise, learning our Taormina on Your Own tour will not be leaving until 1:55, but we sailed right into the heart of Messina, past the beautiful Christ blessing ships at the entrance to the harbor.

I’m such a kid, I love watching the pilot boats arrive to escort us into port.

The early tours depart.

We have a quiet breakfast out on the Terrace and learn that not everyone is getting off the ship; some people are staying aboard. It boggles my mind. This is an amazing itinerary, it’s why we chose the trip. How can you stay on the ship?

I am beginning to find my way through the buffet. I can have oatmeal – AND smoked salmon. Much to AdventureMan’s disgust, I can also have pickled herring. The Swedish part of my heritage goes deep.

The Norwegian Star is about five times the size of the Oceania Nautica!

Once the early tours are gone, there are no problems walking off the ship, so we decided to go into Mesina to see the church with the horological clock, the biggest in the world. Exiting the tourist terminal, there were many people offering taxi rides, but they were not overly aggressive, and we were able to escape quickly. We crossed the street with a Sikh and his wife who very agreeably told us we needed to be more aggressive and to “think like Italians.” They were very kind. 

The church was mere minutes from the ship; we could see the ship many times through the streets to the waterfront.

At the church, there were few people, hucksters selling cheap souvenirs and Indian-made shawls, and two open Hop On Hop Off kinds of buses. We asked about one, and it had a 45 minute tour for 10 Euro, so we bought tickets and five minutes later along came a bus. It was almost full, but there was one seat, and, as it turned out, I was on the good side for taking lots of photos. 

Behind me was a woman who said “Quick! Look up! There is a great photo” so I looked up and it was.

She and her husband were New Zealanders, newlyweds, who had intended to take a cruise for their honeymoon when COVID struck. They decided when COVID ended to take their trip, but in the three years, added several other loops onto the trip, and it ended up being three months full of adventure. They were having a wonderful time; they were on the Norwegian Star, parked with the Nautica on the waterfront.

There were all kinds of Messina tours on offer.

I love this view; you can see how close Sicily is to the mainland of Italy. There is a ferry that goes back and forth; it is common to live on one side and work on the other.

Lots of representations of Poseidon/Zeus, God of the Sea

Just before exiting, we saw a very old church with wonderful stonework, so we decided to take a look. The church was partially built into the old Greco-Roman wall around Messina, squat and sturdy.

AdventureMan said “Look, we can go in!” and I said no, but he kept saying he thought we needed to go inside so I agreed. Great call, AdventureMan.

Annunziata dei Catalani Church

Oh, what I would have missed if I had not gone in! It was a very old church, and in the back was a handmade Messina-specific creche, with all kinds of villagers convincingly portrayed. It was one of the most elaborate creches I have ever seen, and I was thoroughly enchanted.

The church is thought to be the oldest church in Messina, with Arabic influences in the stonework, probably it was once a church, then a mosque, and is now a church again. Entrance is free – there is a small box for donations.

As we walked back to the ship, we learned we were supposed to have photo ID with us. I had my driver’s license (our passports were on board the ship) but AdventureMan had nothing. Then, suddenly, he realized he had photos of his passport page and other ID, which he showed the customs police, and it sufficed. There were others who had nothing, and it was a big problem for them to get through the Border Guards and back aboard.

There was also a woman just catching up with the Nautica. Her husband, and the bags, were stuck at the immigration shack. She and a bag were trying to get on board. She was very tired and very annoyed. “Worst start of a cruise EVER” she told us. It turns out there were twenty couples from England in the same situation, some of whom didn’t catch up until we got to Haifa. 

We had been disappointed to be leaving so late for Taormina, but it turned out to be a really good thing. We really like exploring on our own, and had a wonderful time exploring Messina, and meeting people from other cruises, other countries, and other ways of life. We loved the funny little Hop On Hop Off bus and its one-hour circular route allowed us to see Messina and get back to the ship in time for our tour to Taormina.

We had a quick lunch at Waves, the outdoor grill. We had the panini, and it was a lot, so we saved half our sandwiches so we could just eat in our room at the end of a long day without needing to order from room service.

January 20, 2023 Posted by | Adventure, Arts & Handicrafts, Beauty, Cultural, Italy, Living Conditions, Public Art, Quality of Life Issues | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

At Sea On U.S. Election Day

It is wonderful to be at sea in the turmoil of this year’s election. No one is talking about it onboard. What a relief.

We are told there are passengers from 39 nations on board, and crew from more nations. The entire day, we hear not a word about the American election.

The demographic is very much our age group. If anything, we are younger than most. Hard to say, but we see some very old but still adventuresome travelers, which gives us hope for our own future travels.

We were wide awake before seven. I got up and went to get some coffee. We can have it delivered to the room, but on these relaxed days at sea, we don’t like to commit to a time and it is just as easy to go get my own cup at the dedicated coffee bar. Actually, coffee is available in many places on the ship, and the smell of coffee early in the morning wafts everywhere.

We had decided to try The Grand Dining Room for breakfast, wanting to be less formal in a very formal environment.

The waiters are all white-jacketed and very pleasant. The menu is lovely – the tastiest item was smoked salmon with cream and capers and white onion, a great way to start the day. AdventureMan shared with me. The fruit platters were large enough for two; I cut most of mine into small pieces to stir into my virtuous oatmeal. Don’t you think smoked salmon is virtuous too? I think I prefer virtuous tasty smoked salmon to virtuous oatmeal. 

I am not complaining. I eat oatmeal every day at home. As a diabetic, it is great for keeping my blood sugar levels down. The Nautica had really nice oatmeal. And oatmeal just pales in comparison to all the lovely choices available for breakfast, all the beautiful pastries, croissants, breakfast breads, all the lovely foods with a lot of fats and sugars. Yes, even on a cruise, I pay attention. I will try not to whine again.

After breakfast, I grabbed some of my hotter weather clothes to iron – the compression bags puts some serious wrinkles into linen clothing.

The laundry room is much smaller than it appears on the ship map, but the iron was hot and efficient, and there were other passengers doing small loads of washing and drying. It is handy that it is all free. There is a laundry on board, and although we have laundry service I prefer doing my own laundry. We have a line in the shower where we can hang items we have hand laundered in the sink, and we found little detergent slips on Amazon that are very compact and efficient for hand laundry.

Then we walked the walking track, windy, invigorating; we have a lovely sunny day, warm enough but sometimes the wind was so strong it blew me into AdventureMan. I am happy we packed some of our cool-weather gear; when we are at sea, it can be windy and chilly. We checked out the gym, where AdventureMan found mats available for stretching as I look eagerly at the outside spa overlooking the bow of the ship. Heaven!

Back in the room, AdventureMan naps as we wait for the eleven o-clock enrichment lecture on the Origins of the First Crusade, in preparation for our time in Sicily and Israel. I am excited we will be going to Acre, the old Crusader stronghold, the day we arrive there.

 The lecture was well attended, probably four hundred or so passengers.

And then off we went to lunch at The Terrace restaurant.

We have found a table we love; sheltered by a small wall but still with a good view out over the aft of the ship. The Terrace is the ship’s buffet restaurant, except that it is not like a buffet where you dish up your own portions. There are very pleasant wait-staff every few feet who put food on your plate. You can say “a very small portion, please” or “could I have a little more of that?” and they will give you exactly what you wish. Don’t you love having choices?

It all feels so indulgent.

After lunch, I read while AdventureMan attended an afternoon lecture on How Man Learned to Navigate by the Stars, which he said turns out to be very complicated. Here is the truth, I will admit it, I needed a nap. I am not yet fully adapted to the time change. The little couch is a perfect size for me, and there is a soft sea-green throw I can cover up with and I am out like a light.

Dinner this night is at the Polo Grill, and, sadly, while these reservations are greatly coveted, by dinner time I don’t care. I don’t much want to dress up; I wish they would just deliver the dinner to the room, but this is part of the Oceania experience and so we dress and go up for dinner. The code is “country-club casual.” There are many interpretations of what that might mean. Here is ours.

I had a shrimp cocktail, tomato salad, and lobster, AdventureMan had the Lobster Bisque, Fois Gras en Croute, and the lobster, and we split a Creme Brûlée. The Creme Brûlée was very good.

It is a lovely kind of evening, and we enjoyed ourselves because we do this so rarely. The night is sweet and warm, the moon is full, and we can’t resist a lap or two around the walking track before we go to sleep.

January 20, 2023 Posted by | Adventure, Aging, Beauty, Bureaucracy, Community, Cultural, Customer Service, Diet / Weight Loss, Eating Out, Food, Health Issues, Living Conditions, Political Issues, Quality of Life Issues, Travel | , , | Leave a comment

We Sail Away on Oceania’s Nautica

AdventureMan made a good call. It feels like forever since we have gotten up without an alarm, and had time to take time. We got up, dressed, made sure our bags to be picked up and transported to the Nautica were ready to go, and headed down to breakfast. At a nearby table, I spotted two men who had also sat near us the day before. I noticed them because they were kind to each other, and seemed to have really good conversations. Sometimes you just have a feeling.

Our 10:45 departure actually took place at close to 11. We had been ushered to a separate lounge downstairs, as other cruisers – maybe from other ships, too – were all sitting in the lobby and there were no seats. We got to the bus and and Alan and Ed, whom we had seen at breakfast, were sitting behind us. We had a nice chat – they are long-time Oceania cruisers. About our age, they have been many places, including Swaziland, and are on the ship all the way to South Africa, more than 30 days. They also both use the same camera I am using. It was a fun conversation, and we ended up running into them often, and always had good visits.

The boarding process was smooth and unhurried We checked in to our muster station, which was the Nautica’s main lounge.

We decided to find a shady spot by the pool while we waited for our staterooms to be ready.

They called our level around 12:30 and I got a nice surprise when we got to our suite – it is larger than I expected. It has more storage than I expected. It has larger closets and more hangers than I expected The bathroom, while small, has a lot of storage.

It has lovely shades of sea green, a dining room table with two comfy chairs, a small couch with coffee table, and a comfy, firm bed with good linens. The balcony is large, with comfy reclining wicker furniture. 

You probably wonder why I am showing you these details. Everyone had different priorities, and this will be a long trip. We put a little extra money into a larger room so we would be able to move around without annoying each other. We know we will be spending a lot of time in this room. So to enter, and to find that it is lovely and spacious matters to us. We can breathe in this room.

We put away clothes and make ourselves at home, then go for lunch at Waves, a casual restaurant near the pool where I had salmon – not that great – and AdventureMan had an ahi tuna sandwich, which he said was pretty good. My salmon was overcooked and dry.

We explored, then headed back to the cabin for some quiet time around four. 

The library had all the newest best sellers and great travel and reference books about the places we would see.

These signs below are everywhere. At first, it can be hard knowing which way is foreward and which is aft, and whether you are on port or starboard, but the signs keep you informed. One of the crewmembers told us when we come off the stairs to look for the telephone; our cabin is on that side.

Below is Bhuti, one of the first people we met on board. He would always go out of his way to make sure we had the things we liked, including an Indonesian sauce called Sambol. He treated us like honored guests. I think the staff must have entered information in computers everyone could check, information about the passengers, because everywhere we went, people knew what we liked. It was actually kind of fun to be taken care of so hospitably.

As we left the cabin, we met Miguel, our next-door neighbor. Miguel and Maria are very quiet. They had only a day in Barcelona but had hired a private guide who took them everywhere. Miguel’s face lit up as he told us about their adventures during that day. We learned also that they met when they were sixteen, and married in their early twenties, and you could see, after all these years, how devoted they were to one another. Whenever we met up, we would have great conversations. It’s amazing to me that the people we liked the best on the trip were people we met at the very beginning. Running into them and having these animated discussions made the ship feel like a village.

The ship was due to depart at 6:00, so we went out to the highest deck to watch.

Finally, we decided to go eat, at the Terraces restaurant, where we found a seat out on the aft terrace, lovely, uncrowded, warm, and not windy, and we could watch Barcelona recede into the distance as we sailed away. The ship had left while we were in transition to the restaurant and we didn’t even feel it. 

We wanted to eat light; we are both still getting used to the time change, so I looked for the pumpkin soup and finally asked a server who was standing by a big black cauldron – full of pumpkin soup. There was a platter of paella, too, so I had a small amount of that. Sitting outside watching the lights of Barcelona grow smaller in the warm evening with the full moon was delightful. 

After dinner we came back to the cabin and I figured out how to work the internet. We can only use one electronic device at a time. I meant to update this journal but found nearly 400 emails I needed to delete and eleven to which I needed to respond. Meanwhile, AdventureMan, exhausted, fell asleep, so I decided to read for a while until I was sleepy – I’m having trouble getting to sleep. It will get better.

The ship is amazingly quiet. We don’t hear the engines. We didn’t even know when the ship pulled away from the dock, it was so smooth. The ship doesn’t rock, at least not much. The corridors are quiet. The dining rooms are full of people, but conversations are quiet. There are no children on this ship. It looks to me like we are right at the median of the age on board. There are much older folk, and then there are some in their fifties. There are a few with mobility issues.

January 18, 2023 Posted by | Adventure, Bureaucracy, Food, Living Conditions, Quality of Life Issues, Restaurant, Stranger in a Strange Land, Travel | , | Leave a comment