Magical Mystery Cruise Ends with Touchdown CLE!

Something Cleveland Browns fans long for season after season are the words “Touchdown CLE!,” but these words took on a very special meaning for us as we made our way through the 42 hour journey from the Viking Sun to our home. Spoiler alert…we made it home, but the way forward, like life itself, didn’t turn out exactly the way we planned.

Armed with face masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, all of our luggage, and a printout of our itinerary taking us from Dubai to JFK to Cleveland, we arrived at the Dubai airport on 3/22 at 11:00 pm and passed the first checkpoint health assessment. Since Dubai was not on our original itinerary and we didn’t have a visa, Viking had arranged for single-use transit visas that would allow us to get through the airport. We verified who we were, found our name on their list, made our way to the Emirates Airline ticket counter, and gave our printout to the ticketing agent. We were getting closer to being on our way! As she searched and searched, she began to look perplexed. “I don’t have a reservation in my system for you at all,” she politely said. In complete disbelief…after all, we had our printout that clearly said we had flights from DXB to JFK to CLE…we asked her to call her supervisor, who confirmed that we were, in fact, not in their system. Holding our ground, as well as our place in line, Denise whipped out her cell phone and called the Customer Service Desk at the Viking Sun to explain our dilemma. The ship got in touch with the folks at Viking Air who said they could see our reservation in their system, but Emirates simply didn’t have it. Going back to the ship wasn’t an option because we had used our one-time visa to get into the airport, so Denise went into “Denise mode” and that can get ugly for the target. “After all, we had our printout!” After much back and forth on this three-way call, the folks at Viking worked their magic and got us a reservation. However, when the ticketing agent pulled it up, it was for DXB to LAX to JFK! Trying to keep her cool with her head ready to explode, Denise told them to stop thinking about JFK and just figure out a way to get us to CLE! After much back and forth, they finally got us a reservation for a flight on 3/23 at 8:30 am. We checked our bags, got our boarding passes, grabbed our hand luggage, and found a quiet corner and some lounge chairs to wait the 8 hours for our flight. Under different circumstances, we would have enjoyed wandering around the many interesting shops in the Dubai airport, but by then we just wanted a quiet place to rest.

At around 6 am we decided to make our way to our gate. Just when we could see Gate 19, the hallway to it was cordoned off and the 500+ people in the airport were herded from wherever they were into a big room for “thermal screening.” Unsure of what that even meant, we followed the leader to a very crowded, disorganized area and waited…and waited. We were definitely NOT keeping our social distance as little kids wailed, tempers flared, elderly people struggled, and chaos prevailed.

We made it through thermal screening, and arrived at our gate. Again, the scene was pretty chaotic but we knew we were at the right gate and getting close. All of a sudden, the crowd began to move forward and Doug figured out that they were beginning the boarding process without any announcements, organized groups, etc. We got close to the gate and were told that because we had first class seats, we had to find the elevator to the second floor to board. Once again, herding cats!

This, however, is where, for the next 18 hours, the story takes a completely different turn as we entered a parallel dimension. First Class on Emirates is something everyone should experience at least once in their lives, and given the cost of the tickets (which were included in our cruise price) we won’t likely have this experience again. We were shown to our individual, private cubbies that were equipped with every amenity one could imagine. We hardly noticed that the plane remained on the ground for about two hours after pulling away from the gate, as it took that long to acclimate to our surroundings. The photos don’t do it justice, but there’s fresh orchids, an individual mini-bar, yummy snack basket, lighted vanity mirror with high-end lotions and oils including a sleep oil, gourmet food and beverage service on demand, a complimentary swag bag with soft, comfy pajamas, slippers, and a little travel bag containing every amenity one could need from toothbrush to hair brush to Borghese lotions, etc. When we were ready to sleep, the flight attendant turned our seats into actual beds with feather mattress, coverlet, and pillows.

And then there’s the food! The entire menu, including breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks is available 24/7. During the course of our journey, we enjoyed caviar and Dom Perignon, a delicious Arabic mezze (an assortment of Arabic delicacies), fresh prawn salad, and breakfast. In between, we sipped on tea, cappuccino, and biscotti. Everything is beautifully served on a white tablecloth and lovely china. After a restful sleep, we were able to take a shower, again with all the amenities. Each passenger is given 25 minutes in the spa-like shower room, and nothing could have been more refreshing. When we got back to our cabins, there was a fresh fruit plate waiting for us. And tiny chocolates are the final treat at the end of every meal.

Upon arrival in LAX, US customs and immigration were pretty straightforward, and with the airport so empty, we got through without too much hassle. We were surprised that although they asked a few questions about where we were and how we felt, there was no real health screening. We found a United Club with an outdoor seating area, and waited the 6.5 hours until our red-eye flight. It was comforting to see our plane just below, knowing that we were getting closer to home. The plane was almost empty, but it got the job done!

As we touched down in CLE in the early morning hours, we were a bit emotional (OK, Denise was more emotional than Doug.) We had left this airport almost three months ago with dreams of an incredible four month world cruise. We experienced 81 days of some of the highest of highs along with some low points to keep us grounded. The things for which Cleveland is known gave us comfort. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Superman, Duck Tape, the guitar that Denise’s former employer sponsored for Guitar Mania, our world class health, education, and cultural institutions all have airport signs to welcome us home. Indeed, there’s no place like home!

Gina and Matt brought our car to the airport for us, and we couldn’t have been happier to see them. Although our real embraces will wait til we know we’re healthy (we feel fine, by the way, but who knows what we might have come across during the past 42 hours!), there is very real joy in our return. Gina might have a future with Emirates, as she thought of EVERYTHING! She filled our fridge with staples, prepared food, yummy snacks, and even some frozen beef from Matt’s dad’s farm. She sorted our mail into neat piles, kept almost all of our plants healthy, and put beautiful yellow tulips on our table. And our grandson Lewi made us the best sign ever, which we shared at the top of this post!

We are grateful for our wonderful family and friends. We know we gave you some moments of heartburn over the past few months, and we thank you for your prayers, thoughts, and love. We’ll be staying home for a while, and happily so. Hints of spring are all around us, and with that comes the hope that someone will find a cure for COVID-19 soon. Cyclones, a world pandemic, rough seas, and political realities intervened, but nothing can take our experiences away from us. We were happy to share them with you, and looking forward to our next adventure! Since the primary categories for this blog are travel, family and friends, and food, be on the lookout for some future posts that cover these topics…probably just food in the foreseeable future!

Spectacular Sydney

Sydney, capital of New South Wales, is home to the world’s largest (and in our opinion, most spectacular!) natural harbor. Founded as a penal colony in 1788, Sydney is probably best known for its crown jewel…the iconic Sydney Opera House. Ironically, we learned that Jorn Utzon’s design for the opera house was the result of a competition, and his design was initially discarded! Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its distinctive sail-like design is a signature landmark for the city. There’s so much to see and do in Sydney, so we split up for part of our three-day visit to pursue our own interests.

Doug spent almost an entire day experiencing the majestic Blue Mountains, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. As a result of a two day torrential rainstorm (which we sailed through to get here!), the Katoomba Falls were raging, and the bush fires that had threatened much of the Jamison Valley were extinguished. From Echo Point, he was able to take in some magnificent views of the valley from high above the clouds. He also captured an etherial shot of the famous Three Sisters before making his way to Scenic World where he experienced the thrills of traveling the world’s steepest scenic passenger train at a 52 degree incline; gliding between cliff tops in the glass-bottomed scenic skyway, Australia’s highest cable car; and descending 545 metres into the Jamison Valley in the scenic cableway. He learned that this area was named Blue Mountain because of the blue hue created by the evaporation from the eucalyptus trees, which are very prevalent throughout the lush area.

While Doug was enjoying the mountains outside the city, Denise took a photographic walking workshop with professional travel photographer Alfonso Calero, owner of Alfonso’s Photo Tours Alfonso led us on a 3-hour walk around Sydney, and freely shared his expertise about camera settings, composition, lighting, and creative camera angles (full disclosure…the image above is my work, but his idea!) We started off in The Rocks – Sydney’s oldest village named for the sandstone from which its original buildings were made, where we played around with angles and leading lines. This area, once home to drunken sailors and ex-convicts, now hosts harbor side boutiques, craft shops, cafes, and interesting markets. We moved on to the Sydney Opera House, one of the most photographed points of interest in the city. We were inspired by the Sydney Harbor Bridge, where we experimented with light and angles, and we were lucky to capture some walkers high atop the bridge. Alfonso gave us some “cheat sheets” to help us tell our travel stories more vividly, and we celebrated our new knowledge over an authentic lunch of meat pies with mashed potatoes and peas and beer at the Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel, Sydney’s oldest continually licensed pub. There’s much debate about which pub is oldest, but the Lord Nelson is a favorite with locals, and definitely has yummy food and delicious beer.

After lunch, Denise continued on her own walking tour of this beautiful city, where she got lost no fewer than 10 times! Along the way, she logged in over 20,000 steps and visited St. Mary’s Cathedral; the QVB – Queen Victoria Building (an incredible indoor shopping mall built in 1893); the Sydney Tower Eye Observation Deck (Sydney’s tallest structure and the second tallest observation tower in the Southern Hemisphere); and the opulent State Theater and adjacent QT Boutique Hotel which is housed in the State and Gowings Buildings. It’s really wonderful how sleek, modern skyscrapers have been incorporated into the skyline alongside historic, beautiful sandstone structures from Sydney’s earliest days.

We both enjoyed a visit to the Featherdale Wildlife Park, where the highlight of our day was holding a baby koala! We also saw kangaroos (some moms with joeys in their pouches, and one adorable albino joey nursing with its mom), sassy pelicans, wombats, fairy penguins, echidnas, a brahminy kite, and dingos, to name a few.

On our third and final day in Sydney, realizing that we were NEVER going to see everything we wanted to see, we took a guided half day panoramic tour and saw and learned so much! Our lovely guide Hayley shared fascinating stories about Sydney’s past and present, and introduced us to some of its historic and colorful characters. We traveled to Circular Quay above Sydney’s picturesque harbor on a peninsula that juts out over the sea. From there we enjoyed great views of many of Sydney’s top attractions. We found historic Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair and Denise took a seat. Formed of exposed sandstone that was hand-carved into a bench by convicts in 1810, it was built for Governor Macquarie’s wife, Elizabeth. According to legend, she spent a lot of time sitting on the rocks and gazing out to sea, spotting ships that were sailing from Great Britain (her home) into the harbor. From her timeless chair, you can cast your eye over the skyline, the opera house, the harbor bridge, and the rising mountains in the distance. You can also admire Pinchgut Island and the Navy dockyards at Wooloomooloo (which means place of the baby kangaroos in Aboriginal.) From there we headed to the cliffs of Sydney Heads with its own breathtaking views, and learned that the cliffs often lured people in search of their final few moments of life. It is said that a gentleman living nearby kept watch on the Head, and invited some of these people in for tea, thereby saving many lives by his selfless acts of kindness. From there we traveled to the sweeping white sand of Bondi Beach, where young and old were enjoying a beautiful summer day on the sand, in the water, on the walking paths, and on two, three, and four-wheeled vehicles. We also learned about the often treacherous currents that can be deadly to surfers unfamiliar with the area. To address this issue, Waverley Council employs a corps of elite paid lifeguards to protect beach visitors. The professional lifeguards wear blue uniforms and work 365 days a year. In addition to the professionals, Bondi is also home to a dedicated corps of volunteer lifesavers who wear red and yellow uniforms and assist the lifeguards on the beach on weekends and public holidays during the summer. The volunteer members of the Bondi Surf Bathers’ Life Saving Club and the North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club have been saving lives since the early 1900s. Bondi Rescue, an Australian TV program also available on Netflix, follows the daily lives and routines of the lifeguards at Bondi Beach.

Later that day, we took a ferry across the Sydney Harbour to Manly. Sandy, tree-fringed Manly Beach is one of the city’s famed surf spots, and there are broad coastal views on the oceanfront walk to sheltered Shelly Beach. Although signs posted that the beach was closed, we spotted several surfers out there practicing their sport. The Corso on Manly is a buzzing pedestrian strip lined with laid-back pubs and family-friendly eateries, where we sat across from the beach and enjoyed a delicious lunch of fresh oysters and fish&chips at the Manly Grill. We also picked up a few mementos of three beautiful days in Sydney before heading back to the Viking Sun.

We can’t say enough good things about our visit to Sydney. The sights, sounds, and the warm hospitality left us wanting to stay a bit longer, but that’s just one more reason to add “return to Sydney” to our bucket lists!

A Taste of Tasmania

Tasmania, Australia’s smallest state, was named after Dutch explorer Abel Tasman. Its capital city, Hobart, was founded as a penal colony for hundreds of convicts who were relocated here by the British Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, residents of Hobart celebrate the many hardships these people endured to give their community a strong start. Our guide expressed a sense of pride and gratitude for the solid foundation these earliest settlers established for what is a charming city today. It touched us that people still recognize and truly appreciate the role these marginalized citizens played in their history. In fact, our guide shared that through years of genealogical research, her son finally discovered their “ancestral convict.” It happens that she was a 12 year old girl who was found guilty of stealing hair ribbons. For this, she was sentenced to 7 years and relocated from her home and family to this strange new land. While her story had a happy ending (she married the son of the people with whom she lived) some of the convicts ended up incarcerated in a penal colony in nearby Port Arthur. Today this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an open air museum chronicling this dark time in history.

We started our day with a map and walking shoes, and ended up logging in over 20,000 steps! The City of Hobart has a remarkable blend of well-preserved architecture ranging from charming neighborhood cottages to imposing Art Deco, Georgian, and Victorian public buildings. And everywhere the people were warm and inviting, offering to provide directions, historical details, and recommendations.

Lots of public parks are tucked in among the buildings, offering plenty of green space and more history. Princes Park with its beautiful fountains sits across from the imposing Treasury Building. We were particularly enchanted by St. David’s Park, where we spent considerable time enjoying the lush grounds and beautiful monuments. Built in 1802 as Tasmania’s first cemetery, it was closed in 1872. In 1926, it was re-opened as a public park, and most of the old headstones were fashioned into rows of walls and terraces.

After all that walking, it was time for a break. We made our way to Salamanca Place for a snack. The historic sandstone buildings, formerly warehouses for the port of Hobart, have been converted into an outdoor collection of trendy boutiques, galleries, public art, and cafes. In the mid 1990s, a public square was added with a centerpiece fountain and playgrounds, making it a popular meeting place for young and old. Here we had our first taste of Australia’s famous Vegemite. A popular sandwich ingredient among Aussies, it is a thick dark brown vegan food spread made from leftover brewers’ yeast extract with various vegetable and spice additives. Yummy?! We opted for a Vegemite scroll, which we enjoyed, but the tune of the Men at Work song “Down Under,” with its reference to a Vegemite sandwich, kept going through Denise’s head for the rest of the day. The bronze statues of “Paparazzi Dog and Marilyn Rabbit” caught our eye. We learned that they are the work of global public artists Gillie and Marc, whose website states “Through collaboration with both individuals and organizations, we work to create art that makes a difference and affects change. Whether it be for humans, animals or the environment, our art evokes the need for love and protection of all. We call on everyone to join us in this effort to create meaningful change.” We think they’ve succeeded here!

Next stop was St. David’s Cathedral, a place of Anglican worship for over 200 years. Our timing was perfect, as today starts their annual Bloomfest, where every part of the cathedral is decorated with beautiful floral displays. The cathedral’s stained glass windows are truly spectacular.

Later in the day we made our way through the Tasmanian countryside to Cambridge and the Barilla Bay Oyster Farm. Here new methods of growing these tasty mollusks have been developed in the bay’s cold, clean tidal waters. We viewed the oyster beds, and learned about how they’re grown from tiny spats into various sizes of oysters. Our affable guide then demonstrated the fine points of shucking. Also on site is Gillespie’s Ginger Beer factory, which makes traditionally brewed ginger beer using a secret family recipe handed down from three generations. Finally, we got to sample some delicious oysters, and washed them down with the ginger beer…a great combination! Barilla Bay is also home to Candy Abalone, and we learned all about how this delicacy is caught, dried, and packaged.

Tasmania is also home to a vibrant wine industry, so on we went to the family-owned Puddleduck Winery in the Coal River Valley. This boutique family owned and operated vineyard was established in 1997, and produces premium Tasmanian wines from  grapes grown at their single site vineyard. All of their wines are processed within an hour of picking in the energy neutral, organic winery. Guiena fowl are the only method of pest control, and they added to our entertainment as we watched them patrol the vineyard chattering away all the time. Apparently, they’re great at controlling ticks, insects, small snakes, and rodents (useful knowledge for future reference!) We sampled 5 of their delicious wines along with some tasty local cheese, and then had some time to stroll around the beautiful grounds. What a lovely way to end our day in Tasmania!

“Bula!” from Suva, Fiji

Fiji is comprised of 300 small islands, the largest of which is Viti Levu. The Viking Sun docked in the port of Suva, the largest city in the South Pacific, on a bright, sunny morning. The image of Fiji that comes to mind is one of alluring sandy beaches, magnificent emerald-clad hills, and stunning coral reefs, but the capital city of Suva looks very much like most busy port towns with a bustling shipping industry and commercial district. Just a few steps from the pier, we were greeted with friendly “bula!” the Fijian word for hello. The Fijian people seemed welcoming and eager to have us experience everything from a taxi ride, to a massage, to shopping, to touring the rain forest. We soon stumbled upon the wharf’s market where mostly women and children display row upon row of ripe produce, beautiful flowers, and the fresh catch of the day, along with a wide variety of roots, oils, and herbs. Wandering through the market was a fun way to start our day.

Moving on, we climbed a steep hill to catch some gorgeous views of Suva Harbor.

We also got to see the Great Council of Chiefs building and the colonial-style President’s Palace. The palace guards wear traditional uniforms and ensure that the president and his family are well protected.

A visit to the Fiji Museum provides fascinating insight into Fiji’s cannibalism period as well as the world’s largest collection of Fijian artifacts, including relics dating back 3,700 years. And the Thurston Gardens surrounding the museum provide an idyllic setting with palm trees, water lilies, ginger trees, and other local flora. The island’s beloved clock tower sits proudly in the middle of the gardens.

The food and beverages of Fiji range from the traditional to contemporary, but the one beverage that piqued our interest most is kava, and we wanted to try some. Kava is used for medicinal, religious, political, cultural, and social purposes throughout the Pacific. In Fiji, a formal yaqona (kava) ceremony often accompanies important social, political, and religious functions. The beverage is made by pounding sun-dried kava root into a fine powder, straining and mixing it with cold water until it takes on a muddy appearance. Traditionally, kava is drunk from a dried half-shell of a coconut, called a bilo. Kava is very popular in Fiji, especially among young men, and often brings people together for storytelling and socializing. Drinking kava for a few hours brings a tongue-numbing and relaxing effect to the drinker. Denise decided to try it…her facial expression tells it all. In the future, she’ll likely stick to the OTHER Fijian beverage.

We were a bit disappointed that we didn’t have more time to get to see other parts of Fiji, but we did take a quick tour around to see where the people of Suva live, work, shop, eat, worship, and play. We learned that there is great religious freedom in Fiji, and people tend to live in tribes that are related to the work they do. Each tribe is governed by an elected chief, and our guide was quite proud to tell us that his tribe had recently elected its first woman chief.

As we sailed away from Fiji, we realized that we had only seen a small piece of this lovely island, but perhaps our travels will bring us back…we wouldn’t mind that a bit!

Dinner at the Chef’sTable

One of the many wonderful things about the Viking Sun is the food! There are numerous dining options throughout the day and evening, starting with the Early Risers breakfast in The Viking Living Room and ending with Midnight Snacks at Mamsen’s, as well as 24 hour Room Service. But my favorite of all is the Chef’s Table, one of two specialty restaurants that are available by reservation. Unlike most cruise lines, which up-charge for the specialty dining options, Viking includes these options for all guests. Last night we enjoyed a “Gastronomic Journey through Time,” during which we explored culinary history with this five-course menu highlighting the development of Western European cuisine from the Roman Empire to today. Each course was paired with a premium wine which perfectly complemented the food. As always, the Chef’s Table did not disappoint!

We started our journey through time in the Roman Empire with an amuse bouche consisting of a romaine and cucumber, goat cheese mousse. We learned that ancient Roman meals regularly included vegetables such as lettuces, cabbage, leeks, and cucumbers as well as herbs and spices. Wheat porridges and homemade goat and sheep cheeses were also common, and these were reflected in this antiquity-inspired hors d’oeuvre. This was paired with an Altano Branco white wine from the Duoro Valley, Portugal.

Romaine and cucumber, goat cheese mousse

Our first course fortified us with a hearty Gallic oxtail cosomme with julienned vegetables. Early Gauls relied heavily on domestic animals like cattle, pigs, and lamb as mainstays for their livelihood as well as cuisine. A soup of oxtails, which was slow cooked in a cauldron over an open fire, was the inspiration for this hearty consomme. It was paired with a Trivento Chardonnay from Mendoza, Argentina.

Gallic oxtail consomme

To cleanse our palate, we enjoyed an ode to the Middle Ages with a granita of mixed berries, mint, and vodka. Western Europe had little native fruit, although imports from Asia and the Middle East added variety. For the wealthy, fruit was served in pies or preserved in honey; while the poor made do with whatever fresh fruit they could find. Wild forest berries would have been a welcome fruit. This granita provided a refreshing interlude before the main course.

Medieval “Black & Blue” granita of mixed berries, mint, and vodka

The main course was a Renaissance-style feast of lamb filet with sweet potato mash, glazed carrot medley, and quintessential jus. This was paired with a Maison Castel, Cotes du Rhone Syrah, Grenache Noir from the Rhone Valley, France. The Renaissance brought enlightenment, even to the kitchen, with a rise in the number of cookbooks and an emphasis on the real taste of food unencumbered by heavy spicing. Renaissance food was as sophisticated as the era itself, with dishes designed to delight both the palate and the eye.

Renaissance-style lamb filet with sweet potato mash, glazed carrots, and quintessential jus

For dessert we indulged in a 21st century pecan and walnut brownie with a chocolate mirror glaze, pistachio ice cream, and mascarpone whip. This was paired with Graham’s Six Grapes Ruby Port from the Duoro Valley, Portugal. The classic brownie was developed in the United States, and popularized across North America in the first half of the 20th century. It still endures as a “top 10” favorite.

21st Century nut brownie with chocolate mirror glaze, pistachio ice cream, and mascarpone whip

After dinner we took a leisurely stroll around the promenade deck, and promised to do a more extensive workout tomorrow, but only after making reservations at the Chef’s Table for my birthday dinner in a few days!

Papa Latte Turns Coffee Roaster!

We were delighted to receive an early holiday gift from our California son Bucky and his wife Max…a Behmor Coffee Roaster. But I’m getting ahead of myself…I hate it when I do that!

Let’s just say we love good coffee. Seriously…we love our coffee, so much so that our grand kids re-named Doug “Papa Latte.” For years, we’ve bought fresh, whole beans; ground each shot to order; and indulged ourselves in a really good espresso machine. We even have an Italian espresso machine technician, Pavli, who provides excellent service and keeps our Saeco Royal in top condition. The last time we checked, that Royal has logged in close to 32,000 shots of delicious espresso!

When the Behmor arrived, it was a wonderful surprise, but after reading the instructions, we were more than a tad intimidated. It came with all the bells and whistles, including 8 bags of a variety of green coffee beans just begging to be roasted to perfection. It also came with a host of warnings, videos, safety instructions, and cautions to avoid burning down the house. Papa Latte, our primary in-house barista, selected some green Bolivian coffee beans for our inaugural roast.

Green Bolivian Coffee Beans

Following the pre-heating instructions exactly, he set the roaster for 8.5 minutes. Keeping his eye on the roaster the entire time to ensure that the beans didn’t burn, he watched them plump up, turn a lovely brown, and begin to crackle and pop. Once fully roasted, the beans made a more pronounced cracking sound, and the roaster went into its cool down cycle. The fully roasted beans were quite dark brown and smelled wonderful.

Fully roasted Bolivian Coffee Beans

After discarding the chaff, he loaded the beans into the Royal and pulled the first shot for me…a perfectly balanced, smooth shot of espresso, my coffee of choice. He then made a latte for himself and savored the flavor, with thanks to Bucky and Max for a truly unique and thoughtful gift.

Papa Latte’s Latte

Papa Latte is now our official barista AND coffee roaster! Can’t wait to share some delicious coffee drinks with family and friends.