London: The Victoria and Albert and British Museums and Dicken’s Pub

London is a city that embraces the medieval and the modern. We stayed in South Kennsington within walking distance of the Victoria and Albert Museum and Harrods’s Department Store. We walked to the Victoria and Albert and strolled through the medieval section. The artwork and jewelry of the time were far more detailed and beautiful than I imagined. We even saw Saint Tomas a Becket’s Bishop’s hat that had been preserved from 1170. It is almost incomprehensible to us Americans that anything could be that old. There is also an entire collection of Queen Victoria’s artifacts.

At the British Museum in the Greek exhibit

We also spent the better part of a day in the British Museum. The British Museum is one of the best museums I have ever visited. So far, I have visited the Smithsonian, the Vatican, The Louvre, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Asian Museum in San Francisco. I loved the British Museum because there was such a wealth of treasure there to view, starting with the Rosetta Stone. There were artifacts from the Anglo Saxon Period, but also India, China and Japan. There were incredible exhibits of Greek and Roman statuary and molds of the Parthenon before it deteriorated. The great part of the British Museum was that not only was it free to visit, but we went while the children were still in school so it wasn’t crowded. We weren’t hustled through the exhibits, nor were we fighting crowds to see the exhibits which fascinated us most. There was a large, centrally located cafe with lots of seating, so when we wanted to sit down and take a break, we could have a sandwich or tea and a scone. The British Museum allowed us to take in as much incredible history as we could and still take comfortable breaks. For me, history became not just something to be read in books. At the British Museum, history, in all it’s glory, wonder, scars and bloodshed suddenly surrounded me.

We couldn’t resist a break from the museums, so we took some time to visit Harrods’s Department store, the late Princess Diana’s favorite. It was much different than our American department stores, with prices to match a royal’s purse. It seemed like a mall of designer shops. Any and every famous designer has a shop at Harrods. In addition, Harrods has its own high end food court including a tea shop and a bar. Jim texted my parents back in the States to send help because I was on the loose at Harrods’s. What can I say? I have good taste.

We were able to take a tour of Lloyd’s of London in the middle of the modern, high tech financial district of London not far from the Tower of London. Lloyd’s is not open to tourists, but we got a personalized tour and a history lesson because my husband has business associates who work there. Lloyd’s of London is the world’s original insurance company dating back to the 1600s. Even though the company is housed in a modern skyscraper, they still have a special ship’s bell dating from the 1700s, the wooden stand, and the ledgers that recorded insurance agreements for centuries in the center of the building in keeping with the traditions they used since their origin. As we left the building, we were told we could have lunch at the oldest pub in London, or one of Charles Dickens’ favorite pubs, The George and Vulture. That pub has it’s origins in the 1200s. We were told that it had been nearly demolished but Dickens fans begged the city to save it. The pub was in a medieval section not much more than a crooked alley preserved in the middle of the skyscrapers of modern London. Jim and I even got permission to go upstairs and look at the apartment Dickens lived in. His descendants still get together there at Christmas each year. The Victorian era stove is still there, and it is preserved much as it had been during Dickens’ time. We had a pint to toast Dickens and split a lunch of bangers and mash, mashed potatoes with sausage, onions, and gravy on top. We also had sticky pudding for dessert, which we had never tried before. It was delicious!

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Indeed, British cuisine has a bad reputation among chefs and foodies, but that assessment is patently unfair. The bangers and mash, and the sticky pudding we had at the George and Vulture was delicious, savory and tasty. We tried meat pies, mine with chicken and Jim’s with steak at another pub. They were rich, savory, and delicious. My favorite dinner was fish and chips. I loved the fried fish and homemade fries. I ate fish and chips several times because it was so delicious. Fish and chips and meat pies are a must when in England. We also enjoyed the tea shops. When we first arrived in London, we passed a couple shops with rows and rows of the most beautiful pastries and cakes I have ever seen. Jim and I finally looked at one another, giggled, and decided then and there to have dessert before dinner. We don’t have bakeries here in the States like the tea shops in London. I loved them! We tried three different tea shops and all were decadent and delightful. If I lived in London, I would be at a tea shop every day.

Visit London for the history and the literature, but enjoy the cuisine too, especially the fish and chips and the tea shops. Jim and I found ourselves looking at the listings in a real estate office window wondering if we could move there. I would love to live in London!

Walking Royal Paths in London: Buckingham Palace, the White Tower, and Shakespeare’s Globe Theater

London is a city that embraces the medieval and the modern. The White Tower, or as we know it, the Tower of London, stands as a proud legacy of England’s history amid the sparkling silver skyscrapers of London’s financial district. We stayed in South Kennsington within walking distance of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Harrods’s Department Store, and the legendary Buckingham Palace, home of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

Usually, you can only visit the outside of Buckingham Palace. The palace opens the rooms which are used for events involving foreign dignitaries only for a few weeks during the summer when Her Majesty is at her summer residence, Balmoral, in Scotland. We just happened to be there the first day the palace was open for visitors. We were able to see the Queen’s Mews where the carriages and horses are kept. The gold carriage is the most ornate as it was built in the 1700s and the one used to carry monarchs to their coronation, but the glass carriage is the one that caught my attention. The glass carriage is the one that famously carried Lady Diana Spenser to her wedding to Prince Charles. I remember watching that wedding on the TV when I was in middle school. I remember being a Diana fan, angry with Charles for cheating on her, and crying as I watched her funeral years later. It was an incredible treat to see the glass carriage used in her wedding.

The Gold Carriage used for coronations since the 1700s. It is infamous for being an uncomfortable ride.

As we continued to the rooms open for visitors, I was in awe of the sheer opulence of the palace. As a fan of the arts, I was fascinated by the long hallway hung with paintings of the masters. Her Majesty’s art collection is stunning. What was even more intriguing was the museum aspect of the palace. Queen Victoria’s presence is infused into Buckingham palace. Although the original house was completed in 1705, and the palace renovated by George III and IV, Queen Victoria was the first monarch to live there. Her throne is still there. Many people do not know that Queen Victoria was an artist, and you can still see her sketchbooks on display at the palace. Even a couple of her gowns and some of her jewels have been carefully preserved. Queen Victoria is remembered as one of Great Britain’s greatest monarchs with an entire era named after her, the Victorian Era. Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, is her great, great, granddaughter, while Prince Charles and Prince William continue the royal line. The history of Great Britain’s monarchs and traditions is infused into every fiber of the palace. Walking through Buckingham Palace is not just about royal opulence. Every part of it weaves the story of the royal family and Great Britain through time.

The inside courtyard at Buckingham Palace. You might have seen this part of the palace in The Crown.

Our next stop on our royal journey was St. Paul’s Cathedral. St. Paul’s has existed for centuries, but was raided by Henry VIII for any treasures it possessed, mistreated during the Civil war, and finally lost in the Great fire of 1666. Sir Christopher Wren was tasked with rebuilding it, and in 1711, it was finally declared finished. Sir Christopher Wren’s architecture is unique and beautiful even to my untrained eyes. St. Paul’s is a huge cathedral with a choir area, a baptismal font and a lengthy black and white checkered floor. It has some characteristics of Roman Catholic cathedrals, but it is not. It is a main cathedral of the Church of England. It is distinctive in that it does not have the statuary and colorful paintings that are common to the Roman tradition. Instead, the beauty is built into modern embellishments that are cleanly elegant. The cream colored masonry is embellished with an almost simple geometric elegance. This is the cathedral where Admiral Nelson who was killed in the Battle of Trafalgar is entombed and memorialized. This is where many of Great Britain’s military heroes are buried and remembered. In the lower level of the cathedral all around Nelson’s tomb, were smaller tombs and memorials all with poppies laid nearby in remembrance. Great Britain has had her share of wars. The wars, and those who served Queen and country are remembered. In addition to being full of war memorials, St. Paul’s has been a place of celebration. Queen Elizabeth II has had two jubilee celebrations at St. Paul’s. Diana and Charles were married there. As I walked down the long black and white checkered aisle towards the choir and the altar, I have to admit that I felt a thrill realizing that I was walking the same steps Diana did on her wedding day. For a moment, I turned into a middle school girl and I wanted to squeal! (I restrained myself with some effort.) My excitement received an eye-roll from Jim, but I think the Diana fans out there will understand.

The baptismal font in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Princess Diana walked this path when she married Prince Charles.

We continued our historical and literary tour by going to the Tower of London, this time going back in time long before Queen Elizabeth II. As a fan of the British Royals, and British literature, I have always wanted to visit the Tower. For me, understanding British history is crucial to understanding British literature. Besides, the real stories of royals and the Tower are better than fiction. Seriously, writers couldn’t make up better or more intriguing stories than those of the War of the Roses and the Tudor monarchs!

The White Tower, or the Tower of London from the side

The White Tower, or Tower of London, was commissioned by William the Conqueror, and was under construction 1075. It initially served as a stronghold. During its centuries of history, it has been a royal residence, a prison, and a place to keep the royal jewels. The Tower is a fortress comprised of several buildings with a green in the middle. Much of what would have been needed to survive during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance could be produced within the fortress walls as it more like a small village rather than a lone building.

The Tower is also a place of intrigue. There is small marker in a staircase doorway which was at the heart of a classic, ages old, “who dun it”. The marker is where the two sons of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV, brothers of Elizabeth of York, and the rightful heirs to the throne, were believed to have been imprisoned and killed. Historical mystery ensued. Who did it? Richard III Plantagenet, who is famously vilified by Shakespeare, may have ordered the boys’ deaths, or perhaps it was his wife, Queen Consort Anne Neville. The children were taken from Elizabeth Woodville, the widow Queen, and her daughter, Elizabeth of York, and conveniently disappeared in the Tower under the care of Richard III in 1483. Richard then claimed the crown as Richard III even though he was considered a usurper by many.

Skeletons of two children were discovered in box at the bottom of an enclosed, unused stairwell when the Tower was under renovation in 1674. Were they the skeletons of the princes? We may never know for certain, but historians believe that they might very well be, and King Charles had them buried at Westminster. Whatever the case, Richard III was later killed in battle by Henry VII, who then married Elizabeth of York joining the houses of York and Lancaster, ending the War of the Roses and starting the intriguing Tudor reign. Today, the old staircase and entrance are open with a small sign designating that this is where the Princes in the Tower are believed to have been found.

The Tower has become most famous as a prison during the Tudor period. Jim and I got to see the infamous “Water Gate” or “Traitor’s Gate”, the gate to the fortress that was used to bring high ranking prisoners by water during the reign of the Tudor monarchs. Jim and stood on the green where Ann Boleyn, and her younger cousin, Catherine Howard, two of the six wives of Henry VIII, were beheaded. Interesting that although Anne Boleyn was was seen as a homewrecker, and called a whore by the English people for her displacement of Good Queen Katherine of Aragon, it seems sentiment has changed. There is a memorial on the green where Anne, and other high ranking nobles were executed, almost as an apology. There is a small marker in the nearby chapel where she is buried near the altar. Later, Henry VIII’s daughter, Elizabeth I, was brought through the Water Gate when her sister, the Catholic Mary Tudor, known as Bloody Mary, and her advisors thought the Protestant Princess Elizabeth was plotting against her in the 1500s. Elizabeth succeeded the throne after her sister Mary, and used the Tower as a prison as well. When you tour the Tower, you can still see the etchings by the people who were kept as prisoners. Some of the people must have had a long stay at the Tower as the etchings are often intricate.

Standing on the spot where Ann Boleyn was beheaded on the green within the Tower of London. There is a memorial to those who were executed here.

Today, the Tower is used to house Her Majesty’s royal jewels. The crowns still used today as well as the crowns, orbs and scepters from previous monarchs are housed there. All the golden tableware used for a monarch’s coronation is also kept there. Many Americans think Hollywood or the women on the Housewives shows are glamorous. They have nothing on Her Majesty, Elizabeth II. The jewels within the crowns and scepters are beyond any dreams I could imagine. When visiting the crown jewels in the Tower, people are asked to get on a people mover, or conveyor belt that moves people along the eye popping row of spectacular jewels. You won’t see any pictures of the crown jewels here as photos and videos of the crown jewels are strictly prohibited. The jewels are the private property of Her Majesty the Queen, so she is entitled to make the rules. Jim and I adhered to that rule because we believe we must honor the rules, customs, and traditions of the people and places we visit. We were told by one of the men who was a Beefeater, that all who work in the Tower are military or retired military, and many of them live in the fortress. Hence, it would be a bad idea to even think about stealing any of the Queen’s jewels. Again, I felt surrounded by history. As we viewed the Tower from across the Thames later, it seems a castle standing regal in a forest of modern silver skyscrapers. That is London, a celebration of tradition, old and new.

After we toured the Tower of London, we walked across Tower Bridge to the New Globe Theater to see a production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Theater was popular during the Tudor monarchies, particularly during the Elizabethan Period. Elizabeth I, and her successor, King James Stuart, of King James Bible fame, were patrons of Shakespeare. The New Globe Theater is built very near the original Globe, and even nearer to the the remains of the competing Rose Theater. It was strange experience to walk down the street to see a large marker in an apartment parking lot to designate the place where the original Globe stood. We had dinner at the Swan, which is within the theater. It is a theater in the round open to the sky in the middle. There are no microphones that we could see at the Globe. It was an incredible experience as a lover of all things Shakespeare and Elizabeth I to see a play at the New Globe. If you visit London, the New Globe Theater is a must. The play was at times poignant, and sometimes funny. I found it fascinating that there was much gender bending within the roles. Falstaff, for example, was played by a woman. Prince Hal and Hotspur were also played by women. Why not? During the Elizabethan period, all the roles, even the female roles, were played by men. Interesting take on that tradition.

The stage of the New Globe Theater which is built down the street from the original Globe where Shakespeare worked his magic.
At the New Globe Theater, you can get inexpensive tickets as a groundling just as in Shakespeare’s Day. In this picture groundings are waiting for the show to begin. For an extra expense, you can get a seat in the stands. You will want to rent a cushion as the wooden benches are hard on the arse.

London is a tapestry of people, history, and some of the best stories. Explore! Go see where real stories took place and history happened. God save the Queen!

Shakespeare’s Globe Theater from the Outside

Greenwich and Great Britain’s Maritime History

In an earlier post, I wrote that I have a love of history stemming from my studies in literature and music and the history surrounding the arts. The arts have certainly influenced me, but long before I went to college, my father, Daniel Barton, was my first influence. He loves a good story, and historical adventures. He is a treasure trove of British and American naval history and raised my sister and I on sailboats. Understanding the history of Great Britain, particularly England, means understanding naval history. The British have always been a nation of sailors. It is their skill in sailing and naval warfare that propelled them to the position of being a world power with Elizabeth I’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

The British went on to colonize and influence much of the world. Tea, spices and textiles, were much sought after as luxury goods. Natural resources such as lumber provided a means of continuing Britain’s shipbuilding industry. Britain’s colonial history is complicated, messy, and controversial, especially in places such as India and Africa. Not all those who were colonized wanted or needed to be colonized, and colonization has had long lasting implications. When I visited India and London, I observed a very complicated relationship between modern Indians and the English. The Indian people saw the English colonization through the East Indian Tea Company as an affront to their ancient culture and traditions. Still, I noticed in India that the English tradition of tea time in the mornings and afternoons is observed, only with chai tea and English shortbread cookies. In London, Indian restaurants are bountiful and Indian spices are frequently used. It makes me wonder, who influenced who?

Aside from colonial controversy, I inherited an appreciation of all things related to boats from my father. I simply had to go to either Greenwich or Portsmouth when Jim and I visited London. Dad voted for Portsmouth, but Greenwich is just a short boat ride down the Thames from London. Jim and I took the Underground from our hotel in South Kensington, not far from Buckingham Palace and Harrods’s, to Westminster Pier. We boarded a boat from the pier and enjoyed views of London from the water while listening to a tour guide’s description of how the Thames has played a part in London shipping and trading as well as stories about the buildings we passed.

Once we got to Greenwich, it was a short walk to the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory. The National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory lie at opposite ends of a large park. The end of the park that houses the Royal Observatory is on a hill overlooking the town of Greenwich. In dry dock by the National Maritime Museum is the most fascinating attraction for those who love ships, the Cutty Sark, the famous clipper ship whose likeness decorates bottles of Cutty Sark Scotch. The Cutty Sark was part of the tea trade, and later, the Australian wool trade. She is the last surviving clipper ship of England’s glory days in the tea trade. She was built in 1869, and spent a few years sailing trade routes before she and her sister clipper ships were superseded by steam ships that could use the Suez canal for a shorter route East. Like other clipper ships, she was built with taller masts, a slimmer hull and a whole lot of sail in order to sail faster. She was the racer of her day, and the pinnacle of clipper design. Today, she is preserved in dry dock, masts standing tall and proud, with docents ready to tell stories of her adventures of sailing to Asia and back again. Boxes of tea are aboard with placards to explain how the tea trade worked. The Cutty Sark is raised, and there is a cafe below her, so you can see her gleaming hull. Fascinating!

At the wheel of the Cutty Sark. What I wouldn’t give to have stood here when she was under sail.
The hull of the great ship and the cafe underneath her.
The Cutty Sark, the last remaining clipper ship

We went on to the National Maritime Museum near Cutty Sark’s dry dock which included much of Great Britain’s proud naval history. An entire room was dedicated to Lord Nelson’s death aboard the Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. It also included a barge from the reign of the Hanover Kings. As a music scholar, I remember the stories about George I and his court composer George Frederick Handel floating down the Thames on barges while Handel’s orchestra performed his famous composition, Water Music. The barge in the museum had been preserved much as it would have been in 1717 when Water Music first debuted.

Tourists reading about the barge the Hanover Kings used for leisurely travels down the Thames. It was on a barge such as this one the composer Handel debuted his timeless Water Music for George I.

After the National Maritime Museum, we walked out through the park to the village of Greenwich. The section of Greenwich near the park looks exactly like what I pictured an old English town to look like with quaint old storefronts and pubs, so Jim and I stopped at an old pub for a pint and a plate of meats, cheeses and bread.

After our break, we went back to the park and hiked the hill to the Royal Observatory. If you have ever been a sailor, or been aboard a ship, you may have heard the term, Greenwich Mean Time. If you have, that means that Greenwich keeps time for the world. It is 0 time. If you have ever heard of the Primer Meridian, it is here. We get our time standards from Greenwich. The astronomers who were appointed by the reigning monarch stayed here with their families and not only studied the stars, but explored new ways to aid navigation.

During our time in Greenwich, I wished my father was with us. As an old salt with time in the United States Coast Guard, time as First mate aboard the Halve Maen, the replica of Henry Hudson’s ship that explored the Hudson River in 1609, and many, many days of sailing our own family sloops ranging from 12 to 40 feet, he understands navigation far better than I do, or ever will. I love to write and I love history and music, but math was always my nemesis. I won’t attempt any more than the most elementary explanation of navigation and what we saw at the royal Observatory here. Suffice it to say that in order to figure out where they were with more precision, mariners needed to time how far they were from Greenwich. Every hour they sailed away from Greenwich equaled 15 degrees longitude on the charts. This is modern longitude. Problem was, not only only did they need clocks which were precise, but which could also withstand the motion of the ships and ocean. A prize was offered for the invention of a maritime clock that could keep accurate time even aboard a rocking (and sometimes rolling) wooden ship. Trust me. I’ve been aboard the Haeve Maen. Those wooden ships do rock and roll. John Harrison puzzled over 5 variations of his maritime chronometer until one worked. He finally was awarded some prize money from George III before his death in 1776. You can still see his chronometers, or maritime clocks, when you visit the Royal Observatory. They are exquisite time pieces, beautifully fashioned unlike anything clock makers produce today. There are placards and docents available to explain navigation and the part that the clock played as navigation aids.

My husband, Jim, standing on the Prime Meridian. One foot on the Southern Hemisphere, and one foot on the Northern Hemisphere.
Part of the old Royal Observatory in the front with the modern observatory in the back.

After we spent the day between the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory, we decided to head back to London. My advice is to get right back on the boat to Westminster Pier. Yes, you can take the Underground, but we couldn’t find a station nearby and ended up walking for the better part of an hour through places that were not as pretty as the park or the section where we had lunch to finally get to one. The boat is a far easier and more pleasant option, even if it is a little more expensive.

For the mariners in your life, Greenwich is a must. Visiting the Cutty Sark, the National Maritime Museum, and the Royal Observatory sheds light on Britain’s proud maritime tradition.

The masts of the Cutty Sark.

Saint Augustine, Florida, The Penny Farthing Inn

Florida offers a plethora of wonderful beaches, golf courses, resorts and theme parks, but one of my favorite places is Saint Augustine. Saint Augustine has one of a kind offerings that make it special and unique. As the oldest city in America, the area offers historical treasures such as the fort, St. George Street museums such as the oldest school house, and the Saint Augustine lighthouse. In addition to the history, Saint Augustine boasts beautiful beaches and eateries like Harry’s and the Columbia. My husband and I have visited St. Augustine several times and have never been disappointed.

St. Augustine has many hotels large and small, as well as many bed and breakfast lodgings. For families, I would recommend the Holiday Inn or the Hampton Inn on the beach, but if you plan to travel as a couple and want to avoid places with large numbers of children for a quiet or romantic time away, there are many bed and breakfast accommodations. For a wonderful couples experience, often bed and breakfast inns are the best choice. On our last visit to the country’s oldest city, we chose the Penny Farthing Inn. The inn was located around the corner and a short walk from St. George Street, which is our favorite hangout. The building had originally been built in the late 1800s, and had been decorated in Victorian era style with a particularly British feel. The grand piano in the living room and vintage furniture, lamps as well as porcelain dolls gave the inn an elegant feel. Our room was quaint with a hardwood floor, antiques and a small bottle of brandy.  I had to wonder where one of the doors led, however, as it was locked from the other side.

The Penny and Farthing is not only decorated in Victorian style, but the owners offer a hot breakfast each morning such as eggs benedict or pancakes, which was far nicer and more delicious than a continental breakfast. They also offer tea and cookies or wine and cheese in the afternoon, and guests gathered on the covered porch to talk and enjoy the goodies. One of the things I love about bed and breakfast inns is that guests usually congregate in the common areas mid afternoon for interesting chats, and I always make new friends.

What I didn’t know until breakfast Saturday morning, is that the Penny Farthing Inn is supposed to be haunted.  Remember I wondered about the door in our room that we could not open?  The owner told us that there was a set of stairs in the middle of the house that had been sealed when the house was turned into a bed and breakfast.  Former guests who had stayed in our room had heard children running and playing up and down those steps on many occasions.  I think I turned pale, and my husband, Jim, burst out in laughter. I tend to despise horror movies and stay away from places that are haunted. I think Jim was hoping something strange would happen while we were there. All was quiet, much to his disappointment.

There may not have been any ghosts around, but since the Penny Farthing is a short walk away from St. George Street, we wandered around at our own pace and visited some of our favorite restaurants and some new ones as well. We have always loved the Columbia and Harry’s Bar and Grill. The Columbia specializes in cuisine that is a fusion of Spanish and Cuban and always spectacular. I haven’t had a bad meal there, and it remains one of my favorite restaurants. The seafood is always fresh and the sangria is homemade in an atmosphere that is elegant and fun at the same time. Harry’s offers some bar food with a New Orleans twist. Patrons can dine inside, but I recommend the outside area which is lined with trees and landscaped with tropical plants. I opted for the seared tuna salad. The tuna was seared perfectly and the vinaigrette dressing only enhanced the flavor. I was shocked at the size of the salad and the amount of tuna for $15.00 and change. Absolutely incredible. If you love fresh cuisine in an enchanting outdoor atmosphere, Harry’s is a must.

We also tried Prohibition Kitchen for the first time. It’s located on historic St. George Street and the atmosphere is that of a 1920s speakeasy, which was so much fun. A band was playing, and there were seats available to watch the band or tables to order food. It was crowded so we sat at the bar. Prohibition Kitchen, I found out, is not the place to order wine. It’s where you want to order mixed drinks. I am a wine drinker and usually defer to Merlot, so I asked the bartender what I should order. After an initial snarky response, the bartender declared she had been “shitty” with me and specially mixed a drink with tequila, vodka and berries which was delicious. As we enjoyed drinks and dinner, a live county rock band played. My husband and I agreed that the dinner we ordered was not anything special, but the music and drinks were a lot of fun. My recommendation is to head to the Columbia or Harry’s for dinner and then to Prohibition Kitchen for drinks and music afterward. You won’t regret the experience.

Spend the day at the beach or roaming St. George Street, and then head to Harry’s or the Columbia for dinner and Prohibition Kitchen for the evening. Of course, if you are up to the challenge, there are plenty of ghost tours available after dark.  After all, St. Augustine is America’s oldest city and there are ghost stories just waiting to be told.

This is Harry's, a must when in St. Augustine
Harry’s in St. Augustine.
Prohibition Kitchen in St. Augustine.  This joint is jumpin'!
Prohibition Kitchen, St. Augustine This joint it jumpin’!

Spain Episode 1: Ibiza and Mallorca

Ibiza and Mallorca are both Spanish owned islands that embrace the essence of Mediterranean culture.  The port in Ibiza is dominated by a 16th century fortress, Almundaina,  which is on a high hilltop overlooking the water.  Of course Ibiza is also famous for its beaches and its nightlife.  Since Jim and I are geeks, we were fascinated by the fortress.  We walked up the hill to the fortress around the outer walls to the chapel at the very top.  The chapel is a good representation of Renaissance architecture and style with paintings and works of art dating to the 1500s and 1600s.  We then walked back down the hill through the original village inside the fortress walls.  Small shops and apartments, including a couple tiny bars just big enough for a bar with a few seats lined the winding cobblestone streets.  The few cars that drove through the village beeped so anyone walking could jump into doorways and let the cars pass.  As Americans, we were fascinated by the narrow cobblestone streets and giggled every time we had to jump into a doorway to allow a car to pass.

Once we had walked back down through the village, we had a lovely lunch and white sangria with a stem of rosemary at a local café.  The white sangria was refreshing and flavorful.  I decided that we just had to see the beach, even though beaches are not Jim’s favorite.  We found some local people who were really friendly and were headed near one of the closest beaches, so we shared a cab and went to the beach nearest the port.  Considering I live in Florida and frequent beaches there, I was curious about the famous beaches in Ibiza.  The view was certainly different, with rocky hilltops lined with colorful buildings.  Sangria was the drink of the day, and Jim and I each had a couple of red sangrias on the beach as we enjoyed the view.  Other than the fortress and the beaches, Ibiza is famous for it’s nightlife.  It’s a haven for famous DJs and parties, and the parties go all night long.  While we were there, Paris Hilton was going to DJ at a club at 3:00 a.m..

We went on to the island of Mallorca and we loved that island even more.  We went on a tapas tasting tour and tasted the food and sangria at three places.  We ate seafood tapas at a restaurant where the fishing boats were docked.  Men were busy nearby mending their nets.  Tiny fish were breaded and fried whole like fish fries, which I liked, but Jim wasn’t so sure about.  Then there were fish croquettes and octopus.  Jim liked the octopus better than the fish.  Next, we went to a place where we were served a potato and egg frittata and bread and sausage along with swirled bread with powdered sugar on top again with red sangria.  I later learned that my Latin friends in Florida call those pastries Mallorcas.  At the last stop, we had two different kinds of breads, one with soft cheese and another with smoked salmon and more red sangria.  The seafood and pastries were all delicious, and the sangria was all fantastic.  You just can’t go wrong with sangria in Spain.  It’s all good.

After the tapas tasting, we toured Mallorca’s cathedral, which was built in 1300.  We were both fascinated by the flying buttress construction, and the stone work outside.  Inside, self guided tours were offered with a device and headphones.  Multiple languages were offered, which is helpful.  We took our time and enjoyed perusing the priceless artwork, gold goblets and crosses that are now on display, but had been used in masses there for endless years past.  The vastness and richness of the cathedral was amazing to us as Americans.  For anyone who loves history, the cathedral is well worth a visit.  We also stopped by a castle high on a hilltop overlooking the town, and were also fascinated by the arches and stonework there as well.

Ibiza and Mallorca are two islands well worth visiting.  Should you be near Barcelona, there are high speed ferries that go between Barcelona and the islands under the Balleric Company, so they are not hard to access.  We would love to go back and visit Mallorca again.  When you visit, be sure to drink as much delicious sangria as possible.  To do anything less should be illegal!

 

The Disney Question

We are ringing in the holidays here in Orlando, and inevitably, everyone wants to go to Disney.  I’ve been asked many times how often I go to Disney, and if Disney is worth a trip for those of us who are childfree or empty nesters.  How to do Disney if you are childfree has been discussed in childfree groups online.  Just because you don’t have kids, or your kids are grown doesn’t mean you can’t still love Disney.  Last I heard, there is no law against it.  Lots of people do, and lots of people hate it.  It’s your choice, your taste.

This time of year, Disney is beautifully decorated, and there are special celebrations.  There’s Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas at the Magic Kingdom and the Candlelight Processional at Epcot.  There is also a light display at Hollywood Studios.  Local choirs and choruses are auditioned to sing in the parks and at the hotels.  If you are traveling childfree, I would recommend Epcot and the Candlelight Processional.  The Candlelight Processional  is well worth experiencing.  It takes place in the outdoor theater by the American Pavilion, which is all lit with white lights.  A choir of 300 people consisting of Disney cast members, the Voices of Liberty, and auditioned choirs from around the country make a grand procession into the outdoor theater holding candles as a full orchestra plays.  A celebrity narrates stories from the Bible, and after each story, the choir sings.  I have seen Trace Atkins, Neil Patrick Harris and Whoopi Goldberg narrate.

For Jim and I, and my parents, Epcot is our pick because the Candlelight Processional is beautiful and a lot of the kids are going to be at Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas.  (Mickey’s Very Merry is definitely for the kiddos.)  We also enjoy all the food at Epcot.  If you love sampling the food form all over the world, Epcot is the place.  There are all kinds of dining options ranging from less expensive to very expensive.  At Epcot, the main restaurants in Mexico and France are our favorites.  We love the presentation of the all the countries as well as the fireworks at the end of the day.  Animal Kingdom is always fun and I love the exhibit with the tigers as I have been to India and the Disney artists did a phenomenal job reconstructing Mogul India in that area of the park.  You can also dine at the Rain Forrest Café, which is casual, but the fare is fun and tasty and there are storms and moving animals.  We avoid the Magic Kingdom at all costs.  That is little kid land, and there really is nothing of interest there for most adults.  The food in the Magic Kingdom is also geared toward kids, so unless you really enjoy hamburgers and hot dogs, there really isn’t much else unless you want to pay for the highly rated restaurant at Cinderella’s Castle which is going to cost you, and reservations are booked very early.

If you want to go to Disney and not be overwhelmed with crowds and kids, go during the week while school is still in session, and stick to Epcot and possibly Animal Kingdom.  At all costs, avoid going near Disney between Christmas and New Year’s.  I made that mistake once and the parks were packed.  There were strollers everywhere blocking the walkways so people were constantly jammed trying to get around them.  I felt like the proverbial sardine all day and came home aggravated and irritated.  Consider yourself warned!  Even if you go to Disney while school is in session, you can’t expect that there won’t be kids there.  It’s Disney.  You will have kids running around and very possibly encounter kids having meltdowns and tantrums.  It’s up to you whether you love Disney enough to visit anyway.  My mother and I will go for the Epcot Wine and Food Festival and the Candlelight Processional, but my husband and father usually want nothing to do with “the parks” as they are referred to here in Florida.  The answer is different for each of us.  In the end, the answer to the Disney Question is totally up to you.

 

 

 

 

Sandals Royal Plantation Resort

I have been away for a while busy with my position of choral director, but I am updating my blog so I will have several posts soon!  This summer, before the madness of  directing a large choral program began,  my husband Jim and I relaxed at our second Sandals Resort, and I am so glad we did.  As much as we loved Sandal’s Whitehouse, now South Coast, we loved Royal Plantation Resort even more.  It is Sandals smallest and most intimate all inclusive resort.  It is truly all inclusive as the room, food, alcohol, water sports, gratuities and transport from the airport to the hotel and back again are all included.  No children are allowed at Sandals Resorts.  That’s what their counterpart Beaches is for.  Sandals Royal Plantation has 74 rooms, and each room comes with a pair of butlers.   One of our butlers, Marvin, greeted us with a glass of champagne upon our arrival and took us on a tour of the property while our bags were delivered to our room.  Royal Plantation sits on a hill overlooking the ocean.  Outside the lobby is a porch with comfortable furniture, a coffee bar, and games such as chess.  In the afternoon, a wine bar is set up on the porch.  Beyond the porch has a wide black and white tiled terrace with a small pool, and a large spa that threads around it at the edge of hill.  The terrace has a restaurant at the end.  There is inside seating and outside seating as well as an old-fashioned white bandstand.  On the second floor of the lobby is a formal drawing room and the French restaurant, Papillion.  A large staircase on each side of the terrace winds down to the beach.  On one side of the beach is a restaurant with a patio. That restaurant turns into a seafood restaurant at night.  On the other side of the beach there were more tiki huts and chairs available plus the watersports.  Sandals offers paddleboards, kayaks and Hobe Cat sailboats for guests’ use.   Royal Plantation also boasts it’s own spa with full service facials and massages as well as pedicure and manicure services.  While the Royal Plantation resort is small and intimate, it sits next door to the new Sandals Ochi Resort which is a large resort.  Royal Plantation guests have reciprocal privileges at Ochi which boasts huge pools with swim up bars, the Ochi Beach Club and 16 restaurants as well as night life such as the Rabitt Hole Speakeasy.  There is shuttle service to and from the Ochi resort that is easily accessible.

Jim and I had never experienced butler service before, so we weren’t sure what to expect.  Our butler team was Marvin and Orren.   Often one would be on duty during the day and the other would be on duty in the evening until 10:00 p.m.  They offered to unpack our suitcases.  They brought us breakfast in our room each morning.  All we had to do is put a placard on the door with our order and what time we wanted it delivered and our breakfast was there on time, with a smiling Marvin or Orren.  No matter which one delivered breakfast, they covered our in- room table with a white table cloth and presented me with a flower.  During the day, if we wanted anything, a drink, or something from our room, they would provide that service.  They retrieved one of Jim’s books from the room when we were on the beach one day and Jim wanted to read.  One night after we closed the bar down, we came back to our room to find flower petals from the door to the bed.  Towels were made into two swans surrounded by more flower petals on the bed.  Battery operated candles were placed strategically around the room.  Another night, a bath had been drawn with flower petals and candles.  By the end of the week, I nicknamed them, Marvin the Marvelous and Orren the Outstanding.  We couldn’t have asked for better service. They truly provided us with a relaxing and pampered stay.

I spent most days lazing on the beach, swimming and sailing.  At Whitehouse (South Beach) there was a lot of beach area, but since that resort is in a protected cove, it was thick with seaweed and not at all good for swimming.  Royal Plantation’s beach area is smaller, but beautiful and the water was gorgeous for swimming.   There was always a beach butler nearby to bring a drink from the restaurant.  They even brought me lunch in my tiki hut a couple of times.  One of the advantages of a small resort was that the watersports guys, all young guys in their 20s, were not busy so they had time to go sailing with me.  Jim refused to sail with me after I tipped the Hobi over last year and the watersports guys had to come get us.  (Hobe Cat sailboats are designed to do that.  It’s okay, but Jim was not amused.)  The weather was a bit rough this summer and Royal Plantation does not sit in a protected cove, so sailing there means sailing on the open sea.  I thought it best not to go it alone, although I sailed the boat most of the time.  Obrien, one of the watersports guys, and I raised hell out on the waves and Jim was content to watch from shore.  This time, I didn’t take a knockdown, although that still surprises me considering the heavy weather we sailed in.  Our last two days I took advantage of some of the points we were awarded for rebooking and went to the spa for a massage and a facial.

Besides the relaxing days on the beach or at the spa, we took advantage of the restaurants offered at the resort.  The main restaurant was the one on the Terrace, called, the Terrace.  The Terrace offered inside or outside dining.  The interior of the restaurant was quaint, but the outside was set with white tablecloths and candles at night. Dining there was excellent.  We had breakfast there only one day, but we were well satisfied with the buffet including omelets to order.  We ate lunch there one day and dinner there three nights.   While Jim ordered beef dishes, I ordered seafood and lobster.  The best meal was during Jamaica Night when the restaurant set up a huge buffet outside on the terrace and served all kinds of Jamaican food ranging from curried goat to rice and peas to lobsters grilled to order.  Jamaica Night sizzled with spicy, tangy flavors that are the essence of Jamaica.  Every night, a small band or a singer would entertain us from the old-fashioned white bandstand on the terrace during dinner.  Another option was the restaurant on the beach.  During the day they served sandwiches and burgers coconut shrimp, jerk shrimp and Jamaican patties.  I loved the shrimp while Jim loved the Jamaican patties.  At night it turned into a seafood restaurant and I ate some of the best surf and turf I’ve ever had there.   The French Restaurant, Papillion, is on the second floor of the lobby and while I didn’t consider the cuisine French, it was fabulous.  I had  a seafood dish one night and lobster another night and it was some of the best lobster I have eaten.  During dinner, Oliver, the pianist, plays softly on a grand piano.  We loved all three restaurants so much that we only ate one lunch and one dinner at the Ochi resort.  We had lunch at Neptune’s there one day and dinner at their hibachi grill another evening with two other couples we had befriended.  While the Jamaican fare at Neptune’s was good, we were not fans of the hibachi restaurant and found it flavorless.  Our new friends shared our opinion of the hibachi restaurant.

After dinner, we were pleasantly surprised at the nightlife.  At eight o’clock every night the main show would start at the white bandstand on the terrace.  There were bands and singers, but the night I enjoyed most was the night when there were acrobats who did all sorts of things like eating fire, contortions and strength poses worthy of Cirque du  Solei.  On Jamaica Night, the show included singers, musicians and dancers who told the story of Jamaica.  We enjoyed listening to the shows either from the tables of the Terrace Restaurant or the porch while sipping wine with our new friends.  After the show, the Wobbly Peacock, which is right between the terrace and the lobby was always open until 2:00 a.m., and they served delicious scotch eggs as well as pub food drinks.  Oliver, the pianist, was there three nights during our stay and he could play anything.  I had so much fun singing old jazz standards with him that we closed the bar down each night he played.  One night we ventured over to the Ochi resort and went to the Rabbit Hole Speakeasy with our new friends.  Our butler had to give us the day’s password to get in, which we thought was cool.  The round door leading to the Speakeasy was guarded by two guys in zoot suits and the cocktail servers were dressed in flapper dresses complete with fringe.  The menu of drinks were all from the Prohibition Era.  The whole concept of the Speakeasy was so much fun.  We went there on a particular night to hear Mama, a singer some other guests had recommended.  Mama came out in a gown worthy of a 20s era torch singer and had a good voice.  The only problem was the Speakeasy wasn’t a large space and the oversized speakers were turned up to blast level.  We all decided to leave as it was just too loud.  What would have been far better would have been Mama with a pianist.  Sometimes less is more.  Take it from a singer and choral director.

We loved Royal Plantation so much that we didn’t spend a whole lot of time at Ochi.  We were so entranced that we booked again for next year.  I had planned a trip to Germany and Austria, but by the end of the week, we couldn’t resist another trip to Royal Plantation.  I can’t wait to swim in the bright blue water, eat more lobster, sing with Oliver, and see Marvin and Orren’s smiling faces again.  We left Marvin and Orren and the beach butlers an extra tip as they were so fantastic and we will certainly request them for our stay next year.  (Butlers are the only ones allowed to receive tips.)  If you want a vacation where you can relax and be pampered, I can’t recommend Royal Plantation more.  By the end of this school year, I am going to need it!

 

 

 

 

 

The Finger Lakes Wine Trail

Perhaps the most underrated of the places I’ll write about is the Finger Lakes Wine Trail in New York State.  The Finger Lakes Wine Trails are in the other New York, not the city, and are well worth visiting.   The hills that rise from the deep cold lakes like Seneca and Cayuga are covered in forests and vineyards.  Seneca, Cayuga and Keuka Lakes are ringed with small family owned and operated wineries that grow their own grapes and produce wonderful vintages that are delectable and affordable.  For me, this is coming home.  I grew up sailing on Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake.  I first learned to drink wine on the Seneca Lake wine trail.  I don’t think I appreciated the sheet beauty of the lakes and the excellence of the wines produced in the small wineries that surround them until I moved away, first to Texas, then Pennsylvania and Florida.  In our travels, we have tasted a lot of wine.  but the wines of the Finger Lakes remain special to us.  My husband and I travelled to Napa Valley eight years ago and France Italy and Spain two years ago and tasted many wines.  While we appreciated the wines and beauty of Napa Valley, the Finger Lakes Wine Trail is a much better experience, and a much better deal overall.  Maybe it’s the deep cold lakes and that regulate the weather around them during the cold winter months and the hot summers.  Maybe it’s that the wineries grow their own grapes with great care.  Maybe it’s that the wineries are family owned affairs with winemakers who are passionate about their craft.  I don’t know what exactly makes me love the wines of the Finger Lakes most, but they have remained my favorite through the years. Chateau Lafayette Reneau, Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards, and Lakewood Winery on Seneca Lake have long been special favorites of my family.

I just went wine tasting on the Seneca Lake wine trail this past month, and none of the wineries I visited charged no more than $5 to taste.  Glenora Winery charged $4 for 6 tastings, and the delightful older gentleman who poured our wines was quite knowledgeable.  He gave us two more tastings for free too!  The most expensive bottles of wine I have bought in the last two years was $30.  Most wines run around $15 and all the wineries offer discounts if you buy by the case.  I can’t resist buying Finger Lakes wines by the case!  In comparison, eight years ago, we had a hard time finding any wine for $25 in Napa Valley.  Most were at the $50 range.  We tasted a lot of wine in Napa, but I couldn’t make any claims that the wines in Napa Valley were superior.  The Finger Lakes wines are every bit as excellent, maybe even better because they are made with such care.  Many of the Finger lakes wines have won awards, but since the wineries are small, they don’t produce enough to ship nationally.  If you live in another state, you can order online and have it shipped or, better yet, visit the wineries.

In addition to the wines, there are many accommodations around the Finger Lakes.  I can’t claim to have stayed in any of them because I have always stayed with my parents either on their boat at Captain Bill’s Marina, or in their camp.  I have researched some options, however, and would recommend the Inn at Taughannock. which is an old historic inn, with old lake charm and class.  While it used to be a country style inn, it now offers fine dining and accommodations.  It sits on a hill above Taughannock State Park on Cayuga Lake.  If you are an eco traveler, this is the place for you.  You can stay at the inn, or in a campground at the state park.  There are picnic facilities where you can bring your own picnic.  You can swim in the lake, although it is frigid.  Consider yourself warned!  There is also a gorge which you can hike to stunning water falls.  My family docked our boat and my sister and I played in that park many times growing up and it was our favorite of all the New York state parks.  From Taughannok State Park, you can visit the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail and then go over the hills to visit the Seneca Lake wineries.  Chataeu Lafayette Reneau on Seneca Lake now has its own bed and breakfast as well.  While the wines may be luscious and inexpensive, the bed and breakfast accommodations are more expensive with both bed and breakfasts running around $300 a night.

When you visit Seneca Lake, be sure to visit Captain Bill’s Marina in Watkins Glen and take a cruise around the lake on a old fashioned tour boat or an elegant schooner.  You can always hike the gorge at Watkins Glen as well.  The Finger Lakes offer a lot for wine lovers and eco travelers.  What you won’t get is much night life except possibly in Ithica at the bottom of Cayuga Lake.  It’s the perfect place to relax, get back to nature and enjoy fabulous wines.  Next time you decide to go wine tasting, skip Napa and head to the Finger Lakes in New York State instead.  Trust me.

 

 

The Ritz Carlton Grande Lakes Orlando, Florida

 

Last weekend, my husband and I were treated to a long weekend at the Ritz Carlton courtesy of Park West Galleries, because we bought art from them a couple months ago.  The Ritz in Orlando is a lovely hotel, with many wonderful amenities, fantastic service, and excellent dining.  The room itself was excellent, with a big bath and a Nespresso machine.  The amenities included a spa, which I didn’t check out because we were busy with the Park West art auctions each day until after noon.  The Ritz had a huge pool, complete with water bottles or chilled water with fruit.  There was an open air casual restaurant where you could get nachos, burgers and the like, and a bar conveniently located near the pool.  Guests at the Ritz were allowed to use the facilities at the JW Marriot next door which included a lazy river pool.  The dining options were also pretty decent as they had two restaurants and the pool café, plus the restaurants at the JW Marritot next door.   Even the buffets that the Ritz supplied for the Park West VIPs were very good, and I normally hate buffets.

We had a wonderful time at the art auctions and the previews of the next day’s art at night.  Park West even had a casino night.  They brought out gaming tables and we were given chips.  Whoever had the most chips at the end of the night won $750 towards art, and the person in 2nd place won $500.  Jim and I were convinced we had not won and almost gave our chips to another couple, but we got the second place prize of $500.  As we played blackjack and craps, surrounded by wonderful art, a DJ played Frank Sinatra and lots of jazz.  Park West had arranged for an open bar and the Ritz bartenders were very attentive.  All in all, a fabulous evening.

Here’s the rub, there were kids, lots of kids.  The Ritz even has a Ritz kids club.  I didn’t make it to the lazy river because I was told by others that it was mobbed with all ages of kids, some in diapers.  I was a little surprised.  Jim had looked online and found out the rooms normally go for $300.  (Our room was included in our VIP package from Park West Galleries.)  We bought nachos and iced teas at the pool one afternoon and that was a $30 bill as lunch was not included in our VIP package.  I don’t know how people afford to bring kids to the Ritz and feed them, but there were many there.

In the end, I’d have to say that it was a lovely weekend.  The Ritz is a great hotel with great service and nice dining options, but simply too many kids.   For those of us who don’t want to travel with other people’s kids,  I can’t recommend the Ritz.

 

 

 

 

Cruise Tips and Tricks

Now that Jim and I have sailed on seven cruises aboard three different cruise lines, we are learning tips and tricks for making the most out of cruising. After all, we want the most bang out of our buck. The first trick is pretty obvious. Look for a sale on the cruise line’s website. You can often find sales during hurricane season which is in the Fall. Yes, of course, there is a risk that you might have some rain or heavier weather, but you can often sail for a reduced rate, and in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, the weather will be more temperate and balmy. Jim advises getting the travel insurance if you decide to travel during hurricane season. Jim and I often travel during spring break or in the summer because of my teaching schedule and believe me, Mexico and Italy are hot as Hades itself in July. I don’t mind the heat, and Jim is impervious to hot or cold, so we are fine, but not everyone is. My parents, who joined us on our Mediterranean cruise, complained that all they did was, “walk and sweat, walk and sweat”.

Even if you can’t travel in the Fall, there are often promotions available. Celebrity Cruise Lines has a pick two or pick three deal which gives you a choice of a free alcohol package, free gratuities or onboard credit. We got a pick three deal on our Mediterranean cruise and a pick two deal on our last Caribbean cruise this spring. We chose the alcohol package both times as one of our picks.

As far as the alcohol packages are concerned, Jim and I only get those when we can get them for free on a promotion. They are not inexpensive if you pay for them outside of a promotional deal. An alcohol package makes the cruise more all-inclusive, and it’s nice to not worry about how much the bar bill is going to be at the end of the cruise. Drinks aboard any cruise line are expensive. In the end, try to get a promotional deal that includes the drink package, but if you can’t, then it’s a good idea to weigh how much you drink against the price of the package before purchasing it.

Another consideration when cruising is ship’s excursions. Which ones to take? How much money do we have to spend on excursions? Ship’s excursions have become increasingly more expensive, so it’s not unusual for excursion prices to be $150 to $200 per person. There are a few factors to think about when considering your excursion options. First of all, be aware that when everyone is supposed to be back aboard the ship at the end of the day, that time is non-negotiable. Ships have a schedule to keep and they leave on time. If you are left at the port of call, it is your responsibility to catch up to the ship at the next port. I never thought people would be late for a ship, but when my best friend and I were staying in Cozumel, our favorite bartender at the Flamingo Hotel told us that it isn’t as unusual as it seems. He claimed to have seen his share of people who were left on Cozumel and needed a room until they could make further arrangements. So, remember, be back at the ship on time, or even a little earlier than last call.

You also have to know the port of call you are visiting. Some islands, like Cozumel and St. Kitts, are very safe and friendly. Some, like Jamaica and Roatan Honduras, are not. We met new friends on our Celebrity cruise this spring who said they ran around Jamaica alone and bought a brownie from some guy in front of Bob Marley’s house. The wife ate most of it. Needless to say, she slept the next two days of her cruise. My response was, “You ate what? From where?! What were you thinking?” Funny, not funny. Do some research online. Sites like Trip Advisor are fantastic. Hotels, resorts, islands, and cities are all there complete with reviews and photos by recent travelers, not just the glossy pictures paid for by the resorts.

If you do your research and find that the port is relatively safe, hire a taxi and do your own thing. Jim and I once hired a taxi driver on the island of St. Kitts and paid him $70 for the day. He took us to the oldest church, the British fort, and a beach and waited for us at the each stop. He even stopped and got us each a beer for that price. In Villa Franche Sur la Mer, France, we walked through the village to the train station and hopped a high-speed train to Monaco for a few hours. Then we came back to Villa Franche in time for a late lunch and walked back to the ship. Even though Jamaica can be a more dangerous port, we hired a taxi driver to take us to Dun’s River Falls. The trick when hiring a taxi driver is to hire them right at the cruise pier. Don’t ever walk into town and hire a taxi on the street. The taxis who are allowed at the cruise pier have to be approved by the cruise line and are therefore far less likely to try any hijinks. Find another couple to share the taxi and you’ll save money on the fare and have more people with you.

If you want to explore anything that will take an entire day, or is a distance from the cruise pier, it’s advisable to then pay for a ship’s excursion. Ship’s excursions are guaranteed to get you back to the ship on time, and if something doesn’t go as planned, the ship will wait. Jim and I took an excursion from Costa Maya on our Mexican cruise that bussed us two hours into the Mexican jungle to explore recently excavated Mayan ruins. The whole trip, including the guide, was vetted by Celebrity Cruise Lines, and we had a once in a lifetime experience. Our guide was a retired teacher who claimed Mayan ancestry and spoke several languages. He provided us with a whole history lesson on Mayan culture as we walked through the ruins. We have also taken cooking and tasting excursions in Mexico and the island of Mallorca. We got to make a three-course meal with an adorable Mexican chef while overlooking a gorgeous beach on Cozumel. On Mallorca, we went tapas tasting at three restaurants which involved lots of foods we had never tried before, such as flash-fried finger-sized fish, as well as three large glasses of sangria. Both were fabulous experiences well worth the excursion price. My advice? Pick only the excursions you really are excited about and can’t do by yourself. The rest, hire a taxi and have at it. You’ll save quite a bit of your travel fund that way.